Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: A Matter of the Blood Oath

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It was a radiant red and gold fall Monday morning when everything got ready to change. Not that Perth would know it from a glance around the quiet house or when crossing Dartmoor Parkway, the traffic thickening and their mother waving from the porch, or the train right on time along Fourth Street. Victoria was ahead of her but not by much.

It would take the day cracking open–didn’t everyone hear it?–at lunch hour. It made her brain hurt, all the crackling and crashing as her mind took in, then recoiled at the scene before her.

Her sister didn’t even glance her way. How could she? Her wide brown eyes were glued to Dominic’s, the new boy’s, the one who sat across from Perth in eighth grade English class. Vic, as she called her at school, ten months younger but in the same grade, had him in drama class. They’d briefly noted him during the first week of the semester. And only because his thick dark hair fell to his shoulders and his bare ankles hung out where his jeans might have covered them. It was otherwise obvious he was out of place, though all new kids were out of place, as they knew. The sisters had moved a lot. (But now all three were “firmly planted,” their mother said, “in very good soil, we will bloom accordingly.” Perth and Victoria hoped with every fiber of their beings she was in this marriage for the long run.)

Perth carried the lunch tray to where she usually sat, between Jana and Elise, across from Vic. The two of them were in heated discussion about who did better in a math pop quiz and why Mr. Mercer was a terrible teacher, so Perth leaned forward and said,

“Hey, Vic.” She craned her neck to see Dominic but he was looking at his cheeseburger before taking a huge bite.

Victoria looked the other way while picking up several pieces of lettuce and tomato and stuffed them in her mouth. She acted embarrassed by that and she licked her fingers, then grabbed a napkin. Dominic was oblivious, attacking the burger, but he lifted a free hand at someone passing by. he had a friend already, that was good.

“Hey Victoria, what’s up, gorgeous?” Perth asked again, hands palm-up in the air. She then speared veggies from her chef salad. Why was was she being ignored?

Dominic’s gaze drifted around Jana, who took off, and landed on her. Vic gave up, flashed a smile as fake as possible at her. Perth gave her a level, cool stare.

“Well, hi,” Vic said, “I’m eating lunch, like you. Like Dom and Elise. What do you want? We have fifteen more minutes to eat. So, if you don’t mind…”

That wasn’t strictly true; they had over a half hour, but if they wanted time to walk around or fix their hair and all or gossip with friends, they had fifteen more left to eat. And they always made good use of their break times. They were together in school as they were usually around home: Perth and Victoria Didrikson, the reigning “Irish twins.”

“Hi Dom, I’m Perth, Vic’s sister, or do you know her as Victoria?” She gestured to her sister. “It makes a difference. Only insiders call her Victoria.”

“Perth, quit already!”

Dom swiped at his greasy mouth and shook his head, dark hair shimmying. “Just Vic, we met a couple weeks ago. Hey, aren’t you in my English class?”

“Yeah, with Miss Marsh, good deal, huh? Mrs. Harner is a cruel one. What are you working on for the essay?”

Vic stood up, tray in hand, salad barely touched. “Excuse me, Dom, you done? Let’s go outside where there’s more air.”

He shot her a grin, grabbed his tray and, to Perth’s shock, just followed.

Perth felt a slow burn make way from face to chest to gut. She listened to Elise jabber on about something, tried to finish lunch. But nothing felt right. Perth had an impulse to go to the nurse’s station and say she was sick. Because all in all, she sort of was. Vic had found a boy when they had absolutely sworn them off for another year. They had a yearly oath, and they each signed it. Then they pricked a finger and let a drop of their blood mark the page right under their names. It was one of a few mysterious ways they did things. It was like that since they had been kids.

******

The first thing everyone wanted to know was why she had such an weird name. Perth was, after all, the capital of Western Australia. Or if you didn’t know it, now you did. Her mother was born there and she’d had a supposedly idyllic childhood. Until her family immigrated to Canada, namely Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Maddy, their mother, had thrived there even more. Although the island was a bit isolated, not nearly as much as it was in Perth (where ocean and outback surrounded that city). She’d loved it so much that she fell in love and got married there. Later, she named her second child for that city.

Neither of the sisters quite recalled the city on the island; they had been two and three. But after Maddy’s divorce they’d lived across Canada several years. And then she met Keith, an American businessman, and that was that. That was five years ago. Now they were in Cincinnati and it could be worse, they guessed. But all through the ups and downs, Perth and Victoria were stuck together, one in mind and action more often than not, even though not in age or appearance. Nothing could have pulled them apart, not really, not even their tendencies for clear territorial space or their differences in musical taste or a constant need of reassurance that they were equally loved by their gorgeous, smart, but at times distracted mother. It had so often been romance that she preferred or so it seemed to them, and they had vowed to avoid it at all costs. Or at least as long as they possibly could, until age thirty or forty when they had established careers and good friends and homes of their own. Nearby, of course.

Maddy hugged them close when they told her the plan, thinking she might agree it was smart. They did not speak of the signatures and blood.

“Maybe so,” was all she said. “You never know what’s ahead. It is all an adventure…”

But ambiguous words meant little to her daughters; they were devoted, and so bold with certainty. She’d not forgotten how hard past times had been, the pain she’d suffered. Maddy had grown up cared for and secure, though, and she knew it had saved her. She now worked as a speech therapist four days a week; she’d remarried well, was happy again. But it had taken a terrible divorce and several more promising or miserable men, of being poor and deeply lonely while slowly finishing college–all in between then and now, meaning her degree and then Keith.

Perth and Victoria got wounded some in the fallout along the way. Maddy regretted this. What could be done but live a healthier life now, be generous with love? But she was a more and more realist. Heartbreak was not something they’d avoid. And that made her ache deep inside where no words lived.

******

After lunch, Perth obsessed about things. It was as if a part of her had been misplaced, and there was bodily discomfort, and when she looked around for her sister at her locker down the hall, he was there, one hand up, his body half-circling Vic’s. Perth’s body clutched; she felt it as anger, but who was she mad at? Him? Her? Her own self? Hormones? Hers must be sluggish or defective, despite being ten months older. Her sister did look older than she did, and Victoria thought she knew more, that was clear.

When they met back home and sat at the dinner table, Vic avoided Perth’s scathing looks and talked little or to their mother and Keith. Maddy noticed but said nothing; the girls had their rough moments. Their stepfather had little clue–who got anything about freshly minted teenagers?

Since they had their own rooms avoidance was a snap later, or so Victoria hoped. She was texting with Dominic, nothing that interesting yet fascinating to her, and she had homework to do, and her elaborately designed and colored “Do Not Disturb” sign was hanging on the doorknob. Maybe Perth would respect that awhile.

But Perth pounded on the door. Victoria wished for her to go away.

“Victoria, let me in,” she said in a loud whisper into the keyhole. “Time to talk…”

“No.” Vic was watched the phone screen for Dom’s response.

“I can get in, you know.”

“Not without breaking down the door. Do not pick the lock.”

“Come on, you can’t refuse your big sister entry. It’s against the rules,” she whined.

“Your rules, not mine.”

There it was, three small words from him: have to go. She stared at perth through the door.

Perth leaned her back against it. She could hear their mother and stepfather laughing over whatever dumb show they watched. “I’m bored. I want the whole story.”

Victoria sighed, got up, walked around the end of her bed, looked out the window. It was a hard cold night; stars glittered like ice and a frost warning was up. It would be another beautiful day in the morning and they’d meet at lunch, maybe, again. In drama class. Casting had occurred for the play and if he got the male lead and she got the female lead….She recalled the way his hands laced fingers, then slid behind his head and then neck, his elbows sticking out. She didn’t know why that got her, but it did, they was he seemed more…something…open, reachable…that minute, even though it was more a stretch. He was two inches taller than she was already. He was funny in a quiet way. It made her feel dreamy.

A hand smacked hard once at the door and Victoria started, then bounced back onto her bed.

“Go away, Perth, you’re only making things worse…”

She lay very still, staring at the ceiling, fiddling with silky fringe on her purple flowered pillow held against her chest. There was no more said, and not even Perth walking away was heard. And that suddenly scared her. Enough to stop thinking about Dominic, enough to make it tough to get on her homework. What was happening? How could such a thing make them slide around each other, but ready to fight?

******

It went that way, more or less on Tuesday and Wednesday, then Thursday. By Friday Perth stopped going to–much less talking at–her sister’s bedroom door. She stopped sitting at her usual lunch table so she wouldn’t see the two of them excluding the world. She and Elise ate outside on the lawn as there was a warming spell, and when Janna joined them one day, Elise warned her to not ask about Dom and Vic, it upset Perth more each day and it was all over school already: Vic and Dom, together.

“Are you so freakin’ mad or jealous or what?” Janna asked, anyway. “Why her and not us?”

“No, it just isn’t what I expected, that’s all,” Perth said. She made a scornful face, then pulled her long hair back into a ponytail so the wind wouldn’t readily catch it, turn it upside down.

“You have the best hair,” Elise said. “Vic and you got lucky.”

“Thanks…I have the best sister when she isn’t an idiot,” Perth said.

“She’s not an idiot, just dumbstruck with puppy love,” Jana said and Elise socked her in the shoulder. “I mean, who can blame her?.”

“Oh, please. He’s okay, just a new eighth grade guy and why she is so mesmerized…well, I don’t get it. He isn’t all that smart or anything.” Her eyes filled suddenly and she closed them. “And she promised!””

