Castoffs

Every morning they are already on the train and if I haven’t had my two cups of black coffee to wake me up, I find myself sitting across the aisle from them by default. I try to avoid them because I don’t think much of the dog.

It’s a couple in their sixties or more plus their dog. The woman wears those glasses that change with light conditions, big black frames. I like her purple bag. The man wears glasses, too, and somehow he looks like he has had good jobs. He always has that brown hat and leather jacket on. Their yipping, scrappy mongrel dog acts energized and whiney if I look at it very long. I want to say it’s a boy, I don’t know why, females can be scrappy, too–I’m one of them. The four-legged is maybe a terrier mix. My Great-uncle Ken had one once. I never liked it; it’s fur got knotted and it smelled bad like he did. It was too friendly, if you know what I mean, I had to give him a push, kick him away. Uncle Ken would laugh then pick him up then like he was the most adorable kid who did a cute trick.

So maybe that’s why I took an instant if minor dislike at the start. The couple is okay, chats to themselves very little; the woman hugs the little beast. I wonder when it will get kicked off the train. When has it been okay to bring animals onto public transit? No one looks blind, no one seems out of it. But she dotes on it more than necessary so I guess it’s her dog, a creature who helps people who’ve got trouble out in the world. A mental health dog. She mumbles to it at times, poor old gal.

I suppose you can say I was one of those people, though. That is, I got into trouble for years, used to make wrong decisions, not the reasonable ones. Like stealing stuff I could sell and hanging out with older criminal types and driving without a license and getting into a fight here and there.  But after a long vacation in “juvie”, that was enough. Now I’m twenty-two, go to work every day cleaning an old, once-fancy apartment building with thirty large units, thanks to my cousin’s friend who manages it. I don’t mind being paid to clean as I’m an orderly and clean-cut person now, you couldn’t spot me as anything else unless you were savvy. Anyway, I like to leave things better than when I arrive. One week-ends there are a few offices to clean. I make ends meet, barely, and live in a studio apartment twenty blocks from work.

One morning this dog lady and her husband or boyfriend, they’re directly across from me. I have a headache and don’t want that dog near me. But there’s nowhere else to sit so I plop down with a canvas bag full of my own special cleaning aids. The lady looks up, big eyes startled, as if I look weird or she recalled something serious or had sudden pain. And she hangs on tight to the dog who has gotten an interest in the bag I just dropped. I have a bologna sandwich in a paper bag in there, too, so pull it onto my lap.

The hungry pooch settles down a bit. The man glances my way, stares through me as if he is thinking hard and the woman follows his gaze. I look away, turn my body a bit, but when I look back she is still gazing at me. I tend to get a little paranoid. Do I know them from the past? Did I steal something of theirs? I doubt that’s the reason she’s looking at me, that was five years ago, but ignore her as usual without much luck.

“You a cleaner?” she asks, eying the bag which has a spray bottle or two sticking out.

Her voice sounds rusty and quiet; her eyes stay with my bag, her dog squirmy. I nod, look out a window.

“We got a place you could clean. We pay decent. See you here all the time, you seem okay.”

Her husband looks at me then, checking me out. I stare back, give a hint of smile, an acknowledgment.

“I’m pretty busy, thanks, though.”

The lady shakes her head, that bleached blond hair bouncing a bit. “Shame. We need somebody.” She hugs the dog.

But the man sits forward, leans forearms on his bony thighs. “I have a store. Pawn shop. Too dusty these days but the old help I had to fire, stole things.” His language sounds distinctive, like he was raised elsewhere and can’t shake the accent.

My head involuntarily turns to him and I try to be nicer “I’m sorry.”

He nods, slumps back, puts an arm around his lady. I’m surprised to see him act fond of her as she gives more attention to that half-cute, half-annoying dog than to him. It yaps at me but not meanly. I get off the next stop.

******

I think about the pawn shop all week. I like to collect things. Legitimately now. A powerful draw to a store full of odds and ends, of old stuff and junk. It must be good if they are still running it at their ages. But I’m busy already, tired of cleaning by Saturday.

One night I wake up and lie there in pitch black. I have been dreaming of a dog trotting and prancing about, and then I’m trying to catch him, rushing past aisles of towering shelves that teeter and fall about us as we start to run toward the exit, his tail disappearing out the bright door. He barks with joy; he does not attack my legs.

It is a sign of something.

******

This time I look for them. It takes me a couple of minutes to spot them down the way and find a small space to sit. They glance my way, say nothing. I don’t want to jumpstart a conversation when they got the message I wasn’t interested, but I’d like info, anyway.

“Hey, morning.”

The lady looks disinterested but politely. The dog is snoozing or pretending on her big lap.

“Do I have to apply for it? I might get a day free now and again.”

The man turns; the lady smiles down at her dog.

He says, “You could stop by tonight at five and fill out an application if you want. But we need someone soon and more than now and then…There’s a guy, he might take it.”

“Oh.” I think that over. “Okay, give me the address.”

It’s not so far from the apartment building I clean, two stops after mine. I try to recall if I have seen it but don’t think  so.

The lady pipes up. “Nice you’re thinking it over. You never know.”  She let the dog down. It was on a leash but manages to sniff my boots all over then sits up tall, looking me over. “That’s Kristoff.  He’s five.”

“Okay, so I’m Jamie Marsh,” I say.

“Cheslav and Mel Krakov. ”

We relax a little as if relieved for that much to be over.

“Our store is Cheslav’s Castoffs.”

How corny, I think, but my stop is coming up and I stand. “Later, then.”

******

From the outside it looks sort of haunted, mysterious, a set for a Hitchcock movie, all that heavy grey stone so darkly wet now it is raining. A small gargoyle above the door. There are offices in the stories above, and at least their rooms look brighter. The store front windows are a jumble of objects arrayed on too-dark flowing cloth. Dusty looking. Immediately I think how it can be more eye-catching and I am unbalanced by eagerness. I’m just a cleaning woman and a good one.

I pull open the black metal door and a jangling bell rings. Kristoff runs forward, tail wagging, then sits with tongue out and waits. His face looks happy, like he’s had a good day. I feel like talking to him, not his humans, but of course say nothing. The low lighting casts a somber sheen on the tables and shelves full of shadowy items, and a display of shined up musical instruments and a pieces of furniture that look worth something.

“So, you came,” Cheslav strides forward, hand extended.

I shake it. I hadn’t suspected he had such energy, while Mel takes halting steps behind him. She has a paper in her hand that I am to fill out, which I do while sitting on a stool at a black metal cafe table in one corner. Afterwards, they take me on a quick tour. I am shocked that it looks a lot like it did in my dream, but aging pawn or junk shops just look this way, I realize: groaning with tools to watches and clocks to inlaid or otherwise exotic boxes to fancy lamps to roll top desks to a couple old-fashioned phones to brass candlesticks to glass bowls to…. I feel dizzy looking up, it’s not organized in any way that makes sense to me. Lots of hidden corners behind shelving, high ceilings rather cobwebby and making me sneeze several times. Mel hands me a tissue and also blows her own nose.

“What do you think?” she asks, wiping her nose dry. “Do you find it interesting, Jamie? Like odd stuff?”

I feel myself starting to shrug but that’s my old way so I offer, “I think I do.”

“Good, then we’ll check out the application,” Cheslav chimes in.

“Why bother?” Mel picks up Kristoff, who has been following us everywhere. “That other guy never came, after all,” she says glancing at me. “When would you start, say, once or twice a week at first?”

“What do you pay?”

Cheslav walks over to the front counter as I look at the sparkly earrings in the glass case between us. “What do you need?”

“Eighteen an hour, at least six hours a day, Saturday and Sunday. Your place needs a lot of help and I work hard.”

Cheslav rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll get back to you.”

Mel walks me to the door, fuzzy dog in her arms but reaching to lick my hand as I grab a door handle. “It’ll work out. Kristoff likes you.”

When Mel truly smiles her whole face changes, beams. I like how that happens, though clearly she doesn’t feel all that well with bum legs.

******

So, my adult work record and personal recommendations (a cousin and a friend of his) satisfies them and soon I work there every week-end. My friend Louise says I’m nuts, the offices are less taxing and more money if I work overtime. But they’re boring and Cheslav’s Castoffs is not, I tell her. Which is better, a good environment or just money? She doesn’t argue; she cleans bathrooms and more at two big gyms and a massage joint.

When I get done with the cleaning which is never-ending, really, taxing and requires me to wear a respirator, I start to order things a bit. Front windows are first. I find and shake out some bright red and yellow fabrics to replace the dirty velveteen cloths. I clean up and better situate fine tea sets and a violin, trumpets and two kinds of flutes and elegant vases with fake flowers and plants (need to talk to them about trying out real flowers now and then) and so on. I worry that I am too aggressive in my desire to fix up the appearance but after they tentatively agree, Cheslav and Mel take turns strolling by, checking things out yet say little after two weeks. I keep at it.

