Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Iris and the Legend of Spirit Lake

The lake was not so close to the house you could throw a rock into it–something Iris had determined decades ago during each summer. It faintly glistened beyond a grove of birches and ubiquitous pines, and the half-fallen ones winter had damaged, one day to be seasoned and made into firewood. The ground was boggy beneath her feet, smelled strongly of rich mud. The sky blazed a hard blue above the whispering lake and the land about it.

“But the lake is there making its music,” she commented, surveying the property, arm outstretched.

“I suppose so, with complete indifference to us,” Elliot said, pushing fists deeper into his jacket pockets. It was cold despite it being on the cusp of spring, and his eyes burned from driving three and a half hours after a bad night’s sleep. “How about lunch and a strong cup of coffee? I’m beat.”

“You go ahead then,” Iris said and walked toward the woods, leaving him to take the luggage in as well as food for a three day week-end. Her suitcase, that is; he’d lightly packed a gym bag. She had wanted to make sure there were adequate clothes for the changeable spring.

It was too much to take in. The monstrous months of the virus, still going strong. A slowdown in their respective jobs. Then Grandpa Bolo’s death. He’d been expected to make good on his decree that he’d be a hundred and not a day less as he moved from this realm to the next. His health had been great for so long they believed him. His brain was snapping-quick, his outlook positive. Until he was fifty, he’d been a hardware store owner and sold it for a very good sum. Living in northwest woods for the latter part of his life, he was entirely content except for the loss of his wife too soon. But despite all those good things, a massive stroke snatched him at 94.

“Why was he called Grandpa Bolo?” Elliot had once asked after they married.

“Everyone called him ‘Bolo’. His mother’s maiden name was his a middle name–Bolonger–and he hated his first name, Horatio. He used a nickname form of his middle name since he was a kid. My sister and I decided to just call him Grandpa Bolo.”

“You grandmother’s name, wasn’t it a country type name? A folksy name…” He hoped he didn’t sound derisive.

“Nana Nell. A mentor all my youth, as you know…” She had been anything but ordinary. Iris smiled at the way her names rolled off the tongue. Her grandmother had died when Iris was twenty-four of cancer, seven years before she and Elliott married. And now, how quickly another ten years had passed.

Elliot sighed, almost rolled his eyes, then caught himself in time. How awfully folksy it all is, he thought, then saw her smile flush her skin with undeniable radiance. His initial response was submerged. His own single mother, Nancy, which he’d called her since he was young, was another sort of story.

Maybe that conversation–or what was left unsaid–ought to have told her more, though it would have been more than she could acknowledge then. And he might have known that whatever was kept subterranean was bound to resurface sooner or later, but he believed in control of his thoughts and feelings.

Iris and Elliot found the property untended, scrappy, but that was to be expected. Leave wild land to itself and you get more wildness. Of course, it wasn’t utter wilderness; there were more places dotting Spirit Lake’s waterfront and beyond. Grandpa Bolo’s property was built in 1920. It’d been renovated more than once by the two families who had owned it. The lake was also smaller than many in Washington, still with few year-round residents. The family place was big enough–two stories–to be called a proper house. But the cedar shakes were weathered, its wide porch long ago had sloped a bit, it welcome more a yawning nod…it appeared a worn out, oversized cottage. Which is what Nana Nell called it. But Iris could recall when it seemed like a woodland castle, a place beaming with color and delights and good will.

She felt her grandfather’s presence strongly and stood with eyes closed.

Iris had always thought of it as home, period. She was moved and excited that it had been passed down to her. Since their mother has died of the same cancerous disease, she and her sister Carrie were next in line. So she, too, was part owner. And settled long in Miami not far from their bridge-playing, golf-happy father. And neither was anxious to return except for a short visit. One day, after the pandemic had wound down, she’d come a few days. Father was more about visiting at his condo. So Iris was more than welcome to the house.

Elliot emerged from it with a sandwich in one hand, a mug in the other. He raised it toward her, full of steaming brew. “Are you having one, now?”

“Not yet! I’m off to look around.”

The path, though well overgrown, was not hidden from her. It had been created between brush and trees aeons ago; so many feet had pounded the dirt long and hard. She pushed away branches and bushes, sidestepped a clump of vines, wound her way through elegant birches, which she stopped to touch, face close to its white peeling parchment. Soon enough, lapping green-blue water greeted her.

Shielding her eyes, she scanned the barely moving water, found a few boats, people with fishing rods lowered. The lake’s surface sparked with sunlight. Across the expanse, she studied the cottages and cabins. Iris wondered if the Harris family was in, if the robust Peabody brothers were doing alright. She hadn’t seen the Harrises at the funeral (where the few that made it stayed distanced). She’d heard they were in Arizona, camping out with their wealthy son. Was Marietta Holmes still taking care of her granddaughter and unemployed daughter– or had those two moved on since November? There were many people she had missed a long while, and others that she might not yet know. The assembly of souls in the township of Garner totalled less than 125, she guessed.

Which was what Elliot hated–it’s insular smallness. Or, rather, strongly disliked–he’d not tell her he despised visiting there longer than three days, even if he felt that way. She already knew he got restless and stated strong opinions if she pled for any longer. There were plenty of things he said entirely free of constraint–but her family and this place…that was a different matter. Sacred ground, he’d termed it with a half-smirk once. And Iris did not correct him, for it was true for her. She did not understand why he didn’t feel the same about his own family history; he just wasn’t close to his few relatives.

“There is a reason it’s called Spirit Lake, and it’s a lovely one,” she’d once told him. But he hadn’t asked why so she hadn’t said.

But there it was, spreading out before her. She could see both distant ends of the lake and her eyes traced the squashed oval shoreline, pausing at bird sightings and noting a new paint job on a cottage, wondering who it was hauling out the canoe. The breath that she took filled her up with fresh air. Peace. Just beyond the treeline were far purplish peaks of mountains that shone whitely with snow in the thin light.

It was time to get back to Elliot. Though Iris could not think of many reasons why other than food and coffee.

******

“Are you awake?” he asked, touching her shoulder.

“Mmmm.”

“I keep hearing things out there.”

“Probably so.”

“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”

“Uh-huh.”

He wondered what else. Raccoons. Coyotes or a even wolf? No, wolves didn’t live here, did they? Bears were known to roam the mountains surrounding them. He’d seen tracks before. Mountain lions, for sure, those wily cougars.

Iris shifted, pulled her pillow closer under her head, sighed softly. She had been sleeping. Now she’d be listening, too. But only a moment. Hadn’t Elliot been a country boy until age fourteen? But that was Kansas. She yawned.

He blocked out the image of a cougar padding onto the porch, peering into the undraped living room and kitchen windows, sniffing about the door. He lay on his back, staring into a thicket of dark. In Kansas, he’d look out and see nothing for miles. The vacuous or storming sky. Fields of undulating corn, yes, but not an impenetrable density of trees, not bears on the hunt. He preferred open expanses. After ten years of marriage and living in Washington, it was still a challenge to get comfortable with endless forests, the sinuous mountain or valley roads. That is, if they must be in the country, at all. Why, he once said to his friend, Tom, did they keep planting trees all over when there were already so many you couldn’t see where you were going?

He and Nancy, his hard working, divorced mother, had left Kansas for Las Vegas and never looked back. If he had never gone to university, then taken that first financial consultant job in Seattle…but, then, he loved city life, the hustle. He couldn’t wait for the pandemic to wane, to get out there once more.

And if he’d not come to Seattle, he’d not have met the talented artist, Iris Merriman, his future wife.