“Mesmerized…he’s dangerous magic!” Jana wiggled fingers at them and gave them a hard stare, one eyebrow raised, the goofy one as usual.

Elise sat up straight, ears perked up by Perth’s last words. “Promised what?”

Perth wasn’t listening. Dangerous. Yeah, that’s how it felt, as if they’d entered a dark maze, and she couldn’t quite find the way to Vic even though she felt her so nearby she almost heard her breathing. Laughing at her. And that guy calling out to Victoria. But why did her sister avoid her? They’d always talked. They’d always known what the other most needed or wanted. Yet Perth could figure almost none of this out. It was as if she had been suddenly closed out. Victoria took one step that way, not the other way where Perth and she were used to going, and the world they shared stopped turning. She felt queasy and dizzy–again.

“It’s like Vic pulled down the shades, turned out the light and even my banging on the door doesn’t matter. Okay, 911–but big deal, just not answering, Sis.”

“Oh,” Janna said.

Elise put her hand on her friend’s shirted back, smoothed away damp wrinkles from unseasonable heat and wondered what it was like to have a sister. She had an older brother who she might do without.

“Crap, Perth,” Jana said and sat closer to the other side but the truth was, it was just a boy so why all the drama? She sort of had a boyfriend who was really just a good friend. Much better that way. They were only thirteen, fourteen, anyway.

******

“Quiet down some!” Keith called upstairs.

It was Victoria’s music for a change, very loud soul or was it pop music. Perth liked Ella Fitzgerald lately, a real shocker, but then she was a unique one. A couple months ago it had been David Bowie, of all people, and before that, some rapper he had never heard. Sampling, that was a good thing he thought. He’d also noticed the girls weren’t talking much, and Maddy was getting worried. He lingered at the bottom of the stairs. The music quieted. Perth stuck her head out of her room, took one step into the hall, so Keith retreated.

Perth tiptoed to Victoria’s room, bent down and slid a note under the door. She backed away then disappeared into her own room.

Victoria’s head was bent over the first play script, hair draping a side of her face as she tapped her pencil against her lips. She had gotten the lead but told no one at home yet. But she heard the paper slip over the worn floorboards and knew what it was. Her eyes lost focus on the words below. Dom hadn’t gotten a part so a stage connection was out, but he was working on lighting. She was excited. She’d always imagined being a stage actress so now it could start happening. A lot was changing. She felt breathless at times, her situational anxiety rearing its head (or so their mother would say, it ran in the family).

She slipped off the quilt and retrieved the note. It got right to the point.

What have you done with my wonderful sister?

She opened the door but Perth was not there. She crossed the hall and knocked.

“Who goes there?” Perth called out in a booming voice.

“One lady of the forest, to another.”

“Are you armed with sword or words?”

Victoria paused, almost letting go a chuckle. This is how it went.

“I come in peace…my sister bids me welcome,” she said.

“I will confer with my cabinet and ferns.” A momentary silence, then a brass bowl was struck. “Enter with hands and mind open and free.”

Maddy was halfway up the stairs when she heard some of the exchange. Her throat tightened as she pressed hand to chest, and returned to her husband.

Victoria entered a room lit with soft white, star-shaped lights strung about two windows and across top of the wall behind the bed. Two huge ferns hung in planters in opposite corners; a tarnished brass deer perched on her desk beside an ivy. Perth was seated at the desk–as she often was–but stood gracefully, shoulders back. The one who danced best, had such posture.

“Okay, I know, it’s stupid, but Dom is the first guy I’ve really noticed and–“

“So stardust got you but that shouldn’t interfere, should it, with us–“

“Right. I thought he might like you, though.”

“Sure, no interest indicated either way.”

“So what’s next?”

Perth and Victoria eased back on fluffy bed pillows, looking at the soft lights.

“I think you need to revise the oath a bit,” Victoria said.

“Me? I did nothing, changed nothing. You’re the changer.”

“But we’re getting older.”

“I suppose. But why do I have to alter the document”

“You know.”

The wind came up, rattled maple limbs like a handful of dry bones. Soon Perth would be able to see out across the street again. She liked the comfort of dense greenery more than an open vista but that was nature.

“I know, I’m the writer Irish twin. Really ought to be accurate and say Australian, that makes more sense…”

“Perth! Listen: no more bloodletting?”

“Agreed. I will just revise a bit: we’ve determined that flexibility and understanding are crucial when faced with a possibility of any outside love, but we must never lose our sister bond.”

Victoria lay her head on Perth’s shoulder. “Yeah. Well stated, sister.”

“Well received, sister.”

Perth and Victoria knew their mother was anxious downstairs, hoped to hear what they were up to this time, but they did what they always did. They kept their secrets to themselves, unless threat of harm was evident and imminent. And none was.



Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Fortuitous Forgiveness

If only, if only, if only…it was a well worn refrain, no, perhaps more a mantra for Maxine.

Eve worried they might be her mother’s last words one day, they hung between them so often, cluttered up space like meaningless items. It made her want to bolt, or at least grab the wine bottle and pour a tall one. Her parents didn’t drink, so that would come later.

“If we’re revisiting this topic even before coffee and pie, leave me out of the discussion.” Eve rose, took a serving dish and wooden salad bowl in her hands.

From the corner of her eye she noted her father had picked up the paper from the next chair over–Alden’s chair, topped with a booster seat– and proceeded to hide behind the Culture and Arts page. She wondered how long it would take him to check the stock market and predicted thirty seconds max.

“It is what it is, Maxine, let it be,” he mumbled. The pages were rustled, turned faster.

Eve disappeared through the kitchen’s Dutch doors; Maxine’s words sailed through like crows on the wing, undeterred.

“If he’d just finished his degree, this wouldn’t have to happen, you know that, Douglas, and he still could do that,” she intoned, dabbing her thin lips with a beige linen napkin, four of which I had ironed before they came. “If only he had given two thoughts to what it would mean…” She sighed and shook her head, a luxuriant bun freed slightly from its pins. Her hands–so like parchment they scared Eve lately– deftly re-secured it.

The leftover chicken and dumplings and salad disappeared down the garbage disposal and Eve turned it on. Let it run longer than needed.

What her mother was really saying was, If only you had gotten your Masters’ in chemistry or business management, this might be avoided–and: if only your husband did more to secure your family’s future. And saying it to her, not to the tension-saturated air. Eve being a teacher wasn’t enough for them, she knew that already. It had always been about the correct education and supposed power that brought. It was as if they were stuck in another decade when degrees meant financial and oddly, perhaps even spiritual victory. It brought respectability and status, after all. In their day. That was another story. One that Maxine seldom grew weary of sharing, putting a present day twist on things that was entirely made up.

Certainly she was not talking to Eve’s husband, Mick, as he was out, just as he tended to be for every Sunday mealtime. He was at his best friend’s huge garage where Garth was working on another of his special order paint jobs. Mick loved to see the shiny designs come to fruition; some of them were his ideas, in part, though he never shared the credit. “I’m the amateur, a spectator, he’s the pro; it’s all good,” he always said.

Mick was a landscaper, and he used his design sense in garden and lawn development and execution. But he had been laid off. As usual. It was heading toward winter and Mick was the most junior member of the team. He’d do snow removal until spring, and watch Alden, their three year old. They boy slept now, thankfully; he could dream about puppets and parks and wooden blocks, unaware of the stress his grandparents created with a few tiresome words.

Her father said something low to her mother– likely, Maxi, soft pedal it, play this snafu down, not up. He isn’t a bad sort.

Eve hung her now throbbing head, then straightened up and looked out a window, took in the expanse of open land. The mountains beyond. Breathed. Turned off the disposal.

“Look at Alden, there’s my boy, sleepy head! Come to join us at Sunday table, have you?”

Douglas’ voice boomed with happiness and relief. Eve could hear Maxine getting up and tottering over in her too-high heels to give her grandson a soft hug. She was not a hugger, but for her only grandchild she made the exception. Eve rinsed her hands, dried them, lifted her head and smiled, then greeted her son.

“Hey, my Aldy boy!” She wanted to squeeze him.

“Alden, up just in time for apple pie?” Douglas reached out a hand.

The child took it, then rubbed one puffy eye and ruffled his straw-colored hair. “Yes, pie and then match-the-cards game with Grandpa!”

Maxine sighed. “It’s always Grandpa. You boys! How can I get this child’s attention more? And where do you suppose he got all that blond hair? Maybe it will still darken.”

Stop talking so much nonsense, get on the floor and play, Eve wanted to say, but retrieved the fragrant, warm pie, the plates and forks. The thought of Maxine removing her heels and sitting sideways on the cat-furry rug in her herringbone skirt and silk ivory blouse made her smirk. And Alden’s messy, gorgeous hair? She wished Mick was there, his thick, bright waves making the overt point for her. Again. She checked her watch.

Maxine and Douglas should have stayed in Chicago suburbs another couple of years. But Douglas had retired and they wanted to ease into a simpler life, or so they said. They might have given Eve and Mick more time to get ahead, to build their lives with one another. Now her parents were a half hour down the road, through the hilly farmland, in a smaller manse in East Braxton.