Kristoff finds me a few times a day though Mel calls after him. I don’t want to get too friendly, he’s her prized possession, I get it so I just acknowledge him with a short pat on his little head, let him look over my work, too. He likes the giant feather duster I use so I have to watch that but avoids the cleaners so it is okay, overall. I like his pep.

I begin to feel at home there, with the customers who notice me as they leave with their money or something they like. All sorts of strange things come in–embellished saddle for a small pony, a drum kit that has been bashed half to bits, a groups of so-called Native American rings that Cheslav insists are fake turquoise and what is the woman trying to pull? I steal looks at them, some from sketchy places and some from uptown, some desperate and others just passing time. But most often I’m cleaning, polishing, rearranging. And I find that although I admire most of the objects, I am not the least bit interested in pilfering them. I oddly like my work more, just being there.

After six weeks, Mel and Cheslav corner me by the five grandfather clocks.

“How is it going for you now? You’re pretty good.” Cheslav says this as if moderately interested and being nice.

“Do you like it enough to work here full-time?” Mel gets straight to the point, one hand holding the small of her sore back, lined face excited. Kindly.

“Going good. And yes.” I’m as surprised as they by my easy response. But I’d far rather be here than cleaning apartments. “Can you afford me, though? I have bills, you know, and my studio isn’t so cheap.”

“We have a house with much room–” She clutches Kristoff tightly and he yelps.

Cheslav takes the dog from her carefully, sets him down so he could explore. “We pay you well enough, Jamie, and if things work out well, we’ll talk more.”

“Give me two weeks to hand in notices.”

At closing time about three weeks later, Cheslav finds me in the kitchenette where we took breaks and ate lunch.

“I want to tell you something. So you understand things.”

I respect him and I like to hear his accent–faintly Russian– but I feel a frisson of fear. He is going to get personal about things. I hate personal in general. Can’t we just be a good employee and two good employers and call it good?

“Mel has slowly changed since you came. She had two hip surgeries and didn’t much want to get back to the store. But I won’t yet retire. And when our son was killed last year…”

“Oh.”

“A war correspondent. Afghanistan.” His right fingers and thumb press closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“He was so good in every way. But he paid the price of such work. Our Kristoff…blasted away at forty-five.”

A chill runs through me; I feel a little sick. I don’t know what to say, how to comfort an old man, a father. The dog creeps up to my ankles, panting as if he’s made a last round of the store and is reporting in.

“Kristoff…” I pick up the dog. He licks me on nose and cheek before I can fend him off.

Cheslav gets a hold of himself. “Glad we found each other, Jamie, hope you can stick around.” He gave her a rare gap-toothed grin, then waved at his wife. “Here she comes. Don’t say anything, eh? Things take their time.”

“There you are, Kristoff! Found a new buddy, have you? Such a fine dog you are.” She takes him gently, pulls him close. “Another day comes, another goes, Jamie. Time to get home and rest.”

I turn away. I’m not ready to feel all this, I’m only a grown up delinquent who became a good cleaning woman to survive, and I’m grateful for this curious job. And they find me more than acceptable. That simple realization settling in my head is priceless.

 

Perils and Pleasures of This Kind Devotion

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Kayla’s life was upended when Great-Aunt Bertie fractured her second hip and stayed at the nursing home, then rehabilitation services. But that was nothing compared to the current state of matters. Fractures and rehab are manageable for stubborn old women, it turned out. After Bertie decided to move in with her often absent nephew an entire state away, Kayla felt adrift in two time zones, the past and present all at once. She could not find her bearings. She kept hearing Bertie call out for her and simultaneously had to answer a student whose voice bot more insistent.

“Why?” She had implored one more time the last week Bertie was there. “I only teach twice a week this term and we’ve always managed. We can get someone to come in when I’m not here if needed.”

Bertie sniffed, more due to great colonies of dust that refused to stop rebuilding in her home than the present topic. “Nelson has a sprawling but one-story house, as we’ve discussed, Kayla. My house is an impediment for me at this time. I ought to sell but I don’t always do what my financial adviser advises. A few months, a year at most with Nelson and I’ll be back. Likely.”

“You’re not the least convincing. It sounds as if you’re absconding and worse, maybe giving up.”

Bertie stomped her cane hard on the worn pine floorboards.

“Have you ever known me to give up a fight? You’re a fine one to make such pronouncements, taking care of me for five years now when it was supposed to be one or two at most. The left hip was almost nothing, this one a trial. But even a medium heart attack did not take me down long and when you willingly arrived, there was plenty to do as well as the completion of your degree. You stayed after your Bachelors, then got your Masters, good for you. And then remained well after I needed you, I might add. But we both know it was an auspicious arrangement.” She eased forward in her seat just a little and winced, masking discomfort with another impatient thunk with her cane’s rubberized tip.

“Yes, a perfect arrangement until now.” Kayla’s voice caught in her throat and a lightly freckled hand went to her chest, then fingered bronze-colored beads she had worn to work over an old ivory cotton sweater.

Her hands always did something, wound and unwound a strand of hair, drummed lightly on any hard surface, twiddled a pen or pencil. The rest of her was just as still as a watchful cat whose tail nonetheless twitched. But for her there was an underlying anxiety never quite quelled. Others said that, although she was reserved and to herself, she was in quiet command of students, at meetings, under pressure.  She often seemed much older than twenty-seven. They also entertained an alternative judgment: rather cold. Kayla sensed rather than heard what they said at Crane Community College as she elbowed her way around student hoards and faculty groups chattering away, making her way out and back home.

Bertie’s home, of course. Which her Great-Aunt was now abandoning. And her.

Bertie had more she might say to her Great-Niece but she knew better than to utter a tiresome homily–at any time. She was not a giver of wisdom, a corrector of wrongs, a font of inspiration. That didn’t mean she didn’t know a few worthwhile things.

Kayla had remained sheltered a bit too long, that’s what Bertie had surmised. The girl had now hidden long enough in Bertie’s comfortable home. So much education to acquire, such a varied amount of duties and care needed for the Great-Aunt and who else would do the job she did impeccably, with longstanding love? All that was true. But who cared for whom in the end? Bertie, a long retired mathematician, had been a widow for twenty-odd years before Kayla had come to live there. She’d been a boon, aided in more speedy healing of this or that health matter. But Kayla rarely if ever went out with a co-worker or  anyone else, did not attend concerts or see a movie or go on even a short day trip by herself.  They took long, dawdling drives like two  tired oldsters. When she got the college position to teach sociology, she worked and came right home. Cared for that big groaning house and Bertie, a mere (but sturdy) twig in comparison yet also admittedly creakier than desired.

Bertie, at least, had begun to yearn for a change of scenery as well as another floor plan. Enough was enough. She was entertained by the company of her mildly flamboyant nephew and his artsy wife. There weren’t such stairs there to take her down. They’d be glad to have her since they’d become the antsy retired, already weary of so-called fun travels to exotic places.

Bertie was definitely leaving, then finally gone. Who knew what the future brought? Kayla could stay as long as she liked, the bills would be dealt with, but she’d be fending for herself.

That young woman was never going to see life’s shining and confounding facets without getting out there and discovering them.

******

The first week was so terrifying Kayla thought she’d have to call in sick, but staying alone there for more than a day would only make things worse. She was used to getting up and making them a tasty breakfast, sometimes taking a tray to Bertie’s room, or setting the dining room table with a third-best, flower-strewn tablecloth. It started the day off so well. Now it started with a halt and a slump.

And then she had errands or class, then was back for lunch to check on Bertie who might be dozing over a book by a living room window or out in the garden yanking at various green or brown stems with great enthusiasm, despite weakened hips. One thing came after another, everything orderly, reliable. At night they would sit by the fireplace and read classics, poetry and sociological studies (Kayla) or natural sciences and history (Bertie) or watch a public television series.  Occasionally a movie they could agree on. Bertie would crochet badly but happily. She always said the same thing at end of day; “Sleep well, the sun rises too soon for young and old alike.”

Kayla should be exalting in this new freedom, nonetheless. Let loose of an old lady who could be cantankerous if in pain, even just slowed down, more opinionated than Kayla ever thought to be or lost in her own interesting thoughts. But Kayla forced herself out of bed and got dressed, made an ordinary if semi-palatable breakfast and went to her work and faked it the best she could.

It was true, her adult life had been Bertie, college and then teaching and that was it. It hadn’t been her intention but the longer she stayed, the better it felt and her Great-Aunt had been amenable. It puzzled and hurt her that her elder had determined to stay with the long missing Nelson. But it must make sense at age eighty-three.

