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

Photo by Nashwan Guherzi on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tours? She plays with some famous band?”

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

“Kelsey lives–where?”

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm, never heard of her.”

“She’s a jazz singer.”

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

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

“Says the pot to the kettle–“

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

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

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

And that was what sealed it, Rodney realized later.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Suggestions, then?” JD asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she pressed her fingers to lips.

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

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

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

And loss of both. Somehow.

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

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

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

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

“You knew…” she began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A student of Regina’s?”

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

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

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

He was once and for all gone.

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

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

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Ways to Redemption

Photo, pixabay.com

It was the middle of winter then, the wind a hundred slaps of ice on her face, its meanness stealing her breath. Heavy flakes of snow were starting to swirl and plummet onto tree branches and her shoulders. No one who knew anything about the north stepped outside longer than a short time to grab more wood from the stacked cord, or to let the dogs out, or–if crucial–go to work, and then often under duress. It could get bad fast. Blizzard warnings were nothing to fuss much over but nothing to laugh at. No need. Everyone prepared for days or nights like that when they were accustomed to it. You took it like you took the long humid summer, or the muddy, stormy weather in spring, or scores of brilliant leaves shaking in the wind, then falling in heaps each autumn.

It wasn’t that she was ignorant of weather and its might; she was born and raised there. If that meant sledding headlong and screeching down Miller’s Ridge, it also meant fingers that reddened and burned with a rush of blood when warming up. If it meant working to cut a decent figure eight on the pond’s rough surface, it brought, too, sweat turning to icicles along her neck and spine. It meant snow boots that kept her from moving fast enough after the deer or fox she spotted and nights trapped inside with her parents as winter howled– and dates that were nothing but a whispered phone call in the warmish stairwell or corner of her chilly room–and their hushed voices cutting out until there came the dead line droning.

It wasn’t happenstance, then, that Freida was there, hanging onto the splintered wood railing of Moon Bridge which spanned the widest part of Otter River. Below her, the river parted from itself in a jagged oval around which the thickening ice was starting to jam up the flow. Freida frowned at it. Was it large or small? It was hard to determine as daylight faded and the whiteness gathered. Was the ice as thin as she reckoned or was it hardening into a board that would not break? How long would it take for something fairly heavy to be pitched over the rail and land smack in the middle of that opening? And then sink?

Freida pulled her red knitted hat further down, then released a short puff of a laugh. It didn’t matter, her nubby hat. Nor the growing blizzard or her stinging forehead; not the water temperature or time of day.

She looked into the sky and if it had been bright with stars, much may have mattered. If the moon had winked at her from behind bare birch branches. If a blazing cardinal had appeared nearby and called out. If she had brought her sadness to them, found their singular beauty a gentle caution, a promise of patience, a show of kindness–then things might be different. But it was not so. She was seventeen while the great stretch of sky had been there forever, perfect, powerful. She was not willing to wait for this storm to pass.

She had had enough.

She unbuttoned and let drop her slightly moth-eaten camel hair coat and worn leather gloves, then yanked off her bulky sweater and tugged off the jeans. Lay them in a heap with the other items, her skin gone goose flesh and her legs starting to shake. Then she pulled each warm foot from their comforting boots. Underwear, socks and hat still on, she climbed one split log running horizontal in the bridge railing, hands clutching the top guardrail.

The snow started to thicken and rush at her as Canadian winds swept her of all natural heat, taunting her. It was now or nothing. She held her breath and put one foot atop the last rung, arms lifting at her sides.

And then there was a sudden rustle in bushes across the river, and a sharp cry. Freida lowered her foot, red-hatted head turned as she peered into a jumble of snowflakes. Was that a person, then, someone watching her? Who would be out here now? A shriek then, high-pitched and wild.

“No!”

The single word was slung across brittle air, suspended above the river halfway from the far bank and Freida–yet it reverberated as loudly as if a truck’s brakes had suddenly been stomped.

Another teen– drinking, messing around? A woman on her way somewhere else. Or a kid? Who was going to tell when nothing much could be made out in the snow, anyway? Worst of all, what sort of ending would this be?

Her balance lost itself in a grip of fear; she fell backwards onto old and new snow, her back and legs scorched by deepening cold. She began to tremble, then shake hard as she, while lying down and so stiff-bodied every move was a terrible chore, pulled on all the clothing. She stood unsteadily, forced herself to not look back, then tromped back to the road slowly, achingly, her hands and feet numb. She was angry and disgusted–with her timing, with her crazed feelings, with the invisible one who had to see, had to cry out.

It was getting dark. She found herself trying to run home to her demanding mother and sour stepfather. She tried to focus on the fragrant, radiant heat of the wood stove that would rise up to the second story where her room caught and would hold it for her. They’d bark at her for being out too long, fuss over all the snow brought in,ask if she was frozen yet but after that, she could slip off to a quiet, thawing bath. She reassured herself that no one could have seen her closely. No one lived around there. Unless it was the old Riley wreck of a house being squatted in. Even she avoided the place after the barn burned down thanks to the owner, mad John Riley, who vanished soon after and let the wild things take over the rooms. No, no person would hang out there now–it’d crash down sooner than later and you wouldn’t want to be in it.

She looked behind her a few times. The early evening had gone slate dark, with masses of white gauziness clinging to all. It was nothing, that cry. An animal caught in a trap. A vagrant surprised by something. Nothing would come of it. And she’d have to manage to stay alive, stupid person that she was. She had music, didn’t she–still, no matter what? She had to keep on.

****** Twelve years later******

“Freida!”

She heard a man’s footsteps quicken but she hurried into the drugstore, her large sunglasses a shield, a straw hat a small comfort with wide brim shutting out prying eyes. All she had to do was buy soap, hand lotion and get the prescription for her mother, she’d be done in a wink. Items were gotten and she marched to the counter. No one waited before her so she slid up to the cashier, pulled out a credit card.

“Freida, there you are,” he said with relief, panting behind her, but she didn’t turn, not even when he got close. He smelled of beer. She had no idea who he was, and the cashier was looking her over, skeptical and admiring at once, so she ran out the door, found her blue convertible and started it up.