******

Eve wished she could say it was always this way. But things once were normal, or what she knew to be normal, and she had been happier. Then all changed when her father got the Big Promotion. She was eleven then, halfway through school and already itching for more freedom. The family home, a sweet 1920s bungalow, was sold and then they moved into a five bedroom brick house, too much space but never mind, they had intercoms, and a yard that took half a Saturday for her brother, Tim, to mow. Their father was gone more than he was home; when he was home he was near-invisible or they wished he might leave again for all he understood about their lives. Their mother was gone, too, maybe more–to the beauty salon and spas and on shopping trips, at various club meetings and luncheons. She learned about roses and had many planted, front and back. About costly perfumes and handbags and had her closets renovated. About Chicago’s splashier charitable events where she’d get her photo put in the “People Out and About” section. She found being home more and more tedious as time went by. She liked to celebrate her sudden good fortune with her new friends, with new clothes.

Tim and Eve got many things done for themselves or they learned who to call. Eve became a budding cook but against her will. They got hungry when their parents were late, then later, so at last Maxine hired a cook three days a week. They learned how to fake their parents’ signatures if they wanted or needed days off school. If they got sick they checked in on each other more often than not. Tim ran quietly down the long hallway before he went to sleep around midnight–he was two years older–and stuck his head in, told her good night, good dreams. Even if she was asleep, though more often she lay there staring at the ceiling where starry stickers glowed. And Eve checked for light seeping under his door when she got up to use the bathroom or listen for her parents and if she saw it she knocked softly until he said to come in. Usually he was reading. If he had had a nightmare–which he had pretty often– she patted his arm, gave him a little hug.

In the morning, when their parents asked if they slept well, they smiled in unison, said, “Of course.” They knew better than to distract them from their fast-paced lives. Even then, their mother could turn up her lecture voice in a flash as their father hid behind work or the paper.

Things might have gone on like that–not comfortable in most ways, but pleasant in others– until they were sprung from the brick house by virtue of time: their eighteenth birthdays. But Eve and Tim grew restless long before they were ready to handle what beckoned. They drank on the sly, they smoked pot. They had some interesting, wilder friends in common. They helped each other with school work that otherwise may have sunk them; they waited until they got out of detention for tardiness or skipped classes. Share and share alike. “Two goofy heads together are better than one,” Tim liked to say.

Then Tim turned seventeen and decided he wanted to be some kind of race car driver. Street racing. Illegal, risky. He drove far too fast and took chances that scared her and she liked to avoid it. And that was it, wasn’t it, for the madcap duo? She was not there; he kept on. He didn’t last at it despite a sterling reputation. It went bad fast and as hard as possible. Spinal injury, head trauma, they whispered at school as Eve slumped down the halls– when she even attended. Before he got a decent chance at more life, he was stalled completely. And not surprisingly, Eve was blamed in large part. Why didn’t she stop him? What happened the night she ignored his antics? Why didn’t she tell their parents about it before it was too late? Never mind that she was with a girlfriend that night, watching old movies. She and Tim had been less attuned to each other that past year. Still. Why had she not done more to discourage him? Why, why, why?

If only…

Maxine and Douglas faltered under grief heaped on them a long while. They looked to Eve for much and got little back; she was worn out, she was drowning, too, as she tried to tread waters of her daily life. So Maxine blamed her, too. It was one long sentence that never seemed to end.

“If only you’d been there, you could have stopped him, he adored you, I know you could have…”

Douglas stopped talking. Not entirely, no, he had that big job and its demands to navigate daily, and it took his mind off much. But at home, he was a quiet man made nearly mute, like a creature that goes small and silent as a bad storm comes.

And Tim lay in a hospital bed, tended to by nurses, specialists, physical therapists. And he still did. At home, yes, that came finally. But what was the difference? He saw little he desired as he looked out at the world.

Eve was determined to finish high school and leave. It almost killed her to go to classes knowing Tim could not, would never come along with her as he once had. He barely stayed alive despite her daily talks with him, her ministrations to him, her prayers mumbled in tears. When he stabilized and could flick his eyes at her, she knew she had better leave then– or never. She could not bear the “if only” anymore.

She got a degree in earth sciences–botany her favorite–and then taught middle school students ravenous for knowledge about the beautiful and changing earth. And that was something, wasn’t it. It was about all she had. She counted on that need, to get up each day, be there for her students. It carried her until the week-ends when she drove two hours each way to visit Tim for at least a day. And their parents. So it was working then in a way, despite the continuing loneliness she hadn’t anticipated. The roaring silence of night as she tossed and turned in bed, a darkness beaded with hardness of guilt. The stunning lack of peace in early morning even as coffee brewed, a good plan for the day at her fingertips. The fact that she could not call her brother to tell him about the kids, her book club, the sporty car she was thinking of buying. He could not even put a mug of steaming brew to his lips or smile at her. Eve didn’t know for certain if Tim knew she loved him even more than before. But she thought so, felt so. How could he not when they had always known what the other thought? Well, almost, almost.

Nothing was sure and good enough to bring real happiness back. Until practical, cheerful Mick came into her life with dirt on his hands and room in his heart for her. Who knew kindness could be such an easy thing for some to give and for her, so hard to learn to accept? They got married, they moved to the semi-rural town of Marionville.

******

Douglas and Alden were on the floor flipping and matching little animal cards as Maxine read a book Eve had recommended and loaned her when the back door swung open.

“Hey beautiful, what’s cookin’?”

“Chicken and dumplings,” she said, smiling at him. “Just put it in the frig.”

He pushed the back door closed with a foot and placed two bags on the table. Eve could see a couple of garden tools and his requisite bags of snacks, her own list of nonfood items.

Maxine and Douglas were just putting on their coats at the front door. Mick gave Eve a kiss on her neck and then went to bid them goodbye.

“Hey, folks, how was dinner? Sorry I couldn’t make it, Garth and I were busy working on a car, a 1992 Chevy–“

“Well, we missed you, but your afternoon was likely more entertaining,” Douglas said, eyebrows rising, his narrow hand shaking Mick’s square one briefly.

Mick wasn’t sure if his father-in-law was joking or serious. He knew the older man was not much for family chat but he loved his daughter (and her cooking) and, of course, his grandson so came along dutifully. Perhaps Mick really ought to show up more. He could deal with being given a hard time but it was worse when he got barely a nod on Maxine’s worse days.

“Ah, hello Mick, nice to see you, how’s business going?” Maxine said as she pulled on her favorite burgundy calfskin and cashmere gloves. Mick thought how much Eve might enjoy those, too, but would never consider asking for such a luxury.

“As a matter of fact–I was waiting to tell Eve–” he turned toward the kitchen, then swept up his babbling, reaching son. “Honey, come on out.”

She wiped hands on jeans and leaned against a door jam, crossing her arms. She’d hoped her parents would slip out faster. They of course asked him about work and they already knew he’d been seasonally laid off, so why?

“I’m happy to say I just got hired on at the Jameson Farm. Their evergreen tree farm needs more help, along with other land maintenance jobs. I can work through Christmas, at least! And a part time job tending the art museum’s winter garden just came open, so that’s an option.”

Eve moved to hug her her son and husband tightly. “Wonderful, Mick!”

“Mick, good news is always welcome,” Douglas said and patted him heartily on the back.

“It’ll pay for bread and butter, I suppose…” Maxine buttoned her coat, smoothed stray wisps of hair at her temples. But she paused, almost unsteady; her husband reached out but she batted him away. Her wrinkled pale eyelids lowered as if to shield them of her real thoughts.

Eve looked at her mother with the one look she tried so hard to not show. The one that could set fire to stone. But her mother stared at her with a face gone softer, then took a step closer to Mick. When she spoke her voice was almost frail. Tentative. But gentle.

“You do know you’re a good man, Mick, don’t you? And that we’re -I am–so glad you married our daughter.”

Douglas drew himself up, nodded at Eve and Mick, then opened the front door and let themselves out.

“We’ll see you and Tim next Saturday then,” Eve called out.

She’d followed them past the open door, wanting to offer something more, words floating in twilit, chill air. The visit was their routine, but she wanted to make sure; an urgency had come over her. Tim needed to see his nephew every week, Alden needed to see his uncle. She had to be near him, tell him things. Had to believe he heard her, even now. And Mick, he just had love enough to share.

Maxine lifted a hand in the fast falling darkness, her back receding. Douglas touched his hat brim with a finger, opened the car door for her, helped her in.

The shivering family of three went indoors. Alden got his blocks out. Mick built and lit a fire in the sooty old fireplace.

“Well, Mick.” She had to be careful what she said–Alden was all ears and too much feeling wanted to spill over. “I suspect–I know–it’s time for me to let the past go. I just decided that I have to forgive what was not, and cannot be, any different. And just be there more for my parents. For Tim.”

He turned on his knees and patted the floor beside him as fledgling flames spat, sputtered and flared. Mick sat cross legged, put an arm about her, pulled her into him. When she settled with a sigh, Alden sat in her lap one hand held up to the fire’s warmth and one hand on his father’s knee. Their good and right fit.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Jill’s Gospel of Colors

The narrow street below was rife with movement and sounds that kept distracting her from her focus: finding the exact combination of pieces that added up to the whole of what she should wear. Her name was called out in a bellow–Tee, as he paused to stub out his cigarette against the facing wall of her brick townhouse. How many times had she asked him to stop the vandalizing but he was barely seventeen with miserable acne and a penchant for dabbling in electronic music nobody yet appreciated. Her neighbor Mariah’s son, in fact, and even she admitted, hand to head, that he got up to mischief more often than not. He complied with Jill slightly by smashing it near the sidewalk so it looked more like a smudge than a marred spot.

