Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Snookered No More

snooker-tricia-porter

“I don’t remember any of that. I remember the way he treated us kids to sodas, each got our choice, every time. And treated us as bigger than we were, always joking and nice. How over the snooker table, light bulbs flickered half the time, there’d be at least one out and it’d take forever for it to be replaced and he’d do it, not Bud. And spicy onions on his breath. I remember how he laughed, short and loud, shot out of his body like a ball pocketed fast. His eyes were intense, happy or sad, it was hard to look away.”

I took a long swig of my beer, leaned forward, eyes on my old friend’s tanned, lined face. “Old” more than “friend” at this point but I’d wanted to see him. Catch up in the cautious way people do after so long and such changes. I had avoided high school reunions so long that I had to manage one, at last.

Jerry shifted in the bench seat. “You always pointed out good stuff, even when we were kids, that sorta Pollyanna attitude,  naive, you know? You folks didn’t get to suffer enough to know any different…” He gave a snort, waved his hasty words away as my eyebrows rose. “Hey bygones be bygones, we were friends, we are now. But  your memories, that’s not  much to retain. You missed a few things but, then, you got out of Dodge fast.”

He scratched at his grey stubble, mouth slack as he noted my crisp blue sport shirt and stone colored khakis and sock-less loafers. Should have worn the sandals. He tried to not stare at the Apple watch on my wrist, a custom ring with lapis lazuli and two small diamonds on my right hand. I moved both below the table. I’d maybe take those off tomorrow. I didn’t need to stand out, there was no reason to prove anything; everyone knew that if I was honest with myself. We all had our paths, some harder, some much better, like Jerry’s.

“I could go on, Jerry, but you wouldn’t likely hear it. Some arguments never quit but I hope you’re still not so against him. He was a mix of things like anyone. I hope to see him again, he still lives here, right? He didn’t die, I guess.”

Jerry examined his dirty fingernails. He’d just gotten off the job, had apologized for his state, after all, we were meeting after so long, but he wanted to get  there faster. A faint ring of dried sweat stained his t-shirt around the neck. I didn’t care about that but wished we’d met later for drinks at one of the new places, not here for the indigestible greasy burger and fried okra in Bud’s Bar and Grill aka Mash and Fritters. It was like revisiting the scene of old tales and petty crimes, plus I never got what tasted so delicious at the place. I liked the shiny jukebox, now long gone. I scrounged in a pants pocket for a chewable antacid, popped one in my mouth.

“How would you know what I have done or do– or not? Hello, Madison, you’ve missed the past thirty years. Gone up over the Ozarks, never came back except for funerals twice, gone in a flash.” But he gave me a kindly look as he grinned wide to show teeth yellowed by chew and coffee. “Clary was someone you had to know a lifetime to really know at all.”

Everyone here had nicknames, even me–“Mad” or the obnoxious “Madi” for Madison– but I started at hearing that one. “Clary.” Short for Clarence Maine. I’d called him by his CB handle, “Ghost Panther”, the few times we’d used our truck CBs, and like a private joke when passing each other on the street (mine was “Navy Boy”, I liked boats). So it stuck in my mind. And that’s what he’d looked like to me, pale, muscular, stealthy. Something untamed at heart.

There weren’t that many times we’d talked much, otherwise–he was seven years older than my friends and me, so there was little reason to call him anything. I watched him at the bar and grill–we kids came and went despite the alcohol. At the rundown community center where he showed kids on how to better shoot baskets or dive in the semi-scummy outdoor pool, or how to faster tie high top Converse sneakers. In the street as I grew up… even as he became half-notorious. The crafty Lothario, Snooker King, a tough fighter who stopped most of that after he broke his best friend’s collarbone, the drag racer who won more than lost and wrecked a few junky cars in the process.  But he could be attentive, good to others, that was plain to me; people just didn’t want to see. My parents, especially, would never commend him and even condemned him for the increased erroneous ways. And I still secretly thought he had more going than most. More life, more nerve to just jump in and live it.

“Well, you got Marvel in the end, not Clary, so you should have put that to rest. And you’re still married–what a testament to Marvel’s strength! I always liked her, no bull, fun to be around. Glad to hear she did become an RN–I know she’s an excellent nurse.”

Jerry punched my arm playfully. “Yeah, she’s a good one and she didn’t do too bad. I own my own roofing company and she–we– got the four kids. Plus two pampered, fussy poodles and a house that we built.”

“That’s what I call good fortune.”

“It’s a damned lucky thing, my happy ending.”

The chilled bottle sweated in my hand. I rolled it across my forehead. It was screaming hot in Missouri, a swelter that clings to your pores and dares them to leak out more sweat. It near suffocates. The cicadas were buzzing with abrasive constancy and the sky was heavy with threat of rain that wouldn’t leave the air freshened only saturated with the same degrees. I suddenly longed for Seattle, cooler, leafier, busier. Home. That comforting if at times grating silence. Waves lapping near my house overlooking the expanse of water.

“So where did Dina go? After she left?” He thumped his bottle down. “If I can ask.”

I looked away. Dina was not a topic I indulged in with people who didn’t know her. She had accompanied me to my father’s funeral and made quite the splash with her quirky, stylish dress, her fast, smart talk. Jerry had texted me that the townswomen had wanted to know where she got such clothes. Dina designed and made them. I’d referred him to her Etsy site and heard nothing more. They’re pricey. Dina is motivated to make money even more than I’ve been. Now I’m content with my work, the lifestyle I’ve built and not looking for more peaks to conquer.

“Dina is still in the city but we seldom talk. Her first brick and mortar store is doing well, I hear. I’d say it was best for her to leave and better for me, too.” I cocked my head at him. “In time, anyway. It’s been two years now.”

“Sorry, Mad, no doubt you loved her.” He leaned into the table, spoke quietly. “Sarah Dennison likely wishes you were available. She’s single…”

A teen-aged Sarah flashed before my eyes: pale blue eyes, skinny and energetic, shy. Plump lips, first real kiss. Her talent for math, a full scholarship to Southern Methodist University–but after that? Did she get what she wanted?

“Not open to returning to the past! I’m fine on my own. But I’m surprised she’s living here.”

“One marriage might just be enough for any of us… No, in California but she’s here for the reunion. She’s in touch with Marvel–they’re so different but still friendly.” Jerry’s head jerked up and he waved toward the door. I looked through the growing numbers of diners and drinkers and spotted who it was. One person only had that bright penny hair–still!–and wide smile bestowed on everyone.

Jerry shook his head. “Well, what do you know? Here comes Melba. Big surprise. She and everyone else knows you’re finally in town for a class reunion. It’s just starting, Madison Townsley, so get ready.”

Melba, Clary’s first love and first wife, I heard, had stopped at the snooker table. She picked up a cue stick, bent over and laughed louder than everyone; several people crowded about her. She beat her boyfriend a few times, I recalled, and that was that, they were in love, more or less.

The air swirled about the swamp of it all: steaming dusky air,  faded faces with blurred names, hard luck stories and better ones, rasp of insects a hum under a shock of lightning, grumble of thunder. If only the rain would let loose.

I stood up. “I’m going to watch Melba play.”

Jerry followed past the noisy round tables to the end of the room. People squinted at me; Jerry nodded their way as I avoided the curiosity. Who had I become? No one should be surprised I’d followed the family trajectory laid forth from an early age.

She was bent over, swaying bulk of her skimming the tabletop as she took aim. I counted the fifteen red balls, six colored ones, one cue ball. Just as always. All readied, taunting the player to tap or slam them away. Contact was made, crack, it shot across the table, left side pocket.

A ripple of energy shot up my back. I’d been here with cue stick in hand so often my parents at last forbade me to play: I had to study harder, had to make something more of myself, get out of that town. In the end, I got it. But what a game it was, what fun as we all shared those hours and more.

Now I owned a luxe pool table. There had been times I’d played with the same enthusiasm–she and I even played. It had given me such pleasure. But for months it has sat abandoned in the great room that overlooks Puget Sound with its carnival of  boats, the mystic orcas, reflections of changing skies above our grand, green city.

Sadness swept over me and I refocused on the game.

Melba was in her stride working the table, her adversary barely keeping up. Spectators admired every pause, each stroke, cheering or booing as they saw fit. In a short time she trounced the other woman and was ready to flounce off to her spot packed with friends. Then she turned, her body seeming to follow that red ruffled skirt that swirled about her. She bumped into me with a force of voluptuousness that had taken over her sturdy frame. Time had made the most of who she was. I held out my arms to her.

“Madi?”

“Melba.”

She tossed an arm about my shoulders and we moved through the crowd, Jerry at our heels.

“Where you sitting?” she asked, linked her arm with mine.

They found the booth at the back, ordered more drinks; hers was whiskey on the rocks.

“I was just telling my girlfriends you weren’t due ’til tomorrow, in and out for our fancy dinner and dance. How sly are you? Welcome back, darlin’.”

She clinked her bottle against mine and Jerry’s and surveyed me openly.

“Looking good, Madi,” she murmured.

“Ditto,” I said, as it was true. Her large amber eyes flashed the same. All that hair swung in a high ponytail, a flag that unfurled in the overhead fan’s breeze.

“Tell me all in a nutshell, then I’ll leave you alone awhile.”

“Wait, Melba, he just flew in this afternoon and had to drive from St. Louis, he’s tired out. Give him room to breathe, love.”

“I didn’t wait for forty years to find out how this ole buddy has been doing, settle down. But it looks like you did good, look at your handsome self, all shined up, smart as can ever. You a high paid corporate attorney now or what?”

Laughter spilled from her like a warning or a friendly offering,  I wasn’t sure which. I wasn’t sure of much here so far, caught in a time warp. It wasn’t feeling all that supportive of a need for privacy and ease. What did I expect?

“That’s right, making the rich richer. Naw, I’m an engineer, Melba, work in aeronautics.”

Her eyes widened and she whistled. “Planes, space stuff? And where’s the wife?”

“Doing her own thing…ten years and done. Where’s your spouse or whatever?”

Whatever is right. Which one?” She flashed neon white teeth, tapped silvery oval nails on the table top. “Oh, maybe you mean… Clary?” She winced but a bold smile came back on. “It’s been a long time since you lived here. I forgot for a minute. And sorry about the wife situation. If you loved her, I mean. Of course you did, divorce is a pain for us all. I’ve had three. But Clary…yeah, well…”

She glanced sideways at Jerry who’d slouched over the last of his third beer, now looking for another. A long night already, what the hell, he seemed to telegraph, so I raised a hand to a waitress who took our order. Though two was enough for me. I had no interest in inadvertently spilling my adult life story here or elsewhere on this trip. And it was stuffy there. I wanted to step outdoors to catch a breeze, then absorb chilled air conditioning in my motel room, that aging and questionable Bel Air Suites now a well reworked Motel Six.