“Lanie, wait, can’t I get a picture, please?!”

Someone else and then another yelled her stage name, the only name she answered to easily anymore. Not Freida, never again. She put it into reverse and zoomed off, trying to not speed but desperate to get off North Malley Street. She had expected side routes to be discreet but no, there they were, and now two people on motorcycles trying to ride alongside of her. Like so often no matter what she did or where she went, anymore.

Well, she did grow up here. She had made a bit of a splash out there.

She had been gone twelve years, had made a name for herself on Broadway and, recently, much farther beyond. And returned here as Lanie Hartman, no longer Freida Jean Rossiter. But her mother still called her by her birth name, first and middle. There was no getting away from that, either.

She pulled up to the A-frame set back on the shady acreage, got out and unlocked the gate, then drove to the end of the gravel driveway. Studied it in the late afternoon light which draped all in a sheer wave of gold. It was a stone’s throw from looking run down–she’d have to find out what it needed–yet still stood proud on a grassy spot within wooded land. The front porch was empty now, and Freida aka Lanie, resolved to get her mother onto it and into the reviving air of summer, humid or not. After a hip replacement at only fifty-eight, that woman could be ornerier than ever.

******

“It runs in the family, arthritis and bone deficiencies, so you better be prepared. No more prancing around on a stage after a precious few years, Freida Jean.”

“Lanie…” she said, then took a swig from a chilled, beaded root beer bottle.

The sunlight was soft on her feet, and her mother’s face got gentler the longer she sat under their patch of open sky.

“What’s wrong with the old one? Oh, well, what’s the difference in the end. You’re still Freida Jean to whoever matters. Just like I’m Cece, not Cecelia.” She frowned, unsure that made sense. “Right?”

“Debatable, Mom. But lots of people–friends– call me Lanie, that’s who they know. They love me, too, as Lanie Hartman, they never had the chance to like or dislike Freida. I’m used to that name now, not the birth name, sorry. It’s been many years since I used it.”

An eagle startled the air, swooped to a perch on a pine tree. The fragrance of pines, warm earth, river water out back–it all swept over her like a hypnotic medicine. This, she missed. Not the rest.

“Well, Marsha and Clyde–remember them? Big house down the road two miles or so?–they saw you in that oddball musical. “Why Hello, Ms. Manners”, was that it? weird title. They saw it last spring when they were in New York. They said you were good. So, that was nice…that’s very good, of course. They have good taste, you know.”

Lanie flushed with smattering of schoolgirl pleasure, leaned forward and tried to catch her mother’s eye. “I’m so happy they liked it. Why haven’t you ever come to see me, Mom? I have asked you so many times, told you I’d pay for a plane ticket and get you in free, put you up in a good hotel, we could–“

“Oh, no, I told you long ago there has never been a plane I trusted. Went once in 1987 to my father’s funeral and that was enough. And it’s too far–how long would I be up in the air, anyway?” She shuddered. “And you know Hal never would go for that.”

“But Hal died six years ago.”

“And I haven’t gone anywhere much since. Then, you know, my hips and knees.” She turned her face to her daughter’s and almost smiled. “I saw you on TV once. You were wonderful enough. I told Hal–she always had a fine big voice, that girl.”

And she winked with a crooked grin–it was usually this instead of an expansive smile—and placed a thin cool hand on her Freida’s forearm and squeezed a mite, then let go. Her girl had become a woman and she hardly recognized her even after a week together. Coppery hair. Glistening peach lips. Too skinny. It scared her sometimes to think of her as famous. What could that mean in the world but sensational or plain bad news?

Lanie smiled back, shutting her eyes against tears a split second. Yes, her mother and Hal had said things. They’d said, Stop that racket, can’t you find something useful to do? Why do you have to yell when you do a song? Try the piano, maybe, we all love that upright but it sits there gathering dust. You had a talent for that, it’s entertaining. Get back to work, music is a hobby after all work is done.

“Thanks, Mom, that’s nice of you to say.”

Yes, they had loved that piano, her mother and herself, she didn’t believe Hal cared for any kind of music much since he generally complained of it, not just hers. Her father, though, had played it every night, happy ragtime, a thumbed and tattered book of standards, old hymns. But he had died in a logging accident when she was eleven. And it had stayed silent–except when the house was empty and it was just her and the smudged keyboard. Herself settled in with music she tried to recall–but then made up her own, and her exuberant singing rang out. She had thought there was nothing better than singing and playing into that A-frame emptiness, how it nearly echoed. And nothing lonelier, too.

“By the way, Freida Jean, someone came by when you ran errands for me.”

“Who? A stranger passing off as an old friend again? No calls will be answered, no doors opened, remember?”

Cece shook her head slowly. “No, dear. It was Della Garner, quite sure of it.”

Lanie looked at her blankly. “Della?”

“Old John Ryan’s granddaughter. Remember her? Of course, she’s ten years younger than you, maybe eight.” She reached for her iced tea glass and drank long and noisily. “Let’s see, would’ve been young enough you might not recall that one, but her mother, Nance–John’s smart and only daughter– married into that good family who owns the fancy stables down the road.”

Cece seemed to fade, She drank more, sighed. The pain pills were kicking in at last.

“Della,” she repeated, “yes, that’s her, came by and wants to see you, honey.”

Lanie saw the drug smooth her mother’s lined face, heard it loosen her tongue. She needn’t worry about her mother and pills–she was moderate in everything but opinions about the world and rapidly offered sarcasm–but she did, anyway. A hip replacement was not so easy to get over as she made it seem. She might stay another two weeks.

Lanie vaguely recalled the child, not the mother much, she’d known them in passing, such as on side roads when Lanie was walking and Nance Ryan Garner and her daughter were riding beautiful horses. They were horse crazy, she had thought, whereas she was horse shy.

“I wonder what that’s about. Surely she isn’t into musicals since she is a teen now, but maybe she is, or her mother.”

But Cece’s eyelids were closed for the duration, her mouth was hanging open; a little drool trickled down the corner of her lips. Lanie retrieved her glass from an arm of the Adirondack chair and went inside to consider what she’d do about dinner. It was a challenge cooking for someone like her mother. But she was glad she could be there, anyway, in that yellow sunshine, that her mother had called her to come.