People at work did ask her who she was dating or what were her plans, and she smiled enigmatically (she hoped), changed topic or said something obscure and acceptable. So when it appeared she was not in such a rush to leave her desk at end of her day two weeks in a row, she got a few looks. She had no intention to no become chatty, though Tom Heinz cast a sharp eye her way, mouth opening then shutting as he hurried on.

“So what do you have going on that you’re here late again? You and Bertie on the outs or what?” Wanda asked as she paused between coffee runs. She drank more coffee than was advisable despite living “clean”, as she put it, both utter mysteries to Kayla.

“No, just have things to catch up on, all the grading we have to get done.”

“The bane of teachers! But you usually get right out and come in early, if needed.” Wanda gulped a draft of rancid coffee from her stained mug, frimaced. “She’s okay, isn’t she? I meant, she’s all mended, right?”

“Of course! She’s just visiting for a few months, a nephew, that’s all.” It just slipped right out, such personal information! But she smiled, a no-teeth exposed sort of smile.

“Ah, I see,” Wanda said and smiled back. “Left you to your own devices, did she?” Then she wandered back to her desk humming, sipping from her bargain store mug.

Kayla shook her head–what a character she was  while also aggressively smart–and wondered what the woman could possibly know about her life. Yet it struck a chord. Wanda could be strident, quick to make inferences and blunt. They went back to work. Later, Wanda sidled by and a hand grazed Kayla’s shoulder which startled her so that she swiveled in her chair and stared at the woman in muted horror.

Wanda pulled her hand back, crossed her arms before her chest then asked, “Want to go for a drink sometime or dinner?”

“I can’t possibly, you know that, I have to get back to Bert–oh, well…” She looked up at Wanda, whose right eyebrow was raised in a starkly drawn arch. “No thanks, not tonight.” Not any night, Kayla thought as she went back to work.

On the way home she noticed streetlights were already on. Autumn had arrived in all its burning glory and faded now, and soon would come winter’s onslaught. She pictured a fire flaring and crackling in the massive fireplace, how comforting it would be again, and then sadness rose up on the crest of a ghastly wave. She had to pull over and let tears fall, but only a moment. Bertie was only visiting, she’d get tired of their fun and games soon and be back. Wouldn’t she?

She drove home and parked in the driveway. How monstrous that house was, how excessive a home for even two or three or more! How could this have escaped her so long? The many dark windows closed her out with their blank stares. She must leave on a few lights each day. She must get take-out food tomorrow. She must get a dog. No–dogs were forbidden in Bertie’s house if not professionally obedience-trained or left unattended for longer than ten minutes.

Kayla started to shake though it wasn’t yet unbearably cold. She was shaking in her heavy grey socks and worn black leather boots because her life felt like quicksand so many moments without Bertie.

And no one was there to save her. No one. Only herself. And she was trying and it was not quite enough.

******

The third time Wanda asked her out to dinner, Kayla agreed because she was so sick of eating take-out Thai and frozen chicken tenders. She just didn’t feel like making a tasty meal. But she might like eating at a restaurant. She might not fully like Wanda, but it was better than no one sitting across from you day after day, night after night.

It was a contemporary eatery where hip younger adults went to dine and drink. It had a generous vegetarian menu which Wanda liked, and meat enough for Kayla to order something. After they did so, Kayla looked around at the boisterous crowd. Most were drinking as they ate, something that seemed unnecessary. Wanda had ordered a beer and one for Kayla although she said she wasn’t much of a drinker. But this label was excellent, Wanda said, why not try it?

Maybe it would quiet the quaking in her diaphragm, Kayla thought as she watched Wanda’s burgundy red lips move rapidly. Her ears were on overload already. Why did people like this environment? What discourse could happen in such a place? It made her think of earliest college days, when too many crammed in a booth. The purpose had been less about conversation and good food and more about filling up residual emptiness, hunting for a potential partner, erasing the bad day or night before. She got that though she denied it even as she saw it.

Wanda waved a hand before her face. “Yoo hoo! You here or not? When was the last time you ate out and where did you go?”

“Oh, we never ate out. Maybe on a Sunday if we didn’t feel like cooking, but that was unusual. Let me think. Embers–for steaks, I think.” She took a sip of beer and swallowed without wincing.

Wanda grabbed her own beer. “That old staid place! It’s high time you discovered the great foodie scene here.” She held up her bottle, waited for Kayla to clink hers, then sat back. “I’ve wondered about you a long time, you know that? You’re the mystery person in our department. Everyone has a theory about you; no one knows anything. I tell them you have great depth but choose to keep it hidden.”

Kayla took a fast sip. This was not going to be about personal revelations or she was leaving. “Is that right? What makes you think so? Never trust your first impressions.” Turn it back on her and lead her astray, that was it.

“Your classes, for one thing. You must manage to make Intro to Sociology fascinating–your classes always fill up fast. And your other one–what is it?–has a waiting list this term.”

“Societal Impact on Women’s Life Goals.”

“Right, that one, sounds good. Tom said he stood at your door one time, opened it just a tad and listened to much of your lecture. He was surprised by how you interact with the students, and they, you–so easily. Impressive, he said. And seems like he’s always looking your way now.”

Kayla bristled. “I hadn’t noticed. Anyone can pop in if they just ask me. I love sociology and found I have a knack for teaching despite initial misgivings about doing it for a career.”

“What misgivings?” She leaned chin on hand, streaky blond hair swinging about her face.

“I thought I’d do research…I guess I still can.” She felt a sweep of heat up her face and then agitation came zooming back, so took a big bite of food. She’d not said even this much to a colleague before. It wasn’t their business, how she felt, what she desired, other than how it might impact department goals. It had to be the beer and convivial atmosphere. She  felt disoriented all of a sudden, needed to finish her turkey and bacon burger and leave.

“I know what you mean. We get derailed sometimes. Like me. I started in this direction later than most as my husband was ill a long time. I never got past this job so now am wondering what to aim for again or if I should just stay on…”

Kayla felt herself recoil. Boundaries, weren’t they important, anymore? But she agreed they both had experience with sickness and care taking. “I sure hope he’s better. You’ve never acted worried, just self-assured. You have a lot of great ideas and energy.”

“Yeah, I do make my presence known. ” She looked at Kayla, eyes gleaming. “He died a year before you arrived–was it really two years ago? Married four years, though.” She took a long swig.

“I am sorry, Wanda. Truly”

The burger suddenly felt like too much but she ate it, anyway. How did they get to this intimate stuff already? She never would have thought someone like Wanda had had such a terrible loss. She drummed her fingers on a thigh, sipped, surreptitiously checked her watch. So much emotion in one night.

“Thanks, it’s okay, things have a way of changing again. I’m dating a little, not from the college though. You?”

“No, not in a long time. I like being on my own. That is, I used to hang out with Bertie, spend time with a couple of her friends, all such smart ladies and gentlemen. And often have been alone. It’s okay that way for me, I am a solitary creature despite my interest in groups of social beings and their behaviors.”

“Naw, can’t be that okay.” Wanda dug into her salad. “I don’t imagine that much time alone with a very elderly lady is so good for you– you really think so?”

Kayla released a long sigh. She felt warm inside and out, no longer too empty or too full; the crowd seemed more settled, their voices a drone of contentment. It was alright being there. More than decent.

“Maybe not. I grew up in a small family, then went to college, and when Bertie asked if we could work out an arrangement I thought for two seconds and agreed. Really, she helped me. Gave me free room and board to just keep an eye on her and house matters. And she is not dull companion, believe me. It was a perfect solution for us both. Or maybe still is.”

Wanda chewed her kale, radicchio, avocado and tomatoes, looked thoughtful but waited.

“I miss her, more than I expected. She was more involved with my life than I knew. Or vice versa.”

“Well, you love her. I get it. She loves you. That’s the whole thing. Or it might be, ultimately. Worth thinking over and debating, anyway.” She shrugged luxuriously and sat back, satisfied.

Kayla leaned into the table, hands expressing her thoughts as she spoke. “But also, maybe I’m just lazy or don’t know what to do outside of work, work, work. Or my rotten anxiety curtails a life that works well and seamlessly like most seem to do. Like yours despite your challenges.”

“I seriously doubt that, all of it. You have what it takes, you just got too comfortable. You know how common it has been to do what you’ve done, right? For centuries women have taken care of others, of their elders. Not a bad thing, no. But there is more for us than that, right? And I was where you are, in a way, with my cancer-ridden husband…life just upends us and we have to redirect ourselves, figure out each next step.” She laughed as if it was some sort of epiphany. “Kayla, life never gets easier, it just gets more familiar, you know? You’ve had a door pushed open. So now what?”

