Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Rosewater Cafe Knife

I slipped it into the narrow cotton envelope, its heft and shape sagging in my pants pocket, and wove my way through the public gardens. I had my eye on the huge wrought iron gate at walkway’s end and sped up to close the gap between us. Also, Monroe and me–and the stocky security guard who had been watching us. If I could make the gate I’d be free to hop on my powder blue Vespa and speed away. As I held back from running, I imagined myself as seen by the guard–nearing middle age, slim, with curly hair yanked into a messy ponytail, my exercise clothing dark: nondescript. What might he say if calling in his suspicions?

“An older gal moving at a fast clip, and she hid something in her pocket–no, didn’t see her take anything but she talked to this kinda shady guy, then took something small from him and–huh? No, not sure. Well, anyway, going after her.”

How innocuous a thing, a woman meeting a man and exchanging something–might it be drugs, keys, maybe a rose cutting, even a hot diamond necklace? I laughed as I approached the gate but it was more a gasp of barely subdued hysteria.

And then I felt a hand on my forearm.

“Miss, please stop.”

I stopped, waited, breathing harder than desired. He circled me, wide face marked by a crooked half-smile, a friendly accoster, then stood back a few feet as I wasn’t moving. I did consider if I could make a dash for it but he was between me and open space. My pocket was laden with evidence, my jacket barely covering it at hip length.

I looked at him, eyebrows raised in faint surprise. “Yes?”

“Step aside so I can ask you a few questions.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m on my way to an appointment. Is there a good reason you are trying to detain me?” I tried to suppress irritation and fear bubbling beneath my words and started to smile right back but didn’t quite manage it

“Step aside, we’ll see, Miss.”

Miss, is that we get called no matter our age? I wanted to inform him I was old enough to be his great aunt but sniffed and stepped toward deep pink rhododendron bushes.

I knew Monroe was long gone, ordering a coffee and croissant and feeling relieved. He was good at that, here one moment, gone the next–story of our nebulous relationship for twenty years. We were not a couple but we seemed never entirely free of each other. It was like sharing a vast broken web where one or the other of us dangled awhile, then spun odd threads that guaranteed we’d climb back on and cross paths every few years. But what would you expect, we were sort of blood-tied, a family member being his wife once upon a time.

“Would you empty your pockets, please?”

I was incredulous. What would I take from a garden? It made no sense that he’d stop me; he had to be bored, a rookie or plain mean-spirited. I knew what I had but he didn’t, and besides, what true harm was there if he did? I made an impulsive decision to pull it out, slowly, the black cloth covering it wrapped snugly.

“Please slowly hand that to me, Miss,” the security guard said.

But I unwrapped it first, gingerly, so that he could see the ornately carved leather sheath that covered the 7 inch blade, and the leather wrapped steel handle darkened by years and years of being held. The knife was handmade by my father, Val, back in 1982 and that Monroe stole many times. Val’s daughter was its inheritor. Monroe’s ex-wife. My half-sister, Riley.

“Whoa there,” he said, and stepped back.

He picked up his walkie talkie, then studied me. What did he see? My anxiety that it would be taken again? Old memories evoked? I would not break down. But maybe run if he took it. Be done with it all just like that.

“This may need some sort of carry permit, I think, let me look at it,” he said with a grunt and a sigh. He turned the sheathed knife over and over in his hand, studying the intricate leather tooling, its wide loop almost cracked apart that used to slip onto an owner’s belt. Val’s and Davey’s until Davey went into the Army and didn’t return, and then Riley’s, until Monroe got a hold of it.

“What?” I stared at him, hard enough that my eyes were yelling at him. Absurd. But I’d felt Monroe and I meeting meeting in public was not so wise, times being what they unfortunately were, but Monroe is bolder than smart, which accounts for trouble he has generated. It took us all of less than a minute, we didn’t actually chat. I have no excuse other than I don’t trust him, don’t like him anymore, so always meet him in public. We’d talked on the phone–that led to this moment.

The return of the knife.

“It’s family owned and finally returned to me. A genuine Cosenti knife. I’m Lilly Cosenti.” As if that meant anything to this guy with the belly and the sweaty brow, hands belonging to a plumber not a security guard, who was handling my knife with keen interest.

The guard looked at me skeptically, shifted on tired wide feet, weighed the knife in his broad palm as if it was a possible piece of gold. Which it was to some people. One of the first knives fashioned by Valentino Cosenti.

He jutted his lower lip as if impressed, and angled his head at me. “Okay, maybe it’s all good, but it should not be here. Not these days, you know. Your ID.” He looked me up and down, memorizing my ordinariness. The mole above my lip to the left. The sunspots across my chest. My roughened skin from a lifetime of ranch work.

“Sure.”

I gave him my driver’s license, wondering who trained this guy. Was he taking my knife and calling cops or just passing time? He had no idea what this was about and I was not about to tell him. I had to get going. My cool Vespa was on loan; I had to return it to the hotel, call a cab, catch a train.

He handed the license back, rubbed his neck contemplatively as he studied my knife once more, then indicated a bench close by.

“Let’s talk.”

I moaned, followed him, sat. I had just come over three hours to climb aboard that plane. I eyed the gate once more, but gave up.

“Tell me about it, Miss Cosenti. ”

He said this like it was an order and if I didn’t obey, I’d be sorry. Oh, to be at the mercy of an aimless security guard who had nothing better to do than suspect a woman like me. Who had some fancy, worrisome knife. Weren’t there a few truly lurking about that he could interrogate, then escort out? He watched me as I took off my baseball cap, smoothed stray curls away from my damp face.

“Alright, then, it was like this…”

I settled and so did he, his feet crossed at the ankles as he leaned his bulk way back, ready for my explanation. As much as I’d tell.

******

“We lived in Wyoming,” I began. “My mother’s family has always had a big ranch, so when my dad married her it also was his. They loved training horses and we had cattle, lots. Anyway, by the time I was ten they were doing better than my grandparents had, more horse breeding and training, but my mother also had a passion for cooking and what I’d call hospitality. She pleaded for the run down cafe in town, and though he told her it wasn’t a good bet and we needed her at the ranch, she won the argument. Named it the Rosewater Cafe. Her name was Rose and she said it’d be a refreshing stop along our lonely road. I often helped out there, though I’d sure rather deal with the horses, work outside. My dad, meanwhile, was getting good at his hobby, turning out more and more knives, then selling some. It was a little extra income and he liked that. All seemed to be working out real good for them–for us.

“Then one day–I was fifteen–this foreign car pulls up in a swirl of dust and out steps a tall, large woman with short white-blonde hair and a girl some older than me. My dad rushed to meet her–Mom was at the cafe–and soon they argued. I waited to see what it was about–he was not an arguing sort of man–or when he’d introduce me. But it didn’t happen. The girl stood with hands on hips as though she was too fancy for the ranch and was disgusted–I distrusted her immediately.

I knew my dad was better than average to look at, and he had a way with people; women liked him more than necessary. So it occurred to me what it might be about, a past that had caught up with him. I went to the stables, saddled my horse and took off, didn’t go back til dark.

“When I returned they were, of course, gone. But not for long. In another week, after my parents chewed on the topic a few times, the girl was brought back. Riley was her name, and she was staying for the last few years of school. Whether or not Mom and I liked it. Dad seemed resigned but encouraged us all to try to be nice.”

I scrunched my shoulders up and looked at my watch. Time was wasting.

“When do you get to the part about the knife?” the guard asked. “And who was that girl?”

I frowned at him and took a deep breath. “Riley was my father’s earlier daughter, due to an error of judgement, he told Mom, and she was a spit fire–that was why her mother brought her there, so he could get her in line, I guess. It was true the ranch taught her good things. But it only half-worked. She learned to ride and groom horses okay. But she could get mouthy; also, distracted. And it was clear to me from the start she was a big deal to boys in town and from the ranches. I have to admit she couldn’t help it; she wasn’t so much gorgeous as she had charm like clover honey, the boys buzzed about her. Some are like that….my dad and she just had it. I was the other kind, the one behind the scenes, the one on the range, free and alone…”

The guard nodded; he was hooked by curiosity. I wanted to give him a shove and go. But my story was true and it turned out I enjoyed telling it–and he’d asked for it.

“Then Monroe came along.”

I recalled him in full technicolor. He had been–still was, of course–a few years older, easy to laugh, brawny, impressed with himself, testosterone like a flare that lit up everything. He moved like a mountain lion, stealth and grace. Another one that baffled. Intrigued me, okay, but I was busy working.

“He and Riley, though, made a match, nothing anyone could do or say would change that. As soon as she graduated that was it, they got hitched despite our dad wanting to run Monroe off. But Riley settled down, so did Monroe, it seemed. The problem was, there were still others who wanted to get close to her…like Monroe never existed. I guess ’cause he was an outsider from Arizona and so didn’t quite count..”