******

“Well, Della, glad to meet you–again, I suppose. Why don’t we sit here on the porch?”

It was not a child (as Lanie had still thought of Della) who stood before her, but an attractive young woman. Twelve years had changed them both, certainly, but Della was still paler than fair, with lots of hair straight and light as straw.

Della stepped back from her, fingers to lips, grey eyes round as two moons. “I can’t believe I’m here talking to you. My mother almost came, but she’s too shy. We saw you on the Tonight Show…you were fantastic.”

Lanie sat, Della followed suit. “I’m so glad you liked it, really! Can I get you anything, a sweet tea or a soda? A CD of mine, perhaps?”

“Oh, that’s okay.” She looked at her hands, then stole a glance at Lanie again, gaze then sliding off her face. “Well, yes, your autograph on one of your CDs– that would be wonderful!” She grasped the arms of her chair. “But I came for another reason. One I’ve thought about for years.”

“What’s that, Della?”

The visitor took a deep breath, held it in, then words rushed out in a torrent of feeling, as if to keep the words in any longer might cause her to start on fire–and she’d explode into who knows how many shreds of emotion out there in the beauty of the woods? It had to be said aloud.

“It was me. That night. The one who saw you, I was there in the woods later than I should’ve been, my dog got loose and ran off. and I knew my parents were going to punish me, come searching for us, so I was in a big hurry to get home and then… there you were. On the bridge, and you took off most of your clothes right there in the blizzard and climbed on the railing ..I knew something bad was happening, and I had to yell stop!”

Lanie clamped her mouth with both hands, her brows bunched together and her face went nearly white with horror. A small sound eked out.

Della breathed, her chest opening like vault whose lock had been picked at last. She watched the now-famous woman and wondered if she had made a mistake; tried to be calmer as old fears came up, then a wisp of sorrow. But there it was, the secret undone like a spell broken.

“I felt you might want to know, finally…”

“My gosh, Della! I can’t even imagine…you were–what? Only eight or so? What a terrible thing for you! I am so, so sorry, Della…it was long ago, but neither of us have forgotten it.” She closed her eyes and it all came back. “But your calling out made the difference. It froze me in the moment and I came back to myself…”

“Oh, Lanie, far more terrible thing for you! I didn’t understand it. All I knew is that you were in danger.I couldn’t do anything, too small, too slow, and the blizzard coming on us and no one else nearby. I was so afraid you would jump in the water– or fall– then what would I do?”

Lanie knelt beside her,pressed her hands between her own. Her face was damp with unbidden tears. “But you saved me, anyway. You have to grasp that! I was not okay, I was deeply discouraged, felt so lonely. I wanted music to rule in my life, I wanted to sing, you see, more than anything. But could not, not with my parents against it, not without any chance for training, not then…and I was ready to give up. Everything. It was that hellish a thing to me– a life without music. “

Lanie stood, walked to the side of the porch where she leaned out over the grass and Della followed. They took in the relief of sweeping summer greenness, sky winking its blue brilliance, breezes like sweet and unruly caresses.

“Well, now I understand. You had to sing. Just like I have to ride horses, train them. They’re my life, just like music is yours. I don’t know what I’d do without my passion for horses, my being in their world. But the thing is, many years later, that very moment saved me, too–that’s the other part you should know.”

Lanie hooked her arm in Della’s, surprised how small the younger woman felt next to her own bony tallness, but the smaller was muscular and straight-backed. A conditioned rider, a hearty one.

“I was barely fifteen and had endured a full year of bullying. I was always too pale, you know, so fair that you could barely see eyebrows or eyelashes, my skin almost translucent, my hair like the a straw doll’s hair. I had to wear strong sunscreen all the time–I was usually outdoors. A favorite name was “freak albino” though I’m not. Everyone teased me, harassed me, adding crude things on social media…the whole works. I starting skipping school. I also had a hard time with equestrian training, I couldn’t keep up, too many errors in important competitions.”

Lanie took in the young woman’s face, its fluid animation and how it glowed. She was brave to dare to come, to speak of such things to a woman she didn’t know except for a public face, and one snowy evening. Della observed her but gave her space.

“I wanted to either disappear or…die. I couldn’t bear the exclusion and meanness, anymore, at school, or my parents’ disappointment. I’d wanted to bring my family up even more–my grandpa didn’t have a great reputation–but I kept missing my mark. So I went to Otter River one day, feeling sorry for myself and letting myself have a hard cry. And then looked over the railing at the river rushing below, thought about just slipping under and away…and I recalled that night. It had scared me so much. I’d also felt relief when you left and so glad. Even though I got in trouble for being late and kept what I saw to myself.”

She gave herself a little shake as if to slough off the past.

“You’d been where I was, right there, feeling like that. And then–you were walking away into the blizzard. And years passed while you began to perform, become well known. I had no idea what it all meant to you from start to finish. But you’d changed your mind, went on. I kept track of you in your show news and interview to know what played out. And saw you succeeding. It was because you believed in what was meant for you, then worked hard. Achieved things that are meaningful for others, too. It’s beautiful what you’ve done, you know? What if you’d given up that night? But you got stronger, found a way to be yourself. So I thought I should try to do the same. I walked away, too. I never gave up again, either.”

Lanie folded Della in her arms, and they were like that long enough for Cece to struggle to the window with her walker and get a good gaze out at them. The scene puzzled her. Maybe Della was a great admirer–so many were. She went to the kitchen and wondered about dinner. Lanie was no real cook but she’d done alright. It was just real good to have her there after so long apart. Her sensitive daughter who sang too damned loud, left home too young. Her grown, now-famous daughter. Strange things happened sometimes, she guessed she’d become a believer.

The two young women spoke a bit about lighter things, when Lanie suddenly stopped and asked, “What about your dog? Did it perish in the blizzard? Please tell me it worked out okay.”

Della laughed. “Oh, no, Tommy got home way before me! He’s still limping about, a leg gone lame after a raccoon fight.”