Kayla narrowed her eyes at this woman with the too blonde hair and dark eyebrows, with her pronouncements, suppositions. And she felt such a wave of relief she was afraid she could faint, but sat up straighter.

“Walk through it…and maybe that’s what Bertie was offering me. Not just changing up her care plans. She was so ahead of her time, after all, a respected mathematician for forty-eight years. She knows how to be alone and how to not be alone.”

“Exactly. So make the most of this, I say! Get out more to art and history museums, films, restaurants, author readings, take a trip, go on a mountain hike! Let others become a friend, Kayla. And so you know, I can go hot and cold, I’m not all that together. But for sure you will not sink. If you think you might, give me a holler, we’ll go out for a beer and burger. Well, veggies for me.”

She winked at Kayla, which sure seemed presumptuous, as if declaring an actual possible friendship. But it was pleasant, too, Kayla thought as they paid their bill. She found herself laughing as they forged a path through sidewalk throngs to find her car window. It displayed her first parking ticket. The time had passed so quickly.

******

The house seemed to be glowing when she got home. For a minute she thought Bertie had come back without advance notice and she hurriedly put the car in the garage. But, no, the house stood empty, she could feel it’s expansive, worn elegance wanting company even as she walked toward the door. She had left a few lamps on so windows were radiant with amber light. Kayla turned the lock with her key, walked in, thought how lovely it would be to light a fire and read a few sonnets. How she might possibly swing a simple dinner for two or three colleagues around upcoming holidays.

Evan’s Ears and Halloweening

Old Mission Peninsula Country; Photograph by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The most ordinary sound could make Natalie fuss and fume. He didn’t understand it, to him the world of sound was an ocean of possibilities that tantalized. But, then, Evan had been deaf for three years as a little boy, the result of multiple and a few overlooked ear infections since birth. Surgical intervention put things back to normal, some said more than normal. So sound was a treasure he was happy to rediscover each day. Every sound was a gateway for some larger event he might observe, an experience to share with its source. Natalie thought this was idiocy; she preferred things quiet except for television and her specific pop music. In the country, luckily, it was more peaceful than the city; they both loved that.

Natalie was his sister who was really meant to be his cousin. Her mother, his aunt, had dropped her off six weeks after she was born and then gotten lost in the Hollywood jungle of false hopes. Evan’s mother said she became a “forever barmaid,” a kind of actress, they supposed, in the end. Natalie had been named for Natalie Wood, someone whose photo they had seen but whose movies didn’t interest them. The fact that she accidentally drowned did intrigue Evan, though Natalie said that was just fate, you couldn’t stop it, like look how her life had turned out after she was abandoned. Sometimes he wanted to sneer at her, “Someone who doesn’t like noises, a weirdo” but he only said it once and she socked him in the stomach, not hard, but it was a decent warning.

He sat in the branches of the red maple and watched her trudge up the driveway. She looked old for nearly ten, more like going on twenty with her rounded shoulders and big feet, brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. She glanced at him and half-heartedly waved, then disappeared, he knew, to the family room with a bag of chips and apple juice to watch TV.

Evan had a good perch, a place far enough away from everyone though they knew he was often there. It overlooked a wild acre, a haven for feathery ones as well as four-leggeds. It had all been countryside once; he recalled that dimly though he was just eleven. Then developers arrived with heavy machinery, “the interlopers” his parents called them, and the digging and plowing began in earnest, fake farm houses selling as fast as they were built. Still, lots were big, so no one was right there in your business. Plus, his parents had had three extra ones–for goats and chickens, a thriving kitchen garden, and masses of flowers. The meadow bordered a marshland, a favorite area for him.

It was nature that Evan took in and catalogued in his brain, the myriad sounds of creatures at work and play, the weather doing what it had to do and the creek along a nearby property boundary gurgling along after a good rain or tinkling away when it was lower. Plants with all their properties both good and bad for people. He could see a fox tail wave, then dart above grasses in the distance and heard piercing calls of Cooper’s hawks. His ears always tingled  with fresh sounds, got warmer, felt bigger, as if great antennae tuning into a finer frequency than others found.

“His ears look normal but his hearing isn’t. From deaf to super hearing,” his mother had said a couple weeks ago though she said it so often it was like a worn refrain. “How else can he–mind you, from the living room–track a conversation upstairs when we’re practically whispering?”

“He’d make a good detective, he pays attention, has a knack for small details,” his father said. He worked as a county prosecutor, he knew potential when he saw it. “But we can’t forget to talk in the bedroom with the door closed tightly when there’s something private to say.”

Evan nodded from the top step of the stairs; it was as simple as knowing when to sequester sounds, that was the grown up word for it. But he, for one, found that much harder to do.

“You need to mind your own business, that’s all,” Natalie hissed. “No one has the right to hear all things.”

“I don’t try; sounds come right in, then I hear and have to listen.”

“Then try harder to ignore things!” Natalie’s eyes flashed. “I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when I have a boyfriend, you’ll be hanging about all the time, taking notes, I guess.” She stared at him. “What did they talk about that you overhead?”

“That does it, I can’t even want to think of you with some poor slob! I’m going outside.” He looked back as he got up. “They talk money and politics, the usual junk.”

“Well, then, go on to your little wild animals, have a fun chat with them…”

Her tone indicated she wanted to tag along but they both knew she’d get restless in ten minutes and want to chatter away, then the birds would say nothing to him. And if an eagle or osprey or hawk did call out, she’d shriek as if she was meant to be their next meal. Nothing scared her like birds of prey swooping and hovering. Nothing fascinated Evan more.

******

He’d had dinner at their massive round table, helped clean up, finished math homework and went back outdoors when Natalie crept up behind him as if meaning to startle him. Evan had heard her the minute she opened the back door, of course.

“Boo!” she shouted in his right ear.

“Boo right back,” he said calmly though he covered his ringing ear, then grabbed her wrist. “Come on, let’s take a walk around the meadows. The half moon is shiny bright, we can see stuff.”

She tugged at his grasp, then relaxed. “Just wondered what you were up to, bed time in less than an hour.” She scanned the sky for bats but luckily found none. “The moon looks better from the porch but, okay, lead the way.”

Evan was surprised she agreed and dropped her wrist. It wasn’t that she wasn’t tough enough, in general, she just didn’t like noises she couldn’t identify. Darkness covered up things pretty well out there. They walked slowly, listening to the crickets’ concert.

“We can see a lot better this time, but the full moon isn’t until November 3rd,” he said. “No rain tomorrow for Halloween, that’s good.” He stole a glance at her pale face. “I know Halloween isn’t your favorite but are you still going with us, Kelly and his sister? And what did you finally decide to be?”

“I’m going, yeah. Got my costume picked out. I’m a glamazon mermaid.”

“Glamazon–meaning glamorous? And how does that work for, well, fish? Mermaids can’t even walk, duh.”

“I will, though–it’s a green shiny dress, long, sort of flares out–got it at Goodwill. Never mind, how about you?”

“Oh, just a grandpa skater.”

Natalie laughed, more a snort. “You already are a skater but sure can act like an old man.”

He nudged her with his shoulder, but then stood stock still. “Shhh, Nat, shhh.”

They listened but he heard only what he’d heard at first. A soft swish through the weeds. Then nothing. Natalie grabbed his arm.

“I want to go back, we can’t see anything.”

“Might be coyote.” He whispered in a low voice and kneeled in unruly grass, so she followed suit. “They’ve hunted a bunch here. Or gray fox again…”

More quick rustling in the high grasses as if the coyotes or foxes were rushing through to get somewhere else. Evan thought it was coyotes, the movements and their sounds made by bigger bodies than fox, with three, four minutes of racing about, perhaps fifteen yards away. Such smart animals, he thought with a shiver–he always felt that way about them– while Natalie clung to his arm, breathing fast.

“It’s okay, only coyotes, but I’ll walk you back.”

“Come on then!” she hissed at him.

Then the howling began, short yips, yelps and barks, then longer howls. One call transformed into a sort of laughing shriek, and Natalie dug her nails into his skin right through his shirt. The coyotes ran about more when all howls quieted, then stopped and movement stopped.

Evan touched his lips with his index finger, then shook his head at her and pulled her with him to the ground. For what he now heard–what the coyotes heard so darted off– was not four paws but two feet. A larger body brushing through grasses, trampling about. He raised his head, saw something or someone illuminated by moon glow slinking through the silvery meadow. Toward them. Its flowing shape and undulating, rapid movements lent a strange hulking appearance. A ghostly one. Wait, Evan thought, what was this really? His breath caught at his chest and his heart hammered. Natalie pressed her face into his bony shoulder and tried not to lose it all and just shriek.