I shrugged in mild sympathy for Monroe, then stretched, raising arms high, twisting side to side. It was getting late. I saw my so-called guard gripping the knife as he waited to hear the punch line. It irked me that he had taken it, that I needed to tell him all this.

“The knife, miss– what about that part?”

I shook my head to clear it, stared beyond the gate. I never could stop a story once started, yet time was slipping by.

“Well, that knife you have that’s mine–it used to be in a wooden case with a glass pane in it so it was just visible, and kept under the counter at Rosewater Cafe. Dad put it there for Mom’s protection–you just never knew, he said. But as his name circulated due to his skills, customers wanted to study it, even made good offers on it. Eventually, though, it was locked and displayed from a high shelf above the coffee bar. It was like free advertising; his knife business got hot.

“Riley and I both worked at Rosewater. By ages twenty and eighteen we had made a truce, had found ways to get along as we got older. Then, one day Monroe was just finishing a three eggs sunny-side up with beef sausage breakfast when this guy walks in and asks for Riley, eyes cloudy with anger and hurt. I won’t bore you with whys and wherefores but just say that Monroe took great offense over it all. There was a bad fight and then Riley got the knife case down and smashed it open with a hammer and…and…I can tell you my mother fell down in a dead faint–it took her a long time to get over things.”

I gulped, heart banging. I had not once told the truth of that morning twenty-four years ago to anyone outside the family.

“Yeah, then what?’ the guard said, leaning heavily toward me, eyes popping. “Someone die…?”

“Of course not.” It occurred to me this was what the guard waited for, some bloody end, the thrill of arresting me. “But the guy got hurt between fists and that knife.He ran out the door but threatened revenge. But there was no next time. Monroe left Riley the next day, went back to Arizona… though he kept in touch–they had that need of each other that never really ended despite remarriages. The wounded lovelorn guy had vanished, had a few scars. And no one called police; it just wasn’t what you did. The stranger shouldn’t have barged in, said his piece….

“Dad kept his proud if deadly creation under lock and key in a secret place until he died. He had willed it to her. I guess he felt Riley was the one who deserved to live with its history or maybe he was saying she was a tough nut and there was her reminder. It was valued at about $5800 then, ten years ago. Yeah, it is that beautiful a thing…”

The uniformed man pulled the knife out of its sheath a little and examined it, the quickly put it away. Just him doing that sort of scared me but I understood his desire to see it. It was so finely wrought it seemed a work of art, more than a weapon. So many had wanted it in their collections. But it had been used for harm.

“Monroe wrenched it from Riley, took it to get rid of evidence–it was meant to be gone forever. But then dad got it back from Monroe with a bribe…stupid, huh, family feud like that. But it was worth so much, too. Riley finally told Monroe, you’ve gotta lay off, it’s a family heirloom, hers when dad died.”

“So how did Monroe get it once more? What a mess.”

“Yeah. He stole it from Riley after she refused to talk to him again, don’t know how. She suspected him, of course, but was sick of the whole thing. I kept out of it. Then all of a sudden last month he decided to tell me he did it and felt guilty, said he was ready to let go, stop the craziness. He’s made a decent living buying and selling antiques and other stuff; I figured he’d finally sold dad’s knife.” I shivered in a gust of wind. “But he didn’t. Now I have it.”

The guard slapped his thighs.”But why didn’t he just give it back to Riley, ask forgiveness and all?”

I scrunched my face in mock horror. “No way. They are sort of sworn enemies, despite still being soul mates. And she likely saved his life with her intervention–I didn’t tell you, the guy had a handgun back of his jeans that was never drawn once she got him, he was hurt pretty bad…But no, they don’t even talk now.” I looked at my hands in my lap. “Besides, it is really part of my dad’s and mom’s legacy–way before Riley had in in her grasp.”

“Oh…so Riley was the one, how about that.”

And he handed it back to me, just like that. Stood up to his full five feet, six inches. He was about to say more when his walkie talkie crackled and a muffled voice was unintelligible so he talked back and brought it close to an ear.

“I gotta get going,” he said, “someone’s messing up the flowers along with their dog.”

“That’s it, I can go now?” I tucked the leather-encased knife into its cloth, shoved it back in my pocket.

He raised a hand. “Thanks for the tall tale–that was interesting–but I have work to do–good luck, Miss Cosenti!”

He ambled off like a slow bear on the run.

I stood slowly, blinked in honeyed sunlight.

From yesteryear to the present moment was a long way to leap. But I strode through the gate, found the pretty blue Vespa, took off, my knife secretly gleaming. Riley would be happy to have it back. If it ever got to her.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Penny Park

If she could have avoided Marsten Street she would have, but the traffic was so bad Cam had to take the lane she could grab. It made her turn right and there was the street she tried to not use, cross, go near. It was inevitable that one day she would be corralled into its proximity. In this case, broad daylight, that mid-day blazing sunshine baking sidewalks, awnings casting heavy shadows, folks dabbing their brows while rushing to restaurants, shops, offices.

Then it came upon her, the small triangular park called Marsten Park–though that conjured up visions of columned manses and overarching, elegant boughs, of shiny long cars and women in linen dresses with floppy-brimmed hats. Now, however, it seemed closer to that incarnation. A neighborhood many invested in and it had paid off, she heard, but she’d not been here in two decades. Back in her childhood there were smudgy row houses that raucous families inhabited, sometimes two or three generations, life spilling out doorways any time of day, even night.

Penny Park, they’d called it when she was a kid. About big as a penny, her ma had said, and worth half as much. But they loved it, the kids, and some of the parents who brought smaller ones, Never mind it had one wonky swing for some years and a dented slide, with a horseshoes area (if you brought your own horseshoes), and four splintery picnic tables positioned close enough that they’d sometimes share extra burgers or frankfurters and even private info despite trying to keep talk to themselves.

Someone honked and she came to, saw the light was green, turned again since there was no choice, skimmed past the shady park. Such mammoth trees and so many more plantings the park looked foreign. She had to look again and hard. It was about empty, a small parking strip only half-full. Cam checked her watch, pulled into a spot. Parked and idled. Tapped her index finger, long tapered nail clicking against the steering wheel. She sighed and got out, shut the door. The place she had loved her life must be faced.

The first thing: play equipment painted primary colors and clean as can be– monkey bars, swirly slide, seesaws, four working swings. It took up the entire northeast corner of the triangle. That they stood empty dismayed Cam but she took a seat at a varnished bench–one of three. The day had been brutal, that Bampton case gone awry, the DA chomping at the bit and growling at her. Some days she didn’t know why she had gotten into this business of justice for all. It clearly was otherwise. But the wily ins and outs, the complex and intriguing nature of people and even the process had pulled her in from the start.

Who would have thought it? She was a pianist in her earliest and dearest of dreams. She imagined freedom from many conventions that had become part of her life, anyway.

Maybe it had started here, she thought, and pushed flyaway hair under a bow of perched fancy sunglasses. It certainly was not a family destiny, her father being a supervisor at the steel plant, her mother an overworked cook at Eagle’s Perch. But she had been a bit different, enough so that her dad said a few times a year: “How did your DNA sneak into this common stew pot?” She sometimes wanted to say that it was him, he had a far better brain than most, he had just not had a chance to exercise it all ways he wanted. But she did her own– because she’d willed it so.

A little boy ran to a swing and his mother trailed after. Soon he was pumping chubby legs so fast the swing was jerkily lifting higher bit by bit, the mother pushing only cursorily as she checked her cell phone. A half-attendant mother, much like her own, only better dressed. Cam worried he would fly out and then what? Maybe land on his feet, like she used to, mostly.

Cam and company hadn’t needed mothers much, fathers maybe less, or so they thought. They’d all lived across the street or around the corners, and after school they made a beeline for the only decent green space within arms’ reach, Penny Park. In summer they hung out until they couldn’t any longer bear the hot metal slide or smothering humidity of a Midwestern summer. They had a ball for kick or dodge ball, a found can for Kick the Can, a slingshot or two for whatever, and tangy Lick-a-Made packets saved up all week or rich butter mints snagged from blue glass candy dishes. They came there to share snacks and tales, play a game, do nothing, to hide from grown ups and maybe get into a little trouble.

Except Ben–he hung back, always with a book and a cold and sweating bottle of Vernors ginger ale. Despite the fact that the two of them lived next door, they were as suspicious of each other the first couple of summers as if they’d lived ten blocks apart. Cam excelled at games; Ben excelled at little but reading and just being outside, yet not even school held much interest. They nodded at each other after she had tried and failed to engage him in a good conversation. He watched her from behind the books and she attempted to ignore him.