“Madi, he’s in prison, you know that, right?”

It was like she punched me with both fists.

“What? Behind real bars for a long time?”

Jerry took drinks from the waitress then gazed at the table, a broad palm sliding over stains and scratches.

“Yeah, he’s doing time, likely ten to fifteen years.”

“What? Why?” I shook my head hard.

“Money, it all boils down to money! He burgled a place, a 7-11. Armed robbery, St. Louis. And probably more. They caught him on tape, found him, convicted him.” She rolled her shoulders back hard as if unpooling years of hurt and anger, then downed the whiskey. “What could I or anyone do? He gambled too much. Snooker became his worst enemy in the end, and pool–then cards and horses. For so long he was rode an easy wave ’til he came up against bigger fish in the sea, if you follow. And he listened to nobody, right? Not even me. Always the joker, the wiseguy and always his way.” She touched her lips with glittery fingernails as if to still them. Stop the memories. “So that’s that, ole boy.”

“I can’t believe it or maybe I can, but I don’t care to think of it.”

“That’s just how it is, Mad, it went sideways for him.”

I leaned back in my wooden chair, balanced on two legs. Clarence, Ghost Panther, Clary: he was a guy I wanted to model myself after, even if only in private. Swagger meant confidence. An easy way with people. I might also be a whirlwind snooker shark. I might become smart in all the ways I was not yet: how to fix cars, how to drink right, how to make a fire at the river so it glowered low and long into night. How to evade blame if necessary. How to fight without making a ruckus. How to hold a woman just so when she wanted to be held.

I had watched and learned a little. But the gambling and the terrible price paid…I felt sucker punched. Like the good times had been squelched. I actually had suspected I’d see him, catch up some.

“OK, enough of that.” Jerry patted Melba’s arm.

“Yeah, I should get back to my girlfriends. Sorry to break the news.  I’m glad to see you– you seem great. We’ll talk more tomorrow, right?”

When she left it  was like a vacuum opened up. We were quieter, extra careful to say less that might rock the leaky boat of the present reality. I stretched after our bottles emptied. We looked about as people came and went; now and then he’d point out someone. Most I barely remembered. His eyes were bleary and he mentioned Marvel, she’d be waiting for him and likely me.

“I’m tired out, think I’ll head to my room, Jerry. Why not let me give you a ride in my rental car and we’ll call it a night?”

“Yeah, sounds good for now though we could talk for hours.”

As we threaded our way through the dimly lit room and busy tables, people called out to Jerry and he waved; a few exclaimed my name then started to rise. I waved, moved faster, overheated, overdressed, over-informed and a little sick to my stomach.

I flung open the entrance door. Heavy air embraced me, half-smothering rather than relieving me of the lingering heat and a vise grip of tension.

Jerry whistled. “Some car! Is that called, what–ocean blue?”

“It’s a Mazda RX-8, not a Cadillac or Tesla, Jerry! Hop in, enjoy a ride.”

I stopped myself from saying it was what I drove at home most of the time. The rest of the time I drove a refurbished, finely tuned 2010 BMW. Kerry got in as I looked back at Bud’s Bar and Grill, peered into yellow lit, rectangular windows.

The cicadas were rasping their wings off. I wondered how I endured it all those years. I closed my eyes, smelled rain coming over the mountains. Heard tree branches rattle like bones.

There was so much I didn’t want to share, things I didn’t want noticed. Things were better than ever in some ways but emptier, too, since Dina had left. In the end, my life was just not like theirs, anymore. Was it ever? Yet I had missed this from time to time. Even longed for it. For the invisible traces those beautiful if uncertain times had left on me–the same ones I had tried to scour off. It had been easier than I had imagined. Go to college, get a couple degrees, get a decent job that pushed me up the ladder and marry a woman with plenty of her own talents. No kids, but hey, I couldn’t expect everything, could I? Still, I could adjust my life, discover what was missing, re-calibrate. There was a great deal I didn’t know.

“Wait! Is that…Madison!”

Sarah Dennison came toward me like she always had, swiftly, arms outstretched. long legs reaching for more ground, pixie face strangely illumined by the bluish-green tint of mercury lights in the parking lot.

“Is it really you?” she asked, a little breathless. “I just got in a couple hours ago, I called Marvel and she said–oh, hello, Jerry!–she said you two were here, so here I am!”

She placed her arms around me gingerly as if asking permission, and I gladly brought her to my chest a moment, then held her away from me. One person I  understood better than the rest. At least once.

But this was that Sarah? Sleek, swinging silver-streaked hair and so quick to speak? She leaned her head to one side, took my hand into hers.

“Madison, a pleasure once more.”

“I’m glad to see you, Sarah, such a long time.”

“It is. From Missouri to professorship at Stanford University for me; for you, Seattle,  and aerospace,  Marvel says. We need to talk.” She peered at the car, patted it. “Nice. Are you guys leaving already or going on a spin?”

“I need rest and so does Jerry. We’ll chat tomorrow.”

I beamed back at her but felt noncommittal. I was in need of more antacids and sleep and still had to run Jerry home. It was just a lot to take in the first few hours back in the ole hometown. So much felt the same but Ghost Panther, in prison. He wasn’t exactly my childhood hero but he meant something. It set badly with me. The small fire in my belly was roiling, likely to carry me into a long, restless night.

“Alright, see you tomorrow at dinner or before?”

“Tomorrow,” I agreed and folded into the car.

I dropped Jerry off at his pleasant two-story house at the edge of town not far from where he had grown up. Gabbed for ten minutes with Marvel, who was feisty and warm as before. Sped back to Motel Six, flung myself on my bed. Stared up at the at the popcorn ceiling, then took a cool shower and pulled on shorts. Studied my face in the mirror to make sure I still had a grasp of who I was. I had a mind to pack up the few things unpacked and leave in the morning. Who needed nostalgia or jolts of current reality? It was too much in one visit. I wanted life stories to unfold carefully, slowly. I wanted to hide my own longer though it wasn’t that sad, just not what I expected it to be. But, then, did anyone of us?

My nightly ritual had to be kept even in this room, this time warp. I pulled out a notebook and my drafting pen and began to loosely sketch those I had seen. Melba, flare of laughter, a wealth of generosity but eyes hard and sparking, too. Jerry all rough angles and weariness made stronger, sweeter with contentment. Sarah, beauty revealed and brilliance undimmed, her soft shyness finally undone. And Clary’s–Ghost Panther’s–face came to the fore. But it was of the past. A person I did not the least bit know had evolved. He was…older now, too,  much older, in case I forgot that time had slipped away.

How to make heads or tails of the news? On the clean white page, at least, a creature elegance rising from leanness. Eyes that delved, captured everything, committing it to mind for reference. Future acts. Dangerous capers. Yet he had been kind to me. He had taught me to be braver than I felt: a steady gaze back, a solid stance, head held up. He had given me tips on how to win some snooker games. How to withstand losing–with a shrug and “see you turkeys later” tossed over a shoulder, striding without rush out the door. He’d applauded my jacknife dives.

A person could be deeper and better than the wrong things done. I had faith in greater possibilities. He no doubt still carried some magic, had more to offer if he’d get through the misery and wake up. But it wasn’t for me to know, I conceded.

I closed the sketch book. Popped another antacid. Wondered what was on the dinner menu at the reunion. Punched up my pillow so it fit about right under my too-stuffed skull. Turned out the pearly plastic bedside light. Turned over, avoided thinking of Dina. Wondered about Sarah.

The cicadas were singing above the purring A/C, a comfort, after all. A mournful wail of a train whistle tunneled through sodden Missouri air, the same one that used to set me to dreaming as a boy. Tomorrow would arrive one way or another. I’d not often been stymied by people or places. I chose to take in what I needed or wanted then moved forward. But it was clear some of us got left behind, like it or not. I shut my eyes. It was only a quick time travel to finish up, then back home.

Ten-four, Ghost Panther, I know you’re around, wherever you are. Sorry I missed you this time. Good numbers, 10-7.

 

 

This I Can Leave You

Yachats, MR 66, Days 3,4 252
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

When Tessa thought back to the day she first saw Cliffside Court, she couldn’t for the life of her recall seeing that thing standing like a relic amid sea salt-licked, sun-burnt grass. She’d only been drawn to the bluff’s edge, and the ocean’s roaring like a wild thing it was yet which from up there sounded like a comfort born of the neutrality of indifference. Acceptance, that was what she felt as she peered at cottages and stepped across the dry lawn which offered a shared area. She observed the kids squinting at her then scattering, an old man hunched over his walking stuck with cap pulled to his eyes. If one was inclined to share an area, that is, which she felt was unlikely overall. It suited her. She was here to do nothing, for as long as it took to feel at ease with that. Doctor’s orders, finally.

“I’m not yet a basket case; you can’t just order me to some obscure asylum where I  must lunch on a manicured lawn with the crazy ladies,” she’d protested when forced to see Dr. Matthews. “I have scads of excellent miles left on this mind and body.”

This was the day after her meltdown during a useless, contentious staff meeting wherein she threw her favorite Waterford pen across the room. It then bounced off the window and hit Jarrod’s cheekbone, her comrade but also boss. Then worse yet she began to weep as she mumbled another something regrettable and fumed out.

“The operant word there is ‘yet’, Tessa. You’ve given much and are paying for the 16 hour days and sleepless nights. You know I can more or less order you to take a leave since I work for this company–part of your perks, our wellness team. Your blood pressure is sky-high. You aren’t eating right. You have no one at home to corral you or advise you so I am sending you off. Six weeks, then do a check-in. Take the tranquilizer as needed, it can help. But go far away, and don’t answer emails or that phone.”

She hung her head like a chastised puppy and slunk out of the room, face burning with embarrassment and anger. No one dared look at her as she tidied her desk, watered her creamy white orchid with shaking hands, turned out the light in her office and, walking fast in her spike heels with head high, escaping more humiliation. No one was going to watch her fall down any terrifying rabbit hole. Jarrod observed Tessa with two fingers gingerly feeling a tiny bruise on his cheek. He shook his head, turned away. He hoped she’d get a grip.

******

There certainly was no dependable internet connection at Cliffside Court or surrounds. Anyone would think this was not the place for her, such a step down in the world according to friends and family–why didn’t she take a month’s cruise to the south of France, for example? Find her way to a spa resort on St. Lucia? It was a getaway she needed, a break from a job that had begun to take her apart, her composure and authority disturbed like silky threads torn free of a fine embroidered work. She was VP of a well-tuned interior design business, after all; anyone would need a serious time out after ten years running. But at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot on the road?

