Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: A Fine Crepuscular Life

(Nightjar flight in early eve)

Ian sat on his perch in frail light, watching it leak from the yard into the linear space separating this world from another. It was a habit developed the past year, after everything changed, when he began to work in the dark, tiny anteroom of the cottage. It got claustrophobic, but it served the purpose. He’d made and set up a simple desk and tidy bookshelf; the room’s one window opened to the garden so that bees or a dragonfly and winged beetles and occasionally a bird flew to and fro through the screen-less opening. The window was stuck open through warm weather; he had to muscle it shut as fall arrived. He always liked the company of nature. He was happy to glance up, see vegetables and flowers as he worked at his computer. But he got outside whenever he could.

He sat on the weather beaten bench with its cushion of mosses, small cracks in its grain snagging him with a splinter now and again. It had been set upon Jupiter Hill, one that overlooked a small canyon fifty years earlier when the cottage was built. In the deep valley below glowed hundreds of bright pinpricks of subdivision houses. The place from which he escaped three years ago when Frieda and he split up. It was the best thing for them. She travelled on, the spacious brick house she’d bought before him a mere change station for her modelling career. He quickly purchased the falling down cottage. Made it more habitable the first year, stopped renovation the second year as he liked it rustic. And then the virus invaded all and he worked at home and was glad of it. It was cramped and aged and good enough for him.

“Good enough for a hermit,” Freida said in her arch way when she visited just once, words clanging in the rooms that he quickly showed her.

As was usually the case. One reason they could not sustain peace. She was a fighter; Ian was… not a fighter, exactly. He was, perhaps, leaning toward becoming a spiritual warrior. He didn’t feel he had a choice in the matter, just as she didn’t feel she had a choice in her ways. It was fireworks; once done, they were spent. Besides, it was true that Ian was drawn to the energy of very early morning and early evening.

“Like a vampire or werewolf?” Frieda teased. This thought excited her. It was an erroneous idea in general and patently ridiculous when she tried to connect it to Ian. But she had a genuine all-night sort of spirit.

He found himself feeling more at ease certain periods of time, too. Just as Freida found herself awake all night, sleeping much of the day; she moved at near-warp speed when the sun went down. And not given to contemplation, she stated made things happen, chiding him on his ability to sit still.

He once told her to settle things, “Yes, crepuscular, vespertine. Matinal, too. You know this about me, I am drawn to in-between things– times, ideas.”

He spoke while avoiding her cat-like eyes, amber gemstones set in tawny skin that spoke volumes–he just wasn’t sure exactly what they were saying. She was so tall and lithe that he expected her to leap across space rather than walk, and to land on him. All that was a reason he fell for her–as likely for so many who met her. And the curious woman behind them got hold of him. The intensity and intelligence lurking behind strange beauty. For a long time it kept him there; they were opposites that sparked.

She shrugged at his scientific explanation. “Such a technical person. All that isn’t the solution to our conflicts. I defend my own lifestyle by saying I’m nocturnal but so what? We still have to make it work in our shared reality. If we have love left.”

What did that mean, Ian wondered? They lived in conflicted realities, almost parallel, and it had become taxing. Love was by then a wrong perception, though he wished her no ill will. So not long after that conversation, he found the cottage. They bid one another good bye and fare well with very little rancor. He later wondered what she was up to after the pandemic hit but there was no urge to contact her. It had been an experience; he didn’t regret it or his leaving.

But this felt right, this cottage life, sitting here on Jupiter Hill. Away from much of what he felt was false for him. Away from the hard push and pull of things. Below the hill was a life he did not understand, even when he inhabited it for all those years. Here was a pensive watchfulness with the rhythm of nature, and he felt most as ease in an unfolding of dusk, the rhapsody of sunset putting on the cool elegance of fleeting blue hour, and the coming forth of stars in great violet-black skies. Creation demonstrating its theater of mystery and magic.

He sat very still, still as a rabbit outwitting a predator. He learned to spot elusive nightjars, owls, watched flurries of bats, and savored deer grazing at edge of the neighboring woods. Coyotes appeared, stared at him, slunk off on fast feet. He had a great fondness of birds ever since he’d dreamed of flying as a child. Once he felt certain there was a bear or a cougar rooting about at the edge of he woods and he stayed rooted, a jolt of excitement rushing through him. All creatures were welcome, as they had welcomed him. Even if a bit unlikely the possibility stayed with him, a promise of great things to come if he remained patient. Open.

Ian was in his element, no longer lonely. The solitary state was perfect–a relief. He raised his whiskery beard-adorned chin to the sky, breathed the green-laden air, closed his eyes in gratitude. Heard whirr and rush of wings overhead. Drifted.

******

There came the day when summer began to fade fast. Ian now kept a sweater on the back of his leather chair for cooler days. One afternoon he looked up from his computer. A twirling brown maple leaf had caught his attention. The another and another. He had noticed small groupings scattered on the yard recently, but had been too busy working to think on it. An architect, he’d been developing plans for a community of micro housing, a new contract with the city. As wind stirred chilly-edged air he realized it was time to add to the woodpile. His woodstove required constant feeding– though the cottage had only two narrow bedrooms, a tucked away bathroom and open living area with modest kitchen. It was an old place that creaked and moaned in winter as it hummed with warmth.

In the bottom right hand desk drawer, which he avoided opening more than once more, was an oversized postcard with a view of San Diego’s bright waterfront. He’d received it from Freida earlier in the day. She had been in the balmy city for six months fulfilling several good jobs, but work had dried up and it was not looking good. Ands she hoped he was doing well on on the hill and was content. She had signed it with her stylized cat motif and flourish of her name, underscored twice. As if he had forgotten her entirely.

Ian had been puzzled at first. They hadn’t communicated in two years; he hadn’t followed her on social media. He enjoyed such basic happiness it never occurred to him that she might return to sniff about the perimeter of his life. But, then, she was becoming financially unstable. Or perhaps unstable, in general, as happened when practical matters pressed too hard upon her. He didn’t want to expect the worst; life was hard for many these days.

But he pushed the good recollections of their old life aside. Ian finally had what he wanted, or most of it.

******

He wrapped up work later than planned, then made a salad topped with smoked salmon. He settled at his bench and ate with pleasure until satiated. The wind picked up. It carried the tantalizing scent of chilled rain, though it had been a long period of drought and few believed the great rains of the past would return soon. Ian enjoyed warmth of summer but his true nature was stirred by onset of autumn and winter. That long softening greyness, cloudiness creating barest shadow that easily sifted warmer light into a twilit time. And he longed for rain; his pores felt its absence, his skin tight and textured as parchment.

He took in the ribbons of luminosity rushing over hills and valley, melded into dimmer translucent rays, that distant horizon leeching color from autumn’s brilliant dome of blue. The sun had about left. His heart raced, breath became shallower. Time was suspended, as was he. Ian stood as the late September light transformed the body of land and the air blued; his eyes narrowed to focus on changing sky, saw moths flitting about, birds on sudden wing. He longed to be there, felt the magnitude of their labors and choreography of flight. He stood taller, reached up and up with hands to the infinite expanse.

Behind him there was a shock to the atmosphere when a low growl, insistent and pure went deep. He spun around to behold her, body lithe and streamlined, eyes afire in a rapid descent of evening as it began to cling to all life.

Freida, ready to pounce, black hair aloft behind her in the gusty night, arms lifting, her feet set to send her vaulting toward him. Her aim, her desire clear in the way she was. He felt the power of who they had been, once.

And then he turned, rose up. His feet left the good earth, he was fleeing gravity as surely as sunlight fled the end of day. His body lightened to a configuration of feathers, his eyes sharp as never before, and he felt the strong lift of the changing air currents. The baritone hoot of a barred owl floated near and vibrated in his cocked ears; the clear, stuttering call of the nightjar lulled and pierced as it passed, one eye on the man who would be bird, its powerful wing grazing his shoulder as it ascended in a twilit flash.

Ian followed, rid of all disbelief or fear–while below, Freida raced to the edge of Jupiter Hill, jumped higher than thinkable with a disgruntled cry. But her strong effort failed; she was gone, no more to be seen. And Ian flew on, the world below a whirl of troubles and triumphs. He might fall to ground as befitted common man, but he was certain he was on the verge of living as he had always imagined. He could fly between this and that, here and there. His own fine zone. And would be routed to new ones, passing through thin places, into greater wisdom. He was hovering on the cusp of creative abundance with the elusive nightjar at his side, was he not? For the time being, he was wholly free.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Caught Between (Blood and Books)

Photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.com

Sauntering, that was the best way, browsing at her leisure, body reflecting both harmless and relaxed, feet shuffling a little. The table of books lay there like a banquet, and her fingertips skimmed a few covers. She couldn’t help herself. This was not what she was meant to be finding in a good day’s work but the bookshop had caught her attention the day before. She’d stopped momentarily. A large cat had rubbed its silky fur against her bare ankles, guaranteed to annoy her and that caused her to sneeze loudly three times; the calico jumped straight up. Then came a slight movement behind the big display window, a warning for her to move on.

Today she’d fared well in the market six blocks away: two fat yellow apples; a fresh scone in a paper sleeve someone put down by someone when looking at something; a golden pen with ten fine sheets of handmade paper (the sign said); two pair of thick socks. The socks would go to Gerry but the rest she was keeping. It was useless surplus, not ready cash. That would have to come from the half dozen fancy knock off watches and a bunch of real silver bracelets from a corner shop in Harleton. The old lady–who had been easily engaged in random patter–had picked up her chiming phone–church bells?– and it was a deal done fast and she was out of there. Then there was a sweet short wave radio on a floor in an open garage she passed–where was the owner? Drinking beer at the back, too slow on his feet to catch her.

