Wednesdays’ Word/Short Story: What He’d Longed For

Photo by Lum3n.com on Pexels.com

Oscar took the rosewood-grained pen into both hands and turned the barrel over and over. The fine golden accents on cap and hefty body shone under the warm light of his desk lamp. He leaned back in the swivel chair with its worn buttery leather, and stilled the impulse to turn in it, side to side, as he mused. He needed to think without the usual distractions. Before him rested a sheet of grey-blue stationary, smooth and hearty enough for his pressured, rapid penmanship. His supply of writing papers was replenished a week prior, but the pen…it had been in his possession for thirty-six years. A gift, and one that did not diminish in usefulness or elegance after all this time.

It had been on his mind from dawn to midnight to write the letter ever since word had arrived from Addie. It was two days ago that he shuffled through the mail, then once more when realizing he’d had a glimpse of spare, careful handwriting, almost calligraphic. At first he thought, Another invitation to someone’s christening or wedding or who knows what else, and would have tossed it aside awhile. But there was something about the handwriting that brought him closer to the script, then held it at arm’s length to look again. To take it in.

The address label stated: Adelaide P. Trussman. From Wisconsin, of all places. The first name, yes, he got that, not the last–who else did he know with that name? No one. That place or the reason for the dispatch, no. It took him several seconds to entertain the probability that Addie–the Addie he’d known during college days, pre-law days– had written to him thirty five years after they had last communicated.

He took it to his desk immediately and stood above it, hands flattened on desktop keeping him upright, heart pounding. And then he did nothing more with it. But paced back and forth on the tattered Persian rug by his desk, glancing with each pass at the envelope as if it was a strange and risky thing to even cast his eye upon.

He then assembled a thick ham sandwich with white bean soup for dinner and sat in the long dining room, the two white candles that he usually lit staying flameless. The food went down fast, unremarkable but tasting like nothing and he wondered why he’d bothered, he was that unnerved. He was a man who indulged his appreciation of any sort of meal, and his girth testified to such, though his height was significant, as well. But he felt slightly unwell after eating.

And sleep failed him more than usual. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her: shoulder-length, ashy- blonde hair, as she herself had called it (rather than “dirty”, she’d confessed); medium-slim figure attired in her standard white button-up shirt and snug jeans; and her head thrown back in laughter, wide mouth revealing slightly crooked front teeth that showed up readily–she often smiled and laughed, with anyone or for any reason, he’d thought. Then he dropped off, unable to recall more, only to wake periodically, unsettled.

And then, on the second day after its arrival, he took his time reading Addie’s letter. He sat in the bright spring garden, and afterwards he stayed there a very long while, letter pages fluttering on the bench beside him.

And read it three times more.

Now he sat at his desk in a ruminative mood, jumbled feelings capsizing inside him. This was the day he would respond.

My dear Addie,

That was quite too familiar, wasn’t it?

Hello there, Addie!

Too casual, almost rudely so. Like John Wayne in a sexy, aggressive manner.

Hello my old friend,

That might be thought presumptuous. Were they really such great friends that one short final year of undergraduate school? Despite the fact that they fairly often studied together, shared a meal at least two times as week, went out with their buddies to theater and concerts and met up afterwards at various dwelling places to keep the party going? And got closer near the end? Not as close as he wished, but enough to linger inside his mind.

He pulled out a journal he used to write drafts of various things and on a white page he wrote with a cheap ball point rather than the fine fountain pen.

Dear Addie,

That seemed best. Keep it a cleanly simple and correct greeting, one that could be passed over without a pause.

It was indeed a bit of a shock to find your elegantly addressed envelope among the usual suspects of disposable advertisements and rancorous bills. It is seldom that one gets a real letter these days, much less arriving from someone from the past, like a ghost arising from the pedestrian and quiet landscape of life as I do live it.

Was that too much? Too revealing that he lived a more solitary life than he’d planned the days before or long after law school? He left it and kept with the momentum; he could edit later.

Your address label announced that you reside in Wisconsin, apparently a small city unknown to me. That was cause enough to look twice.

No, that would not do. It had the grating edge of criticism, even a minor threat of scorn now he thought it over. A small city in Wisconsin–as if he was shocked and in a distasteful way. Well, even if it had felt close to that… he was born and bred, now well established in the city wilds of Chicago–but wait, he did recall she loved the country. She had grown up on a ranch–Idaho, he thought–the first thirteen years of her life and had told him she missed the countryside and honest work of outdoor chores. So she may have found her Shangri-la, or close enough.

He drew a firm line through the sentences and began again.

First, it gave me pause that you are not living in Idaho or Massachusetts, after all. But Wisconsin must be a place you well enjoy; you missed more rural spaces even though you planned on being a lawyer. You did end up practicing law, too, and you do so no doubt well and diligently. This is the very good news. I practice, as well, as you must have discovered, and am now a partner at Longham, Wright and Levison. I still have to check that it is my name at the end of that line. It goes well. But perhaps we can discuss our work another time.

He reconsidered and crossed out the last line.

Oh, he’d be glad to talk about law, skip the rest, the less said that was directly personal the better and easier. Yet, in fact, that is what he longed to do, as well–talk about their last year, how much enjoyment was shared, how he’d longed to hold her much closer than a fast squeeze as greeting or farewell….well, not that, of course not, he’d not now say that.

I am glad to hear from you…was he glad, was that the word? Began again. Plunge right in feet first as Addie did, may as well get to it and get it finished. She had asked to reconnect. What did that mean in this day and age?

I was honored that you thought of me in this time of upheaval and loss. I knew you had married, of course, as you also learned of my decision to wed Jeanette, yet years absent of communication have created a yawning gap in knowledge of our experiences. My marriage lasted four years. It was meant to end from the start, perhaps; I realized I am at my best on my own and my life is full enough of events as well as my work. And Jeanette was intent on more hours spent solidifying her career in emergency medicine. Our lives rarely intersected. But we left each other with a decent, even kind farewell. And no children to bear the brunt of the ending.

I come back home to peace and pleasantries alongside my mammoth, somewhat stately cat, Titan. It is a good life I have made. I don’t regret our marriage but I do not harbor misgivings, either. I am, to my surprise, a man at my ease most of the time.

And it can get quiet enough to hear those long whiskers twitch some days or nights, Oscar thought, running a hand over forehead and balding pate. But he’d said what he meant. No sense embellishing or telling her lies.

It seems as if you have had more happy times than trying. Bruce sounds like an admirable man, someone with whom you experienced many joys as well as usual life challenges over thirty years of marriage. I’m saddened for you–that he was in the auto accident, that you lost him in such a devastating manner. It must have been harder than anything you have faced in your life. And to go on, to consider an entirely different array of elements that must now fill and reshape your life.

Was that hinging on maudlin? too personal?….Did she even want him to comfort her or was he imagining that? But he thought he felt her intention, that she need someone to talk to who also knew her back when. That shared history can matter more in hard times.

He considered it: snowy weather, icy roads, another driver fast out of control, an unavoidable hillside. Too much. Oscar would not revisit it in the letter despite wanting to know more. Was there an investigation or was it that simple? She had stated the bare details plainly and then only said she was having trouble with widowhood. As if one might ever find it not terribly troublesome. He could not imagine, not really, what she felt. But she didn’t sound as if she was drowning in tears. Well, it had been over a year. Perhaps she had gotten over the worst of it.

She had two adult children who cared about her, “a blessing, although they both live on the west coast and I see them only a three or four times a year,” she wrote. “But I have the beauty and sweat of hard work. You know how much that can fill up time and diminish any random need for more.”

Well, he didn’t have much need for more. But he could see that she did. It was a shock to lose her Bruce and now there was daily drudgery and longing as she remade her life alone.

Or so he speculated as he read between the lines.

You had said you would like to rekindle a friendship.

Oscar’s heart raced a bit once more. He stood up and shook his body out head to toe to calm himself, walked to the window. What was Addie writing to him about, in the end? A check -in after thirty-six years of nothing? They’d had something small, really not much, a warm friendship that mattered more to him than to her, he had been certain.

Outside were the huge oak and maple trees, expansive garden flourishing with its vivid carnival of blooms and texture-rich green plantings, the two benches he’d placed here and there in order to read, to meditate, to doze. He adored this home on a half acre. The historical brick house was too large, perhaps, but that didn’t bother him. He liked his meanders through the high-ceilinged rooms, appreciated the tidiness and the pleasing Shaker furnishings, enjoyed a sweep of views from each light-filled window. And Titan would pad behind him or overtake him, then disappear until the next mealtime or if he felt like rooting at the foot of the bed at night. If Oscar went outdoors, the luxurious cat would streak past to claim a cozy spot under a bush or at his feet– if not inclined to chase something else moving.

It was the most basic scenarios which gave him comfort after arduous and engaging long work days. Well, that and a good sherry; great literature or a fast thriller to entertain him; so much music to hear that he’d not be finished with it in his lifetime; an hour’s horseback ride at a welcoming stables twice a month for the sheer pleasure of learning something new; meeting with friends at the golf course whenever he was so moved. A satisfying meal three times a day. He was privileged and he admitted it to himself, and the way he felt better about it was to take pro bono cases, too. And he gave a bit of advice on the Community Free Legal Connection line.