Tessa wanted nothing of chic or exclusive or trendy. She wanted unreachable, ordinary, earthy and weathered Cliffside Court fit the bill. After only a week, she had begun to sleep again. She’d found a Saturday farmer’s market in the hamlet four miles away and had begun to eat more than once a day, like a surprisingly hungry person. Off coffee bit by bit, she drank soothing medicinal teas the local coffee shop kept in a green glass jars beside homemade lemon peel and poppy seed scones.

She’d taken to sitting n the deck, careful to step around split or missing boards, settling into her plastic chair with mug in hand. When a thought from the rat race world wriggled into her mind she banished it with a choppy wave of a hand. Tessa primarily focused on the horizon when she could see through fog; she loved how things disappeared and reappeared as a brew of  sweet-tangy mist burned off or fell upon all. She watched fishing boats make careful progress, and the rolling, cresting waves were a like spell for healing. When her aching back yelled at her, she walked down a treacherous stairway that led to the miles-long beach and spent an hour loping up and down a blinking sandy stretch. She walked until her leg muscles and brain felt liquid, just another part of the sea. Blessed sea. Sea that scared her in the right way, like God was talking to her. She soon listened to the wordless poetry of it all and breathed in thick or shimmering damp air.

On the week-ends, it got busy; she kept to herself, inside. Or perhaps chatted with the old man who repeated much of what she said to make sure he got it, and had lived there four years since his wife passed. She liked the mischievous sister, Mae and brother, Ty, who soon approached her, and Elle, their mother with a close cap of silvered hair–it could be dyed but Tessa thought no, it belonged on her, framing olive skin and moody eyes. She admired it and Elle’s patience with those entertaining but madcap kids. A family of five from Canada stayed for ten days, friendly from afar at best which was fine with her. A single man came and went after three days; an older woman stayed for two, on to California next, she said as if relieved. People came and went as she stayed on.

The couple who owned the place was always busy. Mo hummed as she worked, sometimes chatted awhile; you’d have thought it the radio as her songs were tuneful and her voice sonorous. Henry tended to silence in a satisfied way. They’d been married on the bluff long ago, bought the cottages six years after their first son was born. Tessa believed the place and lifestyle were their dream come true.

It made her wonder: was her life the one she chose or one that chose her? It seemed a trite thought and dissolved as she relaxed into the pace of coastal life. It made her nervous that she was adapting so quickly to doing so little. Where was the adrenaline rush she loved of the looming deadline? That memory fell over the bluff and headlong into the sea.

So mostly it was good, better than she had imagined. The summer breezes left a kiss of salt on her lips, her hair frizzed and billowed off her loosening shoulders, her bare feet carried sand and dirt inside the cottage and she left it all as it was as long as she wanted. No one cared; not even she cared.

By the end of the second week, however, Tessa found herself unable to see past that odd thing, the two sturdy grey poles with a lateral top pole, and it rose in the middle of her sight line. Useless old beams cutting up the grand view. It struck her as a sort of gallows. She played with tat thought and found it morbid  but fascinating. It was as if her vision sharpened, her mind refocused in a fresh way so landscape and surroundings were perceived as more dramatic than soothing. But she began to feel that someone or more than one had hung from or hung onto those frayed rope ends. It scared her. Re-positioning her chair didn’t help; the thing was just there, a reminder of something that made her squirm. It was worrisome, that structure. And her wondering about it, so she’d get get busy with something pleasant, like quickly sketching the morning glories or the ocean, kids at its edge. To draw like that seemed like freedom, like play.

Days passed uneventfully, just sunning and walking and reading two good books she had put off for too long. The nights sweetly whispered to her, the push, lift and fall of endless water shushing her mind, the deep darkness gentle about her body.

One afternoon Old Man–he didn’t offer a name, saying his real one was ridiculous, no one could pronounce it–sat on the bench longer than usual, face to the glinting expanse of water and sand below.

“May I join you?”

“Eh? Join me? So you are.”

They sat a moment quietly. He liked to chew on an unlit pipe as he stroked his white beard, now scraggly but reasonably short.

“I have a feeling your beard has longer than this,” she said, pointing with her chin, her hands grasping the bench. There was a strong, chilling wind this time.

“My beard? You’d be right. Down to middle of my chest a long while.”

“Why’d you cut it?”

“Cut it? Well, my wife didn’t like it that long. But I didn’t whack it down until she died.”

“You waited until then?”

“Ah, yes, I waited…and then it seemed the right thing to do. Respect for her memory. And I didn’t enjoy it long, anymore. She used to brush it out, oil it up for me.” He puffed on his smokeless pipe a bit. “That’s the sort she was.” He glanced at her, heavy-lidded eyes keen and clear. “You married?”

“Oh, no. I mean, once. Not anymore.”

“Once, eh? Enough for some, that’s it. You look like one of them fancy lawyers, too busy for such.”

Tessa laughed. “No, not one of those. I work at an interior design company.” She wondered what it was that made him think that.

Old man shrugged as if he heard her. “I guess it’s how you talk.”

She started again. “We create interiors of houses and commercial buildings, make things functional but attractive.”

“You create, huh? Make house stuff? Well, that’s fine. I loved woodworking, myself. Made some money in handmade furniture.” He then held up a hand and showed her a pale scar running along his gnarled thumb all the way to the tip. “About cut it in half, but they got ‘er fixed.”

She shook her head, pulled her jacket about her. “Well, good thing. Going to storm?”

“Naw, not tonight. Just bluster, a little wet. Might even get a good sunset.”

She glanced at the moldy looking clouds, unable to see how that could happen.

“Just wait,” Old man said, “that sky will likely shine.” He pushed his stick into the ground and helped himself up. “I saw you looking at the thing out there. We all have, too much.” He pointed at the poles behind them. “Don’t ask Mo and Henry. Not a good story.” He lumbered off, all six feet of him, a long crackling branch bent over by time and wind.

Tessa waited for the sun to set, arms crossed tightly, hood pulled up over her head. She heard the children run inside as Elle called twice and almost wished they’d come sit with her. Her cottage could feel too ancient and quiet. Empty of much, not such a bad thing but sometimes a tad lonely. As she stared out to leaping and cresting waves, a yellowish-coral light seeped through heavy banks of clouds and there was a small thin line that grew, a spot amid the dimming distance that shone, just like he said.

It was beginning to feel right, being there, and she still had three more weeks of wonders. And then she did not know what next. She did not miss the power of her title, the problem solving to create a heftier profit. She missed making art.

******

In the morning she was possessed of an immense desire to find out why the thing was left to rot over the years. Though it still stood tall and straight it was a blight. And clearly someone wanted it to remain. She had awakened knowing it was just meant to be long swings, two by the looks of the ratty rope ends flapping away. Even if Mo and Henry weren’t going to tell her, she could explore it more. Set a chair by it and step up higher to look it over. So she perpared to do that after pancakes for breakfast and strong black tea she gave into and bought at the coffee shop.

Mae’s small face greeted her, nose pressed flat against the screen of the door.

“Miss Tessa, what’ve you been cooking?”

“Pancakes, want some?”

“Blueberries or raspeberries or what?”

“Gluten-free flour, no berries, but walnuts.”

“No thanks.” She shrugged, picked up a ladybug.

They sat on the deck and surveyed the bright blue sky when Elle sauntered around the corner with mail in her hand.

“Look at that, something from a Mr. Lance Forman.” She smacked it twice on her palm.

“Oh…a nice surprise, huh?”

Elle looked down, smiled widely.

“It’s Daddy! Read to me!” She tackled her mother’s waist.

“I guess he’ll get around to coming back one of these days, the kids are powerful magnets. Maybe I still can persuade him, too. Well, well.” She smoothed back the long bangs from her daughter’s forehead. “Not now. Wait for Ty to get back with Henry. Then we’ll see what’s what.” She unlatched her child. “So how’s it going, Tessa? Pretty out here today.”

“Yes, all except this thing, the weird blight on the bluff,” she said, pointing at it. It’s all I can see, anymore, until I get to the beach. And then I still see it as I look up. What is it, Elle?”

She studied Mae’s surprised eyes, then sighed, opened her mouth to speak.

“Mama-you said not to talk about it.”

“Yeah. And Ty’ll be back soon. Why not go find Mo, see if you can help her.”

Mae jumped down from the deck and ran off.

Tessa thought better of her inquiry. “Maybe… just forget it?”

“It’s just, it was tragic, that’s all.”

“I see. I felt maybe that was it. An accident?”

Elle nodded, ruffled glimmering hair. “I guess I can tell you. Just say nothing to anyone else.” She glanced around her. “Their other son. He fell from the top piece, way the heck from up there. He climbed all the way up to show off to his little brother, I guess, who was swinging down below him. Those swings could really fly, I guess, fun if a little dangerous if you pumped too hard and flew up too high. But it was the climbing that got him, not the swinging.”

Tessa’s right hand pressed hard against her chest. “Oh, no. Then why keep it there? Why not take it down so it isn’t a reminder every single day?”

Elle narrowed her eyes at the sea. “A kind of memorial, I guess, to Wally. The little brother, Rusty, didn’t talk for months but he finally turned out okay, he has a welding business over the mountains. Doesn’t come by much. I’ve met him, he was nice-looking and polite but oh, those eyes.” She shivered. “Like two deep wells of sorrow, you just want to fill them with happy times until he can smile without hurt fighting its way out… After one visit Mo came over, explained to me. She wanted to finally cut it down but Henry said no, not yet.” She let out a long sigh again, then got up to start dinner. “Best to try to overlook it, go on and enjoy your stay here. You’re a good sort, Tessa, say a prayer for them, huh?”

Tessa held herself very still as she looked up at the weathered wood and tattered ropes. The ghosts of two perfect swings, made for children and grownups alike, and  the remnants aged in the salty wind, rains that swept in from foreign places, the swift sunlight that cut through all the fog and burnished sturdy grasses and morning glories that grew wild. The people who withstood such a place of mysteries, and miseries.  Like people everyhwere, she guessed. But Wally seemed only half-gone, lingering upon the vehicle of his ending. It suddenly angered her to think that they would always see him just lying broken on the ground, or falling and falling, or cheerily waving so high up before that fall…that this was the last they would recall of him.

Tessa got out her camera from its soft case in the bedroom. She held it in her hands and thought about what she was doing. She needed a picture of this ghost thing and then she needed to think a lot more.