Thieving wasn’t hard but energy-consuming–being ever watchful, smart and fast about it. Sheila was all of those, even as a kid. How many times had she been punished by her dad, and how often had she and her young aunt sneaked off again to find and raid a make up display, a table piled with purses, a bakery with mini cakes and still-warm biscuits displayed on a shelf by a front door to lure customers. They were most certainly lured, then filled up with the high of stolen sweetness. Though her dad said time and again, “You got bit by the devil’s wiles, it’ll cost you more than you know, my girl.” He knew all that and more because he’d been to prison for four years–he’d only been nineteen– for crimes no one spoke of now he was all legitimate. But Sheila knew it was burglary, maybe a few; he might not have been caught for all of it. She shuddered to think of it, her caring dad.

She was eight years old when it started; Auntie Jean was way older, fourteen. They made a perfect pair of kleptomaniacs, Jean had said laughing. She had the hands that, like magic, swiped and grabbed; Shelia was the lookout and runner once Jean lifted the thing and handed it off. Because who would think a little girl with pigtails could steal and run so fast?

Now–seven years later– it was Gerry and Jean and a handful of their friends. Mostly Shelia did minor stuff, she did what they said if she wanted a small cut, but sometimes she went her own way. In fact, more often she was going her own way and lied to them when she got back: “I was sooo close, then it got risky, I’m not going to juvie for you guys!” she protested. Or: “Everything’s tied down tight out there, can barely find anything worth much lately.”

They had bigger fish to catch, anyway–TVs, computers, cars, stuff Shelia didn’t want to know about. There business was growing. But when she was empty handed Gerry gave her a medium punch on the arm and Jean gave her a scalding look then moved on to other matters. Jean kept telling her in private that she becoming a big disappointment and if she couldn’t bring it in why bother sticking around? She was on the verge of being a liability. She had to get with it or get out, Jean was sorry but family or no family…. Shelia’s face burned with humiliation so on she went, looking for more targets.

They were family, yes. So Shelia stuck in with them. Still, she was better at school and worked at that harder. One thing her mother said before she left them was that her daughter–Sheila–was way too smart to live the low life and if she had any say left in the matter, the girl would become a lawyer, not a miserable petty–or worse–criminal.

“What’s the difference?” her dad had said, laughing with that edge he still had back then.

Her mother reportedly said, “You know what I mean. She could amount to something good. She could be anything if she gets a chance, just like me! But no, you have to stand in everyone’s way. You and your crooked paths to big dreams. What a joke!”

“I’m not in her way, just yours. She’ll get a different life, she’s smarter and better than you,” he grumbled and waved her off, his long suffering girlfriend of ten years, and his daughter’s mother, for good or ill.

But she’d soon left in a flash after losing some fight with him. And though he loved Shelia more than he could say, he worked six to seven days a week at the marina so she was on her own when not in school or watched after by a co-worker’s wife. And they got by, more or less, on his wages. He wanted better for them both. Shelia was six then. Her mother–those words sounded foreign to her. It was so long ago it was all a fuzzy dream of a memory. All she knew was her dad–who stuck by her.

She wanted to give him some of her cash but knew he’s had a fit. She bought a few groceries or personal items with the little she kept from Jean, sometimes stashed it under her bed in the jewelry box from her childhood. Her dad half-knew what she did but denied it to everyone. And his own self even more. As long as she did okay in the school year and no cops came to his door…what could he really do about it? It had to be in the blood. He blamed Jean but his niece blamed him and then he blamed his brother, her father. It was a waste of time to think about. Sheila was going to be okay.

To Sheila, the stealing was a habit, and she sometimes felt it was a pretty bad habit. One she might break someday. Or not. It bore little thought; it was not the major thing in her life. She was really trying to grow up.

******

It was the third time in a month the teenager came by and appeared to be casing the place, try to maybe steal one of the books. It always perplexed her that anyone would steal a book–there were libraries, for Pete’s sake. So Meredith circled in and out of her bookshop, very casually, and looked down the street, nodded at her.

“Nice day, hey? See anything you like?”

Just like that, the youth was gone. A very fast mover, like a ninja kid, she chuckled as she told her assistant. And never spoke a word. The girl tended to linger at the bargain mystery books on the table outdoors– but at other times she checked out a few memoirs and science books baking in August’s sizzling heat. Couldn’t be that she didn’t have the money–they were cheap in her opinion, deeply discounted after being long idle on shelves. Who knew? Might be a street kid. Maybe her ripped jeans were not due to fashion but because those were all she had. The large navy windbreaker hung on her narrow frame; her hair was worn swept into a short choppy ponytail, and she always wore sunglasses despite the weather. Once it rained suddenly; she’d left on the sunglasses but pulled a baseball cap from her jacket pocket, pressed it on firmly and slinked down the sidewalk.

Meredith thought of putting up a Free Library sort of box in the back alley for those who had no money; lots of people used it as shortcut so it might take off. So she set to it a few evenings later after closing time. As she rummaged through cast-offs by the back door Mr. Mercedes–so named because the calico sure thought he was all that— sniffed each book from the pile, then chose a couple of stacked ones to sit on. The cat had been wild and still disappeared a couple days at a time, yet always returned. Customers liked–or perhaps admired– him more than he liked them but he was tolerant enough after three years, even conversed to a few in his surly native cat tongue.

She worked a few minutes, feeling good about her effort, when Mr. Mercedes shot past her piles and raced around the corner. Meredith checked around it with caution. A mouse or-ugh-rat? A passing cyclist? What had he heard that she had not? She had closed up and locked the front door twenty minutes ago; her assistant was working on invoices in the back office. She went in search of the cat and came to the entrance.

The door, to her surprise, was slightly ajar. How had that been overlooked? Or was it jimmied? Mr. Mercedes had snaked inside; Meredith peered in the windows. There was a shadowy figure at the back aisles. She saw a hand skim then lift a few books off a shelf, drop them in a backpack. Art history section? The thief grabbed a few more in the next section, hunched down, crept between book stacks, perusing the bounty.

Should she call out to Annie, her assistant or call 911?

Before she could decide what to do, the culprit headed to the back door that was still open to the alley. As he passed the office Annie stuck her head out and shrieked as Meredith ran inside, then after the culprit. But a muffled crash stopped her at the doorway. She peered into the passageway beyond, Annie imploring her to stop right there,, and she narrowed her eyes at the the gathering dusk.

There: that teenaged girl, a booted foot on its heel in the now-impeded trajectory of the running, then falling thief–or was it really her partner in crime? The person sprawled onto pavement with a thud, books falling from the still-open backpack, each hitting ground hard, a few skidding away and coming to a pathetically scratchy, dirty full stop.

“What on earth is going on here?” she called out to both of the youths. “Leave all my books this instant or I’ll call police!”

The scruffy guy scrambled to his knees but the girl gave him another push so that he stumbled forward. Another two books fell from inside his hoodie but he was rendered useless at picking up any of them as she kicked at his ankles. He yelled an obscenity at her and took off down the darkening alley, long gone before Meredith could call out another warning.

The girl with her usual sunglasses and hat pulled low stood opposite her, hands on hips, mouth opened a little as she huffed some. Mr. Mercedes sat at her feet looking up, tail twitching. She glanced down a split second when Meredith entered the alley and walked towards her. But this was not welcomed by the book rescuer. She stepped way back. Mr. Mercedes stepped back as well, hissing at them both.

“Who are you? Why are you hanging out here so much, and how did you know he was going to steal something? Where did you come from?”

The wiry, sharp-featured girl with immobile face balled her hands up and jammed them into jacket pockets, well balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to take off.

“Well, thanks for the help–I think!” the anxious bookseller said, exasperated, as Annie circled up behind her.

Meredith picked up a couple books and then the two women tended to others scattered about. They were heavy, expensive coffee table books about art and photography, of all things.

“Stolen gifts for someone? Why these?” Annie said.

“Criminal opportunist! Why not just buy a used couple of tomes somewhere? How dare he!” Meredith whimpered and stood with hands on cheeks, studying the glossy volumes.

The books were all damaged to some degree. She might never be able to sell them for what they were worth–beautiful, informative, inspiring books. But it was her fault, apparently, since the door had been easily opened. Meredith tried to tune out the nervously chattering Annie and they wiped off the books with their shirttails, murmuring about the scare and torn covers and grime and what to do. Then Meredith recalled the young woman. still just a girl, really, and yet she was readied to fight or flee, and she spun around to find her.

Too late. She had flown.

******

“That was stupid! How much can it matter if Leo’s great-grandfather or uncle or whoever got those books for his seventy-fifth birthday? Was it worth all that trouble? Now what does he have? Nothing. Not one damn thing! And now no one can enjoy them either!”

She saw her Uncle Brad across the floor–“Blue” they called him due to the blue-black tear tattooed on his cheek–and he studied her with a quizzical look, then went into a back room and shut the door. Thankfully. She was always wary of him, even when he was nice to her-But he was often gone and Jeanie was second in command.

Sheila was pacing and yelling at Gerry and Jean. Leo had left in a funk, humiliated about having been foiled, ready to start a brawl with Shelia, his senior by two years but smaller, when Jean stepped in.

“Well, it isn’t only the grandpa, Sheil, it was a dumb, simple test! Jerry needs his nephew to get better at the simplest tasks and if he can’t even pick off a few stupid books…! Useless crew.” She shook her head in disgust. “But for you to interfere–that’s what’s idiotic, you know better, and it’s almost enough for me to–to–” She came toward Shelia with raised hand, face red as a radish, curly hair shaking as she advanced.