Finally Della got her CD with case autographed, plus two tickets for a tour date in Chicago. Lanie walked her down the driveway to her truck. She waved even after Della vanished in whorls of summer’s dust. And she sang to herself and the trees on, then took her song into the house, and shared it with her quieted, soft eyed mother as she made dinner.

Later when dishing out a dessert of two chocolate chip cookies with one scoop of maple nut ice cream, she announced she was buying “for you, my irascible and beloved mother, a two-way train ticket for a new show opening in New York–you are coming late November, no excuses this time, it’s for a shared Thanksgiving.”

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Vesta Arrives on Tuesday

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The library was not like home, not like work or family’s or friends’ homes, in fact not like any other place, and that is why Vesta entered the ivy sheathed building twice weekly. It was a deeply neutral zone to step into, and that made up for much else in her life.

On Tuesdays she went by noon, after she had risen by ten and savored a leisurely breakfast–or, as her mother said with a cluck of the tongue, brunch. Since Tuesday was her day off she had more time to wander aisles, read through a pleasing spread of periodicals, then make black-inked, backward-leaning notations in a spiral notebook on many nonfiction books she had no intention of checking out.

On Fridays it was an after-work visit at 5. It was a comforting pause before the long night ahead. Vesta picked up a book on hold if there was one, examined New Arrivals, then perused the stacks, her forays dependent on last week’s choices. She chose one or two books to read over the week-end; she was a speed reader, thanks to a high school summer course. On Tuesday she returned books and stayed longer, settling into sway-bottomed armchairs chairs or hunching over smooth maple tabletops with her literary bounty.

This had gone on for years in one variation or another, since Vesta had graduated from college prepared to be a real estate legal assistant. At Marsh and Wright Properties she filed, managed inventory, answered calls and provided information, interfaced with banks, prepared documents and reports. In other words, she made sure all was in order, which some assumed was the dullest of positions, but she demurred. It held a small thrill when shoppers found their ideal home and all went slick as could be. But work could get fast and pressurized, impacted by sudden, errant matters, and could be rife with emotional fireworks due to the complex nature of human beings.

Vesta needed respite from all that despite being good at her job, passably content most weeks. Thank goodness for Tuesdays off, though it was not helpful for an extended week-end. But Ms. Marsh’s college age niece, Kendra, had a sort of internship on Tuesdays, so that was that. Not that Vesta objected much. Kendra would otherwise be in and out more. She was not a young woman to be trifled with, her pale face overcome by flaring glares which rendered her paler eyes mere slits. It was like being forced back into high school when Kendra waltzed in. So Tuesday off was perfect.

Vesta not only liked routine, she used it as a shield. Library visits were part of her scheme to maintain equilibrium in both the outer and inner worlds she inhabited. If work could seem full of screeching hawks on some days, well, her mother could be a character from a Wagnerian opera with her miseries, passionate wants and needs. She hit the booze too much and ruined everything she could, all the while calling her full glass the only faithful love she had ever known. It was more than sad to her daughter.

Inside Pine Grove Public Library, Vest found critical relief. She found random and persistent reasons to hope.

******

Libraries tend to be safely sociable but Vesta most often avoided people, even–or especially–their glances. In fact, they made her sweaty beyond the crisp, regulated office environment. It wasn’t hard to manage once she found the areas she wanted to pursue–she mad a beeline to it, got focused. Every patron did that, they weren’t there to chat up just anyone, though some made passing comments on books others had in hand, a free five second review. She ignored those; she made up her own mind. If stumped, she sought a librarian, though their formidable knowledge trotted out for the asking often made her feel lacking in greater intelligence. It wasn’t their fault, she knew. She had a lesser view of herself, anymore.

But there were some who too obviously were seeking hearts’ longings in the benign visage of an incoming visitor. She spotted singles in need of a partner; older folks who wanted a congenial conversation over a cup of coffee; a youth who longed for a research buddy to get him or her through tedious projects and then to hang out. Homeless folks who lounged, read and dozed in corners said nothing but their steady presence reminded Vesta that she should be more grateful and kind.

So she slunk down aisles until she fingered the spine of a book of intent, then stood quite still with back straight, feet apart, and turned pages fast as she could scan. The constant hum of electric lights, murmur of voices at the check out desk, people’s clothes rustling as bodies slipped by her–none of this marred concentration as nagging odds and ends of her life began to slink away, the thin pages offering portals into greater possibilities.

On a Tuesday in June Vesta had gathered three books about natural dyes, how to make and use them for ink or textiles. It was enough to keep her engaged, notebook at hand, for a good hour or two before the fiction section beckoned. Perhaps westerns, she hadn’t tried any western themes in years, or historical romance, though she doubted she would check out the latter–not usually written to her tastes. She claimed a rectangular table, though shortly there came a man who carried National Geographic magazines, glancing over from the other end, then getting engrossed in his pile. They were situated near four chairs in various positions, two at a farther distance.

Vesta was deep into dyes from plants whose names she was trying to memorize when a man and a woman entered the area. They were talking in more than a whisper, not that people did that much anymore. A flash of persimmon–this color name had leapt from a book she studied–startled her peripheral vision and she turned to see who it was stirring the air. Tall, reedy, the woman was nearly enveloped in an orange red cardigan worn over a black dress and fully crowned with burnished volumes of hair, feet clad in tall brown boots. Her companion listened to her but with head down, and wore a navy pea coat like ones Vesta admired in thrift shops, and jeans were black. When he looked up from the chair that faced the table–the woman’s position was sideways in relation to Vesta– his tanned face framed by black mop of hair was so startlingly, unavoidably handsome that Vesta let out a tiny gasp. Then she returned to her book, biting her lower lip and burning with embarrassment.

The guy at the end of her table didn’t raise his head, so intent was he on travelling to Mongolia’s vastness with its legendary horsemen and women, Iceland’s elf haunts or the Oceanic islands’ beauty. Vesta made two small boxes with her pen on a notebook page, underlined her last note, tried to refocus, turned to the next book. She leaned in, hand under chin, her handy veil of hair falling forward.

“Have you taken care of things? Is the vacation all booked yet?”