But things began to change when they each turned twelve. For one thing, his father was out of work when her mother lost her job. They talked about it once briefly, a tentative, small bond over the failures of adults. They had zero allowance then so there was nothing to do but hang out at the park or sulk at their tense homes.

And that led to more chat.

“Why always the books?” she asked and plopped beside him under “his” aged elm tree. He was worried it’d be cut down for Dutch elm disease; he was likely right.

“I like what I like,” he said, scooting over a bit to create more space between them.

“What this time?”

Habits of Mammals in Spring,” he read off the cover. “Would you like to know about them?”

“Would you like to hear about my piano lessons?” she said.

“That would be a ‘no’. I am not so thrilled by your piano playing.”

“There you have it on those topics, then. But you have to talk and listen to know more about anything, not just read.”

Still, his words had stung–and did he actually listen to her practice? She tried to remember to lower the window sash in the living room.

“See, you’re the talker,” he said, upper lip curling slightly. “I hear you every day, talk, talk, talk.”

Cam rolled up a tiny bug into a leaf and tossed it at him. “That’s what we humans do.”

He laughed and batted away the leaf, laughed as if pleased by that assessment or the bug or both. It was a good sound to her–surprising. They sat quietly another few minutes until she got tired of looking over his shoulder–he didn’t move, just kept tuning pages– skimming info about beavers. It was interesting but she wasn’t going to admit it.

After that they spent random bits of time together. He explained food sources for small mammals and where good bird lookouts were. She talked about playing Bach and pleasures of the always cool Beatles and why she found them both so fascinating. But when she took part in an impromptu foot race with their neighborhood friends, he hooted at her.

“Back and forth on the same grassy stretch, that’s no dang race!” he’d yell.

“Try me–I’ll beat you before you even say ‘go’!”

Then one time the kids paused to see if a miracle would occur and Ben would join up. When he shrugged, put down his book and got set to run, they tittered among themselves. Everyone knew Ben was not a sporty guy. Cam was good at this; she won three out of five times. So when they lined up behind the pine cones, she was ready to impress him again. They got off to a good start, she was ahead by several feet, outran Sam, then Ken, then Marie, when suddenly out from behind shot Ben, his skinny legs wound up and set loose as he dashed past all, and barely stopped himself with the natural barrier of a hefty tree trunk.

What a sprinter! Cam and the others gathered round him. Why hadn’t he shown them this before? What else was he hiding? Good grief, he was faster than all of them.

Ben smiled graciously, then went back to his tree, huffing and puffing a little, face reddened. He didn’t need to prove such things, he thought to himself, but now they knew something more about him. In fact, he had surprised himself a little.

Cam slid down in the dirt beside him after a few minutes.

“You had us fooled, you prankster,” she said.

He slowly turned his head and those blue-grey eyes reached in and it was like she was staring back at slow creek water, and there was something moving under the surface. Cam felt it, an energy that frizzed and she barely caught it, it was swift, wholly baffling. He shifted, scratched his chin as he did when thinking, and narrowed those eyes as if trying to see more. Then he was back to his book on rock hunting.

“I like to run, you just never asked me to,” he said.

And that was that. They were not as before, but more than before. They walked home later talking about running and rocks, her piano teacher who was mean and their parents who were more and more annoying. He felt the dry warmth radiating off her hand as it dangled beside his sweaty one; she felt the soft release of his breath on her bare shoulder as he said “later, then”.

It was as if they had always been that way. It seemed unlikely that things could ever go back. But there was plenty of time to ponder it if necessary.

******

Cam observed the boy and his mother tire of swings and they grabbed hands to cross the street; she heard trucks bump and roar past, crows scolding whoever passed. She noted a meter maid putting a ticket on her car–did they now dare charge for parking here?–but she looked into the trees and saw only Ben, age seventeen as he informed her that he was accepted into Stanford as soon as he graduated and, of course, a year early.

They had been to the riverfront all afternoon and finally–after dinner at The Floating Cafe, after they’d browsed the shops and bought matching copper and silver wire bracelets, after they’d run out of odd trivia to trade–darkness slid over sky and onto pathways and their persons. Bobbing boats were all lit up, and decorative lights gave a festive air to the marina. They leaned on the railing that kept them safe from the swirling brown river.

“I have to go, you know that– I wish it’d all work out differently,” he said, looking down at his holey sneakers. “But we are still together, right?”

She nodded, afraid to talk. He was two heads taller than she was and she was tall, and when he pulled her to him she felt as much as heard his heartbeat, steady and a little fast. It was always steady and fast– like a bird, she thought, and that swish swish had been a reassurance, a kind of audible tether to life when things got rough. His dense, warm chest, that heart, his chin resting on her head, his strong, long arms about her. This was the way they were to stand forever. She for him, he for her.

He held her head still with his, a few fingers woven through her thick, wavy hair and then he smelled the top of her head. This spot always gave off woodsy scents, the barest touch of musky something. Maybe it was because they’d spent so many years in the forest hiking, camping, sweating, dreaming: it was part of their skin and hers was richer than his. His comfort, each inch a fine venous map that led to greater things, to hope, to the next moment.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Ben asked, pulling back to see her face. “Be reckless for once?”

“Stop. Have to graduate, then University of Michigan if I am lucky, law school, a maybe or maybe not…As if you’ve never head this litany before.”

They let the night cover their sorrow; they talked of bears and Dvorak; they walked stealthily through the streets past midnight; they heard the river run with a vast indifference and then certain exuberance. It hurt to say goodnight, as if their words were windows shutting firmly to keep out a storm but also the sweeter breezes promised afterwards.

******

It was time. Cam leapt up from her bench in Penny Park, got her car, drove away and parked again fifteen minutes later. Here she was prepared to pay to park awhile, it was Bonner Auditorium, a small venue but all shined up, one meant for important events but smaller crowds. Lectures, solo concerts, chamber ensembles, readers’ theater, obscure dance company performances–these she had attended often the last three years since her return to help her mother relocate to a condo.

Since her divorce and the need for deeper peace. Which she had not quite found or created though she was getting closer.

Inside, people were talking excitedly, milling about and greeting friends, threading their way one end of the auditorium to the other. Cam found her seat easily; she had two reserved seats for the season but her mother was in too much discomfort from arthritis, to her regret. Cam’s breath caught in her chest and she coughed, fanned her lightly perspiring face with the program and wishing they’d ramp up the AC. When the lights were lowered she bit her lower lip to keep calmer. Someone was talking on stage, then there was a spattering of applause.

“Please welcome one of our very own, the esteemed microbiologist and author Benjamin Widdstone as he shares stories of his worldwide travels and research from his latest book, ‘Promise and Pleasure of the Humble Pond’.”

Sustained, excited clapping rang out and he was there in the spotlight, the boy and youth who had avoided all spotlights. Her hands clasped tightly in her lap: yes, that same slight leaning forward, darkish hair longer than she had ever seen, hands expressive as he warmed up to the topic, his deep, melodious voice–oh, that voice. She closed her eyes; a tear loosened.

She will wait for him backstage, tell him she can finally almost play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, yes, with some difficulty–but still, she has managed it a few times, it does please her a little–and perhaps he’d like to hear it? If he has a free hour before the next plane, next book, next field trip. If he has the inclination, if he cares to recall just a little of what she did–and find out what she does now. How they both have done without each other.

She let herself look up. Ben tilted his head, turned his body to one side and as if searching the crowd he peered into rows of shadowy seats, a flattened hand cutting off bright light. He paused one beat, two, three– then nodded, smiled, scratched the close cut, graying beard on lifted chin, and then continued.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Ernest Makes a Splash

Ernest was a man who got things right. He knew this for certain when at work because he was told so often. He managed a grocery store that had finally found its sweet spot within the hierarchy of holistic grocers. That was his word–“holistic”–as opposed to “natural” or “locally sourced and served” or any number of other words and phrases that somehow didn’t quite meet the innermost desires of customers. In his humble opinion. But “Hale’s Holistic Marketplace” was now its name (no longer Hale’s Good Foods) and since the revamp of appearance, pricing and image, optimistic stats were booming.

How was Marv, the CEO, to have foreseen that this unassuming man, barely hitting the five foot eight mark and weighing in at maybe 150 pounds (if Marv was a casual betting man) could turn things around way under a year? There was a compact quality suggesting deeper strength and energy, but it was metered out just so. A fastidious man, he guessed. The guy had steadily climbed the rungs of  the food business, then suddenly pushed his ideas on a store manager. That was four years ago and HHM  had taken over a niche that caters to those with highbrow leanings, perhaps even instincts, but won’t admit to it. The added corner bookstore/ lending library was a hit, for example, because their consumers were a literary–academic, even– type. This meant that soon to follow were paper products and writing utensils, then intricate, bold maps (why did they love maps so much, he didn’t know) and so on, Marv had lost track but they sold.

The guy now at a helm was a genius at marketing as well as overseeing the latest store. No one disagreed. But not everyone liked him; some sneered when they saw him coming but smiled over their judgments. Ernest was a stickler for details, unerring and demanding. He had some patience and tolerance for others–he was not unkind –but it didn’t show well, as he tended toward a poker face. This was a feature developed after childhood when his mother constantly told her smart, string bean of a boy to not be such a crybaby, life was rough so toughen up. He found hiding feelings was half the battle at repelling taunts–especially after he became a fine swimmer. One could not see emotions when submerged in the water. He became a smooth muscled, aquatic creature, fast and adept and best of all, free. Cheering crowds made no difference; he had found his physical element and it complemented his intellect.

The swimming pool still did the trick. If work grievously rattled him or his wife, Lynette, got on his nerves too much, he was in the water for a good hour. That’s what he told her–“Time to refresh and keep my physique in good shape”–when she complained he was gone too much. The lap pool welcomed him every time; the forgiving water flowed about him, a shield of light-filled mystery and power, and he was made stronger with each stroke. Lynette, on the other hand, had tried it three times with him and failed to see the value, much less joy in it. The chlorine, the chilly depths, the need for goggles since she wore contacts. She stank of chlorine for days and her fine hair rebelled. Let him have it, she was meant for mostly sunbathing by their own tidy pool. Oh yes, they had a pool, now, but he could not swim real laps or execute a good dive there, so he left backyard indulgences to her and Sammy, their preteen daughter.

He thought he had done well so far in life. He made good money now and Lynette was happier than the first ten years of marriage. But it didn’t stop her from finding fault. Daily. That he wore bow ties when getting dressed up; the tiny limp he retained from an old hiking fall; his rumination over this and that, quietly to himself; his unfortunate choices of jewelry for her gifts and his lack of insight into Sammy’s moods. His smartness surely rivaled hers and sometimes they sparred for the wit of it, but it could cross a line. It could get dangerous, words like swords.

His size always vexed her–she was two inches taller. He thought she was attracted to him so she could diminish him further by saying he was a “tidy guy” or a “cute shrimp” yet give her a sense of more control, as well. When she pulled herself to her full height, he thought of a giraffe and smiled as one might at such a curious creature. But he thought her rather sexy, anyway, though who would know it lately.

“My Queen, forgive my stature but adore my income,” he would say when really aggravated by her demeaning way, and peck her hand. It was not kind, no, but he did have his limit.

“Be a proper man, stand taller as if you mean it, Ernest, you are such a slouch sometimes,” she insisted and swiped at his head with her palm as if he was truly her subject. Whereby he’d back away, out of the room, head bowed. As he turned to go, he would throw her a scowl, a fierce look, a warning (though of what, really?– just a look)–she couldn’t mistake that feeling in any case.

If anyone at work saw this they would have a field day. Even Sammy waffled between sniggering and looking away, embarrassed for them both. Ernest and Lynette had had better days when younger, living simpler with few worries. They had not mellowed; they had soured.

He would leave for the pool if it was finally enough. It often was more than enough. What else did she want of him?

What was it that made him happy besides monetary success and being right and swimming? So little else.

******

“I hear you swim,” she said as she stirred creamer into her mug of coffee.

Ernest looked up from his own steaming, bitter mug-full of caffeine.

She added more vanilla-caramel to sweeten it up and as she did so, she pinned back a sweep of glossy hair with her other hand. To keep it from falling in, it was that long and swingy.

“Well,” he said, surprised, and paused, torn between his agenda and this unknown factor.

“I do, too, used to competitively dive, for one thing.” She laughed lightly. “Okay, years ago. But I still do what I love to do.”

“Oh, I see, nice,” he said and started off.

“Where do you go? I’m new in the area.”

He slurped a little, then studied her as she stirred away, eyes on pecan cookies left from a meeting. She snatched one up and dipped it in her coffee.

“There are several good pools, depending upon where you live.”

“I’m just down the street, Premiere Apartments.” She raised her eyebrows at this as everyone knew they were at best mid-grade. One would rather avoid those long-term. “Just for awhile, we’ll see how this works out.”

“This?” he asked as they left the break room.

“Sorry, I assumed you knew…I’m Celeste, an unemployed accountant who is the new cashier?” She held out her hand, cookie already gone. “Remember? I know who you are, of course.”

“Ernest, yes, and welcome.” He shook her hand briefly and she smiled at him again; he thought she had remarkably large front teeth but the smile was downright dazzling. Great for cashiering. He guessed he did recall her but he had met many over the past year.

Dazzling, he thought as he shook her hand. As he walked back to his office, he mused further. A strange thing to think in the middle of the day at work  after talking with a new diver. Uh, cashier.

******

They nodded at each other each morning. At times they passed each other in the aisles and smiled if so inclined. They shared a cup of coffee once more the first month. Some mornings she was not there due to her schedule–he might think of it by lunch time when he vaguely wondered if she’d had a break. He heard nothing but good reports, saw good results. Everyone liked her that was clear, both men and women chatted away with her, both customers or employees.

Ernest once had to pull her aside.

“Mustn’t get too chummy, mind on work, keep the pace brisk, not everything is about personal relations.”

Her pronounced cheeks colored the slightest bit as she turned back to her cash register.”Yes, sir,” she agreed amiably but she was quieter, at least when he appeared.

He felt he might have made her commitment to the store more tenuous by criticizing too soon, so beckoned to her when she was on the way back from the restroom. “You are doing very well, Celeste, keep up the great attitude.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said and hurried on, as if she was only too clear he was the Boss now..

Well, so be it. But he’d  been about to say she could have a day shift exclusively if she kept it up. he heard she was taking classes somewhere and wondered if the change would help. He didn’t mention it; let her seek a change if needed, that was best.

All was well at Hale’s Holistic Marketplace, and made better by her being there everyone said. he was about to get a decent raise; he was feeling generous and was about to recommend a couple, too.

******

Water, the water. He slipped into the deep end without a sound and  initial strokes powered him to pool’s center. Slip and slice, rocket through with quiet ease. His lungs were strong and heart steady. His eyes saw legs and feet and hands and arms of others who came for exercise, relief, fun. The color–a rich but soft turquoise, wasn’t this the true and correct color for a pool?–unbound him as well. He felt the sun’s caress although light was primarily overhead lights; he heard the wind in treetops if he pretended long enough. He was entirely himself.

Ernest had lived at a lake for a time before finally marrying Lynette, and if he closed his eyes and floated on his back he was there again. There he was truly liberated from constraint and self-consciousness for the first time, and then various swimming pools were in his life. He was a lucky man to have had them all.

He propelled himself upward and then dove again, slipping through sinuous flow, resistance enough upon his skin to make him work a bit as he sped up. And then–he never imagined or saw it coming– there erupted an explosion beyond his fingertips, wavelets of color with sounds that engulfed him. Someone had dived in, regardless of his presence–though underwater, of course–and forceful bubbles escaped a mouth, legs stirred up the turquoise to a fizzier green-blue.

Before he broke the surface there was a glimpse of a one piece coral suit but then in it was Celeste, her taut, lithe form racing toward air as if to beat him at it. He broke first.

But she didn’t see him, or if she did, she was far more intent on diving. She climbed up, over the edge in one swift movement and strode to the high dive board and walked out like a champ, steely nerves and clear head. He side stroked to the pool edge and watched, hoping to be invisible. Such an elegant form as she bounced once, shoulders and arms clean of line and potent of muscle and legs, too, how all of that moved as she sprang into steamy air. Over and over, a double flip, a clean entry into waiting water and then a quick swim to the edge. And back to the board.  

Mesmerized, he forgot about swimming. An amnesia took him from being too little of this and that and the almighty paycheck and residual emptiness and it was just water and her dives and a stillness he felt, an increasing vibration of stillness that somehow moved him as he hadn’t been moved in too long. Celeste and her diving were extraordinary, he saw this in entirety. It was like being awakened from a habit of common thoughts and the dullard of sighing days, then pulled though another dimension where water ruled and Celeste was this creature beyond all others. At least, here. Now.

He put his whole head in the water, resurfaced, shook it hard, got out and went to the roped off lanes to begin necessary laps. He stayed at it long enough that he thought she’d be gone and he’d stop envisioning her dives. Until he rested finally, breathless and wrung out by the cement edge. It was late. Few swimmers were left as it was dinner time. Celeste stared right at him from the distant end, then was gone, too. The last of the light shimmied and skidded across the water and put itself out.

******

The next day, they didn’t see each other. The following days if happenstance brought their steps toward one another they only nodded, as if nothing had happened. He surmised nothing had, yet he felt as if it had. Yet work was work; swimming was swimming. No one else thought anything was different, and when he looked in the mirror he was the same moderately nice fellow who was short but trim, and smart but not blazingly so, he knew that, and he was lucky to have what he had. But there was something…as if he saw things more clearly, and yet exactly what was it he saw?

This question drove him a little mad–as if a well known picture had been altered, but what and where was the slight mark that had changed all? There was the nagging mystery of it, a puzzle. He kept on with all he knew well and studied it less as the days rolled or lurched by. Lynette only glanced at him a couple of times, as if he said something but she didn’t quite catch and wondered what he meant to say. But he was circumspect as ever. And he never asked her what it was that rippled over her face; she didn’t bother further. he lay in bed listening to her gentle snore and thought she was good at heart but her heart wasn’t really even in this. His was still. But barely, his loyalty and hope the few leaves hanging on a low branch; a gust might do it all in.

Near misses, all.

But there was the pool.

******

Three times a week, that’s how often he swam laps, when she almost exclusively dove. Some days they came in at different times due to her shifts; some weeks they saw each other once or twice. That is, they spotted each other and almost imperceptibly nodded–and watched one another on occasion as they shared brief performances. Eyes sliding toward the far-off form. They were each expert at what they did so others offered appreciation and wide berth. Ernest was a master of stamina, nuance and fluid rhythms. Celeste was a bolt of lightning, a dancer in midair. Everyone knew their names. Yet the two did not cross paths unless there came a flurry of movement underwater and there–it was her, it was him–closer for a passing moment. No words, no touch.

It was, after all, swimming and diving, water slipping about them and empowering them, transforming a mundane day into eternity, and a blessing. They made the most of it. Their movements meant something, but they couldn’t say exactly what part of a bigger scheme, meanings both nebulous and full of heft and beauty. They awakened in the pool, then gave over to the clarifying brilliance of water. And were happy and no longer alone in their happiness. But they always came and left alone.

Ernest began to chat with people at work, to loosen up a fraction and found he was willing to forgive some wrongness of things from time to time. Then Marv out of the blue sent him a memo: “Remember the bottom line, keep high the bar with your expertise.” It shook up Ernest–had he been failing?– but momentarily. He kept to tasks at hand and learned to relax without slipping up. Others gossiped some about it. He, oddly, had started whistling and caught himself just a bar or so in usually. Celeste heard him but denied it to the others as they snickered, and she just smiled to herself, never veering from the rhythm of her job.

Celeste was working more hours, taking another class and still looking for an accounting job; she wanted more in a life. They worked together, one might run into the other in the break room, and then a briefly shared cup and chatter about ordinary things. He had the family, such busyness, and his good stressful job and there were many little things that made things interesting. They parted as people might who worked together but unequally, each being congenial and going on without a backward glance. They kept their thoughts cool and calm and no one else was allowed access to their knowledge.

The pool never came up; that was the other life they led.

When they swam they were aquatic people, a wilder, finer breed. They moved together, though parallel, within different aspects of water’s identity and embraces. It worked perfectly. And for Ernest, that was excellent enough. For Celeste, it was evidence of an alternate reality of pure love.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Shadows in the Light

They say sunlight is required to be happy, the more the healthier. I was not of that mind; I left the sun to its work, but lived beyond its searing touch when possible. It reveals far too much, demands my response. Barrow’s Forest removed yearnings for its direct reach when I was seventeen and was moved here from the city. From the other life.

It’s the usual story: child loses parents and is given to grandparents to continue on while everything is wrapped in fog, as if my body and mind were covered with a heavy scarf. Nothing was worth remembering for awhile, in any case. It was shock to everyone, a mad accident of fate as one lumbering, reckless car crossed the line and the other, a bright sporty thing booming with laughter, taken out of this reality. I know about the laughter because that’s how they were, especially when coming back from a tour. That time I was home, studying, ready to graduate. Which I did, barely. Then I was insistently removed and re-positioned in looming woods with two old people who knew me from afar. I was an obligation, if a not an altogether unpleasant one. Though they would and did tell it differently. But that is the gist of it. Out of the light and into shadows. But light can be unnerving, hard to dwell within. They were getting known, my parents, for their music, and for the last year the media was more and more at us.

So I was moved; I didn’t even resist after a day or two of loud protestations. What was there to hang onto without my parents? My grandparents, is all.

I took up residence on the cabin’s second floor. Stayed right there except to eat a bit for weeks. From my window I started to watch the woods, how it took over at the edge of the clearing. Those voluptuous greens turning black as I peered deeper and deeper until I felt blind with looking. There might be a rustle or flutter that I couldn’t name at all, the barest outline of something in motion. I felt drawn to the center except for that unknown thing or person. When I asked Gran she said pay no mind, someone from the other side, meaning other side of the forest, near the village, but it felt like another place altogether, perhaps where my parents were resting in limbo. Somewhere that finally held more meaning, or even a way into any sort of hope. That movement carried to me a respite of wishfulness that distracted me from sorrow.

Out my eastern window, though smaller, I could see a neat vegetable and flower patch, and past that chickens, a pig, two goats, two dogs, a cat that belonged to no one but took a liking to me because I paid no attention to it. In time, I grew to like the pig, its smart, odd expressions, but it was given away later that year. Or sold for meat, no one said. I liked best the birds that gathered and swooped about day and night, despite the cat. They sang and sang their hearts out.

It was, then, generally sunny on one side of the cabin while darker on the other. There was ample space. (Years later the cabin was encroached upon by bushes and underbrush, more Douglas firs and Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red cedar. No one beat it back but let it happen as nature wanted.) I was an oasis of shadowy light amid conifer-captured acreage.

I grew restless watching giant trees sway in dampening wind, coolness soothing my feet and neck as I leaned into my open window. I closed my eyes, heard the wind speak of ancient times as if it was the present, no beginning, no end. I did not speak much, only listened, and even to my grandparents as they grew less mournful. Eventually, Gran directed me to get moving, out and about, to help pick huckleberries and salmon berries. I don’t know how she figured it was time but she was right.

“Earn your keep now, Tally,” she said with sideways glance, “and learn where you live now, how to survive it all.”

PawPaw scratched his beard, winked at me. It was strange to actually look at them close up, their feelings hovering under the surface like fish that came up for air occasionally. But they were strong if also so worn. I didn’t smile in return. I just got ready to follow. In nubby navy sweater, ratty sweat pants and dirty sneakers, I trailed after her. And that was that.

Outside, the smells. I had once been surrounded by cigarettes, musky perfume, wine and pasta with sauces, overcooked beef. Here the cabin was imbued with woodstove’s tantalizing smokiness; the sweet, clean scents of vegetables right from the ground and waiting on the counter; a sharpness from fresh meat I could not often name. And beyond the door was a potpourri of tree bark and leaves that made me feel almost drunk in an hour.

The stained baskets swung on our arms, berries piling up in tender mounds. Gran quizzed me on salmon berries and huckleberries, others that were poisonous, which berries were ripest. I sampled, felt hunger surge in me. I sought sweet wood strawberry and tried to avoid blackberry brambles which caused itchy, painful scratches as discovered as a child. Gran carried a soft damp cloth to clean small wounds.

I was still alive, that’s what the pain told me and berries bursting on the tongue, an almost terrible wonder of happy juiciness–all, I felt, barely deserved. Great gulps of air were taken into my lungs, richness of forest and meadow life that egged me on, alongside birds, butterflies and bees as well as my grandmother far from and back to the cabin. A home that now included me. If I’d cried I would have known, wouldn’t I? But Gran’s rough fingers touched my cheek, wiped away wetness. I looked down and away from her grey-blue gaze. Her eyes were light and dark all at once and clear as water, a balance and rightness in a world off kilter, leaving me sad and grateful. Still adrift within that forest life…which pulled me like an earthly tide, right into its embrace.

I slowly relented; it was a relief. In time, I became known to the forest as it became known to me. I missed less and less of the old life as it was not a life at all without my parents–this was what I had left. My few friends had stopped contacting me. It mattered little. I had all I needed, or pretended it was so and then found it, more often, to be.

There was that shadowy figure that came and went in turn with the other creatures. It was as regular as any other happening. Once the person stepped out into a sun-filled meadow as I wandered at the other edge: lanky, gleaming blond, tanned, fleet of foot. An Irish Setter raced with him and they were that fast gone. I didn’t see them again but glimpsed them, knowing to look for that hair, their sounds and daydreamed of village life despite being well planted in my woodland refuge.

I was soon eighteen, nineteen, twenty and had started working at the nursery and garden supply. I had to adjust to relentless sunlight as best I could, took cover in shaded corners when I could. But I did not have a need to leave the general territory, run to the city to get lost and go wild. My parents had done all that for me when young. I rambled through my life with comfortable routines, counted the ways I loved the trees and my small family.

The forest boy disappeared for four years but though I missed our near- close encounters, the regularity of his passing through dim forest and farther off  the wide meadow, there were just enough people in my life. I had a friend or two, when there was time to see them. And I had discovered clay and my generous grandparents gave me a potter’s wheel. I built a kiln with PawPaw and things changed.

******

In good weather, Pawpaw read while to each morning with a big mug of coffee, chair set on the splintery porch. The village has expanded farther but the woods even more, and overlapping shadows dominated. Milky dapples of light slipped in and out. Soon his eyes closed; he dozed there or later settled in a creaky rocker inside. I worked in my potter’s shed if not at the nursery.

Gran had not been around for two years now to keep us in order, give a bit of chatter, to direct each day and ease us towards night. I somehow found my way but she taught me well. Her love was an engine; it  had empowered me again. It faltered, yes, but I knew how to keep on. Work and love, the same as she had done. PawPaw was a kind, decent if tough skinned man, often lost in his even more private thoughts. His presence reassured me as it always had, though I worried. He did not complain when I cooked with minimal enthusiasm or barely sorted animals’ needs. He pitched in as he could. We then had just one goat, a smattering of chickens and a half-lame terrier due to a coyote encounter which PawPaw ended with his shot gun. The cat had long ago left for better adventures, or so I imagined.

PawPaw did aright despite slowing way down. I could manage well enough, thanks to their training on all critical matters. I worked at the nursery and garden shop three to four days a week, labor that was good to me. Then I retreated to the wheel, creating, and sold ceramics in the village as tourism picked up more.

Before Gran passed she put a name to the mysterious flitting shadow figure when she pointed him out in town. She gave a shake of her head, let go a sudden short laugh.

“Lane Harold. Money there,” she said, “not a bad sort. They say he’s got talent, is an artist. Like you.” She tapped me on the shoulder to emphasize. “Your forest frolicker. They live right beyond the stands of red alders and firs, you know, that big place made of redwood and glass?”

Of course I knew, it was a village by us, everyone knew the Harolds. But I didn’t know it was him… I appraised him slyly: rangy, with a way of holding his head as if aloof and studying all, hands stuck in his pockets as he listened to a fawning young woman. As we passed he glanced at me, brow knitted. I thought he might say something, but it passed immediately, so on to the next errand. I did not look back but wondered often, of much.

Month melded into month. Gran woke up ill one day, passed without much suffering; winter arrived and then they both left us. The spring to summer transition was welcome–more work for me, more clement weather for PawPaw on our porch. It was a pace that spoke of reckoning with whatever came, one’s mind on one’s work or rest. No call for deep mourning then, we had each other and the land.

On a recent trip for supplies, I was frankly identified at Jack’s General Store.

“You’re Tally McBride, right?”

I nodded, knowing who he was already. “And you’re Lane Harold.”

He had a can of linseed oil as well as a box of gauze and bandages; I noted his hand was scraped. I had toothpaste, two bars of glycerin soap, tissues and coffee beans for PawPaw and a magazine that had newly arrived on the small rack. Surprised to see a periodical about crafts, I snatched it up.

He looked at the magazine and nodded. “I saw your ceramics at Moonstone Gifts. Good work.”

That touristy gift shop’s name uttered by him was embarrassing. I couldn’t say I saw his paintings because it would have sounded stupid. His art was everywhere in town and beyond, by then. He was making a very fine living, had his own place with a studio but it wasn’t like mine in a corner of our tumbledown shed, my handmade brick kiln at work outdoors. His was a whole building with glass walls and skylights, I had heard. He gave tours of it at times, it was that beautiful. I hadn’t seen it. The forest shadow had become other than what I had imagined, less magical, more flesh and blood –and profitable.

I paid for my items and started out when I felt a touch on my elbow.

“We should do a joint show at Pine Tree Gallery. I’ll talk to the owner, Madelyn, if you’re amenable.”

Was I amenable for an art show? I just made things to order, when a shop requested a few more. I enjoyed my hands in the tacky, malleable clay; the repetitive movements of palms and fingers molding and reshaping; the earthy glazes a series of chemical surprises. I was not an artiste, just a diligent potter. And I liked it that way.

“Really, a show?”

I turned toward him but leaned away like he did, ever so slightly, and stared almost unabashed for the first time. He met my eyes with a strange familiarity, surely aided by those years of not speaking while playing a sort of forest tag, not meeting directly but by way of random rustlings or swishes, grasses pressed to the side as any beast might do, twigs making arrows on a path, marsh marigolds trampled when leaping the spring and summer creeks. Faded blossoms left in a tree hollow.

My arms crossed over chest then uncrossed self consciously. Who was he? Just a childish shadow boy. A rich college guy, a townie who painted. But oh, so very well. “I make things for tourists now and then, not to exhibit. I am not in the business of showing cups and plates like art works. I can’t compete with your skill and talent.”

“It needn’t compete but complement one another. Paint and clay–a good combination.” The sales person awaited his purchase. “Think it over, we’ll talk.”

I bought my items and left. He was nowhere to be seen. My free hand clenched and unclenched as I walked off, irritated with myself. What was I thinking to turn him down right off? What was he thinking to accost me with that? Was it, perhaps, a little funny to him?

As I rounded a corner rapid steps rushed up behind me and I moved over to let the runner pass.

“Wait, Tally, let’s talk now.”

Lane halted beside me and his hand pulled at my forearm.  “You live at the Rollins’, right? Grandparents. So my mother said, she knew them. I’m sorry you lost your grandmother.”

I shielded my eyes. I rarely carried sunglasses and I was blinded trying to look at him as his back was to full sun. “That was some time ago, yes, and thanks. What’s so pressing you nearly ran me down?”

We resumed walking. “I remember, that’s all. You at the cabin’s upstairs window, both of us out there but never meeting in the Barrow’s Forest or the meadow. It was like you hid from me. From everyone. I often wondered about you–you didn’t grow up here. Your mother did…”

“Yes. We often played in parallel, true. I watched, you watched. But you looked up in my window? That is bold…”

He chuckled. “Occasionally, but don’t worry. My curiosity was harmless. I think.”

I stifled an urge to smack him on the shoulder but we didn’t even know each other. Did we? It felt more like walking and talking with an old acquaintance– at very the least–the longer they reminisced.

“Well, anyway, so you know, I tracked you like a dog, scouting out your direction, spying on your childish activities.”

“You didn’t, I would have realized! Or my dog.”

I shrugged, hands with palms up. Let him think about it. The dog was not always with him.

“The point is, you were sort of a part of my youth….an enigmatic part.”

“You’re an old man, now, is that it?”

“I’m pushing twenty-six–it has been a few years since our romping about.”

“I’d call it stealth practice, to pass the time.”

“And you the elusive object of interest.”

We both laughed at such foolishness, feet shuffling as if to go.

“Say, would you like coffee and a pastry or something? We’ll make art talk. ” He indicated the cafe behind them.

I imagined PawPaw snoring in his chair, Tim the terrier at his feet. They jaywalked to the cafe.

******

Two months later, nearly everything sold during the annual July holiday exhibit. This was was “Clay and Paint by Tally and Lane.” Tally was amazed Lane was listed second. But, then, everyone knew his fine, expensive oils and were barely familiar with her groupings of colorful dishes and vases, bird sculptures and bells. If at all.

But not after two weeks when the show closed. Tally McBride was “a refreshing talent worth admiring and supporting, and she held her own with Lane Harold’s fine nature renderings. May the pairing share offerings in the future.” That was per The Village Clarion, for starters. There was more good reviews elsewhere, many top notch about him.

Later, we sat on the cabin porch and PawPaw, who had attended proudly, chatted Lane up as if they all had been cozy forever and it was half-true. The families only a quarter mile from each other had been friends. So very long before Lane had come to be. Way back when Sylvie, my mother, was born a bit later in life, to their surprise. But the Harolds became more busy and prominent, had two sons of their own. There were other matters to attend to, different people to know. It all receded more each year, except for Sylvie and her gorgeous singing, and the marriage he shared and loved long and well. And the forest, their good little world. He ambled off with a contented sigh and a pat on Lane’s back.

We sat and looked into the heart of firs and alders and beyond. The sun’s last rays tinged treetops pink and coral, then vanished as if someone pulled the shade. Day birds settled. Creatures of the night hunted and romanced in their own language under soft cover of darkness. We were silent but our fingers found each others’. Summer’s eve glittered with cool pulses of starlight and the piney community exhaled, kept close the human secrets again.

Wednesday’s Fiction: Trial by Henry

Corbin never once felt a simple passing desire to have or even hold a cat. His aunt had had cats, numbering past a half-dozen, she didn’t really keep close track of them. He certainly didn’t bother. His visits were all about his cousins each summer. He enjoyed the boisterous company of two boys and one girl who lived the country life on a small farm. Corbin lived in a tidy cottage in a small city three hours away with his school teacher mother, and a month’s visit was an exotic vacation. He began to wait late winter for the thaw and then forsythia and crocus and finally the first intoxicating waves of late spring heat that heralded school’s imminent closing.

At Miller’s Farm there were three kids, a father who was his uncle– who actually talked to them straight up– and an industrious, sturdy mother, his aunt. He loved his aunt but he sometimes loathed the cats she adored. Mostly he was avoidant though tried to be neutral, which wasn’t so hard since they roamed outdoors and made themselves useful. But they were known to creep inside to wreak havoc now and again. Every now and then, though, he met up with one under sudden circumstances, as when he daydreamed in the hayloft. His body half-lift righted right off his cozy spot as the crazed animal jumped on him. The large black and white mouser swiped him on the nose, leaving it sore, oddly itchy and bloody for hours. That took a few days to heal and left a deep, small scar. had he resembled a mouse or bug as he’d enjoyed his rest? Did the cat lack the common sense required to avoid a boy’s enraged smack at its vanishing tail and behind? Corbin from then on was fully alert when he saw a whisker or a tail or heard the barest echo of a meow. He usually got at least three scratches a summer, anyway, and a nip or two at bare ankles. He washed and washed them. Aunt Lou covered them with snug bandages as he was convinced he’d die or go delirious from cat fever. She only shrugged and patted his back.

“You’d run if you even saw a cat shadow,” Marty teased, holding one of the creatures out to him.

Marty was heading toward burly at twelve; Corbin ran sometimes from him. But the cat scrambled out of his cousin’s arms to seek whatever it was he sought.

“Naw, not true, I just avoid their claws and teeth, which means keeping my distance.”

“I bet when kittens come again you won’t even want to pet one, you never do, not even the fluffy sweet ones,” Fran sniffed as she passed by.

Ott laughed, gave him a raised eyebrow. “Cat hater, huh?”

“They don’t like me!” It was as if he was committing a crime to not like–much less adore–felines. “I like your pigs fine. I like the chickens, mostly, and Clarence the horse–and goats the best. Lots of stuff.”

“Goat Man!” Marty shouted and grabbed his arm to give it a shake, which was a good sign as they were all headed to a field and he was never left behind. Corbin was a good pitcher.  They played ball awhile and climbed trees and the topic was forgotten for the time being.

But when the next batch of kittens did come, Aunt Lou tried and tried to get him to cuddle a tabby and gave up only when he shrank way back, stifling embarrassing tears. Later she apologized but shook her head at him, as if he harbored some strange streak in him. But he was her only nephew, her only sister’s son; he was a good one, she and her husband, Ronnie, agreed. Good for him to be out of that city.

But that was the thing he did not look forward to when he visited his relatives. Everything else was so different and fun it was hard to say farewell after July 4th. His mother came to spend the holiday, which included a delicious pig roast, more bonfires and a spectacle of fireworks for starters. After three days or so, they drove back home.

And the cats did not mar his memories, they were no longer an issue. He was satiated again, full of the warmth and simple happiness that a kind aunt and uncle offer, and the bond that is built when cousins sleep, giggle and freak out in small tents all night, gather eggs for sunrise breakfasts, see night decorated with a gazillion stars and trees loom and shimmer with firelight, and also when hunting squirrel and rabbit (not his favorite but still) and suffering a lick of skunk spray (they had unbelievably lived to tell of it–afterwards it was a small legend around those parts). The sizzling thunderstorms were something that resonated in his mind forever, too, taking over the landscape, the house vibrating with it differently. It all marked him in secret ways.

Out there spectacular forces reigned. The cats were a footnote. Growing up changed some things. But not the essence.

******

“Fran, you’re really doing it!” He held the phone between cheek and jowl as he finished wiping down the counter top after dinner.

“I am, it’s taken me four years to save enough for this trip and to take the time off. Two weeks of heaven along the Seine and exploring Parisian haunts and wonders I’ve read about so long.” She sighed with delight. “But I’ve an issue I need you to help me resolve.”

“Ah.” He often got these calls from people, mostly family, sometimes friends. It was as if he was their helpmate in a pinch–being single, childless, pet-less and living a quiet life teaching at the university. As if he had not only spare answers but spare time or cash or whatever else was needed. “I can’t water your plants from this far but I would take you to the airport, I guess. Depending on day and time.”

Silence. He could hearing an intake of a long breath, and a brittle tapping as her long fingernails got restless atop the coffee table. Fran had grown up to be a successful business owner, cupcakes and specialty cakes, and he often wondered how long it took to get frosting from beneath those pretty nails. But that was Frannie, full of contradictions he always liked. She lived an hour away but they got together every two or three months and there were the calls.

“Out with it,” he said, rinsing the sponge, tossing it into its holder.

“Okay, then, take Henry for me.”

His laughter was fast and rich. Of course she was kidding. “Okay, what do you actually want?”

Silence again. He imagined her frowning, eyes narrowed. “Take Henry. That’s it and please don’t reject the idea out of hand. He is not one of those bad cats, you know he is a prince, and you and he get along. Overall.”

“Henry– here? You have to be joking, Frannie. I would no more have a cat here than I would–well, invite a crocodile in! You know I distrust cats, I do not have the nature to sympathize with their ways, nor inclination to change my view. I can bear them now, but only just. I–“

“Yes, yes, Corbin, I know they scared and aggravated you as a kid. You’re now an adult, and I’m your cousin and I have a critical need. Corbin, this one time! Mom would rather not as her gout is really acting up and Dad, also not great, said he’d just turn him into the fields to fend for himself–“

“Henry can make his way out there fine.”

“No, he’s an indoor cat only, you know this.”

“Fran, I have enough going on with my classes and I am dating a little and I still wear a blasted two-inch scar on my forearm after all these years.”

“But not your nose or chin or ankles. I am asking you because I can’t really spend extra money or incur the risk of germs at a pricey cat hotel, and I really have run out of options. No one else is able to help me. I leave in three weeks. Paris, Corbin.”

He knew there was no way out of this one. He truly wanted her to go on her trip, she deserved this beautiful vacation. But what did he do to deserve Henry? How could a cat-loather welcome a cat? She was foolish to imagine he could do this.

He felt the heat of her desperation, too.

“Alright, I’ll give in this once for the sake of family– but you owe me, big time.”

She screeched, they made arrangements, said goodbye.

Corbin stared out the window, hands in pants pockets, full of regret. The cat was not his family. Why couldn’t she take ole Henry to Paris? Henri might have found love, just stayed on and on.

******

Henry was becoming gargantuan at just nine months–even as he sat (in that detached way of his sort) snug in a corner of the sun room. This Corbin had forgotten, the weight and bulk of him. And he looked similar at a glance to another type of cat, with ginger-colored tail about nearly a foot long, a torso lengthening to a couple of feet, and that Sphinx-like head perched atop bright chest of white. His back was mottled white and ginger, his paws mostly white and huge. Corbin thought those paws could climb mountains, and held an image of him stalking all that passed within ten miles of nose and ears. It was wild, that’s why; it had to be. Frannie admitted it had been feral the first weeks of life, than climbed under her car and camped out, even took a ride underneath the frame once to her horror. And that all made him hers.

She had worked to socialize him and had been moderately successful, she said. Henry no longer felt compelled to attack in a savage manner as it had the first four months. Corbin had met the beast a few times, greeted it with a wave that betrayed a flicker of trepidation–he didn’t turn his back on him. In response, the fledgling cat had regarded him with snobby disdain, barely sliding against an ankle their last short visit; Corbin had been prepared, so didn’t jump. But he only dared let his open hand run over his sleek back as he went out the door. Fran told him this give and take indicated they had acknowledged and even welcomed each other and so all was well.

Well, she was the amateur cat whisperer while he was a bystander with self-interest as primary.

Henry turned away from Corbin’s stare. Instead, he watched a fly buzz at the window, suddenly leaping three feet high to deftly smash it with a paw. Then he watched it writhe on the wood floor before batting it about and giving it a cursory sniff.

Corbin grimaced and left the room. Time to make his own dinner. The cat might get his can opened in a while but he must not disturb the brazen hunter.

******

It was 5:45 in the morning and there was an annoying scratching at his bedroom door. Not that cat already. His “Intro to Medieval Life” class didn’t begin until ten. He’d been up late reading Owen Sheers and his head felt clogged with cotton after barely four hours out in. He turned over and pulled a pillow atop his head. A thump commenced at the door, one-two-three thumps. What was he doing, throwing his body against the door? For what? Pancakes and sausage? That was what Corbin liked on Thursdays, it was a happy habit. He turned over again, threw the pillow at the door where it slid down into a yielding heap.

“Not yet!”

