It wasn’t my plan to stop at a neglected used book store but I needed a cooling breath or two and a drink from the water cooler. I’d been hurrying through a busy part of the city when I spotted it: Parson’s Bound Words and Fine Art the swinging wooden sign bragged, as if there were arcane, prized items beyond its dirty green door. It was proclaimed awkwardly, I thought, and it put me off but I noted a young woman and child appearing to enjoy heat relief as they browsed. I hesitated at the door. Perspiration made a beeline down back and chest. I turned the dented brass knob and went inside.
I had just been to lunch with Emory. It’s a date we manage every six months to keep a civil line open for our three adult children and six grandchildren. We don’t talk on the phone or, heaven forbid, text; Emory doesn’t believe either is good authentic communication and I can’t say I entirely disagree, at least in his case. Emory is not one who can grasp or respond well without the talking partner’s face providing constant and helpful clues. This was still true for us despite being married to one another for thirty-seven years. We’ve been divorced for ten. His need to clarify via constant overt signals might in part explain why we didn’t have patience enough to endure, much less fully enjoy each other, until death do us part. I don’t need to be duly examined, nor to regard another with full force in order to chat about an update on life. I don’t even need to be in the same rooms; I like to move about. Use your imagination, I used to urge him, listen to vocal inflections.
Still, we’ve somehow managed to talk without fisticuffs and it seems a useful meeting twice a year. Emory is not unpleasant from afar and close up he still looks pretty good. He says the same of me so that much we continue to agree upon. We each remain single. Just less complicated.
Although seeing him still can increase my blood pressure and thus, internal temperature, the city summer had already scorched us all. So that bookstore beckoned. I entered, the obligatory little bell on the top tinkling in a frenzy. A waft of cool air welcomed me immediately. Mr. Parson, I presumed, looked up from an opened notebook by the cash register, nodded, then returned to his writing or tallying. His black taped glasses perched on top of his head; he squinted at whatever was being entered in his own bound pages. He must have felt me staring at him–he was grizzled and rumpled but had a scholarly air about him, much like Emory. He looked up, tried on a smile with eyes that I suspected looked perpetually quizzical. He loved books, after all.
“May I help you this ghastly August afternoon?”
“Water first!–how generous of you to offer it– then to general browsing,” I said and headed to the cooler. He grunted in a congenial manner and let me be.
After a paper cone of lukewarm water was drunk, I glanced at section headings and went for visual arts, mostly because it was dimmer and farther back so perhaps cooler. There were three others besides the woman and child, each bent over a book in the aisles; I excused myself along the way. I pulled out a few art tomes and thumbed through the pages. Seen one, seen them all, I felt at the moment, though at home was a sagging shelf devoted to classic and contemporary painters and a collection each of Mexican and Native American potters. Bored with books that held little interest I moved on to two long shelves of photography, fingers slipping over smooth or cracking spines as I dallied.
Henri Cartier-Bresson–that name so renowned but it had been years since I had even glanced at his work. I contemplated a heavy-looking book and pulled it out. Parson was passing me and pointed at a table and chairs alongside a window.
“Take a seat, have at it,” he said, then disappeared through a swinging office door.
It was pleasant there despite the predictable dry, musty smell of aging, oft-handled bindings and pages. The book I held needed to lay flat to be appreciated and so I sat and opened to the first pages. Though I knew he had died in 2004, Cartier-Bresson meant something to me still.
During the onset of the 1970s I had studied photography, before Emory and the bit and bridle of married life, and had had the good fortune to spend a year in Paris. There I’d wanted to practice certain techniques, to at the least mimic the sort of spontaneous shots which made the master photographer famous. I shamelessly shot every place and person I could, trying to not provoke. It was a time of unfettered days and nights, made of dreams I’d held close until they had come true, time in Paris with camera in hand: the extraordinary light and shadow, charming scenes and grand old architecture, revelations of life unlike any I’d witnessed or even suspected before. I had grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and so embraced Paris with high expectations, a growing adoration.
I wished more than anything to become a female Henri Cartier-Bresson. I knew I had some basic talent but did I have the creative mind and eye it took to offer views that spoke volumes even remotely like the master’s? Roll after roll of film was shot, developed that year and so much of it was no good. But some of it was.
I turned more softly yellowed, slick pages, studied the pictures. Street life, fresh and fascinating. People paused to gaze into a long, bright alley; strolled hand in hand along the busy Seine; hunched over food at outdoor cafes or on a dock; loitered at street corners beneath glowing lamps; kissed in parks; toiled in the grime; dozed and gossiped on benches. The artist found the extraordinary in all that was ordinary, recorded subtle or dramatic changes in much of the world. Some of that time was mine, was where and when I lived.
I sighed, happy to have taken a few moments to come into the little dingy store. How could I have forgotten such treasures as these? I flipped through more pages, absorbing them with a flick of my eyes. I had to get home to feed Dana, my dachshund. The past only held so much magnetism for me, anymore. What had gone before was done. I hadn’t wasted time grieving over the cameras I put away, then sold; I had made a choice.
And as I about closed the book, I stopped.
There was a young man with aviator sunglasses, patterned bandanna snug about his forehead, books pushed aside as he lounged atop a ponderous stone wall, likely part of many steps to an immense building, his back to a pillar. Arms around a girl pressed deeply into the embrace, his fingers entwined for a stronger hold on her.
The boy was Phillipe and the girl he held was me, Natalie.
I gasped and my hand clasped my open mouth. The young woman with child looked at me with a small concern as she scooted around the table, hand clutching her daughter’s. But I just bent over the page and remembered.
How was that possible, to have had our picture taken and not know it, to never have seen it all these years? The thrill of this threatened to bring me to a faint and I took in and released long slow breaths. Parson walked by; I kept my eyes down. I couldn’t possibly inform a stranger that I was in a picture made by a famous photographer. Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken many thousands of photographs. We were just one more couple with a passerby eyeing us and perhaps disapproving on a sunny afternoon. We were in the master’s viewfinder, then he had moved on.
Phillipe was a student at the Sorbonne, studying philosophy and music. We had met at a cafe one afternoon when I was trying to not cry over my espresso, feeling homesick despite the wonders found, wishing for someone with whom to share it all. He’d picked up my sunglasses from the ground as he walked by; we began to chat. He, too, missed his small town of Ornans but said this lessened as his studies became more interesting. Phillipe was studying music theory and composition, was working on a piece. I’d felt relief and gratitude that he had taken an interest in me, a foreigner, and he’d shared his struggles adjusting to living on his own.
I racked my brain –where was that taken? What had we been up to? It was like any romantic afternoon we shared in Paris; it may have been at the university after he got out of class. But I knew Phillipe such a short time, only three and a half months, and time trickled away so fast I kept a diary of our stolen and intimate days and nights, our falling easily into a tender love. He, the romantic French boy I’d longed to know; I, the American student he found so open and independent. I was afraid no one would believe me, or that I would forget somehow, so I wrote it all down each day. And took some pictures of him.
Where did all that end up? Crammed into taped up boxes in the attic, no doubt. I was twenty-one then, now sixty-seven.
I smoothed the page, tapped his hands. Recalled the weight of my hair in summer warmth, how he loved to hold it to his face; the prickle of his stubbly cheeks against mine. The books we read to one another, my French just passable, his English better. The music he played for me, very good songs. But I soon came to the end of my stay, the end of money left me by a beloved uncle. Phillipe had to continue at the Sorbonne. His carefree lust and easy affection for me were nothing compared to his passion for music. And though I found his words and touch gentling as well as incendiary, I suspected photography would bring me great comfort long after he was gone.
Yet it had stung, how could it not in 1971 for a young woman in Paris studiously snapping pictures while seeking a soul mate? He had walked into my life, we’d clung to one another in a free-fall of delights, then simply parted.
I took a last look at his face. It was so long ago it seemed impossible. I slowly closed the book. Henri Cartier-Bresson had frozen for all time one ordinary Phillipe, one everyday Natalie.
“Find something interesting? I couldn’t help but notice…” Parson grasped the back of the wooden chair, leaned on it as he looked at me with interest.
I rolled hunched shoulders luxuriously–they needed a good stretch. “Oh, the past, it sneaks up on you at odd times. Or wallops you.”
“It can. May I ask–are you a photographer? I mean, since you poured over his work?” He patted the volume as if an object of his affection.
I considered the man. He was older than I, had a white trimmed beard and eyebrows that could scare you if he scowled. But he seemed more the benevolent sort. The poorly repaired glasses slid off his head, a hand catching them at the last moment. I wondered if he’d ever traveled or had only labored away in this little book shop all his life, an armchair sojourner. Did he like other things or only words and pictures he could catalog, keep handy in their places?
“I was once. At least thought so–or that I could be. I so admired Cartier-Bresson. I hoped to emulate his style. Then I stopped. You know, how we stop doing something because there seems no good reason to keep on? One thing just replaces another.”
He considered this, looking out the window. “Yes. I sailed and lived all over the world for over a decade and then I was done. Have not been on a boat since. I bought this store and stuck with it. Lately there are far fewer customers. But it’s what I enjoy still. For now.”