He shook his head; he had drifted way beyond letter writing. He got lost in his ways and means, not hers, but it was good to reevaluate what he cared about, too.

I would like that. It has been so long since we shared any thoughts, it might take quite some time to reconnect. We both have full schedules and commitments to attend to, but I am thankful you let me know of the passing of your husband …but also that you are managing, anyway. It helps to have community such as you describe, with potlucks and farmer’s markets and many events for people to gather for celebrated or mourned occasions. And your important book club–that is a boon after all the years you have known the participants. We must not forget MahJong–there’s a game to engage you well, even back in college. (I haven’t yet learned it.)

Was he acting poorly? Brushing her off? After all this time…

He had wondered for years if she might turn up in his life one day, even in passing. Imagined that it would be what he had hoped as a young man, and might even culminate in a romantic and impassioned embrace. Or perhaps more. Love. Much to his embarrassment later, he’d shared that with his closest friend Grant, right after Jeanette, and Grant covered his smile with a hand and probed less. He knew it would take time for the dust to settle, his friend offered without unkindness.

Oscar was not the type for fluff or fuss, Grant told others if asked, but was a good-natured and well meaning man, a gentleman who could get a tad rowdy if encouraged, and simply brilliant at the law. And, it went without saying, supremely content as a bachelor–most of the time–while not averse to meeting with smart, like-minded women with which to share experiences. And that was close to the truth. Oscar could take intimate company or leave it; more often he left it as the years passed.

So, here was the moment Oscar had fantasized– and he was extolling the virtues of her new…independence via widowhood? Ghastly of him. Was he just a commitment-phobe, as a few had hinted or outright accused?

No, a resounding no. He was committed to living the life that he chose. It was not what he’d first anticipated by this age, but it had turned out well.

He put ballpoint to paper once more.

I am glad to offer support as you continue to sort things out. Since, as you know from the past, I have long appreciated the art of letter writing, I am glad you reached out in this manner, as well. We surely have much to catch up on and it pleases me to think of time well spent doing so. Such a correspondence seems an extraordinary thing to undertake in these virtual reality-mad times.

Please let me know if this is something you would benefit from and still may like to share. Until then, I sincerely hope you will find the coming months opening to more fascinating possibilities that help close the profound gaps the loss of your husband has created. I am certain you will.

You certainly deserve all the best in your life, Addie. I have always thought so.

Warm regards (and gratitude that I still use your graduation gift, a beautiful thing),

Oscar

He looked over the draft, made a few more changes, then picked up his rosewood pen, uncapped it and let the ink flow with his meticulous words onto the fine stationary. It was a joy to use his tools of correspondence, and more so in response to Addie. He had waited a lifetime to do so once more. But if she didn’t want to just write letters… well, then, he’d not be the one to fuss over a lost opportunity. There would eventually be other people, other letters to write thoughtfully with his cherished pen.

After he was satisfied with the pages, he slid it into matching envelope with a slow sigh and left it in the lacquered tray in the table by the front door. He patted it, then went to the kitchen to prepare fresh salmon he’d purchased earlier in the day, Titan scurrying at his heels.

Wednesday's Words/Fiction: Rough Cut

They said she developed a powerful swagger after the fire, and not the sort that may bring pleasure to the eye. She had grown up fast since the fire that attacked her family’s tinder box of a house and left it ash. It took over three years for her to learn to cope at all with the loss of her younger brother and parents. It would take a lifetime to figure ways to live with and beyond it. No, the way she took up a space was not a welcome but warning, long legs moving forward in near-gallops, feet planted so hard the ground wanted to shake them off. Her arms swung rhythmically; her head, set above those Coverson broad shoulders, had chin up permanently in public, and once- sharp but dreamy eyes half-closed to survey any thing or person which crossed her path.

At nineteen Renee, known now as “RC” around town, rarely answered no matter any name called out by peers. Her presence gave off an air of having lived very long already and she was prepared to fight it out from there on. People avoided her quick tongue once she gave in to a casual conversation; how to answer someone who had suffered much yet brooked no fallibility in others?

It was a jolt at first. She’d been the Coverson family hope of a different future, the girl being smart and kind, hard working. After the fire, she still attended school but barely graduated. Her English teacher found her work often impressive but disturbing, yet gave her all As. Otherwise, she skated by, waking up in a cloud each day at her Aunt Dee’s house and met the hours with a long stare, like a rusty wind-up robot. When her aunt got her up and dressed, she just went on for lack of anything else to do. If her hair went unwashed and her clothing bore signs of an overdue cleaning (despite Aunt Dee’s tireless efforts), who cared. No one judged her back then. They were sorrier than they could say, but didn’t know what more to do much less talk about with her. So they watched her change from promising and sociable to closed, sad, even bitter. After high school, most lost much interest. RC was who she was; life did things to people.

Then Renee Coverson came down the street one day in early spring, dressed in usual plaid shirt and torn jeans and her mother’s worn boots–boots of her mother’s. When she entered Maddy’s Fashions, customers were surprised. You couldn’t avoid looking at her, either; she’d been touched with her mother’s exotic aura of beauty. They seldom saw her around, as she avoided unnecessary social situations since her family perished, including shopping done alone, at least.

“RC, hey,” Jana said from behind the counter, her mouth left hanging open.

“I need a dress. Something kinda dark, longer skirt, easy. Size 8, I guess.”

She plunked down a credit card on the counter and stood with hands on hips and feet apart, surveying the racks. Jana looked her over discreetly, considered the inventory. It was most all spring prints, light, airy, elegant or snazzy. Years ago as RC was growing up fast every one worried she’d end up being the one all the guys wanted. Now, it was a different story. Jana got married, so no big deal to her. And the guys were afraid of RC’s history which she carried everywhere like an invisible cape, with dagger.

After lots of shaking of her head, RC selected a maxi cotton dress with small scoop neck, a green-black color with a little cream–it was a viney print. It looked large for her, Jana said, but RC entered the dressing room as three young women whispered to one another, eyes watchful. Two other shoppers arrived. They surreptitiously waited to see if RC would come out in the dress. To their surprise, she did.

Renee Coverson looked in the three-way mirror, eyes narrowed as usual. She smoothed the fabric over her lithe body, slowly turned. You couldn’t say it was a terrific fit, Jana confided later to her best friend, as it hung too loose, was an odd length and the shoulder seams sloped off a bit. But with that thick, deep coppery hair, RC’s eyes opening wider, her pale muscular arms appearing, a curve of calves winking between boots and hem–well, it somehow looked very good. Forest green and ivory vines draped gently over a honed body so long hidden that no one knew what she looked like, anymore. And now that they did, the shoppers fell silent.

RC spun around, both palms up and glared at her audience.

“What are you all gaping at? You don’t have anything better to do with your money and time? It’s just a dress; I’m just me.”

The room was full of lightning, that’s how Jana described it later, and people pulled right back. RC vanished into the dressing room, came out with her old stuff on. Murmuring, the young women turned to each other, full of new gossip. Jana took Aunt Dee’s credit card, despite it not being quite right to do so, and the dress was Renee’s.

She took the bag and turned back to Jana. “Thanks. You aren’t so bad, you know?” then pushed out the door in a terrible hurry again.

It wasn’t a smile she had offered Jana. But it was still something. Maybe RC was coming back to a more ordinary life. God knew that the conflagration her daddy started was the worst day of RC’s life… or ever would be.

******

RC, RC, RC. that’s all they ever call me. Did they forget my real name? It gets on my nerves hearing it.”

Aunt Dee looked up from potatoes she was peeling, then handed to her niece, the lettuce to tear up.

“It’s been a nickname awhile now, it’s only your initials,” her aunt said, her low voice going soft. Though she did know that was a white lie.

“Only since seventh grade when Rene James moved into town. Why didn’t they just call her RJ instead?”

“Maybe because you never objected. Or…”

“Never mind. That was then, this is now,” Renee said, tearing up the iceberg leaves, tossing them into a bowl. She grabbed a carrot and another peeler. “I’m Renee. Period. I need to do something about it sooner than later.”

Aunt Dee had heard once what RC really meant: “rough cut.” The young brats in town had started that, likely the boys, after Renee had changed into a brittle, grief hollowed girl. Rough cut: a major tree trunk sliced up with a serious saw and then left unfinished. Not pretty wood that was finished. Her brother Johnny, Renee’s father, had been a woodsman, eking out a living selling cords for fires in winter and snowplowing, and crafting furniture, or doing special projects for renovated houses of the well-off. Rough cut, a way to designate the sort she came from, perhaps. Not a good term for a human, not a fair one in this case. Her niece was better than that, more like teak, mahogany shined up, fine wood waiting to be made good and lovely once more after too long gathering dirt and dust.

She wondered why now she did it, got the dress. Two days before the anniversary of that horror of loss, she could hardly bear to think of it–Renee had gone out alone to get it done. Something about how she wanted to commemorate it for once, she mumbled. It spooked Dee. Her niece never wanted to make a note of it, refused even to visit the graveyard, instead going off to the woods for hours as Dee worried. And then she’d show up at the cabin, calmer than usual. But set apart, so alone.