No, he’d have not met Iris. Things would have been different. Easier, maybe. Lonelier, maybe.

There it was again, a rustling, a shaking sound–a bush tangling with an elk as it walked through? He could deal with that okay, just get a rifle. He knew a bit about hunting. Still, give him skittering lizards, even a rattlesnake. Elliot turned, balanced on his side, listening hard, finding shapes in the dark he was certain weren’t likely there. Thinking: two more days to endure in the weirdness of country.

******

At the dock things were happening. Birds rising up and falling across a cool curtain of air, their early morning songs skimming the lake, circling treetops. Squirrels rooting around and gossiping. Fish emitting bubbles that popped up at water’s surface. Little dark whirlpools that twirled, eddied, vanished to secret places below. Soft tangerine and candy pink-tinged branches of black-green pines. Color of many tones washed over the languishing body of the lake like slinky raiment.

It was a good breaking of dawn. The best way to greet life was to meet it as the sun did.

At the end of the dock–newer than recalled–Iris was wrapped in a nubby woolen blanket. She sat forward in a creaky folding chair. Opened her sketchbook, chose a colored pencil. She looked and looked, began to render what she saw, felt.

As she drew, she remembered. Sitting there with her grandmother at her side, each of them engrossed, the quietness a blessing.

Nana Nell had been an artist, making baskets, ceramics. Collages of nature’s treasures. Small watercolors of wildflowers and lake scenes, sometimes of tiny people melding into the landscape. She’d taught Iris how to hold a pencil and brush, to loosen her grip. How to daub different paint pots and make new colors. To make interesting things of yarn. To see with soul and heart, not only her eye. To render designs with thoughtfulness and care. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator and got her degree, then became good enough that in time she was able to freelance. She drew pictures for children’s stories, for magazine articles, if needed financially, even for ad campaigns. Her favorites jobs were books, though it could be taxing to come to an agreement with everyone about how to execute what moved her while complementing the story. The other jobs were just jobs, but she enjoyed all labors.

Here, though, she could let her hand tell any story it wanted. Or represent with no embellishment just what was noticed. It was as if her eyes and brain carried sensory input and a feel of a place, animal, person or any other thing, and with speed and glory: suddenly it would flow from the tips pencils or charcoal or brushes. A direct line of energy. A charge of clarity. A liberation of everything that mattered to her. She loved most the natural world’s magic. All she had to do was sit and wait for it to arrive from her body’s perception, then race into her being and back to her fingertips.

If only Elliot understood this. He failed to accept that she did not want to be a strictly commercial artist. He had at first encouraged her art shows but the galleries were small, the openings soft, the rewards not nearly as much money as he had hoped. Still, she’d developed a website; sales increased over time. And she kept getting contracts for the other work. In time, he stopped thinking about it, let her be. He made the greater contribution to their coffers and future. He worked hours she’d never withstand, he believed, with her artist ways and temperament and that was alright, he conceded, as long as it kept the peace. But it often was not the key that he’d wished. She was so….adrift in her own small world. As he was, he guessed, in his. And seldom the twain did meet in recent years.

He had just awakened before she appeared. He didn’t dress, but slouched into the porch swing with a fleece on, hungry and tired. He had taken a look about and found no sign of intruding creatures around the house perimeter. He deducted he’d conjured up the sounds. But wasn’t convinced.

Iris’ sketchbook and pencils were clutched close to her chest as she approached the house. She was often magnetic, her straight long hair drifting about narrow shoulders, long legs taking the dirt path with ease. As if she was meant to always walk briskly without ever tiring. Not a big woman, she could disappear as well as gradually command a space. It was her focus, the zeroing in on people in any setting that so captivated. She might be studying momentary light on the planes of their faces, but they appreciated her gentle attentiveness. They wondered what she saw. As he had.

Now Elliot frequently waited for her, patient at first, then frustrated as time went on. For her mind to come forward to meet his, for her gaze to lock with his in a signal of passion, for her work to take up less room and make more for his work, his day’s events and needs. Sometimes he felt like she’d long ago started a migration to another land. Had left him by the side of the road, free to join the trip or turn and go another way. She cared but she was missing, somehow. He couldn’t put his finger right on it. They had argued about their separateness more and harder lately. Ever since the Spirit Lake house had become hers.

Hers. Not theirs. He’d never thought it could be any other way.

“Had breakfast already?”

“I haven’t. I was waiting for you.”

She gave him that smile, the one that said all is well in my world and let’s have a good day. So he followed her inside, hopes lifted. He knew he had to make the best of things over the weekend. He wanted to and yet part of him pulled back, waiting again for her to fully see him. Anxious that this house meant more to her than he did. That they had come to a fork in the road.

Iris felt his worry rise from his body like the cold he needed to better dispel. She let it pass her by. She knew what made sense for them, and she knew she loved him. One way or another, their destinies would work out right.

******

In the afternoon they walked. Iris showed him again her favorite places. All those years she had come for the summers; she was a full Spirit Lake citizen by age five. The tiny store, run by the Hedlund clan, two miles down the road, where you got bait and most everything else in a pinch. Like a convenience shop, just less interesting in inventory than a city’s, Elliot noted. The hilltop view where you could see the mountain range more fully, their mighty breadth and height leaving them both struck by nature’s grandeur, as usual. The place where she found butterflies amid brightly bobbing wildflowers spring into summer. The best picnic spot under massive oak trees by the lake where her family laid out ham sandwiches and devilled eggs, veggie sticks with dill dip and sun brewed iced tea. And the family recipe, a dark chocolate cake with cinnamon. Elliot shared a couple of picnics like that; excepting the bees, flies and ants, it had been nice and tasty.

“Let’s get out the rowboat,” she said and tugged on his hand.

Before he could protest, she pulled him into a galloping run to the boathouse by the dock. It felt good to be there with him. He was calmer, more accessible than in the the city where he and everyone else seemed so compressed. Concentrated on matters of importance, the race to make money stack up. She felt he’d made a vow as a kid to be a Success before anything else could claim him. She’d known this from the start, but back then he was able to be vulnerable, too, more malleable under the engine of driving energy, curious about so much more.

“I’ll row, it’s in my blood, this boat thing,” she said teasingly, “and you always put us into a circular pattern to nowhere.”

“That’s true. We didn’t have boats in my part of Kansas…I still might learn.”

“What? No lakes of rivers in that state?”

“Well, not so I noticed. A sea of corn or grain, yes.”

“I wouldn’t have been the same person without water and boats. I’d have gone stir crazy being landlocked. There is something about skimming the water’s surface, being shown a panorama like this, watching life over and under the surface..it never fails to make me fall in love all over again.”

He had to agree it was pleasant, the rocking of water, the line of neat cottages and rustic cabins, others out in their boats. Like postcards you’d send to a buddy, proclaiming how much fun is being missed, a huge fish on a line prominently displayed. But he didn’t fish and the truth was after a half hour, he wished he was reading a newspaper or texting at a sidewalk table of The Merchant’s Coffee Shop. As he preferred to do on non-working Saturdays. Even if it rained–there were canopies and umbrellas set up, even in the pandemic.

Iris put up her oars, one on each side.

“Doesn’t it feel safe out here? I mean, from the world, from illness. And so many other sad events.”

“I suppose so. But I’d rather be in touch with that world, too. Live within it. I mean, we can’t run away from things. Or we just shouldn’t. We have the responsibility to do what we can, carrying on and planning for a changed future.”

“Yes, I know. But people manage the best ways they can, not always the same as each other, right? We all have different ways to achieve those goals.”