He acted as if he was about to pull out a chair and make himself comfortable, so I stood up. I had to feed Dana, it was getting late and I was tired out.
But Parson persisted. “What about your pictures–do you miss taking them?”
“I haven’t thought of it in a good long while. Until today. Perhaps I have, after all.” I started to move away from the table.
“Well,” he said, “maybe start again.”
I picked up the book and took it to the counter. “I for certain know I want to buy this.”
He grinned at me, crooked teeth homely but nice. “Good. Which one did you especially enjoy?
He turned to it, peered at it a bit. “A fine capture of young lovers, in Paris, perhaps.”
“That was me… and Phillipe,” I said to my surprise and sudden embarrassment.
Parson raised those big eyebrows and his eyes grew huge. “That right? That’s marvelous, then, isn’t it?”
I paid for the book, a lot more than I expected. “Yes, I guess it really is. Quite a good memory but I value it because it’s by my idol. Henri Cartier-Bresson.”
“As well you should, Ms….”
“Just Natalie.” I half-winked at him, I don’t know why but it just seemed the right thing after all that.
“As well you should, Natalie, a wonderful find.”
“Yes, I’m so glad I came in. It’s a good bookshop. Thanks, Parson.”
“Jack, and I thank you, too.”
He offered his hand and I took it, held it a second or two, his palm slim but firm if aging, fitting into my bony, aging one.
“Goodbye for now, Jack.”
“Come back any time.”
I closed the door behind me and was swathed in a blanket of humid heat. But I hugged the book all the way home. I felt quite lucky at times in my life. Even with Emory, who had been kind if quite hard to bear as well. Weren’t we all. I did wonder what I’d find next at that bookstore. First I wanted to buy a good, cheap camera. I might tell Emory about that. Or even Jack.
“In the interest of my sanity, I must come to the conclusion that my household is in the grips of something I can no longer control. I surrender.”
“Enough is enough.”
“Yes, well then, he should be banished,” Father said, trying to downplay his amusement. “But it was only a water gun fight. They dripped mostly outdoors. They’re just big kids, themselves, I’m afraid. Soon they’ll be grown ups entirely with daunting or boring careers and flocks of their own.”
I could hear her slam the sun room door–not too hard–in response and wondered what he would do next. Likely nothing but continue reading his book and magazines. Mother would fume a bit longer then get out the china for dessert.
She was Mrs. Judith Lightness, wife of Charles Lightness, esteemed judge. Chic, civilized manager of house and garden. Our mother. Her words had floated outdoors. Their timbre rumbled like the engine of a tugboat, smallish yet still mighty. We heard them from the porch table. We had drinks after dinner, as usual, enjoying the way the garden brought us a sweltering sweetness of florals. My brother, Teddy. said nothing; he knew she was slow to expand her views when it came to impulsive activities. It was as if she had only tolerance for order, proscribed behaviors, despite the fact that she had only a moderate talent for the first and reportedly deviated from the second when she was younger.
Paul sipped a brandy and licked his lips, eyes on the giant trees that surrounded the garden. He was used to ignoring mother’s distress.
“Is that a black walnut?” He pointed. “I’ve always wanted to gather the nuts and make ink from them. I read how that can be done. I’d enjoy writing a smart letter to Meredith in walnut ink.”
Teddy laughed and requested more information. My ear was inclined toward the french doors despite a tiny upsurge of pleasure at his comment.
I looked up. Lillian poked her head through her upstairs window. She had her ratty stuffed elephant in hand and waved it at me. Then she pointed down below and made a face meant for mother. I thought she would drop the creature on Teddy but he was ignoring her, his head bent toward Paul’s. She had a habit of making it dive when someone was passing, tossing it down the staircase as company arrived. Leaving it in a pathetic heap so when I left my room I stumbled. It–Hildy, she called it–seemed to do things for her, a daredevil by proxy. Lillian was seven and a half years old. When could I slip it into the trash without igniting her fury?
“Meredith? What do you think?”
I looked back at the boys. They smiled as if something marvelous would be happening if I just gave them the go-ahead so I nodded.
“The ink? Why not? Or did I miss something? Whatever you say.”
“Splendid!” Paul swallowed the last of his drink and stood. “It’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll get supplies and begin immediately.”
“Wait! What am I being recruited to do?”
“Too late,” Teddy said with shrug, palms turned up. “We have a plan and you will help.”
Well, that was the problem. My twin and our adopted cousin developed schemes and often I was a part of them without quite knowing how it occurred. A few times I had spearheaded them, but generally I was more cautious, nicknamed “Merry Mouse” by Paul long ago. But their plans were like rumbas clothed as minuettes, and every time Paul arrived the music played on and on. I sometimes felt like a whirling dervish within days of his yearly arrival. Mother would have said we were struck by lightning, only to survive for yet another strike.
He was an adopted cousin because he was, in fact, adopted by my Uncle Joseph Dane in Newport (as opposed to Uncle Joey in Charleston or Uncle Joseph III in St. Louis). Joseph Dane, or J.D., and my Aunt Genisse tried to organically summon children but things didn’t take. They found an adoption agency operating out of New York while on vacation. They eventually found Paul at age five and the rest is history.
Ours, as well, I must say. Teddy and I were two years younger so Paul took the lead. In another couple of years the gap started to close. He was a curiosity with his foster home tales, long gaunt face and wide dark eyes that appeared surprised or befuddled. Neither of which was the case. Paul knew more about a room and its occupants when he walked into it than those who studied it at length. But the expressions, along with his horsey good looks, served him well. We adored him. He came for up to a month each summer. The habit stuck, except for the year he was at Harvard year around.
He had done well. We all had. I studied anthropology, uncertain of what direction was needed. Mother said anything with marriage as a secondary descriptor might be best. But despite being a female of twenty-two in nineteen sixty-four and typecast as a mouse, I had a secret hunger for adventure.
Lillian was dangling Hildy by one ear from the window she’d opened in her room. Teddy and Paul stood up. As soon as Paul headed toward the garage he passed beneath her window and bombs away, Hildy smashed Paul’s coiffed black hair. Teddy grabbed it as it bounced off and tossed Hildy to me, whereupon we were engaged in a rousing game of catch that elicited shrieks of protest from Lillian.
Mother came to the dining room’s double doors at the other end of the house, popped her head out and called out in a calmer manner. But she still meant business.
“Please return Hildy to her owner before the neighbors call 911.”
Paul had Hildy in his hands when Lillian buzzed him with her balsam wood glider. He ran inside to harass her, which she required.
It never ended. At this point one might think so. We were adults by objective criteria but Paul continued to find ways to subvert that reality. Teddy and I followed him at a leisurely pace. Mother’s head disappeared. I yelled back in passing.
“We’re coming, mother. I’ll have a small Dutch apple slice.”
Upstairs, Lillian’s pallid face was scrunched into her persimmon expression. Paul had squirted her once more with his water gun and dampened her bed. Teddy intervened, whereupon Paul hugged her and she squeezed back.
After they left she patted the bed for me to sit down. “Are you all going to do anything good this summer?”
“You mean, with you or in general?”
She shrugged but I felt the longing in that action.
“We usually do, with and without you. Expect nothing less this year.”
“Cousin Paul will be here awhile? Remember? I’m going to New York tomorrow. I hate seeing the doctor. The pokes and stuff.” She thrust out her lower lip but didn’t sniffle.
“Yes, unless mother marches him out the door, he’ll be here when you return. We have to be ready to defend him tonight when she fusses.”
Lillian tossed wispy blond hair from her eyes. “It’s all in or all out!”
I grabbed her hand and we went down for pie. That heralding cry had come from Paul–either do something full-on or don’t bother joining in.
The next day parents and Lillian had already left for New York when I awakened. Another check up. Lillian had energy-sapping anemia that curtailed her activities. They had tried a new medicine; every three months she had tests and an exam.
“What? Up way before noon? Did you have an attack of industriousness?” Teddy inquired of my presence.
Paul chortled and poured himself a cup of coffee. They were dressed in shorts, faded polo shirts and sneakers.
“How could I help myself? I have to see what you two are scheming.”
“Include yourself, Merry Mouse, in the undercover work. After breakfast meet us in the driveway. Tell no one you may see on the way.”
They left. I soon followed with my own cup of cream and sugar with strong coffee added to it. Breakfast could wait.
There was a small stack of lumber in front of the three car garage. Nearby sat four bags that looked heavy. A paint can and brushes waited in the shade. A large bench wrapped in plastic stood apart. They walked around the supplies as if they were as puzzled as I, then disappeared into the garage. It dawned on me what it might be when I found them searching through tools on the workbench and wall.
“I know you can hammer so grab one and come along,” Paul said and linked his arm through mine.
We worked well together. Over the years we had created forts, games and toys, sometimes poorly, other times with great success.
It took us longer than planned, nearly until dinnertime, and after showering off sweat and grime we re-convened for a meal.
“I hope it gets the right response,” Teddy said to me when Paul had left for a walk. “Otherwise it will have to be donated somewhere. We could have done better, I think.”
