A Place in the World

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

If my beautiful mother and fabulous Aunt Rennie had been born into someone else’s family, things would have been far different. I might have been happier. I would, first off, have been someone else’s daughter. And niece. Maybe I would have ended up on a ranch in Wyoming, tending cattle and riding to the mountains for a two week camp-out. Or bobbing about in a rickety houseboat that was made its way down the Yangtze River. My favorite option, though, is growing up in a split log cabin that my amazing, self-sustaining parents made with their own hands in the Alaskan wilderness. I’d go canoeing every day in a handmade canoe, slink out onto the lake without a sound. I’d recognize the wildlife at first sight and welcome new challenges that required me to use my considerable courage and strength.

I was born to be a heroine in some big adventure story, I like to think.

I wouldn’t have a shaggy, irritating brother or a cousin who thinks she knows everything just because she has more money than I do.

Cousin Misty: “Money buys brains, too, at least an education that doesn’t suck.”

Cue her stuck out tongue, red from eating strawberry licorice.

Me: “How do you know this primo bit of info, Misty?”

Misty:”Because I go to Garrison Day School.”

Me, smirking: “And that’s what they teach you, that you have brains? You really need to find a better school.”

Misty flounces off to the living room where she fawns all over my mom, who has pledged to half-raise her (as her godmother).

“Aunt Caroline, Kelly is not even worthy of my attention! What are you and mom up to?”

I can hear them chattering–my mom, Aunt Rennie, Misty–as they head out to the back yard with icy lemonades in their pink manicured paws. I imagine them as pigs’ feet, and curly tails stick out from their shorts, and I feel better. Not nicer, no, but better. When those three get together it is as if I am dust they shake off. I float away. Well, they’re right. I have no interest in eye shadow, shoe shopping, gossiping about movie mags.

Mother worries. I’m now thirteen and nothing has changed other than the obvious. I look like a girl-on-the-verge, no stopping that. But I am not their kind of girl. What kind of girl am I? Well, you’ll notice I gave a few examples above. If I had had another set of parents, there might have been more hope.

Maybe it started when I was seven, no, eight years old. I had a contest in mind. Hal is three years older, so of course he makes up the rules but that time he felt generous and let me do it. There were two maple trees standing side by side. We sometmes hung a hammock between them, they were so close. I told him I could beat him to the top of the tree. If I won, he owed me an ice cream cone every day for the next week. If he won, I had to buy him a donut every day for a week. He agreed, thinking I was a fool, just a little kid with blonde pigtails who interrupted his life too much.

He had his tree and I had mine. It had always been that way. They were about the same height and grew remarkably alike but they each had their quirks. I’d started climbing it when I was six by putting the kitchen stepstool up so it could reach the lowest branch. Then I threw and tied a rope on the lowest branch so I could swing up, loop my leg around and then pull myself up to sitting position by grasping another branch. Then I headed to the peak, as I thought of it. Simple, and the most fun I could find many days. I was a tree climbing nut.

I knew just where the narrowest or deepest crooks were on mine, where even the sturdiest branches weakened, how the trunk bent a little to one side here and another side there. The branches were knotty and spectacular. Climbing was a pleasure, all the way to the top from which I could see half the neighborhood. I spent more time in that tree than almost anywhere else except in winter. Even then I visited, just so it remembered I was around. So that tree and I were bonded.

I could get up and into the branches in under fifteen seconds. It was an easy ascent. I never wore shoes unless it was really chilly so that helped and I wore loose clothing. Hal was a good twenty pounds heavier than I was, always wore tennis shoes that looked enormous and he was clumsier, I thought. He had too much hair, all those curls that could get caught. He was stronger in some ways but he wasn’t as nimble.

It seemed like a no-brainer to me that I’d win the contest. He thought otherwise.

“Watch out, you little cricket! Hey, that’s lookin’ a little shaky! Don’t get scared now!”

I scampered up the limbs while he plotted his way, planted one foot then the other, and ran his mouth. Halfway up my t-shirt snagged on a rough spot. I pulled hard to dislodge it; the fabric ripped but a broken twig still held fast. I stole a glance at Hal; he was gaining. I tried to pull free but had to hold on with one hand at least. It occurred to me then that I could take the t-shirt off. I did so with some difficulty, then doubled my efforts, my feet and toes reaching and grasping each new spot, hands grabbing as fast as I could go.

I heard a dull thump behind me accompanpanied by a muffled screech but kept going. I was going to win if it killed me. When I reached top branches they poked through the big blueness above, as always, and I parted the leaves to better see a few wispy clouds drift by. I looked over at Hal’s tree. He had failed to beat me, just as I hoped. I felt wild and strong and proud of myself.

“Yes!” I hollered.

“Kelly! Hal fell!”

I tried to see far below but the summer branches were thick with hearty leaf growth. I wondered if Hal just had slipped his way down and was now milking every scrape. Or had he lost his grip and fallen to his near-death? It wasn’t something I had thought about happening before. I always felt secure. But a sudden fear undermined me, made me wobbly a second. I didn’t want to let go, to leave that treetop at all. This was my spot, my home away from all that down there. I didn’t need to leave. Let the grown ups deal with things below.

“Kelly, come down now!”

I started back. In a few feet I could see Hal splayed on the bright carpet of grass, his leg in a funny position. He was whimering and his face was yellow-white. It didn’t look good.

It turned out to be broken. And I got the blame, more or less. If only I hadn’t challenged him, if only I hadn’t had to make a stupid bet, if only I’d stopped to think of what the consequences might be–a dual race up maple trees, for crying out loud! But even worse…

“Kelly, take this sweater and cover up. You look like a ragamuffin– and there’s a bloody gash on your shoulder! I swear, you don’t have to compete with your brother! Just be a regular girl! For once!”

I didn’t get my ice cream, of course. Not ever. I didn’t bring it up and neither did Hal. In fact, he didn’t talk to me for a week. I had to steal cinnamon rolls three times from the kitchen for his midnight snack before he would even acknowledge my presence.