“You like my dress?” Renee asked.

“Sure, but I’ll like it better if I see it on you and know what it’s about.”

Renee turned and leaned against the sink, pulled her hair back and slipped a rubber band on to make a ponytail. My, how she looked like her mother. Evelyn. A strong but too long suffering woman who took care of Dee’s alcoholic brother best she could, and what a wearing down sort of life it was til the end. It made her bones cry out. Dee shook her head.

“What’s up, Renee? What is going on lately? You’re up, down and more mysterious than ever. But you seem less angry.”

That was taking a big chance. Never talk about feelings if you could help it, the family motto. Since Dee was a teacher’s assistant, she’d had training and knew how to listen and to coax kids, and maybe that was why Renee talked to her a bit more over time. But they’d been overall good Renee’s whole life in many ways; after the fire, they got used to each other more, then got more trusting and their bond was nothing to trifle with, as her Russ used to say.

“I’ve got a plan, Aunt Dee. I’ll let you know about it soon. We stick together, bread and butter, right?”

This childish statement so touched Dee that she stretched out her arms to hug her but Renee didn’t respond in kind: paring knife and peeler in her hands, chin jutting a bit, eyes narrowed just enough so it was like shutters being pulled to again. And then she sliced up a tomato fast, chopped the carrots faster. And asked about salad dressing choices and if they still had sliced almonds.

Okay, then, perhaps tomorrow. Dee put the pot of potatoes to boil and hummed, ignoring her niece. Tucking away her heart, a wounded dove hiding in a thicket, waiting to heal up more.

******

If there was one thing Renee loved, it was dawn. It was the possibility of a new start each time, and that was what she needed to bear life. She had long awakened early, gone to bed late, and that pattern still felt better than most things. Aunt Dee lived only a half mile from where her own family had lived, yet harder to get to when it snowed or stormed. The roads were gravel the last bit to the cabin on a low hill. It was snug against forested acres like her parents’ had been, but here it was deeper, thicker, full of wild things that she might see if she was patient. Darker at night and greener by day, especially after winter.

She’d run here countless times when her father had been slobbering drunk and belly aching or, more rarely, swinging clumsily, then slumping over in inconvenient places, kitchen floor or the shed or the roadway when it was five below. She’d been at Aunt Dee’s that night, helping her with canning and then Dee helped her with exam study questions. That was not unusual; she was told she should not feel such heavy guilt every single day. Renee could hardly think at her own chaotic house, after all, Dee had said once, and then regretted it as the words were true but stung.

If she’d been there then. If Kenny, her brother, and their mother had come with her as Aunt Dee had suggested. If her father hadn’t drunk too much, built and lit a fire in the fireplace haphazardly– then spilled that damned whiskey bottle. It was finally determined by sheriff and firemen. Renee had already blamed him. She knew he’d been in a black out, took them with him out of the blind neglect that came with the powerful sickness.

Out here it was empty of all that, and peaceful. She craved it from the start. Uncle Russ was a kind man, only given to a beer now and then, then he was sick with cancer, gone when she was eleven. Only her harried, overworked mother’s needs even kept her at her own house. And her brother’s hunger for her attention, which she gave him as she could. She’d often felt guilty about wanting to leave but took off, anyway.

Still, she had risen at dawn there, too. Before he had awakened. Before Kenny asked her to take him with her. She needed that half hour. To breathe. To see clues of God. The creatures slinking about in shadows, then softening illumination of day. To just be herself, her own small, searching and more hopeful self. Blessedly alone. And now she was, that was one certain thing. Except for Aunt Dee.

And so in the morning she once more threw off light quilts and swung feet over the edge of bed, rubbed her eyes, pulled off bedclothes. Got into the bathroom before Aunt Dee beat her to it and then dressed. Opened the back door as silently as she could, then sat on the back stoop, knees pulled high, chin propped on her palms.

From there she could see it happen, a slow flare above treetops, navy sky doing its magic brightening, seeping watercolor hues a report of coming weather, birds chorusing, all things coming awake with her, scrabbling in that way that soothed her ears and filled her enough to go on. If not for the stealthy arrival of each dawn, she would have lost her mind and disappeared in the forest for good long ago.

Soon she would do what she’d planned for six months.

******

The calendar date marked came, the one Renee Coverson had dreaded and avoided commemorating for three years. But not today.

One with gray hair cut short and one with a burnished braid and an understated dress moved in expectant quietness through musky forest following a worn, rutted path.

Long ago Dee and Russ had hacked out the two mile route to gather kindling or search for dead and down trees to cut up; visit the west meadow and pick blackberries and wildflowers; run their beloved beagles or any other dog they took to–and it was comforting to trod, as she often did alone when Renee was gone. Sometimes they took it together but not much during snows, which finally had abated.

Her chest was drumming with anticipation as they wound deeper into pine and spruce, oak, ironwood and birches. Renee took the lead decisively, her stride steady and long, energy increasing the moment they began. She wore her backpack, bulkier than usual, over her new dress.

“Slow down, what’s the rush, we have all day,” Dee puffed words out as she picked up her feet faster. “I wait three years for you to join me for this date and now you may leave me behind…”

Renee stopped and frowned at her aunt, then inclined her head and gave a slow, small smile. “I’ve been waiting, too, I’m impatient, Auntie.” Then she took Aunt Dee’s arm. They tried to sync their steps and finally managed it..

“What is going to happen when we get wherever we’re going?”

But Renee said nothing more. It was quite enough that her arm was laced through hers.

In the meadow, a brilliant light had painted the land and its vegetation golden and emerald; it pulsed with life, itself. Dee wanted to sit in newly sprouted, greening grasses. Listen to the meadowlarks for hours.

“We aren’t there yet, keep going,” Renee prodded.

At the northern edge of meadow land there came a narrower path half-overgrown by vines and grasses. As they entered groups of tall trees again, the younger woman steered the older toward an opening that was filled with dapples of sunniness and shade.

“Cover your eyes now,” Renee half-whispered,”I will lead you.”

When Dee was stopped and instructed to stand still with eyes shut, she heard her niece open the backpack, then rustlings and steps here and there. She almost peeked but knew better–it had taken so long for Renee to come to this point. Finally, she was allowed to see.

She gasped, and hands flew to her mouth. She reached for a tree trunk, braced her weight as her head felt light.

Renee stood close by and Dee looked more. There in the small clearing among elegant birches stood a perfect tiny pine house. Perhaps two by two feet, it had a roof and windows and a doorway open to sweet air and light. With a partly open back, it about resembled a doll’s house. But it was not a doll’s house. It was a replica of a most ordinary simple house. Like her brother’s family house.

There, intact in the woods.

Dee knelt down in the dirt to look inside, eyes stinging, and Renee joined her.

“What on earth… Renee—how?”

“I made it.”

Aunt Dee studied the good proportions, clean corner and smooth edges, the neat, flush nails, then at Renee. “You did this? How and when?”

“I got a few supplies from the garage last summer, yeah, from our old place…it was hard, but anyway, I stored them in your smallest rundown shed of yours, hid things behind junk. Uncle Russ had tools, too. I waited until you were gone for long periods a few times. It wasn’t that complicated. But I have very slowly worked on the people who stay there…and just finished yesterday, so I could bring them on this date.”

“You have skills, and it’s wonderful, what you have done here…”

She saw then the wooden figures Renee had just placed, each in a different room, standing or sitting. They had jointed limbs. Narrow faces with clear hand-drawn eyes, line mouths. Just sitting there, apart. Not quite smiling but not grimacing. Again came a hand to her mouth as she held at bay tears, unwilling to mar the moment with her sorrows, which lessened by the moment.

“Yes, I have basic skills and ideas, so I just did it. It was helpful, I guess. To hammer and cut and put things together. To remember– but make something clean, new…know what I mean? To try to make it a little better than it was. But we did have some love, we did….”

Her face had begun to alter as she spoke. Anger melted from her– tension released her smooth lips, narrow creases eased from her brow. Her eyes were wide open and she was looking at the house, then into the woods, and finally at Aunt Dee. It was as if Renee was coming to, even finding it okay to look at life full-face more.

“Yes, I think I understand.” Dee got up from the damp ground.

Renee reached inside the back of her miniature house. She picked up each figure, then arranged one after the other in a circle, in the room at the front of the house. They stiffly faced each other, mutely obedient, and then she made the pegged arms and legs touch lightly.

She and Aunt Dee were still, too, arms linked. Benders Creek rushed downstream behind them, a jay screeched and took off, the red-winged blackbirds gathered in the meadow and carried on. They took in the creation that sat among trees, sunlight warming the constructed pine building, its few rooms brightening, the four figures resting in sweet symmetry.

Renee bent to pick a smattering of periwinkles and marsh marigolds about their feet. In the center of her pine family gathering, she placed blossoms. Aunt Dee bowed her head as her niece laid her hands a long moment upon the roof, placed a tender kiss on the sun-touched front doorway, then walked off, lanky body easing into sunshine, soul lighter with each step, new dress swinging above her boots.