“How can it not? It turned out beautifully.”
“It’s reasonable to us but you know Mother might forbid it.”
“Please! Mother will have little to say when she sees how much fun it is.” I punched Teddy. “And don’t put it all on Paul. Anyway, Father will help. I hope.”
Paul suggested we go out for dinner to celebrate. When he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around my waist I thought he must be anxious. The night was balmy so we ate at an outdoor cafe, pleased in every way. Sloppy and a little rowdy, we walked arm in arm. It gave me pause to think how long we had been together, and scared me to think it might one day end.
When they returned our parents and sister were in improved spirits–the anemia seemed to be abating little by little. Her doctor was cautious but optimistic that Lillian would become more robust in time.
“But what’s going on in the back yard? Has someone constructed something? I saw several nails, which I narrowly missed and returned to the nail jar. Who to blame for that near-miss?”
That was Father. I thought we had placed our project far enough behind bushes and flowers groupings that it wouldn’t readily show, way in a back corner. There was no street view of the yard, so it was hidden from public probing–Mother would be relieved of that. Teddy and I stepped forward in concert. I made a sweeping gesture with my arm, pointing to porch and yard.
“I think we should go out and see the new addition to our yard.”
Mother made a clucking sound as she withheld questions. Paul led the way in the end but seemed slow-footed.
“Oh, you really did it! You made my wish come true!”
Lillian clapped her hands, then ran to the cheery orange sand box and nearly sat right down in it, floral dress be hanged, white shoes tossed onto the grass. But Paul hadn’t yet taken off the plastic from the bench or sand box in order to p[protect both. He did so, then suggested the parents sit down and relax. Lillian sat down with a sound plop. I had found a drapey coverlet to use as a canopy and Teddy and Paul had painted it. We had hung a string of colorful plastic flags on the bushes behind the bench.
“A sand box? Lillian, out of there at once. You have the wrong clothes on, in fact the whole thing is in unreservedly poor taste, the bugs, the mess, the possibilities of animals creeping into it and–”
“My darling Judith, hush for once! Let it be. They have done a very good thing here. A tiny play area right in our back yard. Her little friends will enjoy this, too.”
Mother turned to her husband, mouth agape, and then did as suggested. They watched their late-in-life child, their great surprise whom they adored piling up sand on her lap, digging with a toy spade and filling up plastic glasses and bucket we’d placed there, her toes seeking coolness below the surface.
“It was Paul’s idea,” Teddy started.
“Yes,” Lillian concurred, “he has the best ideas. Every time you guys do things, it’s good.”
Mother moaned. “Ridiculous, unnecessary things. My lovely yard…! Of course it has to be Paul. Why, dear nephew, must you always shake the boat? Visit every summer and give us such a time of it?”
He went to her side and took her hand. “It’s rock the boat, Auntie Judith, and it’s because I love you all so much,” he said, then kissed her cheek.
And that was that. Mother patted his arm and sat back. Lillian demanded I get Hildy and a few others to join her. Teddy brought out a tray of iced teas. Mother and father sat back on the attractive wood and wrought iron bench to watch Lillian play with Hildy and new sand tools.
Paul stretched his legs out and tapped my sandal with his shoe under the table. His eyes traced my face. “Well, gang, what next?”
“More fine madness, I expect,” Teddy answered. “Maybe we should build a swing set? Add another fountain? I saw a big one at the hardware yesterday.”
I was so pleased our Lillian could be given such simple fun; she had a challenging time of it. But I knew what Paul meant. I gazed at the summer sky as if nothing at all had occurred to me. But as a budding anthropologist I clearly had more real life research to do.
It came to that in the end, Max needing someone and Celia not needing much of anything as far as he knew. If she had required real cash, he wouldn’t have approached her. And if she’d been successful in New York, she wouldn’t even have been in town again to ask. Max expected her to jump at the chance but she played with him a few days.
“This little venue? I don’t know, Max. I could fit ten of these into one hole in the wall club in New York.”
“Yeah, but you’re not in the city, you’re back home to Marsh Cove after five years and it’s the beach, a hot tourist magnet now. At least you’ll have an audience who claps after a good stiff drink.”
That was a low blow but Max tended to tell it like it was. Though he could be wrong, it had been awhile. He wanted to take a chance on her.
She twirled coppery waves about a forefinger, studied the glossy ends as if they held a needed clue. “You’re still a piece of work, you know that, Cuz? I have to consult my weekly and monthly agendas. I’ve got plenty to do. And do not need any measly charity offering.” She tossed her head back, grinned at him with startling white teeth, narrowed her eyes. “You aren’t offering a dime, are you?”
Max shrugged, refilled her new coffee cup and brought her the last almond bear claw to gnash on despite having hidden it for himself before the breakfast rush. He knew it wouldn’t take her long. She missed singing, she’d confided in his wife.
Celia was, it was true, well occupied since marrying Van Gibbs, nursery and garden supply chain owner as well as aspiring county politico. He was gentrifying the crap out of their town, buying up this and that. They had met after Celia returned with her supreme confidence wrung out of her. Well, she wasn’t all that fabulous a singer from what Max could tell though he did possess what his wife called “the worst tin ear in the county” as he hummed about the house. He loved both those women, he was open to learning more.
It had been many years since Celia had sung in Marsh Cove. Bonnie insisted Celia was always underappreciated for her real talents. Bonnie insisted she had “a kind of charisma, sumptuous looks plus a supple, sultry voice that carried well.” That was Bonnie, lots of adjectives to cover the territory. Max thought, well, okay, no wonder Van Gibbs had taken to her when he’d settled into that huge glass and steel eyesore at the edge of town. And she, to be grudgingly fair, to him. Maybe it would work out.
Max had always thought his second cousin was more than just okay. She had a fast, good wit and that hair which he also got looked better on her. She was just a good egg. But he was primarily interested in drawing more people into Maxim’s, his medium-fine restaurant –and his wife’s bookstore, Bonnie’s Book Nookery–and Celia could work for peanuts. Bonnie tried to persuade him to call the tiny bar addition Max’s Rookery due to resident crows in trees at that end of their building. She said it was sure to go over big, she with the big vocabulary. (He worried she’d succeed in making them twins–Bonnie’s Nookery and Max’s Rookery?–as she’d tried a few times to buy them matching t-shirts.) He’d agreed to The Rook–that was an actual name of a crow, right? Bonnie kissed him. And they agreed maybe Celia could sing once or twice a week.
Three days later Celia came by one afternoon between lunch and dinner rush. Looked all over The Rook with Max trailing behind her.
“See, it’s got a piano now, we just need a player.”
“If that’s what you call a piano!”
She ran up and down the keys. He had had it tuned up so she couldn’t complain much.
“Where’d you get it, on the street corner?”
“Naw, Tim sold it to me for a pittance. He’s moving into a condo. It’s okay, then?” He wanted to encourage her without seeming too solicitous as he felt it very important they have music. His budget was slim to start up the bar.
Celia nodded absentmindedly as she wandered about, touching the tray of glasses readied, the few lamps, the attractive chairs and homely tables. “It feels cozy I agree, not too cute. With the lights low at night it might do. For the tourists, anyway…You know, I might do it for fun. For a break from Van’s constant politicking, having to do fancier cooking, helping with his schedule and calls and…” She turned, smiled wistfully. “Marriage, huh? A rusty roller coaster some days, but you know he’s a good guy.”
He didn’t know that for sure, they all had dinner only three times. Max thought Van was well on his way to seriously uppity. Max sincerely hoped his cousin would not follow the man’s lead. Max also felt his marriage was his true good luck charm. Bonnie and he never fought– well, maybe a few hours silent treatment that further aggravated the hell out of him. But they made up well.
“Look, I can give you maybe ten percent of the gross, if and when I can, that’s all for starters.”
“Oh, I don’t want that pittance, Max, I want a few hours to enjoy myself. Who do we have to accompany me or is that up to me to figure out?”
“What about Trusty ole Tim?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, alright, I’ll talk to him and see what he can still plunk out on the keyboard. But if he’s lost his touch, I’ll root out someone decent. You better pay the piano player, singers come and go but a good piano player….just can’t beat ’em.”
Max constrained his show of delight and just patted her fondly on the back, then they chatted about hours to stay open, number of customers for peak hours, which sort of drinks to offer. He secretly wondered if she would like to invest. He thought Celia had a great head for business despite an aversion to it. And she was all in as long as she got something out of it, too. It was a family trait. The LaLondes all did fine in business, even in small ways.
Van Gibbs might not even know just who he had married. But he was sure to find out.
Friday night, eight-thirty, and so far there were seven customers. The pace held thirty-six, tops. Max had poked his head in during a half hour break the restaurant. Tried to not panic, first night to open. He’d hired a bartender and waitress and when Tim bowed out they’d had to find another guy. Young Eddie came from Rock Point, forty minutes away. But he was playing good tunes, sounded darned good as far as Max could tell. He’d trusted Celia and Bonnie on that.
And there she was now, coming into The Rook with a dress on that Max imagined been worn during her few moments of glory in the city. It was a dark blue but shone in the dim light, yet still outdone by her mass of hair swept up high.