It was a turning point for me, the moment I understood who I was. And it brought me sadness. My mother wasn’t pleased. Everything I loved seemed to be the wrong thing: getting dirty, competing, seeking a little danger, being physically challenged. Being outdoors and doing everything possible out there rather than inside four walls which could suffocate me in an hour flat.

I can’t say my father was hard on me. He wasn’t. He took me along with Hal on many camping trips. He taught me how to fish and make a campfire without matches. We learned about tracking and bird songs and bugs. He understood, or so I thought, for many years. And then I started to grow up and he suggested I follow my mother’s counsel, whom he adored.

“She knows things I don’t, Kels, things that will help you in life, too. We can still go camping but you might want to, you know, hang out with the other gals more, your cousin and aunt, too.”

And he gave me a funny little smile that melted my heart but also broke it some. He patted my back lightly and went back to his work in the garage. I felt dismissed for the first time ever. Things changed right then in more ways than I thought possible.

It would have been easier if mom and Aunt Rennie were ordinary women. If everywhere we went they didn’t get second glances, whistles and comments that alternately irritated and pleased them. It was embarrassing to me. Misty thought it was fun and practiced a silly flirtatiousness, as if our mothers had to do any of that. I thought she was about the stupidest cousin I could ever have had. But she made up one third of their trio. I was the odd one out, even though my mom gestured at me to hurry up, come along. I felt more like a wayward puppy she had to keep track of than her daughter.

But all was not lost. Meanwhile, I had been practicing my tennis and winning some and playing softball and scoring. Competing on the girls’ middle school swim team, aka the Sharkettes. This was thanks to my dad’s visionary support of his daughter, but soon mom came around, too. I had some talents, afterall, just not the ones she had hoped to pass to me, an early inheritance. I was glad Hal was playing basketball again, doing much better, and I cheered him on when I could.

One afternoon near the end of seventh grade while I was waiting for the city bus after school I saw Misty walking down the block. She had her book bag hugged close to her chest and her head hung low. Since she was alone I went over to her.

Her face was all red and streaked with dirt. Her uniform was messed up, too.

“Misty, what’s up?”

She raised her swollen eyes and at the sight of me started to bawl hard. I couldn’t make out her words at first but then I heard something about “they hate me, they got me!”

I stopped her with hands on her upper arms. “Wait, someone beat you up after school?”

She nodded and leaned into me, shaking with fear and anger. I held onto her, pulled her against my own pounding heart. I didn’t know what to do, but my first impulse was to go hunt down the kids who had been mean to her and give them something to remember. I had a few good and brave friends, and we’d find out who the kids were and take care of things. Those thoughts gradually faded as we walked, though, and Misty stopped crying.

“I’m sorry they did that, it’s rotten. I can’t imagine who could be so mean. What will you do? What started it?”

“I don’t know! Some say I think I’m so smart and some say I’m too pretty but some think I’m ugly. I honestly can’t tell you, Kels, what I am. Except miserable. I hate that school! I despise being almost fourteen!”

We walked to the coffee shop and went to the restroom. I helped her wash dirt off her face and arms, clean fiery welts and scrapes. I thought how we were only a few months apart, and how different we were. She was some exotic being, with eyes that tilted up at the ends just like her mom, with long, dark, wavy hair. But there were some things about us that were similar, too: straight noses, the strong shape of our faces and naturally arched eyebrows. Our chins jutting out when we were fed up.

For the first time I thought we were like irregularly linked opposites, matching creations from two sides of a rough mold.

Misty kept asking me to not tell her mother or mine but I wasn’t sure that could be avoided. I was pretty sure all hell would break loose and matters would be taken in hand.

We each got an iced drink and a scone, my treat. We nibbled and sipped and then sat quiet awhile.

“I miss you,” she said suddenly. “Really, Kels.”

My head jerked up. We hadn’t ever been very close in the first place.

“I remember watching you run wild and my mom wanting me to stay put. I wanted to join you so much. You had such freedom–or just took it! Our mothers always said you were the tomboy and I was the princess–remember?–but I wanted to be more like you.”

“That’s just weird, Misty. You never acted that interested. You had to get and wear a crown when I wanted to play pirate girls.”

She shrugged. “Well, that doesn’t mean I didn’t admire you.” She swished her melting ice around in the glass. “I might have avoided being in trouble today if I was more like you…”

I laughed. “Oh, listen, I’m not some tough girl. I just like sports and nature, good stuff like that. I don’t want people to label me, either!”

“I know. But you’re…just… well, you’re better than me. Better at being who you want, for sure.”

I smacked her hand softly. “Stop. You’re you, I’m me. Neither of us is all that. Well, maybe we are and don’t know it yet. I mean, I feel pretty good some days, not so good other days. But we’ll both figure it out eventually. See, I just want to keep doing what matters to me and nothing is going to stop me. And no one should get in your way, either, Misty.”

She gave me a long intense look, a nice one not a bad one. “Come on, Kels, let’s catch the bus home.”

We caught the bus and then she stayed over awhile, hanging out in my room. We both worried about the parents. Later, they were aghast to see her like that and called Aunt Rennie and my uncle. We had a big family meeting; the grown ups plotted their actions. Hal played big man and told our cousin she could call on him any time, then left.

Misty finally stopped the talk with a few surprising words: “I want to go to Kels’ school. Can I do that? I don’t need such an expensive education with those kids! I want to be with my cousin. And find new friends.”

I can’t tell you that we became the best of all best friends but we made our way through the next couple of years with a little more security. It was great walking down the hall and seeing her laughing, nice to catch her eye and exchange a wave when we were rushing to an assembly. She rooted for me at swim meets many times; she introduced me to some of her boyfriend’s sports fan friends. I taught her how to hit a tennis ball until she could actually play a game. We had a few family secrets.

We had an unspoken pact to be there for each other. As needed. We knew what mattered, in the end. Family. Caring about each other. Finding out who we were. Not giving up.

But the truth is, we’ll never be close in the way a couple of my girlfriends and I are. We aren’t enough alike. Now sixteen, Misty is just as fussy about her looks and ways, a real fancy girl. I’m still easy going and a sports nut at heart. And that’s how it will always be. We’re good just the way we are. So, mom and Aunt Rennie, thanks for having us both. I guess I landed where I was meant to be. At least, for now.