And then there was a lunge of bulk as they huddled on the ground and a raucous, nasty noise.

“Roarrrrr! Hahaha! Gotcha!!”

A hand swooped down, missed Evan, grabbed at Natalie. Evan reacted like lighting and snatched at the swaying sheet but it wouldn’t give. A rope belt was pulled tightly about the waist.

“Poor little kids, soon to be gone!” There was a growl and groan.

Natalie cried out but it came forth as a small whimper as she clamored behind Evan. But Evan was standing stock still as she ran on toward the house. She was getting their father, that was all she could think as she ran faster than ever.

That voice, Evan thought, I know the voice! Who is it with this weird voice that is trying to be threatening?

“Evan! Natalie, come in, it’s getting late and it’s cold!” His mother called into the night. He pictured her pausing a moment longer, unsure of what she thought she had heard, and then she re-entered their house, screen door banging behind her. And shortly after, Natalie streaked across the back yard, toward that door.

“You creep, I know you–Marty Barrett!”

Evan gave another yank. This time the sheet came loose from the rope belt so he yanked harder as Marty started to run off. Evan was dragged a couple feet and then they both fell over and tangled, Marty trying to get out of the sheet and away, Evan gripping the older boy’s shirt sleeves. After rolling about, a couple haphazard punches and more tugging, the sheet fell away from the big thirteen year old’s body.

They sat on damp matted grass and looked each other over, eyes blazing, then started to laugh, clutching at each other. When they sputtered and quieted, Evan spoke up.

“You almost fooled me, Marty, but I just knew that voice.”

“I did for a little while. You’ve got those magic ears, holy moly! I was having such a good ghost practice but you two were out and had to spoil it! Wait ’til I tell Jake and Willy about this!”

“That was a crazy good act and you also scared the heck out of Natalie–you better apologize.”

Marty scowled. “You going to tell her who did it? I was just playing around, come on.”

Evan considered his neighbor. They weren’t friends, exactly–Marty was a rougher boy, ran with even older guys. But they weren’t enemies and got along okay. They sometimes played ping pong at the youth center, swam in the summer and always greeted each other on the street. But Marty liked to hunt and Evan didn’t like to kill animals. Marty had a random impulse to bully his way through life while Evan preferred to think things out. They got along because they had lived long in these parts, were growing up together, if in parallel lives.

“Naw,” Evan said and stood up. “You better go, though, Dad will be out here soon.”

Marty high-fived him and took off, billowing white attire flying from waist and ankles.

When his dad got there, they talked it over and decided to just say some nutty kid was doing a walk- through for early Halloween. Natalie was another story as she had stumbled, crying, into the house and was now taking a hot bath, their mother calling out soothing support through the locked door. Natalie could be done with Halloween but for that fabulous costume. But Evan had had fun out there. Marty wasn’t really a bad guy, at least not yet.

Later, Evan sat at his second story bedroom window and scanned the acreage, eyes resting here and there on darker or flitting shapes. He saw good-sized wings flash in moonlight so he pressed his face against the screen to better see. He wanted it to be the beautiful barn owl hunting over meadow and marsh so when its raspy screech sliced the cool fall breeze, he was flooded with a resonant satisfaction.

“What was that terrible sound?” Natalie had sneaked up and sat beside him. “Oh wait, isn’t that a barn owl, Ev?”

“You’re learning, Natalie. A cool kind of wild sound, isn’t it?” He looked her face over. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” She shivered, wet hair chill on her neck. “I guess it’s a lot better than a fake mean ghost. You were pretty brave out there…not me, so much.” She sighed, shook her head. “Halloween is just not my favorite.”

He put an arm about her shoulders and squeezed tight. “But you’ll make a pretty wicked mermaid. And maybe you should explore the outdoors more. But now get out of my room. See you tomorrow, Nat.”

He turned out the bedside lamp, ears tingling when the barn owl screeched again, and fell happily asleep.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Aunt Cara, Dragons and Crows

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Photo by William Eggelston

I hadn’t planned on a stop in town on my way to visit Aunt Cara but her last minute call–“Please get a six-pack of lemon seltzer and two giant chocolate bars”–demanded I park and shop. A Miracle Mart stood next to The Corner Store, another sign of change. It had only been a year since I was last this way, but it was jarring to see cement block and huge advertisement-covered windows jammed against aging timber saddled with the beloved wide sagging porch. A new job had kept me career-engaged. Aunt Cara had been busy getting unhitched from her husband of thirty years, then travelling. I had seen him one last time over a year ago, right before they split up. And now my uncle–no, he was just Lars now–was far away and she languished, alone, weakened.

I entered The General Store, of course, and there was Mr. Brunfeldt with his ancient stained Tigers baseball cap and a clean white long apron stretched about his middle. There was a story to that cap but I had forgotten it and wasn’t going to inquire. I was surprised to not see him chewing a cigar.

“There’s Gen Whitaker, how you been? Been a year, hasn’t it?”

A passing customer with a stuffed backpack nodded at me. I didn’t know him but likely he’d know me after I left thanks to Mr. Brunfeldt. I noded back.

“Hey, Mr. Brunfeldt. Tired from the five hour drive, eager to get to my aunt’s. Where’s the lemon seltzer?”

“Fancy or cheap?”

“Both, not sure what Aunt Cara prefers.”

“The cheap.”

I got both and studied the chocolate. Same dilemma. I got the best of four choices, two fat bars.

I paid him and offered a summary. “Been busy with my new job as Manager at the circuit board plant in Wicks. Still single. Looking for a good dog now that I got a town house. You?”

His eyes warmed in satisfaction. “Well and good for us both. Profits are up with people moving in from greater Wicks area. Jerry is finally gone with his girl over the mountain. My Myra is fair to middling. Isn’t it bad luck Cara got that mess? ”

“Pneumonia, nothing exotic. Of course, she’s getting on just a little like so many. Took its toll. As you likely know. Good for Jerry and his girl.”

The man with the backpack was tapping his foot behind me. I paid and left.

“She shoulda got the pneumonia vaccine like I did,” he added with a sudden cough to underline his smugness.

I let the door slam shut, its little silver bell tinkling furiously. Didn’t he ever replace that tinny thing? Pelton was the one place I’d hoped to avoid from here on out but that wasn’t likely with my mother’s only sister here. Not that I resented her, no. I just had little time for crises and miscellaneous causes. Still my very favorite aunt from both sides, and it had scared me when she took ill like that.

The main street and its buildings held a colorful tinge in late afternoon; sunlight glazed the winking store windows. Two blocks long when I was growing up just a street away, it looked as much as four now. I squinted in the amber light, then decided to stop for coffee. Not Starbucks but maybe better, a new shop with a black and red awning and in the center a small gold dragon. Fire and Water was its name. Not a bad choice, if out of place in provincial Pelton.

The room came to view through a soft murkiness as overhead lighting was spare. Electric candles were flickering upon wood tables, benches at the longer ones and chairs at smaller. There were drapes of red velveteen pulled back from two tall and narrow windows; dwindling light filtered through and on the counter.

“A grande iced, half-caf mocha with almond milk, no whip,” I announced to the barista, hardly believing this was offered or done right. But Hanna got on it. There was a young man humming along with the music track as he cleaned. All in all, a pleasant place.

Seven other customers had their heads in computers or phones. I felt a quiver of envy, wishing I could sit in quiet privacy, too. Guilt visited me with a thump in my heart. I was there for Aunt Cara, after all. It was not vacation time for me. She needed me. I took my chilled coffee, left a nice tip and vowed to return.

A few steps past the door was an alley. Above the entry was hung a sign: “Dragon Alley.” I looked down at the short end where there were two doors, both closed, one painted pine green, one deep red, address numbers above each. Apparently apartments or other businesses. I couldn’t recall what it had been but it looked curiously inviting, in an odd way. I hurried on to my SUV and headed to Aunt Cara’s. My diaphragm quivered at the thought of her drowsing in bed, mouth slack and her hair matted. Like a pitiable old lady. I nearly wept at the possibility.

******

“Here she is, here’s my girl, Genevieve!”

Aunt Cara wrapped her thin arms about my neck and pulled me in for a long one. It ended when chesty cough erupted. I waited, alarmed, until it faded, then pulled my suitcase to the staircase. She was propped up on the couch, her worn Pendleton blanket pulled close to chest. Just fifty-five, twenty years older than I yet she looked aged for a moment. Still, tenderness and elation filled me, so relieved was I to see her up at all.

“I thought you’d never get here, I was waiting all day. I know that traffic can be terrible. Look at you, good as gold to come see me! Cropped hair, looks pretty, but what’s that on your wrist?”

