I know, this is my fiction posting day but I’m starting out with real life stuff. The made up story comes after. The situation is this: maybe it’s the weather changing, how glossy sunshine has begun to fade and darkness, struck with a light chill, falls earlier. Or perhaps it’s my age that more adamantly rouses the chameleon nature of mysterious nighttime. It might be a few squiggles and knots in my life that can poke holes in my resolve to wake the heck up and get productive right now. Or all this and more puzzling unknowns.
But this afternoon I am floating on last gasps of a very small sleep.It’s a hazard of living a life. The fine tuning required to create even a small yet decent story I’d want to share with you is not operant yet so I hold back. I ruminated and started and stopped.
Then I decided to do something I’ve never done before: re-post a story from 3 years ago, August 2013. Well, I’ve been thinking of pictures, still or moving, and photographers, having corresponded with two fine ones recently. And I recalled my short story that was “Freshly Pressed” in 2013 entitled “Pastime”, about a photographer meeting up with blithe campers. What a happy moment it was– to be Freshly Pressed, and how surprised I was to see many readers stop by! I hadn’t the higher numbers of followers back then.
Today I re-read “Pastime” and thought: this is my post for today. Make that “reblog.” It’s a summery tale–do I admit to missing the season of heat and kaleidoscopic colors already?–and a little fun as well as very short for me (I often write 2000-4000 word stories, even on WordPress). All good for now.
So forgive my temporary laziness; I’ll be back soon with current, maybe even snappy, writing. First I need to get a genuine full cycle snooze in. Then I have to face a root canal tomorrow. I sure hope this story will suffice. I had fun writing it for your enjoyment back then and, it turns out, now as well.
Just click on the link below to see the rest; this one reads fast. Have yourselves a good-to-better Monday –I’ll work on mine.
You would not believe the shock I felt when I passed by the gallery that winter during my lunch hour. I recognized his name right off. I pushed the door open and took it all in, wondering if it was true.
When we first met Sully was camping next to us, his tent sagging in the middle, his kerosene lamp throwing off a weak light. He was rooting around for something, I couldn’t tell what since he was half-in and half-out of his tent. Maybe that’s why it was about to cave in.
I walked over, licking my fingers clean after enjoying BBQ chicken legs I’d made for me and my two boys. He stuck his head out and looked at me, then the tent collapsed. I stood with hands on hips and watched it fall in on him, nothing more to do but see if he could put it back up right. I found it funny…
Every time the sharp whirr of a power saw was heard, she lingered there, felt its power and intent, heard the industry behind the hand that held such a tool. Its stops and starts were like depressions of the soft pedal on her baby grand piano, interruptions that made her desire the music to resume. Reshaping rich woods, coaxing them into new creations–this mimicked the making of an exquisite composition.
Rita beamed at the second story window, glad it was open; iut was her ready connection to the world. As the saw labored she breathed a fragrance of wood separating from itself, fine sawdust floating upward. The carpenter was in the driveway below, at Mr. Bellingham’s. If only she could see what he was doing. It wasn’t Mr. B.; he was just able to keep up his garden now, his back bowed and fingers crooked with pain.
She shook her head to clear it, lay her own strong hands upon ten ivory and ebony piano keys. Her eyelids half-closed so they blurred pleasantly. Building things was a declaration of purpose with a revelation of incremental changes. She admired that, and so told her hands to play like that, impress upon the silence something substantial. For once. They moved each keys. A predetermined chord came alive. A whimper of a chord.
It had been seven months since the accident. The car in the twilit fog with no lights, pavement and tires colluding with disaster, brakes useless as two cars skidded across the road, crashed past the barrier and down the embankment. She had been sleeping until those moments; Aaron was wide awake but it was no use. As their car rammed into a tree, it seemed a violent dream.
The middle-aged driver, whose blood alcohol level should have killed him even before he drove, died instantly.
Later, after Aaron admitted he couldn’t form a bridge from his barely harmed body to Rita’s, they parted. It was more than that; he wasn’t good at adapting to life’s suddenness. Whatever circumstances he found uncontrollable, he abandoned. Just as the car was left and a new, fancier one replaced it, he found someone else better fit for him. Rita felt it less than disheartening that he left; she was rid of his random rancor, his impatience, the attempts at true decency. His pun-filled humor had annoyed her, as well.
Not that she wouldn’t rebuild wholeness, sooner than he’d thought. Each leg had been broken, an ankle less ruined. Surgeries commenced. Muscle became flaccid, bone held the pain. Rita was at first resistant to walking. There were many failures. Her face was redesigned a bit–angry scar under her eye, jaw broken then repaired. They said; it felt and loked otherwise.
But her hands had been safe. Without knowing it, she had tucked them under the sides of her thighs, an old habit to keep them warm due to poor circulation. They had not flown up or out at first, didn’t connect with anything dangerous. It was as if God had known to save them as her body slammed back and forth.
As a pianist, Rita had to have hands that operated without thinking, each finger fully aligned with the others and the instrument. They were still capable. She exercised them, using small rubber balls even when she could not get up. When she at long last could, piano practice resumed, up to a couple of hours if she could stand sitting in the wheelchair her mother insisted still be used there.
But as a composer, she didn’t need special accommodation, not even a certain room or the smooth keys beneath fingers. The notes unfurled as if etheric winds blew them to her. Now more than ever. The accident and new physical limitations had seemed to reroute, perhaps excavate more neurological connections. Rita was charged with sensations and energy she hadn’t felt before. The core of creativity was broken open. Her industry, though, was greater than her stamina. And still she heard the music within and resumed the tasks of scribe with a new devotion, pen speeding across staffed paper.
The music sounded, when voiced on the piano, remarkably less than what was ensconced in her brain. There was a similarity that plagued her, meter too repetitive, movements less than intriguing. She couldn’t pinpoint what was meant by the fervor that spilled over the keys, then how it weakened in the final soundings.