Sheila felt her insides quiver but stood her ground. “Aw, Jeanie, chill out. I didn’t know it was him at first. I was just hanging out, that’s all, and when I saw him break in–“

“You should have let him be,” Jerry pronounced with that rumbling voice. “What a couple of amateurs. Might be time to just prematurely cut both short, baby. But it’s not like it’s some major loss. Books, ya know? No harm done.” He put an arm around Jean’s shoulders, tugged her back. “Let’s not get her so riled up she shoots off her mouth at Speed.”

“Yeah, okay, never mind, I’m okay, my Sheil’s okay…well, aren’t ya?,” Jean cast her another look, then stomped over to the desk, where she fingered a big new batch of superior gemstone jewelry.

Speed, Sheila repeated to herself. Her father’s old name–his old identity. Shelia felt alarm shoot through her. If he even knew the extent of things going on with her. And here.

She surveyed the storage building, All the covered cars, stacks of boxes with TVs and computers and video equipment with hot new games and more–the giant desk where jewelry awaited assessment, at the dark corners where others of the group lounged like sly lazy dogs or talked on their phones making clandestine deals.

What was she doing there? Why did she persist in thinking this was really her family–and her fate?

“I’m so completely sick of this, of you all, I’m outta here!” she yelled and left.

No one said a thing. She was a kid, kids were impulsive and she was blood family.. Jean just had to wait and see. But she watched her niece go and sighed heavily. It was awhile coming to this, yet she always thought it. It wouldn’t be at all easy for little Sheil, the smart one, her protégé, slowly going sour. She had good instincts but too often she didn’t show enough common sense or lack of guilt for this line of work. It took guts and stamina and no looking back, only to the next job that might be the big payoff. Jean lived for that day so she, too, could walk away– but to her own private Shangri-La.

******

At Meredith’s Book Madness all was in order. They’d sorted out the inventory and found new ways to donate some books, started a couple new sales that were going well. The book library at back was being well used, too. In fact, they thought it brought more foot traffic and cyclists–and then to the front door.

The nine art and photography books that had been harmed by thievery were repaired and put on a discount table indoors; four had sold so far. They ordered a few more interesting volumes.

Annie unlocked the front door. It had rained the night before. The world smelled sweet and bright, warming up as sunlight streamed onto the quiet street and their ceramic flower pots along the outer wall. Then her eyes glimpsed a form at the far end of the building.

“Meredith?”

“Yes?” The answering voice wafted from back of the shop.

“Can you come here?”

Meredith came and gazed to the spot where Annie looked. Smiled.

Shelia roused, blinked in the honeyed light. She grabbed her hat which had fallen off a couple hours earlier; she’d been too tired to wait for the shop to open and dozed off. She had had little sleep all night. After she’d left Jean and Gerry, she’d gone home. She later–without thinking further– told her dad she wanted a change in her life but she wasn’t sure how to do it.

“Why all this?” he’d asked, elbows on the table, eyes piercing the short distance between them. “What do you mean, a ‘change’? Are you in trouble? I mean, more than I think? Tell me what happened.”

“No, not really. I mean, that depends on what you think…”

“I know you and Jeanie are thick as…you need to come clean with me, honey, and now.”

“You know I can’t say what I want to say, not really, and I know you know what you know. So what is there to say–except, what should I do now?”

“How deep, Sheila girl?”

“Not that deep in, I can swim to the surface.”

He rubbed his bristly chin and didn’t take his eyes off her, and it startled her, his intense stare, as if he was cutting through all her smokescreen of thoughts and seeing everything all through the years. Maybe he did, but then it was as if he looked far beyond her. And then he came back to her.

“I’m sorry, this is fully on me. So leave it to me.”

“No, Dad.” She shook her head vigorously.

“Don’t worry yourself, I know a couple of things, helpful things. And from now on, every time you get that itch…just tell me. We’ll fend it off. I’ve got your back, don’t you know that?”

He half grinned at her, the goofy one that revealed his bottom gold tooth so it winked in the light and at her. He was a nice enough looking guy, she realized, a man who’d aged too fast, but he still had energy and attitude enough for at least two younger guys. He could have gotten married a couple of times–she’d not have gotten in the way.

But he’d kept his nose clean, he told everybody, was about working hard and taking care of Shelia. Though he clearly had failed in some basic ways, he knew that already. Did he think he could’ve kept ignoring the worsening signs, though? No. Where did he think she got to when he was gone so long every day and even night? He had hoped for better times for her but suspected so long. The family, right, leave it to crazy Jean to screw it up worse.

Things just had to be made much better, he knew right then.

“Yeah, Dad, I know you’ve got me. I didn’t want to freak you out, make you sad– or worse…”

“Well, it’s lucky for me you have the sense to know when to speak up a little. And figure out you need a new direction.”

“You mean, lucky for me! I’ve sorta been on my own awhile, you know?”

“Yes–you’re right. We both are fortunate now that we put a few things on the table. And I’m stepping in this time, blood or no blood, no matter, we are not them.”

He rose to put his arms around her and squeezed three times for “I love you”, and she about cried, it had been so long since he’d done that. She squeezed back.

And that was it, for the time being. They’d figure things out. Or maybe he’d just do his bit and they would go on in a more normal way, their odd but more real way. She could only hope he didn’t step too hard on the dragon’s tail. Jean the Dragon Lady they called her–she was tougher than anybody she knew in their city. Except her uncle… and her dad, though he was not like much his brother, anymore

But for now here she was with a book lady who was looking her over as if seeing her for the first time, a creature who didn’t, in fact, have horns. An ordinary girl with some strange aspects.

Sheila didn’t remove her sunglasses to stare back harder. The woman didn’t take any offense at whatever she did, it seemed.. It was like she got it, though how was anyone’s guess.

“I’m Meredith; this is Annie. Want to give us some help? We have a bunch of books that need sorting,” she said, gesturing with a sharp motion of her head toward the store.

“Uh, maybe, I guess so.”

“If you catch on and come on time twice a week, and ask before you take anything, you can stay on. If not, you’re out. But I have to tell you right off I can’t pay you. You can, however, choose a cheaper book each week to take home. But we shall see how things go, alright? Name?”

Shelia stood up, smoothed her damp jeans and jacket, put her cap back on. The way this woman talked floored her. “Sheila. Wait a sec–did i even say I wanted an actual job?”

Meredith rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. “Oh, didn’t you? I thought you might have. And you were sitting out here waiting for us to open, right? Anyway, no worries–no pay, no real job…” and she went inside.

Sheila shook her head hard to clear it. Hesitated. Looked up at the fat clouds scudding by, heard cars honking and a cyclist’s bell ringing as he whizzed by, and those crows squabbling from the roof as if they owned the block. Smelled a bit of gasoline and a whiff of scraggly red roses growing by the sidewalk. Ordinary stuff. She wondered if the lady knew what she was really all about–and if she did, would she have offered her a gig, even for nothing? She was sure taking a chance. With a thief.

An about-to-be-reformed one, she corrected herself, and the idea excited and worried her.

Mr. Mercedes jumped out at her so she bent down to briefly stroke him; he followed her into the store. “Well, she let you stay, that’s kinda weirdly nice,” she told him. She tore off her jacket and stuffed her cap in a back pocket. Looked around the homey, dusty, beautiful bookstore. She took off her sunglasses and set them aside.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Nettle Creek and Love’s Rocky Terrain

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When Merle plummeted from the ladder while trying to work moss off the cedar shakes roof, I was sure he’d be a goner. He’d been doing that for near forty years but there comes a time when a man has to tell himself no. He isn’t great at that. And despite breaking his back, he’s not so good at quitting. He got surgery and recouped, and before I knew it, was back on his feet. I caught him eyeing the ladder and I locked it up. But he sits more, takes rests on our big bed. Usually there’s a sharp knife and a few pieces of wood nearby or he’s studying our weekly newspaper, acting like he can see the fine print. But the carving he can mange fine–he was born with the talent.

I can’t say he’s keeping things up so well, he uses a cane more often than not. I’m good sized and strong. As my father always told me, “strong as a mule”. (“Sly as a fox,” Mom said, as I solved problems pretty good.) That’s why he had to name me James, he thought I was to be a boy and when I was coordinated plus was strong I often was treated as such, dressed for the woods. Mom added a second name, Marie. Weirdly. I can take or leave dresses and other fancy things but like a pretty blouse and a full skirt for special occasions.

Merle says, “You never need paint on your face, you’re fresh as roses to me.” The first time he said that I about smacked him–I never had heard such a thing in my fifteen years and couldn’t figure it out–or him. But it sounded better over time. He could be generous with his admiration then. Now he says “Roses” if he’s trying to make me smile.

“Jimmie,” Merle asks me this morning as he often does, “is this a day we go or a day we stay?” He leans in toward me, two hands on his cane, the one with the eagle head for a handle.

He asks that–some days with a flip in his voice, sometimes all serious– mostly because I foretold the miracle of May Cousins. (The other reasons is because he’s just one who thinks on dying more as he ages. Not me. ) She was drowned a short time at eight but I was sure she’d come back, live and eventually be alright. Which she did, and still is, and teaches kindergarten in the next county. But I haven’t made a habit of such things, in fact, keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to be blamed when things go sideways. Don’t care for the limelight, either.