Wednesday’sWords/Fiction: Bad Weather

“Get up already, it’s late…” she mumbled into the neighboring mass, then covered her head with the patchwork quilt.

She could feel the slim landscape of bone and muscle of the man who somehow took up most space every night. She nudged again with her toes, contacting on a thigh. Nothing. Eyes opened, she reached out and felt for the light growth of beard, the heated skin of slumber. His feather pillow surrendered to her touch. Marnie sat bolt upright and rubbed her dry eyes, looked again. Not a body in the spot it should be. A haphazard gathering of two firm pillows took his place instead, the ones they didn’t like but kept on hand for propping if they read.

So Chris had left already, early for once. She always said it was late right after the alarm went off, it helped motivate him. Marnie glanced at the extra pillows and a tiny fear snaked along her spine. Maybe he had left earlier and didn’t want her to know at first. She got up, fumbled with her robe and padded downstairs–no coffee fragrance enriched the crisp air.

The quietness was the same if quieter since it didn’t hold his presence. But she persisted, checking living and dining rooms, bathroom and a guest room. She scanned the laundry room she had wanted upstairs but he’d said to keep downstairs so she lugged overflowing baskets up and down every time. She knew it was foolish but she ran back upstairs, peered in the updated huge bathroom–there was no white (always white) towel tossed over the edge of the oval tub–and the pleasant second bedroom that one or the other of them used when at times if nights were marred by sleeplessness. She admired the “bluets in a meadow” strewn over the coverlet, tapping her nails on the door frame. She needed a new dust ruffle, maybe to match the flowers.

“Think,” she muttered, “and remember: did he have a dental appointment? Is he working overtime at the forestry office and I forgot–or maybe there’s a special meeting? Was he going to meet up with the guys for breakfast despite it being Monday, not Saturday?” She gave this thought and shook her head–not likely any of those.

Back in their bedroom, she stripped off pajamas, picked fresh underwear, grabbed her robe and entered the bathroom that was finished four months ago. She stepped into the luxuriant shower with double shower heads. The white subway tiled walls might have been watercolor blue with dove grey accents in an elegant pattern, not this stark area that blinked at her each morning, threatening to trigger a headache from light reflection. But Chris only thought of resale value every step of the renovation they’d begun a year ago. Plus, he preferred white over any color. She huffed as suds covered her face. He was definitely not a guy to wear bright or soft hues; not a man who’d tolerate daisies on an accent wall of the guest bathroom; not even one to complement her on a silky coral shawl she wore with a standard black dress for their eighth anniversary last summer–he liked the clean simplicity of it, the sharp silhouette, why distract from that? He liked to admire her, not see the clothes. He’d grinned and she had relented.

Marnie looked at the soap-on-a-rope he used, brought it to her nose: spice and smoke was how she thought of it. It suited Chris. Basic maleness with hints of danger glimpsed when it seeped through his usual calmness. She knew things others did not: angry flash from nowhere, a growing craving for sex, how he took chances when driving in the country, ones no one should–you never know what might show up on those roads, person or beast. But most of the time Chris was the man she married, caring, she thought, a dedicated worker who supervised seven others and ripped out kitchen counters–the one counted on in any crisis, for sure. He was careful and neat. He folded his socks in such a way that when she looked into the drawer they looked like little white boxes nicely aligned. It made her think of the small rectangular bank check boxes she’d buried dead parakeets in as a child, settling each in the dirt with a pat, then forgetting it until the next burial.

The shower’s temperature was turned up so steaming, rainy rivulets coursed over her chest, back, legs. She closed her eyes, imagined waterfalls in faraway places, bright birds and swaying palms. Or desert cacti and sand, shocking blooms. What she wouldn’t give for a holiday far from this town in such distant north woods. She switched the water to cool before getting out, rubbed down reddened skin, careful of more tender areas.

After she checked smoldering remains of burnt logs in the wood stove–Chris usually did this first thing– and made instant oatmeal breakfast, Marnie checked her phone messages for the second time, but still none from him. She put on her warm jacket and boots, looked outside, front and back, checked for his car because he could be lingering in the garage, maybe checking the oil–couldn’t he? But he wasn’t and crows fled overhead, broadcasting commands,and startled her. The sky weighed down on dirty snow and leafless treetops, still held a darkness, and it was eight-thirty already. Was it to be more and more snow again, plunging temperatures after they’d just had the saving sunshine? The bitter cold could make her cry sometimes, she was so tired of it.

Back inside, the coffee maker delivered coffee into her mug with sunflowers on it; she drank it black for once, hoping to wake up faster. Her head felt as if someone had drawn curtains over her analytical mind, the one she valued most and enabled her to teach mathematics at a community college three nights a week. It was her emotional mind trying to get a grip on her, but she was stuck between, wavering, at odds with facts, uneasy with implications, sharply aware of his presence despite his being elsewhere.

Her cell phone rang. Dana.

“Got some time today? I’d love a huge cobb salad at Grace’s, what d’ya say?”

“I don’t think I can, Dana, not today.”

“Working on a teaching plan? Come on.”

“No, I… don’t feel that great, not good enough to go out for lunch.”

“What is it?”

“Just an off morning. I’ll call you tomorrow after I get more rest, okay?”

Silence fell between them; Marnie could hear Dana’s little black terrier skittering around.

Dana released a short sigh. “I see, okay then. You’re usually too busy or something, Mar. Call me if there’s anything I can do. Or when you are up to it!”

Marnie could hear her breathing heavily, as she tended to do, but imagined her friend’s thin lips clasped into a line. She liked Dana partly because she knew just when to say less, not more. No questions meant no lies forthcoming.

Take me to Las Vegas with you next week-end, that’d be helpful! Marnie thought and pressed fingertips to temples. But Dana had a husband, too, and they went places like that.

They hung up, and for a minute Marnie wanted that lunch, just an hour out of the claustrophobic house. But it passed.

She knew she could call his work but she puttered. Got the feather duster and knocked the dust off every last surface. Washed a load of laundry, then another. Snacked on dried, spiced mango slices until she felt a bit sick. Wrote a grocery list: cheese, crackers, creamer, pork roast, carrots, cheese. Crossed off the second cheese, looked at the items, wadded up the paper and started over. Who cared…? Eye wandering, she picked up a book Chris was reading on wildlife management programs in the UK. Saw his well-worn hiking boots at the back door, so she cleaned them up and rubbed in mink oil.

Before she knew it, noon arrived. Marnie called his office.

“Oh, hello, Dennis! Isn’t Chris at his desk–or is he at lunch?” Likely only their forestry office had a landline, Chris had said, a weird throwback to the good ole days, they all kind of liked that, black phone with clunky handset on his desk and at times the guys called him on it with their cells. Like she was, a habit.

“Hey there Marnie. I’m not sure, he left a bit ago, didn’t say where he was going, probably the Rooster…ya wanta leave a message?” He wheezed a little; Dennis was not in great health–so many Camel cigarettes– but still a hard worker. He apologized as he coughed. “Dang cold.”

Marnie didn’t answer a moment. So he had gone to work, that much was certain. Of course. She thought of going to the Rooster to see if he was there, why he’d left like that in a hurry, and said nothing more. She wondered if he was in a booth, that one they liked with the best window view, or if it was jam-packed and he was at the counter shoveling food in as he thought about more work.

“Marnie, you there, girl?” There was a tapping of a pencil or pen on wood.

She noted how quiet it just got in the office, as if everyone had suddenly left. Or someone important had walked in.

“Sorry, Dennis, just thinking. No, that’s fine, I’ll try his cell. Thanks.”

But she didn’t try his cell. She got a glass of red wine and sat on the couch, listening to the radio Chris had saved from items unsold after the estate sale for his father. Gus had unexpectedly died last year. She liked the radio, too, and missed Gus. More than he did, perhaps; they weren’t real close then, but she’d become fond of the irascible man.

Then she thought how men in their fifties or later still called women “girls”, like Dennis had, yet wasn’t sure if she hated it or found it irrelevant. But it bothered her right then. She was his boss’ wife, but also she was a professor and none of them seemed to appreciate that. Even if she did teach online now. St. Ignace was so far from contemporary ideas and changes that she felt it wedged between times. Most just hung on to what they knew.

Wind rattled a loose shutter they’d fixed properly. She saw flurries sweeping past the windows, white feathery bits propelled into layered greyness, like feathers into dirty wool. She brought a heavy afghan up to her chin, closed her eyes, thought and tried not to think.

******

The snowstorm had shown its fierce intentions so that white flakes were now swirling, zigzagging, entering the mad mass of snow. A good hour or more had passed. Marnie shook herself awake, got up to put wood in the wood stove and rekindle a gasping fire. Her nose was getting cold.

They’d been there almost four years. No, Chris had been raised in St. Ignace then went to university, then got work in Minnesota where they eventually met at a climatology conference. He did well in the Forest Service there yet wanted to return to his roots and she, faithful, followed. And it was just go with it or teach math with no husband. She worked at liking it as much as he did, but found it trying. She was from Minneapolis-St, Paul. Her life left behind so easily had come to feel a million miles from St. Ignace, a world like a dream. But they loved each other, right?–that was the crux of it.