 

 

Girl Seeking Happiness

Destiny, by J.W. Waterhouse, 1900
Destiny, by J.W. Waterhouse, 1900

“Be grateful for all you have, Francesca!” Her mother called out but she didn’t acknowledge her, just bounded up two steps at a time. “Then maybe you’ll be in a better mood!”

She was always tossing off platitudes like that–“Easy Does It”, “Count Your Blessings”, “One Day at a Time.” Well, easy for her to say all of them. She didn’t have to go to middle school, anymore. She didn’t have to sit behind Carys Morgan and inhale the nauseating scent of lime and coconuts for the entire duration of Social Studies. Or study the structure of a cell until she felt her brain would fall out. Her mother had gotten through all that because she was smart and gorgeous even then. Dad confirmed that many times. Frannie thought their own teen-age years must seem like a distant dream, pleasant but nothing to waste another thought on.

What did adults think about except money, work and their children’s achievements or lack thereof? Frannie didn’t want to know. It was enough that they offered opinions, the wisdom of the ages and random advice without being asked.

Well, her father thought about business, which was consulting on antique musical instruments. Her mother thought about paintings and such. She worked at an auction house so it was all technically work and money. Who bid what, how a price was driven up, what appreciated and depreciated. And what a magnificent still life came in the door today via someone’s great-aunt, now deceased.

Why did she have to use her full name when making a point? Frannie slammed her bedroom door, then opened it.

“Sorry, it closed hard!” she shouted but tried to sound apologetic. Then shut it firmly again.

Frannie sat on her bed, head against the wall, books to one side. She could see her reflection and the print of a painting above her in the dresser mirror. Smiled in her best cover girl pose. No use. She’d never be one, in fact didn’t even care about being one, she was just supposed to care, so why pretend it mattered that she had a crooked front tooth? Short hair like a terrier’s just after it had been shampooed. An odd streak below her left ear that was a birthmark despite her mother telling her it was “a variation in your light olive pigmentation, just a little smudge.” It was her way of saying, “You are unique, which is better.”

Better than what? When did uniqueness cross over into weirdness? Since the world put such a high value on appearance–her mother’s work taught her that much–Frannie might be doomed.

She used to think her name might save her: Francesca. It sounded like it belonged to someone important, someone who knew what to determine and utter at any given time, someone exotic and approachable who was capable–with  only a look–of keeping Anthony Giles in one place, preferably her front door. But it got changed to Frannie years ago, back in first grade when no one could say it quite right. Names mattered. Carys–how unusual was that?– made sure people said hers right so they did. She was the most popular girl in eighth grade. Despite being rather slow on the uptake, she ruled with a smile and fierce dance moves. Frannie’s best friend, Dana, had once known her well and now Carys never even talked to her.

Chiming sounds interrupted her litany of aggravating things. The ratty little mobile Frannie had made as a kid turned in a breeze that slipped through a partly opened window. Made of multi-colored paper stars, some now bent and torn, and tiny golden metal bells, it caught the afternoon light and flashed it onto her walls and face as it slowly turned this way and that. It made faint shimmery notes that soothed her whenever it was in motion. This alone seemed a good reason to hang onto it.

In the driveway below her a dented old Mazda Miata came to a squealing stop. She got up and peered through her curtains. It was Jordan, her brother, aka Spideyman. As he got out it became apparent why he earned such a nickname. Each long, thin appendage emerged from the little vehicle with deft swiftness. When he finally stood it was a surprise, as he wasn’t overly tall, but compact and wiry. He popped up with all the energy he usually displayed, as if he was solar and moon powered, unable to run out of fuel.

“Hey Frangelica! What up?”

She threw open the window sash. “Hey Spideyman! Quit calling me a liqueur! I looked it up!”

“Yeah, really? If you’re a nut, you’re a nut. Not so bad to be called a hazelnut liqueur! But I think you should know that the real thing is called Frangelico, not Frangelica.”

She made a face at him and closed the sash, then watched him cross the street to pick up an envelope from the pavement. Jordan read it, took it to the house opposite theirs and knocked on the door. Old Mrs. Hale took it and patted his arm a few times. He circled back to their house. When Jordan saw her, he stopped a moment and shook his head as if he had just remembered something, then entered the house.

Frannie heard the murmur of her mother and brother talking, then laughter. Their good humor made her feel more sour. She felt guilty about her envy but really, Jordan had all the luck, soon to graduate, going somewhere decent to college, getting on with his life.

A sharp knock on the door.

“Go away, Spideyman.”

“I have a message,” he said, lowering his voice to sound official, important. “A message from a distant power.”

She got up and let him in, then put up her palm. “That’s far enough.”

“Hey, it’s not too bad in here. I almost like it. A little too tidy for me.”

He pointed to the print of “Destiny” by J.W. Waterhouse that hung over her.

“Yes? What?”

“I forgot about that. Mom gave it to you right after, uh, four years ago…when you saw it in the museum…”

“Jordan, what did you want?”

“Oh, right, I was supposed to tell you that Anthony Giles might break up with his girlfriend. I know his sister.”

She involuntarily gulped but hoped it wasn’t apparent. “What does that have to do with me?”

Jordan rested his lean weight against the wall and sighed. “You like this dude? Right? Tara said to tell you because he mentioned your name the other day and she was sitting nearby. She recognized it because Tara and I are friends, remember?”

Frannie sat down on the edge of her bed. “Sure I do, but what does it mean?”

“I’m not the one to ask. It was obviously favorable so she said to pass it on to you.” He walked out then came back. “I’d watch out if I were you; she says he’s sort of suave for fourteen. And by the way, their mother is really sick with something, I can’t remember what. Tara didn’t go into it. Tough, huh.” His gaze swept her room then he grinned at her. “He’ll have to step up his game. He isn’t likely as smart as you are, Francesca-jello.”

“Jordy-boy!”

Frannie picked up one of her paperbacks and tossed it at him. He closed the door in the nick of time, the book sliding down and landing with a soft thump.