Oh, here it comes, he thought, our great divide. He looked toward the sound of a truck rumbling over some gravel road, likely a few ATVs or an earthmover to shove dirt around to make way for a new house. Garner was beginning to attract attention from city dwellers. That appealed to him, the investment aspect. But so much of the land was privately owned already, it was hard to get in. Except, they had an “in”, didn’t they? Or she did, anyway.

“So we have noted before,” he said. “I like to be in the mix; you like to step back and work from the edges.”

She grabbed the oars and rowed a little more to pass a couple fishing nearby. “Not fully stand back, just to get more or better perspectives. Use my talents the ways I feel work best.”

He looked at her quizzically. “What are you getting at?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Yes, I know. We keep beating around the bush, don’t we.”

“Well, much has happened this year. We feel so much less certain of anything, It takes thought.”

Her strong slim arms pulled on the oars in a rhythmical manner, a slow but steady power so that they crossed over the lake toward the house with the slightest lurches, then more gliding, each stroke moving through the chilly water almost soundlessly. She was good at this, had a way with the lake no matter the manner in which she approached it. She had such a feel for lake life.

Iris could swim across it; he couldn’t swim well even in a pool though he could almost dive well. Iris could sail the green Sunfish very well; he never had and then when he tried, they’d capsized. Iris could tell the weather by the direction, speed and shape of waves against the shore, the sound of wind in trees. She had grown up near Seattle in a smaller, woodsy suburb, but she had learned about most important things in and on Spirit Lake, it seemed. Elliot had learned on the fly as his mother worked as a blackjack dealer in casinos. But he knew things, too. They just were not in her knowledge pool–as his were not in hers.

She let the oars drag a bit in the water and looked right at him. “I want to stay, Elliot.”

“Of course you do, you say this every time we come here. And you lost your beloved grandfather and you miss the old times…”

“No, I mean, yes, that is true. But I meant that rather than rent out the house by summer and for a long while as we discussed, I want to just live here. To keep it for us to use.”

“You can’t be serious. Alone, you mean? I have to go back to the city. What about your own work? Friends? What about us?”

“I have figured it out. You’ll drive over all the weekends you can. I’ll come to the city, too. I can freelance anywhere– you know that. My friends? They can visit eventually, when it is safe, and vice versa. I have a few old friends around here, too. We could make it work, Elliot! It seems so perfect–we each get what we want and still have each other.”

Her expression was so intense, she looked like a giddy teenager. It seemed suddenly absurd, the whole thing. Was this what she’d imagined when the will was read? How had he failed to miss it?

“The whole time–you had this planned, didn’t you Iris?”

She shook her head and started to row hard again. “I didn’t, truly, Elliot. But ever since we drove down the private road to the house I felt like it was where I most belong. Once and for all. I might discover otherwise, I guess. But I want to try it for six months, at least, see how it works out.”

“You can’t mean this.” It was sinking in with a feeling akin to horror. She wanted to leave him then, essentially–end up living here? They’d made a sound plan, they would keep but lease the house, then someday perhaps build a tidy cabin of their own on the lake. For holidays. For investment purposes. And the land was worth something.

Once more she let the oars dangle in placid water, dragging and leaving barest wakes on either side.

“Don’t you see that it’s what Grandpa Bolo wanted for me? He gifted the place to me–and Carrie, who doesn’t even want it. He knew how I loved Spirit Lake and the forest and mountains, its people, the way of life. He knew it’d be good for me to still love and watch over it. I don’t really trust others to do that right…” He had turned away, hands holding tightly to the boat’s sides. “Elliot– I can paint and make things so happily here. There’s much to inspire me. I can do really good work here again, I know it–I’ve been stuck, almost bored lately as you know. This might be the answer to it all.”

“Yes, your selfish answer to our situation, our being out of sync, your artsy world versus my commerce world..it is such a mess, isn’t it?” He stood, angily gesturing toward shore, at her, and rocking the rowboat. “I can’t accept this, it isn’t good enough for us both!”

The boat began to tilt and sway side to side.

“Elliot, be careful sit down now!” she called out.

But he was off balance, falling fast, and as he grazed the edge going over, he thought, this is how it ends? Iris dove in deeply and the cold shocked her hard but there he was sinking, arms waving, legs flailing, and she breast stroked her way to him, grabbed him around the waist and pushed upward with all her strength, her legs beating the water, her free shoving the stunning water away, reaching and straining toward light and air. He was heavy, heavier than he should be, and she realized he was pushing against her, fighting, afraid of drowning, afraid of taking her with him, perhaps. She clamped him with her arm around his chest, held his back to her front, plowed ahead, up and up before her lungs burst. They broke through, bobbed upward with the force of it.

“Elliot,” she sputtered, “stop fighting, we’re safe!”

He was gasping hard, coughing and choking, and grabbing the side of the rowboat when a motor boat came up fast.

“You need help? Oh, Iris! My gosh, let us help!”

The big bearded Peabody brothers, still hearty at sixty and sixty-two, hauled him complaining and gasping over the side of their boat, checked him over, threw their jackets over them. Then the older brother joined Iris in her boat and rowed her back. The younger one whisked Elliott over in the motorboat.

Chattering teeth made her clench her jaw. They’d nebeen in not more then two or three minutes, that was good, but still, so cold. “Never could keep you straight, look like twins.”

“I’m Adam, that’s Mike,” he said, and laughed as if it was a joke. “Good thing you can swim.” He cleared his throat. “Might be good to teach your husband.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Grateful for your help.”

“Anything for Bolo’s folks, rest his soul–any time.”

Iris blinked back tears. Her hair streamed, her jacket and shirt clung to her chest. She’d lost both loosely tied tennis shoes. The ones she had left there a few years, just for the lake.

“Long, warm shower now, or a bath, both of you,” Mike said as he dropped off Elliot with a nod–and a tip of his hat to Iris.

******

“I don’t get it, but I see there’s no changing your mind. If I had my way, I might never see this place again. Or any other silty, weedy, stinking lake, for that matter!”

“I know.” Iris poured coffee into his thermos for the drive back to Seattle, placed the sandwich and apple in the lunch bag. If only he really was just going to leave for a day’s work and then coming back shortly. “But we will give a good try, and thank you for that. You won’t decide to throw me over in a divorce action?…”

“No.” Saying it made it a more clear and certain decision, through he’d had a niggling doubt overnight.

Iris walked him to the car. “So, you’ll be back with Tom and my car next Saturday, right? He loves the outdoors, especially fishing if I recall.”

“He does,” he said grudgingly. “Yes, and I’ll cart over more clothes and whatever else you decide. Make that list and text or email me by Thursday.”

“Yes.” When he got in and shut the door, Iris leaned at the window he rolled down. “You know it’ll all be alright if we look at it as mutually beneficial. Right? We’ve been at odds a long while, and I’ve been restless with much and you have felt neglected. You want to work longer and later hours even at home. I like early rising and early to bed. You like running every day and I like yoga…we both need some time to regroup. It isn’t just me wanting this place, it’s more, I believe.”

“I agree, Iris, it’s just not easy. And less so in these crazy times.”

“We can be in touch every day. We’ll see each other as often as possible. It will be a small adventure.” She leaned close, kissed him tenderly. It felt good, the kiss–and their farewell for the time being.

He began to back up, then stopped. “I never learned after all this time why the lake is called Spirit Lake.”

“Oh, that.” She smiled, gazed past him, to the shore beyond the trees. “I might tell you someday. We’ll see.”

He shook his head, waved at her, then left.

Nana Nell had told her one summery day when Iris was ten. They’d been drawing together the shore, the blanket covering the stones and lumpy earth, August green trees dancing in the wind.