“Take a break, dear,” her mother insisted. Maybe because it was her house, partly–she lived in the newer annex–and she was irked by the chaotic attempts. Maybe because she worried her daughter was being worn out.
“I’m resting in between things,” Rita murmured to reassure.
“You don’t rest; you incubate.”
“Yes, mother, I am hatching something grand even now,” she said and executed a complicated run with trills and then a resounding trio of minor chords before abruptly stopping to stare out the window.
“And it may flee your insolence,” her mother retorted as if Rita was twelve instead of twenty-nine. But she left her daughter to her work, fighting back tears that rose unbidden too often since the fateful crash.
Her mother was right, of course, incubation was generally occurring, more so now. What else could even happen at this time? She couldn’t dance the music, shake them out, send them gliding to her hands. “Before” she might have done that. “After”, rest had been indulged–between daunting sessions of physical therapy. There was ever something on the edge of consciousness that needed to be written and played. Her mother had always believed she was a genius–and so needed infinitesimal care–when Rita knew she was just plain possessed. Terribly, gloriously. By music and whatever powers it commanded. By sound and its feelings set free, whatever vibrations and emanations it gave off.
Take the electric saw. Rita had listened to it for two days and every time it started its gentle whine she followed it as if a trail to somewhere mysterious. When it quit so did she, and turned back to her manuscript. But it struck her that a laborer’s machines sent distinctive voices careening through the atmosphere. The hammer and nails triggered a new part: staccato points of sound, was hearty and clean.
By the third day she wondered who was at it all those hours, how did they do it, hands and arms moving back and forth, muscles reacting to a plan, objects being built a testament to stamina. There was enthusiasm. She wheeled herself to the window and peered through mini-grids of screen.
The carpenter was in the driveway, his back to her as he hammered together boards into seeming walls. Maybe. It was beginning to resemble a roomy dog house. Chicken wire leaned against saw horses along with more pieces of wood. Was it a sort of fence for the small garden? Was Mr. B. getting a dog? The structure was taller than she imagined any dog would be.
The man wore a red plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves, a baseball cap pulled low. He was compact and wiry, medium height, maybe a decade older than she. He walked into the garage, moving with confidence and efficiency. When he came back he lay a large piece of plywood–was that what it was?–across saw horses and started up the saw again.
It arose and stuck in her throat, the old residue of anger. How easily he moved and lived! Her stationary life, the time it took to walk from her bed to bathroom, the way her legs felt as if they were made of aged wax and could buckle with undue stress. She’d had a ramp built so she could get downstairs and outdoors but she felt like a prisoner. Rita wheeled over to the piano and listened to him before she put her hands to piano keys once more.
And before long it came to her: mechanical or natural or human, a myriad insistent signs of life, fractious or joyous, cacophony of steel, wood and electric collisions, all a bonfire of activity. It cleared away her mind, rendered it bright and humming. She gave her hands to it, let fragments of music absolve her of burdens, let it find purchase on precarious ledges of memory and then set all free into a cosmos like an infinite net, gathering life music together into one entire symphony of songs. She let it crash and splinter in space, re-merge in new forms, melodies challenging one another, chord structures shifting and reconnecting measure after measure. Rhythm suffused each measure with complication and relief. Rita was engulfed by a shapeshifter music. And body and soul were pulsating with it.
Her mother stood in the corner, hand to throat. She was afraid for her daughter. That renewed power being released! The indicators of a life that was only now being better revealed, the journey to come. But she was moved even as she was confused by music so strangely wild, and left Rita to her work.
The carpenter stopped erecting the little house in the yard and listened. How could he not? Her playing had insisted he listen whenever he was between tasks or during lunch break. He didn’t know about classical music, what it meant. How people could abide it for long. But it had started to work on him. He heard things and when she paused he got back to work, tried to make up for lost time. He suspected he would pay attention to more tomorrow and the next day, as long as he was working beneath that window. And it gave him chills to hear her play, he couldn’t say why, it was just how she worked at it. No fear. The sounds she created, the excitement and nerve. He thought it remarkable, even if foreign. He was glad of being there.
When Rita awakened on the sofa the next day she felt empty. She had written as much as she could long into the night, paper and pen and piano engaged in deep discussion. Now it was afternoon. The relentless hammering had brought her to consciousness but now it seemed over and done. Silence. She pushed herself out of bed without aid of walker and stumbled to the window. The carpenter was talking to Mr. Bellingham. They were excited, hands expressive, arms flung open, looking back and forth across the half-hidden back lawn.
“Mother–hello.” She turned to watch her carry a tray laden with a steaming mug of mint tea, a croissant with butter and jam, a sliced banana. Such unerring care touched her. “Thank you. Sorry if I kept you up. I’ll nibble while I play a bit.”
“Yes, I suppose you will. And you didn’t, not really. I’ll be next door.” She set it on a folding table close to the baby grand.
“I have to see what he’s up to with all that racket. Will we have a barking mad dog next door now? I’ll update you later.”
Rita spent the next few hours reworking what was dissatisfactory, trying out measures one by one, stopping to erase and notate once again, humming and playing, changing keys, revising again. As the afternoon waned–she realized coffee was needed to stay alert–a surprising set of noises shook the room.
She put her face to the window, uncertain she heard correctly but yes, it was ducks, good-sized, white restless quacking ducks. She could see two as they waddled from Mr. B. and her mother, then beyond line of sight.
A duck house and duck pen?
“What are you doing down there?” she called out when she saw her mother wave at her. “Opening up a mini-farm?”
The carpenter looked up and grinned. “What are you doing with that piano?”
She had been heard, it seemed. But those ducks! She liked the idea of ducks’ lovely feathers and blather, but wondered how they’d take to her music and it, to them. Rita walked back to the piano, sat a bit and flexed her fingers. They were tired; her piece could take a break.
The carpenter–what was she supposed to say back to him? Writing a concerto. Playing my fantastic baby grand, as usual. Using your work as a springboard for something I didn’t even know was inside me…? How about: Come on up and find out? That might even be goodm, worth a cheap laugh for both.