She lay down with feet pointed at the headboard and stared at the Waterhouse print. She wasn’t going to think too much of the message. Anthony had girls lined up at his locker half the time. He might not have said anything worth repeating to Tara. He might not be all that interesting to know once if you got inside his head. It might be like something you want for months and months and then when you finally save up and get it, it loses its appeal. Or maybe Anthony was going to be someone who made a good difference in her life, and she, his. She felt so overdue.

It was admittedly notable that Jordan was looking out for her. Even had stopped by her room to talk face-to-face. Frannie admired him more than she admitted. He aced calculus. Was a natural artist, to their parents’ unending joy. And he could bike twenty-two miles up the mountain without killing himself. But most of all, he didn’t try to make Frannie’s life too miserable. He might not pay much attention, but he often had a few words to exchange with her. He had a life ahead that was more exciting than hers, she was pretty sure. He wanted to be a physical therapist but also to travel around Europe on his bike. She’d miss him, old Spideyman.

What was her destiny? Like the girl’s in the painting, to always bid someone (likely warriors, in her case) farewell as they took off on a ship, airplane (like her dad and mom) or bike (Jordan)? (But was the engimatic girl celebrating something? Conspiring? She was studying someone–or was she looking out a window, wondering about one long gone?)

How long would her own life be idling away? Or would she figure out where she wanted to go and find her way there before long? It worried her often, that she didn’t know yet what she wanted. That she loved paintings like her mom but also the idea of an unusual business like her dad’s. Being independent, no one directing her all the time would be good, no matter what. Right now she liked science most despite sweating over it.

But wait a minute. Frannie backed up to her brother’s visit. Anthony had mentioned her name. And his mother was sick. She saw his sunny face in her mind, closed her eyes, then looked at her Waterhouse print again. Okay, no excitement allowed yet. She might write him a note. Tell him she’s around if he wanted to talk; her own had had breast cancer four years ago and it was overwhelming at first, even devastating. But they had gotten through it, a step at a time. It was like her mom was walking a tightrope and everyone was waiting (yet also feeling their own way across) to see if she would make it to the other side safely or lose her balance. Yeah, she could tell Anthony that you figure out how to get through things. If he wanted to know.

The aroma of potatoes and onions sneaked into her room. Frannie felt an easing up of things, her testy mood dissolving, thoughts lightening and making space for more. She stretched arms and legs, hummed a favorite song as she sat up. Stood and headed to her closet where she rooted around in the bottom under a battered shoe box and a mound of old purses. Her fingers found her plain black journal. She took it back to bed and positioned her pillows behind her head. Unhooked her best pen from a page, flattened the hardbound book on her lap and started to write on paper smooth as silk.

My voluntary non-list of gratitude:

JW Waterhouse’s paintings
Mom and dad, who make me look at myself in different ways
Jordan, who makes me laugh even when I want to be mad
Mrs. Tell, fourth grade teacher who hung my star and bell mobile above her desk for one whole week
My mobile; I still love it (make another to hang with it?)
Anthony, or at least the thought of Anthony
My mom being cancer-free for now
Carys, for not being my friend, as I will always like Dana while Carys does not appreciate her
My name: Francesa. Because it’s a grand name to grow into someday– I’ll know when I can fully claim it, ask others to use it
Christmas. Because it’s a beautiful time of year. And we will all be here together.

“Fraanniee! Dinnertime!”

She closed her book and put it back under the box and purses, then opened her door. The handful of bright bells jingled in the draft. Frannie turned to regard their homeliness and cheer, then felt an impulse to wave at the mystery girl in “Destiny”–was she going on a journey, too, or had she arrived already? Had she been happy?– so did just that, then hurried downstairs. The girl on her wall would be right there, as she had been for years, when she returned.

Three for Good Measure

Staten Island-photo by Christine Osinski
Staten Island-photo by Christine Osinski

 

Duncan’s View of Things

If anyone saw us three together now they wouldn’t believe who we were once. I wouldn’t, either. It wasn’t meant to be any more than a summer of something to do. At least that was it for me. I had just moved into the mobile home park, Oaks Division, sounded like I lived in the suburbs. Nobody was under fifty, all with grey hair and sad, sour faces. Except dad and me, of course. He said it was only temporary, we’d be out of there and into a good place in two shakes of a stick but you know how it is. He had issues with work and people. He liked playing the dogs or horses, that’s how he made and lost thousands, so he’d try to get jobs at the racetrack. Convenient. It went like that for a few months, him with the poor animals, and me trying to make it at another school. Sometimes we both lasted a year. I didn’t expect anything else.

I did attend every day even though I had to catch a bus. I liked learning new things, primarily math, and meeting new kids. I bet you thought different, me being sort of transient. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First thing we found a beat up bike tossed on a corner. Dad fixed the bent parts and I patched up the tires. I took off early on week-ends, before the streets got too busy and cars honked like I was nuts to be cruising along minding my business. That’s when I ran into Tracee and Jolynn.

I didn’t even know these facts yet, but they were at Jolynn’s place. She lived with Grandma Jess, big as the worn-out ranch house and good with her hands. She made amazing bacon, potato and cheese pies for the diner and baby clothes for a children’s shop. Jolynn had a love-hate thing with her. I could tell right off when I skidded to a stop by the girls. Grandma Jess was yelling at Jolynn and she yelled right back.

“I’m not doing the washing again! I just did it yesterday and the day before and today I’m hanging with Trace! And now here’s a new boy coming over so I have to check him out.”

Grandma Jess stuck her head out the window, then waddled outdoors.

“Jolynn, that’s one less thing for you, missy. Next time you want a favor, count me missing!”

She looked me over, said hello.

“Grandma Jess, later!” Jolynn shooed her and the big woman moved on while waving at me.

I returned Jolynn’s hard stare. If she’d been a big guy I’d have narrowed my eyes at her, walked over, puffed up my chest. Instead, I leaned on my handlebars. Little did I know.

“Hey. What’re you up to?” I said.

Tracee shook her long hair off her face. “We’re not waiting for you, that’s for sure.”