“I make art better outside, Nana Nell.”

“Of course you do. It’s the lake.”

Iris squinted at her. “Why?”

“Because once there was a woman who ran away from home to find her heart’s desire. She didn’t want to live an ordinary life. She wanted to do something special and good for the world, but she didn’t know what until she arrived at this jewel of a lake.”

Nana Nell paused as she added color here and there to her sketch.

“Nana, what next?”

“She became a well-known artist. She also donated much of her money to help build an orphan’s home in Garner. But then, at too young an age she drowned in a terrific thunderstorm that came up while she was in her boat, drawing nature’s beauties.”

“That’s terrible.”

“But that’s not the full ending, child. They never found her. But she finds those who come here. Every morning at sunrise she skims the lake. Well, her spirit does, and she watches over the rest of us if we belong here. And if anyone falls overboard, she brings them back up to safety.”

Iris said nothing a long while. Then: “So those people live?”

Nana Nell nodded.

“When was this, Nana Nell? Did she have a name?”

“Oh my, it was Mary something…Mary Murray…Mary Millay…Well, it was before I was born, before Grandpa or even my parents came to be. It was before anyone can exactly recall, anyway. But the lake does not forget. And she still calls out to some, you know. She called to me, and Grandpa Bolo, and now to you.”

Iris smiled so hard her face felt it might freeze that way. “Because we’re artists!….and Grandpa Bolo loves the lake and earth, too!”

Nana Nell smiled back, patted her hand and bid her keep drawing.

“Maybe she was part of our family,” Iris said impulsively as she shaded a mountain peak.

But Nana Nell did not reply. She was busy creating.

When she had thought enough of Elliot and his leaving and her staying, Iris got her sketchbook and colored pencils and sat on the dock. A damp wind fragrant with a herald of spring on its tail came by, and warm sun soothed her sadness, and music of the lake awakened a dormant joy. Before too long, there would be sweeter rains and softer days rife with wildflowers. Creatures would venture out more, stop at her door. She would go swimming and boating. She would make beautiful things. She might just sit and attend to the water and sky. She had not felt so comforted and right in her own skin in a long while. But Elliot would call it home one day, too. He just hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Or, at least, she kept a small hope of it.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Venus is a Planet (Feather on the Stoop), Part 1

Lydia was a homebody; she liked the everydayness of things there. How, when she returned to her small one bedroom apartment after work, everything looked the same. Unremarkable, perhaps, but undisturbed. The tea kettle on the right back burner where it whistled and sighed as it ran out of steam each morning. The bronze, burgundy and green paisley tablecloth, smooth and clean, slipped over a round table by a main window. Her bed refreshingly unmussed, three pillows plumped for bedtime. Her books lining the wall stacked by size. Such simplicity and order gave her a ping of happiness as her eyes swept over all a last time, then closed the front door firmly behind her. And when she opened it later in the day, she released a pleasant sigh before the door even shut.

At least she told herself this was all true. At the Head and Body Salon an older co-worker, Alma (who said they were the same age though Lydia saw the crow’s feet and loose skin about her neck–she didn’t care, anyway) challenged her sharing of such a peaceful tableau.

“But to have it so quiet every single day? I can’t imagine not having my husband griping about something. Or the canaries not singing–they keep me company when he doesn’t.” She smiled; such thoughts gave her a grudging pleasure.

“I have car and foot traffic, don’t forget–or the train lumbering by at night, its whistle almost a comforting shriek. There is a big dog, a Lab, above me–I hear Riley romping, big barking at times. I know my neighbors, sort of, Riley’s owner, his name–” She picked up the phone to answer a customer call. “Hello? Just a refresh? Hmm, yes, maybe next Monday? Let me check and we’ll get you taken care of, not to worry.”

Alma rolled her eyes at Lydia, then waved at a regular who just came in–the gal insisted on a rinse that made her mostly white hair more bluish. Alma longed to just dye it all royal blue and be done with it. But that wasn’t her way. Tony had more fun with clients. He started to chatter at her and the young one in his chair; she could barely follow his staccato speech so often just nodded. She and Tony worked long hours since Ginny, the owner had her baby and took leave. Anyway, Tony got the younger ones, and gloriously experimented. But a job was a job, thank God for it, Alma thought, as she aimed the hair drier onto a champagne blonde’s thick fluffy mop. She worried about Lydia sometimes, though. She had worked there over a year, and never seemed to go out afterwards–she was maybe thirty-five. Still half a kid, really. She harrumphed.

Lydia tapped her teeth with a pencil as she watched the two stylists plying their trade. Alma could do what she did with eyes covered after all her years experience. Tony got excited, took risks–sometimes too great a risk. But the salon made decent money. She should be happier in the mini-beehive of activity so awash in pleasantries. Who came and left a hair and skin treatment salon feeling miserable? No one that she heard about. She worked efficiently and nicely, took satisfaction in her multi-tasking. Yet Lydia’s mother always had said, “You have the mindset of a dizzy moth–you stare at the light, take in little and do even less, get burned. I can’t understand daydreamers–it does nothing for you but slow you down.”

Or a variation on those sentences. Moths were far better than that; she needed to read the facts. But, no. .. she was the space cadet, poor Lydia the laggard, Lydia the forgetful. In fact, she recalled a great deal; she just didn’t pay much attention to her mother. Her mother was so busy, too ambitious in her opinion. She was a hyper overachiever by any stretch and Lydia–she was just herself. So what if she got dreamy-eyed? She still knew how to live fine. Didn’t she?

“How can I have birthed a slacker daughter?” asked the mother who had become VP at a small real estate agency last year. “Have you looked into a civil servant exam yet? Even the legal assistant program? It isn’t too late to forge ahead. I will still pay for a four year degree!”

Lydia no longer quite answered; she mostly slid about those words like a cat slipping between legs, there and not there, not even rude. She found something to do with her hands when confronted– like rearrange the flower bouquet her mother dropped off after work with take-out twice a month. They had dinner, if you could call it that, and in 35 minutes maximum her mother was gone and not a word until the next time.

Like her mother, now Alma seemed to be saying she wasn’t making much of a mark on life. Or life wasn’t leaving any interesting marks upon her days and nights. That’s how it sounded to her, at least.

In bed at night Lydia stared at the ceiling light fixture before drifting off. It was a very old, fake chandelier. She watched various lights bounce from street and windows, then off the teardrop crystals. When the train rumbled by, the crystals shook the smallest bit. She loved that, a little sassiness of light and form. But she’d feel a sadness well up from time to time. Her bed was terrifically big some nights, the room seeming emptier for all the lovely dances of crystal and light and shadow.

It wasn’t easy to meet people that she really wanted to meet, or who cared to understand her. Deep inside, Lydia feared that she’d never really know anyone, and that she would live and die without being truly known. It haunted her when she least wanted to think on it.

*****

That the lady was there at all startled her. Lydia had to step back fast to avoid falling over an outstretched leg. She was slumped onto her side over on the landing above three short steps, not far from a doorway. The watch repair shop had closed month ago when the owner passed away. No one seemed to desire it’s worn homeliness. But random people didn’t just hang out on unused steps. Four blocks down, maybe. Not there.

Lydia checked her grandmother’s delicate watch, then looked closely at the form. She knew it was a woman because of the shoes and hat. The former were brown lace up, calf-high boots with a narrow, worn heel; the hat was purple, crumpled, wide-brimmed and with a kind of dirty feather stuck in the hatband. Her form was large but likely tall, not overweight. Her coat was a stained Mackintosh. It seemed too cold to be wearing such a coat. Was it lined for warmth?