But I’ve been right about a few other things kept to myself. I have been right about Nelda sometimes. For sure about Merle getting injured (it may have just been the odds) but wrong about him dying and that’s good. I made plenty of stink about it long before he fell. Later I reminded him of it once, when he was lying there and I worried he’d never get up. No matter, he knew he had paid the price of pride. He even apologized, to my amazement, as they carted him off in the ambulance, siren blaring its alarm through woods and village. His friends lined up at the hospital until they knew he made it.

We got through it all–many months of it, surgery we couldn’t really afford, rehabilitation trials, misery—and we still get on alright. It takes some work. But he had quit drinking at 49, so most things had already automatically improved. Now we’re just settling more deeply, two ole dogs by the hearth. His ornery back, my creaky knees.

“I guess we’re stuck here in paradise, it’s another good day. You got half the beaver carving done for Ted– and another one started, right?’

“Don’t know what the second one is yet.”

“It’ll reveal itself, always does, the wood talks at you.”

He let go of the cane with one hand, pats my arm as I make breakfast, then clomps out to the round blue table put on the screened porch in summer. I have a little song humming in me and put another sausage in the gravy running richly over hot biscuits. He’ll eat well and feel better and get right to that unknown carving.

Long before he broke his back and soon after he quit drinking, things were far different. I stopped and gazed out the window above the counter, over Nettle Creek to the house beyond.

“You coming with the coffee?” he calls out, a touch of crankiness setting in. You’d think caffeine was more potent than Jim Beam the way he acts. But I know he has pain and needs those jolts of coffee pleasure, and thank the good Lord every day and night he grasps his steaming mug and not the bottle. And so does he. Or this would be another story.

******

While he naps, I finish chores and sit on the porch. I’ve been trying to stick with a book about Hawaii, a fat novel from a yard sale. It about makes me want to see that exotic place but I’ve not been anywhere for more than a few days. Just here in the mountainous, forested areas around Nettle Falls, our town, and Nettle Creek. I’ve known most of my neighbors–such as they are, scattered here and there–forever. I know this Northwest haven like my own face; it’s in my blood, three generations of it. Our son Tate, he moved, but he’ll be back one day.

Nelda, now, she’s the same as me in that way. Never wanted to pull up roots and find another place to roost. Never wanted to travel any farther than the coast to stick her toes in the salty sea, which we did many times, Merle and me, her and Gerry before he died. We stuck together, like small town folks do. I always have a sense of what she’s up to, even now. For one thing, I can mostly see her house kitty corner from ours, the whole thing when the leaves fall and only conifers stand tall and more sparse between us.

Her house is bigger than ours with a deck across the back facing the creek. (Always thought that a poor idea; mosquitoes–we do get fewer than imagined–can get you.) I could see her raising her three kids, note right off how they changed fashion and friends and how much beer they stole and drank, hear her and Gerry’s arguments and happiness when the breeze was right. We could walk over mossy rocks in the creek to visit each other in a minute. It was like having a sister, which I’d not been given, only we were best friends, too.

Then Nelda put up a half-wall right after she made the biggest mistake of her life. She paid a pretty penny for Hermann and Sons to erect it. I watched it being made and was baffled that she left it at shoulder height; I could still see over the top pretty well as we are on a rise in the ground; I could still see much. It was as if she wanted me to see her life go on as it did. To see how few people socialized with her, her kids less around.

I made a habit of keeping an eye out less after all was done. I doubt she wasn’t much looking our way, either. It felt wrong, for the first time. Why bother with someone who did what she did? Everyone felt like that if you listened to the gossip, for a good year. Then no one said much at all, but they were leery of her, some more than others. As for me–I eventually had sympathy and grief to contend with on all fronts, and all that near drove me over the edge more than just the terrible error. I refused to shun her, and told the others they’d better think twice before they carried on with it. I half-nodded at her when we passed each other, no eye contact. But that was all, so maybe it was close enough to shunning.

And yes, it was Merle’s grave error, also. Let’s face it, he had equal blame though many were quicker to release him of guilt, and who knows why? Because Nelda was a woman, though a widow woman just over eleven months? Because we were best friends and you don’t do that to friends? Maybe because Merle was newly sober just nine months? But not soon enough, as he’d already lost his good job at the post office over in Scappoose (got it back a year later; retired after his back stayed bad)–so he couldn’t be judged too harshly. That was it–finding his way with no whiskey or beer? Well, I said, yes, true, he was a blind man feeling his way though the dark alleys of his life–and he found his way right into Nelda’s tanned and glowing arms.

Was I really all that surprised?–a few of the women asked me boldly. Merle was good looking, strong-built and even though quiet he radiated a sort of warmth that drew in everyone and still does. Sure, girls admired him when we were still in school and beyond–and the boys had an eye on me. Looks are no good excuse, he was a family man, and I found it shallow of others to suggest there was a way out of his part.

We had cemented our bond at the start. And we two couples had enjoyed such good and bad times together; there was faith in our friendship, we were growing older together with ease. We had real trust. But when Ger had an aneurysm and that was that, it was a sea change. Not only missing him. We three felt like a wheel without enough spokes, and our friendships stopped rolling on quite right. Then it slowed, limped along. Sometimes we just sat by the creek, a stunned trio, then faded into a “goodnight.”

For all the unbalance, I was with Nelda, of course I was– right till the moment I found out. And it did not take a detective. I saw them. There they were on her deck, having pie and coffee when I was recovering from a bad summer cold. That was okay with me. But it was the way they were sitting side by side, their heads put together, shoulders touching, his hand moving to the small of her back. Then their lips locked. But quick-like and they peered across the creek, its rushing waters frothy and golden with early evening light. They had dearly hoped I was still in bed, sleeping, too hot and achy and snuffly to move. But I was standing at our bedroom window, paused for what reason?–to see if Merle was outdoors. Still having coffee and then checking her new umbrella clothesline’s wobble. I had been on my way to the kitchen for water, felt a need to look out. If truth be told, had a feeling. That feeling that tingles in my stomach, strikes me as something.

At first it seemed like a fever dream. I blinked, looked hard again. Merle and Nelda got up, took plates and cups inside, and shut the door against the languid heat. Or to keep it in. They didn’t come out until darkness fell and I gave up hoping for different, leaned back. Was exhausted by tears and drifting into sleep before I heard his footsteps in the dark, then porch steps. By the time he got to our room, I was plunging into an abyss of heartache. He slithered out to the couch.

Sleep pulled at me. My falling thought: Damned traitors, bet those sheets smelled bright as sunshine, mine all twisted around body and heart, hurts deep…

It took time, as all things do, with Merle. I am stubborn even if enraged. Do you throw out an entire lifetime together when one of you fails to stick to the rules? How much weight does sexual commitment–with its duty and occasional boredom–carry in the long run? Is it everything, is it the soul of a marriage–or actually a smaller part than you believed at the start? What mattered here? What do you deep in your gut want, I asked him over and over? It wasn’t the surrender to desire, that basic act. It was what we all fear and loathe: trust shaken, torn, hard things to mend. We made choices together once we got through the thorns.

The reason I stayed is that we took our time healing, made no sudden moves. He remained here despite regret, his shame. It’s love, that’s all. The kind of love that had long ago put its stamp on our hearts and carried us through near every sort of weather. And Nelda—she was heart shocked about Ger. She gave in to greater needs. Maybe he did, too, though I didn’t and won’t ever ask that. I didn’t need all the sorry facts, just solutions. besides, I about reacted to his failure by doing the same. Then stepped back right in time. No one knew–but I did.

No, it was Nelda who I lost the hardest, the worst, the biggest, and who with a desperate kiss lost me. Even though I pitied her, I could not entirely, sincerely forgive someone I had so long called Sis. Not even after praying for her all those years. Twelve of them.

******

So I watch her deck and house because she has not come out in eleven days. Well, she came out because once I heard her car leave and return. But no sitting outdoors. No hanging out laundry–she still liked to hang her sheets and towels, yes, that sun and wind. I know it is eleven days because I count as I used to in the old times and worried about her. Because Nelda gets depressed. Not just like after she and Merle had the fling and Ger had passed on which was quite bad but her daughters helped her then, and even her stuffy pastor, I heard, gave her some good advice so she got counseling. Got back to more living, got a job in the office at Dean’s Hardware.

No, this is something I don’t anticipate, though I feel concern as the days added up. I sit an hour and with each second sense her more. It builds up until it hurts my chest and rings in my brain: help.

“Merle,” I said, sticking my head inside when I hear him rustling around for a snack. “I’m going over the creek.”

He thumps his way to the door as I run down the steps.

“What did you say?”

I give a short wave backwards and keep on, my tennis shoes seeking hold on the flat and rounded rocks, trying to avoid mossy slipperiness, finally sliding into cold water running about my shins, the bank seeming far off. But when I make it I run to the back of her house, around the fence, to the gate, and find it locked. I rush to the front door, throat constricted even as I call out her name.

“Nelda! Where are you!”

The front door is unlocked, not too unusual, and so I enter for the first time in over a decade to find heaps of magazines sliding to the floor and piles of clothing on the couch and a few used paper plates with plastic forks on the coffee table. The television is on, sound muted.

I rush to the large airy kitchen but she’s not there–then the bedrooms, one by one. Not there. Where?


“Nelda, it’s Jimmie! Where are you?” My voice cracks; I gulp air.

I open one bathroom door, it’s acrid, stuffy, empty. Then another one.

And there she is sitting on the toilet lid in faded knit shorts and a baggy, stained pink tank top. Her longish, once-blonde-going-white hair falls over her hands, which barely hold her head, her head which dips to her knees as I enter. On the floor is an open prescription bottle, pills spilled and rolling all over the black and white tiled floor.