The way she laughed didn’t convince me. She had a bright look that said she was interested in everybody who came by and maybe she’d talk to me more. Jolynn still didn’t speak, just looked at me as she scratched her elbow, maybe a major bug bite. I came closer.

“Close enough, Rooster.” She didn’t bat an eye.

“Rooster? My red hair? That’s a new one!” I grinned to see if she’d ease up a little.

“That’s your name if I like you. Rooster. If I don’t, I’ll call you…what’s your name, kid?”

“Rooster might be better than my real name! But I’m no kid at thirteen.”

Jolynn perked up. “Oh, what would that name be?”

“Duncan.”

“Two good ones! We can call you Dunc or Rooster!”

It was like I’d made the cut by having ridiculous names to call out.

“When did you enter our turf?”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen you around all summer. Are you here to stay or just to rent a cabin on the lake?” Tracee came forward and cocked her head.

“I wish. A fancy cabin, sure thing.”

Her eyes were shining like two violet diamonds. I told my dad that later and he laughed, said I was going to end up a poet if I didn’t watch myself. But they were. She had something special. I didn’t mind being closer.

“Trace, either you back up or I’ll go inside. I’m not all about this dude until we know what’s what.”

Jolynn then gave me her thorough once-over. I felt like my skin was peeled, but she was interesting in an irritating, clever way.

“Okay, Jo, but he seems okay by me. He’s got copper hair, he’s friendlier than most boys and he’s nicer by far. So far.”

There I sat on my bike, yet they acted like I wasn’t there. I was about to forget it. I was at nobody’s mercy, certainly not girls’. I put my foot on the pedal and started off fast.

A long, shrill whistle came flying after me. I stopped and looked over my shoulder. Jolynn was gesturing at me to come back. I half-turned around. No one was going to whistle at me and have me running back. I crossed my arms, tensed my jaw and waited. I didn’t want to look mean but I did want to look like I was my own man. Friendly, yes, but not a doormat.

The girls waited a few seconds, then they looked at each other and walked over like they were approaching an ice cream stand and it was time to test a new flavor.

“If you wait a minute, we’ll get our bikes and show you around,” Tracee said.

“And you’ll fill in some blanks, right, Rooster?”

We were twelve and thirteen. There were more blanks and answers ahead. If I had known what they were, I might have kept on riding and missed all the mad fun. But I didn’t and twenty-five years later here we are, back again. A splashy celebration of three kids who made good on oddly auspicious connections. Then made their way out. Way out.

Tracee’s View of Things

I knew he was from down the road. I had seen him once before, riding his bike at sunset, his arms straight out from his sides. He was coasting and looking at trees and maybe those vibrant colors in the late August sky. It was unusually warm, the colors extra rich. He didn’t see me. I was walking with our Irish Setter right after I had had a fight with Jolynn. Again. She could act like a grown up sometimes, playing big boss, and no one could contradict her even if she was wrong. I accepted it sometimes, sometimes not; I had known her all my life. Grandma Jess was brave to take her in at age three and do everything her mother should have done. That my own mom tried to do and failed at, at least fifty percent of the time. It was all about work for her and after-hours socializing. But she tried to love me, praised me sometimes. Both counted, I guess.

Maybe I felt the missing-parent hole in Dunc, too, that first glance at him. That he had some trouble. That life was a breeze if you pretended hard that it was. I was very good at that; I possessed an imagination that wouldn’t quit. Before long, though, I saw he was the real thing, an optimist. He looked at life with the expectation that it would be better tomorrow, whether or not it panned out. I had to coax myself along, played the role of cute girl, smart but primarily cheery. Trained myself to look at things with an open mind so as not to miss the best moments. Dunc, he liked being alive naturally. And that was impressive to Jolynn and me.

The day we met formally Jo and I had been trying to figure out how best to maximize the time left before school. I wanted to work on art, as usual. We sometimes bought a huge poster board and then put our skills together and made a giant collage that covered my wall. Or a montage, pictures only. Or I’d make my own poems for it. She went along as she grumbled. She cut things out of magazines and I decided which was a good enough picture and figured out where to put things. Then we pasted together.

“It’s like being in school only worse because we don’t have to do it, you just make me do it,” she complained.

“If I’m going to be a designer I have to work at it the ways I can! You don’t have to help me. You can watch, give me a critique. You love to do that.”

I just laughed when she punched my shoulder.

“I’d rather be your second-class assistant than sit there and watch you cut and paste all day. I’d fall dead asleep. My vote is for swimming every morning. And we should bike out to the overlook twice a week. I want to be in shape for volleyball and basketball tryouts.”

I smirked as my hair fell forward. She always had to exercise, it was her religion; her muscular legs, proof. If something was good, you made it better by exercise. If it was bad, you made it disappear by exercise. If boring, you ran or biked or swam and everything was beautiful in a perfect dripping-sweat way. I only half-agreed, part of the time. She had to charge ahead. I needed to take my time, create.

Jo was fidgeting that minute as Dunc came up, her sneakered right toe drawing in the dirt over and over. She sent off a neighbor kid who for some reason liked to bother Jo.

“I know who he is. Saw him last week when walking at sunset.”

“You did?” he commented.

“You know everybody, Trace. But that doesn’t mean I should, too. If he’s the stupid or bothering type, I’m outta here. You can chat away.”

“Shhh, be nice!”

“That hair will for sure mark him at school. A bull’s-eye in under an hour.” She elbowed me, smirking.

“Aw, cripes,” Dunc muttered.

Jolynn could be hard. I could imagine her making rude comments in the hallways, even though she might like him. I had to keep her in line if this kid had any chance at all.

It turned out he didn’t need me to keep Jo in line. He knew a lot about getting by in life. He was smart if a little behind in English. He was so easy to talk to I didn’t even realize I was yapping until I had said too much. We learned things together, all three of us. The balancing acts in our lives tipped often but we readjusted. Drew closer. Fate, I believe, visited us that day and gave us each other.

Now we’re back home for something special. So many detours, failures, yet here we are. I had my dreams and two best friends. But who would have thought it led to this?