“You alright? Should I call someone for you?” She reached out to touch a shoulder, then drew back. Maybe no one ever had come for her or she didn’t want anyone around. She guessed the person had been living pretty rough for some time. She might be angry that anyone bothered her.

Lydia felt jittery– yet curious. What was wrong, anyway? What could she do? Her watch showed she was running late. The woman stirred, pulled her knees up close to her chest. Her pale face turned enough that it was partly revealed in the weak morning winter light. Her eyelids fluttered, then squeezed tightly against the light. She lifted a gloved hand–finger poking out the ends–and rubbed her lips gently. There was what looked like dried blood on the upper lip. Then she buried her head into folded arms, relaxed again.

Her heart beating fast, Lydia stood there a long moment, then looked up at the sky. It was getting bluer and brighter. Perhaps no rain, then. She glanced at the woman and frowned, then went on her way. She kept turning back, but nothing seemed different there. Just her entire morning.

******

When work wound down at seven o’clock, she tidied her desk, waved to her co-workers, and left. Alma and Tony exchanged a look–where was she off to so fast?

As she walked down her street, Lydia strained to see the shopfront where the strange woman had been. In her mind, her name was Feather, nothing else had come to her. It appeared dark, empty; the sun had long gone down. But as she slowed and peered into the area, she saw her sitting with back against the doorway, head bowed, arms crossed over her chest. She had on frayed jeans and they now covered her boots.

“Are you okay?” Lyida said softly.

But the woman didn’t speak, only held herself closer in with her arms, lowered her head deeper, and seemed to be asleep shortly after.

After a quick dinner, she paced a bit, thinking of what to do. In her bedroom at the foot of her bed there was a cedar chest with wool blankets and extra throw pillows and some other items she rarely used. She pulled out a wool Pendleton blanket ivory with yellow, red and green stripes at each end, one she’d gotten used. And a crewel floral-covered pillow. She found a large cotton bag she’d well used for market trips, so folded the blanket and pillow and stuffed them into it.

She threw on her jacket and shoes, then ran down one flight of steps and out the door, walked briskly down the street. But when she got to the steps where the feather hat woman had been, the spot was full of nothing. Hesitating a moment, she put down the bag and retreated, standing with hands on hips looking about. A bicyclist wheezed by and glanced over his shoulder at her; two cars passed, one slowing as a passenger eyed the bag. What was the point if someone stole it or tossed it in a dumpster? She ran up the steps and grabbed the bag, turning slowly to check one last time for the now-named Feather. The street got busier as people headed home after a dinner out or a late day at work. A gust of wind lifted her dark hair and strands covered her eyes. Pushing them out of the way, she walked back home, shoulders crunched in the growling wind. Well, it was presumptuous of her, she thought. Her dumb ideas!

Across the street another woman watched as she thought, It’s her, that one who stopped. Why would she stop for her, what did she want? She wasn’t begging. She’d have none of that. This was temporary, a kink in the road, that’s all. But, Lordy, that blanket would feel sweet and toasty against her cool prickled skin. She pulled the thin coat close at her neck and rambled down the street to look for discarded restaurant food. Dumpsters were never an easy thing. But she was strong enough.

******

In the morning, Lydia saw that just the purple hat lay on the top step of Feather’s spot, so she went back upstairs, got the bag, then carried it back into sprinkling rain. She looked about–no one paying any attention, the homeless woman was not about–so set it by the hat.

She made it to work on time but all morning considered: surely she wouldn’t leave that worn but pretty hat?

“Lydia, calling Lydia, you there?”

Tony called out, waving a brush–other hand deep in red-streaked black hair– at the ringing phone.

“Head and Body Salon, good morning!” she chirped.

“What is that girl about the past couple days?” Alma whispered as she washed her client’s hair in the shampooing sink. “You’d wager she met a man…oh, not that, right?” She smirked as he raised his eyebrows.

“Okay,” Alma said, hunched over the counter clients leaned on above the desk, “give.”

Lydia sometimes didn’t understand Alma or Tony; they too often talked in shorthand. “Huh?”

“Whatdya mean, ‘huh’. You’re more drifty than usual, my dear–and look like you’re planning a secret trip somewhere far away and it’s all you can do to keep it quiet.”

Lydia rearranged her pens and pencils before her, lined each one up. “Well, that’s not true. I have no plans. Just a few things on my mind. You know, the holidays are coming up…”

“Well, that should be easy. Your mom always takes you to Bartles for a swanky dinner and gives you a gift card for thousands. Or is she taking you to Tahiti this year like you said she did three years ago?” Alma laughed; Lydia always worried about what to give her mother in return. She got that but really, it was not such a problem. “Did you make the idea list for her yet? You should come to my house–the hubby wants everything but he’s getting far less than that.”

“Alma, take it easy on our coworker!” Tony called out and smiled sweetly at the receptionist. He’d been pondering his own ideas of what he could swap with her and the other two at their annual holiday potluck. “She’s doing her job, which is more than I can say for you.” He pointed emphatically with his rattail comb at the mess Alma had left at her station. It was a slower day.

“Yeah, yeah,” Alma said. “Chin up, Sweetie, your mom will be fine, she gets nice stuff. Make her a poppy seed cake… I’d like that.”

“I’m not sure what this Christmas has going for it. Mother will be in New York for some conference-slash-social getaway–likely time with Grant, her newest–until the last minute. And it’s not thousands, by the way…only a few hundred!” She snickered and batted at Alma’s arm with a pen topped with plastic daisy, then was answered the phone.

On the way back home, Lydia walked rapidly to try to avoid the sudden downpour which only made her wetter as the wind rushed her faster. It was darker than usual with the curtain of rain, the heavy clouds above. But as she passed the steps where Feather had been before she slowed, anyway, pushing wet bangs off her forehead to get a good look. There she was, crouched under the metal awning of the doorway. Wrapped in the wool blanket, the pillow behind her head while leaned against the long glass pane in the door frame. The cloth bag was stuffed with something Lydia couldn’t discern.

“Hello,” she said, nodding at the blanketed figure. “Glad you found it.”

Feather looked away as the train clackety-clacked on tracks from a block away. Lydia hurried on. It was late. She needed hot soup, a grilled cheese and steaming tea, then a warm bubble bath and a book as she grew dozy on the couch.

It was only when she slipped her tired lean body into the inviting frothy water that she thought: did Feather get to eat tonight? When did she last have a basic hot bath? She sank deeper into the gentle warmth. Such comfort and relief in her ordinary, secure world…and she felt shame, and wondered what else she– a fumbling human who understood so little– might do. Tears sprang up as sandalwood perfume wafted into her nose, clung to her rosy skin. She wept, grew sleepy, then got out.

That night the rain stopped a handful of drops at a time. In bed, looking up at the shimmery chandelier and listening for the ten o’clock train whistle, she thought how things might be different for Feather, if only…. or for herself… who knew? The whistle blew and she closed her eyes, imagined that she who lived on those steps might have blinked hers open wide to check for the blanket and pillow–to make sure the world in all its violence was not coming upon her in the rain skidded dark.

******

The next morning Lydia found the blanket folded carefully on top the pillow, all pressed against the door. But Feather and the bag were gone. She looked up and down the street, found it as usual, busy but calm, and left a plastic storage container of macaroni and cheese and green beans piled at the side. It had a plastic fork; she added bottled seltzer. She looked about a last time and, satisfied no one saw her at it, she hid all under the blanket.

As she pushed open the salon door, she was surprised so many were waiting. Was she late?

Alma sidled up to her. “You know that holiday special we ran? This is the start of an avalanche, get ready girl.”