His black fleece was slung over the rocker and seeing it jarred her back to the moment. Hovering before pungent, radiant heat of the stove, she still felt chilly so pulled on the fleece, inhaled the fabric’s scent–spice and smoke and wood, just as it smelled all the time around him. She suspected roots would soon grow from his feet; he’d fit right in, even with those.

The allure was simple: being opposites. She with her love of pretty things, fascination with equations and adoration of jazz. Her outgoing impulses tempered by deep pondering. His devotion to the land and its needs and demands, curiosity about almost only earth sciences and wildlife, and that great desire for action, physical risk. Their shared love of nature kept them mutually interested, and the physical attraction which still took them by surprise.

The snow hit the windows with such force it was as if it begged to get in. She knew about winter from childhood and youth but never had intended on living again where it dominated. To her geography was personal, each individual drawn to a place that spoke to him or her. She’d hoped to move to Nevada or New Mexico or maybe northern California. Chris got the better job deals; they weren’t there, that was that.

Time ticked by. He didn’t call her. She made a sandwich, made more coffee. The winter storm warning was in full effect according to her charging phone–in case power went out– and she knew Chris might come home early, he might come late or check in from his friend’s outside of town where he’d remain– due to the roads, he’d say. This had happened many times.

She zipped herself into his thick fleece and got a book she kept trying to read because it should be good: Mathematics and Wisdom of the Ages. Instead, she skimmed it, put it down as usual. Wisdom was something she sorely coveted but hadn’t found there.

Marnie sank deeper into the plaid second-hand couch, legs and feet curled under her, and watched snow act alive as it tumbled and fell, lifted and gathered and draped everything in formidable whiteness. Its stark beauty– a tyranny.

Chris would stop at the store and get dinner for them if he could; he’d buy more coffee. He’d hang up his parka and take off his boots in the mud room and come find her. He’d have chafed apple red cheeks and his reddish hair would stick up all over when he pulled off the wool cap. He’d ask what she was up to, “no good and five feet six and a half?” Bury his chapped lips in her warm neck, breathe in deeply, and they’d forget dinner for awhile.

As the darkness crept into the house and the fire burned lower, Marnie didn’t turn on the lights. She sat and remembered. How it had been, how they had engulfed each other at first, how they had grown up some, weathered trials. How they had lost her mother and his father too young and just held each other like never before. How they’d found the simple country house, made it so much better. Planted a garden each spring. Danced to country songs at the Eagles Lodge. Watched astounding sunrises and sunsets over Lake Michigan, Lake Huron. Camped under the star-pierced night.

She knew in her bones much more than all that.

He wasn’t coming back.

She faced reality after the relentless wondering: he was done with her ingrained city ways, her longing for other places and things besides the wilds of the Upper Peninsula and its insular world; and her desire for less sex and not wilder like he preferred, and her want of much less silence between them when she was wasting away from a strange kind of hunger —she was starving for ideas talk, music talk, college teaching talk. Getting lost in a crowd if she wanted to And having choices.

They had fought in great spurts the past year. They had said too many wrong words. And had forgotten to forgive, and forgotten how to find and stick with those intersecting points that had guided them for so long.

He had left under the shield of night.Left her with a foolish facsimile of a man in her bed. He had left her with nothing good to eat in a raging snowstorm. He had left her with simmering self loathing: he had a job to do so he was doing it, and she had a job to do–get herself together. He might have left with heart torn and bruised but sure not bleeding out, as it was back to his buddies, to the woods, to those who always knew him inside and out–while hers was slowly cramming and crushing her insides so she could barely breathe. He left her behind as if she was a wounded creature that was not likely to be useful again, not enough for all he needed. Best to let nature run its course then. Best to cut his losses, as he was fond of saying when it came to the business of forest management. When it came to shooting the hit deer on the dark road.

Marnie shuddered, afraid.

Then, slowly, relieved.

The snow drifted, the house held firm in the manic, deep darkness of the storm–it held with its creaks and moans, circled about her. She loved the house most. Her fire sputtered and failed so Marnie got up and put more split wood in and tended it by herself as she had more often done. She appreciated this wood stove, its being central to home, the hearth that had drawn them close so long at end of day. She did know well how to start necessary fires and take care of them, keep them going to keep herself alive.

Chris was truly and finally not ever coming back to her, just as he had said last night as she fell into exhausted sleep from the laborious efforts of hearing and speaking such things…of feeling the long-tangled web of joys and sorrows tear apart.

And there were even now the imprints of his hands on her skin, and they always left every fiber aching, flesh stung, her spirit adrift, alone. He believed he loved her but then could not, or not enough, nor in the ways he should–safely, fully, easily. Their promises finally failed them and so he was done. Before worse happened. She ought to be grateful. She ought to feel released from the growing cage of their marriage but felt herself turn and twist about, panicked.

And then it passed as the minutes went by. She had all night to get used to this redirecting of her life.

In the morning, she would find her way to leave, too, and move toward a good destination. To turn her back on the home they’d made of a rundown house would test her resolve. But now nothing was the same. She wanted to find a place where she would not have to cover shame and hide truth. Where she’d be free to tile a wall or wear a dress in any color, work at a better job and be proud of her work. Somewhere out there were red rocks, desert light and shadow, desert flowers and wide, clear horizons. Another way to tabulate her passion for mysterious numbers and ideas, vivid design and music. And less a conundrum of love, more a shared life that might well shelter two.

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: A Lateness of Words

He was about to walk into the sprawling blue house on Merton and Fifth. That is, after he had decent coffee (if he could find the cozy weathered spot he’d always gone to), driven past once more (he was confident this wouldn’t be difficult) to better prepare himself, and called Rennie for support.

After parking at a corner he knew like the back of his hand, he slouched about, hands in pant pockets, looking this way and that. There was the hardware across the street with new awnings and paint; there was the staid brick bank; there was the grocery, although with new name and entryway. But no Dot’s to be seen. Instead, a hair salon sat in the coveted corner property. It had been a few years, okay, but Dot’s was an institution, the place everyone met up for a quick or leisurely cup from breakfast ’til dinner.

He dashed into the street between two vehicles to cross the street and he got a better look at things. There had been more alterations; it was looking oddly prosperous in spots. It was disorienting, shiny storefronts jammed between almost ramshackle ones. Then he saw it. “Dot & Daughter” was proclaimed in calligraphic gold and black above the double door. That would be Dot, yes, and …Hannah? He guessed she’d be early thirties now. He was surprised–she had said she was leaving, too–so he crossed back over and went in.

Even though he was stunned by the fancy decor and too many coffee choices beaming at him from the menu, he knew Hannah right off. It was the back of her head he was staring at as he got in line. With heaps of unmistakable glossy black curls as always, she turned and it didn’t seem like years had passed. She looked past him, waved at another customer. He gawked at scattered quaint cafe-style tables and stools, the glass case tempting with baked goods plus pita bread and hummus, veggie wraps, yogurt, cheese and crackers– it was like he was in a big city place trapped inside a small town.

“How you doing? What can I get you?” Hannah greeted him with appropriate cheer as she pushed away a stray spiral of hair.

“Espresso, two shots.”

She noted the order, looked at him a second time with lips parted then firmly closed. One more moment and she frowned, then recovered. “Name for order?”

“Hank.”

She dismissed him with raised eyebrow and nod.

He stepped quickly away from the counter, stood along the wall. He could have given his real name. Arley, the nickname of yore; now he was just Arlen. She may not have remembered him, but he suspected she might though he’d changed his look. No shaved head, no scraggly beard and feathery mustache. No black jeans and torn jacket, no heavy motorcycle boots. “Arley and his Harley”, a joke, a stupid one since he never got a Harley. He’d become a grown man. So different from the young man his hometown knew that he surely blended well for a few hours– and then he was gone. It had been right, even necessary to leave years ago. And good to be a bona fide grown up, slowly transforming.

It was taking much longer than he wanted so he zipped his jacket, made for the door. He didn’t want to revisit any of it, no good would come of it; just a stop at the house. But then “Hank” was called out, a hand holding out his espresso, and he was about to down it when he felt her eyes on him. And then another gal’s and guy’s then as he shifted his gaze felt all were looking at him–or trying to not look at him. Just what he didn’t need. Arlen;s heart raced, his stomach turned. He left.

“Arley, wait.”

He opened his car door and got in but Hannah was fast on her feet. He lowered his window by half despite a chilly shower descending. She stood there with arms across her chest, leaning in a bit.

“It is Arley Whitaker, right? Come home for a visit?”

He responded with the grin that used to get everybody, easy and warm as a summer breeze. But inside he felt cold as the rain, and miserable.

“Your mama, I guess? Heard she was doing poorly. I hope you’ll come back to Dot’s and Daughter’s before you go. Catch up.” Her gaunt face softened, seemed hopeful.

“How you doing, Hannah Jean? And where is Dot today?”