Jolynn’s View of Things

Rooster rode right into my yard as if he didn’t believe in private property. I knew right then that he’d be trouble but he’d be my friend, but I didn’t want to let on. I let him into our tiny circle little by little, test by test. Told him what was what and saw how he’d fit into the whole.

After we made small talk Trace and I took him up the steep trail to the lake overlook. That was the first test and he passed with flying colors. He nearly beat me. Trace was panting and yelling at us to slow down. Rooster and I reached the top of the hill and yelled, “I won!” in unison. He was riveted by the scenery.

“I beat you but nice try,” I said, admiring his being a sport about it. Enjoying the tiny sailboats below.

“Try? It was at least a tie. Wow. That’s pretty.”

He checked on Trace. Her dark hair was flying through a veil of dust as she rounded the curve and made it to the top, coughing. He acted as if he was concerned. He had no right to be concerned yet, if ever. Tracee and I went back to preschool. He had been around all of twenty minutes. But this was the usual: Trace and art and guys, me and sports, both of us sworn to sisterhood forever no matter what. Rooster would get that or get out. If I let him hang out.

I was born a tough girl, or thought so. Grandma Jess repeatedly told me I would attract what I put out. She should talk. She was both giver and taker, herself, and if you weren’t on her good side, well, love was just another bad word. But we both would fight to the death for each other. Her spirit was big, bold but basically decent. Mine wanted to be more like hers. That way I wouldn’t slip down the rabbit hole like my mother, land in a place of no return.

Trace had a good one. Her mother worked every day at a law office and made her dinners about as tasty as Grandma Jess’ and told her she loved her. But she had her secrets. Trace and I didn’t know what they all were but one was that she had a boyfriend who was over twenty years older and in a wheelchair. He had power and property and two grown kids. The town thought he was a retired judge living the life of a recluse. No one seemed to know about them but us–we followed her mother once–and Trace swore me to secrecy. But she was kind. Like Trace. That counted for more than honesty if I could have admitted it.

We each saved the other. From discouragement. From ourselves. Then we went on and lived lives bigger than we’d planned. I got a phone call: we were summoned by the mayor for a day of celebration.

We now get a newly paved street named after us. Can you imagine? Jo Duncan Trace. “Trace”, the noun, also means a path or a trail made by animals or people who passed that way. My name, then my husband’s–yes, we hit it off well, eventually–then my oldest friend’s name. Nicely done.

All three of us now turn to face the back of the mayor’s balding head and try to catch his lengthy speech. The sunshine is lighting us up as we look over the crowd. People are waving at us–the parents, too– and whistling. The mayor waits until voices have quieted so he can continue.

“The three honored here today used lessons learned over the years both here and in far-flung places. They fashioned themselves into fine examples of perseverance, driven forward by remarkable talent and the will to succeed. They have used their skills and used them for the good of others as well as their vision and goals in the movie business. They are our very own native son and daughters! It is an honor that they have become leaders in the independent film industry.”

I stifled a yawn and tried to look thrilled. Trace knocked her knee against mine, just barely, and I tapped hers back with mine. Duncan was smiling to beat all; I knew that without looking. We had, after all, come a long way. Were being honored by our hometown: Legacy in Time Studios, an independent film company, was seeing impressive profits while making very good stories. I ran the company and Duncan, my husband, kept the money flowing. Trace developed and oversaw a multitude of projects.

We make our feisty trio work. Since that day Rooster interrupted us, life became more intriguing for us all. Much better at the heart of it. That was really the whole point from the start.

 

 

 

Earley Waits for Mail

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Earley waited for the mail all afternoon like he did every delivery day, with the patience of Guernsey cows, which he’d loved as a child on the farm. His grandson would take issue with that idea, tell him, Cows don’t know enough to be patient, but that’s what Earley thought of when faced with the occasionally slow passage of time. Cows liked to eat, rest, socialize, all with a deliberate pace and acceptance. It seemed a good lesson. Being human created issues with time. For Earley, time generally was dashing away. As far as the postal service went, he was just grateful he still got it. What sort of life would it be without a little junk mail and a letter or package now and then?

Sol was too smart sometimes, explaining calculus and reading thought-provoking passages from his contemporary novels. Earley had patience with his grandson, but who cared what sorts of odd tricks numbers got up to at this point in his life? But the books he liked, or rather the being read to, especially when it had to do with a little love or a lot of history. One stimulated the other in the world, he thought.

When his son, James, was at work and Sol was at school he had some waiting while he did chores and puttered. Today was–he checked Sol’s calendar on the fridge–computer club. Three days a week the boy had obligations he said were fun. Earley had neither for the most part, unless you counted being a grandfather.

“You have to get a hobby, Grandpa. Ever since Grandma passed you’re just waiting all winter to garden. I know gardening is your thing but really. You need more than that. Maybe like playing Sudoku or checking out that new fitness club. I saw one of your friends over there. What about your woodworking?”

“I’ve made enough stuff, why do I need more? I do my crosswords and word searches so I don’t get soft in the head. I walk everywhere. Cook. Do laundry and pay bills like when Nana was alive. Plant my garden in spring. What more? You have hobbies, I get some free time.”

Sol and James looked at each other, eyes rolled. It made Earley think a bit. He did get restless at times. Then he saw the ad and put in an order.

For the last week he’d been watching over Sol by himself. It wasn’t hard but it took a little more out of him. Worrying and making sure he did all that homework, catching up with him more than usual. No James as a buffer or disciplinarian. It went pretty well.

James had gotten to Florida on Tuesday. He was supposed to have have come back home by now, not that Earley was anxious for it. It was never much real hardship being there for Sol. James called twice, once when he got to Miami and once when he found out he would be back a few days late. James was a fully degreed person, a writer and a construction worker, which Earley didn’t quite get, but the building trade usually worked out better. Bills had to be paid for three people.

James had this desire to swim his way into that smallish pool of people who might find their stories on shelves. He had been working on a psychological thriller for four years and it was almost done. Earley hadn’t read it yet. He wondered if it would scare him; the thought of that captivated him. Well, in good time.

James poked his head out of his office door one morning.