“Max, you need to keep the door open, open all the windows, too. Stuffy in here. Don’t you want people to hear the music down the street and come looking?” Celia tugged the point of his open collar and laughed. “Opening night jitters. Me, too, silly, isn’t it? I go on in a half hour, so what can I do now?”
She sat near the door, greeted anyone who stuck a noses in while Max checked on the bar. Soon there were two more, then four. It was a beautiful night cooled by salt sea air, jasmine drifting on the tail end of a breeze, and moon a glinting crescent. They needed a patio to the side, Max decided, then told himself: one thing at a time. He returned to the restaurant just as Bonnie came in but promised to come back in a minute.
“I’m here to cheer you on,” she told Celia, settling her bulk into a chair.
“I don’t know about this idea…I’m nervous, they can see me too well, maybe pull the closer tables back. Eddie is so good, right? We practiced but this kid just picks things up, amazing, really.”
“He’s not much of a stone’s throw from your age, darlin’. And you always improvised fine. It’ll be a kick for you both.”
“Okay then, I’m diving in, wish me luck.”
Bonnie kissed her chubby fingertips then tossed her one. Max walked back in just in time. Celia Lalonde was a sight up there next to the chambray-shirted young man who sported shoulder length, sun-spun hair. Bonnie thought they smiled warmly at one another and the gathering listeners. Fact was, he sounded much better than good; he had talent he needed to put to the test in the city, himself. Pity Celia came back after barely five years–but perhaps good for them, their bar venture. Well, the place looked good enough to start. Maybe sage green candles next time, candle holders of shells. Or small smooth stones. Or gold glittery stuff?
Max stodd before the piano. People loved to drink in order to talk louder and more in a bar, he thought, but they quieted enough as he welcomed everyone. The half dozen.
“I want to welcome you to my snug new bar, The Rook, one of the LaLonde family businesses in Marsh Cove and beyond! My cousin came back from New York, lovely voice intact, and we are the better for it, as she sure sings pretty! Give a big hand to Celia LaLonde and the piano player from Rock Point, Eddie Reed!”
A spattering of applause, a whistle or two, glass clinking about in glasses. Max took a seat by Bonnie. How could he even know if Celia still had it? It was only a little bar but it was to be his bar. He wanted it to work. He wanted Celia to make good on finishing touches, make it happen, he couldn’t say why exactly, maybe how she avoided talking about her nine months old marriage. Unless it was to note her husband’s progress financially and politically. There was something unsettling in her eyes despite the megawatt smiles. He felt she would like this bar to pan out as much as he, though she’d made light of it.
Eddie ran his hands over keys, those opening notes, and Celia grasped the mic, wide eyes roving over tables, willing empty spots to fill. Was she an absolute idiot to try to sing again, even in tiny, now trendy Marsh Cove? All she needed to do was two, thirty minute sets, that was it. Eddie had agreed to an hour more if Max gave him the cue. She closed her eyes. Her bright lips parted and she took a deep breath in, then let it loose and like that she set off to rise on a crest of song. And there she was getting a hold on the notes, stuttering a bit, then soon a-glide.
People leaned into their drinks as they looked up at her; talked softly, then stopped. Max watched a man slip his arm around his lady and hug her close. Saw a couple stand in the doorway, then come in and seat themselves, eyes on the musicians, then a younger man slip in, sidle up to the barkeep. Celia’s voice slipped over space like an incoming velvet tide, that’s what Bonnie thought as she, too, closed her eyes so as not to catch Celia’s gaze and make her anxious. And to feel those smoky notes move closer, linger inside her weary head. She hummed along. Max watched his wife some then kissed her cheek and headed to the restaurant. He had made a pretty good decision. They all had, he thought, as he threw a last look at his surprising cousin.
Eddie was playing the heck out of the piano but he was also watching Celia, seeing nuances taken in, felt while forming in her body, her mind. Her voice rang clear and rich, a thing of magic like molasses poured on anything, a ticket to somewhere better in any way you might want. He was captured by chords his hands made and the center of her lustrous notes, overcome by piano and vocal music becoming one. He leaned into the ebony and ivory keys, gave it his all. People were coming in, listening. He was playing with a singer who knew about the soul of songs. He felt something free up, flew into sound.
She had found it again, that spot, that moment, the center of things. The note fluid, vibrant, revealing to her the parts that moved in joyous balance. Moved her. Held her together. Celia surrendered so the music danced and beckoned and soothed, voicings of dark and light, of sorrow and longing and a thrill of happiness. Her eyes fell upon Eddie’s and they somehow knew what came next, next, next. They were making such music and it remade them as they went, reached out to listeners, found them there.
Van Gibbs entered the amber-shadowed rooms. He felt his strong pulse rise, the heat of summer and desire gather in his veins. He saw her there, apart. Listened long and deeply. Celia filled up the whole room. She made it a secure refuge, a testy ride, a tinder box, a cave of want and need. Who was this woman who was singing of moody life, chances found and lost, that silver magic of a big old moon? Had he married her and not even known the real story? Was she in a simple disguise with him, her true self revealed in a spotlight?
Beside her sat Eddie, pounding keys with precision, teasing them with delight. He kept an eye on her, sometimes on the room. He was so skilled and attuned that Van knew the two of them together could even become extraordinary. It shook him up, Van the wily guy, the rich guy, right then and there.
He saw this and knew he could lose his new wife. To this music. Or that piano player. He ordered a drink and pulled up a chair in a paltry little humid room that was filling up, a room rowdy with applause and cheers. Rested his chin in his hands, wondering.
Celia laughed, shook out the thick fall of red hair, bowed slightly. Face hot, eyes clear, mind razor sharp. Every cell was responding. She dabbed her forehead with a napkin then nodded at Eddie. He began again and she joined in. Her voice melded with the piano’s and off they went.
It was a modest bar in a beachy place, her funny hometown. But she was on the verge of enchantment again, one song after another. It was all Celia needed to be content in the entire world, that was certain. For now. For one finely suspended moment.
He didn’t like to take “no” for an answer if there was any hope, at all, so he went back again. He had passed the house once only and it struck him as a beacon in the dark. It was large, had a good veranda, was painted a stone grey, and he could see a portico at a side entrance. More importantly, in the parallel yard nestled by a back fence was a smaller dwelling painted a Wedgwood blue that needed a touch-up. A hand lettered “For Rent” sign was hung haphazardly by twine on its doorknob. It compelled him to stop and ask about it.
Jim Jameson, as tall as they came in those parts, swung open the door, leaned down to study the stranger to take in Van’s interest in renting the tiny cottage and said, “No. Not for rent right now.”
“But there’s a sign on the door announcing it’s for rent.”
“That was last week. I changed my mind. ”
And with that Mr. Jameson took the steps two at a time, huffed and strode over to the dwelling and yanked off the sign. He put it face down on the ground, scowled at the younger man who’d followed him and barked, “I’ve changed my mind. A man can be of two minds and oscillate, can’t he? Today, it is certainly not for rent. So excuse me, I’ll say good day now and good luck.”
Van wandered after that, thinking things over. He hadn’t been back to Chesterfield since he’d left Chesterfield College his second year. He’d never expected to return. But life did turnabouts in ways that baffled him. His old father died so the family business, Warrington Jewelry, Ltd., met its own untimely end. He’d grudgingly worked for him fifteen years, ever since Walt Warrington was unwell with a worsening heart. There were not more appealing options then and his mother had passed several years earlier, so it was up to him. They had long dealt in vintage items, fine jewelry; they’d managed well enough, or so he thought, keeping a pleasant home and bills paid.
Van had little idea there were old debts stirring up secret dismay and stress in his father. Why had he waited until the end to tell him the truth? And Van worried extra college costs had further jeopardized the business–and to what end? By the time Van got the mess untangled and debts paid off, there was not so much left. Nothing enticing in the hometown, either. He had managed to keep a precious few thousand after all was addressed, so he took a needed break from the misery.
Although one might argue that Chesterfield was nothing much, either, it had two colleges, one for medical degrees (Health Sciences Junior College), the other for liberal arts. Van had attended the liberal arts college on a partial scholarship, thinking of teaching high school kids. He hadn’t quit due to poor grades or lack of interest, it was more complicated than that, enough that he’d given it up and re–entered the family business.
After all had been squared away and sold, even the family house, after two peaceful but lonely weeks camping in state parks he’d had a happier idea. What if he went back to where things were better, before they got worse? Chesterfield had inspired him once; it might again. So he’d driven five hours toward that wavering glimmer of possibility and started looking for a place of his own. And then things got weird.
Van got a cheap room night just three blocks away and decided after his odd encounter about the cottage to inquire about Jim Jameson at the Pub ‘n Grub.
“I was interested in renting the little place he’s got but he flat out turned me away. There was a large ‘For Rent’ sign.”
“Big Jim?” The bartender said, shaking his neat head of dark hair. “He’s something, isn’t he? Teaches economics and world history at Chesterfield College. Married a gal who had just graduated, an artist. We all liked his wife a lot. They came in Friday nights for burgers and fries, a couple beers.” He paused wiping down the counter to check out Van from beneath bushy eyebrows. “You’re new in town, right? Don’t know too many who aren’t anymore, what with yearly expanded college campuses.”