It was time for coffee, a little stroll with the blasted walker. Then more work to be done.
When she carefully eased her way down the ramps to the kitchen they were all there, talking about the perils and pleasures of ducks in an urban setting, the enclosed runway that was built to keep them from eating everything, the palatial two-story duck house. Rita’s mother had fixed coffee and was setting out chocolate mint cookies.
The carpenter looked up, gaze falling on her walker.
“This is Will; Will, Rita, my daughter the pianist you hear.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said with a lift of his mug.
Rita straightened up her back and lifted her chin, winced despite herself. She tried to look congenial as she took herself to the table. He pulled out a chair and she sat without grace, her long legs encouraged under the table with a little shove of her palm.
“Your sawing and hammering–” she began.
“Sorry if it was too noisy but then, it’s my work and–”
“I found it arresting. It started up something, a host of new ideas. Industrial.”
“–then I heard you playing and it was distracting, but not a bad thing, pretty good thing. I mean, it was…different. Really something.”
“Okay, then.” She sipped her coffee. “Your work is just fine, sounds good, too.” He was taller than she thought as he leaned against the kitchen door jamb, but not tall in that way some men can be, lording over everyone. He was tan and had a friendly face. His hands were cupped about the mug, embedded with dirt.
“Mighty fine music, Rita,” Mr. B. said and nodded. “Loud but real good. You know I love your piano.”
“Thanks. But owning ducks, Mr. B., really?”
“Always wanted them. You’ll see. Good company.”
When they left, Will, looked back, touched the bill of his hat. Her eyes followed him as he entered the driveway, his certain stride a long line of sound only she can hear.
That night she was up late rewriting once more. Will’s face floated through her mind and she wondered if she could find him a place in it, then saw that it was his work, that was who he was, callouses and blood and sweat put into finely crafted things, hard labor–the weariness and satisfaction of it. It was what made the world go around, in part, Will and those of his trade being critical to much that mattered: shelter of all sorts, successful operation of commerce, innovation and repair of brokeness (you name it), helping dreams get built. Even Mr. Bellingham’s ducks need a place. The pedestrian nature of such interesting things pleased her.
Rita played the outlined first movement in full, felt it hold together better, then was drawn to work on the second of three she hoped would complete a robust piece. A beginning, a small act of bravery. Her hands led her.
One year later Rita Harkness walks onto the bright, wide stage, unaccompanied by even a cane. There is a cheerful burst of applause. She is stunning in a simple sapphire gown. It is a full house, buzzing with anticipation. No one expected she’d come back strong, not so soon after that accident, not after so long a public silence. But this is thought to be her best composition yet. Would she come through? They want so much to believe.
The lights dim, speech ceases and all rustling quiets. Rita sits at the gleaming black piano, adjusts the piano bench, then lifts her arms and hands. She lets fingers hover above keys that await an enlivening. And they descend with a force that makes her breath rush out, a sound like many wings taking flight. The audience sits up, leans forward, begins to surrender. Still wondering. Rita loses herself, finds herself sailing on eighth and sixteenth notes, their cascades and crests, rising upward and released. Boldness, now a playful vigor surging across the stage to those who can hear. As she created it. Or the muse created, with her help.
It will be well lived, this life, and her music shouting it out heals.
She has finally come back and then some, her mother thinks, tears sliding down soft, lined cheeks–and now what?
Will stands in the back, closes his eyes. Feels her all about. Some of the music does sound like his soul filled out in so many notes he cannot name so that he hears his life call back to him. In ways he never knew existed, but which now seem natural. And then his life calls out to her. She doesn’t yet realize. He’ll wait. Until she recognizes him not only in this thrilling, even honorable music, but just as he is. Just a man. One who can help build whatever it is they might need. It could happen: against all odds he’s here. Rita Harkness, too.
There are times when she knows why they’re together and it’s alright, even excellent, and times when she wished she didn’t. This morning is one of the times it all makes sense.
The room is foggy with cigarette smoke. She has opened the windows in the main room so actual oxygen can better circulate. He complains that he can smell the buses, wishes for flowers in their room. Lisa’s shoulders roll up and back; she is not offering sympathy although he thinks he needs it.
“It’s only eight o’clock. Do you have to storm the bedroom? Any coffee?”
“I know, I know, you didn’t sleep much. Neither did I. Yes, the lamp table with the clear space on it. Other side.”
“Right, the tidy side, good.” He reaches for the mug and exhales a thin stream of grey smoke before taking a long drink.
“I left some oatmeal in the double boiler on low heat. Juice is in the frig.”
“I kept living the same old haunt. All night, over and over. Or that’s what it felt like.” He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands, cigarette dangling between two fingers. “Can’t it morph into something else?”
“I’m sure it has, some …” She rests a hand on his shoulder, then gives it a squeeze. She wants to kiss the spot, but restrains herself. She’s already going to be late to the law office.”I’ll be home around six. You could call Marty and see if he needs you to come in.”
She feels July heat creep along her neck, down her spine. Another day of drought. The air is too dry. The land almost sizzles. Her skin has new wrinkles, hair crackles under a brush, but the past month she’s been sweating like a stuck pig.
This cubicle of a room and the conversation make her sweat, too.
He leans back onto a firm, fat pillow, one she just bought him. “That’s what you think about, another paycheck. Well, so do I, that’s part of the problem. Maybe we could ease up a little?” A crooked, limpid smile moves across his lips. “Okay, listen, Marty called last week but I said I was busy. His little hideaway gallery can run itself. He just likes to humor me, play the good Samaritan. But don’t worry, I’ll be working. My River #5 painting has to be finished for the Plaza Gallery show in a month, you know that. Then I’ll sell the whole shebang.”
Lisa smooths her skirt. That painting has taken four months so far. The other six in his water series are done. When he still worked at the county building, he left at five and walked right to his studio to paint. At first she waited until midnight for his return but he has a cot there; he can stay overnight, come home to shower if he needs to. Now he might retreat a couple days and she knows he’s okay or he’d come back home. Sleep is often better when he’s gone, a whole bed just for her to stretch and breathe. She does miss him in the morning, when she turns over, smoths the empty, cool sheet beside her.