Jill pushed up the window sash to call back, “Hey, Tee, stop harassing my building, get on with your day!”

Two other people glanced up at her–including Mrs. Scallon who never acknowledged anyone– and then hurried on; the black lab, Scotch, barked before squatting as her hungover owner squinted at his phone; and the garbage truck honked loud and long so it could lumber on and squeeze through.

But Tee’s sharp laugh scuttled up the wall as he dashed off, backpack bouncing against his thick back. He kept his music low, but she could still hear it across from the street some week-end nights when he was braver about shoving it into the world. She didn’t think it was bad, maybe some of it was much better than bad, and she told him so. When first she said so, he’d looked down at his feet, just puffed away as she swatted the smoke away. Since then he’d been more civilized in general but his cigarette habits didn’t waver–her exterior wall was not the only one to bear the brunt of it.

“Tee and his own Teendom,” she murmured and tore off the gauzy fuchsia scarf she’d wrapped three times about her neckline. The mirror glared back at her.

It was all about color schemes. Jill thought in color, dreamed in color, solved work problems that held their own colors. Right now it was the dress, literally a color; it was all wrong. A navy chemise meant to be worn to a classical concert, perhaps or gallery opening or important work function–navy meant being orderly and restrained, meant business or even authority. Not a casual meeting with an old friend. She needed more light-infused color, maybe more jewel toned. But not blue, after all.

She glanced through the rest of the berry hue’s incarnations to see if another item jumped out at her. She looked good in this hue. And she needed help. Her hair was just a tad early grey at the temples–she refused to toy with that reality–but worse, her eyes were bloodshot and crinkly about the edges. The smiley eyes that had eased her through many of life’s tight spots looked worn out from the very act of ordinary seeing. It was, in truth, sleep deprivation wrecking havoc. She squirted eye drops in each, than started at the other end of her closet.

A fine panoply of greens and blues, then reds gradually going to rust toward sienna brown and beyond. Jill had them organized, cataloged–she saw them in her mind when drifting off to sleep, a lovely rebuttal to any disquiet that taunted her. Life was a parade of colors and they each had their place. They all meant something different, and found themselves adorning her slim–if hippy and a bit long-waisted–body as required each morning. According to feeling, instinct, her considered dictate. Each day was set by its tone, its matching color.

This morning had become more knitted with tension and that made it murky and in need of repair. Although the sun cast buttery tones across the bedroom floor and tried to soothe her, she felt chilly and tightly drawn, hands fumbling with each item, her neck developing the fuzzy ache that followed a restless night. Her hand went to the boat neck, raspberry sweater, yes, that was it. Today needed a softness that was lively. She needed that kindness, a vibrant warmth like a promise of good fortune. She lay her chemise on the bed to hang later and pulled on the cashmere sweater, light and airy but warding off the new autumn chill in the air. The pants were easy, charcoal grey, a fine wale corduroy that felt and looked like velvet. Her streaky auburn and greying hair was pulled back into a high ponytail and a slick of sugar maple lipstick dashed on. Black ankle boots were tried on; her summered feet settled, ready to stride into fall weather.

To finally take on–no, she didn’t dare let that image enter her kaleidoscopic brain cells–to finally see him face-to-face one last time.

******

“It wasn’t like that,” she had told Mariah a week earlier as they shared a mammoth pumpkin spice scone over coffee. “We weren’t equals and there was no question, he was an associate professor. Photography was his talent, and I was another student waltzing through an easy class. I knew how to point and shoot, I had a good brain, how hard could it be? Or so I thought. But Carter Tennington’s passion for it hooked me, and I registered for more the next year. Finally was allowed into his upper level filmaking series. I could do more than frame a simple shot. But not much more yet.”

Mariah smiled at that. Jill Manwell had pictures in galleries now. Mariah had a gorgeous view of the city and mountains hanging on her wall.

“He was–what, thirty, thirty-five?” she asked, pressing crumbs onto her fingers, then licking them off.

“I guess so, yes, to my twenty. And I found him too serious, shy, and though the adventurous girls tried to shake him up, he wasn’t having it from what I saw. Carter Tennington wasn’t apparently married or gay; he just was not available. Which was fine. By then I was so enthused about photography and film that I changed my degree program from mechanical engineering to fine arts. We worked on some things together, a documentary on student debt, a short feature that I wrote, projects with others. There was one exploring the cycle of seasons at a local nature preserve, how the seasons were impacted by human abuses–that one got an award at a national college film fest. Over that last year I got to know him a little more but could not cross any lines. He got me, he saw me, yet he was too decent or I was too young. I was scared of something like that. I went to grad school, got a decent job with a marketing company. A start if not my favorite.” I shrugged and grabbed the last bite of scone. “And that was that.”

Mariah studied her, that sharp gaze cutting though historical narrative. “But you had a thing for him.”

“I might have if encouraged but it faded. I didn’t date the last year or so, anyway–it was all about meeting my goals.”

“Then you got married, though, to Nelson, the big shot.”

“Well.” I opened my mouth, closed it. She didn’t know the whole story about that. I tried to forget. “And divorced five years later, and have stayed single, as you know, mostly.”

“So–now?”

“The ‘now’ is a simple catch up of old student and teacher, Mariah. Now he is a pretty big producer of independent films. I’m flattered that he remembered me, at all. If it wasn’t for Lucy at work, we’d never have connected.”

“Right, the husband’s acquaintance. Then why is he meeting you at the market, not at a more businesslike dinner?”

“He does his shopping there? Who knows, anonymity?”

“When he’s at a hotel, on a business trip?”

“He said bring along my camera.”

“Well,” she said, laughing, “that’s a weird thing…vegetables, fruits!”

Tee poked his head in the dining nook. “Hey, got some new music, Jilly, wanna hear it before I blast it out there?”

“Theodore, don’t use that name–“

“It’s okay, pretty harmless after five years. Let’s hear it, if I must.


I followed him into his chaotic room–coats, socks and sneakers piled on the bed, vinyl records on the floor, books in piles that teetered, prints and posters of various, vivid sorts on the walls. It wasn’t the first time she’d entered his den to hear his creations, but she stepped lightly, the last time there were grapes under foot.

When he first played the three minute recording she found it too dissonant, no cohesive center. Then he played it two more times, and she discovered lead lines, then unusual harmonies, got caught up by the beat more. She had grown up with music–her parents owned two jazz clubs and another small venue–and she knew a little. This was not bad, at all. She had confidence in his abilities.

“It’s good raw sound, it could use refinement of melody but it has a nice groove. I like the middle part and last few seconds best, they stir things up, then tie it up. Grab us more with the start, make me need to listen from the start. Play with the harmonies more.”

“Yeah, okay, we’ll see about that.” Tee nodded sagely, put on his ear phones. Jill edged her way out the door and waved at Mariah as she exited the apartment.

Tee stared after her, shook his head. She was alright, Jilly, she was smart, had respect. He thought her sweater and all looked good. But she was kinda old for his music genre and way too conservative for his personal interest. Not to say, again, way too old.

******

She grabbed her Nikon from its shelf and left, a few minutes behind schedule after changing her boots to lace-up burgundy ones. The colorful ones were energetic, bold; her feet felt happier, so she felt better. No jacket–the late morning had heated up even though the breeze had an edge, nipping gently at cheeks and hands as she rushed to the plaza.

Jill knew what Cater Tennington looked like because he was in social media, in magazines now that he was getting known. She had followed his progress and noted he got fuller bodied, developed a bronzey-ruddy look that reflected world travels, she’d imagined. He had the same full head of unruly hair, a small smile.

As she walked rapidly toward the fountain, she wondered for the hundredth time what this was about. All the text had said was he had a morning free, could they meet after fifteen years, have a chat. There was nothing to get anxious about though her stomach had refused breakfast. And, after all, Jill had done fine, too, was Creative Director of VIP Marketing. And had published or shown several of her photographs. Maybe he was just pleased she’d done well; when she graduated, he’d wished her the best.

Her eyes scanned heads and faces as she neared the market and central fountain. Shoppers hoisted cloth bags of fresh produce, gathered and parted, then crowded about yellow tables with lunches from food stalls. They tied up their salivating dogs, offering them tidbits. Everything was about eating. She hoped Carter wouldn’t suggest lunch; she was not relaxed enough to enjoy it.

Nowhere did she see anyone who resembled the man she only knew from media. She stopped by boxes of early apples and tasted a sample slice and found it went down fine so took another.

At the fountain, she put camera to eye and snapped away. It was a happy scene with families and friends enjoying each other, and the moving, impressionistic swaths of colors buoyed her further. If he didn’t show, the visit there was always worth it.

“Jill?”

He had spotted her first. She swung around as Carter hesitated a few feet away, then took steps forward, as did she. She noted his jeans, a comfortable tweedy, camel-colored sweater, and a worn straw fedora. It all gave off a mellowness: slightly rumpled, old fashioned but classic. The prof.

“How’d you recognize me? Your face is much more familiar these days!”

They reached out a hand and shook each other’s, then he motioned to a low wall they could sit on under a shade tree.

“Well, not so hard to manage. Tim Spalding, Lucy’s husband, mentioned your company and job, so I looked you up a few weeks ago.”

My eyebrows rose in surprise as I tried to still feign poise. “That was easy, then…I know you from the media, of course.”

“And here we are, Jill. It’s fifteen years, right? When I heard you were living here, I had to see how you’d fared. Congratulations on a stellar career.”