“I’m going to Miami, you guys! Kevin was hired as editor of Killing Justice, that new thriller and mystery magazine I mentioned, and said I’d be a good addition. But I have to do a formal interview. We’ll all move there, start fresh if this works out.”

Sal frowned and considered. He was fifteen. He had a small, well-defined life that he liked just enough. The house they shared with grandpa was big and had a garden he helped tend. He wondered how his grandpa would manage down there. He did want his dad to be happier. Sal could try Florida after ten years in Omaha despite leaving his best friend. The thought of tan, beachy girls and large reptiles soon held him in thrall.

As it lowered, the sun shot out pink and orange rays behind houses across the street, making half-halos about trees and rooftops. The sky warmed up like a tropical vista. Earley wondered what it would look like in Florida. He watched out the bay window, then saw the porch bathed in a glow despite a deep chill he kept at bay with the heat jacked up too high. The mailman–well, mail woman now– should have been there long ago. It annoyed him despite his resolve. So much for Guernsey patience. He wondered about James coming back late, what that all meant. His stomach growled as he glanced in the refrigerator. Leftover meatloaf when Sol got home.

He grabbed the seed catalog and sat in his worn, smooth leather chair. When he turned on the light and opened it to the first page pictures dazzled him with their lushness, as always. He could hardly stand that he had months to go before the planting.

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What would it be like to grow things all year long? he wondered. Florida looked like it sprouted life without any effort. It unnerved him a bit. The winters in Omaha were a good time to hibernate, which he liked. He might have to wear madras shorts in Florida, learn how to swing a golf club well, use terrible smelling sunscreen all the time. Or stay indoors even when there was no snow and no rain because of that heat. He wanted his son to use his degree in English and Sol to be able to try other things, but this was a lot to ask. If it was to be asked. He breathed into the gathering dark, a ruffly sound making its way down his commandeering nose. What if James thought it was time for him to join the others over seventy in those cramped places they pretended were communities? He had one already, right here, on this street, in this house. It had been good enough for forty-five years. The house had conformed to him and he, to it.

The front opened, then slammed shut the same time his cell phone rang. Sol tossed a package on the rectangular table in the foyer. Earley got up, then looked at his phone.

James. He answered.

“Hello? Son?”

“Hey, dad. I’ll be home tomorrow but I wanted to talk to you guys. Is Sol there yet?”

Earley beckoned to his grandson and he came over.

“We’re both here.”

Sol put the phone on speaker.

“Sol?”

“Hey, dad! See alligators yet?”

James laughed. “Not yet. But we might sooner or later.”

“We? You got the job, dad?”

“I did. They liked me and I like them. I’ll start in May.”

Earley walked to the table where the package lay. He could hear the two of them talking, excitement tinged with disbelief in Sol’s voice. He shook the package to confirm it was his order for sure, then went back to to his chair and sank down in the old cushion, box in hand.

“Hey Dad? You there?”

“Yes, I heard you.”

“Are you glad for me?”

“Happy as a clam.”

“Grandpa, clams aren’t even close to being smart–”

“You don’t know that, Sol. We don’t know every single thing.”

“Dad, I have to get going. Kevin is taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I’ll tell you everything when I get home.”

They hung up. Earley fished his Swiss Army knife from a back pocket. Sol had sunk into the couch, his jacket still on, backpack at his feet.

“Florida… sweet. I think.” He sat forward, hands clasped together between his knees. “What do you think, Grandpa? Oh, you got a package. What’s in it?”

Earley cut through tape, tossed the paper and pried open the box. Inside were neatly bagged pieces of wood. A whole ship.

“Behold, Sol, the Santa Maria. The largest ship of the three sailed during Columbus’ voyage. Modest, really, especially by today’s standards. About one hundred tons of her. Deck was 58 feet. A good seafaring ship until she shipwrecked in Haiti.”

“Nice! A wooden model. So that’s your new hobby?”

Earley smiled. “Could be.”

They looked over the plans and talked about history until Sol said he was hungry. At the table over meatloaf sandwiches, they were quiet awhile. Then Earley spoke up.

“You think you could head down to Miami, then? Or would you want to stay here?”

“We’re all in this together! Dad’s taking me and you if you’ll go and I’m sure taking you, so we’re going together. Right? Florida, like it or not, here we come.”

Earley wiped his mouth and sat back. “Well, it could be a good place to make and sail ships. But I’ll get back to you after your dad gets home and we talk. I’d have to have a garden. At the very least.”

Sol agreed; no garden, no move. He put the kettle on for tea and got out the organic peppermint teabags. That’s what his grandpa liked after a meal. That’s what Sol would always make him.

Monet in the Garden by Monet
Monet in the Garden by Monet

Blaze and Silverado

Photo by Blair Pittman
Photo by Blair Pittman

“It isn’t really what it looks like,” Sophie says as she shuffles the photos. “We skinny dipped back then, no big deal. Off to the woods and lakes we went during college breaks.”

Her daughter holds it up close, wondering if it’s her dad, almost hoping it isn’t. She doesn’t want to know that much.

“But it’s you, right? And if it isn’t what it looks like, then what do you call it?”

Sophie takes the picture. Cradles it in her palms. Her face closes, then she puts it back in the square box. Nods.

“No mistaking my hair. And not your dad, no.”

She touches her hair now, as if reassuring herself it still holds a gingery glow. It is camouflaged a bit by a few strands of white.

“Well, he has a nice back, whoever he is. You were pretty.”

Sophie lets out a soft laugh. Mia slouches off to watch television. Saturday morning. Sophie has been up cleaning out her massive desk for hours, placing into teetering piles the things she wants and doesn’t want. What matters now, what doesn’t. Most of the paper memories are discarded. Even most of the pictures are less valuable as time goes by. There are tattered take out menus from the last city, matchbooks left over from smoking days. The race car sketches of Evan’s are kept. He left them five years ago, but still, for their daughter. And Mia’s report cards have been kept for her; they denote certain potential, despite her lackadaisical attitude.

They’re moving again. But this time to a house. Not impressive from the sidewalk, it got to her when they climbed the steps. The screened porch, a heavy wooden swing. It was what she had been circling back to her whole adult life.