He lights another cigarette using a match torn out of the cheap booklet he took from the steak house. Indulging himself was a reward for getting good painting done last night. The matchbook cover is white, grey and red. He likes the tiny face with cheerful chef in white hat; he has begun to collect matchbooks, a pleasant distraction. A pinch of guilt makes him squint–for not bringing home good leftovers, at least, for Lisa. He’ll grill fish tonight, surprise her.
“It’s the Black River one, us kids, Jason and I are following it downstream, swimming and floating and being stupid and he disappears and I have to drag him out gagging and choking…and then he goes blue, then grey… the rest I don’t want to remember.”
She looks out the window. The heat is already making things wavy. Or it’s the mid-twentieth century glass or her eyes are tricking her. She recalls she has lunch today with Mona and wishes she didn’t. Lisa has been reading on her lunch hour. Eating her perky little salad alone. Happily. Mona gets too personal with questions. She doesn’t need to know about her husband, how he still struggles after all this time. How once he was taller and stronger and unafraid of anything.
“Except he doesn’t. You saved him. You were there, as usual, for him.” She glances at him. The “as usual” could have been foregone.
She knows he knows. She has heard this story and more so many years she doesn’t have to listen well or ask about his feelings. But then Jason, his favorite brother, died fourteen years after that on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. This man she cares for so much wasn’t there, then. He was with her.
He stares to her left out the window, at the building next door. He finds the building alluring, he once told her, a view that’s dense with possibilities, all unseen. He prefers to guess who lives where and why and ow he or she or they make sense of life. When darkness falls he closes the curtains. “I don’t want to know what they’re really up to, it would only ruin things,” he said defensively after she laughed at his simultaneous attraction and repulsion. She knows his imagination does better for them than they can do for themselves.
Lisa swipes at the dampness along her upper lip. “I’m off. The boss wants me to do more on that Halprin account so that’s why I’ll be later, unless I work through lunch.”
“Don’t do that. Read your book. I love that you read when you eat, taking care of two appetites at once.”
She laughs as he squashes the noxious cigarette in his glass souvenir ashtray, the one that was stashed in Jason’s suitcase before he drowned. His dad thought he should have it. There is a touristy picture of azure waters with yellow and red sailboats on it, now blurred by ashes and filters, but they glide into the horizon forever.
With effort, he gets to his feet. He rights himself with the immediate help of her hand on his arm, then he pulls her to him. It’s not easy for him to stand there holding her. She does more of the holding. Because he stands crooked, one shoulder lower than the other, his back weakened, his painful, pieced-together hip jutting further left, ever since he charged his car into a V-shaped ditch the month after Jason died. His breath is tender on her neck, a petal-softness. He knows how that alone can make her relent after eight years of marriage. Four years following the ditch–what that has brought them–moves her, too, and sometimes he is ashamed that he needs that.
Lisa steps away and he pulls himself upright a moment, then sags. She refrains from reaching this time. He unhooks his cane from the bedpost.
“Oatmeal. Couldn’t it have been eggs Benedict with tabasco?” He playfully taps her on the ankle with his cane and she spins around, teases him with a mock glare, then moves aside.
“I have to go.” Lisa picks up her lunch bag, her purse, the car keys. “I want you to do what’s best, but I also worry about the bills.”
“I’ll sell the series, Marty says. Kenneth at Plaza agrees! I can’t fail, Lisa, not this time.”
Anxiety rises, hovers in her chest like hummingbird wings, gives her pause despite needing to leave. “No, that’s right, you can’t.”
“I will not fail. Because you’re there. At the river, standing on a distant raft, in a blue sundress, waiting for me. I painted you there. Not many will know it, but I will.”
Her breath catches. Oh, not this throb of tears. A rush of relief changes her fear into that unassailable love again. She drops everything at their feet.
“Jacob, you’re always getting me into trouble or something…”
She slips her arms around his neck; he cradles her. They are silenced by the lustrous morning light, by the oatmeal steaming and coffee simmering. Skin and hearts make contact. Lisa kisses Jacob as if it’s a new adventure, then pulls away, shimmies out the door singing “River Deep, Mountain High” like she’s Tina Turner’s back up girl.
In the end, it may have come down to feet. It’s hard to know for sure if something that ordinary, even banal, can make a life changing difference but I can’t think of what else it was.
Jenna moved in right after Harvard left for Hawaii for a ten-day break, so that put her at a disadvantage from the start. He said so when he returned after they met the first time.
“Evie, this young woman was not who I imagined would join the cooperative. Our own floor. She is way more than I’d wish.”
He looked up at the ceiling and rolled his eyes. I wondered if he was ever tempted to do that when he was counseling someone; I sometimes fought off the urge in my classroom.
I liked Harvard. That was a nickname I gave him due to his attending there three years for Pre Med. But he hated it so he dropped out rather than fail. He became a psychologist. No surprise; he’d had to recover from the humiliation of quitting and figure out what his true path was so he’d developed insight. He objected to the silly name at first, but after we went through a minor flooding in the laundry room, a storm that knocked out power, and a grease fire in his kitchen, he counted me as a well-meaning, reliable friend.
But we were as different as a bonsai tree is from an apple tree. I say that because he owns one of the first. There were certain rules he lived by, useful to no one else. I suggested he had OCD, but he tried to deny it. He had “preferences” or made “efficiency a big priority” or “I like what I do and do exactly as I like.” And I liked to just grow and be who I am which isn’t that different– I just do it another way.