“Well,” Van said, “I am, but not entirely. I used to live here as one of those invading students long ago. Left after two years to work in the family business, though. Now I’m back for awhile, anyway. My father died so I’m looking for work again and a place.”
“Sorry to hear of your loss. The town has changed a bit, no doubt. More people, more work in some areas, less in others. What was the business you owned?”
“It ended with my father…we bought and sold good vintage jewelry.”
The bartender stuck out his hand and Van took it. “I’m Bart Tilley, by the by. Been here since before you came around the first time. Don’t believe I knew you then but now we’re acquainted.” He pushed another beer over. “On me this time, then it’s yours to pay.”
“Thanks, Van Warrington here. I lived in the dorms on the other side of town. Hoped to be a teacher; had a dream back then. So what can you tell me about that rental property situation?”
Bart lifted a finger to indicate Van should hold the thought while he waited on more customers. The place was filling up; it was after eight. Van was suddenly exhausted from the drive, from looking for housing he could afford, from a few surges of muted grief which he could not quite name as such. Only a marrow deep weariness was recognized. He was on the verge of change, he felt it, but nothing good had happened yet.
Bart slid back and inclined his head close to Van’s. “She died, his wife, ovarian cancer. Big Jim has not been himself for awhile now. Gotten surly. He often decides to rent the place and then just as fast to un-rent it. You may as well look elsewhere. You seem like a good guy. I’ll ask around. But it was her studio, she was a potter. Good stuff. Sad story. Hey, by the way, there’s a new, hip jeweler taking over Dundee’s Diamonds and Gold downtown. In the big green building, just stop by, see if they need your expertise.”
Bart left him with that news as he got too busy to return. But he looked over his shoulder and frowned, rubbed his bristly jaw when Van was looking across the bar, mulling his own thoughts over.
Well, Van thought, that poor guy, no wonder. He went to his motel room. As he lay with hands tucked behind his head late into the noisy night, he mused, Jewelry appraisal, buying, selling–is that what I’ll have to do again? And then: Bart is alright, he seems solid, I’ll go back sometime and see what he’s heard–if he meant it.
But the next morning he returned to Big Jim’s house. He loved that part of town and imagined the rent more than workable for such a small abode.
Big Jim opened the door, looked Van up and down, shook his head sadly then closed it. Van remained on the veranda, turned toward the wide tree-lined street and looked over graceful lawns upon which stood old, well kept two-story houses. They had called this “Professor Row” in contrast to “Student Row” streets. He had sometimes ridden over on his bike, gawked at the pretty houses and dreamed of making it there, himself, in ten years. Ten years that had slipped away.
The door partly opened once more. “Why are you still here? I have a class in a half hour, I don’t have time to shoo you away every five minutes.” He hunched his thin shoulders as if he was too defeated to stand up and appear otherwise. “I don’t think I can rent it, it’s that simple. So for now, no deal.”
“Yes, I get it, Bart told me it was your…wife’s studio. I’m sorry she passed.” Big Jim only looked over Van’s head into the distance a wistful moment. “I love its appearance. I like this street. I need a place that is affordable and have money in the bank and can find work as a jeweler. Or something.”
“Right, a jeweler, that’s what I need here. If you’d said landscape maintenance person I might consider it a moment.” He gestured around the overgrown yard, flowers blooming out of control, rows of hedges in grave need of pruning. “But I don’t plan to lease it just yet. As already noted.”
“So you know, I can do that, too. My father had an imposing yard in Pineville and worsening ill health. I helped at home, the business he had. He died last fall.”
“I see.” Big Jim came outside, let the screen door bang, its whiny hinges scraping the still air.
Am I playing on his sympathies? Van wondered. But what I say is true. He was surprised when Big Jim gestured toward two dark blue painted wicker chairs nearby. He took a seat after his host did.
“Thanks for taking time to talk. I sure would appreciate this place, I have to get settled somewhere soon.”
“It’s not a proper house but part getaway and more a serious potter’s studio…a kitchenette, a tiny alcove for a couch or mattress…” He deflated more as his voice trailed off.
“I get that–not wanting others to live in it. Must be hard to see it there every day.”
“It was her refuge as well as work space, you see. I think she was happiest there. Married thirteen years, all we had. She got sick four years ago, died two years later. I just ignored the studio until recently.” He stopped himself, sat up and turned toward the congenial, pleasant looking man, perhaps the earlier end of middle age. “Well. And your name again?”
“Van Warrington. I studied education at Chesterfield College for a couple years, fifteen years ago. Then had to leave. But I understand that you don’t want to let anyone use the cottage, so I may as well move on and–”
“Cottage. That’s what she called it, her Potter’s Cottage, all six hundred twenty-four square feet of it. Look, Van Warrington, I have to go teach a blasted class now but stop by tomorrow and we’ll talk a bit more if you like.”
They said a hasty farewell and each went his own way. Van felt a stirring of hope. He wondered what sort of pottery she had made. He still wondered if the cottage might be rented in good time, and for how much. He went back to the motel, sat on his bed for awhile, trying to shake off drowsiness. He picked up his camera, put a few resumes in his backpack, then walked toward Stone River so he might follow its meander through soothing greens and floral cheer of Chesterfield. Maybe he’d stop by that jewelry store. Maybe not.
Jim Jameson found his way to the studio as he did each morning sleep eluded him before dawn arrived. He glanced at the kiln outdoors, then unlocked the door and pocketed the key for safety , patted it inside the fabric as if it were an amulet. There was the still clay-coated potter’s wheel to right of the door. She liked to keep windows and door propped wide open in good weather as she worked, to encourage a fresh breeze. To move and out to think and use the kiln. There was the salvaged farmer’s double sink with cracked muddy splotches, and bags of clay lined up along the west wall. Cupboards hung above containing supplies of various sorts–he knew so little of it. On the east side were many shelves with last finished pieces crowding each other, bowls, mugs, plates, trays– and small free form sculptures not meant to resemble anything so much as a sensuous curve of a hill or a waterfall in mountains. It was the glazes that set them off, glossy or matte vibrant autumnal tones she loved, and natural textures she created.
“Used to create,” he said in the dusty stillness, and took all in as long as he could stand it, not going near the day bed where she used to sometimes fall asleep and remain all night. More often than he’d wished. The worn coverlet with vines on rusty colored and quilted fabric was where it was when she died, the pillow scrunched up as she’d liked it.
But would she want it this way forever? Like a memorial to a life she once led but left behind? And without any serious complaint, he had to agree.
Jim blinked bloodshot eyes to dispel their dampness, shut the door softly, locked it and went into his house to make coffee. He took a stack of papers to grade into his study as he waited for Van Warrington to arrive.
When Van came and accepted the offer to enter the house, it was as if he remembered something, but he didn’t know what it might be. There was a familiarity about it but then, many of the houses were like this one and he had been in quite a few over those two years. Parties, a few suppers with profs’, study sessions at profs’, visiting friends who had snagged a shabbier version of such a house to share with five others. It could be the evocation of a time he lived, is all.
He followed Big Jim into the study. The walls were made of books and the scatter rug was a large old Persian. The light was dim, the room warm. It was early and too humid. The clouds outside regrouped, gathered more steam for rain.
They sat on the velvety burgundy sofa. On the coffee table was just that–a carafe of coffee next to cream and sugar in cut glass bowl and pitcher. Jim poured one mug then a second for Van.
“So, I’m wondering just why I’m here,” Van said when silence settled between them a moment. He could hear a grandfather clock ticking, looked for but saw none.
“I thought I’d tell you more before you further considered how much you may desire to live there.”
“Alright. I guess.” The cottage was partly visible from the side bay window. Van wanted to see the inside but willed himself to be patient then drank the strong coffee.
“We built it right soon after we married because she decided to make art, not teach it–though she did teach a few workshops each year. It was easy to agree to anything she wanted. She was younger than I by nine years and had a laugh like gently falling water… and a smile that snared everyone who saw her. She had the kind of beauty that caught you off guard not because it was dazzling but because it was quietly unassuming, natural but unmistakable. Sweet and a tad zany at once.”
Van drank more, uncrossed his ankles. He felt embarrassed by the details shared. Was the professor going to wax on and on about his deceased wife? He should be kinder; Van was sure the woman was lovely and very talented. But he wasn’t a grief counselor, not even this man’s friend. He had his own sadness to sort out. Was this woman’s essence never going to let go of the man? It hovered about him, a cloak of sweet sorrow.
Van understood how that could feel. But Van didn’t speak of it, at least not to strangers.
Big Jim went on. “She had such a knack for pottery–she fully discovered it after she got her B.A.– that it was only a matter of time before she sold them at art fairs, then galleries were interested. She began to make money at it. But mostly she loved what she did. I was never creative. I’m a man of strict numbers and political pondering, neither of which interested her much. I don’t create a thing but decent meals.” He scanned his bookshelves as of there was something there he must recall. “But she was so vibrant, she shook me up. I wasn’t a fool; I knew she needed the security I offered her so she could be a potter. I didn’t care. Just to be near her, to know she was out there every day, would be here most of the time when I returned from work….” He covered his eyes with a large hand. “I will not marry again.”