Outside she quickly snapped a dozen pictures from all angles, hoping no one would see her and ask questions. She then looked more closely, zoomed in right on the cross board. And her breath rushed out of her, eyes stung.

She flew back inside, shut the door and leaned against it, felt the universe swell and open as Wally or something more than she understood held a hand out to her. She closed her eyes, willed her heart to stop its rampage at her ribs. Did Rusty really climb up there a furtive hour to carve those words for his brother, take the same risk that ended Wally’s life? No one but he, surely, needed so badly do it.

Old Man sat on his deck, puffing invisible tobacco, watching her figure things out and then hiding behind her door. A thing of the past, the smoking business although his pipe fit just right there and so it stayed. So much was a thing of the past. Like that Wally. A good boy. A kid who’d have grown up handsome and smart like his sweet little brother though a lonely man he now had become, bless him. A hard knowledge to carry. But some things are not to be, others are, and what lies waiting between one or the other you just never can guess.

He wondered a lot about Tessa. A woman who instinctively knew a way to better things but couldn’t quite grasp onto it. Maybe soon she would. He tapped his pipe lightly against the chair leg, went inside and turned on the radio to the oldies. He and his lady used to dance to these tunes. Sometimes he still did.

******

It was barely dawn but she had to get it done and then–vanish. Tessa propped the tall, rickety ladder (taken from the shed with Elle’s help after midnight) against one pole, climbed slowly. At the top, she steadied herself. In the soft bag at her shoulder she fumbled for fabric. She had brought it along for her “work time out”, a few pieces she was considering for a project that had everyone else stumped. It was odd lengths of fabric she, herself,  had hand dyed with muted, mostly primary colors. Something for an airy white gazebo that overlooked multiple fancy water features for one of their bigger design contracts. No one had deemed it appropriate, but she remained engaged by her larger plan and had begun to re-imagine it the past month. To present it again, brilliantly. Though it gave her less and less pleasure to picture her suited silhouette against a window which framed the city’s mad bustle.

The night before she had torn them into narrow strips, leaving the edges raw. She had seen just what she needed to do, how to embrace but change the abandoned swing set. She enlisted Elle, who now steadied the ladder below her.

“Hurry!” she hissed. “They all get up early!”

“Patience…hold on tight,” Tessa cautioned.

She had tied each varied length of fabric, some a foot long, others several inches, on a sturdy cord and now secured one end of the cord on one pole, then climbed back down to re-position the ladder. Then up she went to tie off the other end to the opposing pole.

“Is it straight enough? Look quite taut?”

Elle gave two thumbs up.

She climbed back down and studied what Elle was seeing.

A dozen strips of colorful fabric fluttered in a light wind, flapping, twisting, spinning–sunny yellow, rich turquoise, fern green, soft rose, tender lavender, the bonus of a wider mango-bright strip in the center. Flags of fancy, signals of life, in remembrance of all the lovely, lively children. A beacon for others, a sign of hope despite harm that can happen to all. A reminder of Mo’s and Henry’s devotion, a gentle greeting for Rusty should he dare look up again at his carved words of love.

It was what Tessa could leave as a portion of her gratitude. For kindnesses. For a taste of freedom. For a glimpse of better living.

She was enveloped in a brisk hug from Elle, then loaded up her suitcase and then, “Give Old Man a farewell for me, hug the kids. I hope Mo and Henry don’t get distressed by it…”

“It’ll be a good change, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone along.”

Waving, Tessa drove away. Elle patted the address and phone number Tessa had shared, safe in her jeans pocket. Such an odd thing, a city friend. The kids would miss her a little, too. She saw Mo come to the office door; Elle hurried away to Old Man. He sat on his deck gumming his pipe. He’d seen it all now. Elle nodded at his faint smile, his feathery eyebrows rising, falling, a clue to his feeling. Yet, too, he was steady as the tides. She leaned into his aged bony warmth.

“Going to be a good day,” he said, pointing past Elle’s boy Ty on the bench–or another Wally vision, he never knew which. Swaths of bright fog skimmed the horizon, glowing pink, the eye seeking the blues beyond, a bit of heaven.

 

 

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Everything and More

Photo by Bunny Yeager 1959

There was that photo still kept in his Great-uncle Robert’s study, propped on his desk with everything else left untouched. She was outrageously attractive, you could see why he had kept it there, yet she was more wild-seeming than the foolishly attired chimpanzee–an impulsive gift from Robert but whom (which?) didn’t manage to make the wedding guest list; he was soon packed off to a chimp rehab sanctuary. She’d cried at that, but briefly, they said. And there was the MG, a beast of a sleeker sort which had long remained one of her joys. This was how people tended to think of her even still, he imagined. Even Andy, her great-nephew, thought of her like this despite physical evidence to the contrary. It was a fiery essence tamed by simple elegance, the kind of classiness that can’t be taught. The qualities stayed with her, reaching everyone, reflecting off everything. But the toil and trials of life had finally worn down the luster a bit.

Due to growing up around the world with nomadic parents, he’d only met her when she was well past generous middle age. It had been a happy meeting that became an inter-generational friendship. He’d grown up to work in business while she’d been a linguistics researcher. Built her life with Robert in Roxwood, more commonly referred to ( not quite with ill intent) as the “Devil’s Triangle”, a neighborhood fond of tall iron gates and streets jutting here, there and back on themselves amid copious trees and a palpable scarcity of activity. Only the well initiated could get in or out in under thirty minutes. Some had to summon help; even the GPS got confused. This had been the required design, of course. Andy had gotten the trip in and out down to fifteen minutes– less if he sped through annoying roundabouts.

The visits had gone on, soon a pleasant if obligatory act, a direct result of  cosmopolitan and mannerly upbringing: one did the right thing out of a primed social conscience, first of all. This included visits to an ancient great-aunt who lived a couple of hours and lifestyle away. But he liked her far more than anyone else in the family from the start. He also had appreciated right off  the hammocks she had hung here and there, shocking Robert at first. She had told all that it was the best way to nap, even deeply sleep; she’d had one in her bedroom until she fell out–one of many times–and broken an ankle last year. But she kept the others–in the front yard and back garden, in the study and screened sun room. Robert had grown to enjoy them on occasion, as well, though kept it secret.

And there were bright, artful flowers in most rooms, though often blossoms drooped and scents had begun to sour after they’d stood there, tired, in huge vases too long. He changed them out for new bouquets cut from her garden if Nora, her housekeeper, hadn’t gotten it done. Nora was quite good and affordable but just for two days a week. The house had slowly betrayed the wear of forty years’ life in Celeste’s (and one ought to add, Robert’s) hands and a good fifty of its own before that.

It had been some time since Andy had visited. About eight months. He made it twice a year since his  software business had taken over his life. So he tried to prepare for the worst as he pulled up to the fancy, heavy gate. He opened it with a remote’s click, and drove up a semi-circle drive, parked, got out and stretched. Yes, it was true what Mother had said, the painters had not been yet been contracted and the once creamy white with smart Wedgwood blue trim had finally given in to a dim blue and a brownish-green of creeping organisms showed on the white in spots, lots of peeling going on.

He was meant to persuade Aunt Celeste to allow them to help out if necessary. A delicate undertaking, to say the least. She could be so close with money, though maybe she had much less of it now, and cared less and less for appearances, it seemed. He tucked the lavender sport shirt into his grey shorts and combed back his dark hair; he would brook no comments on slovenly dress, even in such summer heat.

He rang the sonorous chime although he’d called her a week ago to remind of the visit. Before he could open it,  Nora answered, her graying topknot askew on her head, mouth betraying a remainder of ice cube that she liked to crunch, and quickly smiled at him. A dribble of water eked out and she blushed but he was sympathetic to her quirks. She was good to Celeste and the house was all shined up inside.

“Mr. Demart, so good to see you. She’s in the sun room, ready and waiting.”

He passed lively flowers on a half table under the foyer’s oval mirror, strode through shadowy lengths of hallway past a formal living and dining room–she seldom used these now–around brightening corners and past large kitchen and down another hall, finally coming to the sun room. The blue and green parakeets began to jabber, likely because Andy was there. He did not like them much  but they had always been there, one bird or another. Another eccentricity you took along with Celeste.

“Finally, there he is!”

She rose in one practiced movement then put a steadying hand on the armchair beside her. Then stood taller, held arms open to him. What an amazing sight, he thought as always and moved toward her–the silvered wavy hair cropped close, her signature cut; three glinting necklaces roped about her long, wrinkly neck; rose-colored, silver-trimmed caftan drifting about her smallness in a waltz of silken beauty. He inhaled her soft amber fragrance. The same as ever– how long? Did Robert buy it long ago because he loved it on her? Did she splurge on it herself and found it so alluring she forsook all other elixirs on her dressing table? It warmed up any atmosphere. She was seventy-nine and all the etchings in her loosening skin proved it, yet she seemed to most above and beyond a set age.

“Aren’t you smart today with your purple shirt. And flip-flops? Well, suitable for taking to the hammock,” she said gesturing to stretched yellow fabric on the spare frame waiting in a corner. “I can hear from here if you want to avail yourself of the fun now.”

“They’re leather, I’ll have you know, quite good ones. It’s summer!  But I have to stay awake part of the visit, don’t I? First a good catching up, later a hammock, Auntie.”

Celeste smirked at him, hand fluttering at her throat as vivid memories came forth. He liked to try every hammock when he first came to visit her, acting a child despite being eighteen, lanky and a it whiskery. She’d had one in nearly every room until Robert had finally confessed to being embarrassed by them when guests came. She was not entirely persuaded; they were made of gorgeous fabrics and such a practical thing. He’d indulged her whims most of the time, and now he wasn’t there to offer exasperated opinions or sweet compliments. Though she could still hear him at odd moments.

“I thought you’d forgotten me. What do you do all the time you’re not around besides run a business? Not that this doesn’t count but aren’t there a few days off? You’re looking a bit peaked about the gills, strained around the eyes. Premature aging, watch out. A sure sign of money madness and sleep aversion. Don’t forget to water your spirit. perhaps yy need a pet to slow you down.”

He nodded at her in vague agreement, picked out almonds from the nut mix nestled in a coral ceramic bowl, popped one, two into his mouth. He’d often considered a dog but they required serious attention. “Not that you would know anything about these topics, Auntie. And I do take a day off occasionally–I’m here now, for instance. Just got back from Venezuela but that was more business than footloose fun.”

He shrugged and snapped up more smokey almonds, ten in a palm that he bounced before tossing them back. This was what he’d hoped, relaxing in the airy sun room eating almonds and chatting easily with Aunt Celeste. Working up to that paint job. She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, and one with the large blue stone caught light. He’d always liked that one, hung on a long silver chain. He wondered briefly if it was a blue topaz or an aquamarine or what. Andy liked jewels but knew very little; later he’d ask. She always had interesting information.