“Oh, I’m good, married Jeff, got a kid. Mama’s in the back but she’d come out and say hi, I’m sure–“

“That’s okay. On my way.” He started the engine and shifted.

“Nice car you got, must be having better times,” she said, eyeing the pristine, refurbished silver Camaro. “Fast bikes and fast cars forever, I guess!” She then had the decency to slap a hand to her mouth, knowing too late he’d not want to hear it put that way.

“Give your mother my regards, great coffee as always.” He waved at her like he was in some damned parade; she stepped back, staring after him.

Arlen drove off nice and slow as he could, foot just itching to slam the gas, hand gripping the gear stick knob. She was still nosy and naive, but good for her and Jeff, he was better than most he knew.

There was no one and no thing that could permanently lure him back to his hometown. It was one stop for today, and he already half-regretted it. He dared a cop to get him for speeding as he wheeled out of downtown.

******

He drove right by, eyeing the house, noting the long-faded blue needing a repainting. Surely it hadn’t been like that for almost ten years. The yard was emerald green even in the silvery drift of rain, and mostly tidy as always; the porch swing was gone but nothing looked decrepit. After circling the block, he parked a couple houses down, got out his phone.

She answered right off.

“Arlen, love, you there now?”

Her words came to him like petals floating on a pond, peaceful, gentle. He mused again over her absence; he missed her already. She had said it was his journey, not hers, and he should get it done alone. She’d meet up later. He supposed she was right. It was all before her time, his wrecked life to try to better restore.

“Got a coffee, felt like the town was breathing down my neck so came straight here. I can make it to the cabin by four if this is a short visit. Which it should be…”

“Take it as it comes. It’ll be good or it won’t, but you at least are there.”

He had nothing to add to the bare facts. Rennie knew the whole story, she knew he hadn’t set foot into that house for nine years, and he and his mother spoke briefly only on Christmas. Until the last one, when they had talked a little more, updated a few things. And he’d found she had had pneumonia, had been in the hospital and he didn’t even know; she was still weak. It struck some nerve deep inside. She’d always been so healthy, strong, more resilient than his father who had died at 52 when Arley was in his senior year. Before the even worse thing.

He shook his head. “I know, but what if she–“

“Keep it honest and to the point unless it feels right to do more. Remember? Trust your gut, honey.”

Silence rang between them. He fiddled with his key chain, finally pulled it out of the ignition. The windshield was fogging up; he cracked his window since the rain had let up. Fresh air gave him more calm, some strength.

“It might not be such a good idea, but I drove five hours top do it, so I’m going in. At least I can get to the cabin right after. Spread my thoughts and feelings over Lake Michigan, listen to music of the waves.”

“That’s my baby. And I’ll be there tomorrow by noon or 1:00. I’ll love you back to normal, so no worries either way.”

Arlen released the worst of his simmering fears in a short exhalation.

“Okay, here goes. See you tomorrow.”

******

At first his feet wouldn’t move up the path. He knew what he had to say. He had called her the night before, said he had some business up north, would it be okay if he stopped by a few on his way. When she didn’t respond, he panicked, nearly told her never mind. Instead she had told him between a deep cough and wheezing that sure, he could come on by. She had said it as if he was in the neighborhood and she was accustomed to his visiting. Then they hung up, both of them shocked by what they’d just done.

The porch was deep and wide and he had half a mind to walk it, get the sense of it and the moment, look back at the street to see how it felt. He didn’t have time. The white door with the stained glass rosette window opened wide, and his mother stepped back as Arlen came into the house where he was raised.

“Mom.”

“Hello, Arlen.”

They looked at each other, eyes startled, secretive, and looked away–but not before she took his upper arm, led him in. Her still-firm grasp felt foreign yet too familiar, and yet he let her do it.

The smells, then. Musky and sweet like ancient dried roses (the garden’s) she had kept in a pretty wooden box. Yeastiness of baked bread that has cooled awhile. And still those worn wood floors with a rug here and there. Smooth dark wood banister on a long staircase that led up to dark halls and quiet bedrooms. He averted his eyes from the upper reaches. Where her and his siblings had slept, squabbled, studied.

The living room beckoned with low lighting, same green velvet love seat and deep gold with green couch. The fireplace stood gawking, empty of fond memories of roaring fires.

She began to sit first and, as he had been taught, he waited until she was settled in her arm chair, then sat on the couch.

“This is a surprise, I know,” he said. “I said I’d never return. But we have talked a bit more, I felt I could come, finally. If you wanted that.”

She laughed, just barely, as she coughed easily. “You knew I got sick, about to die, maybe?”

“You were?”

She waved that away. “Not yet. You know how they talk around here, always drama. I make progress daily.”

“Yes. Good.”

She settled the afghan over her lap. She was not old, maybe sixty, he had forgotten to his dismay, but she looked almost old in the dusky room. Her hair, for one thing, had gone all steel grey, and was pulled back from her pale, lean face.

Arlen sat back, trying to not think of “Then versus Now”, how different it was despite a strange sameness of the place. Heat rose from his chest, trapped beneath his jacket–she kept the rooms too warm, as before– and he wanted to take it off yet was unwilling to do so. It might be thought a signal, give her the idea he wanted to stay awhile and maybe she would hate that. He didn’t want to, really, although they hadn’t embraced, or acted so glad to see one another at least she hadn’t said anything terrible yet. Nor had he. What words could ease such distance between them, the misery gnawing and creating the deep impasse to separate them?

He’d imagined he’d offer a few but true sentences and be gone. But they now dissipated. And she spoke.

“I made bread. And coffee. Would you like some, Arlen?”

He followed her into the high-ceilinged kitchen with big six burner stove. Fresh bread perfumed all. How she had once loved to cook. The worn teak table in the dining room beyond was set with pretty placemats; a loaf of bread on cutting board with a knife; plates and knives and a butter dish all in a row. The coffee carafe and cups were at the ready.

It was then that a small, persistent lump formed in his throat. The trouble she had gone to. The way it had been before…how they all had been happier more often than not, better off than most, a home filled with industry and ideas and play– and kids and adults who had learned–primarily– reasonable ways and developed good plans for life, together or apart.

“How is your business faring so far this year?” she asked. She buttered two pieces of bread for each of them, poured the coffee. Gestured toward the homemade pear preserves which she’d forgotten he didn’t like much.

“The shop is busier all the time; I have so many new orders this past year. The cars are beautiful once rebuilt, restored. You should–” He had forgotten himself, got excited. He wanted to tell her more but why? It was his unusual interest in vehicles, his mechanical talents that did the damage.

“That’s good, Arlen, you’re doing well then.”

Arlen was good with mechanical things since childhood; his father and he had shared the knack. And it wasn’t long before he fell in love with all things related to engines and wheels, especially motorcycles though his father didn’t, not really. But he encouraged his children in their interests.

In a short few years Arlen gave in to his growing need for power and speed. The desire for not just the fun weekend dirt bike but then a fine sport bike, not the Dodge Tomahawk he desperately wanted to ride one day–but, still, the Honda Blackbird was a dream, its acceleration, its dexterity, how it hugged corners, gave him that charge of adrenaline. And it was true he changed some as he rode more. It emboldened him, gave him a sense of freedom, a confidence as never before. Too much confidence. Arlen the “all around good guy” got a bit tougher and some said wild even as he increased his skills with hands, and his riding. Well, he met people. He met guys who liked those things rather than studying and such so by high school he had slipped from one social side of things to another. It wasn’t bad, he felt–it was just…faster, riskier, and when on a motorcycle this is what counted to him. Challenge and reward.

The slices of bread seemed to melt in his mouth, such richness, smoothness on the tongue, how they filled him. The coffee, though weaker than he’d make, was also a pleasure as they talked some more. Just this sharing of food and drink with his mother was easier than he had thought it could be.

He dipped into the vast pool of family matters. “You hear from Marilyn? About coming for awhile to help out and all?”

She brought a tissue to lips, coughed three times, hard. “In a couple of weeks. She had to take time off her county job, find someone to help out Dan with their two kids. Your niece and nephew…”

“Yeah. I have pictures.”

“When did you last see them?”

It sounded accusing but maybe he was wrong. She looked calm, interested.

“It’s been awhile.” They’d been two and three, respectively. They were now seven and eight, at least he thought. But he and Marilyn were never too close, she was older than he and…Doug, and after what happened, they were in touch twice a year, maybe three times max.

“Do you miss Dad still? I do,” he said before he could stop himself. He should not be going down that path. He should stick to script. Just make amends and be gone.

“Do you really mean, do I still miss Dad and Doug?”

Arlen felt the slippage inside him, as if he was coming off his moorings, fear threatening. He looked at his hands holding bread, put the slice down, lowered them into his lap where his fingers twined into knots.

“It’s funny,” she said, adjusting the afghan on her lap, smoothing the placemat, “how you can finally get used to losing a husband who died of a heart attack, yes, you actually can–with practice of new routines, after much mourning. But a child? That is another process; it never really ends.”

Arlen couldn’t bear to look at her so looked at the large portrait still hanging as it always had, taken one moment in time when they were all presentable and accounted for–all alive in this house.