“I can sure say the same for you, Carter, though I can’t find the best admiring words to encompass what you’ve accomplished. Wow! I guess that says it.”

“Yeah, well.” He looked at his open palms, rubbed them together, then folded them in his lap. “It happened faster than I imagined and yet it was all the right timing. I taught two more years after you left, after I showed my film, ‘Erasing Melancholia’.”

“Ah.” Jill hadn’t heard of it; she hadn’t heard of anything until “Zero at the Start” over ten years ago.

“Don’t be embarrassed, no one knew of it but the right person saw it, a small door swung open. Off I went.” His shoulder touched hers briefly and he pulled right back. “The thing is, we worked together off and on for two, three years, right? And I thought you had such talent. I’d hoped you would do something with it. I hear you have sold photos; that’s good. But marketing, though it is a good career, no doubt–is that what you wanted?”

“Well.” She leaned into the big maple’s shadows, pushed her bangs out of her eyes. Should she be offended or flattered? What did it matter? Here she was sitting by Carter Tennington! Her stomach fluttered. She took a deep breath. “Lots happened after I got my Masters. I got married to a guy who knew all about that world, I had some bad jobs, then I got divorced, I got better jobs–I had to take care of myself and I was not shy about my ambition. And I like much of what I do.”

“He fired you because you were so good at the work and he couldn’t abide it, he was not a good guy,” he said quietly. “Not that anyone could prove he did so because of that.”

She stood up and crossed her arms. “Well, you’re sure not shy like you were before. I don’t know how you’re getting my personal info but it’s off-putting, this is just a casual meet-up, right? I didn’t comb the news for your flops or mishaps.”

He stood, too, reached for her forearm, withdrew his hand. “Quite right, forgive me. It was Tim– Lucy told him your story. He and I had drinks last night…I apologize, Jill. He was only preparing me for today, I suppose.” He took off his hat then, ran a hand over his perspiring forehead and through the thicket of hair. “Let’s move on. Can we start over with a cold drink and a stroll?”

She took my camera in hand and positioned it so she caught images of the cheery crowd milling about, the fountain erupting and cascading, then shot Carter starting to walk with one hand outstretched toward me, his hat being secured with the other. Without sunglasses, people would know his face. If she ever edited it, printed and matted, then showed it. Which she would not.

“Fair enough,” he said, hands held up. And suddenly he laughed.

She snapped another of his congenial smile, then we got raspberry iced teas and kept on. They were surrounded by vibrantly beautiful produce. He bought two peaches and she, a bag of plums.

By the time they reached the end of the market, they chatted away like old friends. And perhaps more now than before. The years had not deleted a basic comraderie they’d shared, if only in passing. They stood silent at last, and looked out over the sunlit lagoon, the water almost turquoise, then deep blue green as fat clouds passed overhead.

“The point of my seeing you today is twofold.” His vice was lowered and he looked at her steadily with clear eyes. “One is to admit that I hadn’t stopped thinking of you after fifteen years. You were special, as a budding photographer. As a person. I’d hoped to know you better sometime. It was just…it was a hard time back then. I had cancer then, you see. I was having chemo all that time. It was a very rough patch.” He shook his head to stay my words. “And then I went into remission and you were gone, my film work was put out there. Things changed faster than expected. I’ve stayed well, surprisingly. My whole life was turned around. But I fell for you once,you see, and never quite fell away–at least from the possibility.” He loked away. “And I heard you’re single…”

When he looked back at her, he lay his hands lightly on her shoulders and she shivered. “What do you think of all that?”

“Okay, then…not too sure right now.” That was all she say. It was too much to take in. If she’d known he was ill, would that have changed one thing? Maybe not; she was young, unsure of herself, far more than he was. Her mind swirled with colorful memories and newer feelings.

“The other reason I’m here is that I’d like you to consider being an associate producer for my next film. I know you have the vision, and now you have formidable organizational skills, no doubt, and confidence. And likely the needed creative insight. But it’s Chicago, not here. Maybe you can think about it, at least? We can talk money, details– if you even want to go the next–“

“Yes. I do want to work alongside you. And what on earth took you so long, Carter?”

We held each other so long I thought we’d meld into one out there in public, where anyone could see us, even recognize Carter Tennington and break the spell. But no one did–or dared to come closer.

“By the way, I love you in raspberry and charcoal–and what are those boots, pomegranate?” he whispered into my hair.

“Burgundy, is all. And I do love you in an old straw hat and camel sweater,” and then I hugged him closer as he slipped an amethyst dahlia blossom into my hair.

******

Much later, after a boat trip on the lagoon, after dinner, after a long walk and more talk, then their first truthful kiss, she returned to her townhouse. He had to fly out early. Jill had to catch her breath, then figure out how to quit her job and join his team. Commence to fashion a new life.

As she turned out the bedside lamp and crawled into bed to contemplate it all, she heard a familiar swell, crackle, then a drone and meander; it slipped and rippled through the air. The little song that could, the tune that traveled well beyond its simplistic origins and merged with something finer, richer. Tee’s tune.

He turned it up louder, shoving higher the glass window.

“Hey Jilly! Listen!”

“Tee, no, quiet down!” She pressed her face against the screen. “It’s past midnight, no one wants to hear shouting– or your music, for that matter!”

“If not now, when? It sounds good, right? I messed with it!”

She listened after she gestured to him to lower the volume.

“Yeah, alright–it has energy, interwoven melodies and harmonies, great rhythms. Spark.”

“Spark?”

“You know, mojo.” He shook his head. “Well, it has….some magic in there.”

He did it–he whistled his train whistle, he was so excited by the progress. She never did know why her opinion mattered. Tee just said and did odd things, being a rather brilliant young man. But even though it was Saturday night and the neighbors knew Tee, a piercing noise like that was not tolerated. Right then dogs started to bark; two doors opened wide for people to check things out; one guy yelled from his balcony, “shut up, you nutcase!”; a woman yanked her companion into a dark corner and did not emerge.

She settled back as Mariah entered her son’s room, blond hair a flash in the overhead light. She came to the window, looked toward Jill, then added her voice to the mix.

“What’re you two thinking? Turn it all down! Where do you think you live, the desolate prairie? Some cheap-o street?”

Mariah said something else, maybe she asked if Jill was doing okay after Carter. But Jill wasn’t telling anyone anything a few days. She sank back into her pillows and pulled up the sky blue and rich cream floral quilt. The perfect colors and pattern for tranquility. For comfort. For a new-old love to bloom along the horizon. But she’d miss this familiar kind of fireworks night, too. She’d miss Tee’s music emerging and expanding, the notes each a different color, gliding and diving through space.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Out of Sight

Courtesy Pexels, photo by Nicole Avagliano

If there’s a hard rain after her swing shift, Macy sits by her living room window, a candle burning, with her quilt bunched around her shoulders and stares at nothing. If it’s agreeable outside, she sets a three-legged red stool on her minuscule balcony, sets a smaller candle on the the iron railing and stares at nothing. I can see her from across the alley as I slouch in bed beside my dark window. We watch each other now and then, wave a tired wave we can barely make out, but mostly I keep an eye out for her. I have extra time.

She is thinking as I used to think: how different–better–things might have been, how he chose the wrong fork in the road, but how can she make anything of her life until she moves past the so ordinary (she tells herself) heartbreak of it. But where is the necessary will to do so? It flags, it pauses, it stalls. He should have married her and he did not. What does one do with an excess of desire, as if he was still in the room, or that voice of hope inside her head, followed by a downward spiral of despair?

I sit propped up on three pillows, at least two books splayed face down beside me and shake my head as she sits by her own self and ponders. She’s lovesick, that’s what I conclude. After a year, this needs to be done and buried. Macy needs to join a spa, attend a positive single-hood seminar, take a leave and go to the Bahamas two weeks, perhaps trek Mt. Rainier since she is athletic. A breakthrough or at least a soothing mantra is required before she fades more.

I told her this too early, then only two months after her heart cracked apart. It was after she’d cried at the farmers market while examining strawberry plants (I meanwhile was taste testing a cherry tomato), explaining they were going to buy a house, they had spotted two they loved, and she was going to plant a bountiful garden but then he had to fall for that woman, the one they’d met on a cruise to Alaska, could I believe that? And she could barely face anything that grew despite yearning for all things green and beautiful.

I patted her arm and said, “I know. You have to work at moving on. It’s hard but he did get married and you can’t waste precious time and energy wallowing in self-pity. Pot some plants for your balcony, at least.”

“How can you just brush off my feelings? How would you know? You aren’t even with anybody at, say, 50 years old, right?”

I took a step back. I was just offering decent advice but tend toward frank and practical rather than fluffy or diplomatic. But I thought it was a bit overwrought when Macy burst into a tidal wave of weeping and turned away after her face constricted into a scowl of huge dislike of me, then wandered off to baked goods. We weren’t close, not even before he left her. But we often went to market together or took our dogs to the park when we both had one. (Macy gave hers away; the labra-doodle had been their dog. My scruffy mongrel got run over; he was not well, perhaps it was best.)