“Well, Andrew, I assume no good, steady woman in your life yet?” she asked.

“Right to the point!”

The dating update couldn’t wait today. He stretched out long, muscled legs, leaned back. Nora brought a carafe of iced water and glasses on a tray, settled it on a coffee table and left again. How did Aunt Celeste always get to his business before he got to hers? He abruptly sat forward, forearms resting on knees.

“Tell me what you have been up to, how you’re feeling lately. I’m here to keep an eye on you, of course.”

“That’s an easy report. My annual check-up documented me as still ticking, with moderate to good energy levels. My steady vitals bored the doctor nearly to tears. It seems I shall live a very long time if I keep this up–a life of perhaps ill-gotten leisure punctuated by occasional bursts of industry, a few worthwhile efforts. I had my annual garden party about two months ago with forty well meaning, tiresome, well-combed ladies who came to donate money to our orphanage in Thailand. And the sprinkler system was finally repaired, not so bad as expected but rougher on the pocketbook than wished. And I have my usual book club meeting once a month though it gets harder to read fast and find the wit and will to offer intelligent comments. I may graduate to audible books and forego the group. Do something else. Ride a bike, for instance, there’s a thing I always planned to do more often.”

Her eyes were a clear bluish-grey and she winked at him. She could be disarming; that was her intention more often than not. But he didn’t anticipate her next words.

“Why are you here this time, Andrew? Beyond the usual great fondness bit, I mean.” He started to protest but she waved it away. “Is it that the house has gotten too big for me with Robert gone three years now? That the peeling paint is a debacle for my neighborhood? That I should get out more via the ole senior shuttle– or get home bound meals brought in, for heaven’s sake? Or that I need a keeper other than Nora since I am fast making the approach to eighty? And you are coming to my birthday celebration, aren’t you? It’s November in case you forgot. I must have you here, dear, you are the only relief in our crowd!”

She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, then her hands fell to her lap and she sat still, eyes coolly ablaze. The parakeets had begun to hop about again, all four of them enjoying a elaborate white penthouse of a cage, chittering at each other and then at the humans. She watched them and relaxed a tad. Such a mood she was in lately.

“Sorry, I just seem to be noticing I am getting older lately.

Andy was startled by that outpouring since this was mostly not even what had crossed his mind. The paint, yes, the shrubbery trimmed again, perhaps. The roof–had he checked the roof in a while?

“Why all this? Who has been bothering you with such ideas? My adamant but unreachable mother? Oh–Clarence?” He knew her neighbor wanted to buy the house, probably to demolish it and annex the land for his own expansion. A lot of that was going on in the area. She’d get a mint, even as things were. “You cook okay still, right? No one is worried much. Nora says nothing, she’s a trusty one but maybe you’ve threatened her with more dusting in dark corners or polishing each floor on hands and knees…” Andy wanted her to smile, damn it, he didn’t want her to feel such anger or fear. And he still had to address the need for an expensive paint job. And he longed for a stiff drink already. Though he adored her, life was complicated and it wasn’t easy to get away to see her here. And he hadn’t even told her about Eva.

“Well.” She touched the faceted blue stone, index fingertip alighting on it as if she sought reassurance from its heft and beauty. Her shoulders loosened,  eyes softened. “Alright then. I have too much spare time to worry, I suppose. Or not about the right things. Well, I never was one for fretting the day and night away– until I hit 77. And then I woke up and thought: life is moving too fast and here I am after Robert has died and yet nothing can be remotely the same, either. Your partner is gone and you are the sparest one, not a hearty two. Not the pair who faces the world together and then each other, one a mirror of sorts for the other. I didn’t like to speak of it back then; life and death are inevitable hurdles, at times. More so as you dig your heels in and stick it out, I’ll tell you what, Andrew Alger Demart, and you have to stay in good form. Top form, I do say. But it is a strange feeling all the same to feel such singularity. And life’s tempo, so fast and yet slow. It is enough to make my head spin some days.” She ran a hand through her waves. “And it’s good of you to be here and withstand my words each time.”

Andy thought about it, this ton of things. So much she kept to herself and yet barely a moment of doubt ever shown to others. “Yes, but Auntie Celeste you are certainly a marathon runner of sorts. I’d hate to get in your way, would not think of it… I only want to be of help.”

Celeste’s sparse, arched eyebrow’s lifted high as she took in a deep breath. “There really is no helping at this stage, darling, other than being a dear and seeing me from time to time. I can pay for other things to get done, but not the acquisition of kindness, laughter and love. My, doesn’t the rest seem so much nonsense in the end.”

She looked wistfully at her birds, two of which looked back obligingly, perhaps with good will. He wondered if she or they ever wished they could be freed; he certainly would but knew the consequence would be perilous. Like the chimp, they were not meant to be kept indebted to human company.

His throat tightened as he reached for the carafe and a glass, offering her the first one, which she took, drank quickly as she sputtered a bit, then asked for more. She smoothed back her cap of gleaming hair–mostly white but not thinning much, she thought, thank goodness. A touch of vanity was good for the soul on those days when nothing seemed to stay in the right places, anymore. But she did agree that she wasted too much time on vanity as a younger woman. It got her Robert, perhaps, but it wasn’t what kept him. Only patience, appreciation and her natural fire managed to do that. He did take good care of so much. He did have such a fine way with conversation when all was well and she loved his jaunty walk, even when that hip had trouble, the way he tossed his tweedy hats onto the back door coat tree and….

“Andrew, when are you going to find a wife? Or a partner, whatever you might call her?”

“Well, I– I’ve dated quite a few. I might know someone, we will see. But first, we must discuss–”

“Oh yes, I know, the house, this relic of a house, Andrew! Let’s sniff out a prime company or two, it’s been a decade or more, and we’ll entertain the best bids and get on with it. I still have money enough. Well, not perhaps ever enough, but enough, overall. One needs to protect one’s material goods, we are told, whatever they may be. One needs to be smart about getting old–is that even possible? Does it not arrive unexalted as well as uninvited yet demand you give its way? So I must have the painting done, too.”

“And I thought this was my great mission today! What a relief. You are full of surprises.”

He got up and looked out the windows to the garden. The light was shifting, burnishing petals, greenery, all blunt and soft edges. He felt his own smallish garden could use such warm and tender light but he had no time to address those sorts of things. He feared he would fail at it, too. He was better with numbers than sentient things, he believed.

Celeste joined him, hand on his shoulder. “Aren’t I? Of course, you were charged with that duty, your mother thought I would never cave and spend the cash.” She flashed a grin, the tiny overbite lovely in her once-again friendly face.”I might even sell it sometime, who knows? But not yet, not yet.”

Nora rapped on the French door, then stuck her head around. “Done with me for now? I made lemon bars if you’d like them before I go.”

“Yes, please,” Celeste said. “They’re to die for, Andrew!”

“Please don’t say that, Auntie…I can be superstitious.”

She rested her head against his upper arm, then patted his back, moved to the bird-cage to check on the parakeets’ antics. She poked her finger in a cage and a bird nibbled at it.

“Tell me what it is, darling. What it is you mean to say to me.”

For a minute, he thought she was talking to her absurdly adored birds. But no, she could feel it, all that he was carrying.

******

They took the plate Nora brought, thanked her and said farewell, then went outdoors. The garden was cooler and quiet, the humming of insects and chatter from the treetop aviaries softer as the sun slipped down, so they took to the heavy white iron chairs with fluffy green cushions at the koi pond. A miniature waterfall emitted slippery sounds that eased the chronic ache in his mind, that lodged in his shoulders. Everything smelled abundant, sweet in this oasis. He could not imagine Celeste no longer right here; she was the central part, the axis of the wheel he valued deeply.

And so he told her.

“I met a woman in South America almost two years ago.” He stared at the fish, orange-gold and white with black markings. “She works for a company I’ve done much business with and we got to know one another over each week we had together,  here and there.”

He fell silent. How did you tell an elderly aunt who married very well and did most of the right things in life this sort of thing? And yet it was his Auntie Celeste. She had lived through decades, learned much. She was right then looking at him, maybe past him, ready to wait all night. She had that flaring fire, yes, but it also was a flame that burned long and steady.

“Her name is Magdalena. I thought maybe I was falling in love, just a little. Enough to tell her so. But she…had other plans, not including a long-term anything with me.”

The fountain had begun to sound louder, the koi swam under the darkening surface of the pond quite fast now. Andy wanted to take it all back. Celeste stretched out her legs and the kaftan rustled a little.

“She has had a meteoric career, she is VP of…well, anyway, the point is.” He stopped and looked above. Venus was there, sparkling like brand new. Always Venus could be counted on. “The point is, she is not in my life, anymore, not really. It was impossible, the the worst when she left. I had to avoid you awhile. But that isn’t all of it.”

He took in a breath and it was a slow sharp knife that lodged in his heart, all he wanted to say and feared to tell and how it made life harder. How could any sort of love be like this?

A fish tail flipped above surface; the koi ran to the bottom. Light fell across the dark emerald lawn, its veil of dimmer gold changing into slower silvery light resting inside summered air.

“What is the child’s name, Andrew? When do we meet?”

His head fell forward, his hands covered his face. “Oh…!” he said between splayed fingers.

She hummed tunelessly, a new thing she liked. “I’ve been waiting for something. Don’t be afraid. We’ll set things in good motion, it will be alright.”

“How do I set things right when a child is here because of irresponsibility?”

She blew out air between her teeth, making a dismissive sound. “Don’t you think that’s often the case? Or it was when I was of age. No one knew what was smart or best though they thought they knew–life often just happens in ways one never expects.” She shooed away a moth that liked her necklaces. “I had a child once.”

He turned in his chair. “What?”

“I was, after all, the young woman in that photo, Andrew.  Not restrained about living an adventurous life. And I got pregnant. And I didn’t keep it. Her. My mother said the cruel reality of a motherhood would not bring comfort, good fortune or lasting security. That I was too smart and pretty to be a mother yet if at all. So the baby was taken. And a couple of years later I met Robert. But we couldn’t beget children. By then, that child was long gone if not forgotten. This was before birth control was legal, Andrew, don’t look so shocked, girls got pregnant often. Adoption was the solution then. I was not ungrateful. But, too, confounded and fearful, ashamed. But I was very sad later…”

“I never would have guessed. I’m sorry. You never spoke of wanting children. But, then, I never have, either.”

“Sometimes you don’t even know what you need or want until it is there before you. Or gone.”