I didn’t care, anyway. I’d lived at 136 for four years when Harvard moved in and told me he “was temporarily residing” at 142. I privately questioned what temporary residing had to do with actual living–that’s how my mind works–but in time we became friendly. His stay turned into several years. We saw each other from a slight angle, tossed a greeting down the hall, bumped into each other on our way to work. We got our coffee at the same coffee shop but took different trains. He leased an office while I joined my fellow teachers at a public middle school. His real name: Harvey Sunderland III, a better professional moniker than Harvard. We came to enjoy complicated conversations–he saw things from a multi-layered view, whereas I was about what is essential and to the point. “Concrete,” he said. But we adapted and found each other acceptable, even enjoyable.
Jenna moving in without his prior knowledge was not under his mental file heading of “Expected Events”. I knew that they would study each other once, then have little to do with each other.
I decided to get to know her some. She answered the door right away when I knocked. She was shorter than most people I had met, had slippery hair that tended to escape its ponytail. Barefoot, despite the weather giving us more winter half the time.
“I could smell those chocolate chip cookies from my place,” I informed her cheerfully. “Welcome to our domain. I’m Evie.”
She reached through the doorway and shook my hand with an oven mitt on. “Jenna, and if you’ll excuse me, I have to get the next batch out. Come in if you like.”
The place was a colorful mess. There was a slew of paintings, prints, photographs and they were leaned against walls, tables, chairs. many looked like book illustrations, with captions underneath the pictures, and it turned out they were. Ceramic bowls, brass cats and a life-sized wood dog took up more spots.
“Yeah, it’s a wreck here, give me a few days. I illustrate stuff,” she said, munching on a warm cookie and offering me one. “I own a lot of art but much of it is mine. I free-lance for now. We’ll see how that goes.” She smiled, chocolate clinging to her upper lip. “You?”
“Teacher, eighth grade. Love it, occasionally hate it and it’s my chosen life. Kids are smart and funny. Heroic, in a way.” Why did I have to defend my profession? I looked around more. “Say, I like this picture.” I pointed to a watercolor of a grey dove standing on a bright blue ledge.
“Painted that in Italy. No one bought it so here it is.” She shrugged. “Baking, though, is a hobby and it calms me–but I’m happy to share with people. Anytime, come on down.”
“Okay, nice to meet you, Jenna. Dinner at my place sometime?”
“Sure, I don’t cook regular meals much!”
I ran into Harvard a couple weeks after she moved in. He seemed rested and looked good with a light golden tan.
“When are we going to do dinner so I can hear about your trip?” I asked.
“I will have to check my schedule but I think this Saturday will work. You cooking?”
“It always is, Evie. I’ll bring the wine.”
“The new tenant is coming. Jenna.”
“Oh, Evie, I was looking forward to just chatting with you.” His perfect moustache wriggled as he bit his lower lip. “Have you talked to her? Who is she?”
“Let’s find out. Come about seven.”
Jenna arrived about the same time Harvard did and wore wonderful shoes. I noticed because they were red, had designs on them in gold and black, with small heels. They fit her like a glove. I assumed they were from Italy. Harvard noticed, too.
She took them off and left them at the door. She had no socks on despite the chilled tile floor. He looked at me as if to say, Well, she has no sense.
“Evie, I brought fresh-baked shortbread cookies as they go with everything. Can I help?”
The dinner went fine. We ate, talked about our work, what we thought of the late spring. The pasta and marinara were quite good; even Harvard praised it. We adjourned to the living room. They sat on the sofa, Jenna curled up with feet tucked under her, Harvard with left hand resting on his pressed khaki thigh, wine glass in other. We watched Jenna talk; her hands dramatised each thought.
“Italy has the best summers, hot but full of sea breezes. I usually stayed with a family friend, last time for two months. My mom is Italian. Dad was born in Sweden and died some years ago. I often go to Praiano with my mother. Last year she didn’t, so off I went.”
“Where is that?” I helped myself to the first shortbread and found it tastier than any I had eaten.
“On the Almalfi Coast, halfway between Positano and Amalfi. An old fishing village but a resort as well. The villa the friend owns is romantic, old, views like magic, all you would want. The beaches, scents of the air, the old structures, all so good. I walk everywhere there and feel incredibly strong.” Her feet eased from the cover of her long dress and she rubbed an instep. “I wear shoes as little as possible so I get used to being barefoot–of course, I wore sandals as needed. I can’t bear shoes much…” She stretched her feet in front of her and wriggled slender toes. Sighed. “It’s a great place to make and think about art.”
Harvard asked a question as he sat up and placed his wine on the coffee table. I tried not to smirk at him. I knew he had issues with propriety, that he likely felt she should have kept her shoes on. Jenna continued describing her adventures in Italy, how she had grown close to the villagers as well as her family. How she might live there year-round at some point. But it was about money, wasn’t it? Still, she had some squirrled away.
She smiled at Harvard and me, small white teeth flashing in the low light. The word that came to me: ravenous. I was finding her annoying if mildly charming but I wasn’t so sure what he felt. I shared my favorite vacation spots and he talked about his recent trip to Hawaii. Later, I cleaned up as they carried on with their conversation. I heard a couple of laughs, his and hers. I thought he was managing well for someone who tended to get a nervous eyelid tick when he didn’t have firm control over new or unusual influences.
The spring unfolded. I saw them both very little between my work and my outside commitments like jogging and cooking class and walking my mother’s Afghan three times a week while she recuperated from knee surgery. My students were getting spring fever, forgetting assignments, staring out the window and passing notes more. I felt my patience wearing thin and came home early one day with a mean headache.
There were muffled voices in the hallway as I unlocked my door, so I walked down the passage a few steps. I could see a skirt moving through the doorway of number 142–Harvard’s place. No matter, his life was his own. He had a girlfriend when he moved in, but none the last two years.
The next day Harvard and I ordered coffee and hung out a few minutes before catching our trains.
“I think I adore that girl. Maybe.” For a minute I was confused. The one in the doorway? Was she so young as to be called a girl? We were in our late-thirties. “I never thought it would happen but I think this could be very good!”
I was afraid he’d jump up and down. So unlike him, it spooked me.