Van felt a sharp twinge. He knew some of what Jim spoke about. But he had to move on, learn about the cottage availability.
“It must be wonderful to have such a marriage, Jim. And I’m truly sorry she got sick/ And died. I suspect you’re right–this is not the right time for you to rent it out. I appreciate your telling me how important it is to keep as it was. I couldn’t live there. honestly, knowing how you feel. I hope you’ll excuse my bothering you.”
He was feeling short of breath, as if the room was hotter and smaller than it was and he was taking up too much air and room by by sitting there. It was a little creepy listening to such longing, as if he was overhearing a confession of something more intimate or complicated but he didn’t know what. He began to stand up.
“Still, she’s want me to share her cottage with the right person. I feel Lily would like you.”
Van sank to the chair. Tiny hairs on the back of Van’s neck stood up. He felt vaguely nauseous. “What did you say her name was?”
Big Jim unfolded his clasped hands and gestured toward the cottage as if she was out there waiting for them to decide what was next. “Lily. Lily Hunter Jameson.” He stood and looked out the window. “My dear wife for far too short a time.”
Van had to leave the room. He wanted to crawl out on hands and knees, he felt weak and unable to stop the spinning of his mind, the unreal sense of everything there. Lily Hunter! The bright young woman he had fallen in love with the moment he had met her in freshman composition. The woman he’d wanted to be with the rest of his natural born days. The woman who loved him right back with her stirring spirit and searching mind, her resonant body like an instrument made of fantastic music–as if she had waited only and ever for him and could never let him go.
Except she did. Back in college she in fact was falling for someone else, she confessed so one spring day after they picnicked in the riverside park. Someone more established and secure in life. She had to be an artist–he surely could understand that, couldn’t he? And the man knew exactly what she needed whereas Van, truth be told, sometimes needed too much, gave more than she could easily handle. She need energy left to create.
He never knew who it was but now he was staring at the back of a very tall, thin man, an accomplished, kindly man who so loved her still. A man more secure and well off. A man who adored her from afar as long as she had lived.
Van left the room as swiftly as he could, as if he was being run out, without a backward glance, tripping down the steps of the lovely veranda, past the cottage he would never look at again. He started up his car and drove to Stone River, then got out. Such an ache that dug into his center. How could this have happened? Was she not done hurting him, chasing him after death, mocking him after all these years? Or had Big Jim Jameson figured out who he was? No, that would be too uncanny and cruel…
“Get a hold of yourself, Van!” he said aloud as the river swept by. Let it go.
“”Yeah, man, come on, it’s just a place to rent that you need,” Bart said as he lightly punched him on the shoulder.
“Hey Bart–what are you doing here?” Van threw a rock into the muddy current.
“You look pale as a…oh, wait, you’ve been talking to Big Jim about his haunted cottage. Listen, I tried to tell you–nice guy, but kinda nuts these days. Pay him no mind. I have a place for you, it’ll be fine.”
“What? Just like that?”
“I’ve lived here fifty eight years. I know things.” his glance slid over Van. “Like who you are.”
Van felt a strong need to move away from Bart or to push him. This town–he had thought this could be a good move.
“Wait, Van, I knew Lily a long time, too. She used to come into the bar and cry on my shoulder. Everyone does, right? It’s my job. But, yeah, she came in after she married Big Jim and drank a little much and finally told me how she’d ended up with the wrong man but it was too late for her and Van…how much she loved you, that she lost you. But I don’t think her husband ever knew the truth. She had to carry on with her life, didn’t she? A really good potter, a finer woman. My friend, glad to say. I miss her–she was a lively gal when she wasn’t swimming in regrets.”
Van gave Bart a hard look then turned away. He was ready to wake up from the unnerving dream he was stuck in. All he had to do was concentrate on the three dimensional world. He took in the trees’ lush greenery, the polished picnic table, three children laughing at river’s edge with their father. He listened to his heartbeat against his ribs, just beyond his shirt, ba-duh, ba-duh, ba-duh.
“I mean: Van. Your name is one you don’t forget! Old fashioned, kinda like Lily’s. I thought it was you when we met…and I had to say she did love you, buddy. She made a kind of mistake that couldn’t be undone easily so she was in it for life, she said, with Big Jim Jameson, a decent man. It just turned out it wasn’t for that long.”
As he steadied himself on a picnic table–newer, cleaner than the one he and Lily had used years ago–he slowly sat on the bench. Felt the strength leave him and run into the sky, river, ground.
Bart grabbed his arm. “Hey, take some slow deep breaths. It’s a lot, no need to rush into understanding it all. It’s a tough story.”
Van straightened up. Sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs. He felt better in a few minutes. But he felt half-undone. He jutted his chin into storm-prescient air. He was a man who knew how to make the best of things, wasn’t he?
“Yeah, a lot to take in. To think about later. It happened. But it’s over, done. The past can’t hurt us unless we invite it to do damage.” He felt Bart nodding agreement beside him. “Okay. I heard you say you have a room? If I stay, that is?”
“Oh, stay awhile. It’s a small bungalow on the west side. If you have cash and get yourself a job soon, it’s yours in two weeks. I own it so that’s a solid.”
Van felt like he had been taken too far back to make a victorious step forward. But hearing Bart give him new information made him recall his life was just a life like any other. There had been good breaks and bad, quirks and bad timing. Deeper pangs. But he believed better times were possible. It was his way and it was what made the best sense to him right now. That, and Lily loving him all along even as she cared for Big Jim. She was some woman.
She did not desire to visit the country much less live there, with its hidden creatures and ominpresent dirt. Nor anywhere other than their condo with a glass walled view of colorful, heaving throngs on streets below and a daily, even hourly variance of traffic patterns that created soothing and lively background for her work. And the ships leaving with horns blowing and trains trundling down more distant tracks.
Vera drew and painted just a few feet from that view so she wouldn’t be unduly distracted. Though her work was mostly cityscapes, this framed scene was hers and somehow intimate. Thus, not for sharing with strangers. Possessiveness was part of her; she held on to what she needed, was loathe to part with certain things and certainly persons.
The condo was one of them. They had lived there for over ten years, Vera and Putnam (“Put”) Rawlings, and it was the haven they had hoped it would be. He wrote and she made art and they were happier than imagined when meeting twelve years ago at an artists’ residency. Faster than expected–they worked taxing hours, doing even more than they had to but then they made their way into galleries and two museums and onto bookshelves and in libraries and into a fine spot on the tenth floor.
So why did Put want to move now? Unless to another floor above them, a bigger place, perhaps. But her erudite husband could be capricious. And single-minded when he had a wish to fulfill.
“Not entirely move, just acquire a little week-end place, a summer place.”
“How bourgeois of you, a quaint summer cottage,” she laughed, and dabbed a wash of purple and smidge of black then pearly grey onto the damp watercolor paper. “We’d miss so much in the city, week-ends are teeming with things to encounter and do.”
“It’s Chicago, there’ll not be a lack of cultural events if we go away for week-ends now and again. And summer is not the peak performance season in some areas, anyway. Come on…”
“You can’t be serious.” Vera looked him full face to discern the intent of these statements and felt a frisson of anxiety. “I won’t do it. I can barely stand dirt, the way it clings to everything. Me. You know I don’t like bugs up close and personal. I don’t even like to put my feet underneath a picnic table in the park, you never know.” She swished her brushes about in a big plastic cup of water and turned around. “Why are you even thinking of it?”
“I need inspiration. More quiet. I need to step outside and put my feet on ground, not pavement.”
“Your new book drafts are not going as well hoped, I know…but really, the countryside will not further your creative flow, believe me, it will only disturb your focus–all those mice and snakes, wasps and bees.”
She sidled up to him, put arms about his neck and drew him close, put her forehead to his and closed her eyes, beaming her will at him. But Put lifted her arms, let them drop.
“I’ve looked awhile now, sorry to inform you and I found one online that seems perfect. Not so much money and a companionable size. I’m going up this week-end to have a look around. I hope you’ll come along.”
With that he turned and retreated to his study. Vera padded after him, long coral dress billowing in an air conditioned draft. She leaned against the door jamb. She didn’t enter his study unless invited, generally. One thing she wanted was her own good studio space, not just the high-ceilinged living room by windows. It meant she had to put her art supplies in boxes at bottom of their closet each time they entertained. She felt second class with the arrangement but his study had poor light and was too small for her liking, anyway. And he didn’t like to look at any views when writing–“too many odds and ends of stories played out there,” he’d said.
“What on earth are you doing? Making unilateral decisions about something you know I am against…”
Put remained facing the desk. “I had to take charge of this situation and do what makes sense to me for once. I need a change. This may be it. Besides, I love the country, you already knew that. It’s near a lake, you do like water.”
“I do not, there are blood suckers there. Snakes that wrap around your legs and fish that bite your toes and lake muck.”