Her voice had become a whisper and he ached for her as much as for himself. And lately for all the children who had no one or who had someone, then suddenly no one. It was new and too much sometimes, he had no noble words to encompass all such as these.

“Her name is Eva. She is one year old. And I want her with me but I don’t know how to do this, yet.”

“Okay. Me, either.” She turned to him, eyes clear, radiant with energy. “When can Eva come here?”

“Magdalena moved to LA. I might be able to get partial custody. I’m working on it, Auntie Celeste. Will you… can you help me?”

She sighed but it became tremulous laughter. “Look at us, Andrew. We thought we had everything, can you even imagine? But that was not the most of it, not even close. Now comes a miracle. Bring little Eva to me. Of course I will help you and love her!” She smiled at Andy, and touched the large blue jewel at her chest like a brilliant, voluptuous star fallen to earth. “And I have part of an inheritance for her already, right here, saved for this little one.” She crinkled her brow. “Oh, I need a new hammock, a lovely small one!”

He wanted to weep or perhaps giggle but remained in barest control. “You’re the first to know, Auntie. I had so hoped I could count on your generosity of spirit. To be there for me. Thank you… so much.”

Andy rose then bent to hug her but she stood up, too, and they held on as the air grew tender with night greenness. He had to hurry things up. Eva must have time to enjoy this wonderful great-great-auntie and Celeste needed time to properly adore her. But he felt better armed for any fight ahead, quite ready now. For fatherhood, yes, but for all the life that would come next. Still, he pulled away from Celeste to locate the garden hammock. He wanted to lie back, swing at will, take in the grand evening sky.

 

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Roses, Perhaps, in the Morning

DSCN0248
Photo taken in the International Rose Test Gardens by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

(Note: I am inspired this week by roses and their magic. In Portland, we celebrate our annual Rose Festival; it has begun this week. The  Pacific Northwest is entirely hospitable for rose growing and we have the honor of having the International Rose Test Gardens here. The Peace rose is my favorite of all, the name, its beauty and intoxicating fragrance. The story is entirely made up, of course. Enjoy!)

***********************************************

“Let me tell you about the back yard. Something strange is happening there.” Erika held her breath, considering how to begin. But too long a breath, it seemed. She coughed lightly with hand over the receiver.

“You need to get back out there, Mom, shape things up. It’s not like you’re bedridden now, and it used to be your favorite place. My yard is about four by four, made of that terrible, uneven pockmarked brick but you know it works for me. If only there was a fountain, that would make all the difference in reducing traffic noise at night. And give it some charm. My one chair and a fountain. Did I tell you I got really expensive ear plugs? They fit so well I feel deaf with them on. But I can still hear people or raccoons rummaging in garbage and the sirens, let me tell you.”

“It keeps changing. I mean, there is always something I didn’t notice before.”

“The seasons do that, Mom, really, you need to get out more in general, enough of this malaise following that vicious bronchial infection. It lingered so long your body has forgotten how to function on a reasonable basis, you know? Maybe your thinking…Anyway, I checked online for fountains and just need to see them in person, maybe Home Depot?”

Erika could see her daughter sucking on the end of a pen as she corrected students’ papers, one eye on a pot of simmering homemade soup. Multi-tasking, made possible by ear buds used to talk on her phone. Jen would use her feet, too, if she could, to accomplish more. Probably had. She used to clean up clothes from the floor as she sat on her tattered fuchsia armchair while leisurely reading sci fi, lifting items deftly with clenched toes and tossing it onto her bed.

“I woke up to something yellow out there today. Northeast corner. I thought it was gold sunlight flashing through leaves but it wasn’t.”

“Maybe it was Mrs. Rosselini’s canary that got loose.” She emitted her snorting laugh. That bird took off in 1999, when Jen was a kid. Everyone suspected it was Mr. Rossellini, who couldn’t bear its ridiculously cheerful singing as it only sang for his wife. For years people thought they had spotted that bird; they suspected he’d forced its freedom.

“Jen, don’t be ridiculous–that was so long ago. But it wasn’t any bird. It was a pot of lilies.”

“From last year, then? They grow from bulbs, right?”

“Calla lilies, they’re mini calla lilies. Mine are the other sort. Tiger lilies. They’re now opening up, too, it seems.”

“So are you getting out there to check on things, cut the grass, trim the bushes and so on? Or getting Joe Hanes to come by with his push mower? Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that, here. But I am thinking of getting a community garden plot. You should see those, the things people plant and successfully raise! Urban farming, a miracle. I could eat very well from a smallish garden.”

“Yes. Well, no, I’m not out there much and yes, Joe cut the grass last week-end.” Erika gazed across a shadow-splashed street as the creaky porch swing swung to and fro. It made a nice breeze and lifted the hair off her neck. The neighbors’ yards were bountiful with flowers, empty of people. Lights were turning on, soft blurs of life moving between window frames. She closed her eyes and hummed.

Jen found the humming alarming, It was what her mother did when she was spacing out, feeling low. She had been sick so long there was worry that she’d tip into critical illness but it was thankfully only four days in hospital, then back home. Still, four months that upended her usually active life. And Jen lived four hours away, only got to visit three times.

“Mom? The yard–you were saying?”

“Oh, nothing, Jen. The calla lilies have good company in that jungley mess. I’ll let you go now, but try lettuce and a tomato plant to start.”

“Fresh tomatoes…! I do have a ton to get done tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow…” She snorted again. So much to do, so much life to live, a surfeit of activities and goals–how could she complain? She would not, not to her mother, at least not yet. “You’ll call if you need me to come see you sooner than end of the month?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, good, such a relief. Love you.”

“Love back. Good night, dear.”

Erika left the front porch, walked around to the back yard’s fence with gate and unlatched it. In the corner sat a large green pot of sunny mini calla lilies. Gingerly, as if her footsteps might jar the earth and disturb the plants, she moved closer, then knelt to look them over. She pinched a stem to assure herself they weren’t fake. The blossoms glowed in the opalescent air of a mild June evening. She had no idea how they got there. She felt her yard was not quite her own this year, that her neglect had taken it out of her hands. It unnerved her enough that she sneezed three times then coughed, so left the outdoors to its own devices. Whatever those might be.

*******

“Fran? Sorry to bother you but I know you’re usually awake late…”

“Erika, that you? It’s 2 a.m. Insomnia again?” She patted her mound of unruly hair as if they were face- to-face. She could now be seen without warning–all this technology.

“I heard something outdoors.”

“Did you call Joe and ask him to bring his hatchet? Probably nasty raccoons again, he’ll make good work of them.”

“What a friend–you are too awful! I don’t want to disturb him this time of night. I went downstairs with both big flashlights. Looked out the back door. Nothing. I checked all the locks again. But it gave me a chill. I should make some chamomile tea.”

“Naw, get your book and start reading, You’ll be asleep before you know it.”

“That doesn’t work for you.”

“Nothing works for me but the serious will to sleep four fair hours or so a night.” She yawned. “The callas still shining out there?”

“Where else would they be? Sneaking off to the next yard?”

“You never know.” Fran reached for her tablet, switched it on. “We could watch a movie together. What your pick?”

Erika fell silent and leaned back on two pillows. Listened hard. Nothing to speak of but the chimes swaying in a gust, sonorous tones soothing to her tense mind. She was too tired to keep this up so hoped the raccoons visited Fran or Joe a couple nights for a change. She hummed a corny love song to calm herself.

“Erika? You humming?”

“I don’t want to watch a movie until 3, but thanks for your friendly offer. I want to sleep a deep blessed sleep. I want my back yard to stay the same until I get back to it.”

“Those calla lilies–I bet someone wanted to get rid of them so dumped the pot at your place when you were out. Say, Carol Whitaker? She usually puts her puny plants at the curb. She could start an entire nursery with her rejects.”

“A whole sad nursery of rejects, yeah. Poor Carol, she tries hard but her thumb is nowhere near green.”

They both laughed and Erika felt relief at last. She also felt Fran winding up, ready to talk gardening tall tales and she just wasn’t up for it. She didn’t even want to think about her garden yet. Couldn’t it just rest this year? Like her, take a leisurely summer break? She still felt so weary.

“It’s so good to hear you in more fighting form again, Erika. Let’s get back to our hikes this summer.”

“Well, wait–in time. Right now I want to sleep off the remains of this day. That worthless conversation with Jen.”

“Oh, Jen and her intentions. She’s got a good life.  But keep your phone bedside–you can call any time.”

“I know, my friend. Happy movie watching.”

She turned out a bedside lamp with the crafty pressed-flower shade. Lowered her eyelids. She just hadn’t recovered fully, her mind was jumpy after feeling so powerless, felled by illness last part of winter and into the spring. Turning over, she pulled the white coverlet up to her ears, then up to her forehead and dropped off into an abyss of fretful dreaming.

******

She shaded her eyes against sudden revelation of sunshine. When she’d risen, the air was moist and thickened with fogginess. Two mugs of strong coffee later, her mind and the sky were much clearer. Her tricky neck ached and she rubbed it with both hands, then stepped onto the stoop and descended steps into the back yard.

Then stumbled backwards.

There was a small palm tree in the northwest corner, its big spiky leaves greeting her, the fuzzy trunk straight and strong in a huge clay pot. Astonished but curious, she went to it. She had never observed a palm up close; how funny yet attractive it was. How out of place in this Northwest habitat. Unasked for and alien on her property. And how did this get to be in her yard? Who entered without her permission?

That was what she had heard last night. She felt her heart drum hard as she walked about the grassy perimeter. The latch on the gate, that was the little sound. Yet no one and nothing was out of the norm when she’d swept the brilliant beam of her flashlight over each bush, tree and plant the night before. There was without a doubt an intruder hiding from her, that was the issue beyond an undesired palm and surprise calla lilies. She’d install a sturdier lock on the gate today; she’d always left it open but no more. She’d have motion detection lights installed on the house. All these years living in an established neighborhood that was unremarkable, just friendly and quiet. Now this–this felonious trespasser!

Had he or she taken anything? She canvassed the area carefully, found nothing altered. Just a palm tree and lilies. What next? She ate a rushed breakfast and dressed and was almost out the door when Fran called.

“I thought I’d better check on you, make sure you are still with us! You sure were nervous last night.”

“Well, I was left another unwanted gift and I’ve had enough.”

“What? Something good, I hope.”

“Fran, it isn’t funny. I got up this morning hoping for the best and there it was– a damned useless palm tree!–a real California palm! Well, I think.”

Fran chortled as she lounged in a fluffy robe on her porch around the corner. She could just picture Erika–stern-faced, brushed out and dressed well as always, confronting that errant palm tree.