Since then, she avoids me at all cost. That is, avoids running into me, engaging in conversations with me if we accidentally come face-to-face. We make out our outlines across the alleyway and occasionally but barely acknowledge each other. I can’t say it hurts me, but it does disappoint me. We might have been better friends with more interaction, despite the ten years age difference and the fact that I no longer work full time but at home as needed as a nicely paid web designer. Macy and I like to read, for one thing; she has interesting tastes, we had good discussions. And then there were the dogs. I now have a cat, Razz. I don’t know if Macy has anything around to pet and chat with, but somehow I doubt it–so much effort involved. I feel for her, but don;t think of it until night falls again. I have my own life to shape and reshape until I get it more right than it is.

I’ve held a post by my window a lot longer than she has even lived in this neighborhood. I will continue to do so until insomnia abates. We’re older friends, the night and me, than anyone I know here excepting Travis on the tenth floor, who is now blind and nearly deaf. I take groceries and Razz to him and the cat sits on his lap, even purrs and nibbles his pale twisted fingers. We listen to too-loud big band selections on his stereo. The old man was there for me when I needed him and vice versa. We have a good habit going now, twelve years later. His wife, Selma, passed, heart attack right in their teak four poster bed, with him snoring away, he said, until he felt something, as if her ghost swept across his chest and arms before exiting. I liked her even more than I knew until she was gone. And I had my own issue, the strange matter of my partner, Ward, going on photo assignment in Mongolia and never returning. No good answers from the news agency, no acceptable reason for his silence. Everyone has presumed he is dead or imprisoned somewhere on that vast continent. I am not at first so sure but as time passes I am inclined to agree. There has been a holding place that will never be occupied in my life. Even Macy knows a few pieces of the puzzle. But she doesn’t know the sort of love he and I shared, the sort that I know beyond a doubt never comes around again.

After all that happened, Travis and I sat side by side in his nicely ratty armchairs– mine was Selma’s for decades, the cushions deeply indented bottom and back– by his living room window day after day, drinking fragrant spicy chai and eating too many sweets. Sighing. He lay a hand on mine now and again, said, “This, too, shall pass” until I was sick of it but he was quite right. He could walk better then. I’d weave my arm though his and off we’d go to the park with the fountain and feed the birds. It was a good thing to do.

Now we just sit an hour once a week and it’s enough for him, he smiles and looks at me with cloudy once-blue eyes and nods. I get up and go, until the next week, next grocery list.

Tonight I haven’t seen Macy at her spot outdoors yet. My night doesn’t settle right without her there; it’s like being accustomed to seeing the moon, or at least its light–out of reach but in place. I admit to sometimes worrying about her. Younger, more sheltered, less independent in most ways-what does she do with her time now? I see her here and there with some woman, some man, but there is something in the way she holds her shoulders, sharp and hunched with underground tension, as if pushing against an adversary, but what? Inevitable losses? Her own bridled anger? The tenderness of vulnerability that comes with human contact? Her mouth smiles but her eyes look far away, as if searching for him, still.

I understand. But before it got out of hand, I began to see what was in front of me and it meant more. Vaporous presences mean so little when your blood runs warm in your body and your mind lights up with a need to embrace and discover. For this is real living right now, not so the past which is nebulous despite our wanting it otherwise.

There she is now, good, her stool set down. She raises her head to see Venus, I think–so unmistakable in its regal claim to space. I see the gleaming body, too, and swing my feet over to stand in the narrow place between my big bed and the wall with two tall windows. One is half-open. The traffic, though sparser, never comes to a full stop in city center and I like to hear its metallic shifting and trumpeting of busy work. The alley is empty except for a heavily attired woman rearranging blankets on the back steps of another building, and a young man–he walks very fast–cringing into himself as he passes. He stumbles and I wonder if it is a rat underfoot, if he is drunk or naturally clumsy. And he is on his phone now and then gone.

Macy looks down, too, as if I wondered aloud what that young man was up to, then she gazes toward me. I think–how can I be sure. I press my fingers against the glass, then bend down to peer through the screen to see better. She is looking at me, she is raising a bottle in my direction, and a glass. Then she beckons me over to her spot with a nod and sweep of her hand, the glass spilling its contents a little.

Do I get dressed and go over? I am about to turn back to my books when something catches my eye, and a tall, reed thin figure pauses in the shadows, leans against the brick of Macy’s building, and lights a cigarette, face flaring bright a second but not discernible, then all is mostly dark again except for lights that burst forth and vanish down the alley. It is 1 a.m. I wait five minutes. The glowing cigarette is snuffed out and nothing stirs. But Macy is still at the balcony railing, holding the bottle, drinking from her glass. It seems a white flag from Macy, so I pull on my shirt, shorts, slip on flip-flops, ride the elevator down and step into the darkness through the side door.

I take that convenient exit as it is faster but feeling the unseen presence I about regret it. It is as if the stranger is waiting, resting– or maybe sleeping–but I almost call out to warn him off me. Still, my gut says this is more benign than dangerous, I can breathe alright. I go the opposite way, not trying to run–I’d fail in flip-flops–but not dawdling, either. My ears are pricked but there is nothing but the usual suspects, skittish creatures and whizzes of vehicles and muffled talking above, a shout down the street. Entering Macy’s building when she buzzes me up seems a comfort. When she opens her door, I note sweat has accumulated between my breasts and down my back, and realize her building has no air conditioning. She is across the alley but our life circumstances are different. I think we both felt that yet she is now welcoming.

“Hi! Wine? Rose.”

She pours me a full glass; maybe she recalls that is a preference. We clink our glasses and settle on the tiny balcony–she offers the other, yellow, stool. The dark seems heavier than usual, heat rising to swaddle us.

“So I just wanted to tell you. They separated already.”

“Really.”

“It turns out she was already engaged to another guy and he found her and visited them… not a pretty scene, I guess, and Hank lost out. A mutual friend knows the story, he’s an old friend of Hank’s so called me.” She looks at me and I blink. “You remember Hank’s name, right?” She takes a good sip. “It has been awhile since we talked.”

“Right, Hank. And yeah, it has been that. Well, that is good news…?”

“Not sure. I might be finally over him.”

“Ah, good work.”

“You know, it wasn’t that much work, just a decision.” She lights up with a toothy smile. “I got a promotion and since then things have gotten better all around. I am moving soon, across the river.”

“Congratulations, that is great news.” We clinked again.

“Last week he called to say he missed me… but you know, it didn’t feel right. I think I’m done, as you suggested would happen.”

“I can imagine…it’s been so long.”

We talk another twenty minutes about our work and being single and she is considering a cat, too, for when she moves. I start toward the door, thanking her for having me over and wishing her well. It seems a well- intentioned ending to our acquaintanceship.

“Oh, I forgot–one more thing. You know how we both watch from our places? Have you seen some guy lurking about the last three nights?”

Something in me dives straight down into a chilly bottomless pool and I nearly gasp. “Not really, but I may have seen someone tonight.”

“He looks up at your building, I think. Just a heads up. I carry pepper spray and take a cab home each night so I’m good. But I wonder what he’s up to.”

“Thanks, Macy; I’ll watch out.”

On impulse I give her a light hug and she returns it. I think, though, how she never asked about Ward. Just as well.

On the way back–a mere two minutes with a rapid walk–I go around her building, then around mine and look down the alley from the opposite end from which I left. I will enter the complex from the front door but first I squint to try to delve into the shadows.

He steps out, about one hundred feet away. And then I run, flip flops torn from my feet by the length and speed of my stride, lungs pushing air in and out then I must pause one second to slide my electronic apartment key to unlock the main door. And just like that he is there, grabs my arm.

I try to scream but sound curdles in my throat.

“Gina? Oh my god, it’s really you, Gina!”

I freeze into stone. And then I am turned to face him.

It is him. It is Ward, I think, I want to think, but he looks much older, his beard so long and his once-wide eyes half sunken in deeply tanned, lined skin. His wavy salt and pepper hair is pulled into an unruly ponytail. I check his throat. Around his neck, circling a long scar left from war story, is a silver infinity symbol on a darkened leather cord that I gave him over twenty years ago.

My knees weaken and a hand braces against the opening door and we fall into the foyer.

“Yes, it’s really me, it’s Ward… don’t run off, please! Listen. My motorcycle broke down. I got lost. I was captured–yes, true– by a nomadic man after I stole a prized horse and had to work to pay off my debt–and I had to adapt and I–“

“What? What did you say?” I cover my eyes with both hands, then my buzzing ears. This cannot be Ward, this cannot be reality. What is he saying, captured after a horse theft? My head swims and I will faint if I don’t sit down, so sink to the ceramic tiled floor, its hardness a relief.

“Please, hang on with me, Gina, wait! I’ve lived in Mongolia all this time. It has been amazing and hard. With nomadic tribes. I tell you the truth.”

“Wait–you smoke now?”

“Yeah, rotten habit, I’ll quit now I’m back to some quasi-normalcy. Or, I think it is, hard to say after adapting to a whole other life.”

My chest is heaving, my eyes sting. Of course he’s telling me the truth, he has lived the craziest things, he has always brought back such stories. “And now you’re just…are you really in the flesh? And you felt I’d still be here.”

His arms wrap around me, pull me tight. We rock side to side, back and forth, entwined arms clinging.

“Yes, I have waited but barely let myself believe…Ward. Alive, here, now.”

“It’s a story unlike any other I’ve chased or lived, my love. I can’t believe my good fortune to find you– still here in our old home,” he says into my long graying hair, into my being.

“Yes, you’re finally home, thank the powers that be,” I whisper as we stand shakily. “Come with me.”