And with that he started to type again, murmuring, “I’m leaving Friday around three. Takes two hours, I’m told.”
He kept plunking one word after another onto the glimmering screen. She felt like slapping the doorjamb in a fit but left him to his work, pulling the door closed.
Put knew she expected they live in the city. As an urban artist that made the most sense–he could write anywhere–and he’d also concluded she was a little OCD about dirt and wildness. He hadn’t questioned it much. Should he?
Vera put her face close to the window pane, palms pressed alongside and making warm, damp outlines on the glass. Her heart was charging past her thoughts; she was dizzy when she glanced down ten stories. All those decent people and cars and trucks and shops. They were tiny as miniatures, she could scoop them up if she was only a giantess but she felt she, too, was shrinking by the second. Her world was being altered by Put’s whims masked as serious needs, and she had that sinking feeling: powerlessness.
She squeezed eyes tightly to block it all out, but the past took its place. Running, galloping into the present.
The country. She deeply and irrevocably did not want to go to that country.
All the way there she slept or was on the verge of sleep. Vera had not slumbered much the night before so drank a large glass of wine after breakfast. Put frowned at that b ut didn’t chastise her. He knew this was hard for her. His main objective was to get to the lakeside village of Callaway before dark. Hers was to stop him from making a foolish decision and she felt wine might fortify her.
A burgeoning community of trees enveloped them. Put whistled tunelessly. Vera opened one eye to see them encroach upon the state highway, their sedan. The sun got brighter, air became clearer and her breathing, faster. She rolled her window up, then down, then up, twisted in her seat.
“I think you’re going to like the house if it is anything what it appears to be. Alright, a cottage, a very old one but it has character, I can tell.” His spritely mood grated on her.
“‘Character’ means rundown, Put, not attractive and desirable. Likely nobody else will have it.”
Why was she being so resistant, verging on insensitive, even mean? he wondered. Was it because he’d gotten a hefty advance for his third book while she’d had trouble with her last series of paintings? Well, another reason he’d wanted to look at the place was to provide both with new environs, a set of unknowns to engage them in different ways.
Or was it simply because she hadn’t lived in the country since she was ten? After her father left her mother and she, with him. It had not been a good time of her life, he knew that but divorces happen, and she’d grown up happier with him in Chicago. The man wremained a fine florist and she by all accounts was a developing artist and a happy helper. Yet, she did not now favor a spectrum of plants, seldom added flowers to their minimalist decor. He thought she even suffered from a paucity of nature’s delights, and he was not the most outdoorsy man. A thinker, a better spectator than doer– well, a writer of philosophical matters, darker than light-filled, subtly ironic literature. But he was a nature nut when he was a kid. It was their city attitude he hoped to challenge, to loosen with a part time stay in the country. He did like to sit on their balcony, watch the seasons play out their dramas.
He might even cut some wood if they wintered there. He accelerated, dodged in and out of swift shadows.
Vera was sound asleep by the time they arrived at a tiny real estate office at village edge. He left her in her seat and met with Darlene Howe.
“It just came on the market; you’re only the second person to view it,” Darlene informed him with a gregarious smile and handshake. “Follow me.”
“Are we at the end of the road yet? The dead end, I might note,” she murmured. “Can I just view it from the comfort of our Volvo?”
“No, Vera, time to get out and face the future with me.” He touched her nose and lips with index fingertip, then kissed her on a pale cheek. “Be brave, we’re only taking a look at it.”
She felt welded to the seat, so unwilling was she to join in, but Darlene was waiting for her, Put was staring at rustling treetops with a show of childlike pleasure. What did he know about trees and other green matter with roots that grew like tentacles into dense earth and took hold with wretched tenacity? Yes, it was magical. But whether good or not, well, she was of two minds–the florist’s and the wood nymph’s.
Her mother had floated around with butterflies, light as air and as erratic, too, though Mother would have said that butterflies did have a path they followed, we just couldn’t map it. Vera had wondered why her mother had acted like she was an interpreter of such things but now knew why.
The single story, dingy white cottage with blue trim had a blue door that was opening. If she went through it she might be swallowed up, but Vera yanked herself back from twenty years ago, she was not a child, this was now. Put was dear to her and would not leave her alone to bear the vicious pounce of an unknown fate. She was watchful, nonetheless. The trees and birds and scrabbling squirrels possibly watched back.
There were hydrangeas restrained by a peeling white picket fence and though it was almost too quaint in effect, they were encouraging. She had put together many an extravagant bouquet with the showy blue-to-purple flowers. As Put and Darlene entered the cottage, she lingered until a group of squirrels started to harangue each other. She gazed down the road; there were a handful of places, all undisturbed, most in need of some upkeep. She longed to see an older, smiling woman pop out, a regular cottage dweller who might share some gravity, tell her how wonderful it was and safe, full of community cohesion. Because Vera knew Put would buy this cottage if he liked it well enough. He’d had that look the moment he’d mentioned it: as if his life would was paused at a crossroads, ready to charge into happy fullness of a country gentleman’s life. So it was necessary. He needed her to be happy with him, too.
But Vera’s mother had told her father that, as well, and they’d moved to Escanaba. And then she’d meandered away, submerged herself in a dream world since she had a husband who was rock solid, a gardener and florist. But it was for her a darker kingdom of shadows and hard river rocks and many challenging times obscured by her need for escape. They waited for her return. Her conspiring friends said she was only coming into her own, her own gifts, but what they were, Vera had no clue. The woman knew wild plants and animal ways. She had a sense of unusual things. Her father said nothing of his grief but they both felt the sharpness of abandonment, he like the call to a strange battle, and he lost. They lost.
She shuddered as Put disappeared inside, and then ran up the few creaky wooden steps, into the cottage and with relief found both feet more firmly planted indoors.
“Vera, come into the living room, it faces the water.”
She left the modest foyer’s faded and cracked linoleum, moved past dining nook and small kitchen to find Put in a nearly spacious living room with fireplace as he’d required. He was nosing about and when seeing her broke into his lopsided smile and pointed out the picture window. There was another house across another dirt road. It, however, was sited on a large plot so it afforded an almost unobstructed view of the lake. The barest waves carried a golden glow from the receding sun.
Vera felt her diaphragm relax as Darlene showed them three bedrooms, “cozy” was the word she used, and the outdated bathroom with claw-foot tub and no shower, “vintage, of course, just like the cute kitchen.” Then she took them to the newer deck outside the back of the house which oversaw the very close water.
Put walked the deck, noted the railing as sturdy, stepped down into uneven yard, examined trees and bushes, the Gerber daisies, leggy zinnias, more hydrangeas and many weeds not vanquished. Vera almost wanted to get on hands and knees and start pulling when she recalled she hated the dirt, how it stuck to her skin, how it would not come out of her pores after playing in the forest making hapless camps. Digging a trench around her for protection and then–
“Vera? Sweetheart? What do you really think?”
“It’s an old place, true country lake cottage style, and not even dressed up to be enticing. I appreciate its long history–built in the nineteen thirties, maybe? But it is not for us.”
Darlene put a hand to chest, took in a long breath.
“Sorry, Darlene, she’s a city gal, it might take time for her to adapt but I like it, all of it. I so loved those summers in the Berkshires when I was a boy.”
Darlene offered him a cheery look but raised an eyebrow at the woman she found odd at best, disconcerting at worst.
“I know about country life, Darlene. I grew up in the forests of the Upper Peninsula, a few miles outside Escanaba, Michigan. On the wild shores of Lake Michigan…”
“Lovely up there,” Darlene felt encouraged again. She needed this commission and he was a nice man, maybe he’d be famous one day.
“It’s been years and she’s adapted to the city so well, this seems almost new to her, not easy to consider again.”
Darlene looked sympathetically at Vera. She’d had all the country taken out of her, clearly.
Vera knew better than to contradict him in front of Darlene. This was his adventure, she was also in it so just went along a bit. But she recoiled at the possibility that he was serious about this foray into unfathomable, unassailable forest.
“Your husband says you’re a painter and he’s a writer from Chicago. That’s exciting! I imagine there’d be so much to inspire you. We have a good potter down the road, sells things online mostly.”
Vera smiled obediently as Put held her in his gaze, but she could see the tumbling of his reasonable mind. She was no match for his new thrill. She walked around the cottage, left the other two sliding into business talk.
She wanted to be fair. It was his book advance; he could do whatever he wanted, within limits. Was this reasonable or reckless? He romanticized his family’s summer house but did regale her with funny and good-hearted stories. Put had thought they’d had that in common, experiences in deep, cold lakes and fast, fish-laden rivers., woods. Bonfires late into night and everyone singing, joking and telling ghost stories. Like it was camp night every night and no one wanted to go home.
But for Vera, it was not like that, certainly not after just one afternoon and night. She had shivered among looming trees as darkness dropped like a heavy cloak about her and she had waited for the sound of her name called out. She was nine years old. She knew a great deal about the woods. It had been her playground, her school, her home. But not then. And not after.
Vera shook her head, roused herself at the sound of footsteps and voices.
“Well, you and your wife should think it over and get a good night’s rest. Give me a call tomorrow, I’ll be around.”