Erika held the phone away from her ear, looked at it with serious impatience. When Fran caught her breath, she said, “I have to see it.”

“I’m putting it out n the street. A firm message to the intruder.”

“No–they cost too much to set it out like ole Carol does! Just wait in that. I’ll take it if you have to dump it. But why not just see what’s next? I mean, this is not plant thief, Erika, it’s a plant giver! Someone who maybe even cares!”

But Erika took off for the hardware store to get a good lock for her gate and to inquire about flood light systems. She was going to catch this planter person, an invisible trespasser, and get things back to normal.

******

“A palm tree? That’s wild, Mom–though they do make hardy ones that do alright here. Why not plant it?”

“Oh my gosh, you, too. I don’t want the stupid tree. I don’t want the flowers. They aren’t mine, they don’t belong and someone is sneaking into my yard! Doesn’t that worry you a little?”

“I think it’s kind of cool. I might even defend the culprit. How exciting, a bona fide mystery!” She paused. “Mom? If you’re scared, call Joe next door tonight. He’s getting a bit decrepit but he’s a good neighbor, he’ll give you back up.”

Erika moaned–Joe could barely push the mower around– and mumbled a hasty goodbye. She found her gardening gloves and visor and bucket of gardening tools, then set to work in the yard. It was high time. She’d get weeding done and see what she had to do to salvage her once-beloved refuge. And dump those calla lilies– and drag that crazy palm tree to the curb. If she could move it after all the weeding, and if she had breath left that didn’t trigger new wheezing.

******

It was 1:07 when Erika’s eyes flew open. She knew she was not alone when the back of her sore neck tingled and hairs on her forearms stood up. She picked up the heavy duty flashlight and her cell phone. She did not switch on the light yet but peered between the muslin curtains of her window into the quasi-dark yard. A three-quarter moon cast a cool, clean glow across thick grass and huddled bushes.

The gate was closed but that meant nothing to her. Erika stilled herself, waited. Instinct dictated  she not barge out the back door but listen, feel things out, see what moved, what else was different. She wet her dry lips and tried to tune in. There it was. A rustle of a bush, ever so slight but where exactly? Were those footsteps?–were they of  man or beast?

She yanked on jeans and a hoodie, opened her bedroom door, slunk to the kitchen where the back door led to the stoop. She studied her faintly lit phone, with shaking fingers found the keypad, ready to call 911 when there came another sound, soft but unmistakable, a guttural clearing of a throat. She pressed back against the door, braced her feet. And froze.

She could hear the soft grating sound of metal against dirt and stones, like someone was digging up a part of her yard. That did it. She unbolted the door, rushed out, the torch beam bouncing its glare off every nook and cranny. And then off a face, then hands held high and in one of those hands was what appeared to be a rose bush. Pink and yellow roses. The person stood next to a small hole in the ground.

‘Stop where you are, you are illegally on my property and I’m calling the police right now!”

“Wait, wait! It’s me, Erika!”

“Who would even dare do all this? Speak your name now or I’m dialing the cops!”

“It’s just Antony, your old neighbor! Antony Rossellini!”

He was beating his chest now with smudgy hands, advancing toward her, dark eyes wide and desperate. She wanted to believe he was telling the truth. It was Antony, alright, in worn overalls that hung from his wiry frame over a dark t-shirt, with his Padres baseball cap and rubber flip flops slapping against his heels with eqch tentative step forward.

“Antony! What on earth…?” She aimed the beam downward so they could both see better as they met up in the middle of her yard. The one he was not supposed to be in whatever and not in the middle of night.

He wiped his perspiring forehead with a dirty palm and it left a streak so he took off his cap and used a forearm to wipe again, then smashed down his thick, damp salt and pepper hair. grooming in the midst of madness. Trying to present himself as less than trespasser, more as foolish but harmless neighbor.

“I don’t rightly know how to explain, Erika. I was just seized by this idea of doing something anonymously…of making things nicer. I sure didn’t meant to upset you…”

He shrank away from her with embarrassment, hung his head with hat in hand, and went mute.

Erika considered this man she had known for about twenty years now. He was older or perhaps only seemed older in his manner, and had been married to a woman who shuffled about as though she carried a hard burden, which she had, being a refugee from Cambodia. Then she died of cancer not long after Erika’s divorce, when Jen was fifteen. he lived down the street from her house; they had chatted in passing, during summer block parties. But when she had died Erika taken him fresh bread and her homemade strawberry jam. Had sat awhile with him. He’d seemed quite nice even after that but a man to himself, working long hours as a manufacturing manager. Keeping a tidy yard with its blossoms bright and abundant.

“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” she asked.

“They’re Peace roses, Erika! My favorite. Tea? Well. Sure.”

******

The two mugs steamed so they blew on it, sitting across from each other at the breakfast nook. She realized she had never had him in her house before. Very few neighbors, come to think of it. Now that she worked part time–not her own choice, a downsizing of sorts at the health clinic–she had become more aware of her neighbors comings and goings. But she rarely saw him out and about and heard little about him. Nothing had likely changed for years. Or she imagined.

“I wanted to do something nice for you,” he repeated. “I knew you had been ill–we all learn of each others’ crises sooner or later on this block– and I know you love yard work. I got this idea of a surprise. I didn’t want any thanks or refusal, not anything.” He toyed with his cap, his voice nearly a whisper. “You were so kind when Channay died. Not just your great bread and jam but your hug and words.”

“My words?”

“You just said: ‘I’m sorry. You were good to her; she will always love you. I’ll say a prayer for you.'” He looked at her with far-off eyes. “I believed you; it felt genuine for a change. You know some people just do things out of courtesy. So it sure helped me.”

“So little to do, really, Antony.”

She recalled sitting with him, making a small pot of coffee in his overloaded, messy kitchen, cutting bread for him and spreading a piece with jam. He had left it on the plate but sipped the coffee while she did hers. They had talked about nothing much, winter rains, their yards flooding, when Channay’s service was to be, her nearly non-existent family–long ago murdered by Pol Pot’s regime. They had just sat and listened to the storm beat upon the roof, the wind rattling branches like bones. He lit an amber candle, saying it reminded him of her. After a half hour or more she had left him to himself, and much later they chatted amiably now and then. She had wondered, though, how he had managed afterwards. If the smile given her way was mere civility as he’d said if others or if he did feel happier again. If he maybe felt friendly towards her. But time was packed with pressures and needs and years passed.

“No, it’s never too little to be considerate. And I never got over to see if I could help out when I knew you were so ill. So, one day a couple weeks ago I thought how you love your yard and garden. I decided to just add a couple new plants–for variety, I guess. But I didn’t want any thanks or issues, you know, I didn’t want you to think…anyway, it was impulsive of me, I know that. Foolish!”

Erika sighed, took a drink as did he. “Impulsive, yes. Unusual, I would say! But not really foolish. I think it’s good of you to think of cheering me up, of helping me out. In fact, I could really use someone to help me weed and plant anew… I am way behind.”

His black and white eyebrows lifted and his eyes sparked with hope. “Easy deal. To make up for my errors.”

She lifted her mug to his. “How about to starting a proper friendship?”

He clinked his mug against hers. They shared a smile, relaxed, congenial.

“I guess I should go, though. It’s late.”

“It is. Hey, thanks for those roses…”

“I’ll come back, alright? Properly plant the bush tomorrow evening if you’d like.”

“Please come to the front door this time, and before so late.”

He gave a quiet laugh that was almost a sigh of relief, waved good bye at the door. Erika locked it behind him, then laid her hand  on it a moment.

******

Jen called on her lunch hour.

“Mom, did your intruder leave anything new?”

“Not exactly, a few tracks in the dirt and palm and lilies remain. We’ll see what happens from here on out.”

“Well, that’s it? All the fun has ended just like that? Rather sad.”

“Yes, I guess. What are you up to, dear?”

Erika called Fran after she lay awake well past 1:00, thinking of pros and cons to beginning a friendship with an older man, a widower who loved gardens but had also gate-crashed her life. Maybe in the best possible way.

“Are you waiting for more shenanigans?”

“You could say that.”

“Ah. Wait, what do you mean, Erika? Out with it.”

“It was Antony.”

“Antony Rossellini? He left the lilies and palm? Oh, my. What is that about, do you think?”

“Not sure. Guess I’ll find out. He said he had a kindly impulse…”

“Huh! Kind of weird, but downright intriguing.”

Erika checked beyond the open window after she hung up. She looked for a sign of something but there was none she could find so she lay down, rolled over, resigned to a return to normal and stared hard at her blank blue wall. There was a swell of silence in her house, waves of it, and she had begun to drown in it the past winter. Sickness makes some things more obvious. It stripped things down to the truth. She felt cleaner and edged toward freedom even now, slowly resurrecting a more goodly life. But she occupied these roomy spaces that were most often constrained by daily continuity and predictability. Time shaped by common tasks and expected comforts– and a forgetting of the extraordinary. As she watched shadows knit themselves along tiny cracks and in corners, she became drowsy, let herself give in to rest but she w wondered over what her life might become–and what was too late to search for and find.

Then from a distance she heard the metallic jostling, a small rustling of leaves or pant legs, perhaps the sound of the latch being jimmied and a man stealing across her yard. She pressed eyelids tightly closed, hugged herself: Peace roses, perhaps, come the morning.

 

 

The Other Side of Things

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“Peter Barron, over here! It’s Mitch! How’re you doing, buddy?’

I didn’t slow my pace or look over my shoulder. He wasn’t talking to me, after all, despite what he thought. He was hoping to have a chat and to share his latest news, maybe finagle sharing a coffee, even, before heading to his elegant or cozy (maybe both) home. I didn’t know a Mitch. I knew Mick and Corey, Dante, Artie and TK. No Mitchell/Mitch, who likely hung out with a Laurence, Carter or Theo.

I could hear his shoes slapping the sidewalk, picking up speed. He was not going to let Peter Barron go without at least a brief and pleasant exchange. I followed the right-curving walkway of the park. This was the longest way to the creek, so he might give up if he was headed to work.

But I felt the tap on my shoulder and turned my head to look at Mitch, not varying my pace. He fell in step.

“Peter, it’s been a few years!  Mitchell Howe from the Key Club, we used to share a table now and then? Knew it was you, haven’t changed, well, so much, but you may not recognize me what with the balding and all…”

I down shifted my stride to give him a laser focused look for about five seconds, one that would erase the image he carried in his head and replace it with the view in front of him. Predictably, his forehead crinkled and he faltered, then stopped.

“You’re not Peter. No, well, I’m sorry, buddy. Pretty embarrassing, but you look just like–I mean, you could be his twin!”