“Nelda, what have you done to yourself?” I cry out and fall to my knees.

I take her head into my hands, pull her to my shoulder so that she crumples, slides down to the floor and falls hard onto me, her once-full body light like sticks in my sturdy arms. I look at her and see a once-velvety forest woman now a sad one with her insides turned out, her fineness ripped and frayed.

“I’m going to give up,” she whispers, “why are you here…go home…”

“Did you take too many? Tell me!” I reach for the bottle and see that its an antianxiety medicine. “How many?”

“Four, five or dunno, not counting…”

I hold her head up so I can look at her. Red-rimmed, half-open eyes in shadowy sockets; sunken cheeks; pale lips gone slack; unwashed hair that sticks to her face, neck. She needs a shower. A meal and coffee. A new life.

She first needs a doctor.

I pick up the bottle, then lift her and nearly fall over as my knees complain. I carry her to her bed. Then I pull out my phone, call the number on the bottle. Can the pharmacist tell me what to do? Yes, go to urgent care or if she breathing is shallow and is less responsive, her eyes closing, call 911.

“Jimmie? Jimmie…you real…” Her words are slurring. She rolls over, nearly falls off the bed. I grab her and sit by her on the edge of the mattress which, I realize, has no sheets.

“I’m here, we’re going to get help.”

I call Merle and tell him to to get to the car, drive over fast.

“Nelda, I’m right here. We’ll get you better.”

“You’re…” she says as tears stream from the corners of her eyes. Which begin to close.

“Nelda, come on, wake up!” I shake her but her eyes remain half shut, her mouth opens, her silver fillings dully gleam.

I call 911 and carry her out the front door and Merle sprays gravel as he halts in the driveway. I sink to the ground with her limp body clutched to my chest. He shoots out the car door, limping to my side, hand over his mouth.

******

Two months. That’s how long it’s been since Nelda had her stomach pumped. Then monitored, then in inpatient treatment for severe clinical depression with suicidality and generalized anxiety. That’s what they called it, as if she has a fancy predisposition to some alien thing when it was in fact a close decision to end it all. I can’t abide the psychobabble but glad they helped her. She was released after three and a half weeks, and seems much better.

Was, that’s the word we can use now. Was going to die, not now going to die. She is back in therapy, on different medication and on her feet–what a way to put it but quite true. She’s even thinking of taking a dance class at Jody’s Studio in Scappoose; she loved ballroom dancing when Ger was alive, so why not? I’ll likely cheer her on.

I don’t understand it, not all of it. Neither does she, she says, just that she can get so low and then goes to the pits and needs help but waited too long. I can’t abide thinking that I about lost her once and for all. Nelda insists this is quite true, I was there in spirit all along and that helped her hang on. Really? I shake my head. Maybe, though my sense of things was too slow to alert me quite soon enough. Wasn’t there in person until near late and how do I get over that? By living and being better, I guess.

I’m right sometimes with my feeling about people, wrong other times, and that’s just how it goes. I have no special power, that’s for sure. Just love, I guess.

It was a wimpier, half-lonely time without our friendship. Like I’d been so hungry but got used to it though I was craving more. Maybe we can both finally fill up more, a little at a time. It’s not about forgiveness, it’s time passing and time found, and life knocking off more of my edges. I’m freer inside my mind and spirit.

Still, I’ve felt the burden of my neglect since I found her in the depths. It sliced a gash inside me. My not being there all those years–knowing what I know about Nelda– is the real crime here. I want the bleeding to stop, the wound scab over–as she wants hers to close. Her old humiliation, that lingering shame. The only way beyond it is getting up. going on, and learning each other again. We’ve begun to share tales and news in person over coffee a couple days here, a couple maybe there. Merle gives a brief, hearty greeting then disappears. One of these week-ends I hope and pray–I pray for everything, that’s the way I do this– we’ll grill a fine dinner in summer’s green beauty, all together. It won’t be like old times. There is no going back. We’ve been ignorant. Suffered the hurt. Left each other, found each other. We’re getting whiter, gimpier. Maybe wiser. What a saga we have woven. But in the end there’s just what lies before us this day. And we want more peace.

We keep an eye on each other from across Nettle Creek, our creek, where I never got much of a nettle sting yet and love to hear the water running, cascading no matter what goes on. It feels about as good as it can. But I’ll aim for better, I tell myself when I feel whipped by the upkeep of our acreage and house and Merle gets cranky. Then I up and call Nelda Sis, it slips out, isn’t that seeing the bright side? I’m still just Jimmie, best friend, or as she says Jimmie Marie which gets on my nerves– except when she says it anyhow.

Wednesday’s Words/ Short Story: An Inheritance at Play

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“I’m sorry, your name again?”

He was cupping his ear like an old person but he couldn’t be more than mid-forties. He–Neal, he’d said–sported a crewcut with a smidge of silver, a cherry red running jacket with sleeves pushed up to elbows, navy short-shorts with two whites stripes on either side, white tennies and two good legs. He was shielding his eyes from the sun that lent its heat to every unshaded surface in the courtyard garden. She wondered if he was stuck in the eighties but when she imagined him in a straw fedora, grey linen shirt and pants, in leather sandals, she instantly liked him better.

“Sparky, like spark plug, a spark of fire, first syllable of sparkler, whatever helps you fix it firmly in mind,” she answered briskly and returned to parsing her book but could make no sense of it, a corny romance she’d found in a free box by the elevator. No wonder it was tossed. She closed it with a smack of her hand.

He jogged a bit in place. “Like the Dalmatian firehouse dog of a kids’ story I read a few decades ago?”

“If you like.”

“We’re both newer, I guess,”‘ he continued, and ran around her chair. “I work from home so will likely run into you again. Nice to meet you.”

Sparky glanced up and gave one short wave. “Likewise.”

“Ok, number 32 if you need anything,” he tossed over shoulder as he bounded away.

Oh dear, she was 38, so he would run into her and vice versa. She’d hope to avoid people a bit longer. And would appreciate no more intrusions on her sunny spot for the afternoon’s remainder. But fat chance. This was the third resident who felt compelled to speak to her. Mira? Kendra? Talley? Or Mariah and Candy? Talley for sure, who was a graduate student but it seemed a made up name, as if he wanted to be in movies. No matter, they at least hadn’t engaged her much–the two women, barely that– and she had only bobbed her head so on they went.

It was disconcerting to sit in public and be vaguely acknowledged by passersby as one would a perhaps an odd new plant. She’d likely be startled, too. It was so different from her home where you had to unlock the gate to even get onto the winding driveway. Sparky had to pinch herself each morning to determine she wasn’t trapped in a nightmare. If not for the faint bruising that had begun to appear on her left upper forearm, she might still believe that was so. Every morning, a rude awakening, indeed. The pinching had to end, she was no masochist despite the situation.

So here she was. At Mistral Manor Apartments. She turned to scan the building, situated in a horseshoe shape about the dappled central courtyard. There was a sort of gate, alright–a worn black iron, double gate with pronounced points atop it. It opened out to a circular drive–with fountain, no less, which was just turned on in the warm weather– that split off and led to parking behind. One could get to the apartments as well as the courtyard through this gate, but also via a big main entry at each end of the brick horseshoe.

The courtyard she found quite pleasant, at least, with round tables and chairs–metal and once a pale blue, in need of a re-do–scattered throughout the shady area. There were two Japanese maples and a lovely Pacific madrone tree, a few white oaks. And flowers–well, begonias, petunias and pansies, that sort of thing. Oh, it pained her to not be in her own garden where her peonies and hydrangeas and tiger lilies would be blooming, soon the rose bushes–yes, just looking out over the long, rolling lawn right that moment.

“You need to give it up, you simply cannot stay here forever, the taxes alone will do you in within two years,” Melody, her one and only child, had insisted to Sparky for the last time. “Your fine home is now one of well over a dozen, and those are so shiny and contemporary this one looks like a forlorn plain Jane in comparison.”

“I could have hung on that long and, anyway, who made you my financial advisor? I already have one.”

“Mom, please, all three of us have gone over this already. Conservative use of funds, right? And it’s been my home, too….and when Daddy… well, it has remained ours, been only ours and for at least ten years longer than even imagined.”

“When your father left us, you mean, twenty-four years ago, it became just ours. Well, now mine. When you imagined things might get worse, you mean. I never gave it a thought, I was making good money on top of the settlement and then my set design career took off like gangbusters. Boy, was he shocked. But I expected to be in my home until they dragged me out heels first.”

Melody slumped into the chaise lounge beside her, looking down the hill to the pond. Several large orange koi fish flashed in golden light as they swam about. What would become of the koi?

Sparky wondered, too– what of the sweeping garden? What about the little bonsai planted in a tall, heavy pot by the front door? The set of wooden chimes that made the most sonorous sounds all day and night? Should they stay? But how would she sleep without those rich yet light tones ringing in the night? It was all too much to contemplate.

Melody stirred and looked at her mother. Such a face. Those arching eyebrows, that short wavy silver hair with an impulsive burgundy streak on a small wave; snaky lines tracing her eyes and mouth, the pursed lips line atop her upper lip especially pronounced. But she looked well and strong at sixty eight, was feisty and smart and dramatic as ever. It did hurt her to push this at her mother.

“Anyway, it’s the money and your ailing leg, that’s that, so please just move into Mistral Manor since it is only a half hour from me. And do think over the house. If you want to sell after you lease it for a year…or hang onto it awhile or…”

“Huh, that’s that.” Sparky ended the words with a grunt. “Your father’s daughter, simplify everything to its meanest details. Oh, my apology, to its very bottom line. If I hadn’t broken my leg skiing last January at Tahoe, you’d not be so adamant. I’d be working full time, for one thing. Swimming daily at the club. Dancing a samba–who knows?”