“But.” His mother’s voice came out in soft breath, then almost a whisper. “But to lose a husband a son and then, despite him still being alive, another son–to lose, essentially, most of a whole family–that is the hardest thing of all, Arlen. The thing that cannot be forgotten.”

He rose then, paced back and forth, gesturing at nothing but the walls, careful to not see her eyes. “I didn’t make him get on, didn’t encourage it, not on that bike, I swear it! Dad had just died, we weren’t even thinking right. I kept saying that after he…I told you then but no one heard me. He insisted, he felt left behind, he had to have some fun he said, even when I told him he shouldn’t get on, I was still learning the Honda’s ways. And Doug jumped on behind me as I was taking off but I didn’t for one tiny second think we would get so far as to find trouble, much less crash on the hilly curve… I’m so sorry, I loved him, too–I’m so sorry, Mom!”

“I know, I truly did later realize it. Come here, son, come.”

He got down on his knees, wrapped his arms around her frailness and she clutched him to her, patted his back, smoothed his hair.

“Forgive me, forgive me, Mom…”

“God forgive us all, let’s leave what’s been lost, be thankful for what we have now,” she said clearly at his ear.

Then closed her eyes and shed tears with him but not like when it was her hard time of sorrows. This time it was for her only son’s return to her. And he at long last released that aching for it all, and felt salvaged by her arms about him once again.

******

“Here I am,” Rennie called out, hoisting bags of food and other supplies from her truck.

Arlen lay the ax atop the pile of wood pieces he was splitting and pulled off leather gloves. They embraced heartily and he took two bags as they went inside. Rennie removed cap and jacket as she moved purposely across the small living room.

She held out her hand. “You came, Mrs. Whitaker, glad you did. I’m Rennie.”

The older woman rose on steady legs and swiftly passed the dancing, popping fire in the fieldstone fireplace, and took the young woman’s capable hands into her own.

“I’m pleased to meet the woman who loves my son–and be asked to visit this fine cabin. Come and sit, get warm, let Arlen do the work.”

Arlen left the food on the table and returned to the wood, every strike a blow to the ravenous past, every new split log a store against the coming winter’s brittle cold, it’s astonishing yield of snow, All the more reason to gather his family within the cabin. His dad and Doug sure would have liked it. At first that thought jarred him, then felt pretty good. His mother gazed through the window so he raised a hand in response and tossed another log onto the pile.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Meaning of Frankincense

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Hugo Fontaine snugged his violin and then his viola into their purple satin-lined cases, called out farewells to his bluegrass band’s other members and headed out the back way of the music building. It had been a good rehearsal for an upcoming wedding gig.

Though he loped along, all 6’3″ of him loose and lithe, his shoulders ached and by the end of the session, the strain got to him. He’d already spent all day at his small but rising gallery, working on an exhibition. The ceramic sculptures were heavy and pedestals had to be moved several times. Of course he might have directed his assistant, Gage, to labor for him but this was a winning show of an old friend’s work. It had to be fresh, right. Marie and he went way back to childhood. They sometimes had thought they should be together but any spark felt at 15 had long ago cooled. They trusted each other; that was a lot. At 38, he had gotten comfortable with his life. She was facing marriage number two.

He needed food but coffee aroma on the breeze struck his nostrils and he crossed the street to Duchamp’s Sip and Dip. It was one of the few places in New York where people could be found to speak French, the owner being French-born, but oddly Hugo seldom did. He had worked a long time to develop a passable American accent. This possibility had disturbed his father when Hugo left Montreal at 22 to complete his Masters degree at NYU, but it had only further propelled him to leave his past behind.

He pushed open the door and found himself enveloped in sharp and sweet odors, voices amiably swirling about as people sipped drinks and dipped biscotti and other baked treats in the mugs. It was warm shelter within a megalopolis rife with traffic, smog, people and many fascinating options. he relaxed.

“Mon ami! Monsieur Fontaine!” The barista, busy steaming milk, bathed him in a brilliant smile him.

He nodded at her and smiled politely. She always was thrilled to see him, and knew he spoke French fluently so tried to engage him. Much too young, flirtatious and deferential, Hugo appreciated that she was a good barista and liked his music (she had been at an event they’d played) but kept his distance. Okay, he knew he was good looking–this had been hammered into him since childhood–but he was shy by nature, not self-impressed.

Hugo’s order given, he moved to a corner near the entrance and waited. His ears were filled with nearby French conversations and he let them come and go in his mind, not interested in eavesdropping then. The violins pulled at his shoulders so he set them on an tiny empty table and sat on chair’s edge, anxious to go home. His hands pressed lightly on closed eyes; his breathing calmed. The opening was soon, the wedding performance was shortly after, and he was supposed to go to Montreal for his mother’s 68th birthday in about a week. He tallied up his tasks and slumped back into the chair, vision unfocused on the black and white tile floor.

And then it hit him: frankincense. He’d know it anywhere. Nose lifted, his body almost rose, too, as eyes searched. That spicy, woody, lemony, amber-toned ,smokey scent, those layers of tantalizing notes–they always got to him but seldom was found this pure. It reminded him of a specific, expensive perfume his father’s parfumerie carried–what was its name? He was instantly back in the store his family had owned for three generations. He had left; his sister had taken his place by their father. But he still respected and loved the art and science of making perfume, and sharing its beauty. Frankincense had become a favorite scent, mysterious, luxuriant, primal while spiritual: powerful scent of sap of the Boswellia sacra had been important for centuries, and still used in a myriad of ways.

Rarefied majesty of a scent, a natural perfection alone yet a greatly flexible note when blended with others, his father always said. And Hugo, often at odds with him (more so since choosing his own path), agreed on that.

He didn’t have to look far to find the carrier of the scent. She was a few feet away, shifting from one foot to another as she studied the hand painted menu board of offerings. Her dark hair was pulled into a sleek long ponytail so that her pale, prominent features and high forehead were exposed. A beige woolen cape encased her sturdy frame and she held red gloves in one hand. He inhaled deeply, then closed his eyes. His cares began to melt away. But his name was called and he stood.

Was the woman speaking French? No, it was the barista again, clumsily working over the language with another victim in line. The frankincense lady was heading toward back of the shop. Hugo slung one violin case with a shoulder strap over his shoulder, took his coffee in its “to-go” cup, then hesitated. He wanted to ask her what it was she wore. But one doesn’t just saunter up to a strange woman and speak what sounds like a very lame come-on line. Did he dare do it? His pointed awareness of her perfume might seem odd. He took a few steps when she appeared to look his way, and their eyes then met.

She smiled a brief lopsided smile and looked at her cell phone, then glanced up again as he stood, uncertain. He closed the gap and found himself before her.

“Forgive me–but my family owns a parfumerie. I know that fragrance but can’t name it.”

She frowned as she bit her lower lip and he felt it best to go so turned around.

“Black Tourmaline.”

She said it quietly, as if reluctant to reveal it. Hugo turned back around. It was a cloud he stood within, invisible yet dense, light and dark, rich and deep. He was beginning to feel better by the moment, if awkward. But that wasn’t it, not the perfume he thought he knew but since she had answered, he reciprocated.

“Ah. So many perfumes! It is hard to identify them, even with strong notes as this. This is not one I recall. But then, I don’t pay attention usually, it’s just frankincense, it is so distinctive, of course….very nice…”

He felt heat in his cheeks as he fumbled for a more specific response. Had he forgotten everything his father taught him, then? The perfume he once knew so well had evaporated from his memory, in any case. This was ridiculous, it was only fragrance, what else could he say? He gripped the handle on his instrument case, shifted the other violin case, prepared to go.

The woman nibbled on her biscotti and stared at his hands. “Two violins? You are ambidextrous to the extreme?”

He was baffled by her words, then exhaled in a nervous laugh, relieved to move on. Which he needed to do now. He bent to extend his hand; he was not an oaf, he knew how to be courteous if nothing else and better now than not at all.

“Hugo Fontaine. Yes, a violinist–and violist–more bluegrass than classical.”

“Gina Corelli.”

“You’re kidding–Corelli? As in Arcangelo Corelli, Italian violinist and Baroque composer?”

“Right. Not kidding. No relation that I know, but I have never researched my genealogy. I am not that interested, it might set up expectations!” She laughed, too, but softly, and indicated a chair. “Have a seat, Hugo?”

“Well, I need to get back to my gallery. There’s a big show coming up, but–” She was wearing frankincense, she knew something of music, perhaps, there was an empty seat. An invitation. He looked at his watch and sat.

Seated, he could see crinkling blue eyes and that dark mane of hair– it had a startling effect. She might pass him by any time and he wouldn’t notice her–the quietness of her bearing, bland paleness. A sort of gentle yet strong kind of loveliness that melded into anywhere, anytime…. He lifted his coffee and drank deeply as she eyes scanned his face. Bold despite her calm energy, he thought, but he could not stop looking at her, either. He inhaled her perfume without ceremony, fell under its spell. Perhaps she was used to this, men asking to speak with her, men following her down the street and her waving them off or more. It was her fragrance…or was it her?