The whole day was hectic, full of talk and extra chores that when they were finishing up, Lydia wasn’t prepared to chat. She wanted to get home. The book she had started was excellent and the bath awaited.

“Wait a second, Lydia. We wanted to talk to you, “Alma said, grabbing her bag. “How about coming down to Shorty’s with us and having a beer and fries?”

“Oh, I can’t– not tonight, have things at home to tie up and–“

Tony shook her loosely by the arm. “You can’t spare us an hour?”

Lydia frowned. Could she? Not really, not now. “How about Saturday night unless my mother comes by as supposedly planned? Or next week? I really have stuff to address…”

“Don’t say we haven’t offered… again…you’re a dodger!”

Lydia winked at them and was out the door.

She took her time. The wind was up but the sky was a radiant darkness from which stars beamed like heaven’s eyes. She recalled as a child, when wishing on one, how she felt certain her wish had been heard. But her mother, sitting on her bed beside her.

“If you wished on that bright one”–she pointed it out–“well, sorry, that’s a planet. Venus. Try another one.”

But that year her wish–wasn’t it the science kit?– came true at Christmas, so she kept wishing on Venus, or what she thought was Venus–even after learning it rained sulfuric acid and would flatten you dead if you went there. Now she didn’t wish, of course. But she still believed the sky with its remarkable planets and beautiful stars might hear her pleas, if distantly. She gave up a few secrets when they shone as they did tonight; they were perhaps God’s guardians at the gateway to the great beyond. Possibilities reigned in Lydia’s thinking, even if that’s where they simply stayed.

From the steps Feather watched Lydia walk closer. On the bottom step was the container and plastic fork, cleaned. She had the heavy Pendleton blanket around her shoulders and over her lap. Her hat was on.

Lydia bent and picked up the container and fork, smiled. But Feather was looking up at the sky with its stars saved up after days of rain.

******

Lydia finished her cup of coffee at ten o-clock in the morning, grabbed the bagel made of almond butter and raspberry jam, and a sausage and cheddar-filled whole wheat sandwich, a cold seltzer and put them in a large paper bag.

Feather was sleeping. Or she was pretending well. Her rumpled hat covered her face; the feather looked like a wet owl feather. It occurred to Lydia that this was a better name, then thought she ought to know her real name; Feather was just silly to call her. Like an owl, though, she was still most of the time, then looking everywhere but at her. Likely awake at night, standing guard of her stoop, few possessions, her safety. And then she’d fly off.

At work it was a regular day–that is, it was hectic again, as it would be until the New Year. She thought about little, working the phone, greeting customers, who for some reason were talking her ear off with their excitement for parties coming up. It was an infectious thing, their trilling away. They looked at her closer, and she responded with eyes warm and bright. Lydia was feeling pleased with things, it seemed.

Her friends knew nothing of Feather. It would stay that way. It was her personal life, her own experience.

That night, the stoop was empty. The items were gone. Lydia studied the street, waited a bit, then went to her home. Anxiety snagged her as she fixed a meal. Had she done too much, was that possible? The woman hadn’t asked for one thing; maybe she didn’t want anything. No, she ate the food, used the blanket and pillow. Maybe it was too hard, any “charity” taken. It confused her, and though she did not rest as well that night, she awakened feeling hopeful, anyway. She packed a few protein bars, a peanut butter sandwich, and filled a thermos with coffee. She tossed together a small baggie of sugar and one of powdered creamer plus a plastic spoon and fork. Added a can of tuna fish with a lid that could be pulled open with a tab. Lydia stopped. Did the woman drink? She didn’t think so. She never looked drunk or smelled of alcohol. She looked lost and very tired, but almost proud when she sat up

She was there, on her feet, and the blanket had slipped into a bunched tower of brightly striped wool. She was talking to someone, a man. He was listening, stood so close to her that Lydia knew they were familiar with one another, or she hoped. Then he slapped her across the face and charged off.

“What’s going on? Can I help?” Lydia’s heart crashed against her chest as she took in every feature of the woman. loveliness bloomed beneath grime and pain, and a youthfulness that was wearing thin.

Feather’s hands went to her cheek, but shook her head. She looked down the street and saw he was gone.

“I’m okay, wanted money, haha,” she said, her voice surprisingly low and a bit hoarse. Back to the stoop. She climbed and sat with elbows on knees, chin propped in her hands. Her hair, tangled by a long time unwashed, stuck close by her ears and face. She put the hat back on; the feather wobbled. She stuck it in better, looked away after she spotted the bag of food.

“Can I leave this with you? Will you be alright?”

She nodded, looked at her hands a long moment, rubbing them as if trying to warm them up. Or remove the street. “Who are you?” she asked as if to herself, but mostly to the odd woman.

But Lydia was on her way. She was trying to calm down. That man had hurt Feather. It made her feel ill, but she didn’t want to be late, either.

******

“Why is there a woman camping out on the watch repair stoop? And she had a blanket that looked much like your old one.” She took a bite of food, then shook her head. “Don’t get involved! I should buy that place… well, maybe not.”

Her mother was rushed more than usual, and she was barely finishing some Thai takeout; she had a meeting at Bartles. Had to leave room for great drinks.

Lydia said, “She’s homeless, Mother. But she’s okay.

“Is that your blanket, Lydia? I’ll get you a new one, but only if you don’t give it away.”

“It’s fine, I have enough. When do you leave for New York? Are you going to be back in time for our annual night out?”

Her mother shrugged luxuriously, her hands palms up. “Who knows for certain, my dear. I will try my best. Grant and I–“

“I know. It’s okay.”

Her mother got up. “So sorry to rush. I’m glad to see you looking well. Now, don’t give anything more away, you hear? Hard earned money and all that. Donate to a reputable charity if so moved. And if I can’t be here on the date we chose, I’ll make it up to you, of course! And I will call or text you.”

With that, her mother laid a slim hand against her cheek, gave her a peck where coolness was left by her touch. After she was gone, her signature perfume lingered on her skin and in the air. Lydia waited a few minutes, then washed it off.

She took the rest of her Thai dinner downstairs, left it beside the softly snoring body and returned to her refuge.

******

The next morning was Sunday and no work to take up time and energy.

The stoop was empty. The blanket was gone, the pillow was gone, there was no bag full of anything. The woman who lived there, the owl feather, had drifted elsewhere. Lydia left a bag with two croissants and two little tubs of butter and a plastic knife; also, a fat wedge of cheese and a giant sized water, plain. Then she yawned, put head on arms crossed on her knees. She welcomed thin sunshine on her shoulders and head. She had slept fitfully. There was rain in the air but it was holding back. The sharpening breeze was moving about buildings, pushing down the streets with its wintry intent. She decided to walk to the park a block and a half away, where there were skeletal oaks and green laden pine trees lining the walks and a small fountain burbling–if it was on in December, she could not recall. A walk before the downpour and very little to do at home.

At the park she circled twice, and thought she saw her. The brown coat hanging crookedly, the cloth bag stuffed overly full–the blanket, pillow?– hair tangled and lifting in a mass as the wind blew hard. She was talking with another woman and a man, people who might also be homeless if one determined such a thing based on clothing and heavy slump of shoulders, the way they huddled together like co-conspirators. Trying figuring out the next place to shelter. But they were far ay and it was not her business who they were or what they did.

Lydia sat on a bench, stared at the fountain a moment–no water–and opened her book. It would likely soon fall, the rain, but she had a few minutes to read, to be taken away; to watch and listen for the cranky train that would pass. Then she’d be home and listen to music, putter about her apartment, plan what to give her mother for a gift and also Feather the next time they met up. If they did. She hoped they might, unless it meant she’d instead found a safe harbor that was clean and warm–where folks were nice to her. No one slapping her, either.

Later, when the rain took a long needed break for the night, after Lydia had been knitting a scarf just like some old person with nothing better to do–Alma would tell her that; Tony would offer to take it off her hands but it was for someone else–much later, as the sun parted skittish clouds and daubs of blue were offering visitation, Feather opened the sack left for her. She had walked a long time. She had talked with others, found them hard to be around. The shelters were filling up already. A cold wet night again, soon, too soon. She found the croissants mostly dry–the bag had been left way under the awning, where little rain had splashed. She held the opened butter tub close to her nose and inhaled deeply its richness. Then the sweet and toasty croissants. She could imagine how tasty they’d be if they were warm and moist and…. she shook her head.

Of course they were cold as she pressed the butter on them. She took a big bite and then another, another, another, and she hummed with delight, then started on the second and Lordy, so good to me, she thought. So tasty, it nearly hurt but she licked her fingers clean one by one. Feather pulled the yellow and green striped blanket closer, its rough heat like a tent of power, her eyes shut against the confounding world. She prayed for the shy, skinny woman He’d sent her way, that she would sleep just fine inside the fresh starlight. Like she felt she might, too, with her belly fuller. The train whistle cried out to her one last time for the night and she let herself be at rest awhile.

(Readers, Part 2 is coming up next week. Stay tuned.)

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Benevolence

It happened that she was walking through Cutter’s Field close to her parents’ home place, one she had enjoyed as a child when a rainbow of wildflowers bloomed and she ran barefoot through swaths of swaying grasses. Her name was called out of nowhere, not the one that carried her steadfastly into adulthood, but the one a chosen few had used to remind her she was loved. Or at times by others to torture her–but it had long been hers, whichever cause to use it was at hand.

“Bunny…”

It was born on the October wind, a remnant of the past. She sensed it a ghost name even as she slowed but spun around, anyway. No one in her current life knew she had been Bunny, and she’d have denied it, so absurd a nickname she’d had to bear so long. If also worn with some appreciation for the mantle of affection it brought. But she was in her old hometown and may not have managed to stay invisible.

The calling out tingled from ears to heart in a race to her mind. It felt much as the reason she’d been named it: a soft rabbit is a quiet creature, then suddenly can leap away so spritely, gone, invisible again in thicket of grass or bush. And, well, her sister had said, you have such a small, velvety face, Bree, then laughing though what she’d meant to say but never quite did was, Your skin is soft and beautiful on your cute bunny face, more lovely than mine. Bree knew what she meant, usually, but it was a fact that Esther was born beautiful and Bree was born…with a most pleasant, perhaps elfin face. And born quite a bit smarter.

Esther often put bunny ears on Bree from behind, two fingers sticking up above her head. Many a picture had captured it to Bree’s dismay. She was a circumspect child, and was on the way to becoming a poised albeit restrained young woman whose feelings ran far deeper than seen. The name stuck until Bunny nee Bree reached age 16, at which time she had put her foot down and ordered it to stop at Sunday dinner. There had been were hard times that weekend; she’d suddenly had enough. But it was not done with entirely in school. At home, her family reserved it for times like birthdays. She suffered it kindly with them until she left home for good. That was fourteen years ago, at age twenty-two.

So as she was walking across the untidy and welcoming field that fall day, she was not expecting it. The air pulsed with intoxicating warmth saved for tail end of fall, and earth’s scent and all it held rose to greet her. It certainly hadn’t been uttered by Esther, who also had left long ago for beaches of California. A deeper voice, she mused, but it was hard to say when the shimmying wind rustled and stole away sounds. She saw no one save their much older neighbor, Joe Harter, on his tractor farther afield. He had waved, she thought, as he turned a corner to start down another row.

It was only by chance she was there, visiting her father before moving 700 miles away from him– as he battled worsening health–to Chicago for her work as an interpreter. She had wondered when she might see him again if they didn’t have a good visit right then so she’d been there a week. He didn’t want to move with her, no; she was not to worry. This, after seeing him infrequently for years while working in Europe. It was difficult for them both. But soon the trip back home would be much shorter than from Milan.

She would leave him tomorrow, and the walk was a last consoling act in which she indulged, as she had also so loved the fields and woods. A roundup of memories during a bittersweet and soothing walk, with birds discoursing, wind dancing, open sky winking at her through the trees’ glimmering hues of autumn. She kept on, contented to look and listen and smell it all.

“Bunny!” The call was not loud but distinct and closer.

By then she’d reached the edge of the field and dashed to Bender’s Creek in Little Woods. She squatted in the leaves beside it, a hand trailing in a tiny waterfall as it rushed over rocks. But the faint voice rendered her immobile. She didn’t want to stand and verify who it was. She wanted to camouflage herself in shadowed greenery and dipping branches. Bree fell forward on her knees, bent close to the water, waited until that name disappeared with name caller.

Footsteps shuffled through the woods’ detritus. Each step quickened Bree’s pulse, and her features froze, her round cheeks stained bright as raspberries. Her dripping hand dampened her forehead, smoothed hair back, then she rose and turned.

He stood a hundred yards away among the birches, and in an instant it was that afternoon when many decisions were altered. A shock zigzagged through neural pathways but she stood taller, chin raised a notch.

“Rollie, is it you.” A small statement. She knew.

Saying the whisper of his name made it real; she wished to pull it back or bury it deep in ground. His step forward breached an internal wall and so she turned down her senses, stilled her mind. And looked at him with a steady gaze, readying for what was to come.

He came closer with a limp although he crossed earth between them without hesitation, a hand reaching. She remained in place, words like vapor in her mouth, flooding her tongue so all she could do was part her lips to exhale muteness into burnished air. He stopped, uncertain, took off and clutched his baseball cap. The once severe lines of his face were softened by a bristly half-shadow of reddish beard, and his head cocked at a half-deferential tilt.

It seemed impossible they’d both materialize at that way, in that place; it was a fearsome and strange alchemy of time and space. But he was present in much the same way as he’d ever been: solid, unimpeachably good looking in a craggy way–which she and Esther had first called feral, repeating the odd word, giggling–and potentially dangerous or simply alert but still charged by a wildness that lurked, rarely visible. But he was smaller, even caved in at chest as if pulled inward. And the limp an old injury, perhaps; he has been a person in perpetual motion, anything might happen to such a man. She felt his loss in a dim way. But Rollie still was present with the power of himself.

She spoke to break the tension or the spell, to make things easier. “Well, then. How is it you’re here?”

“My house–” he gestured toward town as if he thought she’d forgotten–“that is, my grandparents’. I inherited it, with Kevin.” He looked long at her. “Visiting–uh, we were looking it over. My cousin said he saw you walking down Ames Road. Thought he was joking but then….thought you might be coming here.” He put his baseball cap back on, adjusted the bill neatly, regaining lost composure enough. Taller again.

She watched as if from a distance, nodded agreeably, a nice girl who had become a well mannered woman.

“Can we talk, Bunny…”

It was said with such familiarity, still. But: he wanted to talk. She had no time for echoes of that past, Bunny’s past; it had been resoundingly empty of sound, far beyond her hearing range for what seemed a lifetime. She hadn’t even lived in the States for many years.

And then he leaned toward her the barest amount, as if to not seem too urgent. “Will you speak with me, Bree?”

“I can listen,” she offered and strode along the creek bank toward sunniness of meadow beyond.