“Oh, stop, Mother, you know what I mean, it’s time to move on…you work part-time, on contract now. And five bedrooms, four baths, three levels, two acres of land. Who lives like this at your…time of life? It was country living at its best, a short commute to the city. But now, it feels like a threat to a kinder future– for us both.”

And that got to Sparky. A threat to a kinder future was not something she wanted to face, nor did her daughter.

So she concurred with reasonable deductions and let Melody’s co-worker and his wife rent it for a year. She moved to half-charming, dusty Mistral Manor, also no doubt once fine country living for the rat-race-weary, but now part of a sprawling suburban neighborhood that had never seen a grand past, honestly. It was good, though, to save money, just in case. In case something else waylaid her future.

But it was not even close to being a joy, not the merest joy, to be there. Even Melody admitted it was not going to feel very tolerable, at least at first. But she would do her best to hang in there and appease Melody. At least she hadn’t suggested a live in nurse or sent her packing to the rest home while her leg healed more. And her new tenant’s substantial rent payments were good, this they agreed on. He and his wife would be buying a house of their own after the year was up. And Sparky’s house? Who knew what would happen then?

******

She still walked with an ungainly hobble when she felt tired out, and with two grocery bags she was bound to tilt off balance just a bit.

“Let me assist you,” Neal said, rushing up to her. In his arms he held a grey cat with a very long ringed tail, it might have been a racoon if she hadn’t double-checked. It jumped down as soon as he loosened his hold and waited at her door.

She allowed him to take her apartment key which hung around her neck, and he unlocked the door and took the bags in. She suspected it was only to snoop about her place, and she was right. The cat had similar intentions.

“Such vibrant colors though they’re earthy, too,” he noted. “I like it, rich textures and a great use of the spaces.”

“Are you an interior designer?” She was unloading the food but keeping an eye on him as he cased dining and living rooms.

“No, but my father is and my mother’s a textiles artist. I got a few of their genes, and they expected a similar career trajectory of me but no, I’m a video game designer.”

“Oh? Now, hmm, do I use this avocado tonight? It has one soft side…”

Neal leaned on the counter dividing dining from kitchen. “Use it, I leave mine longer, then regret it. So how about you, are you a designer?”

She had knelt down to the vegetable bin, and with tomatoes and French onions in her hands she looked up at his open face, narrowed her eyes against light creeping in from the many windows. “In a manner of speaking.”

“Aha, I knew it. I can tell from a mile away. Commercial or residential.”

“Stage. Set design.”

She grabbed hold of the counter to pull herself up. Neal restrained himself form helping.

“Oh, different. For live theater?”

“Well, yes, people moving about a stage, throwing out lines, strutting their stuff in fabulous costumes and so on. A lot of Shakespeare for some years. I do television sets and other things, as well. Or have…” She slowly righted her body. “Now that you have the basics, may I finish my grocery organization in peace?” She smiled with teeth showing, tried to sound nice but enough questions.

“Aren’t; you going to ask me what sort of games I create?”

“I’d just as soon not, but I get the gist of it. You design and I design, so there you go, creative, aren’t we?” she said. “Leave my key on the counter on your way out.”

“Well, not that you’d likely know much about video games, anyway. Nice chatting, just wanted to help and welcome you. You know where I live. Later.” He said this with no malice, but some resignation, as if this was the norm for him.

The door shut firmly on his way out. Sparky left the vegetables out and went to her front door and opened it; the cat snipped out between her ankles. She caught a glimpse of him as he trotted down the hallway. “Neal, thank you for helping me out. I appreciate it!”

He stopped, turned, made a little half-bow, one arm crooked in front, the other at his back. “My pleasure, Sparky. And that was Esmerelda, by the way!”

Nothing like having the perkiest person in the building a few doors down, she thought, and she laughed. It was lucky for her he was trying to befriend her. She could use one or two friends. But did he create those gruesome warrior games? Hard to imagine it. Likely to him she was just a quirky old granny. She’d have to disabuse all of that stereotype with much better conversations.

******

Mariah and Talley were sitting in the corner, heads bent to one another. Sparky had been thinking of her koi and made a note to stop by and check that Jacob, her tenant, was taking care of things. She had considered getting an aquarium; she wasn’t sure she was allowed such things. Then that thought stirred up aggravation. That she even had to ask whether or not she might have a few fish living with her! It was absurd. All her adult life she’d made her own choices, lived as she chose–with the exception of Marty, who had also made his own choices many of which crowded hers, until he and that woman…well, it had come to this.

One year to go, then she’d move back. Or sell and buy another house. Or go wild, buy an RV, who knew?

She put down her task list and leaned in to try to catch what the two across the courtyard were saying.

“It isn’t right, she certainly ought to have left you more than that,” Mariah said, alto voice rumbling its way to Sparky.

“I know, that’s the thing, after all the years summering with her on the island, helping her out, keeping an eye on things when she got sick…” Talley was gulping his words a bit, voice muffled, sadness or dismay. “I so wanted that cottage.”

“But, Talley, your cousin has first rights– he’s her son, after all.”

“Who languished in Cayman Islands all these years, not a care in the world. When did her visit her? Now and then at Christmas. What does he want with an Oregon seaside cottage?”

“He’s coming here next week, right? I mean, the meeting with the lawyer and all.”

Talley nodded, then let his head drop on crossed arms atop the table. Mariah patted his back, glanced at Sparky and frowned.

“Sorry, words carry out here…” Sparky called out and went back to her list, added more items she had to do and buy. Or wanted to buy. A new place, different stuff was required. A lifestyle change deserved a good backdrop.

Two metal chairs were pushed back, scraping the flagstone floor; footsteps crept up to her table then stopped. Sparky did not look up. She was chewing on the end of her pencil, thinking what was the one thing she’d had to remember to get–that she then forgot.

“Are we too loud for your work?” Mariah asked.

Talley studied her. “Is it Sari?”

She looked at them one at a time. Two earnest types. “Of course not. And no, it’s Sparky. Oh, for goodness sake, don’t look like that, you’d think it was the strangest name in the world. I assure you it is not.”

The young adults shot each other a look.

“Hey, it’s a nickname, to clear things up. I’m a set designer, and I was first briefly a costume designer for theater, then television. I had a thing for sparkly accents and attire and a crazy sparkly kind of personality so they said–of course, I wasn’t jaded yet– and then others found me capable of sparking a wildfire of tempers over the smallest set details. One thing led to another; the name stuck. Sparky. “

They looked at her, nodding, then opened their mouths.

“But I have a real name if you that sticks better–Serena. Though I doubt I’d answer to that.”

“Oh, pretty,” Mariah said, smiling.

“It doesn’t suit me as well, so…”

“Alrighty, then, just saying hi, wondering how things were going,” Talley said. “And I’m an actor–part time amateur, but still, something in common, right? We should talk more later. I know a director who needs help…” His eyes skidded over her list. “Not to further interrupt you, but I was going to ask if you’d ever do that to a devoted nephew– leave them out of your will.”

Sparky blinked twice. “Will? Oh, your relative with the seaside cottage.”

Mariah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that one.”

“Who knows? Not given it a thought. I have a niece in India working with the poor, so likely not, she actually took a vow of poverty… but maybe I’d leave her money for her causes. My daughter Melody? She does very well in advertising. Unless I still have the house when I kick off, then we will see…”

“But I loved that house, it kills me…”

She was afraid he’d start to bawl right there. “I’d likely do what was sensible. It seems your cousin has money. Maybe he can care for it best even from a distance. My daughter, Melody, adores my house and she made me move. I’d have remained there another couple years, but she keeps a hawk eye on me as if my business is her business. Prods me to make decisions not needed. Though it may be time to be more cautious financially.” She swung her body around to face them, gesturing with her hands, pencil flying off. “What do you think, would you insist your own mother do something she didn’t want to consider doing yet? Or do you think it is all part of a dastardly scheme to get me out so she can slowly take possession? Sell it, maybe, and send me off to the old folks farm?”

Mariah wiped the sweat trickling down her forehead with the back of a hand. “No way would I do that, my mother wouldn’t have it. But she likely just wants you to be….okay, right? I mean, mothers are important, they deserve respect.”

“Well said, I like your answer, Mariah.”

Talley leaned closer to Sparky so she could smell his cologne. It was cheap but had cedar in it. “I’d say you need to keep an eye on your house. Families can be be surprisingly disappointing!”

Sparky stood. “I think you both have good points. As for the cottage, Talley–maybe have a chat with your cousin, see if he’ll share it with you. Certainly that would be equitable and he has a Cayman Islands abode, after all. Maybe he’d get tired of it, too.”

They walked to the gate, let themselves out and said their goodbyes.

“Sorry for eavesdropping.”

“Sorry for assuming the worst,” Talley said. “Can we talk about set design some day? Fascinating.” His almost-handsome, mobile face was a sweep of pleasure following his earlier consternation. Born actor.

“Come by number 38 sometime and I’ll give you my card to give your director. I consult for a fee–but you and I can chat again, of course. Theater people have to stick together, eh? I just can’t get you paying jobs based on a chat, you know.”

“Right, catch you later.”

He actually bounced a little. Talley likely believed she’d get him auditions. Maybe she could; maybe she could not. But Sparky couldn’t think what to say to Mariah, a genuine girl and his sidekick. She waved and gave her a toothy smile. A real one.

What a funny, congenial sort of place it was turning out to be.