I breathe him in, smokiness with all the rest that I recall, and we get in the elevator. His eyes never leave mine, I fall into his, what else can be done? And in our bed we hold each other past dawn, our eyes searching one another’s for all the missing pieces, our hands welcoming each other as if anew, and though Razz raises his head once, he stays curled on the couch, the only one that cares to sleep.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Myrna at the Minthorn Camp

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The Minthorns had kept a house on the wooded rise beyond wildflower-overtaken Lazy Meadow for three generations. The big rambling domain, Minthorn Camp, had been the talk of the farmers and the town for the first two and part of the third. But it had lost much of its rough-hewn grace and prosperous sheen, sadly evident by the time Earl Minthorn, II, left behind all earthly toils and gains. Now it looked weary, as if it had a hard time trying to keep up mere appearances. But Myrna was working on it.

Garth said it was hopeless when he drove up the rutted road, looked far and wide over sun scoured land and when he ate breakfast in the breakfast room and remarked on a lack of fresh flowers at the table because they’d drooped their blooms in a gasp of surrender due to record heat. The sturdy roses folded into themselves sooner than they should have, only some regaling under a brief rain here and there. Watering properly got very expensive. The place had come to him disrespected, even damaged

“It’s going to waste, nothing I can do about it,” he mumbled. “Look at those tenacious weeds edge of even the yard. When is there enough time to tend to all those?”

Myrna looked past him and at a ridge where a shimmer of light seeped through trees, spread like honey along the grassy horizon. It gave her a shiver every morning she could see it, every dawn she walked the hill.

He was not even complaining to her, but Myrna somehow felt responsible, as if she should be getting out there on her knees and wrenching them up from 100 rolling acres. Of course she did plenty, besides which most all was leased now, which was a good thing. But that still left ten acres to keep up. Which affable Roger Dell did on week-ends, and after his own long days, to the chagrin of Terri, his wife. But they were given two good-sized plots on the meadow’s south side and grew the best strawberries, raspberries and many vegetables. It had kept them nicely fed, made them a little cash. Plus they now stabled their horse at Minthorn’s for free.

Myrna bit her lip, then retrieved the coffee carafe from the bright, high-ceilinged kitchen. She leaned on the counter, tucked sweaty hair behind her ears. It hadn’t changed so much in her view; when she’d married Garth it looked much the same. True, the pictures he’d early shown her depicted the wealth of previous generations–that freshly painted, proud exterior, the beautiful stone work, carefully tended gardens, a maid in the long formal dining room and cook in the pantry. Rich acreage that prospered so well it was legendary. It was so big and beautiful in those shots it scared her to think she might actually have to live there. Then Garth explained it’d declined and she felt relief and ready to try it. There was nothing in her background that prepared her for such a place, but she knew how to keep order. How to work hard as she had on her grandfather’s humble land in the summers. And, too, make improvements others didn’t notice until done, how to learn fast what was needed.

One thing was saying nothing when Garth was caught by the web of discouragement and remorse. Maybe if he’d been a lawyer like his father, or a horse breeder and trainer like his grandfather (a side business), or an investment banker who made a fortune to bring back home–then things could be different. The cancer had taken so much money, and so soon even the will from his father.

Instead, Garth taught at the state college both American history and world culture (he was still trying to get that right) classes, as well as one economics class he hated, driving 45 minutes each way. Earl, his father, had belly laughed when he’d told him he was going to be a professor. Surely, he wasn’t serious–but he made his own way. Later, he thought living at the old place would be better than college faculty housing. When Earl passed four years ago following a grievously long battle with cancer, Garth and Myrna moved in.

“I should sell it, just unload it. You’ve done a great job refreshing many rooms…we might make a little now.”

“Maybe not decide today,” she murmured. “Maybe walk with me tonight, find ways to enjoy the land.”

Myrna poured a second cup, a hand placed on his shoulder. He tugged at her fingers then touched his lips to them. Her hands were that rare combination of smooth and strong, hearty enough to split wood. They’d met at grad school, yet here she was, trying to make him happy as she labored to maintain a 5500 sf dwelling (counting the guest cottage, but not counting barn with stable, and sheds) when she might have been teaching, too. But art history classes weren’t available for her to teach there. She had plenty to do, she said and he witnessed. If she wasn’t removing old wall paper, she was pruning trees and shrubs; if she wasn’t stripping wood, she was deterring mice from nesting in the attic.

He should be there more. But there were not only classes but multiple meetings and student conferences and papers to grade. It was enough to keep him out of her way and the place out of his mind. Until he came home.

“Aren’t you lonely out here?” But he knew the answer. She loved it more than he did.

He finished the cup and grabbed his sweater. It sweltered in the house even with strong cross breezes and multiple fans, while his rooms at work were air conditioned to an icy chill. He turned back to ask something about the fence but wasn’t sure what it needed now. She gently pushed him toward the door.

“Stay cool as you can, don’t work so hard.” He kissed her on the cheek and lips, then left.

Was she lonely…she could not imagine being less so, she thought, as she cleaned up and banged the screen door to the back. There were chickens not far off that she’d insisted they buy when they moved in. But did she wish he felt about this place as she did? Yes–it was his! Perhaps living a life more privileged caused you take things for granted; maybe it was the good and not-so-good ghosts of his past life, family he’d loved more or less. But she was fully engaged in the plan; she wanted to see it prosper. If he’d just hang on and not sell but keep faith. If he was home a bit more to actually roll up his sleeves, not just criticize.

Even Roger wondered if his old friend had given up, and said so one day as they’d shared a beer on the back veranda. Then he’d apologized.

“Sorry, Myrna. A Minthorn has deep pride in place. His father would have done more if he could have. I don’t think Garth will abandon it.”

He didn’t say, “And won’t abandon you, either,” but he thought it and wondered why. He shook off a ripple of unease as they gazed at the sheer blue prelude to twilight. She was smiling; that was good.

“See you tomorrow night to check on those fruit trees.”

“Thanks, Rog–what would I ever do without your help?”

He shrugged and tilted his hat at her, then turned on scuffed toes of his boots. “You’d learn, you’d be alright,” he said over his shoulder.

******

Her husband brought the young woman by one Saturday morning when a class had been cancelled due to air conditioning repairs. Myrna had forgotten they were coming by as she painted the cottage’s second bedroom. The ramshackle but appealing 1200 sf house was a quarter acre east of the house and she had walked there early to finish the task, naming birds as she went. It was true she’d had the idea to rent it out. Garth had mentioned he might have a potential renter. And then they were in the open doorway.

Garth smiled broadly as he flung wide his arms in the bedroom.

“Myrna, Sherrie Evans. Sherrie, my wife Myrna.”

Myrna wiped trickling sweat from her brow and stood to face a woman taller and younger than she, with a mane of streaked blonde-red-brown hair, a pale hand (with topaz ring on a finger) thrust at Myrna.

“Good to meet you–this is gorgeous!” She breathed in deeply, despite the prevalence of paint fumes

“Well, come on in– I guess you’re looking to rent awhile?”

“The rest of the school year, at least, and as soon as possible.”

The student–so Myrna deducted–swiftly apprised each room with enthusiastic commentary–“Great color and designs for rugs, walls and curtains, you must be a decorator!” –and in ten minutes said, “I can use one room for a studio, yes. When can I move in?” Her toothsome smile was a thousand watts.

What? Myrna thought. An artist?

And so it was done. The rent money was reliable because she was not a student, after all, but taught at the college. Fundamentals of Art and ceramics. Myrna looked at the woman sharply then; she did admit she missed teaching. Also, time to create more than restored houses and chicken coops and middling flower borders. She tried to not think of it because she enjoyed most she was learning and accomplishing.

But now Sherrie would be using their home to make whatever she wanted while Myrna scrubbed dirt stains from her fingernails and got up to tend hens in early morning.

Furthermore, she thought as the woman left, she didn’t like her laugh. It was brittle, could cut glass if she pushed it a bit more, her gaiety underscored by a recklessness. Also, what was with all that hair half-obscuring her eyes–was she hiding something? Or just into over-dyed long hair? And why did that matter–why was Myrna bothering with her? A tenant was what they wanted. The cottage was not that close to the house; she could be avoided.

“Well, she needed a place and will pay good money!” Garth hotly protested as she raised questions. “I checked around, she’s responsible, has taught there three years, is quite pleasant–look, you don’t have to be best friends! ” He gave her a thoughtful look. “I thought you’d like the fact that she’s an artist, too. It might be nice.”

“I know, I should be grateful. I am. It was so unexpected, just like that! Did you put up a notice up? How did she know about it?”

“I mentioned it at lunch when she complained of her roommates.” Then he glanced up at her quickly. “Well, it was an impromptu birthday lunch for four college staff, she was one of them, and I was invited by a guy in my department so I went–we started talking about rentals–“

“Okay. It’s done. We can use the money so I–we–can keep improving things.” She picked at a nubby spot on her light sweater and her torn fingernail caught at it. The temperature had cooled considerably since a hard rain the day before; lingering clouds yet kept the heat at bay. She wanted to leave and take a walk. “Just so I don’t have to be that friendly with her. I have work to do. She seems so extroverted–for an artist…”

She released a tight laugh. She wasn’t going to whine about not being able to work on her massive paintings or research about 18th century silk weavers or study her students’ critique sessions. She lived at the Minthorn Camp, it was where she needed to be now. And wanted to be. Here with Garth, after all.

If Sherrie Evans’ money could keep things running better, why not? She just needed to stay out of Myrna’s way. And yet her chest tightened a bit and her mind felt murky as a stirred up pond.