As if reading his thoughts, she said, “Most people can’t always place the frankincense; they don’t always like it. It has a headiness, right? But more. I’ve worn it a couple of years and nothing else feels right somehow. It has a soothing effect though it perks up my senses. Maybe that is logical since it is your family’s business…In New York?”

“Montreal. But I live here, have since university. Yes, I get that.”

“Born and raised here, myself. That must have been interesting, perfume and Montreal.”

He shrugged. It sounded exotic but it was just his growing up life, as hers was New York, which seemed better to him. Freer, more cosmopolitan, energizing.

“You play something, also?” He suspected she might, knowing about violins and ambidexterity. Corelli.

She shrugged as if it was irrelevant. “I have. Oboe. Flute. I’m in the publishing business now. Educational materials publishing. Not so wonderful as an art gallery owner.” She took another drink and nibble. “What sort of art?”

His phone rang with a Mark O’Connor Band song, “Coming Home”. He was about to ignore it when he saw it was from Gage.

“I’m sorry, Gina, I have to get this. Maybe we’ll run into each other again sometime?”

“Sure, maybe!”

Her gaze followed him as he wove through the tables and lines. Then she pulled a slim book from her leather bag, opened it, smoothed the pages, at once lost in the tender words. “If when you rise in the blue and green mists of woods at dawn, go farther, seek the meadows and willows by running waters, forego the spell of sleep, of cares…”

He got up and took off with his instruments. But as he hailed a taxi, then arrived at the gallery and started back to work, the few facts he had accompanied him like a vapor, hanging on into night and the next days: Gina, frankincense, flute, blue eyes, dark hair, beige cape, good energy.

And then it got busier and he tied to push such nonsense aside.

******

“What are you doing with that?” Marie asked an hour before the opening of her show. “I thought it was to be in the center of the room!”

It was a mammoth piece, a curvaceous, green-glazed form, one Hugo privately thought of a part octopus, part sea siren. He may have been right but they rarely discussed what her work meant or might represent. Every artists had their own intentions but it was up to the viewers to ascribe meaning. He loved it, but he liked the smaller trio of pieces in the center better and so had moved it without consent.

He put a hand on her shoulder. “But see how these complement the space and lighting so well?A sort of relief after the opening genius of the big piece.”

“Oh, really Hugo, the lighting can be altered, the space is so large and it isn’t what we decided.” She looked at it all, crossed her arms, tapped her foot.

“It’s now stationed by the window, near the door, a draw for passersby and a very good spot overall.”

“It’s the draw of people off the street you think best, really!” She walked around the room and inspected once again.

“Not a bad thing,” Gage said under his breath. “The piece looks wonderful there. She might sell it….”

“Oh, well, opening night nerves,” Hugo reminded.

The food and table with colorful candles set into her ceramic holders were being readied by the caterer. They were all dressed and ready. Hugo poured wine for each; they drank quite indelicately. It wasn’t easy, running a gallery, supporting artists’ desires and hoping for a good profit. Marie knew all that. Her work was selling well now, in fact. It was as much for his Fontaine Contemporary Arts that she was showing there. Though he was rising closer to the top of the list, himself, the last five years.

Gina, frankincense, flute. He shook his head and drank again. He had manged to shut off the repetitive musings, mostly, the past few days, but it was like a song repeating ad infinitum.

“Hugo? Did you hear me? The pedestal on the east side needs adjusting, can you help me?”

Gage snapped his fingers near his right ear and Hugo came back to the present, growling a bit at his assistant.

“Stop that.”

“What is it with you lately?”

“I have wondered the same, maybe you need time off, head to the Bahamas of something,” Marie said and dusted her sculptures lightly with a batik napkin taken from the table.

“Or Montreal…” Gage suggested, bravely. He well knew that Hugo did not want to go to his hometown next week. Not only was he busy with more shows coming up but his father wasn’t lately well and his mother was feeling anxious. His sister seemed more in charge. She had demanded he come.

Hugo shot him a warning look. He did not want to think of all that, though he did suspect there’d be good moments to share, as well as stressful times with his father. There usually were, even with his mother’s constant refrain: why was he insisting on staying single? Now he had to worry about their aging.

The time came to unlock the doors and begin the formal opening of Marie Werther’s show. People began to fill the doorway; they were keen to see her imaginative ceramic works and he hoped, too, they wanted to own some. It was fine art but it was business, after all.

Outside, glancing in the window as she slowly passed was a woman in a voluminous cape, dark hair flying about her face, hands snugly gloved in red leather. She paused to get a closer look at the work, then searched the crowd, palms pressed against the glass a moment. There. Hugo stood among admirers, goblet in hand, chatting away. His eyes swept over the large gallery spaces and afraid he might see her, she hurried on. She could not go in. That was too close to a sort of stalking, wasn’t it? Yet, she had looked him up and found out about Fontaine Contemporary Arts. She had wondered about him enough that she felt she had to see if it was all real– the person, the place. Now she knew more. His family had long been perfumers, Hugo was from Montreal.

Hugo took a break from chatting. He could have sworn he saw her. Gina. She was a shadowy figure passing by, beyond his bright windows, so he rushed to the front and peered into dark of night. Snow was starting to drift down, glistening in streetlamp and headlights light, and people hurried on their way. He stepped into the fall of soft flakes, and almost believed her perfume settled about him, warming him in the icy air. He took in a long breath of tingling air. But she was not there, just–surprisingly, strangely–stuck in the depths of mind.

Somewhere in that city she was living a whole life. And he was not in it.

******

The wedding reception was generously festooned with blue and white flowers, a pair of doves in one gilded cage and bluebirds in another (Hugo worried they’d be let out, he didn’t care for birds swooping onto his head), hangings of silvery tulle and white satin (he was told), and tons of food, fried chicken being a primary choice. The guests were festive, the bride and groom were well on their way to married bliss after several rounds of drinks. It was a pretentious-leaning yet earthy affair and the band, Down Home Times, was playing hot and happy. He could play these tunes with little thought, and yet he appreciated every crowd’s dancing and cheering. It paid okay, but it was his main outlet for fun. He’d veered onto a different musical road as a teen when leaving classical training, but this gave him a different– more satisfying–thrill. And it was with relief that his parents liked it when they’d heard his first set on stage at 18.

At a break between his current sets, he and the guys usually went outside, some for a smoke, some for the relief of open air. Hugo was the last one to the door when he heard a voice behind him.

“Hello.”

He stopped to look over his shoulder, expecting a bluegrass admirer but there: the frankincense, spicy-citrus-amber-smokey-woods suffusing his nostrils, altering his state of mind, bringing him to a full stop.

Gina.

She stood before him with a tentative smile, bright eyes. “I know the bride, but her cousin much better so I tagged along for the night. I did not know it was going to be you up there, I swear. A shock, I have to say.”

“No way.” He offered his hand and she took it a moment, warmth against warmth.

“I knew of your bluegrass interest, and it was on your gallery site. Yes, I found that. I looked up a bit more. But I didn’t know you were playing here until I arrived.”

“Well, then.” He ruffled his sweaty hair and looked away. “Too much. In New York, this is a wedding you just came to, out of nowhere–too weird.”

“I know…kind of different, I agree.”

“Wait, you are here with out an escort?”

“Male? No, no date!” She chortled. “Just the bride’s cousin.”

“Do you want a drink?”

“No, I’m not such a drinker. I just wanted to say hello once more. “

“I’m getting water, I need hydration right now. Coming?”

So they got his water and talked a bit, her about work, how she needed a vacation, it had bogged her down all that fine print, boring statistics. She did not plan on taking his time up when he asked if she wanted to come by the gallery on her lunch hour sometime.

“I’ve been.”

He wanted to be cool, but his mouth fell open a bit. “It was you, then, during the opening of Marie’s exhibit–you walked by the gallery and I went outdoors to find you.”

“Yes. You did that? I didn’t expect you to see me, that wasn’t the plan. I was trying to slip by.” She put her hand on his forearm. They sat with her fingers firm but careful on his shirt sleeve, skin under the fabric tingling where those fingertips lay.

He shook his head. “None of this was the plan. But I keep thinking about you, anyway.”

“Yes. Me, too–you.”

His bandmates were jogging up the stage steps. Hugo jumped up to join them.

“Don’t move too far. Please.”

“Not likely, this has gotten interesting!”

And she laughed, head tilted so that he could see the silver of a filling and her hair bounce and gleam. He thought how wonderful it was to see her, to smell her, to talk a bit with her, and then he took a giant leap. He was embedded with her presence already and so far there was no serious resistance. He was going with it.

“Want to go to Montreal with me next week-end, by any chance? My mother turns 68 and I must attend the family party.” He made a mock-sad face and then left her there.

Hugo picked up his violin and put bow to strings, tapped his foot with the stand up bass rhythm line, dove right into the music. After a few bars the intoxicating Gina Corelli moved up to the stage and raised both arms, gave him two thumbs up. He sure hoped one of those was for a madcap trip to his hometown. He thought it likely. With frankincense in the mix, anything seemed possible to him, as it had for people all through time.