Vera stood up from the rickety front steps where she’d waited. They shook hands all around and she made effort to show the woman she was a person who was civilized and could be amenable.
“Let’s get dinner and talk,” Put said, arm slung about her shoulders.
“No,” she said, shrugging him off. “Let’s first go by the water. I have my input for you.”
They sat on a bench made of rough-hewn oak. Vera pulled her knees up to her chin to avoid the bugs that certainly crawled about. For a time they watched motor boats head for the docks jutting from steely blue water, commenting on lingering hues of a soft sunset. It was a big lake, bigger than she’d thought but nothing like the inimitable Lake Michigan. Put leaned back, chatted about getting a sailboat if they bought the place. He’d been taught at an early age the happy ways of boating but he’d had very little opportunity to enjoy it with Chicago friends.
“It’s a smallish place but so is the price.”
Vera hugged her knees closer. “Put, hold that thought. There is a whole part of my life you do not know about. It’s time.”
He looked at her but didn’t change his easy stance. Her quieter voice stirred him yet this was not the time to let anything ruffle him. He wanted to be clear and steady about any real estate decisions. He would be steady about any new confessions, too.
Vera kept her eyes on the water; she felt safe there with the water’s rhythmic motion, its song. That much was still good.
“You never met my mother because she died when I was twenty, but she was, as I’ve said, very quirky. Too smart, dreamy, rebellious, according to my dad, for that town in that time. He loved her, I loved her, that’s a fact. Did she love him, me? I don’t know. She was fascinated by the idea of having a child. She thought children were closer to the heavens, to earth’s mysteries, too. She was likely right but I was more like a human charm to her, a secret transport to other worlds … like the land of pixies or something nuttier, I never was clear. She may have been emotionally ill, I know, but I am not entirely convince. Just an unusual person and mother, a bit wild, beautiful in deed and appearance. She could be such fun, though. Impractical. Eventually she seemed too in the beyond, not truly connected to us. My father took care of me mostly even when I was younger. I’m grateful for it.”
“I know all this, Vera. But I still don’t know why you’re so repelled by the country you also admit you adored.”
“So I am telling you, if you’ll listen well.”
Would she really just tell him everything? She stood up with back to him, vision still of the water as darkness gathered, as moon’s light began to skim all surfaces and lend a silver sheen to easy waves. He was now alert and stood closer, not touching her.
“I had been playing in the woods that afternoon, as I did every day. Mother was nearby picking berries, plopping them into the metal bucket with a pleasing sound and also singing her made up songs, voice bright and pretty. I had picked my bucketful so kept moving on with a stick in hand, batting at tree branches and brambles and mosquitoes, leaping like a deer, going deeper into the trees and shadows where there was less sunlight illuminating all. I lost the phrases of mother’s songs but heard all the birds and scurrying animals and buzzing bees, saw an owl sleeping upright, of course, and a snake slithering through brush. This was all as usual. I was running, jumping about, stoking the air with my stick, becoming a ninja girl, something I believed might be possible. I remember looking back a few times. Noting sunlight through treetops, deciding the house was still in a certain direction. I had never gotten lost. I was never afraid out there. But then the light began to fade and I was tired of wandering, getting hungry. It would soon be full sunset, then twilight, then dark.”
Put saw her enrapt face, tried to take her hand but she shook him off as if he were a fly or a bee.
“I had half a homemade granola bar in my pocket so sat at the base of a big old white pine and ate, looking around, trying to figure it out. The way back. I’d always been told to not panic if I wasn’t sure of directions, find sun’s direction, listen and locate the lake shore then follow along it. Soon I would find something or someone or be found–we had not been deep into the wilderness. I listened to the blueish evening, and the bird song was less familiar. Twigs snapping, underbrush rustling. Wings overhead that sliced the air, bats careening. I rummaged in my jeans pockets and found a rubber band, a favorite Petoskey stone and one of my father’s lighters, borrowed for no good reason. I liked to see the flame flick on and off, that’s all, I knew to not light anything and supposed I’d get in trouble. But now I reconsidered the fire part. I was no longer sure of my way nor so secure in the gathering closeness of night.”
Put reached for her but she stepped close to water’s edge as evening sky began to scatter it’s jewels above. He ached for her but was restless with questions.
“I recalled my mother once taking me into the woods and digging a deep circular trench around her as she stood in the middle of it. She was talking in that special away as if reciting a poem though I was never sure what she meant. Years later I’d recognize it as chanting, in perhaps Romanian as her grandmother was from there. When she was done with the trench she put pieces of brush into it and cleared away all other areas. And then she lit the torn dry stuff and various twigs and they caught fire. I jumped back, warned her to get out but she was swaying a little, smiling at me as she spoke on and on. Afterwards, she seemed calm. She told me that would protect me if I needed help–to make a trench and light a fire in it, go to the center area but clear the spot of all else. And sing a song for courage.”
Vera closed her eyes, opened them again.
“So that’s what I did. I lit the smallest fire and it ran around the ring, then I remained in the center hoping and praying someone would see the firelight or a waft of smoke before it got much later.”
She walked a few paces from him, then turned back. But she was looking into that flame. Not at him.
“I must have gotten drowsy, as I jerked awake. There came a very soft, low growl, more a quiet guttural sound, right behind me. I turned my body, saw nothing. My heart was galloping, legs hurting from being cross-legged and I carefully straightened them but did not get up. A shiny beetle crawled over my ankle, and I saw a large spider following. The ring of fire burned low but steady. What did my mother chant? Why did she not give me words that would help, wasn’t she supposed to share such things? My senses sharpened; eyes penetrated deep into darkness, ears opened to small animal mutterings, whirs of wings, hoots of owls. Then silence. I was afraid I’d cry out and startle the unknown.”
Vera knelt by the lake and smoothed the cold lapping water with flattened fingers. Put watched her squat on her haunches and saw her anew, strangely like a creature deeply at home within woods and waters yet tethered by a terror of it. Somehow she remained aligned with the good even in that very moment. He sat beside her.
“Then from the corner of my eye there was a movement, hot flash of amber eyes, a huge sleek body leaping toward me over fallen limbs and I screamed but no sound came out, I couldn’t move so sat paralyzed in the center of a tiny circle of failing fire. I could do nothing to save myself. And no one coming… The beast’s great head came closer, mammoth paws trod earth carefully, those glowing eyes locked with mine. I stopped breathing. Everything in the whole world stopped. I blacked out.”
She was trembling from sudden chill of night, and memory’s loosed burden. He wrapped his arms around her and she wept. He bit his lip to keep from crying with her. Then she calmed some.
“I came to as soon as there were shouting voices, my father’s and his friends who searched for me. Discovered me, at last. It was a cougar!– that was what I met up with, that’s what the men said the next morning after examining the area. A cougar found me but somehow left me unharmed, alive… ”
Putnam Rawlings was dumbfounded. He held his wife so tightly she could not have have left his arms but he was right there with her that night and now this night, and he also was bursting with outrage. And her anguish. Where had that madwoman gone? Why ever had Vera been left to her own devices?
“My mother, she was gone most of the night, Dad said. Didn’t come home from our outing. She sometimes disappeared but never had left me alone like that. Oh, she threw her arms around me when we got home, made a fuss but I couldn’t bear to look at her. I’d lost basic trust in her. I soon despised her as much as loved her. But worse…” Vera took Put’s face into her hands and sputtered out words. “Worse, yes, even worse…a part of me wondered if maybe she had come to me as that cougar. I know it sounds absurd, but I was nine years old, left to roam deep into forest and she didn’t even call my name out, and something in that cougar’s manner–its wildness and yet curious gentleness…It’s how I felt. So awed. So scared. Of her, the forested land, then all country with its shadowy places and its roaming, unexpected beasts…but she did teach me of the fire ring.”
She began to shake violently so he rocked her, rocked her until she grew limp. So long to hold in such misery. So long to keep from him this story he found amazing and treacherous. How it had damaged her. And them, he imagined, in certain secret ways.
They stood and he held her upright; they left behind lake and cottage, the stars and moon, which winked and glowed benignly.
Vera holds her painting into a broadening stream of light. A picture is truly forming, beguiling her with uncharted territory, water and sky and richness of light with its twin, shadow, that show her each design as it comes alive from her fingers, her mind. She follows its calls. No more city sights, people mashed together on the buses, trucks and bicycles vying for space on endless streets, skyscrapers creating all manner of blinding light, graffiti scrawled across every blank spot. The noise and gritty smog and sudden sirens and its garish beauty: all gone. Her success, more than a little uncertain now.
“Vera” Put calls from across the hall, “I could use a break from this tiresome second draft. Ready for a stroll by the lake?”
Vera sets her rinsed brushes down. The painting will be very good in time. She glances out her studio window, through the thicket of trees and across a road to the shining expanse of water, now warmed by late summer sun. Inclines her head at the vivid scenes.
“More than ready.”
She still often shivers inwardly as she leaves the cottage and glances about to discern what may be there, if yet unseen. Then Vera moves forward, doesn’t look back. But keeps a lighter in her pocket just in case.