“Right, it happens. Don’t worry about it.” With a curt nod of my head, I kept going.

I thought that was it when he called out, exasperation emphasizing his words. “Julian! I should have figured out it was you!”

And finally, that was all. I’d gotten away with no major fall-out for once. Hadn’t had to explain a thing or tell him I didn’t rally know about Peter’s life or no, I didn’t have his data to give out. Sometimes the person asked how I was doing but it was barely even cursory, a waste of words and air.

I found the creek where it always had been, along the edge of the wooded park, and found an empty bench. It was three o’clock according to the church bell–that booming, automated ring tone. I had a few minutes to spare.

Why did Mitch think he should have known it was me? I had no recollection of him but that wasn’t too strange. I knew very few people here. What gave me away in his reconsideration? Or was it just my similarity to Peter while I was not him? Simplest deduction, then. But I toyed with the possibilities. It might have been my height at nearly six four. It might have been the very slight limp that arose without warning. Or maybe my dirty blond hair is longer, that was likely, I didn’t make regular stops at the barber these days. Or maybe it was how I hunch my shoulders when someone I don’t know calls out to me–I prefer to fold up some, even disappear. Or my eyes when I stared at him, wintry blue and a little slanted, smallish. Or as my mother always said, wolfish–despite a reminding her wolves eyes are not blue.

I cited her genes, not my father’s–his eyes were like his brother’s, ordinary, light brown. My Uncle Albert, the chain store owner of Barron’s Appliance and Electronics. Peter Barron’s father. Peter and me, you see, we’re first cousins. Dad has had his own thing going with three stores, Barron’s Footwear. Businessmen.

I suppose I have been, too, but it all went down wrong. I have zero going right now. Peter, though, he’s a man of the cloth. Who knew? But it makes some sense to me.  He was thoughtful and good in a way many couldn’t quite muster much less sustain.

******

We grew up two blocks from each other. We were born barely a year apart. My mom and Aunt Lydia were thick as can be while their husbands, the brothers, got along sporadically. There was always some family gathering, and sometimes it was good and easy if boisterous and other times it was all drama, a few hours tied up and split apart by disagreements between Dad and Uncle Albert. Peter and I sneaked off any way it went, sooner or later. It was better to not be in the line of fire or radar-like watchfulness of the mothers. There was the back yard with its fruit trees at our house or at his, there were layers of flowers, bushed and trees with a centrally located pool and a comfortable pool house. We easily found something else to do and sometimes had to elude Karissa and Jeanette, our other cousins, the first one being my younger  sister and the second, his.

It was like the mothers planned it all, their kids close to the same ages and one of each gender, husbands in business. Aunt Laura came from the south, all those stretched, rounded vowels and charming ways, while Mom was no-nonsense and straight to the point. It worked for them and impacted our lives differently. Peter from the start was more naturally academic, halfway refined by the time he was ten. I did fine at school out of desire to keep my parents calm and was resistant to develop gentlemanly comportment. He liked to explore and push the limits some but he didn’t dare get caught, that was the thing that guided his every move. Whereas I had less concern about it if the activity got my adrenaline going and there was some sort of pay off, like we got to see horror movies that our neighbor watched after we climbed the fence and bribed their dog with hot dogs or pretzels if he was out. We’d watch through their back family room window until the dog demanded more and more food.

But as time went by, I was looking for more things to get into and Peter was backing off. We still talked after school and rode dirt bikes in summer. I swam at his house often and we had a few parties together. We stayed at each other’s houses every now and then and stayed up late eating junk food and comparing notes on girls we hoped to date some day.

But by the ninth grade we  had less time for each other. He was eager to play team sports, baseball especially, and played trumpet in the band. I’d watch him play ball but I gravitated to skateboarding and off-road biking and backpacking in the mountains. The one time he saw me at the skate park he cheered me on but after we kicked at the dirt and threw rocks into the trees; we just had too little to say. So when I had some trouble after lifting a couple of packs of smokes, a bag of chips and a soda at the corner store, things turned for good. I got taken down to jail and booked and stayed 24 hours in miserable quarters before my dad paid them off and got me, entirely infuriated. It didn’t end there, of course, but my fine and community service work weren’t tough.

When Peter came over and confronted me about it, not wanting to believe the rampant gossip that I was suddenly a juvenile delinquent, I started to deny things then shrugged, backed away. I’d had enough verbal flogging from the parents, privileges taken. After that, he gave me a worthwhile punch in the chest  and I smacked his head, then shoved him hard enough that he fell backwards with a thud.

As he scrambled up, he shouted,”Why, Julian? You’re not that person, not some mean idiot!”

I sat under a crab apple tree and oscillated between tears and cold anger. I didn’t know why I did it but it wasn’t all that terrible, was it? It had something to do with seeing how far I could go, getting something for nothing, outsmarting others, feeling energized by the risks–all the wrong stuff to feel, part of me intoned. I felt confused. But intrigued even more; the other part tugged at me.

The next day we eyed each other in school hallways like once-loyal co-conspirators or old buddy neighborhood dogs who could not or would not any longer leap over the wide ravine to even say hello. I quietly growled at him when I ran into him after that and he just shook his head, eyes flitting over my face, seeming almost amused–or disgusted, I wasn’t sure. I resolved to check my impulses and do things better and it was partly because I knew Peter knew I could do better. And my parents were on me, as was everyone.

Kids used to mistake us all the time for years but by then, we were so different in attitude and style that it happened less. I secretly missed that, and I suspected even Peter did, as it had been part of who we had always been, almost twins, cousins more like brothers who had been best friends.

I had more trouble, though. Trespassing on the golf course grounds after midnight while drunk on vodka, causing turf damage with my golf clubs. But all in all, I minded my own business, made a few friends my parents looked askance at and got my homework done. I unfortunately wrecked my car–bought with my own money after three summers working at the stores–when drag racing, a favorite hobby, on a country road. But in the end we both graduated, me by the skin of my teeth and Peter, of course, with honors and awards. He deserved it all. He was still my cousin and a decent guy. That was the last time I saw him, at a joint party our parents threw at his place. That was a hugely successful event with some wild and sad stories but, then, isn’t that what those parties are about in the first place? Farewell with a big bang for memories? But my parents and Aunt Lydia and Uncle Albert were full of generosity and good nature: we’d both (me, more or less) navigated a few rites of passage by eighteen.

Peter and I ended up hanging out as people left, horsed around in the pool almost like old times. We had survived those adolescent years and so, we moved on, he to a top university.

We still looked very like each other, though I was nearly three inches taller, and yet he was undeniably Peter and I was, of course, strictly Julian or “J” to my good friends.

******

I met Artie a year or so later at his old man’s body shop since I often had need of work on my older trucks, more often on my very fast Mustang. I had finished community college and gone on to work in residential construction and remodeling, All that work on interesting houses gave me a desire to buy my own small place and the move in with Bella, the woman I had vowed to marry–some day. Being impatient by nature, I kept coming up with mad schemes that would pay off well and faster.

“No need to think so hard about it,” Artie said as I admired the work he  had done on my Mustang once more, “you just need to join the crew I’ve got going and we’ll get you all set, man.”

“What do you mean?” I was only half-listening as I leaned against the building. Artie said things that skirted the edges of ludicrous sometimes so I usually nodded my head, then went my way.

“Why not come over tonight and I’ll explain it then. You can make some big money, that’s all you need to think over.”

“Sure,” I said, curious more than believing he had any insight into making money other than fixing cars up, a good skill but limited in profits as his father owned the shop and took a big cut.

“Eight tonight.”

He gave me a look that presaged things I could not imagine. I felt it in my spine, a shift of energies, fear and excitement and fascination all mixed together. I took the Mustang out on side roads and ran it hard. It held up good as ever but soon it would be gone.

******

The creek was flowing fast and soothed me. I shifted on the bench under the emerald density of trees. My hip hurt as it had for years since the near-catastrophic car accident when it had been broken. But the hurt had developed into a dark ache that had tunneled deeper the last few. I knew it was the rude bed and damp, chilled conditions of the prison that had housed me for eight. Grand larceny. And before that, petit larcenies, incarcerated one year and then another. I had gotten out two months ago and had so far made no dent in the job hunt. No big surprise.

I was staying at the parent’s house, in the apartment above the three car garage. But only just. Mom wanted me there and Dad did not. There were discussions that ended up sizzling and there were silences that held fast for days. Except for Mom I would have left, slept on the street. She was so glad to see me and wanted me to talk to her, “to recover from hell” as she put it, and then to move on toward the Good Life. Dad just wanted me to move on and out-of-town and maybe come back when I had changed identities if possible, or at least started to live decently again. I felt myself leaning more toward his viewpoint every passing day. I had much to recoup, and their tolerance, their tentaive kindness was half-real, half a fluke, I thought.

I picked up a twig at my feet, tossed it with an easy swing of my arm so that it made a tiny plop, spun and disappeared. It was spring already, I mused. It felt overwhelming sometimes, all those scents and colors and sounds, the many moving parts and bodies both human and otherwise. Everything was no longer what I knew. To think that this was what I had yearned for and here I was, finally. Yet I was not at all convinced I could even live a life like this, in the open world.

“Julian.”

I twisted around at the sound of his voice, rose up to face him.

“Peter.”

“So long since that crazy pool party, huh?…”

He looked himself, older but not poorly, face made more interesting by creases around his mouth and at the edges of his eyes. He had the white band of collar on, he was really an Episcopal priest, but he quickly undid it then removed it and put it in a pocket. Peter offered his hand which I took. Then we caught each other into a bear hug, brief but strong. I pushed back the pain of time lost. I was certain I looked haggard, honed down to basics.

When we sat down, we were quiet. It felt surprisingly alright. Just the creek and  trees swishing in the warm wind and robins adding to a soundtrack of nature in the city with their brash and welcoming song.

“Where do I even begin, cousin?” I asked, voice almost swallowed up in the words.

“How about starting with right now? That’s all we’ve ever got, my brother. And we already know who we truly are, maybe the only ones who can say that of us both.”

I shut my eyes and saw only a soft blur of light behind my eyelids, not bars cutting it into narrow pieces. When I opened them he was smiling his crooked smile at me.

“You may have that right. And I’ve had time to think over my place in the universe, you know. Not sure it’s in this town but today it seems to be.”

Peter bent to dig two medium hefty, irregular rocks from the damp soil. He gave one to me. We threw them to the other side of the exuberant creek, mine missing a squirrel before resting on a grassy knoll, his hitting a tree branch and landing near mine, and it all felt better than anything had in a long, long while.