The mellifluous voice of Persimmon Woman came to Vesta and she stiffened, bent toward the pages. Quiet, she longed to shout.

“You should be dead!” Navy Man said, trying to control the volume and not much succeeding. “Why would we do that now?”

“Because you promised, and we have to go.”

“Of course we don’t–this is what is stuck in your head since the, uh, the accident–“

“Don’t even try to get out of it.”

“I’m not trying, I am out of this scenario, all that was then, this is now.” He made as if to get up but the woman yanked at his sleeve.

Vesta wriggled in her seat. The Nat Geo Guy remained mesmerized by his pages, never mind the odd conversation near them. None of her business, either, so she turned to an index, her fingertip sliding down the list until it landed on indigo, page 102.

“You should have died!” Navy Man whispered fiercely.

A pause, then hissed response, “You, too, Max–“

“But we didn’t so now–“

“–let’s move on. I’m well enough to get on with it, you know I am.”

Vesta cast a look their way. She sure didn’t sound convinced, though the woman made a good show of it, tossing her head, hair flying out from her like a banner of protest and courage as she moved in, knee-to-knee. Her mane had its own personality; she used it to effect, and he melted back into his chair. His patrician face–nose perhaps prominent, Vesta noted, but overall he was miracle–became obscured by Persimmon Woman’s bell-sleeved sweater as she sat taller and forward, as if to do something more, who knew what.

Why weren’t they at home talking this over? At a coffee shop or a park or anywhere else but in the library? This was a different space, not really public like all that. It was getting to Vesta; she closed her books. Then Navy Man sat forward, glanced around. Before Vesta could turn away, his gaze caught hers–she actually felt it, like a hook caught on an unsuspecting fish, an easy snag– his wide eyes, full of penetrating vision, only blinked and then slid away as he realigned with his companion. They resumed talking but softly, their voices a muted tapestry of higher and lower, darker and brighter, rougher and smoother.

The Nat Geo Guy leaned back and stretched, not a quick shake-off- drowsiness-stretch but one that betrayed tight muscles that had to release, arms held high with wriggling fingers, legs lengthened far under the table. He rubbed his palms over his balding head and then sat up straight.

He did not look at Vesta but looked straight ahead, then at the magazines, then at his phone. He was silent, rather inconspicuously alert, it struck her, and he looked…officious, official, perhaps a reporter, a researcher who was looking for more than good articles and photos. He was oddly still in the way a eavesdropper or even a predator might be… Oh, she made too much of his presence! He was only reading, paying no one any heed–as she certainly was.

She could not further sit there, ignore things. They were all three so intent on being contentious or immersed that she couldn’t regain her sense of gravity, that modulating calm that descended on her when she first walked in. The Navy Man had said, “You should have died!”–had he not? Did he mean he wished she had died or that she may well have died or that she wasn’t grateful enough or he was still feeling shocked by her almost-death?

Why did this matter to her?

She gathered her books and stood, pushing her chair back hard so that it almost fell backwards. The Nat Geo Guy never acknowledged her leaving.

“No trip right now, that’s that,” the Navy Man said and his partner laughed but not kindly.

The Nat Geo Guy didn’t move but his gaze slid over the table top, as if he was reaching for something she couldn’t see.

Vesta felt the urge to run.

She grabbed her books, loped away from them, and her heart shook off reins, galloped toward an unknown finish line. She entered the restroom, turned on the water, splashed her face with cool refreshment until she was calmer, leaned back against the white tiled wall. Her breath slowed. Vesta took out a comb to smooth back her damp, wavy bangs. She applied a pale sheen of lip gloss and pressed lips together, peered into her eyes and saw they were not too jumpy, were clear.

But she had been in the library for a little over an hour and nothing good had come of it. People airing personal lives was not what she looked forward to–she heard enough in her work–despite her curiosity about the entirety of it. She debated on staying or leaving and was definitely leaving momentarily when the door burst inward, thrusting Persimmon Woman into the path between door and sink.

“Take it, toss it, don’t care!” she said and dropped a small leather backpack at Vesta’s feet, then lost her balance a bit. As she grabbed the door handle the swift motion threw all that coppery hair away from her face. The woman turned, lips tight but breathing heavily, hands on hips, staring right at Vesta with eyes that could knock you through a wall and into next Sunday.

Her forehead were bruised, her neat nose scabbed over; her jaw and left side of her face were marred by a sinuous red wound held together by countless tiny stitches. The gauze had slipped, dangling by a bit of tape.

Vesta shook her head and pressed her back against the wall as Persimmon Woman surmised who she was, what was next. She looked as if she should sit, but the door began to open and the wounded woman pushed it hard, sweat coursing down her neck. She was feverish in all ways, Vesta saw.

“Don’t faint, shut up, you heard.” She pointed to her face. “Work-related, I’m in a risky business, unavoidable. Oh, so what!” She leaned onto the door, which bumped as someone tried to push it again and more successfully. But they both knew she’d fail in this fight.

“Open up! Put your hands up!” someone barked out and this was echoed by another.

Vesta tried to pull a deep breath, moved back from the backpack as the woman picked it up, slung it over her shoulder. Shrugged though her eyes still blazed, and the wound glared. “Sooo naive, sugar, well, too bad,” then she released the door and walked right into the presence of three policemen who spun her around, handcuffed her so fast that Vesta felt dizzy.

Vesta sank to the floor; it was impossible to stand.

The Navy Man looked over his shoulder as he was taken away, hands locked together. And his look of cunning combined with such force of life–and perhaps there was a twist of dismay–landed right inside her, setting off a quiver of fear that mixed with her own regrets–the latter of which she did not quite grasp yet.

And there he came, the Nat Geo Guy, talking into an electronic device as he offered her a hand. Pulled her up, took the backpack, led her out of the restroom to a public reprieve.

“Sorry, that got messy fast,” he said, “but you’ll be okay, right? There’ll be questions.” He pointed at another man on the periphery, muttered something more into his device, nodded at her and left the library.

Her knees quaked, feet felt like puddings as a bevy of librarians rushed to her, one with glass of water, another with blanket as if she was in dire need of help. They didn’t even know how little, or how much, they were helpers, after all. All she wanted to do was breathe clean air, book in hand. Go back home. To a life she could fathom.