I covered the tattoo with my sleeve. “Just a bird. Time for a full once-over later, Aunt Cara. Let me look at you. You’ve lost about ten pounds and your color is, well, paler. But you’re sitting up. With a side plate of crackers and cheese!”

“You now I won’t starve. Marie’s just next door, you recall her?”

“I do, a great neighbor. I need to get your seltzer so you can cool your chest and swallow that snack. And I see pills.”

“The last of antibiotics, dear, that’s all. Well, a couple more things.”

As I got the ice for her seltzer, I shook off tentacles of fear. It was a new feeling in this home. Cara was always the hearty sunflower to my mother’s hothouse orchid. I was used to seeing her ruddy-cheeked, busy with work and chores and hobbies, volunteering. A hospital administrator, she was exposed to all sorts of things yet covered at work for those who got ill. She flew from one season to the next with nary a sore throat. Until this late summer, after a trip to Alaska. After she was left on her own.

“Here you go.”

She sipped on it with gratitude, popped a pill into her mouth, then another. “I know, it’s weird! It got a hold of me when I was in Anchorage, I think, just felt so tired, chest heavy in that beautiful air. In the mountains I thought, altitude. But it stayed on, a cough and shiver here and there. By the time my plane landed, I felt feverish. And then it hit me when the taxi driver let me out at the curb. I had to ask him to take my suitcase to the door, I was so weak.”

I had heard it all before but listened intently. “Humiliating, no doubt. I’m sorry, Auntie. I’m glad you didn’t end up in the hospital. It worried me so much but have come when I could. I’ll do all I can for the next week.”

She flapped her hand at me as if it was no big thing. “I’m not contagious, that’s good. But pretty wiped out. Still, I’ve had good help here and there…I knew I’d be better soon.”

“Marie is such a good friend, and I’m sure the book club, your hospital friends pitched in.”

She nodded, turned her head toward the bay window. I followed her dreamy gaze. Early fall sunset spreading its vibrancy, a warm backdrop behind other houses. No skyscrapers poking the dusk, no rumbling, clanging metro train to interrupt us.

Aunt Cara pushed herself up to sit a little taller. “Did you see it when you went to The General Store?”

“What? I could be in another town altogether, it was odd.”

“That fancy new coffee shop.”

I held out my iced mocha. “Yes, been there. Not that fancy…”

“Ah, but it’s excellent, right? Such an interesting place!” She gave me a slow, liquid smile, then lay back.

“You don’t like coffee that much, do you?”

“But the teas, they’re wonderful, homemade herbal blends.” She tilted her head at me. “Why not go on up to your room and unpack? We’ll order take-out soon, then we can talk until I’m ruined by all the news and excitement.”

Her laugh followed me up the stairs, then dissolved into a fit of coughing. I paused on the top step, listening to the deep bass of it. How it must hurt. I hurried to the guest room, really my room, unpacked the basics all the while thinking of quiet, steady and highly ambitious Uncle Lars. How I wished they had never divorced. So she wasn’t alone and could count on his level head and hearty ways. So he’d read to her, regale he with stories. But that was my fantasy. He was long gone, back in his native Sweden with his old company. Damn, why did he have to love work more than Aunt Cara? But I missed him, the good parts I’d known.

I ran back down to find her up and at the window, holding on to the forest green wingback chair, hand to chest, her thoughts far off. She looked so wane and small. Was she thinking of Sweden, too?

“Aunt Cara, you need to take it easy!” I bit my lip as a rush of tears blurred my vision.

“Yes,” she agreed, taking my arm, feeling light as a rag doll, “so let’s order Thai and then talk, talk, talk. Or you talk, Genevieve. I’ll listen.”

I tucked her in at the couch, took her order, called the Thai place from the screened back porch. I wanted to breathe the clear fall air one moment. A crickets’ chorus rounded out the night; a wave of longing rose and fell.

******

It was early and I was not in work gear but scrambling eggs with dill, shredded cheddar and sausage in  Aunt Cara’s white and blue kitchen. And she somehow shuffled down the stairs most of the way before I got to her.

I took her arm. “I wanted to serve you breakfast in bed.”

“Had enough of that.” She paused to catch her breath. “I want to sit with my niece in sunshine. Well, it’s peeking out behind clouds, it’ll be brighter soon.” She planted a damp kiss on my cheek. “Let’s go to the screened porch.”

“It’s cold there.”

“I have blankets for us and we have coffee and tea. We’ll be cozy. Who, by the way, is gorging on all that?”

“We are. Well, you’re going to eat little of it.” I finished the eggs and toasted two slices of bread, but helped her out to the porch then went back for two mugs and plates.

“Now, cover up or we’ll have to go back in,” I ordered and she did as told, tossing one to me.

The birds and squirrels were talking and we were, too, when her cell phone rang from her sweatpants’ pocket. Aunt Cara clutched an armrest and listened. Five rings, then nothing. She picked at more sausage as I told her about my co-workers. The phone rang again, three times, then nothing and she pulled the phone out, glanced at it then put it away.

“Someone important?” I asked, gathering dishes.

Her ivory skin flushed with pink. “Oh, just a neighbor. I’ll get it later.”

But as I busied myself in the kitchen she made her way back to the living room, blanket pulled snug about her. I could just hear her muffled voice. In a few moments, she wandered back in.

“Where did you put that chocolate?” she asked.

“What? At seven in the morning? You barely ate half the breakfast, your blood sugar will go haywire.”

“What am I, your charge? Goodness, Genevieve, give your ailing auntie her chocolate. It is elixer for goddesses and humans. Then I have an errand for you.”

“Where?”

“To Dragon Alley. Right by the coffee shop, Fire and Water.”

I balanced a big plate with silver edging on sudsy hands. Pointed to chocolate bars at the end of counter with my jutted chin.

“Whatever is there? I saw it yesterday. A little sign above an alley.”

“Right. I need you to pick up a blend of herbs for me–there’s an herbalist in business there.”

I squinted at her, trying to discern more of the truth.

She laughed. “No, not that sort of herb! Justin is a certified herbalist, he makes natural medicines. He’s helped me so much, you have no idea, even the doctor was amazed how well I seemed the last visit. He doesn’t agree with it all, but he doesn’t forbid me–as well he should not.” Eyebrows wiggled up and down and she laughed again.

And her face slowly softened as if time was melting away despite stubborn cough and weakness. It was like seeing my mother come back to me, those expressive brown eyes, the same full bottom lip and slender top one that gave generous smiles, how her brown hair with bits of shining grey swirled around her thin cheeks.

I caught my breath but shrugged. “Anything to make you get better faster. When does his shop open?”

“He’ll have it waiting for you in an hour.”

******

I ordered a hot regular coffee at Fire and Water, then lingered a moment until Hanna the barista had a moment. There were two others helping customers so I caught her eye again.

“Can you tell me something about Dragon Alley?”

She snickered.”Oh, that’s just for the fun of it, but the herbalist is excellent. Even in uptight Pelton people have finally agreed some products are useful. I go for the skin care.”

I had to admit her skin was smooth and bright even in the shadowy shop. “So he can help sick people?”

“He has, from what I hear. He doesn’t do any harm…and he owns this coffee shop, too. He moved here from, hmm, maybe British Columbia? He has a little bit of accent.” Lynn leaned closer. “He’s nice looking, too–doesn’t hurt as far as some are concerned. He’s a very good boss.” She ooked at my wrist. “Cool tatoo.”

I glanced down at it. “Thanks.”

She was tapped on the shoulder by the young man, so got to work.

I marched to Dragon’s Alley to find out who this person was who was feeding my aunt herbs and flowers and likely other mysteriously contrived concoctions.

It was the door to the right, Hanna had said; the place to the left was his home. As I reached for the door handle, I spotted the narrow brass name plate on the building: Justin Q. Michel, Herbalist. She entered.

The rush of air was redolent of so many scents I couldn’t separate one from the other. The effect was less disorienting than enlivening though I felt momentarily faint. I grabbed a stool by a narrow window. Rows and rows of clear glass bottles were shelved around the room. Tins of teas and pretty packets of sachet lined the counter. When I heard footsteps, I turned and found myself caught off guard by the disarming gaze of Justin Q. Michel.

“Good morning! How may I help you this lovely day?”

His accent was a lilting, gentle French–perhaps French Canadian, I guessed. And he was at least her aunt’s age, rangy but sturdy, his strong boned face weathered by wind, sun and extreme temperatures. Falling over his lined forehead was a curve of steel grey and wavy hair; it reached his sweater collar. Was he an agrarian, an adventurer or what? Justin barely tilted his head at me.

“I’m here for my aunt’s herbal medicine, for her cough.”