“Harvard, what got into your breakfast? I haven’t seen you this way since you lined up hundreds of your found rocks and recorded them in your little book.” He gave me a bad look. “But this time it is a female person? Who is this ravishing dame?”
He laughed. “Come one, Evie, don’t act dumb now. She’s been around for several weeks already.”
I gulped. “Jenna…? You have it going on with Jenna? Hippie artist Italy woman?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that but yes, we have been spending time together and she seems as interested as am I.”
My train came up. “Excellent, Harvard! Catch up with you more later!”
“Dinner soon?” he yelled at my back.
I didn’t respond as I walked away. I had had enough of people for the week. My students were turning me into a hermit. I sat down with my book and opened it where the marker was but couldn’t see the words. Jenna and Harvard. What could possibly be more quirky? She was younger, actually, ten years maybe, and not at all his type as he noted at start. She was a free spirit who spontaneously created her way through life; he was a tightly wound intellectual. She was very short, under five feet; he was six feet tall or more (hard to know since I hadn’t stood nose to nose with him). She was Italian and Swedish; he was English, period, and romanticized it.
All day I kept imagining them cozying up and it got me like a pesky bee. By the time I arrived home, I had to know more. Harvard didn’t answer the door. It was Friday night; maybe the two of them had made plans to go out.
I hadn’t much thought about Harvard’s plans before. I knew he enjoyed playing handball. We saw each other at our apartment complex pool occasionally; both of us endured laps and liked to dive. Sometimes he had a couple of friends over for drinks and a movie. We had gone antique and flea market shopping a few times over the years, more in tune with his wallet than mine but it was something we had fun doing. And I had expected to get to know Jenna sooner, I just hadn’t made the time. I had thought she would stop by, maybe. It struck me like indigestion in the pit of my stomach as I turned out the light: I felt left out, as if I was the kid on the playground who wasn’t being picked to play, anymore.
I didn’t call him that week-end nor did he, me. We greeted each other hurriedly on week days because I was almost late four days in a row. On Friday he wasn’t at the coffee shop. I stopped by his place before my own. I felt I owed him better attention. No, to be honest, I wanted to know what the heck was going on with him.
He answered with a yawn. His face was drawn and his considerable hair, usually combed and held just so with some hair product, looked like a rat’s nest. He motioned me in.
“What’s up, Harvard? You sick?”
He shook his head. “Just recovering from a bad night. I played hooky today. There was a…bad mishap.”
“The Jenna sort?”
“I got her flowers–not just any flowers. I had the floral shop design a unique bouquet and they were arranged in a large cut glass vase. I took them to her and when she opened the door, she was standing there in a nice black dress, something you would wear to a formal affair. She had on pearls–I didn’t know women still wore pearls, gosh. And no shoes! And behind her I saw a man. She said it was her uncle visiting from Italy. But the way she said it sounded so… false to my ears so I thrust the flowers at her before she knew what was happening. She didn’t even reach for them. The water in the heavy vase sloshed everywhere into the hall as I tried to hold on. It spilled into her place. I was so embarrassed, unnerved, so I set them down on the hallway floor. And I looked at her feet close-up, you know, my nose was a few inches from them–and her toes curled up as if they couldn’t bear to touch a little water!”
I waited, perplexed. He was almost hyperventilating. “Breathe. You saw her toes and thought…?”
“I thought: she has to be lying about being barefoot in Italy all that time or why would she not want her toes wet? She says she lived by the sea, was barefoot there every day if possible, loved being natural! She is still often barefoot. But her toes actually recoiled from the water. You ncanot fake that. She may have even lied about visiting Italy, for all I know she is lying about everything, Evie.”
“Harvard, really. She was just surprised by the flowers and spilled water.”
“No. She reacted as if I had caught her. In a compromised position. Or something.” He rubbed his face. “I don’t know, damn. At least I know you’re frank, always truthful. You even tell me things I would rather you didn’t.” He let out a sad moan. “I think I’m done for.”
I made him eggs, then bacon, each on its own plate. We ate on his balcony because the weather really had been perfect. Technicolor. I just hadn’t seen it lately. We were quiet, at ease. I went home after he promised to get up in the morning for a swim with me.
If Jenna lied, I’m let down for us all. But I think it was just her feet that did it to him. He likes things to be and stay a certain way. Like, for him, bacon and turkey must not join vegetables for a club sandwich. History doesn’t belong next to fiction on his bookshelf. And pearls and a little black dress just do not accentuate naked feet. I know these things. Harvard is a very complicated man. He’s someone I care about. More than I knew.
In this case, seeing is not quite believing. He first insists it is a mistake, his mother’s name co-opted from that of a bystander, perhaps, by a rookie staff reporter. Ace scans the half-column article in the section “Out and About” that explored a neighborhood summer festival. There was a battle of the bands and one rock band on the rise, Harry and the Hurons, was headlining that date. A few folks listening to the music were briefly interviewed.
“We came for cheap drinks and hot dogs but, yeah, the boys in the bands first, right girls?” Ellen Smalley of Troy, laughed.
She brought two friends along to enjoy free entertainment and a fun afternoon in the hot July sun. Seated with Miss Smalley, center, is Bethany Janson, left, also of Troy and Candy Lister, right, of Detroit.
When could that have been, nineteen seventy-what? She wouldn’t have met their dad by then, would she? He smooths the paper on the kitchen table and looks up at Deanna.
“You found this stuck behind dad’s old tool box by the work table?”
He has stopped by after her phone call and a cunning invitation to come over by enticing him with: “I found a surprise about mom, maybe both parents.” She stirs sugar into his coffee mug and sets it down with a thump, steaming liquid splashing over the edge. He jerks his hand away and is about to say something but she is filling her own mug.
“It was actually in a worn cardboard accordion file behind the tool box on a shelf. There are lots of things in there. I didn’t look too much. It felt…weird, like I had stumbled on private things.”
“Well, you did. We never saw this. What else did you find?”