******

Melody came by with almond and chocolate croissants and steaming coffee one Saturday morning. They sat on Sparky’s balcony. It was too early to get fully dressed and go out in public, even to the courtyard. Besides which, she could hear children clamoring and yelling out there. It might be a day inside with a book or a script. Sparky had awakened in a mood.

“It’s hot already, then it rains and it’s chilly, then sunshine blasts for two weeks and all my little potted plants are about give up, green tongues hanging out as they fall over. I wish I lived where there was an automatic sprinkler system and everything stayed green and brightly blooming…like at my own house. A place where I had air conditioning that hummed, not shouted.”

“And good morning, Mother, how is it going?”

“I have made three friends and am about to get two closer to my age. Alan and Greta, number 44. They have a schnauzer–which is a breed I can’t abide if you recall–but they seem interesting, have travelled a great deal. They like to cook and I like to eat, not a small thing.”

She smoothed her wrinkly hibiscus-covered green palazzo pants and thought that she needed a new iron. Melody looked impeccable–it was a strange need in her– in grey jeans and a white shirt with the collar turned up. Her shining hair–blonde, cut straight at the shoulder–needed streaks of darker color or a slight mussing or just a sparkly barrette. A little drama to offset the conventionality. But of course, not happening. She was the daughter every parent wanted. Sparky had been the mom her friends wanted. But mother and daughter were not that close until the last ten years.

Melody stretched out her lithe legs and let out a sigh of relief. She hadn’t spoken to her mother for over ten days. They’d had words about the koi pond, which took attention the tenant was not too interested in giving. Sparky had taken to stopping by at any old time every other day to check on her fish. And examine the grounds, look inside the windows. It had to stop and it finally did the prior Wednesday.

“So did you get my landscape guy, Paul, to come by twice week to take care of things?”

“I did, and all is well. And I got a good price for you.”

“Alright, topic closed for now. How is work?”

Melody waved that aside. Dismissed, next. “Same as usual. I’m interested in you and what you think of Mistral Manor.”

“Okay, how is Leonard and how is the IVF going?”

Melody shook her head and looked out at the grove of trees. “Len is well, as ever, and his golf game still stinks but so what? The IVF goes as it goes, it just inches along. I’ll inform you of positive changes, Mom, don’t worry… Seriously, are you still angry I insisted you move here, after a month?”

Sparky knew she had to choose her words carefully. Which of many things was she still a bit angry about? What was least and what was most an issue? Was she mad that she didn’t have as much work as five years ago? Was she irritated that she needed to work, or maybe that she chose to work because what else was there actually to do at this in-between age? Not too old but so young. Not even close to done with life but great experiences not especially knocking at your doorstep. Was she lonelier here than back home, where the neighbors were a five minute walk away? Or less so where you were surrounded by others?

She didn’t quite fit anywhere, that had always been the problem. The thought of a senior community frightened her to death, being squeezed in with oldsters who could care less what she did for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” twenty years ago. And perhaps the same lack of true regard for them.

But here there was Neal the gamer guy and his sanguine cat, Esmerelda, who pranced around the place when visiting, tail high in the air as if she claimed the entire territory and welcome to her remarkable world. That cat always looked as if she was smiling, green eyes gleaming–leading lady, she was. Talley with his chronic whining–and flair for mimicry. Mariah and her desire to please and her graceful, strong body meant for dance–she was in a ballet company. The place seemed to be teeming with artistic types and brainiacs, though maybe Sparky was just lucky to have met the few who were, and quite friendly. Some hairbrained, avoidant author was also likely writing convoluted plot-driven novels in a top floor corner apartment, a pallid cast to her skin from such little sunlight.

Surely there were junior accountants and car salesmen, ambitious computer technicians and hair salon stylists–somewhere. Or was it just the artsy ones who failed to make enough money to move on? Well, Sparky had money. She just wasn’t going to broadcast that, nor use it casually these days–or she might use it up. She was here of her own accord and temporarily, after all. But what of this would Melody understand and in the right way?

“It’s a decent place, I’ll grant you that. The residents are so far, so good. I can use up our hour telling you about my new almost-friends, or we can enjoy relaxing and the view while we eat.”

“Whatever you like, Mom,” she said, biting off a huge chunk of croissant, coaxing it down with sips of hot coffee. “:I just need to know you won’t hold this against me forever.” She took another whopper bite.

The girl was always hungry, that was the problem, she didn’t allow herself indulgences. When had that started? Less restraint, more spontaneity, she’d taught her but it hadn’t stuck.

“Oh, if that’s what you’re worrying about…stop! No one makes me do anything, I have my faculties, thank God, but my beloved house has felt too big for a few years. My leg, meanwhile, is still full of pings and zings even when I’m not on it; I need to get another look at it. Maybe the nuts and bolts are coming undone. I’ll be bent over with a cane before you know it.” She laughed robustly, which told Melody she was talking nonsense, having fun with her. Although, really, it hurt too often still.

Of course it wasn’t all terrible there, and why not make Melody feel better about things? Poor mother in need of simpler lifestyle so just had to make cost saving interventions. It was all done, and the next move would be Sparky’s, anyway, not Melody’s. She had been thinking about the will business ever since Talley had brought it up.

“It isn’t that cheap here, as you know, being on the historical register. I love all the original woodwork, high ceilings, tall windows. The elevator is a boon for you, I like that though it creaks all the way up. I can see why someone would choose to happily here, it has real charm, doesn’t it? And I’m relieved you like it alright–for the time being, while you think about what you want to do next.”

“You have to see the courtyard again, it is the best spot here. But I don’t want to do anything next. I want to stay here for the duration then return home. Listen, if I sell, I sell, and that money affords me a very comfortable lifestyle the rest of my days. I just want to put it off, see what my investments do.”

“Right…but I thought we might one day move into it…Len and me and…”

“I’d take that profit–it’ll be handsome– and travel around a couple of years. I might get my own set and costume design consulting business in a small, sweet office downtown. I might buy land by a river and build a cabin on it for week-ends, for my much quieter old age. But I am going to sell it– one day. It was my home for thirty-nine years. And your father’s for quite awhile. And at some point it will be someone else’s. You and Leonard have the money to build the house of your dreams, too, Melody, and I hope it also holds a child or two.”

“I see, I suppose you are right…”

Sparky saw her daughter let the mask fall, saw a person who felt hurt, too, by changes. Tall, boney and vulnerable while hiding in her fancy summery pants and matching sleeveless top; restless hands twining long fingers that once played upon oboe keys, pearly nails glistening like opals. Her oval face was gaunt, all cheekbone and pale mouth, slightly tilted hazel eyes that reminded Sparky every time of her ex, her Marty’s. But that mouth was set so as not to let disappointment show. Her nearly pointed chin raised ever so slightly so her precision cut hair swung away from a tight jaw. Driven, overworked and anxious, even–and full of deeper sentiment, feelings gone subterranean. Like her own feelings beneath sharp words, an impudent toss of head. She understood self-protection and ambition, both.

But who was this daughter she had born and raised? A woman now of means, a once-young woman who set her own course and sailed away as soon as she hit eighteen, and who now feared her mother might be moving along a sharp timeline to a faltering stretch and then the dreadful arc of slow decline, and if that happened who would she have? What and who would be left for the children Melody hadn’t even managed to conceive yet? Her father had disappeared into Canada with his Vancouver-born mistress who became his wife…so long ago.

Sparky saw this not, perhaps, for the first time but wondered why she hadn’t accepted it as real before.

For Melody, there was also house love and a house burden as it was another thing that could be lost. Their only lifetime home, after all. The land, the modern structure with such varied rooms, two fireplaces and a third if counting the outdoor one, and the koi pond, the many places she’d played with her toys and read all those wonderful books and painted pictures alongside her mother, standing with big and little easels on the patio…

“But if you really, really want it, of course we can talk more, honey, I didn’t think it was as important as that…”

Melody put her face in her hands and wept.

Sparky scooted close to her daughter’s chair and put her arms around her. They both had a small cry. Sometimes it was the only way to say what needed to be said.

It looked like there was more to think over. One never knew what was next, anyway, a year from now she might be nursing some other injured limb though she had learned her lesson about blithely trying new sports. But Melody, that was another story. She was, in fact, close at hand. And would be staying there, she surmised, her heart swelling with gratitude a little more.

Still, a cabin on a river!….such a tantalizing scenario, if not quite for her.

******

When they all managed to make time and gather, her Mistral Manor guests bore gifts of favorite dishes. It was an informal affair but Sparky had cleaned top to bottom and put on the best of her music collection of swing, they’d have to suffer it awhile. The tablecloth had been ironed, it took forever even with the new iron, but it was white with elegant vines with a smooth sheen beneath white china she had unpacked to wash, only six of twelve place settings. Just enough. The peonies were earthy of fragrance, a deep pink at table’s center. There were Alan and Greta, Talley and Mariah, Neal and herself. She had made place cards for each and why not? Treat a potluck dinner like a happening and good things came to be, people had fun. All life was an interconnected series of acts, and full-bodied, deep-hearted actors coming forward with wants and needs awakening– just as the Bard said–and Sparky was happy to be be quite able to set the appropriate scene.



Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: A Reluctant Partnership, Pt.1.

She was not interested in a roommate but, then, neither was he. Life, however, has a way of upending sure plans and then you have to improvise. Jeanette Minthorn wasn’t good at that. But Lenny Grimes was, and that was to his advantage he’d realized.