“Ah.” Justine set his feet apart, placed fngers and thumbs together in a tent shape. “You must be Genevieve.” It was prounounced the French way, soft, pretty. His hand then extended over the counter top; she took it. “She told me all about you, and now you are dispatched on her errands. How good of you to help her.”

“Of course, I’m her niece. Her son lives in Europe.I’m five hours away. I worry about her here, alone, but she never gets sick. I mean, she did get sick and I was so busy that I…” I pressed my lips together. What was I going on about? I needed the medicine. “Is it ready?”

“Yes, surely you worry, not living close enough to watch over her. But she undertands.”

He already had the order waiting and rang me up. I took the package, hesitating.

“She is in good hands, you must not be stressed. She has fine friends, is strong, goodhearted, loves life greatly. Can’t miss with these! Cara will be well soon, up and going again, well, she has…elan…I will personally see to it.”

“Okay, thanks for the reassurance. ” I eyed him. “Say, why that name of the alley? Is it something you did? It is quite fantasical.”

Justin laughed. “Dragons. Well, they were powerfully majestic according to some, beasts of destruction according to others. Were they real or fantasy creatures dreamed up by those who needed to believe in them? Does it even matter? We believe what we need to believe, eh? I believe in what speaks to our health, may connect us to wisdom, to the heart and spirit of life.” He lifted his hands, palms up. “And a good name to remember, right? It helps point the way to something different, to the power of nature’s healing.”

“Good answer. I think. And Aunt Cara is a romantic, a dreamer deep down inside, no wonder she likes this place.”

“Yes, she is; our Cara is… a good woman. Send her my best wishes.”

I thanked him, left, got in the SUV and suddenly felt rudely awakened.

Our Cara.” It was Justin. It was he who helped, was there for her, was important in recovery from her loss, the pneumonia. Or maybe he was there before the divorce, I would never know. But I almost got it. Aunt Cara had been a woman often left to her own devices, someone who hoped to share a life more fully than Lars could ever manage. She was one to dance in the street, to try to count stars, to swing on the hammock while reading aloud the meaning of flowers. Who went the extra mile for her staff, still did for many others. Not because she had to. Because she cared and could not do otherwise. After my mother had died, Aunt Cara was there lifting me up with letters and  packages of pear jam and homemade brownies, phone calls to tell me I was going to make it, I was well-loved.

Now Cara was watched over by one Justin Q. Michel, herbalist. She was not lonely, anymore. Things were changing in Pelton, and even more for Aunt Cara.

When I arrived with the prescriptive plants, I held her close. Aunt Cara patted and rubbed my back then tapped it three times as she did when I was very small. Ravenous, we ate Thai leftovers on the couch, feet raised on Lazy-Boy foot rests.

“What is the tattoo, Genevieve?”

“A crow.” I pulled up my sleeve and she peered at it. “He kept watch at my building for three years. Sat in an old oak tree, watching all, and sometimes he flew down to squawk at me. At least, I thought he tried to talk to me or maybe fuss at me and I always looked for him, even named him Cyrus. He was a comfort during that last terrible job that made me dread each work day for years. And then one morning Cyrus wasn’t there. Not dead to my knowledge and not lame. Just gone. He had moved out, moved on, found a better spot. I took it as a sign. I quit my job, got this new one and moved to another place. Now all is well.” I smoothed the rendering of my bird’s feathers.

“And I thought you were the realist among us!” Aunt Cara chuckled.

“Aren’t I? Sometimes you have to interpret reality new ways.”

“That’s my girl, my Genevieve!”

“True, I am always and forever your girl.”

And that was the gist of the story in funny old Pelton, less me helping my aunt and more us helping each other. Sometimes, too, an old hometown is misunderstood or it changes, like magic.

A Last Summer Caper

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Junie sincerely hoped this person, this Guy, wasn’t going to fall for either of them but just in case, she was prepared for it. She had a handy store of diverting one liners, sizzling retorts. After weeks of correspondence he wrote he’d be passing through to pick up his cousin, Dale, and then they’d both be back to college. So, he said, wouldn’t it be good to at last meet in person? Junie supposed it just might. Her sister, Marta, could have found herself indisposed but no, she’d been excited. They had only been writing each other this last month of summer. It all started  after her sister’s friend mentioned him; she knew Dale, the cousin Guy was picking up on the way to Hartford College. They were both enrolled, it seemed. Guy was supposed to be “awesome” per Shelley’s descriptions and also Dale’s. It was complicated info thus, unreliable.

Junie was unmoved but it was Marta, anyway, who was informed about him. She was the one who intended on writing him from the start.

“But my handwriting is atrocious.”

“You could just type a letter, that’s the best way, more distant at first,” Junie said, tapping her fingers on the Olivetti’s worn keys, pausing midway in her poem. “You’re a very good typist.”

“You’re much better. And you form a convincing sentence so well….”

Marta gave her that easy-breezy smile she put on to sway someone yet undecided. It was her persuasive beguilement. Junie had practiced that look but her face just came across silly and insipid in the mirror no matter how much practice. She guessed it was because it was unnatural, a false presentation. Marta was her big sister if barely a year older at 18, but you’d think Junie had been a stray they took in to give Marta a toy or victim, depending on the older girl’s moods. It was absurd; it was Junie who had the common sense. Even a dash of flair all her own. But not the flashing, blinding lights of charismatic looks.

“No.” Junie walked out of their room. “Get another lackey.”

“Sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking about… I always have you!”

“Not for much longer–then what’ll you do?” Junie muttered.

But she became intrigued by the creative possibilities of composing improved–no, fake letters–to an unsuspecting male using a nom de plume. Well, using Marta’s name.

So it commenced. Marta dictated the bulk of each letter, Junie would type it on the onion skin paper she loved, and later after the first read and approved it Junie would go back and write a new and amended letter, soon more accentuated with her own content. She could not restrain herself. She edited her sister’s essays and term papers so felt this was much the same: a happy improvement of basic, boring text.

Marta’s letter:

Dear Guy,

This is the third letter in two weeks! Thank you for writing me back, it was interesting to hear about your summer. Boating, fishing, swimming–such fun! I am not the water fan I could be, I suppose.

I got up late today, then played tennis with Shelley and I won. I like to compete, do you? Then we went out for lunch at the club, water cress salad and sliced fresh peach for dessert. I love fruit, it’s sweet and does no harm. I even picked strawberries with my mother and sister a few weeks ago. The only think I didn’t like was the dirt that got into everything. But worth it!

Anyway, do you play tennis? It’s one sporting event I have liked as spectator and player since childhood.

This week-end I am going to the movies with Shelley. Some action flick, not sure what it’s called. Bet you’d like it–lots of cars in it. You do have a car, don’t you? I drive my mom’s at times but we’ll see what I get when I graduate next spring.

Hope to hear from you soon!

Your friend, Marta

Junie’s edited letter:

Dear Guy,

This is the third letter in two weeks; thank you for writing back. It was interesting to hear about your summer. Boating, fishing, swimming–that sounds far superior to what I’ve been up to in the ‘burbs. I ride my bike, jog. I’ve always wanted to learn to fish, but my father says I have no talent for fly fishing. I need to learn more, even give it a whirl on my own. Where do you go and what do you catch? What sort of bait do you use? Is there a special rod you use? I’d be grateful for tips to get started.

I got up late today but played tennis with Shelley and won. I thrive on competition–do you? Then we went out for lunch at the club where I ordered a chef salad topped with tuna and for dessert, a double chocolate brownie. I am fanatical about good chocolate, it’s a weakness I hear, but I contend it’s the perfect reward for any job well done. I did pick healthy strawberries with my mother and sister a few weeks ago. Then I dipped a dozen in chocolate. But I love getting out into nature, availing myself of its bounties. Even the bugs that flit and creep about are extraordinary to me.

This week-end I’m going to the movies with a couple of friends. Some action flick. It is full of car races, yes! I dream of becoming a race car driver after I see those movies and when I get my hands on Mom’s car… Do you have a car or at least like to drive? I might get lucky one day and get a sports car. That’s a goal, actually.

It’s excellent that you made it through the first college year, but what are you studying? Liberal arts or sciences or a mix? You write well. I haven’t decided where to apply but not likely Hartford–too close to home.

Look forward to hearing back.

Your friend, Marta

This went on for over seven weeks. Now he was due to arrive. Junie thought she’d done a good job at appealing to him, getting his curiosity stoked. She could not have left all that up to Marta, she had the imagination of a squid. She had other strengths than Junie. Guy–with a name like that, he might be be insufferable–seemed pleasant enough and smart given his brief but emphatic responses, a little macho but not so you’d refuse to hang out to see what else was there. It might work out for them. In the meantime, she was having more fun that she thought possible. Junie decided she ought to find a couple more pen pals and correspond for real next time.