Deanna pulls out the chair and settles into it like a yellow cloud as her bulky sweater envelops her frame. He squints closer at the picture, then back at Deanna. He examines the newspaper’s capture of the woman’s eyes and eyebrows, the shape of jaw and chin. That hair. The mouth with barest pout. The similarity of that mouth and his sister’s registers as a tiny twinge under his breastbone but it still isn’t definitive.
“Oh, a few other regular pictures, a couple of dad playing ball in college, I think. An early certificate of recognition for his work at the plastics lab. Other stuff, I don’t know. What do you think of the newspaper picture, though?”
It doesn’t so much strike him as their mother. “More like a relative, like family we knew but hardly talked to, lived off Third Street near the lumber store, our second or third cousins.” He blows across the coffee’s surface. “Last time I heard from them was…don’t even know.”
“It was at dad’s funeral, going on eight years now.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
He looks around the spacious off-white, rectangular room. The same type of (or were they the same ones?) blue and white checkered curtains have hung here since he left for college–the last time it was re-done. He has returned for Christmas a few times. And their dad’s funeral. The white-painted pine table is still sturdy and takes up a length of wall beneath a large bay window in the kitchen. He used to make a breakfast mess here, get unsolicited advice, practice a speech for school, fight with his sister, get kissed by his mother on the forehead, share Sunday comics with his dad and get smacked across the back of his head when he didn’t mind his manners. All right here, a time so long passed.
“I never heard her talk about either of these girls, though. This was a long time ago, even before dad, I suspect.” Deanna seems upset by the mystery.
He finds it a curiosity to survey and put in place on a timeline.
“But he kept it a lifetime for some good reason.”
“Maybe he met her that very day.” She smiles to herself more than at Ace, as if savoring the romance of such a possibility. “But she is so lovely here, isn’t she? I mean, so full-bodied and young. Man, so different…”
“If it’s even her! I’d ask her sometime when you two are sipping a glass of wine and watching one of your shows. Make it kind of casual, be nice so she isn’t unhappy you snooped around out there.”
Ace has other things to do but he had been in town more than a week without calling them or stopping over. Thus, he feels obligated to hang out. In three weeks he is to begin what he hopes is a new chapter, no longer a lab tech like his dad was before he rose to lab manager and then headed up some projects. No, Ace is now a bona fide earth sciences teacher. He wants to look up a couple old friends, get his apartment in shape. Locate the new, up and coming establishments for dining and drinking.
He feels a shade guilty about his anticipation. A shadow drapes over Deanna’s face like a veil, then it moves, exposing fine lines and eyes bloodshot from too much computer work. She was married ten years but now is back at their parents’ three bedroom house. It has no spacious back yard to redeem its ordinariness. When he walked through earlier he paused at the back door. The cement patio looks as if it’s about to cave under its charmlessness, giving in to a mob of dandelions and cracks that snake their way to the screen door. He might have to do something about this. But he didn’t return to become a big part of their lives. He doubts they want that, either. Too much time has passed between them, a swift river, taking bits and pieces of them to other destinations.
“The thing I can’t get over is how much rounder she is. It makes her look sweet. I mean, she has always had so many edges…She looks a little sad, though, don’t you think? I wonder what that Ellen girl is telling her?”
“I think you should put it back. Unless you want to unleash mom’s wrath. But I’d like the whole story, too. It might be nothing more that a random picture for the paper that dad found and liked a lot. Her youth and all.”
Deanna pushes back her dark straight hair and looks at him a full three seconds before she asks, “Why are you back here, Ace? In Detroit area? You vowed never to return. I didn’t expect it.”
“Ditto, kid, you, either.”
Her cheeky face starts to crumple at his sharpness but she has never been one to go down the first strike so she straightens her back, making her good-sized frame appear larger. Ace stifles a grin; it is a bit like old times. He leans forward.
She folds her arms across her chest. “Well, divorce has side effects, like costing too much money. Impacting state of mind. I have my sanity overall and I have my legal assistant job. I’ll be out of this house in a year or less. What’s your excuse?”
He leans back and balances on the back two legs like he used to, even though it’s hard to not teeter. “I always wanted to teach, I just never made a big thing of it since I seemed destined to be a lab rat all my life, too. But I did youth volunteer work in Philly and I like high school kids, how their minds work. So I look forward to sharing ideas and knowledge they don’t have.”
Deanna’s laughter explodes, then subsides. “I can just see it! You like to have such mastery over things. But kids aren’t controllable like experiments and processes in a sanitized environment.”
“I’m giving it a real try.” He wants to challenge her, inform her of his excellent skills but he holds steady. They are both smart enough; they both want better, even at forty and forty-five. “I want to succeed–so I will.”
She nods and lazily stretches. Then her face hovers once more over the picture of their mother who has come from way back of their dad’s tool box to puzzle them.
“Just who was she, this young woman? I have never seen a picture of her this age. In fact, very few before she married dad. She always says they got lost during moves.”
“I can’t find our mother there, really.” He’s about over this moody nonsense. He lets the two legs thud onto the vinyl flooring. “She looks like someone who really thinks before she speaks, who has all the time in the world to do things but she’s figuring it all out first. Not really like mom.”
“Mom has always lived minute to minute, especially since dad passed. She really does think on her feet–her work demands that.” She holds the paper between them so they can both see it. “Can’t you see it, hope still filling her up with dreams? Like she is someone you want to hug close.”
It takes him by surprise, the hurt of this truthful asssessment, or the lack of those qualities in her. Their mother full of affection and tender dreams? She hasn’t shown them so much of that. Love, it was –is–there. Efficient and hard-working, a devoted partner for their demanding, bright father. A reliable, mostly reasonable mother who has also had a habit of grinding in occasional spiky words. Yes, she looked more open then. Maybe vulnerable. Pensive as the shutter closed. A moment in a life they did not share with her.
He thinks he would like a copy. And then Deanna should put it back and leave it alone.
They both freeze as they hear her step hard on the wooden porch steps, then turn the door knob. Deanna and Ace hold each other’s eyes a fraction of a moment as if to hang on to this frail thread they are reweaving. Before it is frayed again.