There was the investigator who asked tons of questions, and then she was allowed to go. Outdoors, the bystanders–and news photographer by the size of the camera– managed to get several pictures as she left. The TV van screeched into the lot but she ran to her car. Vesta fought back the urge to smile and wave like a crazed beauty queen. She let tears eek out as she raced away.

******

“So what exactly happened?” her mother asked for the tenth time.

Her suddenly fawning mother (gone half-bad with alcohol in her blood) was only on her third beer at 4 pm. She was still enunciating well, not emotionally unpredictable, but Vesta didn’t want to say more than she had when she walked in–the bare facts. Her concerned mother’s voice was akin to a mosquito buzzing, circling, buzzing and she was sorry she felt that way. But it had been a weirdly exhilarating as well as a frightening day, so far. She could not explain all this to her mother–she was not a truly empathetic type.

And Vesta could not endure much of anything but a good run and steamy shower, then a layabout in the back yard, dark sunglasses and wide brimmed sunhat blocking out more questions. Read the paper, look online, she wanted to say to her, feeling guilty–just get the nutty details yourself.

But when the sun set, and smudged silver and charcoal glimmers gathered like voluminous, gentle creatures hiding in grassy corners, and her mother had retreated with a Tom Collins and TV, Vesta sorted it out in the back yard. She knew her mother would look out the kitchen window from time to time to check if she was there. It was enough of a comfort for the moment.

She had only, as usual, gone looking for those books which emptied her as they clarified details of nonessential matters, the topics that made her wonder and study, not seize up with life’s toxic detritus. She had been interrupted in that comforting process by three people. Two were mysterious, found to be criminals who triggered a nervousness while capturing her fancy. One person was an ordinary man with extraordinary skills. Vesta’s natural suspicion and growing irritation had sent her away from unknowns, a danger zone. But it had found her, anyway. And though the events were unusual and crazy to a degree and not expected by any stretch of imagination, the experience was not as bad as others might think.

It was jarring. Unusual. Compelling as well as repellent.

She said to no one but herself, “That Navy Man was the best looking man I will ever see and be seen by, for the duration of my entire life…”

She said, “And Persimmon Woman was something else, scary and extraordinary…”

She thought about the backpack, if it held weapons or drugs, something secret or worse. If the woman took it back because she was who she was, no denying it. Or if she thought she might still escape. Or she just wanted to be with her cohort– alive, imprisoned or soon dead.

What was the accident that had ruined her face? Did he care so much that he was reconsidering their plans– or was he evading her demand to run away with him? Or had he been the perpetrator of the so-called accident? No, she determined, he just did not keep Persimmon Woman safe enough. He had another part, and she would never know.

She had known real, deep fear. And a kind of awe. Repulsion, and wonder.

As she saw them move again through her mind with their energy of otherness, danger and beauty, she said to herself: “Will they ever be surprised at work, holy cow.” She looked up at the newly star-punched darkness. “And Kendra, upstaged…”

At last rosiness of sunset, she held onto her historical mystery novel like a frail armor. She decided her life would just go on as before on the outside– for now. But on the inside it would be different. Already who she was felt rearranged, loosened, reconsidered, dashed. Vesta might just take a two week vacation, finally–somewhere far away, get lost in the newness of things. There was more to investigate than what she’d been willing to learn for years and years. Until this Tuesday at the library when life erupted right out of the books and into her own.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Business, Not as Usual

Columbia River, Oregon

“My skin is a brier patch–no one can go there without coming back wounded! I really have to find some magic moisturizer.”

“Well, time for my new creams–that, or an invisible fence around you, dear,” her mother said, blinking at the last thought, trying to not imagine someone on Elise’s skin. Though Elise was hardly a child. Still, what a thing to say to her, not the comment about her creams– no, they were excellent. But Jama was a dog lover and so the last slip, as if meant for protecting Elise…

But what else might Jama note? It was her daughter she was surmising. The dress was skimpy, boisterous with slashes of color and to make it worse, cheap on closer examination. She, herself, preferred tailored clothing, like the navy slacks with tiny white feathers and trusty white shirt she’d slipped on before coming by. It was one of the less offensive things she might wear in Elise’s estimation–the feathers made up for the vast navy-ness of it. But Jama was a quintessential classic woman–good solid colors, accents of gold or platinum at ears, neck or wrist. Elise? Chunky plastic or beads or whatever. She tried to overlook it all; to each her own.

Elise was posing in front of a full mirror, examining how the sundress hung on her newly curvy body. She had given up dieting when she turned forty, and good for her, her friends said as they rallied behind her fabulous self acceptance. If that was what it was; she was more lazy when it came to routine habits, and food fell under that listing. Not that it mattered for awhile, anyway…it had become a “go with the flow” thinking. She was taking things easy , that was it. Not coasting exactly–she had aspirations of many kinds, but not enough interest or energy to fuss over what she put on her plate every time she was hungry. She needed to be fed, that was all! Food: a basic need. Her figure had inflated. She felt more comfortable.

Even if she wasn’t like her mother, verging on petite. Thin. “Delicate” was not the word–the woman would reject that adjective herself–but feminine in ways, perhaps, Elise never got but so what?

“I read yesterday that celery green is the hyped color this year.” Jama stood up, smoothed her shirt and pants, stretched like a luxurious feline. She felt conscious that Elise had a diminutive space to live within as she went to get a drink of water. On the other hand, her own house was unwieldy, too much; she lately imagined living more simply. “I think I’ll try the hue as a small piece, maybe a scarf,” she called out in an afterthought.

“Ugh, named after my least favorite vegetable, stringy, tasteless.” Elise slipped off the cheery dress, pulled on leggings with a loose top. She hung up the summer dress and wondered how long would she have to wait to wear it–it was sixty degrees today, grey skies with raindrops spattering on her windows now and then.

And how long would her mother stay, that was the question. She filled a glass with iced tea but didn’t offer one to Jama as Jama drank cold water and hot tea, never combined.

She came by once every month lately after years of infrequent visits. There was more time free as Jama was edging more toward retirement, allowing her beauty products company, Jamalyn’s Rose Rescues, to be helmed by her right hand woman, along with the loyal band of staff she had built up over decades. It had started with a passion for roses and her small flower garden and soon it embraced a slew of plant-based products that had been ahead of the times. Now she relinquished control bit by bit as she prepared to have a different lifestyle for the first time since she was in her twenties.

What sort of lifestyle does an older single woman have, though? Elise had pondered it: she could not imagine her mother resting, or alone.

“I’m thinking of doing something different this summer. Marv has a boat, as you know, and he’s offered to take a few of us on a trip for a month around the San Juan Islands and north. Gino, Marissa and I are joining him.”

“That aging laggard, surprised you still hang out with him,” Jama said then tightened her lips in a line. She should know better than to offer such an opinion; the girl adored her first ex-husband’s nephew, they’d been friends for a lifetime. He supposedly got his life on track, anyway, and it was not her business, anymore “I hope it’s been kept up so it’s safe sailing.”

But Gino…that man Elise kept returning to the past few months. Successful but not so reliable. Jama had yet to meet him.

“It has a motor, mother, it’s a modest yacht. And Marv would never let me on if it wasn’t in good working order–as you know.” She wondered why this was her focus rather than Elise not teaching at Community Design Studios, as usual, fpr the whole summer. Didn’t she care? But Elise kept her thoughts on work to herself for the time being. She glanced at the leopard clock on her galley kitchen wall, watching its tail switch back and forth with each second.

Her mother snorted. A creaky ole thing, Marv’s boat–she had been aboard it once and the ensuing two hours were quite enough three years ago when Marv got engaged, threw an intimate party–and, of course, ended the engagement, as he had enjoyed a bachelor life too long. He adored his boat. She never understood the boating life, whiling away the hours on chilly open waters, risking life and limb and one’s digestion, calling it fun. Why couldn’t people be sensible, perhaps go by plane or train if they must have a little diversion? That was her plan in June, clickety-clack all the way down to sunny, beautiful San Diego.

“I guess your teaching will be fewer hours this summer, then. I do hope that works out. You need that job until you come up with a solid plan for whatever may come next…. But I can tell you have more on your agenda besides seeing me today. I did have a reason for stopping other than saying hello, Elise.”

The younger woman hesitated by her mother, as if to sit. Was it going to take that long, Elise wondered, but she smiled obediently and settled into her new, second-hand hanging rattan chair.

Jama perched on an overfilled couch cushion, leaned forward as she picked at invisible lint on her pants leg. From the corner, Elise tuned into her mother’s sudden quietness. Admired her half-Filipino tawny skin and shining striated-silver coif; fine boned hands, feet crossed at ankles and clad in pewter leather flats. Elise had her father’s fairness–but did have her mother’s caramel-toned skin, softly padded lips. There the similarities seemed to end. She did not have the full beauty or ambition. Lately she was making peace with who she was. Her own carefree style. Her search for love more open. Her creative spark finding different directions.

Jama had never been anything less than a sterling example many women aspired to, her incisive mind with a perfectionist attitude a tall order for her staff to meet, and natural grace enhanced by her own pricey organic products. Her strong nature was energetic if critical and efficient, more yielding with her dogs and verging on tender with her expansive gardens–which now were managed by professionals and which she rarely visited except when product development required it. They were miles from her big house now.

Jama–Elise called her that ever since she was thirteen, it felt more right than simply “Mom”–had doted on her daughter and son (four years Elise’s senior) when they were much younger, when she had time–if one could call teaching social graces and taking them on numerous educational forays “doting.” She did read them books, hugged them at bedtime; she did see to it they were healthy and managing alright. Mostly if no man distracted her much.

And then she was gone often as her business rapidly grew. Elise was on her own after her brother, Todd, left at 17 for university. By then she had her social circle and interests; their housekeeper was a constant, generous with her care. Jama’s absence felt more like the curious lack of a lustrous, valued family treasure– missed but nonessential, as it turned out, until searched for when truly needed. So there was that: the needing and the not having.

Elise swung gently in the suspended chair, and as seconds passed nervous quivers snaked across abdomen and chest.

“Okay, tell me!–are you alright, Jama? What is the mystery?”

Jama pushed a silvered lock from her forehead, eyes focused on her daughter; she licked her lips, a sure sign that something big was coming.

“It’s Wesley. Wes. Remember him?”

Elise frowned, slowed the swinging chair, bare toes skidding on the floor. “Wes…the only Wes I recall would be your second husband…” She sat up straight. “Did he finally die?” It sounded rude, but it wouldn’t cause her any pain.

“”Elise! No, he didn’t die. He got the diabetes under control long ago. No, I’m, we…oh, it’s this: I’m going down to see him. In June. For three weeks.”

Elise stood with arms dangling, mouth open. “Jama, no, tell me you’re joking! Surely you haven’t lost your mind!”

Her mother looked at her steadily, eyes shining but hard like topaz stones. And she waited until her daughter was done.

“It can’t be! You and Wes…you were like oil and water, no fire and ice–it ened badly, Jama. I would hate to see you with him ever again. He was not good for you, he was too much, he could be so tough, even disrespectful to us, and he never did compromise no matter how you tried to you said–“

“That was then, this is now. He has changed, believe me.”

“And you know this how?”

Dare she pry into her mother’s private life? They rarely did that, they let things be rather than stir things up. But why him, why now? When Jama was on the verge of at least semi-retirement at 68 and yet recently had considered other ventures to undertake. “You have been single for fifteen years and said you’ve liked it that way.”

“Fourteen years. Who said I was getting married? Don’t be ridiculous, Elise. I’m visiting him for three weeks. I just wanted you to know what my plans were ahead of time. To avoid explanations or fake apologies later…”

Elise paced, pulled her ponytail tighter–a nervous habit–and paused before her mother. “You mean you’re going to hang out with a man who threatened to sue you for alimony and almost hit you as he finally left. How can I forget? Todd and I were there, too, remember? He was home from college, you insisted we stay out of it but Todd had to put himself physically between you and Wes! And the ghastly man finally left.” She covered her face with her hands. She had been sixteen then but it came right back. “A brief but bad nightmare…oh Mother.”

Jama felt a shock wave of conflicting emotions. It first was hearing Elise saying “oh Mother.” Like she meant it. It was recalling Todd doing what she said, edging himself between Wes and herself when Wes had reached out to grab her or slap her or who knew what, maybe nothing but more pleading would have come of his anger and longing, it was all mixed up in their arguing. It was a bad moment, yes. But it was also wrong timing for such their alignment. And they were not much older than Elise was now. She had learned new lessons since then. Been married, even– again. And then alone.

“Please, calm down.” She patted the couch beside her and Elise sat gingerly. “I know, it was not good. My marriages… never worked out, I’m sorry that’s true. I have not been great life partner material…I was more about my business, my independence. But people change…I have changed some, too.”

“Really? Don’t we stay the same, essentially, Jama? Aren’t we products of our pasts? What can we do but try to do better, despite the mistakes, despite who we are? I know I am trying to not repeat your mistakes, Jama…to forge my own path, make my own legacy.”

Elise and her mother gazed at each other; sorrows and needs radiating from them, and a sad uncertainty that was laced with deeper love that had rooted despite difficult events and years lost. Jama looked away last, eyes watering.

She took her daughter’s hand in hers, and it was smooth and warm despite that earlier comment about being bristly and dry. And Elise didn’t tug it away-yet.

“Not in spite of, Elise, but because of who we are. We are always in a process of transformation, if you think about it. Just like nature, we adapt and adjust and come into new parts of ourselves. We just have to determine the whys and hows of it, shape things up.”

“A bit late to lecture me, Jama. Really, I don’t buy that Westley could have changed enough to make you happy.” Elise got up and refilled her glass.

“I’m already happy enough. I don’t need anyone to do that.”

“Exactly.” Her phone rang and she checked it, saw it was Gino. “One moment, I’ll be back.” She left the living area and closed a door.

Jama sighed and her shoulders slumped. It now seemed a mistake to come. She hadn’t expected whole acceptance of the idea. She had hoped for a curled lip and shrug to start, with improved response as time went on–if things went well enough in San Diego. She couldn’t predict a thing. Wes and she had talked for hours and hours over past months. He had flown up to see her once. It was still a slow reveal, a careful process but she was feeling almost optimistic for the first time. She might build something real with him this time. It was true they had failed and after two years despite fervor and intent. But so much had happened since. He had gentled, he had expanded his once rigid thinking; she had grown more secure and content with herself. Yet she knew from scathing experiences that anything could happen, and it could just as well be more bad news she ended up with as she limped off. And what then?

How could she explain why a return to him? Reassure her daughter? But in the end it wasn’t necessary. They were no longer young mother and daughter and had long diverged their paths. They had become naturally separate entities, determined to design lives their own way. Still, Jama had been anxious so long about sharing this with Elise.

Returning from her call, Elise leaned against a door jamb, index finger tapping her chin in thought.

“When did you say you were leaving?”

“I’m taking the train down late June, return early July–a nice vacation for me, don’t you agree?”

“Well– yes, I do.” She bent over the kitchen counter, forearms flattened. “Jama, will you make me a deal? First, let’s talk more about being safe around that man and second, have dinner with Gino and me before you go.”

“Stay safe…?”

The words snagged her mind, bringing the past back into focus. How Wes could be, his tendency to roughness not so passionate at times as controlling. But he was, well, they were, both drinking a bit then. He was magnetic, no way around that. Now, neither of them cared for the loosening and distortion of alcohol. They had lost that appetite and had been unwilling to give their dreams up for the pleasures and pain of it. Or so Wes had told her in many ways during their recent conversations. They had mellowed in some ways, sharpened their minds. Hence, the exploratory trip.

“We’re past all that. I wouldn’t even go if I didn’t feel feel it would turn out nicely, even better than that.”

“It’s just…you are not like some aging swinger, Mother, despite your fancy marriages and fancier divorces. I mean, you do have a good sense of propriety…I know you, you need order in your life and worthwhile ventures. He seems a throwaway; it seems reckless, okay?”

And there it was. “Mother” again, though with a sharp edge. The judgment of Wes and her, lacking understanding without knowing more, without any patience. It stung; Jama pulled back into the couch, arms crossed. It was getting late. She was getting tired of this. Well, she would not sell her daughter short. But she was done talking–for now.

Jama smiled sweetly and lifted her palms upward, then reached for her purse. She strode to to the brightly decorated coral and teal kitchen.

“Yes, let’s have dinner on the riverboat, alright? You’ve always loved that–“

“Wasn’t Wes a major boat lover? And now he’s in San Diego… Jama, you dislike them so.”

“No, he has a pontoon now. And I’ll manage. As I was saying, pick a date and time, let’s have a nice evening so Gino and I get to know one another better. You said he has promise and you may be right.” She reached across the counter, gave her daughter a peck on her cheek. “It’s been lovely talking, wanted you to know my plans– but I must dash, Elise dear, it’s getting late.”

Elise saw that she had failed to impress and she had to give it up, for now. Jama smiled warmly, graciously–but was there the tiniest hint of condescension?– and then was gone. Had she just managed the whole conversation and called the final shots? Again?

They had had a full adult conversation, hadn’t they. It had gone alright until Elise felt alarm that her mother might be off and running again, a replay of same risks. It worried her. But maybe she was wrong. Anything could happen, with time. She knew that by now. Just as she and Gino had found their way from breezy friendship to deepening love. Just as Marv had finally found someone he’d stay with for a lifetime. Like she was going to branch out and develop her own business in interior decorating. For boats.

She prepared a crisp salad for lunch and ate on the half-moon balcony in the energizing sunshine. Her business, how she loved the ring of that! Jama would be excited when she finally broke the news over the dinner. Gino was helping her start it. Bright Sails Interior Design. Home Cruise Designs. Ocean Decor by Elise Maddox . She tapped her lips with the fork. No, she decided, no time to waste on this. She must meet up with her mother sooner than later, and men were not to be invited.

San Diego Bay, Pacific Ocean