But she did feel an odd stab of guilt: she had, of course, overstepped. She worried about Marta’s capacity for dealing with Guy’s once he was here in the flesh. But Marta had a way with people that made them want to follow her anywhere.

And physical attributes some might pronounce as spectacular. of course, Junie had seen her at her worst and knew how hard she worked at being a five star dazzler. Junie allowed nature to take its own course, let things fall as they may. It hadn’t hurt her much, it just hadn’t advanced her. Since she was reasonably intelligent, it didn’t aggravate her except for moments here and there during her whole and entire seventeen years when people met them and without fail leaned toward Marta and gushed about how pleased they were to finally meet her, she was so beautiful, what a popular gal. As if they had been waiting  to see her in the flesh with bated breath for eons. Like some movie star when it was only the big fish in a small fishbowl phenomenon.

Sometimes they didn’t even notice Junie standing there. Still, that made it easier to observe details as desired, then get back to more worthwhile activities. Like writing in her journal the countless petty, moving, surprising, infuriating details of life so far.

Maybe she felt sorry and pleased at once about these letters because she knew this was one area Marta had not peaked. Might never do so. There was an art of exchanging words, uncommon value of incisive communication. Letters were gateways to intimacy especially if one also had a willingness to say this is who I am, warts and all. Well, not that but at least being a less contrived person. Not so with Marta. It was necessary to present the best if most shallow front at all possible costs; it cost her in more ways than one but she didn’t see it yet. But Junie wanted to believe there was a deeper Marta who would be willing to show an unpolished toe in the light.

But did all this give Junie the right to alter her sister’s words drastically? Was it fair to be sneaky? To play a hoax on an innocent man? It was, in fact, underhanded. An entertainment, honestly. And what if he got mad at them both, figured out something was haywire? Then Marta would have her in her sights, too.

And Marta was already down on the porch, swinging her feet on the bench swing. It didn’t occur to her to wait, then casually answer the door. She was primed and ready to meet the latest prince who might sweep her off her feet. Junie’s face was pressed against the screen of their bedroom window and from this vantage point she would just see the approach to the house. She could hear well enough. Their plan was, if it all seemed a wash, Junie should come down and interrupt their conversation.

At half past one, Guy’s car rolled up to the curb. It was a blue 1983 Lebaron Coupe with a huge dent in the front fender. Junie clucked her tongue but Marta now arrayed herself along the banister in anticipation. The driver door opened and out popped Guy as if on a spring, trim and of average height, brown hair a pleasant shagginess, energetic stride taking him to the house. He held out a hand as Marta descended. She welcomed him with both of hers like a hostess, chatting gaily, when he looked up as if distracted or he was expecting someone else there. Junie stepped away from the window.

“Guy! Come on up. I’m so glad to meet you at last, sit with me,” Marta said with all the warmth she could muster. Guy obliged.

He was, Junie knew, not quite right: average nice looks, a bit short, slender, not tan enough, not jock enough, not magnetic enough. Junie suddenly felt terrible. He would fall for her sister in sixty seconds then be deflated by Marta’s quick dispensing of things: a crash landing.

She debated whether or not to go down. If the staircase didn’t descend right in front of the front door, she’d tiptoe down and eavesdrop in the foyer. Oh, why not? She’d do it, walk right outdoors to get her own view, give input, save Marta. Be a decoy so Marta could beg off.

“Hello, hello, who have we here this auspicious afternoon?” Junie stepped out the door, turned, put  hands on her hips and flashed her teeth, which were good.

“Why, it’s my new pen pal, Guy Alton, you remember, don’t you?” Marta was smiling but her eyes warned her to tone it down.

“Of course I do, a pleasure to meet you, Guy. I’m Junie, her sister.” She sat between the two, pressing Marta over with a quick shove of her bony hip. Guy smelled sort of tangy, maybe Old Spice. No, better than that, green leaves and sweat. “You’re the friend of Shelley’s cousin, Dale, correct? Now that’s clear, what do you think of my sister? You’ve been the mystery man a long while– the tension has been killing us. Me.” His jittery thigh touched hers so she moved it, scooted closer to Marta.

Guy snickered as he cast a hand over his forehead, then left it there as he propped his head up, elbow on back of the swing. “Junie. Well, I’m a bit confused. Dale said–”

“Confused about what?” Marta widened those maple brown eyes, pouty lips curving upward. “Dale said what, I’d like to know?”

“Yes, tell all, Dale said what of which of us? Or was it Marta, my gorgeous sister?” She couldn’t help but turn to look him in the eyes. Clear deep blue, like inviting summer pools.

Guy shifted uncomfortably. Perhaps better to get away from overbearing sisters, one pretty as noted, the other really curious. But he stayed put.

“Well, Dale did say and so did Shelley that Marta was the goodhearted life of any party and lovely while Junie was talented, outspoken. Different. I mean, you two ladies were different.”

A hum of uncertain silence met his words. Junie crossed her arms across her chest, suppressed a smile. He was so close she could hear the soft wheeze of each inhale and exhale of breath. Marta pushed off the floor with a sandaled foot, making the swing move.

“That’s the truth, we’re like night and day,” she said. “So can we start over? Tell me about your trip down here and if you’re looking forward to more college and so on. I feel we’ve just picked at the outer wrappings.” She elbowed her sister to get off and leave.

Junie about said she knew Guy better than that and she shared quite a bit but just caught herself. It was too late to fix the thing, Marta had fluffed her feathers a little, shown interest, and he was not missing much so far. Best to disappear. Let things take their course. It was more fun than she’d had in awhile but it was over and done.

“Yeah, that’s right, she’s the hot shot, I’m the lowly caterpillar of a scribe who’s not yet come out of her voluminous cocoon. I’ll let you two get on with it. But I have to say I’m pleased I got to meet you, anyway.” She slipped off the swing, cocked her head at him.

“Yeah, me, too… but I’m trying to figure it out.” He sat forward, forearms on thighs, hands clasped together and stopped the swing’s motion. “Who actually wrote the letters?” He looked back at Marta, then at Junie, who was at the door, hand on the brass pull.

Marta let loose her silvery jangle of a laugh. “Who do you think? I wrote you! I was interested in knowing you better and found it sweet to send and receive letters–wasn’t it? She just tidied and typed them for me! Credit where credit is due, of course, but I wanted to meet you. Not her.” She pointed at her sister as if accusing her.

Junie froze. Narrowed her eyes.

“I’m not so sure. I think it might have been her. Junie, you talk just like those letters are written…what’s going on?”

Marta’s mouth fell open and she stared at her sister. “Oh, no.”

Junie ran inside, slamming the door shut and then trotted upstairs, down the hallway, out the narrow door to the back sleeping porch. Then she sat on the little folding camp chair she’d kept the last ten years so she could view constellations or storm clouds or creatures in high trees. Sometimes she even dragged along her sleeping bag and lumpy goose down pillow and slept there. Alone, without distraction of sister or parents. This would be another good night for it if it didn’t rain as forecast. She gnawed at a hangnail, anxious about her sister’s reaction and payback.

A half hour later, the sleeping porch door squeaked open and shut. Marta lowered herself on a square pillow she’d grabbed.

“I sent him away. He knows it was you. I read a letter you sent him.” She yawned. “It was a good one.”

The wind rattled tangled branches of oaks and chestnuts. Clouds bunched and scudded across a darkening sky.

“He said to say goodbye and he’d write you when he gets to Hartford. He is quite intrigued by you, Junie. He was a gentleman, honestly. It’s all okay. But wow, that took real nerve, Junie.”

“I ruined it, I don’t know what I thought I was doing!”

“No, sister, he wasn’t someone I could go for but maybe he’ll become yours to figure out.”

“The guy named ‘Guy’, is that for real?…too much!”

They slapped at each other in a fit of giggles.

“He’s kinda old, 19–watch out.”

“My oh my, I will manage, especially with your long experience and nuggets of wisdom to guide me.” Junie grabbed her sister’s arm, squeezed it for emphasis. “My great letter caper, what a bust! I had high hopes it’d work out for you but he got much more interesting. It was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. And then he said he’d take you– me!–trout or bass fishing sometime and that did it.”

“Thank goodness it really is you, not me!”

“You just never know how things will really be–it’s weird.”

She slipped off the camp stool, onto the floor by Marta. They lay back with limbs outstretched when, eyes fluttering and voices screeching, the first dashes and dabs of rain raced through overhanging leaves and made tiny splashes on their warm skin. They let the brisk wetness soak them, such a relief after the interminable, fire-scouring, holding-one’s-breath-for-what’s-next summer.