The bulk of the sorting done, Sophie stands and pivots from the piles. Catches her face in the gilt-framed mirror. Something there brings her closer. Her hazel eyes are reddened by dust she stirred up. She smooths her freckled cheeks, her pale lower lip. That old photograph has invaded her oasis, returned her to that place where anguish and tenderness are bond together, captive.

What it looked like was what it was. Finding each other. Being astonished. Feeling safe, so also more free than ever before. Being in love had been like finding out she could speak another language without any effort, or had wings that were secretly hidden and waiting to share their power. It was the beginning of a small kingdom constructed with wonder.

It makes her wince, but she remembers it all.

Martin Robishe was the older brother of Cassie, a friend she’d met in social anthropology class. It was their family cottage into which a small horde of students crammed one June. Three small bedrooms with an open living area that soared above, skylights encouraging buttery light. They had sleeping bags. Two people had brought little tents. Sophie took the couch on the porch; it was her spot, Cassie informed the others, claimed last fall.

When she got there relief banished all tension like a kind drug, making her limbs looser, feet lighter. Mind cleared. She was a dancer with demanding goals, but here she forgot. Let herself revel in simple things, heat, tree mazes and dirt. Undulating, hundreds-of-blue waters. Feral cries in the night. Stealthy moths circling light, drawing her with their zigzag grace.

Martin disrupted her train of thought when his blue-black Silverado finally pulled in.  The engine boomed. He loped over, finishing a pizza slice.

“Hey,” Martin said as he came up by her. She sat with arms wrapped around bent legs. “Sophie, right? Or Blaze like Cassie calls you? We met last fall for a minute or two.”

Sophie raised her eyebrows at the familiar, interesting face, then returned to the sputtering bonfire. Smiled a small smile. The others had gone off to bed. Cassie had said he’d be there a couple nights before heading back to his apartment in town. He ‘d fix torn screens, cut back the new weed growth for their parents, who arrived in July for a month.

“Quietness is preferred, I know–sorry,” he said, then poked at the fire gently, as though he was afraid to disturb it. It flared, then settled into a coral glow.

“Yes, as solitude is, as well.”

He laughed, a low rumble, not put off by her sarcasm.

She sat cross-legged. “I’m practicing being still in the center of the dark. If you want to join me you will have to conform.”

“Here on my land? And how do you know it’s the center?”

But he sat opposite her, fire between them, the night’s depth and breadth embracing them. Sophie listened, eyes closed to better hear waves advancing and leaving, the simmering of wood in flame. She expected him to jostle about and clear his throat, say something stupid. But nothing. Nature had many songs,and a fine hum vibrated in her core. Until he broke the spell.

“The sky is a map of places we have been before, I think.”

Sophie opened her eyes. He was leaning back on his hands, looking at the constellations and other tiny lights in the blackness.

“Where do you think you’ve been?”

“I don’t know. I just feel this isn’t the whole story. Look at the way the darkness dances up there. How much are we missing?”

“I second that feeling. Dancing heavens…” She let out a sigh that felt good.

Sophie observed at the fine shape of his head, dark hair falling forward, shoulders set against the gleaming midnight. The way he seemed to fit in the woods and this moment. The fire was nearly out but they stayed on, speaking only when it seemed necessary.

In the morning the weather wasn’t good. Wind rattled the screen door; the sky looked like a bruise above a swaying treeline. They played poker and chess, ate leftover spaghetti and too many brownies. By late afternoon someone suggested they sit on the dock. See how the storm swept in. They went down as felt the air crackle as thunder boomed, crescendos of sound through woods, across rough water. Lightning cut the sky into puzzle pieces. They waited until rain broke loose, first in splatters, then in a torrent that stung their skin. Cassie and the rest took refuge in the cottage. But Martin and Sophie found refuge in the boathouse, watching from an opened door.

“Ever sail?” he asked her, leaning against the boat.

“We had a sunfish. It was great, the challenge of it, and the way it sped and bounced along.” She leaned back, too, a few inches away, far enough to not give him false ideas.

“I always wanted to build a sailboat. My dad has this speedboat but I want another experience. That’s my goal this summer. I’m taking a class on week-ends. Have to work at our store long hours, but I can do it.”

“I like that. I’d try it out when its finished if you invited me.” She grinned at him. “I’ll be at an arts camp as a  camp counselor for three weeks. I get to practice my dancing, too, which is why I’m going.”

The wind died down; thunder was a distant echo. The rain was pummeling less, was now a pleasant drone.

“You do ballet, I guess?”

“No, I ‘do’ modern.” She laughed and pushed his shoulder. “Have you ever seen a dance performance?”

“I saw two snowy egrets. They looked pretty good. Can you do that?”

She laughed, head to the side, eyes seeking his. He looked down at her, smirking, then was intent on memorizing her features. She saw a surprising glint of silver in a wave of his hair and wanted to put her fingers there. She felt warmth from the lean lines of his body. Or it was their combined energy, travelling through their cells and out to each other. Everything felt dense but elastic, as though time was fluid and they were moving far beyond it just by breathing. She had to move or she would combust, even disappear into thin air.

“Let’s swim in the rain!” she shouted and ran. At water’s edge, she tossed t-shirt, bra and shorts onto the shore, kicked off her sandals. Then stopped. What was she doing?  But he was there, too, stripping off shirt, pants, shoes, wading into sterling grey waters. He sank, a beautiful, shining stone.

Under the surface and up again, under and up, she swam against the waves until she felt a luxurious weariness. Martin sliced through the water, then floated beside her. Waited as rain melded with lake water, their skin with the air.

She moved closer as he reached for her.

“Come here, Blaze, let’s hold each other while we can.”

They met like they were meant to, face to face, heart to mind and soul. It was that simple. Crucial. It was unavoidable–to be together, be happy all summer long and longer still.

Sophie returns to the photograph. She knows what to do with it. She’s going to frame it, place it in her new office in the little house. And some day she might tell Mia: “He was there for a summer and a fall, then he left our country. To fight for it. He did not return. He passed over to the places he showed me that first night. And I love him. Even now.”