He watched as a big cat paw reached out and snagged the edge of the pillowcase, pulled it closer through the crack. Not that the pillow could squeeze under there but the sheer gall of that! The case would be sliced by those killer claws. He got up, composed a fierce face, opened the door fast and Henry ran downstairs. He smiled to himself , returned to bed.

At 7:00 the thumping  commenced once more. He stifled an urge to yell. No sense giving in to an animal that was no taller than his shins. It was only a cat, hungry is all. He threw on his sweat pants and descended the stairs.

Henry sat on the dining table, tail swinging off the edge, and the thought of cat germs was too disheartening. He grabbed a bright pink emergency spray bottle and lightly squirted the leonine body with cool water. Though Corbin backed up in anticipation of a frontal attack, it worked. Henry leapt like an acrobat, up, up and out and landing on his feet, then sprawled in repose, looking at his host without blinking. Corbin started on the pancake mix, heated up a small skillet for sausage and brewed coffee and smiled. Sunshine poured through the window above the sink and the cat was lying on the floor by the door. Score a first point. Maybe he would let him out later into the back yard. Just for a feline look-see, a taste of the real world.

 

One third of a sausage was added to cat food. A tasty bribe worked wonders with creatures. Henry liked it so got a tiny bit of pancake which he ignored.

Corbin left for class early. Best to let cats inhabit their cat solitude. He had the relief of people awhile.

******

“Corbin? How’s my Henry?”

“He’s asleep by the fireplace though there is no fire. It is nearly spring.”

“He’s probably bored. Do you talk to him? Is he acting depressed?”

“Good grief no, he is fine, he’s napping. How is Paris?”

“Divine!”

Henry yawned, stood, sidled over to him and the phone. Corbin did not offer him a chance to hear his owner or to speak, so he appeared to eavesdrop. The cousins chatted a few more moments. Before she could tell him to give Henry a hug, Corbin hung up with a cheery goodbye.

“Your mistress misses you. Now go lay back down, tiger.” It half-scared him to hear himself talk to a cat. He tightened his lips into a line line and got busy doing chores.

Henry tilted his head; his ears twitched before he briefly leaned against the human leg, then streaked across rooms, hunting something Corbin could not identify as anything at all.

******

Henry was missing. This occurred to Corbin around bedtime. It had been three hours since he was last seen. Did the cat sneak out when he took out the garbage? Cats cry out when they want to be let in, don’t they? Like dogs. Let him hunt insects–he seemed good at that–and root around for grubs and such. He continued to read students’ papers, engrossed for once. At 11:00 he headed for bed,  remembered the cat. Shrugged. He sank onto the mattress, turned on the reading lamp, reached for his pillow to fluff. And got sliced by a swift sharp knife.

He held the left hand with the right, close to his chest, blood streaming. Henry lay back and groomed himself. The blood was more a very fine trickle, but the small gash was open and red as he raced to the bathroom to get a clear look. He swabbed it with alcohol and found an old Band-aid, all the while cursing softly at the mad animal who had usurped his pillow, And supported his belief that he and cats were essentially enemies. As before-not capable of being friends.

Despite his cooling anger, he had a quiet talk with Henry.

“You cannot sleep here. It is my sanctuary, not yours. I own this house, you are a guest. Not even a paying guest. And you cannot scratch me. If you must be here, you absolutely must get way, way over there. Or on the floor, yes. I prefer you to get out but don’t want more violent confrontations.”

He picked up the cat with both hands–he was so heavy it felt an effort– and clumsily tossed him on the other side of the bed before another wound was incurred. Henry gave a protest, jumped off the bed and padded to the armchair which he occupied instantly but not for long. He looked about, found no more victims, and slipped out the door. Corbin got up to shut the door tight, leaning against it.

“Little monster!” he said to the darkness.

The light was turned off. He did not sleep a long time; even his face covered with quilt, just in case. He dreamed of hot dirt and hay, of cats’ tails like shadowy snakes on walls and mice scampering for their lives, his feet following them.

******

In the morning, they greeted each other with the barest nod. Henry’s was more a twitch of whiskers as food was offered. Corbin dashed off to class and was glad of it. Only for Fran. Never again.

******

On Sunday they sat outside as it had begun to feel like spring. Corbin held a tall glass of iced tea despite a chill and hint of rain on the breeze. But nature was fast transforming, clusters of daffodils a bloom, two robins zipping about with songs to spread. He had a world history magazine on his lap, unread.

Henry was  dazzled by all that lawn; he chased whatever had wings or tiny legs, chewed on grass and flowers and gagged a bit. He scampered about the edges of grass as if he was playing tag with another of his kind. For an hour he ran about and showed off that lean long body and shiny fur, then cleaned himself thoroughly, more like preened. He had to be fixed, didn’t he? He drowsed under the oak tree.

All this Corbin viewed behind sunglasses. He was delighted to wear his favorite warm weather attire, sip chilled tea and he wished he’d invited Cecelia over. But not with that cat here. At least not unless he behaved better.

Henry scampered up a tree in search of feathers but no luck, the bird had other plans, flew off. He navigated a half-slide down.

Corbin shook his head. What a predator, an alpha cat. He drank to the beast– but ho hum, what a lazy day.

******

Corbin was sick. Not a hangover, not the flu, sick with something big enough to make him want to lie down and die for two days. Might have been the lettuce, where did that come from? Did the FDA forget to test that field? Farmers, he thought, ought to be paid more but be more careful. What would Uncle think? Or was it a common student plague? He hung his head over the toilet bowl.

Henry lay on the bed, dozing. He was getting hungry. He was also waiting for Corbin to come back around, things to be normal. He got up, sauntered to the bathroom, lay flat upon the cool tile floor and watched, listened, waited. He returned to that spot after running downstairs to get water from his bowl and lay his head on two paws until Corbin glanced over at him.

They stayed put awhile.

******

Time passed and they were both in bed, Corbin with his arm flung over his eyes, Henry with his body curled up on the pillow next to Corbin’s. They slept–Henry took breaks elsewhere–and said nothing for another 24 hours.

Finally he resumed teaching. The cat sat in his beautiful way on a window ledge and saw the man leave, and liked everything else after that; it entertained him an hour or so.

******

“Corbin, I am on my way to the airport, darn it. Mom isn’t handling things well since Dad’s bleeding ulcer sent him to hospital so I’ve cut two days off. Home tomorrow. My brothers are so far away!… isn’t Paris far enough? We’ll get some dinner when you collect me at the airport. How is that Henry?”

“He’s fine. Sorry you have to return now, and to hear about more health issues. I need to see them more. I’ll be at the arrivals curb.”

She gave him details and he hung up. 

He felt a slight spring in his step as he prepared a dinner serving for Henry. Soon: once more alone. Then he ate his turkey burger and salad, even offered a bite of meat to the cat, but Henry was so picky. They finished, cleaned up and the less-wild feline sat calmly until Corbin took a seat in the sun room to sip a coffee. Corbin reached to pat the furry head and Henry began to purr very softly as he trotted along, tail swishing.

Corbin whistled quietly, a thing he enjoyed. The cat kept sliding a glance at him. It occurred to Corbin that he might like to sing, too, but was too circumspect to do that. He soon was distracted by a tidy line of ants that made their way across the white painted wood floor. 

******

“Henry, this is it, you’re now going back to where you belong.”

They were in the dining room where Corbin had paid a few bills and Henry had chased a fly until it gave up and then ate the whole thing. At least Corbin thought so– he looked away at the last moment.

Henry meowed a little, something he did at times if Corbin spoke, more often if he was hungry, wanted to be outside, or was bored or heard a weird noise or for no discernible reason. He raced to Corbin and,with an elegant slice through air, landed in his lap. Corbin’s arms flew out and he leaned back so that their weight was just balanced on two legs of the old oak chair. The cat rubbed his head on his chest and forearms, purring.

The other chair legs it the floor with a thud. “My gosh, stop leaving fur on me, not dignified behavior,” he said, arms still hovering, hands flapping.

But Henry settled on his lap. They paused like that until Corbin picked up the silky body and held him close just a second. Released him. No damage done but this was the end of it.

“Okay, let’s get that Frannie.”

******

Breathless and waving, she rushed to her cousin’s sports car, face rimmed with weariness and wide with happiness. She looked livelier than ever despite the long flight. He got the luggage. She grabbed Henry’s cage from her seat and sat with it on her lap.

“Hi, you two! How is my Henry? I so missed you–you would have loved Paris!”

“Take him next time. He was pining away, bored, irritating and needy. Back to the cupcake shop with you both! But we got by.”

She laughed in relief and murmured to her cat.

He looked over at Henry who gave him a good stare with a slow blink. Corbin slipped the car into first and took off with immediate speed. Henry gave a sharp meow then purred as he ran his rough tongue over Fran’s pearly fingernails.