******

“If he’d talked to me more about it, I’d have felt better prepared to turn over the cottage soon.”

“That it?” Roger was dragging a birch branch to the side of a shed. There was always more to do but he was getting hungry. “Or don’t you like the idea of that cottage being someone else’s good spot?”

“What do you mean? That was the whole idea when I started fixing it up.”

“You said you might use it down the road. A refuge, was that it? And for your art work.”

She swiped at the air with her hands. “Oh, that, just a fantasy. Like a getaway for when I had time to read or draw or sit, listen to mice dance about and watch leaves drift to the ground in autumn. Right.” She looked at him more closely. “And we get along fine, don’t you worry about things. We just need our space at times. Or, I do.”

“I’m not worried about you and Garth. But now this Sherrie gal has put her mitts on it while you have all that extra space everywhere else– but you feel cramped? Go figure, Myrn! ”

She tried to punch his shoulder but he took ax to branch, then she piled up the cut pieces until they were done.

“I can use this pile if you don’t want it. Or should I ask Garth?”

“Go ahead, you know he won’t care. But it’s more psychic space, not literal space, I need sometimes, you know? Away from Minthorn energy, but also constant household chores and the yard’s mess. The cottage was a hidden treasure when we moved in–neglected and forgotten but waiting to be shined up and loved–by me.”

“Ah, she speaks her truth.”

“Oh, Roger, give me a break. I just like my solitude.”

“I know, now you won’t have the cottage for sure. I’m sorry but nice that rent will be coming in.”

“Yeah. I have one week.”

He took his handkerchief and wiped damp brow and face, then his neck and chest where a chambray shirt was unbuttoned a few inches. She gazed at the spot, then past him at the fence that required repair, then her eyes returned to him. He folded up the handkerchief, resettled his baseball cap and hitched up his jeans. Roger was six foot three and if he didn’t work outside so much he’d be thin as a willow branch. He was a telecommunications lineman all day, then often came to help. This had gone on the last three years. He never griped about it.

“You got anything to eat? I haven’t had sustenance since after noon and my stomach is howling.”

“Salami and cheese okay? Just salad and sandwich today, I didn’t go to the store. Garth will be home by ten.”

They tromped through swaying wild grasses, crossed over Kills Creek where a man was attacked by a cougar years ago, past the barn where Roger stopped to check on Pal, his (really, his daughter, Lou’s) horse and finally past the cottage.

With its lights on.

“Why are those blazing right now?” They climbed up five new steps to the back door.

Sherrie was inside evaluating square footage.

“Hi there, I’m just measuring rooms since I move in next weekend.” Sherrie ushered them in.

“Sherrie, this is Roger, a friend who works for us. Garth gave you a key already?”

“Hello! Yes, today.” Hands on hips, she surveyed the living room. “I was thinking of my couch size, and then chairs over there and my buffet here and the dining table might be big for this area and what about my drawing table?…”

She nearly glided in low golden sandals to the other side of the room.

“Well, please don’t move in before the lease start date. I still have work to do in the kitchen and out back.”

“Sure, sure.” She turned back to her surmising of furniture and placed one foot delicately in front of the other, like a ballet dancer.

“Okay, just checking. I know you’re signing the lease tomorrow. So… just please lock up.”

Sherrie murmured something agreeable, flipped the surfeit of hair over her shoulders with both hands, stretched her arms up high and returned to inspection.

Myrna and Roger continued to the house.

“I see what you mean.”

“About what?”

“Not much caring for her….maybe not trusting her, either.”

“Did I say that, Rog?”

“More or less.”

“Sometimes I think you know me better than Garth.”

Roger stuck both hands in his pockets, sped up so that she had to run a bit to catch up. It was true, he probably did.

“Wait up, the sandwiches won’t be all that good!”

“Like fine cuisine to me!”

From behind he was outlined against the vibrant sunset, and how confident the set of his shoulders, how natural and easy in the landscape as he pointed to Venus suddenly sparking at them. She’d occasionally thought they might have more in common than she and Garth but what did that mean? They had become good fiends, perhaps best friends. They were both nicely married. He had a lovely child, a good horse, a job he liked, a pleasant home: it was a good, full life. And so was hers. Minus child and horse, both of which which mattered less to her than an art studio, she admitted. Minus husband rather too often, which also mattered somewhat less than she’d once imagined.

******

When she was considering getting ready for bed the next night, Myrna did not look at the clock. Nor check the driveway and peer down the long road that ran circuitous like a snake unwinding its tough, attractive length through their land. His and hers, Minthorn Camp.

Garth was to have been home for dinner but he called and said he was meeting Sherrie to sign the lease–he’d be home before long. It was far too late but she didn’t care when he got there–she knew all she had to know.

She was putting away his T-shirts in the dresser drawer earlier. They weren’t lying nice and flat and socks were bunched up, so she took them all out to organize. There at the back was a folded receipt, then one more, then another, and more. Garth saved receipts for work so she tossed them in the wastebasket, reordered the underwear but as she did so kept eyeing the receipts until her hand followed gaze. He filed such receipts in his desk drawer, not in a dresser.

They–eight of them–were from Palatini’s Food and Spirits. She’d heard of it, but they’d never been there; she wasn’t fond of Italian food. When she studied the credit card, she realized it was not a regular debit card but his credit card. The one he used for emergencies or big purchases. These purchases were meals, two meals each time and dated over the last four months.

Myrna lost her breath, time and space fell away; she grabbed the bedpost to keep from sliding to the floor. She put head in her hands, leaned toward her lap, took in slower breaths. She was not going to faint over this. She’d already sensed it: Garth was meeting someone and it was not for work.

She slipped on her Teva sandals and ran outside, leaned against the nearest tree, body going soft as if defenseless, and searched the sky. Nothing but a wash of soft blue-black, stars and ever more stars and a three quarter moon that glowed so bright she could see dry, brown grasses bending against the weathered fence. She felt relief: to know the truth, not be afraid, to know her gut was right despite rational excuses. Two tears slid down her face but that was all, and they dried fast in the heat of the wind.

Then she got mad.

She reached for her phone.

“Hello?” He sounded a bit annoyed but resigned.

“I know it’s getting late, but can we talk, Rog? Or will Terri be mad? I could use your help–I’d be glad to explain to her, too.”

“Terri and Lou are at her sister’s in Utah for two weeks, remember? It’s kinda late so what’s this about, buddy?” He wiped his face of sleep and got out of bed.

******

They shouldn’t have done it, of course, and if they’d have thought about it a few days and Myrna had let her mind settle and clear, heart becoming quiet as it tended to be, they might not have. But they went ahead with it, changed the locks on the cottage front and back doors. They could barely stop laughing on the way way back to his truck, then said good-bye with somber faces. It was no laughing matter. Roger wondered what on earth Garth was thinking and Myrna, was dumbfounded by a deep sadness.

When Sherrie arrived with her lovely possessions in a rental truck, she couldn’t get in. She called Garth and proceeded to yell, fuming like a child who has been denied. Roger and Myrna watched her carry on from their vantage point in a wooded stretch by Kills Creek. The not-to-be tenant waited for her–Myrna said it right out loud– lover. They couldn’t hear much but the activity–or lack thereof–said it all. Garth came to a a roaring, dust-swirling stop at the once-hoped-for-trysting spot and took Sherrie into his arms, then stomped around the place, trying all windows and doors. Then they were gone, each in a car, one after the other. The rental truck sat as evidence.

Myrna had seen far more than she’d desired; they skulked deeper into woods, then parted. Nothing was said, though Roger had reached for her and maybe she wanted more than anything to fall into someone’s arms–no, his arms–but she did not. Instead she returned home to wait for her husband.

Roger Dell drove all the way home singing loudly with the radio, not a song he even liked. It was better than the feelings he felt, heart pounding like wild hooves against the dirt.

******

The two of them, Garth and Myrna, dug for and found enough love and good sense to recover. It was also the pleasure and grip of Minthorn Camp, one place that belonged to Garth, and he to it. And the woman he married was not someone he cared to harm or lose again, and he told her he’d spend his life proving it. He knew that place had become part of her, as well. He found himself teaching better, returning earlier and in search of Myrna.

But Myrna didn’t believe or care if Garth proved it; she was simply there despite the pain. It had become her home. That was the half-answer answer she had for him; any more would take loads of time. So she finished up the cottage. She moved in and turned two rooms into one airy studio space. There she captured time enough to make large acrylic paintings that were a wilderness of colors, and to refine new skills in botanical drawings, their lushness made more potent by exacting lines. There was the research for articles she was determined to publish again. She went back to the big house only after she sold an article months later.

Roger stayed on part time at Minthorn Camp. He needed to work the challenging acreage; he had grown up roaming it with Garth and their friends. He liked the extra money he now was paid for his labors. It accrued over time for a second horse for Terri (as expert a rider as was he) and himself to share. He hoped one day for a third, maybe more. The Minthorns weren’t the only ones with a respectable history with horses.

And there was Myrna, wasn’t there. She was learning to ride–Garth didn’t enjoy it after he’d fallen as a kid and badly broken his an arm– and it was taking much effort and time. She was not quite at ease on the back of an animal that knew its own mind better than did she. Myrna needed extra help, they both knew it, and Roger was careful as she got better–and gained back ground. Before too long they rode together now and again, sharing a beer and a sandwich after each comforting, victorious ride.