Rollie followed, startling a bevy of wings above, the crows objecting, but his lame leg caused a tennis shoe to catch on a rock. She slowed. Bree wanted to escape the inviting shade of woods with its gurgle of creek, leave the place they’d last been when still young. Too naïve but in love. She shook her head to empty it of a gathering of mages.

Breaking through to open land was a relief. There were logs piled to one side, a few stumps. When they found two close–but not too close–they rested.

He pulled shoulders back, and was impressive as long ago, all pride and grace, maybe more so. But his face was softer, with added weight and age. With trails and labors. “You’ve been in Italy, I heard. A nice embassy job?”

She shrugged. “I’m an interpreter.”

“You were a genius with languages–what’s it called?”

“A polyglot.”

“You speak and understand how many?”

“Eight, almost nine, and a few dialects most have not heard about. It is what I do, what I was born to do, I guess.”

“That’s so much more than in high school!” Eyebrows raised and lowered, and he studied lines in his palms before giving them a rub. “Study and travel, I guess you’ve had a lot of both. Amazing how things change.”

“You meant to design things.”

“I’m an architect, residential, some commercial. I only come here on week-ends. I…we… live in St. Louis.”

“Ah, that all sounds good.”

Bustling bees were alighting on bendable stems, buzzing about the ground and nestling into things. She wanted to watch them instead of him and did so. The sweetness of grasses was so pure it made her heady. She willed Rollie to depart, then focused on the length of horizon, a simmering blue along treetops and fields. That openness, a great depth and width of things that always touched her. It meant home.

Bree swiveled her head back to him. “Rollie, what is it you want to say?”

With a smooth movement reflective of his nature, Rollie leaned forward, lifted his eyes, took her in, then sat back. “It has been a long time, Bunny, but still I think of how things were. How they ended. About you.”

Bree held herself in place. She’d not welcome that name any more from him but she gave him a promise of a smile, lips turning up ever so slightly.

“I knew I had to talk to you someday, once more. Make amends… tie up all the loose ends we left. I was going to send you an email or call one day but this is much better, to say these things to you, just do the right thing. Is that okay…I mean, now that a long time has passed?”

Was it alright? Was it better to speak truth? She wondered. He stared again at his hands, perhaps divining the outcome.

Did flesh and blood forming syllables add so much heft and meaning to words? Did they become greater instruments when spoken aloud to a person? His words had cut her away once; hers had left him with a complicated life. So, then, was one’s conscience assuaged when careful words, well practiced and well offered, found a place inside the listener? They might land with a thud or be met with open arms.

Or did the unpredictable power of language obscure the deepest meanings at times like this? And this tying up loose ends, just so… They had severed the past from one kind of future. And she now felt she’d awakened in a netherworld and wanted to exit.

But she knew more than many about language. She knew about interpreting other’s needs and desires. And about how defining and translating thought and feeling was a graver, more difficult task than people believed. So much could go wrong. So much was missed in the passing of one person’s words to another who was waiting. Nuances meant more than one realized. And the first interpreting of a language for herself was risky, demanding. Exhilarating, too. But such important matters were corroborated or shaded or entirely destroyed when she interpreted. It was that crucial a thing to get right–a true communication.

So it was with them, face-to-face at last, she thought: Could they even understand one another now? Might it be better to say nothing, just scurry through the fields? Or embrace a final time then walk on, waving to all that was behind them?

Words, words. She wondered what his would mean. Bree nodded and waited to hear his own truth.

“I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to revise what I did to you, and then had to tell you. It’s haunted me, has kept me restless and sleepless too often and too long. Why did I take such a chance when I knew it was really only you I ever wanted? Why did I give in to an insane moment when you were there, blameless, and I was the transgressor?” He held his head. “I know, I know, I said all that before, or tried to our last meeting. Sorry, sorry, I am so beyond sorry–how many times could I still say that and it not be enough? Sorry I betrayed you, even after I gave you the promise ring….And then…Denise getting pregnant, such a blow to all, you know? And it changed everything, you cannot imagine– for her, too.”

He gazed at her pale fingers; none was bedecked with rings. They were long and thin yet blunt at the ends, practical hands even while lovely. Hands he had held to his lips. He studied her face–pointed chin, satin smooth skin, eyes so clear and quietly emotive. They made him think of the creek water in early spring when it runs cool, fresh, reflecting the light. Yet they told him little at the moment except that she heard and understood. That she was patient, which she’d always been except for that last time.

“Even though I came to love Denise and more easily, our son, Dane. Even though I have built a good life, a life I’m proud of now, one that allows me to do more for our community than I ever imagined. Things got much better after I had a bad car accident eight years ago…then I had to look deeper and find a better path. I did and followed it. I design housing for the underprivileged, underserved. That’s my passion now. Oh Bunny, I could tell you so many things! As a youth I was arrogant, impetuous, maybe cruel. I am still burdened with this regret.”

His countenance, earlier lit with an infectious spirit of enthusiasm, suddenly darkened. Bree’s eyes traced the contours of Rollie so gently he felt there might be a chance to correct things. To find forgiveness.

Still, she didn’t talk.

He took in full breaths of the late fall air that settled over Cutter’s Field. Around his sorrow and hope. He squatted, then, before her, willing to do almost anything to make things good. It had to happen now or never.

It was almost alarming, his knees at hers, but she found such nearness did not move her in ways feared. It embarrassed her, and she felt the slow burn of that for them both. Enough had been released from him; she had to speak up.

She took his forearms in her hands. “Stand up, Rollie. Please.”

She rose with him, he wobbling more from her touch than impaired balance. Her light grip fell away and he righted himself. A gust of wind blew over them, lifted her long hair so that it covered her face. He started to brush it away, then thought better of it as she grabbed it, pulled a hair tie from her jeans pocket, made a ponytail. That small act: so like her, someone who knew how to restrain wilder impulses, how to make orderly what was chaotic. He found it so familiar. Yes, how to make sense of senselessness and find truth in details. And yet she was so fully alive as she stood in the caramel light, more vibrant than recalled. He loathed letting go of his longing–even as he did so, even as he knew it would fall away.

For there was, too, the fateful day when she’d screamed at him, struck him hard across the face, pummeled his chest and ran off, never to speak to him again. He knew it was the least she could have done, for nothing was told–she spread no awful tales, did not insult his name, did not let herself be called a victim of any sort. Did not speak ill of the girl he’d seen behind her back. His wife, Denise, who waited now in the city. Yet it had torn them from one another, his careless deceit and her outrage.

After that, she became Bree, she was not to be called Bunny. And though a hidden part of him longed for Bunny now, he saw it was not who she was. And that was right; the missing pieces fell in place as she began to respond.

Yet he took her hands in his and her grace and deeper strength flowed into him as his warmth and a wiser, subtler energy moved to her.

“It was not meant to be, staying here, Rollie, surely you see that. Getting married, having a family with you. Though you knew I loved you fiercely, I soon found my other dreams coming true. I am at home with it all, happy with my life. And you discovered what was best for you.” She touched his rough chin with a forefinger then fell away. “I healed well. Nothing can be done about what we leave behind but to respect it and say our farewells. We live within the gift of this moment. Rollie, you were so long ago and truly forgiven. And I’m sorry I was hard on you that day. But I have no pain left keeping me caged, and I hope this unlocks the creaky door for you, at last. Because, my fine old friend, all is well.”

Bree didn’t wait for his words. Didn’t need his arms about her again. She ran down the path taken all those years, the path that people still took across Cutter’s Field–the old and young, ecstatic and heartbroken–to Little Woods and Bender’s Creek, to that which bore all hopes and losses without complaint, and watched over them with benevolence until they were no more.


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.