When Lenny first lost his job at the factory, it was the last thing on his mind to move and learn to live on a bit of a shoestring. He knew several there who looked their worst fears in the face due to the pandemic–either they got sick or lost their jobs, too–but they had wives or adult children to help out. Even if reluctantly. But Lenny had never been married. He’d been partnered up twice but by fifty-seven, he’d settled into a more companionable routine with Malloy, his terrier mix buddy. All had gone along without incident for a good decade. And then, not. His supervisory position was one he had fought for and enjoyed when promoted from floor work to the floor plus a closet sized office. So when Lenny put his few bits and pieces into a cardboard box and trudged out the door, it was not without grave disappointment, if he also understood the boss’ drastic action. Who buys appliances during a pandemic? Their orders had shrunk miserably. He retreated but with expectations of getting rehired soon somewhere. It was a kick in the pants when it didn’t turn out that way. His aging tri-level house–too big and in need of repairs, just too much to deal with at the moment–had to be rented out. He was not sharing a place with a family of four, the father being fifteen years younger, an optimistic and handy guy who was able to work from home, as was his wife. Their two boys, under ten, were polite enough. It was a quick deal, then he answered an ad looking for a roommate to share a house. May as well not fight reality’s vice grip.

Jeanette lived on a wide, sunny street with a dead end, at which she lived. It bordered a county park, so solitude was the norm even if voices drifted over her back deck. There was a trail bordering her back fence with a tidy line of emerald green cypress; privacy was complete. She had retired early two years prior, so not working had become more the norm. A teacher of elementary aged students, it was a relief to finally clean her desk, turn off the lights and close the door. Education had not exactly prepared her for managing as well as instructing rowdy, unique, inquisitive, demanding children. Though it had been an expansive experience, it had not been her first choice. A few of her younger, single cohorts felt teaching children was good training for having one’s own. Jeanette found it only emphasized her inclination to remain childless. Being married thirty-four years had been enough to handle. Jeanette had tried so hard. In the end, he’d left in the night. Their mid-century, three bedroom, three bath ranch (soon painted blue, cedar accents added later) house had remained hers and at times she found it no longer useful. But could not let it go yet. It wasn’t quite paid off, but she increasingly wanted to downsize. To move on….somewhere else. She determined that renting out a room a couple of years could get her there faster; the sooner she got out from under such upkeep, the better. She turned sixty-four recently and though she felt strong and alert, she also felt the threats of merciless time at her back. And at her neck, as she’d finally noticed in the mirror with a stunned double take.

When Lenny Grimes presented himself as the seventh possibility, she gave in from sheer exhaustion. Never had she imagined it so hard to root out undesirable renters, to pinpoint one who was not only trustworthy but independent- minded. She had little patience for someone carrying the baggage of neediness. Only someone who was self-directed, moderate in habits and a full adult would align with her temperament. Malloy, Lenny Grimes’ dog, was not a bonus, but neither was it a breaking point. She’d lived with one then another dachshund in her marriage, but they’d been more her husband’s doting pets. The last had left with him and fare thee well. Once imagining herself a cat person, it was a passing fancy–she never even got to the animal shelter.

She was quite relieved when they both willingly shared proof of having recently tested negative for Covid-19 and being fully vaccinated. They agreed that they lived carefully out in the world. They seemed quite good risks on the health front in a treacherous time.

Neither of them was the least bit bothered by living with the opposite sex. It wasn’t as if they had any antipathy; they were simply indifferent, especially after meeting one another–they each were entirely not their types. In the beginning, they avoided each other, overall. It wasn’t hard. Lenny went off masked and chipper to the harbor to meet up with a friend or buy a paper, coffee and a simple breakfast at his favorite food truck, Breakfast and Extras–an old habit, he’d said. Jeanette was used to sitting in the breakfast nook, gazing out the picture window into the back yard with a magazine, scrambled eggs with chopped turkey sausage and strong black tea.

They might see one another off and on during the day, but beyond a few neutral if friendly words, nothing else transpired. She was a calligrapher who always had a project going. He was a walker and an enthusiastic reader of earth science and woodworking books, and left to go camping for three days–she didn’t ask where, he didn’t offer info–perhaps two times a month. It worked out well enough for both.

One May morning after he’d been there six weeks and two days, Jeannette languished at her spot: her deck. She was pulled up to the glass-topped table with a half-full mug of tea. She’d been slow to start, and sunshine spread itself over oak trees and a big magnolia, the last of raindrops glistening and fat on leaves and blooms. She had little urge to move faster. Sometimes being in the middle of moments slow like molasses was the best place to be. But she had not expected or looked for company as she heard blissful birdsong, welcomed a pervasive peace that lay on her as light hands on her shoulders.

“Thought I’d join you,” Lenny said and sat down with travel mug of coffee in hand, Malloy curling up beside his feet. “Got up earlier than usual to meet my buddy Fred at the harbor, then decided to come back–never really hung out on the deck, just a look-see now and then.”

She looked at him and nodded, a slight frown appearing beneath wispy grey bangs. “I see.” If he thought this was her private domain, he was right. Then again, he paid rent and she hadn’t said it was off-limits, had she? She ought to be considerate. Generous. She turned her lips up in an almost-smile, teeth clenched.

His eyes swept over the neatly mowed yard, moved past the cypress soldier trees–he thought of them as frozen at attention –which he had never liked much, and then the magnolia and oaks, which he did appreciate. There were almost no flowers. There may have been daffodils once, but otherwise–wait, there were four irises, lavender, standing cheerful and tall in a back corner. A saving grace. He sorely missed his lilac bushes, the towering big leaf maples. He used to garden, once. The thought triggered a happy smile.

Jeanette noticed his assessment and wanted to seem more welcoming. “You have a nice yard at your place?”

“I do, and hopefully will when I get back. You never know with children what could happen; it’s a big yard, plenty of room to romp, though.”

“Oh, you do know with children, they’ll tear up the grass and pull leaves off, make every bush a hiding hole. You likely won’t recognize it when you return.”

Lenny laughed, then saw that she wasn’t joking. “I thought you taught children for years.”

She nodded and shot him a look from under her brows, left one raised high. “Exactly.”

Was he getting friendly for a specific reason or only to pass the time? She knew he wasn’t being rude in his reaction to her teaching history–nearly everyone assumed teaching the young was a joyride or one wouldn’t do it.

Lenny sipped his coffee, looked at his watch. Time to wrap this up and revel in the great weather.

“Enjoy the trails by your house?” he asked.

“I have. A pretty woods, and a nice, open, often wet meadow. Quite hilly areas to pump blood through the panting body. Benches. Picnic tables on the far side. I’ve lived here a long while and know it well. Now it is overrun with people.” She sighed and shrugged, blue cardigan slipping off her shoulders, her hands pulling it close again.

Lenny shifted in his seat, unsure at this point how to react; she was humorous at times, but who knew when it was sarcastic? He stood up and slapped his thighs once. Malloy opened lowered eyelids and promptly stood beside him, tail wagging a little, sensing another outing. An anticipatory bark jumped out of him as Lenny took the leash from his back pocket.

“Think I’ll go exploring. You interested?”

She pulled back and gaped at him. “Heavens, no. I have a calligraphy project to begin and the morning is already underway.”

“Okay, have at it. I need my daily power walk. Keeps everything working right.”

Lenny pushed his chair back in and left. He was surprised he felt mild disappointment. Who didn’t like a walk in a park and a chat on a morning like this one? He was aiming to be a congenial tenant, better that than feeling resentful at the change of fortunes. After all, they shared an attractive house–his was more of a shambles if he was honest. Hers, well, it smelled good and decorated with things he’d never have considered. A jolt to the senses. His was “catch as catch can” and a functional background.

He tipped his baseball cap at her and disappeared around the side of the house.

“Have a good day, Lenny,” she finally got out as he trotted off with Mallory–who looked back at her, tongue lolling. She suddenly waved at him, then felt ridiculous for doing so, though he gave a yip in response.

Jeanette felt her initial mild alarm recede fully after fifteen minutes more. Why on earth, however, would he sit right down and talk with her? She hadn’t rented her generous third bedroom with an en suite in order to make friends. She got quite enough contact with people online, and managing her growing Bespoke Calligraphy business, and when making crucial runs to stores that left her worn out and obsessed with the ever-floating virus. She thought she’d left the germs back in the classroom, but no. She retired for more.

He took a sharp left out her driveway and then a right on a footpath until he came upon a post that indicated the county park was accessible ahead. He’d have to bring Fred out there. It was more tranquil than his urban house, with its constant racket of cars and passersby and the train that ran three times daily. He wouldn’t mind being on more easy terms with Jeanette; it’d make this pause in his life more bearable. But, then, a person who did calligraphy–he’d had to look that up after he’d met her and desired to live in her sweet house–was not likely a person who’d ever enjoy his company. No matter. It was a good deal for now and he was grateful.

It was time to get to work so Jeanette stood and stretched, her long, narrow body loosening and pulling taut as she reached high, albeit with effort. She had more inquiries to look over, and had to sort requested quotes and then map them out on fresh paper, inks and pens to get readied at her drafting table. A luxury she was anxious about buying and what pleasure it now gave her to work there. Who would have thought she’d get back to calligraphy at this time of life? But then, who would have predicted a pandemic of such proportions? And that she’d share her house with a man again after a decade of living alone? Clearly, she had things to learn, the first two being: one can never rule out anything, and one must develop a more open mind.

It might be a good summer despite the hollow sadness of the pandemic. Lenny and Malloy about, greater financial security and these resurrected creative impulses. But the thought of a renter-rentee kind of friendship…? That was going quite a lot too far. Business arrangements might be pleasant enough but it was still business, after all.