Bethany Janson Fishel’s home-dyed dark head pops in, a skimpy wave escaping from her wide-brimmed felt hat and falling forward. Her arms are around two grocery bags. “Who parked their big ole silver truck in my driveway, Dee? I had to park out front!”
Ace stands up first, then Deanna rushes forward to get the bags, talking as she moves.
“Mom, it’s Ace here, he’s moving back! Take off your coat and sit down. I’ll get these.”
Their mother stops and turns, hands in mid-air as they’re emptied of supplies, her direct gaze made fierce by scrunched brows. He comes forward four steps and holds out his hands.
After shrugging off the coat onto a living room chair, she’s pushing up her sweater sleeves as if getting ready to attack more work or start a “play” fight. “Arnold, you’ve decided to come around. There must be news. Well!”
He winces at his birth name. She’s skinny as ever, a narrow woman with a hunch in the shoulders. She strides over as if she hasn’t been on her feet all day. Takes his broad palms into her chilled, thin ones. There is a slight squeeze, then she lets go.
“You got that new job?”
“That’s good. Better to be working then not. You’ll have some challenges with such a big change, not the least of which are the teen-agers!” She follows after Deanna and the bags, then starts to unload them. “Staying for dinner?”
Deanna waits for direction, then sits down. “I say stay.”
“Yes, Arnold, catch us up. I doubt we’ll see you for another three or four months so let’s do this while we have a chance.”
“Mom, it’s been ‘Ace’ since eleventh grade. As you know. And that’s a heck of a way to comment on my new job–and coming to visit you two before I’m even all moved in.”
“Now, never mind. Where will you be living?”
“Over in Royal Oak, not far from Birmingham. Small but newer one bedroom apartment.”
She clamps hands on hips, squares her shoulders. The blue hospital uniform is baggy on her. It startles him to take in the fact that she’s still a warhorse of a nurse. Her first job was before he was in school. The same county hospital for the last twenty-five years, almost unheard of loyalty.
“Have to watch the uppity factor over there or you may not cast a shadow on this street without regretting it,” she says in that edgy voice reserved for warnings or corrections. She nearly smiles. “Excuse me a minute while I change my work clothes.”
As soon as their mother leaves the room, Deanna stands close to her brother at the refrigerator. “I forgot to put away the newspaper clipping,” she whispers. “I’m taking it to my room.”
Ace stops her. “No, leave it for me. I want a copy. Put it in my backpack.”
Deanna has trouble with the zippers so he trots over to her in the living room where he left it in an ancient leather chair. The zipper won’t budge. He opens a smaller compartment, rearranges things, takes out a hardback in which to place the clipping.
“What are you squirreling away?” Bethany asks. “Looks like old newspaper.”
Deanna and Ace freeze, the clipping in his hand, her body making an obvious move to block his.
Their mother gestures her aside. “No, I want to see. Is it something you dare not share with your mother? Even better!”
She holds out her hand, like when they were kids and she demanded some small contraband.
They want to deny her access, stuff it into the pocket and lead her into the kitchen. Make pork chops and green beans and a chopped salad. But they know better. Deanna leads the way, sits on the couch, then their mother. Ace last. She turns on the floor lamp. Deanna reaches across, takes the clipping from Ace.
“I found this in dad’s things in the garage. I’m sorry. But I wondered about it so showed it to Ace.”
The newspaper clipping is handed to her. She snags the edge, then holds it close to her eyes. They watch her face but it says nothing. Rather, it says to them “private, keep out”. Her hand trembles the smallest amount. She lays the clipping in her lap, keeps searching the page, her mouth a compressed line from which more lines creep out and down. She’s whittled way down, more than before. Ace sees how old she is, sixty-seven, still working, not able to call it a day. He cannot imagine she can ever die, and then wonders why he has such thoughts. She’s fine, just caught off-guard.
Oak branches rub against the grey siding and cars stop and start on the street. Deanna’s hand is pressed against her chest through the canary yellow sweater. Their mother is so still.
Ace broke the spell. “Mom.”
Deanna grabs his wrist and he leaves it there, her hand proof they are actually back on this too-firm, nubby couch. Together despite their desire to separate from it all long ago.
Bethany Janson Fishel speaks as if she is alone and only the wind has ears.
“My, not even nineteen. That Ellen, what a gossip. Candy…hardly recall. I’m waiting for the rock band to quit playing, the lead singer to come down, sit by me. Harry, love of my life, I suppose.”
Her children are flummoxed. She tries to hide, chin-length hair swinging over her profile.
“Your father was his friend, sound guy who thought he’d go pro. He was hired for the longer piece of the road trip. He fell for me that week, too, but I didn’t know it yet. I had eyes only for Harry Starken.” Her right forefinger taps her chin. “Maybe your dad liked to remember happier moments, before he knew about us.” She pauses, each word a small stone thrown into deep water. “Before Harry died, overdose, cocaine. On the road, me left behind.”
She sucks her lower lip in hard, then lets it go slack.
Deanna’s breath is sucked deep into her. Ace feels his heart hit a rough spot and shift. Their serious father, a wannabe sound guy? Mom, in love with the Hurons’ lead singer? He can’t feature it, but there it is.
Their mother folds the clipping, presses it into Deanna’s hands. Looks them both right in the eyes, her own empty of the old barriers that have strained to keep so much under wraps. Such tenderness and sorrow, lostness and courage. Being found out. More things only she will decipher, unravel long into the coming night.
“His death is why I became a nurse. Your dad and you kids, are why I’ve worked hard so long. Have had some fine times. It all fell together.”
And then she is on her feet and moving into the kitchen, pulling out pans and pots, getting food for dinner, calling them to come help.
Ace stands up with care. He has to make certain he won’t lose balance and steadies his sister, too, whose eyes are wide with astonishment. He links an arm through hers and they join their mother. He suspects the two of them will meet for lunch soon.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson