Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Ms. Regina’s House on the Corner

Tanya and her mother read the column in the Obituaries section and they released a gasp in concert. The deceased lived five houses down the block. It was true they hadn’t seen her watering her flowers for months–some hired hand now did that task. They calculated she was 85 when she drew her last breath. Gone from the neighborhood. The entire planet.

Regina Ludlum had been the Headmistress of the Moss Highland Girls’ School for four decades. Tanya’s sister, Melanie, had attended years K-8 but she had not. Her mother came to prefer their good public schools rather than the parochial system, and at last won the argument with their father.

Mel had congratulated her on such good fortune. “You won’t endure the pressures for perfection, or all the knee bending, and the reverence for snotty staff. Though you kinda have to hand it to Ms. Regina,” she said, giving Tanya a “high five.”

Ms. Regina– she wanted to be addressed that way; her family’s origins were Southern, people speculated–was legendary for her intellectual prowess as well as vast organizational skills. She was also a good fund raiser twice a year. Many wondered why she’d ended up in such a small city, but she had the inheritance of her great uncle’s house. Her family heard this had brought her from Italy where she was studying some arcane art like gold leaf restoration in ancient buildings and exquisite crumbling homes.

Regina Ludlum was possessed of a quirky beauty defined by a loping, lanky grace; delicately shaped hands that nevertheless seemed a bit large; and bright eyes crowned by the most dramatically arching eyebrows ever seen. Her dark hair swung at chin length, neatly cut, and it framed her features perfectly, kept the emphasis on high forehead and penetrating gazes. Even when it turned white and her facial lines drooped, it suited her.

Ms. Regina’s presence was quietly imposing. Poised, entirely civil. Her capabilities were never questioned, and her students’ competence reflected her successful methods of direction, their parents said when Mel complained. But it seemed no one knew her well, at least not at school and not in the neighborhood. She remained pleasant but restrained, enough so that a mere “hello” seemed at times too friendly a gesture toward her–she’d give a quick nod and smile wanly. Or, if she was feeling generous, raise a palm in greeting, then keep on.

Tanya waited for news of her house sale, for it was this that had long drawn her. The ancient uncle who had owned it had passed when she was only one so it was just Regina Ludlum’s domain in her mind. When estate sale signs were placed along the sidewalk and at two corners, she was eager to discover all she’d longed to see.

Her mother said there was something inherently disrespectful, even distasteful about such a thing. All that gawking and buying of another’s personal property by an acquisitive public… but Tanya waved off her remarks. Her mother knew she was going to be an artist and was fascinated by houses, the things they held. Plus, she was now eighteen, fully capable of consideration of others’ property. And she wasn’t going to buy one thing.

She also knew her mother would be at her for detailed information when she returned. Even if she was too self-righteous to admit at the family table. They’d go fall shopping, have lunch tomorrow, and she’d give her a full report.

The Ludlow place was a large two story home, easily over a hundred years old, and painted a pale yellow with white trim. It offered a pretty covered veranda with overflowing flowerpots still hanging. Several people were already entering. The heavy carved door with beveled glass opened to a living room with a side staircase, steep and fashioned of polished, worn original wood. Small stained glass windows welcomed autumn light at each landing. There were other stained or leaded glass windows atop or alongside regular ones in the pleasing space. The light was dimmer in these areas; there was a huge chestnut and a big leaf maple out front.

Tanya wandered further into the living room, not unlike their own but much bigger, with a grand fireplace and brick hearth which displayed an array of large figurines. There were really statues, a couple that came up to her knees, some classical in design. Women, of marble or alabaster–one in a flowing Grecian gown, another a glowing white nude; an impressive, rider less brass horse with front leg raised and head up; a ceramic stylized bird that was most likely a blue heron but with an Asian flair. Tanya’s fingertips grazed them each lightly, and as she went on she wondered where they came from. Europe?

Did Ms. Regina travel often? Were there fine mementoes to be found?

There was a smaller study of the main room. A deep brown leather armchair for reading, a long narrow desk with matching desk chair. Bookshelves about empty; book sellers had already come in, cleaned them out. Textbooks were for some reason stacked on the floor along a wall. Several oversized art books still in a book case tempted her but she went on.

In the expansive dining room there was the usual, if one’s usual included bone china, crystal stemware, a silver set snug in a velvet-lined case, pale green and blue glass vases of elegant design, serving dishes of sliver. And then pitchers–five total, three of which were more rustic pottery. Tanya wondered if those were for iced tea, while two clear lovely glass ones for fresh lemonade or chilled water. Or vice versa. And with whom did Ms. Regina use all these items? It was so big you could well seat fourteen at the massive–was it mahogany?– table.

The large spaces were empty of much feeling; she wasn’t sure what she expected. Maybe lingering energy of laughter, high spirited conversations… Did she have many visitors? It was possible, of course; no one had a daily eye on her house. Maybe she got tired of dealing with so many kids and teachers at the end of school days; it was a tiring job, she suspected. When she retired, she might have craved solitude. Yet as Tanya thought about the possibility it made her feel lighter: Ms. Regina chatting away on a ton of topics, her smart comments filling the air. And they’d enjoy cold drinks and pastries on the fancy veranda.

She had never seen or heard Ms. Regina with a large outdoor gathering over the years. Not that she should have. Tanya was busy with her own life, not too mindful of the woman. She had read glowing newspaper articles, had seen her on television, heard the stories from kids who had attended Moss Highland. Oh, she’d seen her come and go to work or a store, but only a glimpse was caught as she parked her shiny black Buick in a double garage at the end of the curving drive. Then she entered the side door, Tanya had noted. There was a gigantic back yard, however; the house and its plot took up a third of the block.

Now the kitchen doorway swung open so she moved on. It had been updated with high end appliances, two rectangular skylights, a huge quartz-topped island with matching counters and refinished wood cupboards. Tanya moved to the side. More bodies crowded in and examined everything, exclaiming over this and that brand and culinary tool. Two sets of everyday dinnerware of pretty hue and decoration were stacked up. There was a shelf on the wall with more than a dozen cookbooks featuring recipes from around the world. It was clear Ms. Regina knew how to cook with skill and flair. There was so much light there it was friendlier than the rest of the house, so far. At the back wall which overlooked the expansive yard was banquette seating, with cushions adorned by a fabric design of copious green vines upon rich ivory.

There was a pantry, too, and she poked her head in to note half-full counters–a heavy duty mixer, an espresso machine and other kitchen aids–and many cupboards each side of the work and storage space. Had there been a cook, even a butler, once upon a time?

Tanya extricated herself from the crowd that had started to bunch inside the kitchen–it was popular. She stepped down into the deep, wide yard. Cypress trees–were those Italian? -she’d ask her father– lined back and side boundaries. The lawn expanse was so green and flowery she felt stunned by its beauty. Birds twittered, blooms bobbed their heads as bees darted about. There also flourished a small patch of vegetables to the right–pumpkins grew fat and jolly–by the garage. There was a darkened mossy stone bench at each side (an old man was half-slumped on one, peering into sun dappled shadow, a hat in hand). And a teal-colored metal café table with floral umbrella and four chairs in a corner–and was that an arched trellis covered in twisty vines? A two-level fountain burbled just beyond the trellis. Tanya found herself pausing there, looking back toward the stately house, entranced.

This had to have been where Ms. Regina spent much of her time. Who wouldn’t? It felt a special place. Her family’s own back yard was much smaller with an aging trampoline in one corner and a charred fire pit in another; their flagstone patio was outfitted with worn outdoor furniture and a big gas grill–that was all. But this–this was lovely, expertly tended yet welcoming, a perfect combination. Attention had been lavished on it; the array of forms and colors, the deft touches were what the senses longed to claim. Serenity. Ms. Regina outside on her knees, trowel in hand, wide brimmed sunhat a canopy for her attractive face–this must have been her joy and relaxation for many years. It suited Tanya’s idea of her–the gentlewoman tending her plants considerately and with wisdom, as she had tended her school. But, she imagined, too often alone. It felt so…private, despite the cheery aura.

But where was the woman beyond all the gardening? There had to have been more of her. Everything reflected abundance. Tanya had heard there had been a baby grand piano but it was gone if so, carted off by some gifted child’s family. She’d expected to see more of something…. There were were paintings leaned against walls, some Tanya liked and some she didn’t with others turned away from view. She had hoped to find more clues than pretty objects, greenery.

Tanya left the resting gentleman in the garden and others trickling out, and once inside she climbed the steps to the second floor. Four huge bedrooms, three smallish bathrooms. The first two were empty except for expensive and heavy bed frames and dressers for sale, one frame leaned against the wall. Most had “SOLD” stickers already.

The next room had a shelf with several bells of brass or crystal on it. A sturdy desk had six fine music boxes with inlaid or carved lids; Tanya gently opened each one to classical melodies. They looked very pricey. There were small prints of birds, butterflies and plants, like botanical illustrations–and bed linens folded in zippered plastic cubes on the high bed. A footstool was at its side. A gorgeous pen and ink drawing of the very house in a tarnished silver frame that pulled her in. But no portraits of family of others–they might have been collected for relatives, wherever they were. There also was a rich worn Persian wool rug, a closet with three woolen jackets and a couple of rain coats that looked well kept.

She then noted stacks of poetry books on a side table, and it made her inexplicably clap her hands. Yeats, Whitman, Lorca, a Russian poet she couldn’t pronounce even in her head, a few women of contemporary times (Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Sexton), and several more.

This must have been her room, Tanya thought, and sat on the deep rose colored quilt that covered the bed. She was suddenly filled with the hugeness of the house, life lived there quietly, smartly. Alone. Melancholy pressed into her as she took in the room, then she left it to glance in the sparkling bathrooms with heavy claw foot tubs and high windows, then stopped at the last bedroom across the hall.

And she pressed her fingers to lips.

What greeted her from the door was a wedding dress with its long veil. The lace and satin were yellowing–she was afraid to touch it. Meticulous bead work adorned the bodice. There sat a limp cloth rose above the neck. The scalloped hem was stiff with fancy lacework. A leaf-and pearl-decorated veil was topped by a headpiece that seemed like a small hat which mimicked a crown.

Ornate, flowing and sumptuous. A wedding dress for someone who expected her wedding to be long remembered. Someone who had to be clothed in such finery to lavishly emphasize all-encompassing love.

She held the fabric to her nose a moment, breathed it all in, smelled a faint waft of cedar that must have helped protect it inside a hidden bag in the dark corner of a closet. It smelled of that time and it filled her with an ache, a warmth, barest echoes of fervent, lost words. It held deep commitment, a promise of a future of joy.

And loss of both. Somehow.

Tanya began to back out of the room, slowly. She wanted to close the door and secret the dress away, but she guessed dress and veil were also for sale; she didn’t look. It felt a betrayal to let them hang there, be touched by so many, then bought as just another vintage thing. She thought for a moment that she needed to own it to keep it safe, but even that felt wrong. It was Ms. Regina’s, she was sure of that; it had been meant to stay hers. All that pride, expectancy, excitement–then perhaps great sadness. But it was not for Tanya to say, and Ms. Regina was long gone. As she turned, her vision blurred and she dabbed wetness away. Anyone would think she had lost her wits in the old house, full of items gotten and treasured then so easily let go. Sold off as if exquisite nothings.

Gawkers, as he mother had called them, were filling the stairwell now and Tanya began to understand the pronouncement. Was she one of them?

As Tanya rounded the landings and pushed her way downstairs, the shoppers gathered with purchases at the table set up for business. She looked about then. Was there not one thing she should keep of Ms. Regina’s? But all she felt was a pressing need to leave.

She walked around the three-quarter veranda and there he was, the old man. He wore a perfectly fitted, grey three-piece suit, his hat now set upon his sparse thatch of white hair. He reclined on a rattan and cushioned armchair. She approached him, leaned against the banister. He looked up, bloodshot eyes blinking, and offered a slight, crooked smile. She smiled in return and took in a breath of cool air.

“You knew…” she began.

“Yes, I knew her,” he said, gravelly voice low and well enunciated. “Did you find anything of interest?”

She hesitated. “Well, I found a wedding dress.”

He took his hat off to smooth back fine hair, then placed it on his lap just so. His gaze stayed on the hat. “Yes, that dress…”

“It was of course for her…oh, now wait, was it by any chance your…”

He looked up, sought her eyes with pale blue ones. “Yes. Back when we were fresh, full of the dickens and love. Right out of too much university we were, raring to go.”

Tanya half-sat on the banister as anxiety rippled her stomach. She didn’t want him to feel badly–maybe fall apart–as he rested in the breezy September morning. The barest scent of winter chased after autumn leaves in the side yard so that they knew more change was coming. They would each leave, soon. What could she say to him now, how could she comfort him? She was eighteen; he had been alive so long. When she didn’t speak, he continued.

“You don’t mind me telling you, do you? I saw you in the garden–maybe you knew her, too.”

She nodded. “Yes. I mean no, it’s okay. I sort of did, and admired her.”

“We were married for eight years, that was in Boston. Then I got a job offer in Los Angeles–I was a lawyer, got a big opportunity.” He pressed his forehead with the heel of a palm, studied the floorboards. “She was an art historian then…and didn’t want to leave her work. She taught , worked in a museum. See, it was the east coast and smaller and nicer than L.A. She said, ‘A fast lifestyle, glitzy people! Must it be your work, first and last?’ That’s what she said to me over and over. I said, ‘But think what I can do for us both, think of other options for you!’ On it went until we had heard it all enough…”

The wind gusted; a flurry of dry leaves rose and fell. People were coming out, going in the front door as they hid there, speaking of more personal matters. Tanya wanted to reach out, touch his hand but refrained.

He re-creased the top of his hat, patted it as if with affection. “So that was that, miss. It was tough. Unusual those days, people leaving a marriage was almost unheard of, at least in our group. In point of fact, she was ostracized for not going with me, not being the dutiful wife. But we left each other for things we deeply believed in. Still, I often have asked myself: for what?”

He brought his gaze to Tanya; so much was there that she looked away. The man stood, held out his arms to the seen and unseen world with a weariness, then dropped them with a slap against thin thighs. Tanya felt as if she was listening to a confession; it made her a little embarrassed, but his honesty was touching. She felt more sadness for him than anything. She took a step closer but not too close so her concern might make him think she found him some dotty old guy. Because she knew he wasn’t.

“Time slipped by so fast. My career was a great one; hers changed but it was fulfilling, too. It happened that we later wrote one another. After a long time we no longer did. On my sixty-fifth birthday, she sent a last card. And now…”

He leaned with one hand on the banister, the other held up to the sky but she could see his legs were weakening so she grasped a forearm.

“I remarried, a nice gal, but only for a minute–it was nothing, nothing much, at all. ”

Tanya feared he might be weeping but he wasn’t. He had closed his eyes and squeezed them tight. Then he stood tall, placed the hat on his old lion’s head with a sharp pat.

He held out a hand to her with a genuine smile that opened his wrinkly face. “That’s the story, at least partly. And I am Martin Ludlow–please excuse my manners.”

Her jaw dropped a bit, then she got hold of herself. She felt the warmth in his hard, lined palm. All the life lived and still left there.

“Tanya Oppenheimer. I live right down the block.”

“A student of Regina’s?”

“No, an admirer from afar. She… inspired me though I didn’t know her much at all.”

“Like me, then, inspired long from afar,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you–thank you for listening to my revelation. Best wishes for a good, long life, Miss Oppenheimer.”

Then he bent over to grab a small bag by the chair and handed it to her. With a turn on his heel, he took his leave. He clomped down the stairs and strode off, a bit hunched over but head held up. When he reached his silvery car, a driver popped out and rushed to his side, then opened a back door. Martin Ludlow stooped just enough to get in and the door was closed.

He was once and for all gone.

Tanya lingered a bit before going home, wondering over things. Regina Ludlow. She had kept his name. They had both kept each other in their deepest hearts. Two aging persons still in love. Maybe they got what they needed, and maybe not, she surmised as she dawdled along. But she was relieved she had finally gotten access to the home.

It was only when she no longer could see the lot with its house that she thought to open the bag. It was the pen and ink drawing: Ms. Regina’s on the corner.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Chase and the Interloper

It was beauty and anonymity that drew me there and away from the limelight, at least in part. And it was that which also sent me elsewhere. My life has been a mixed bag of easy accolades, tough anxiety, moments of fear and a hint or two of love. How might it ever be different, I wondered? How could it be worse if I returned to Huntington?

Right then it was another yellow day, a conflagration of blinding blue with sunlight, the sort that requires sunglasses to even peer between curtains at the sharp-edged world. I had grabbed the purple frames as the lenses are biggest, and after I had enough of a look fell back into bed, glasses and all, and let my eyelids close again. I had nothing of consequence to do until mid-afternoon. Then, another Skype meeting. Out of sight did not mean out of work, not entirely.

******

My bedroom is a sanctuary. The rest of the condo is trite and bland, the usual around here, and is rendered tolerable as I close my door and turn on one low-wattage lamp at bedside. No one comes in without my permission, not even my mother whose condo it is. I rent it from her –I won’t stay here for free–so she is rid of the prickling worry about lax or disreputable tenants. (Not that she trusts me with so much as a drain snake; not that I would use it–there is the maintenance guy five doors down.) And it has given me freedom to travel or hide out; it is not known as my home address. (That is Lisbon, a house last inhabited a short time a year ago. Or Tuscany, a small villa cared for and lived in by my brother, for now.)

But she owes this and more to me, she says. She’s the one who got me into the game. I was only a child, barely five for my first commercial. Now all this time has passed and I am grown and worn out already. She knows what it’s taken from me, she believes, but she also sees several pay offs. I’m not interested in what she sees, anymore. I’m trying, though, to feel more loving; we are better than before I came here.

I open my eyes to…nighttime. I painted these walls a dense dark blue; she calls it navy-black, I call it faux night sky. I prefer being on the terrace when the sun winks out but once my door closes, it stays shut until dawn if at all possible. I do not like daytime much now. I do not care for sunshine. I loathe being caught out there, unprotected, wholly seen, my narrow-jawed face with its chestnut-eyes and a grand tawny maned head all bared to society’s scrutiny. I did that already, over and over. It led to years of lost equilibrium. Of success-driven misery.

For years I was a child model and grew up in the profession. Did I even get to establish “equilibrium”? “Mariah Z, Mariah Z!” they yelled at every turn. By age 21 I’d had more than enough. One might accurately surmise I’ve not gotten over the blare of lights, paparazzi taking chase, my face and body splashed across billboards, my actions front and center on commercials, bit parts in movies leading to…what?

So: I do not easily or often sally forth into public places. It feels like a nearly forbidden land now. Even when I travel I take a red eye flight, wear grey or beige bulky items, a floppy hat I change each trip–they allow me to be almost unseen. An invisible woman, what a coup.

These days I don’t have to work, so I’m on a break until age 25. That gives me three more years if I’m careful of my outgo. (There’s little worth wanting, anymore–cash is like a handful of litter in my purse.) I do have a cat that has needs and wants, if minimal, and a friend or two I still trust and for whom I like to buy small surprise gifts, nothing overt. There’s nothing like money to cure you of money, no matter what people brag. At least, for me. Only my mother understands this, and that is for other reasons. She was born into it and so it little interests her as topic or focus. Fame is more to her liking, or fame via her daughter–me–without the huge hidden costs.

I know, people think I’m crazy to turn my back on it, to be so blase at this age–that I must have snorted too much cocaine or drunk too much tequila. Sure, I did enough of that and too young. But there’s nothing better than to step into the wings when the applause comes at you like an unholy din– and then just slip away. For me, the shadow of hiding was a magnetic force that turned my life to this direction. I got away–I just said no no no— and didn’t go back. I may never.

The cat -Sari- and me. We like to rest and muse on things or sleep. Sit by the deserted pool at midnight, or I sometimes swim a little but quietly as it is against the rules. Read by candlelight on the terrace–Sari listens as I read poetry aloud, yawns, licks my hands, purrs when I stay still. It’s not a bad life, now. I’ve grown accustomed to the rhythms of leisure, punctuated with nightmares that still wake me up too much, and I lie there and stare at my kindly night ceiling. Oh, the catwalk, the photographers’ studios, the constant travel, weather not stopping one thing even if you’re out there in the wild and half nude. The television cameras and directors shouting. And always random people touching my hair, skin, clothes taken off and put on, repositioning parts and pieces, my standing there rigid as they fix this, that, one more thing.

You stop being your own person. You stop seeing your body as yours. Your life hollows out; you are so many movable parts. A mannequin.

Now my living is separate from that life, or far more than ever before. Nothing can take this ease from me without my saying so, anymore.

******

I’m not agoraphobic. I use the facilities to swim; I work out daily. I go to the library, if only in evening. I shop at small shops for necessities when it isn’t busy. I take weekend trips with my best friends, usually to a country inn or we go camping. I take a flight to somewhere equally out of the way–not touristy. But there is room for variation. Or to fail to accurately calculate, depending on the outcome.

I, for example, love the huge wooded park two blocks away. Since I don’t go there at night, I visit Huntington Nature Park’s 125 acres once every month and walk it’s two winding miles of trails. It’s quite heavenly.

Since Mom’s condo is at the edge of suburbia (I used to live in New York York, people worked or played all day, all night), most adults work for a living so are not around in daytime all week. There are a few joggers zooming about. Mothers with strollers or, after school, groups of older kids on bikes or skateboards until they’re told to get out of the way. Older people with hands tucked into crooks of arms. Dogs let out with all ages and stations of people, and they cheer me, those furry critters who sniff my leg–cat! cat!- or lick my hands but say little that matters to me. Now and then a lone man or woman rambles about, sits on a bench. Some take lunch hour there so I avoid that time–those workers tend to watch people more closely as they eat, like it’s entertainment when they aren’t using their cell phones. I know; I have done the same.

So I go and relax among the others. It’s good to see people outdoors enjoying the greenery. I’m moving along, hiding in loose sweatpants and a hoodie despite knowing I, Mariah Z (Zentner), am not remotely on their minds. Not there–not out of context, for sure. A habit, trying for a sloppy incognito to blend in. And my over-sized sunglasses help. Plus, they are barriers to UV rays since becoming more nocturnal.

Today is like other days as I arrive. Sparsely populated trails but not lonely. Butterflies, bees, dragonflies. Dogs going for tossed sticks or to relieve themselves on every bush; toddlers toddling; a woman reading under a ginkgo tree. Then the densely wooded area and my feet pick up speed. I am not a runner but I walk fast as I note ferns, shadowy designs and wildflowers; birds fluttering and singing, squirrels chittering and racing about.

I shake it out, the knots and questions that can keep me captive when indoors: will I be a wastrel or a contributor to something good? Will I go back to Lisbon soon or much later? What about Sari’s aging–she is 10 already–how long do I get to keep her? My sneakered feet move smoothly over hardened dirt side trails, arms swinging, breath pulsing in small exhalations of effort as I speed up. Oxygen courses though my blood, I breathe better, my parts move in better concert and I am getting happy. Time ceases to have meaning as endorphins increase and carry me beyond myself. I can go on like this much longer than the park allows, on into the night if only I had the nerve.

There’s a flash to the left of my head, a red movement between trees. My heart rate jumps a bit as I search thickening trees and heavy brush but keep moving. Nothing much, a creature taking a short cut. But there–is that something? Maybe a person? Rusty colored jacket or shirt. Female or male? Why are they off-trail? Or is that a smaller trail I forgot about? I hear rustling of bushes and leaves from the same direction. I see a fork in my path, take a right. I feel it on my neck, in my gut–that sudden sensation, a primitive warning. My gait increases. I may consider running. I hear the thing moving closer but cannot place what it is yet. Coyote? Cougars, there are cougars around here, I think. But not smack in the suburbs, right?

I don’t want to bolt, I don’t want to hearken to the alarm of adrenaline but I am soon, indeed, running, my long legs covering ground fast. This is so old, fear rising up from the past yet worse, but I am used to having to hide, avoid fingers grasping, cameras flashing. Worn down by faceless crowds, vultures who just want more more thing from me. Yet this is something else. I count with my every footfall, one to twenty, and again. Calm down, I tell myself. It can’t be something bad, not here, I’m on a suburban park pathway, no one here cares what I do, must breathe, breathe, slow down, easy now. But the flash of rust is seen again as I turn my head to the left. Someone is running alongside me in the trees, and I see a medium build, a male. He glances at me. My feet pound the path harder.

Is there no one around there? What of the mothers with kids? Should I yell, scream? All my breath is used with this foreign racing onward, much faster than I thought possible. It must be a real predator, I realize, and suddenly my body shoots forward, my mind goes blank. My hood falls from my head, my glasses fly off as I jerk my head to look back but dappled afternoon light hits me, my eyes half-blind. I follow instinct, legs galloping.

And so we go, my lithe body a small advantage over the pursuer’s heavier form, my strength from years of dance and exercise a bonus, my fear the fuel used to move faster, fast enough to outdistance him just enough. He moves out of the woods and onto the path behind me. Please let there be an opening in the trees soon–and which trail leads back? I know this park but his footsteps are pounding the earth, a merciless sound getting louder. I start to pant, my mouth is so dry, chest tightening, burning. Sweat saturates the t-shirt under my hoodie.

In the distance, there appears to be a shape moving my way, or it has now stopped, but I can see hazy light behind an oncoming walker or whatever it is, a bright veil of dusty sunlight that may indicate a possible thinning of trees. I am not thinking, only seeing and taking it in. Not a big person, a kid is walking toward me, I can barely make out dark hair and cut off blue jeans.

I want to shout, “Leave, run! Get help!” but speech isn’t possible, only two legs running, hands bunched near waist as my arms close in to streamline as I hit a dead run, my voluminous, heavy hair flying. My heart wants me to take a break–but I must not stop.

There she is, only a teenager?–she steps off the path to my left and watches closely. I try to throw an alarming sound at her as I near. She bends over for something as I keep running– see me terrified, I telegraph her–my legs aching but feet behind me never break rhythm, either. She is standing up, this kid, something now in her hands, she steps toward me, then half-jogs until she comes up close, closer, closer and yells at me–“Hey! Chasing you?”– as I pass her and my eyes say yesyes! now scared for us both, but I can see in her strong hands a huge branch and just keep on.

“Mariah Z! “she yells at me, “I got you!”

And then a leaden thud behind me, a harsh masculine crying out, loud swearing. I just stop, finally, breath grating my throat. She is smacking him with the stick as he lies prone and then puts hands up, and she’s on her phone as I rush to her.

I look at him. I wipe my face, all my bones and sinew trembling. He is not someone I know. He does not have a camera slung over his chest. Pale-faced with two red spots at his cheeks, his dark t-shirt with “Mike’s Auto Glass” printed in black, a Detroit Tigers baseball cap askew so his balding head is apparent–he looks close to middle aged, is exhausted by the pursuit. And angry.

“You’re not…uh, Haley! What the hell–you’ve got her hair, I swear! Who are you, anyway?”

“What’re you talking about? Who are you?” asks the teen, then points to me. “You’re a predator and you’re messing with a famous person, Mariah Z, did you know that? Lie still ’til the cops come and shut up!”

She called in an emergency request, then put her booted foot atop his chest and held the branch aloft, right over him. I kept a foot on his ankles, then introduced myself.

“Right, Mariah Z. And you weren’t looking for any Haley, buddy. You were stalking me a good mile.”

“She’s got that right, I saw you creeping around earlier so I cut through on another path, remember that? Now here we are so stay down, you perv!”

She held out a square palm to me, which I shook, glad to have human contact for once. “I’m Terra Bonhiver, a die hard fan of yours! You really live around here? We all thought you’d disappeared.”

The whine of a siren cut into our conversation and we applied more pressure to the struggling man–who fortunately looked a bit cowed as Terra threatened to whack him again with the unwieldy branch. He was pathetic on the unforgiving dirt.

“I thought I had, too–disappeared…” I said and grimaced, a sharp twinge shooting up the backs of my legs. I felt like I’d crumple, and then I did, tumbling into a clump of ferns, but I had faith things might be okay soon.

******

I was helped up by both officers.

“YOu kay?”

What could I say to that? “Yeah, I guess.”

Terra gave the policeman and policewoman her statement after the man was handcuffed and put in the patrol car. He was wanted for a sexual assault. I could not stop tears of relief but brushed them away when Terra softly began to speak.

She’d been jogging before I had gotten started, it turned out.

“Jogging slowly, enough to say I was running but not sweating it, and I see this man lurking by the side of the trail. You know how you can tell when something is off? He acted like that, gave me the side eye, those looks a couple of times as I came near, and as I passed he trotted a bit behind me. It gave me the creeps so I sped up, did a zigzag through some trees. I know these woods–grew up around here. Cutting through took me to a main path closer to the open park. I was sort of debating what to do, if anything at all.”

The policewoman asked, “What made you go back, if you were worried about this guy? Why didn’t you call in your concerns? We’ll always come out to check on things.”

“Yeah? Just a teenager, Japanese-Hawaiian? Okay, I’ll remember that…” Terra shrugged, turned to me. “Anyway, I saw a friend in the park who said, ‘Did you see who I think I saw?’ I said no, who, and she told me it was Mariah Z, she was very sure. She said she’d been walking around and spotted her going into the woods.”

The police wrote it down. The next question: “What did that mean to you, then? You say you were scared but curious?”

“Listen, Mariah Z here” –she pointed at me–“is a world famous model and trend setter and a feminist, please don’t get me started…but that isn’t your realm, I get it.” She sighed.

The policewoman’s eyebrows rose and fell with a hint of recognition as she looked me over briefly. “And so, then?”

“All I could think of was that Mariah Z was going right into the trap, she was walking right into the woods where the creep was and I had to do something! He might know who she is and try to kidnap her or worse, right? So I went back in after my friend told me where she might be– but instinct, I guess?–I started at this end of the trail. And there she was, running like crazy and that guy right behind her. I grabbed a thick branch and when I came by him, I thrust it in front of his feet, he fell, grabbed me by the legs and pulled me down, was trying to get up and yanked my arm to pull me off the trail. But I had a good hold of the branch, hit him with it a couple of times until he stayed down and got quieter.”

She crossed her arms, smiled shyly at me. I stepped over to her and threw my arm about her shoulders, not about to cry though it could happen. But it was my turn, and Terra and I both sat on a bench. Just recounting it all was enough to send a shiver up my spine that somehow landed in my head. One of my infrequent migraines. I used to get more when flashes went off a dozen or more at once, but here it was, a train coming at me after all that had happened. The policewoman gave us a ride home in her separate car.

“Be very careful,” the policewoman cautioned. “He–and others out there–might know where you live since you are such a public person, Miss Zentner.”

She gave me her card with a number to call if needed. I felt sick to my stomach. Yes, I realized with a start, he may have known me all along.

And all I could think in bed was: Wait til Mom hears this one, she’ll want to move right in. Sari lay at the end of my bed–she knew just what to do when I was in pain– and I tried to sleep it off with the help of a nice white pill.

******

The next week we met at the park. I wore something I thought would be suitable for a famous model, a snazzy jumpsuit, just for Terra–but kept all else low key. I had been so sweaty, felt so terrible before. This time we were meeting less like two strangers and a bit more than acquaintances who had survived a bad thing. We were glad to see one another. She rather awed me, this young woman. Such self respect and presence at her age, she had some real power. I had thought of little else since that day.

Terra came alone as I had requested, and I brought a sealed brown envelope with a photo in it, autograph and all. I’d dropped a smaller envelope in there that had two, one hundred dollar bills. Not that she seemed like she wanted or needed any help; it was only fun money, she could treat herself. A tiny reward.

“Save this until you get home, okay? I just wanted to thank you now that things have quieted down.”

I admit I watched to see if the phone in her hand was going to sneak up to snap a picture of us on the bench. It didn’t. She looked pleased with my offering, guessing it was a photo.

“Thank you so much!” She beamed at the envelope and me. “So, you’re living in Huntington now?”

I looked out at the woods, offered a half-shrug. “Not really. I took a break to visit my mother who does live here. I took a longer break from the work.”

“Yeah, we haven’t seen you much in the magazines– or anywhere–for a long time. Are you okay, can I ask that?”

Her eyes were softer than I remembered from the week before, when she had seemed so bold, her tough attitude betraying sharper edges. But she was only a kid, fifteen, sixteen at most, with a shy softness that overshadowed, today, the muscle of a young athlete. She was shorter than what I’d thought, and her black hair hung loose and shining.

“I’m okay, just taking a long look at what I do for a living, making changes, maybe. And you? Tell me about yourself.”

“Not so much to say. I’m just starting high school, I love to play soccer and softball, and I like art and also clothes but don’t get dressed up often. I’m not the fashion type, I guess, but I wouldn’t mind being more like that, and really like your fashion stuff, uh, your work.”

“Soccer? I loved it when I was a kid but had to give it up. And anyone can be ‘the fashion type’ if you want to be–it just takes imagination and a little confidence-or you can just like clothes, as you said. You can dress how you like, it won’t make or break you in the end, believe me!”

“I guess so. It surprises me you’re saying that…I mean…”

“I make so much money, I was so well known, I must believe in it entirely, is that it?”

“You still are! People would about die to sit with you like this!”

“Oh, I hope not… Look, Terra, it has been a very decent career–of a sort. I got thrown into it at a young age–looks meant so much to my mother. But it isn’t my choice, exactly. If someone had asked me what I wanted to do when I was twelve or fourteen, what do you think I’d have said?”

“I don’t know…be a movie star? You can do that next!”

“Not at all. I wanted to be a marine biologist. Or a modern dancer. We lived by the ocean then, and I loved it more than anything else–except dancing…and I still want to do something more with my life. Must do more.”

“Wow, I see…To be honest, I hope to get on a pro soccer team. Or get to be an illustrator. Or both.”

“Now that’s what I mean, Terra–doing something good for others, for yourself. Not just look great. You have such a spark, are bold and smart.”

She shuffled her feet, tilted her head at me. For a few minutes we sat looking at everyone walking about, kids playing, saw pretty blue jays and the fussing crows and quick juncos. She liked nature, too. We chatted more about school activities, her own mother, someone who had high hopes for her oldest daughter. I enjoyed her company as time went by and thought, we could almost be sisters, she might be the younger sister I wanted…

But then she raised her hand and waved hard at someone.

“There’s my friend, Ally! Hey, Ally!”

I got up. “Time for me to go, Terra.”

She rose, too, but looked as if I had caught her in a devious act now that her friend started to run up to us. “I know, okay, then. I’m glad you came, I wasn’t sure.”

I took off my shades and gave her a quick hug. “You’re a good person, you know that, Terra? You took a huge risk to help me and I’ll never forget that, or you. I have every faith in you. I suspect you’ll do something great. I might check in with you sometime, see what you’re up to, okay?”

“Mariah Z, that would be unbelievable. Amazing.”

She gave me a wave as I started off with a backward walk. Then I took off with a self-mocking catwalk strut, posing this and that way for her and her friend. I could hear her and the friend clapping and their screeches stopping others who then stared at me.

Then I got out of there, though running in heels was never my forte.

No more adventures for a bit. No more semi-awed smiles. It might be time to go back to Lisbon and find something more interesting to do. To enjoy that certain light skimming the waves. Listen closer to birdsong and keep Sari close to me and well (away from the feathered ones). For who was I to them? And what more might I become other than a smartly smiling or smirking face which looked out at a fast spinning world?

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Ways to Redemption

Photo, pixabay.com

It was the middle of winter then, the wind a hundred slaps of ice on her face, its meanness stealing her breath. Heavy flakes of snow were starting to swirl and plummet onto tree branches and her shoulders. No one who knew anything about the north stepped outside longer than a short time to grab more wood from the stacked cord, or to let the dogs out, or–if crucial–go to work, and then often under duress. It could get bad fast. Blizzard warnings were nothing to fuss much over but nothing to laugh at. No need. Everyone prepared for days or nights like that when they were accustomed to it. You took it like you took the long humid summer, or the muddy, stormy weather in spring, or scores of brilliant leaves shaking in the wind, then falling in heaps each autumn.

It wasn’t that she was ignorant of weather and its might; she was born and raised there. If that meant sledding headlong and screeching down Miller’s Ridge, it also meant fingers that reddened and burned with a rush of blood when warming up. If it meant working to cut a decent figure eight on the pond’s rough surface, it brought, too, sweat turning to icicles along her neck and spine. It meant snow boots that kept her from moving fast enough after the deer or fox she spotted and nights trapped inside with her parents as winter howled– and dates that were nothing but a whispered phone call in the warmish stairwell or corner of her chilly room–and their hushed voices cutting out until there came the dead line droning.

It wasn’t happenstance, then, that Freida was there, hanging onto the splintered wood railing of Moon Bridge which spanned the widest part of Otter River. Below her, the river parted from itself in a jagged oval around which the thickening ice was starting to jam up the flow. Freida frowned at it. Was it large or small? It was hard to determine as daylight faded and the whiteness gathered. Was the ice as thin as she reckoned or was it hardening into a board that would not break? How long would it take for something fairly heavy to be pitched over the rail and land smack in the middle of that opening? And then sink?

Freida pulled her red knitted hat further down, then released a short puff of a laugh. It didn’t matter, her nubby hat. Nor the growing blizzard or her stinging forehead; not the water temperature or time of day.

She looked into the sky and if it had been bright with stars, much may have mattered. If the moon had winked at her from behind bare birch branches. If a blazing cardinal had appeared nearby and called out. If she had brought her sadness to them, found their singular beauty a gentle caution, a promise of patience, a show of kindness–then things might be different. But it was not so. She was seventeen while the great stretch of sky had been there forever, perfect, powerful. She was not willing to wait for this storm to pass.

She had had enough.

She unbuttoned and let drop her slightly moth-eaten camel hair coat and worn leather gloves, then yanked off her bulky sweater and tugged off the jeans. Lay them in a heap with the other items, her skin gone goose flesh and her legs starting to shake. Then she pulled each warm foot from their comforting boots. Underwear, socks and hat still on, she climbed one split log running horizontal in the bridge railing, hands clutching the top guardrail.

The snow started to thicken and rush at her as Canadian winds swept her of all natural heat, taunting her. It was now or nothing. She held her breath and put one foot atop the last rung, arms lifting at her sides.

And then there was a sudden rustle in bushes across the river, and a sharp cry. Freida lowered her foot, red-hatted head turned as she peered into a jumble of snowflakes. Was that a person, then, someone watching her? Who would be out here now? A shriek then, high-pitched and wild.

“No!”

The single word was slung across brittle air, suspended above the river halfway from the far bank and Freida–yet it reverberated as loudly as if a truck’s brakes had suddenly been stomped.

Another teen– drinking, messing around? A woman on her way somewhere else. Or a kid? Who was going to tell when nothing much could be made out in the snow, anyway? Worst of all, what sort of ending would this be?

Her balance lost itself in a grip of fear; she fell backwards onto old and new snow, her back and legs scorched by deepening cold. She began to tremble, then shake hard as she, while lying down and so stiff-bodied every move was a terrible chore, pulled on all the clothing. She stood unsteadily, forced herself to not look back, then tromped back to the road slowly, achingly, her hands and feet numb. She was angry and disgusted–with her timing, with her crazed feelings, with the invisible one who had to see, had to cry out.

It was getting dark. She found herself trying to run home to her demanding mother and sour stepfather. She tried to focus on the fragrant, radiant heat of the wood stove that would rise up to the second story where her room caught and would hold it for her. They’d bark at her for being out too long, fuss over all the snow brought in,ask if she was frozen yet but after that, she could slip off to a quiet, thawing bath. She reassured herself that no one could have seen her closely. No one lived around there. Unless it was the old Riley wreck of a house being squatted in. Even she avoided the place after the barn burned down thanks to the owner, mad John Riley, who vanished soon after and let the wild things take over the rooms. No, no person would hang out there now–it’d crash down sooner than later and you wouldn’t want to be in it.

She looked behind her a few times. The early evening had gone slate dark, with masses of white gauziness clinging to all. It was nothing, that cry. An animal caught in a trap. A vagrant surprised by something. Nothing would come of it. And she’d have to manage to stay alive, stupid person that she was. She had music, didn’t she–still, no matter what? She had to keep on.

****** Twelve years later******

“Freida!”

She heard a man’s footsteps quicken but she hurried into the drugstore, her large sunglasses a shield, a straw hat a small comfort with wide brim shutting out prying eyes. All she had to do was buy soap, hand lotion and get the prescription for her mother, she’d be done in a wink. Items were gotten and she marched to the counter. No one waited before her so she slid up to the cashier, pulled out a credit card.

“Freida, there you are,” he said with relief, panting behind her, but she didn’t turn, not even when he got close. He smelled of beer. She had no idea who he was, and the cashier was looking her over, skeptical and admiring at once, so she ran out the door, found her blue convertible and started it up.

“Lanie, wait, can’t I get a picture, please?!”

Someone else and then another yelled her stage name, the only name she answered to easily anymore. Not Freida, never again. She put it into reverse and zoomed off, trying to not speed but desperate to get off North Malley Street. She had expected side routes to be discreet but no, there they were, and now two people on motorcycles trying to ride alongside of her. Like so often no matter what she did or where she went, anymore.

Well, she did grow up here. She had made a bit of a splash out there.

She had been gone twelve years, had made a name for herself on Broadway and, recently, much farther beyond. And returned here as Lanie Hartman, no longer Freida Jean Rossiter. But her mother still called her by her birth name, first and middle. There was no getting away from that, either.

She pulled up to the A-frame set back on the shady acreage, got out and unlocked the gate, then drove to the end of the gravel driveway. Studied it in the late afternoon light which draped all in a sheer wave of gold. It was a stone’s throw from looking run down–she’d have to find out what it needed–yet still stood proud on a grassy spot within wooded land. The front porch was empty now, and Freida aka Lanie, resolved to get her mother onto it and into the reviving air of summer, humid or not. After a hip replacement at only fifty-eight, that woman could be ornerier than ever.

******

“It runs in the family, arthritis and bone deficiencies, so you better be prepared. No more prancing around on a stage after a precious few years, Freida Jean.”

“Lanie…” she said, then took a swig from a chilled, beaded root beer bottle.

The sunlight was soft on her feet, and her mother’s face got gentler the longer she sat under their patch of open sky.

“What’s wrong with the old one? Oh, well, what’s the difference in the end. You’re still Freida Jean to whoever matters. Just like I’m Cece, not Cecelia.” She frowned, unsure that made sense. “Right?”

“Debatable, Mom. But lots of people–friends– call me Lanie, that’s who they know. They love me, too, as Lanie Hartman, they never had the chance to like or dislike Freida. I’m used to that name now, not the birth name, sorry. It’s been many years since I used it.”

An eagle startled the air, swooped to a perch on a pine tree. The fragrance of pines, warm earth, river water out back–it all swept over her like a hypnotic medicine. This, she missed. Not the rest.

“Well, Marsha and Clyde–remember them? Big house down the road two miles or so?–they saw you in that oddball musical. “Why Hello, Ms. Manners”, was that it? weird title. They saw it last spring when they were in New York. They said you were good. So, that was nice…that’s very good, of course. They have good taste, you know.”

Lanie flushed with smattering of schoolgirl pleasure, leaned forward and tried to catch her mother’s eye. “I’m so happy they liked it. Why haven’t you ever come to see me, Mom? I have asked you so many times, told you I’d pay for a plane ticket and get you in free, put you up in a good hotel, we could–“

“Oh, no, I told you long ago there has never been a plane I trusted. Went once in 1987 to my father’s funeral and that was enough. And it’s too far–how long would I be up in the air, anyway?” She shuddered. “And you know Hal never would go for that.”

“But Hal died six years ago.”

“And I haven’t gone anywhere much since. Then, you know, my hips and knees.” She turned her face to her daughter’s and almost smiled. “I saw you on TV once. You were wonderful enough. I told Hal–she always had a fine big voice, that girl.”

And she winked with a crooked grin–it was usually this instead of an expansive smile—and placed a thin cool hand on her Freida’s forearm and squeezed a mite, then let go. Her girl had become a woman and she hardly recognized her even after a week together. Coppery hair. Glistening peach lips. Too skinny. It scared her sometimes to think of her as famous. What could that mean in the world but sensational or plain bad news?

Lanie smiled back, shutting her eyes against tears a split second. Yes, her mother and Hal had said things. They’d said, Stop that racket, can’t you find something useful to do? Why do you have to yell when you do a song? Try the piano, maybe, we all love that upright but it sits there gathering dust. You had a talent for that, it’s entertaining. Get back to work, music is a hobby after all work is done.

“Thanks, Mom, that’s nice of you to say.”

Yes, they had loved that piano, her mother and herself, she didn’t believe Hal cared for any kind of music much since he generally complained of it, not just hers. Her father, though, had played it every night, happy ragtime, a thumbed and tattered book of standards, old hymns. But he had died in a logging accident when she was eleven. And it had stayed silent–except when the house was empty and it was just her and the smudged keyboard. Herself settled in with music she tried to recall–but then made up her own, and her exuberant singing rang out. She had thought there was nothing better than singing and playing into that A-frame emptiness, how it nearly echoed. And nothing lonelier, too.

“By the way, Freida Jean, someone came by when you ran errands for me.”

“Who? A stranger passing off as an old friend again? No calls will be answered, no doors opened, remember?”

Cece shook her head slowly. “No, dear. It was Della Garner, quite sure of it.”

Lanie looked at her blankly. “Della?”

“Old John Ryan’s granddaughter. Remember her? Of course, she’s ten years younger than you, maybe eight.” She reached for her iced tea glass and drank long and noisily. “Let’s see, would’ve been young enough you might not recall that one, but her mother, Nance–John’s smart and only daughter– married into that good family who owns the fancy stables down the road.”

Cece seemed to fade, She drank more, sighed. The pain pills were kicking in at last.

“Della,” she repeated, “yes, that’s her, came by and wants to see you, honey.”

Lanie saw the drug smooth her mother’s lined face, heard it loosen her tongue. She needn’t worry about her mother and pills–she was moderate in everything but opinions about the world and rapidly offered sarcasm–but she did, anyway. A hip replacement was not so easy to get over as she made it seem. She might stay another two weeks.

Lanie vaguely recalled the child, not the mother much, she’d known them in passing, such as on side roads when Lanie was walking and Nance Ryan Garner and her daughter were riding beautiful horses. They were horse crazy, she had thought, whereas she was horse shy.

“I wonder what that’s about. Surely she isn’t into musicals since she is a teen now, but maybe she is, or her mother.”

But Cece’s eyelids were closed for the duration, her mouth was hanging open; a little drool trickled down the corner of her lips. Lanie retrieved her glass from an arm of the Adirondack chair and went inside to consider what she’d do about dinner. It was a challenge cooking for someone like her mother. But she was glad she could be there, anyway, in that yellow sunshine, that her mother had called her to come.

******

“Well, Della, glad to meet you–again, I suppose. Why don’t we sit here on the porch?”

It was not a child (as Lanie had still thought of Della) who stood before her, but an attractive young woman. Twelve years had changed them both, certainly, but Della was still paler than fair, with lots of hair straight and light as straw.

Della stepped back from her, fingers to lips, grey eyes round as two moons. “I can’t believe I’m here talking to you. My mother almost came, but she’s too shy. We saw you on the Tonight Show…you were fantastic.”

Lanie sat, Della followed suit. “I’m so glad you liked it, really! Can I get you anything, a sweet tea or a soda? A CD of mine, perhaps?”

“Oh, that’s okay.” She looked at her hands, then stole a glance at Lanie again, gaze then sliding off her face. “Well, yes, your autograph on one of your CDs– that would be wonderful!” She grasped the arms of her chair. “But I came for another reason. One I’ve thought about for years.”

“What’s that, Della?”

The visitor took a deep breath, held it in, then words rushed out in a torrent of feeling, as if to keep the words in any longer might cause her to start on fire–and she’d explode into who knows how many shreds of emotion out there in the beauty of the woods? It had to be said aloud.

“It was me. That night. The one who saw you, I was there in the woods later than I should’ve been, my dog got loose and ran off. and I knew my parents were going to punish me, come searching for us, so I was in a big hurry to get home and then… there you were. On the bridge, and you took off most of your clothes right there in the blizzard and climbed on the railing ..I knew something bad was happening, and I had to yell stop!”

Lanie clamped her mouth with both hands, her brows bunched together and her face went nearly white with horror. A small sound eked out.

Della breathed, her chest opening like vault whose lock had been picked at last. She watched the now-famous woman and wondered if she had made a mistake; tried to be calmer as old fears came up, then a wisp of sorrow. But there it was, the secret undone like a spell broken.

“I felt you might want to know, finally…”

“My gosh, Della! I can’t even imagine…you were–what? Only eight or so? What a terrible thing for you! I am so, so sorry, Della…it was long ago, but neither of us have forgotten it.” She closed her eyes and it all came back. “But your calling out made the difference. It froze me in the moment and I came back to myself…”

“Oh, Lanie, far more terrible thing for you! I didn’t understand it. All I knew is that you were in danger.I couldn’t do anything, too small, too slow, and the blizzard coming on us and no one else nearby. I was so afraid you would jump in the water– or fall– then what would I do?”

Lanie knelt beside her,pressed her hands between her own. Her face was damp with unbidden tears. “But you saved me, anyway. You have to grasp that! I was not okay, I was deeply discouraged, felt so lonely. I wanted music to rule in my life, I wanted to sing, you see, more than anything. But could not, not with my parents against it, not without any chance for training, not then…and I was ready to give up. Everything. It was that hellish a thing to me– a life without music. “

Lanie stood, walked to the side of the porch where she leaned out over the grass and Della followed. They took in the relief of sweeping summer greenness, sky winking its blue brilliance, breezes like sweet and unruly caresses.

“Well, now I understand. You had to sing. Just like I have to ride horses, train them. They’re my life, just like music is yours. I don’t know what I’d do without my passion for horses, my being in their world. But the thing is, many years later, that very moment saved me, too–that’s the other part you should know.”

Lanie hooked her arm in Della’s, surprised how small the younger woman felt next to her own bony tallness, but the smaller was muscular and straight-backed. A conditioned rider, a hearty one.

“I was barely fifteen and had endured a full year of bullying. I was always too pale, you know, so fair that you could barely see eyebrows or eyelashes, my skin almost translucent, my hair like the a straw doll’s hair. I had to wear strong sunscreen all the time–I was usually outdoors. A favorite name was “freak albino” though I’m not. Everyone teased me, harassed me, adding crude things on social media…the whole works. I starting skipping school. I also had a hard time with equestrian training, I couldn’t keep up, too many errors in important competitions.”

Lanie took in the young woman’s face, its fluid animation and how it glowed. She was brave to dare to come, to speak of such things to a woman she didn’t know except for a public face, and one snowy evening. Della observed her but gave her space.

“I wanted to either disappear or…die. I couldn’t bear the exclusion and meanness, anymore, at school, or my parents’ disappointment. I’d wanted to bring my family up even more–my grandpa didn’t have a great reputation–but I kept missing my mark. So I went to Otter River one day, feeling sorry for myself and letting myself have a hard cry. And then looked over the railing at the river rushing below, thought about just slipping under and away…and I recalled that night. It had scared me so much. I’d also felt relief when you left and so glad. Even though I got in trouble for being late and kept what I saw to myself.”

She gave herself a little shake as if to slough off the past.

“You’d been where I was, right there, feeling like that. And then–you were walking away into the blizzard. And years passed while you began to perform, become well known. I had no idea what it all meant to you from start to finish. But you’d changed your mind, went on. I kept track of you in your show news and interview to know what played out. And saw you succeeding. It was because you believed in what was meant for you, then worked hard. Achieved things that are meaningful for others, too. It’s beautiful what you’ve done, you know? What if you’d given up that night? But you got stronger, found a way to be yourself. So I thought I should try to do the same. I walked away, too. I never gave up again, either.”

Lanie folded Della in her arms, and they were like that long enough for Cece to struggle to the window with her walker and get a good gaze out at them. The scene puzzled her. Maybe Della was a great admirer–so many were. She went to the kitchen and wondered about dinner. Lanie was no real cook but she’d done alright. It was just real good to have her there after so long apart. Her sensitive daughter who sang too damned loud, left home too young. Her grown, now-famous daughter. Strange things happened sometimes, she guessed she’d become a believer.

The two young women spoke a bit about lighter things, when Lanie suddenly stopped and asked, “What about your dog? Did it perish in the blizzard? Please tell me it worked out okay.”

Della laughed. “Oh, no, Tommy got home way before me! He’s still limping about, a leg gone lame after a raccoon fight.”

Finally Della got her CD with case autographed, plus two tickets for a tour date in Chicago. Lanie walked her down the driveway to her truck. She waved even after Della vanished in whorls of summer’s dust. And she sang to herself and the trees on, then took her song into the house, and shared it with her quieted, soft eyed mother as she made dinner.

Later when dishing out a dessert of two chocolate chip cookies with one scoop of maple nut ice cream, she announced she was buying “for you, my irascible and beloved mother, a two-way train ticket for a new show opening in New York–you are coming late November, no excuses this time, it’s for a shared Thanksgiving.”

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Her Oasis on a Tilt

It was very late afternoon, light sifting through treetops in a shower of gold, a slight pause before hearty or unusual fragrances of culinary works began sailing across one emerald, expansive yard to another. Songbirds, entertaining and costumed with fine feathers, rested. Heat had finally been turned up by the invisible hand of nature. The pool shimmered as if diamonds had been tossed across its surface, and for a moment Bella found herself blinded.

Her damp, straight hair hung about pale shoulders. She was a swimmer but not a sunbather and shade of the mountain ash, though patchy, soothed her drying skin. She didn’t want to move under great overhanging maples; her body was in repose. Nothing stirred her. Not even Remy, her golden doodle, snuffling about edges of things. Not even the phone ringing from the dining table where she had left it.

She was almost dreaming while awake. Images of her drawings bled through the pale orange to pink screen behind her eyelids and she saw their flaws and potential, meanings not noticed before. This was one reason she swam every day she could: mind released its contents as body unclenched its knotty parts. It was a feast of ideas, and Bella let them arrive and depart as if a click of old fashioned slides. Decades, now, of work. The actual, salable art was often removed from her faster than anticipated. Or desired. That was success, she mourned, and turned her face from the light that blared on all.

There was no reason to get up soon. No dinner to create. Antonio was gone, this time for perhaps a month. This was not unexpected; he was a corporate financial consultant and traveled widely. He conducted business she had only an inkling about and that suited her. If he was challenged enough… that was the tipping point– from bored to enthused, stressed to invigorated, irritable to expansive and more attentive when he returned. Otherwise, they could be more like two cautious partners fielding questions and flinging looks despite reaching for each other, and then suddenly there might come sparks that flared. But vanished, too soon. They both resisted an undertow of discontent for long. It damaged the landscape of their lives so had to be repaired. Bella learned to find her own way, to let Anthony realign himself. To nurture her own soul as needed.

It was mysteriousness, being married. Who was trained in the requisite skills? It was instinct and risk, or nothing. For them, a hoped for oneness was everything when together, even during trials. And the best way to survive in the wider world.

On the breeze came an almost acrid if rich odor that made her mouth water: choice beef on the grill. She turned over and glanced at the high fence, thought of Nance, wondered if she was home from work or, no, it was the chef they had in four evenings a week. Ridiculous. Nance, too, was one of just a couple over there–their son left for university, never quite returned. It was as if she and Rollie, her spouse, needed some sort of reward after their labors, their many sacrifices for success which Nance always referred to with a sigh, gaze lowering in a small show of self-pity.

What sacrifices, she wondered. What was lost or left behind, what had been given up or ripped away? Nance never said. There was something, maybe one day they would talk. Or not. Life was a private affair in that neighborhood.

Bella ran afoul of the norm lived around her: an art maker, not a professional woman in a business suit, not a mother hen gathering and exhibiting her chicks proudly. Married to a man she cared deeply about. She was not a scholar or any sort of teacher, nor a gallery director or curator. And never a commercial artist. Not close to becoming a mother, that was how it worked out for her body. Only an artist thinking, sketching, drawing, examining, transforming day after day. Her choice was made long ago to create. Antonio did not truly understand. But he loved her. It worked well enough.

He was in Spain again. Basking in the poetic sunlight, seeing family, working, working, an engine that never stopped until vague far off destination.

Her skin perspired under the last of the day’s deep rays. She lightly pressed her forehead with a palm so not to disturb the sun block, then tousled the dark drier strands that fell over her brow. She would work more after she ate, sit on the upper terrace with sketchbook. See if he called her.

Now, a cool shower. Candlelight with Remy at her side.

******

After she had showered off chlorine and sweat, dressed in a caftan and padded about the kitchen thinking of salad, Bella remembered the mail.

The small pile lay in a black lacquered tray; it was on a small entry table against the wall. The mail slot beside the massive door neatly released its contents into the tray. It was one of the things she loved about the house: it was efficient in design. Too showy for her but practical in its ways.

The mail was usually dull. Perhaps an invitation to a wedding now that it was summer–yes, there it was–advertising circulars (a waste that maddened her), thick or thin art magazines she wouldn’t give up as they felt so happy in her hands, a small order of something, oh, that lip gloss she found online (she’d use it only if they went out).

Then a plain white envelope. The white security kind you might have used to pay bills. Handwritten address, to Mr. Antonio Alvarado. The handwriting sloped downward a bit but was firm, even bold in a way that seemed studied: this address must look serious, confident. Unadorned, not quite printing, but close. She turned it over. Blank. Just a brownish smudge, as if dropped on the ground en route to a mailbox. Bella studied the front once more, frowning. Was that young or old handwriting? Male, female? Perhaps the second, something in an exaggerated curve or tail here and there. A personal letter, not business. No return address.

The postmark was San Francisco, CA. They were in New Mexico.

Eyebrows rose to high arches. Who might he know there? When had he been last? Two or more years, she thought. She stared hard at the front door as if Antonio was going to bound in so she might put an end to speculation.

She replaced it in the lacquered tray. Decided on salad with chopped smoky ham, the vegetables left she could scavenge. And iced black tea with a lemon slice. Her head was a tad swimmy until she sat and ate slowly, trying to not think of it further.

******

It didn’t make that much difference when her leg snapped as she hit the ground all those years ago. Though everyone cast pity her way, worried about her too long. She barely could keep her seat for longer than a half hour, they all knew that, but Antonio loved riding so she went along, and elegant beasts were wonderful. She had a dancer’s body, used it well but it was only another passion and though reined in, not quite dampened despite the leg. Of course, she didn’t publicly dance after that, not even for charity events or arts festivals or flamenco classes she’d attended. She was left with a limp, not so terrible that a stranger would gawk over two seconds. But everyone who knew her, saw her altered and looked away so they wouldn’t embarrass her. Or themselves.

It impacted her sense of self but Antonio was shaken–by the accident, her terrible broken bones, the difficult surgeries and rehabilitation. His guilt. If he hadn’t persuaded her to ride so often. Or at all. But she’d tried to reassure him.

“This doesn’t change so much–just my childish wish to perform. Well, it changes my gait, it might slow me down awhile. Does that disturb you?”

They suspected it would last indefinitely, the uneven walk, the chronic pain and nerve damage. And so he hesitated ever so little but it was there, a flicker of his eyes, and it was then she knew it did. Perhaps enough to change his view of her in an essential way.

“No. I love that you’re so positive about this, that you stand up to seeming defeat and take matters in hand. You can well temper you romantic side with your realistic attitude. You know how to make the best of things, can recreate the design of your living.”

“Really, what things do you mean? I can walk, I will one day hike again, I can swim–and there is making art, which if you recall requires little to no movement of my legs, right? I–“

He clasped her forearms, then slid fingertips over her face and smiled. She shivered, moved in closer, his warmth a magnet for her growing coolness. He kissed the tip of her nose, stepped away, looked at his phone as he replied.

“Bella, you inspire me…I’m proud of your hard work. A limp is nothing, we are grateful you can walk! But please excuse me, I have a call coming in.” He looked back as he left the living room. “Don’t forget I have to leave on Sunday for London. We’ll call that physical therapist- Stan? Steve?-back in–okay?” He held up a finger as he answered the clarion call to business and put ear to cell.

His back receded to a shadow beyond the doorway. She thought again that he admired too entirely her body, when she spent much of the time unaware of it. Creating, for her, took her out of flesh and bones in many ways. For Antonio, physicality brought him to a place where he felt most at home, felt elevated even by her presence, and there were times of jubilation. He was a person of action first and last. She admired and was pulled to this, too.

There was another hunger she sought to satisfy more: creating. And how graciously he deferred–usually. It was that or get less of her.

Still, it worried her a little as she struggled to heal. But nothing much did change. Oh, the nagging or lightning pains even after seventeen years. Bella had donated her collection of high heels. She gave up any desire for superficial perfection. She stopped dreaming of marathons. She worked on more secure, critical balance. Her endurance and strength improved as she swam, undertook vigorous exercise regimens, began short hikes with a custom made staff to keep her steadier and went with or without him–but always with Remy if possible. He was her look-out and her buddy.

The limp did not disappear. It was a part of her, like the brush of pale freckles across chest and cheeks. Irrelevant in the end.

Anyway, she still danced on their long, deep terraces at back of the house in dry weather. Nance, Rollie and few others about occasionally noticed her swaying, turning in less than perfect circles across space to soft music and murmuring to each other, what a shame, once such a graceful woman, an asset to Antonio –but a fine artist, thank god for that.

Now before she began brainstorming for the latest project she danced, no music, just movement like licks of wind, flicks of a paintbrush, a ringing of glass chimes a call for more beauty in the world as she turned, turned, reached and at last sat down with her tools for art.

Nance watched her from her patio and said to Rollie, “She’s become more of a ghost over the years, don’t you think? Secluded and pale, even with all the swimming. He’s gone so much and she draws, swims. Flutters about. In her own dream world.” She felt a proximity to envy, as if she wanted to join into those moments and see what it was she had. It was a moment gone as soon as it began.

Rollie laughed. “What do you expect? She’s an artiste, my dear. They don’t have an inclination for much else. Anthony could be a saint– or at least loyal as heck. Though she’s a fine person, but who could imagine that she would end up with him?”

“Come on, a saint– Antonio? You think so? She’s fascinating, but he’s as good looking and charming as they get after forty-five. And he’s all over the world, alone…Idle hands, they say. No saint, I wager.”

“Mmmm, yes.” He grimaced. “Well, now–a steak, dear? Thank you, Brett, you always do such a royal job on a rare chunk of meat!”

“Rollie, your manners. Just a smidgen, Brett, I’ve got to keep my health on the straight and narrow.”

Bella worked long after Nance and Rollie went indoors. The night air was light and cool, feathers drifting against arms and legs. And the quietness a balm, though their voices had been muted and even if she’d desired to, it wasn’t possible to eavesdrop readily. The residences were built to insure separateness.

She lit a lavender-scented pillar candle, sketched away. Antonio didn’t call–but he often did not for a week or so.

When she was done, she found trails of nonsensical writing across white pages, shapes at odds with each other, and objects from faraway places she had once visited floating across the expanse… yet at the edges were darkly shaded spaces with nothing to show. Like a graphite collage of random bits and worn out pieces of her past. Where was cohesiveness, a central idea? Why could she not get her brain and muse on the right track with this?

Not a good night, after all. Remy had nuzzled her leg more than once, then gave up and stretched out by her feet, soon snoring. The stars had come out. The yard was shaped by gradations of grey and black and treetops cut a fading filigreed silhouette again a lighter navy sky. All seemed calm in their home despite her angst.

Bella stood abruptly. It was that damned letter, it was just sitting there, waiting. Dizziness visited her, then she reoriented herself and went to bed.

******

In the morning after breakfast, Remy and Bella took a walk, then trotted inside, threw open the french doors and jumped into the pool’s silky, turquoise water. He liked to swim, too, if only a few minutes, while she swam easy laps for a half hour. She stopped when her left leg twinged. Some days it felt worse, some better. Sometimes she had to pull herself up by only the force of her arms; below her waist then it was as if much got heavier with a slow-aging lameness. Antonio hadn’t seen that yet.

As she dried off, she recalled a book on the kitchen island. Once inside, she dawdled, drinking remains of tepid coffee, then looked toward the foyer. Put the book down.

The letter was the only thing there. Should she take it to his study, lay it on his desk? Prop it up on his dresser? Casually leave it on the island or the dining table or…Why did it matter to her? It could sit there. It could wait for its recipient just as she could.

The book was more of a bore than she expected–an academic treatise from an old professor friend on how art creates smarter children and youth. Nothing new. But it had primarily made her feel different than her peers, as if she had x-ray vision while they were nearly blind. She still didn’t quite fit in many places. But it was no longer a problem she felt any desire to solve.

She swam more: backstroke, sidestroke, breaststroke, crawl. She dove deep and moved along the bottom like another creature, then shot back up for air.

It is only a letter, a letter, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.

After sun’s heat roasted her–she’d fallen into a light sleep–she startled at a sports car roaring by. Stretched. She gathered up Remy, pushed her face into luxuriant fur, inhaled his good doggy scent, gave him a rub and compliments. More tea, a snack for them both, then back to the drawings.

They were for a new exhibit in three short months. This time, pastels and colored pencils. And more clarity, letting the unexpected move to the fore, accept it for what it was, transition, a sorting out. Alterations. All afternoon she worked and considered, made small progress. An imagined travelogue of a woman moving between places, people, stages. A map– of the verdant oasis of body and soul within which she lived. Then, a lure of more exotic unknowns. And how to make peace or encourage change, how to shape it to her, her to it.

She was a woman of deepening ideas and impulses, and nearing middle age she’d again realized that so much more was unknown. Like an infinity before her. Antonio didn’t seem to feel nit as acutely. He mastered what he could, let the rest slough off.

She got out of the pool, shook out her bundled hair.

Inside it waited, nearly glowed–a warning or an illumination?– it was inert in the tray’s glazed darkness when she checked for mail later. Bella, of course, got letters from those who had bought her work, or from her niece in fourth grade and sometimes her brother, a journalist. Anyone, she supposed, might send a letter to Anthony, it was nothing of such interest. Only a small thing, then. So why did she return to it and feel unnerved?

******

The fourth day after the letter had arrived–ninth since he’d left– he called. It came after a late dinner of salmon with rice and green beans on the patio.

“Darling, you answered–a quick hello from Madrid–I thought you’d be in your studio at work, no phone on, but glad you did.”

“Hello, Anthony, no, I made good progress today so am slacking off tonight.” She glanced at the orange kitchen wall clock–five a.m tomorrow over there.

“As well you should. The exhibit is not yet tomorrow.”

“You’re up early, as usual. How is your work going? Are you enjoying being with your uncle?”

“He misses seeing you, sends love. Work is work, going well enough, making money for all. Anything thrilling there?”

She updated him on the water bill–skyrocketing with all those sprinklers–and the boulevard repaving work begun and walks Remy and she had been taking on a long path in the woods. For the salvation of coolness, she said, but also for the birds. “We heard the calls and saw two Cooper’s hawks today, Remy nearly took chase.”

Antonio laughed. “Good, all sounds right. It’s sweltering here, already my shirt feels damp, of course. Bella, the reason for the call is I’m coming home sooner than anticipated, early next week.’

“Glad to hear it! But all goes well, you said?”

“It has, but there are changes in plans, another meeting will be held after a quick trip to L.A. So I will be home for a week between. Arrival is sometime next” -he tapped on his computer- “next Tuesday afternoon. I’ll send details. Get my car, then home for a late meal. It’ll be restful to have a week off for once.”

“Sounds wonderful. Maybe go to the lake a few days?”

“We’ll see, darling, that might be just the thing.” He sighed: days of simpler pleasures. Bella held close to him. “I should get something to eat and prepare more for my meetings. I just wanted to check in with you, inform of my earlier return. Te amo, Bella.” He offered last intimately, a whisper.

“Love you, too… Antonio, wait…ah, I…”

“Yes? What is it?”

Impatience book-ended his words; he had made the loving but dutiful call, had business to address.

“Nothing, it will wait.”

“Until next Tuesday, then.”

******

The next days and nights were like mud and molasses, Bella slogging her way through them. Yet loose sketches still were executed rapidly, then a few good drawings. The engagement truly buoyed her–discerning shapes and movement and meanings in her work. Remy pestered her less, romped more on his own after daily swims but she always scooped him up after her work, loyal companions.

Only once did she look at the letter. It seemed to have cooled down, was less intriguing to her, as if it was in stasis after too long untouched and unregarded. It seemed almost a frivolous thing the more she burrowed into work, aware of less time left for herself. She had not expected his return so soon, and so sought the greater and better sum of her artistic efforts.

She started to swim at night again, something she had not done for months, but lazily. Remy drowsed on the first floor terrace. The air was redolent of a rosiness freshened yet dimming as nightfall came, and the moon sat in its throne to survey lawns and inhabitants.

And what in Madrid? Was he staying out late with his uncle? Was he looking upward for a propitious sign, even rain? He could be superstitious. Maybe he had made plans for their jaunt to the lake resort–he was good at that–or did he puzzle over what he would do with himself every day?

Everything around her offered the usual magic but her eyes closed, ears were underwater. She floated, floated, keeping the revelations due on Tuesday out of mind.

******

Nance on the other side of the fence leaned toward Rollie.

“Why didn’t we get a pool? I can hear her swimming at night sometimes. It sounds so relaxing. For years I’ve asked for a pool. I know you don’t swim much and it costs, but we’ll get a big raft for you to float about.”

“It might be nice. Remember, she’s still young, strong, she’s…well, she has a lot of time, don’t you think?”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes at him. “So do we, now that we’re retiring soon. Think of that.” She listened for Bella’s strokes, the water making a gentle shusssh when she resumed.

“Let’s go to Barbados, instead, before fall,” he said and lit his cigar. “Just wait until Tony gets back, they always have us over for a meal so you can have your swim then.”

“We can only hope. Or why not just put in a pool, Rollie, just do it.”

He studied the brilliant slip of moon and then the glow of the cigar’s end. Retirement might not be all he had hoped, or it might be more, time would tell.

******

She had made an effort to shine up the place, adding small bouquets here and there–they both liked that. He had long ago wanted her to get cleaning help, the house was so big, but she resisted. Instead, she spiffed it up well once a week and in between could care less. Neither did he–he barely noticed between trips. But this time it seemed important.

In the mirror’s reflection, she examined her face, found it acceptable. The fine lines about her eyes had deepened since working longer hours; she needed readers to better aid her focus. She had chosen flaxen-colored linen pants with a sleeveless white tunic, turquoise at ear lobes and neck. Unadorned, bare feet, the norm all summer. It was Antonio, not a guest, anyhow.

He arrived nearly on time for once, and when he unpacked and put on shorts and old polo shirt they chatted about this and that, then settled into the upper terrace chairs, cold drinks in hand–he, a beer, she, iced tea.

He looked good, burnished by the Spanish sunshine; he seemed pleased with the trip, seeing his uncle again. His kiss was long, almost spicy-fruity as if he’d consumed peaches with ginger. He always looked well even if crinkling about the edges, as if travel became him rather than wore him out, unlike herself. More importantly, his work was satisfactory; next steps were in place for clients. Bella liked how he’d mastered his career, knew his way in greater arenas and came right back to her, still. With the unseemly limp and all.

They were a pair, alright.

“Antonio, I held back something for you. It came in the mail last week.”

“Nothing of interest in the pile you handed me…something more?”

She pulled out the creased letter from her pants pocket, offered it to him. “It has felt a bit of a mystery…I will leave the room if you prefer.”

Antonio took the envelope, gazed at it, turned it over and back again as had she. “No return address? Ah, I see-California?”

“You don’t recognize the handwriting?”

“Not at all. Stay, Bella, it is only a letter!”

He tore it open without hesitation and read. He lay two pages on his thigh and then read it again, more slowly. His face betrayed puzzlement, then a dawning distress.

She leaned closer to him. “What is it? Who?”

He looked up at her, his mouth agape, eyes wide, and shook his head.

“Bella.” He wet his lips, took a frail breath. “I may have a daughter and she may have found me.”

******

“How old, Antonio, and who is she? When did this happen? Where? Answer me!”

She was standing above him, yelling as quietly as she could when her insides wanted to shriek. Her hand went to her mouth, before she did let out a harridan screech. He rose from his chair and his eyes swept over the vibrant garden and sparkling pool, then walked into their bedroom, letter in hand, and then he struck the door jamb with it three times.

She followed and they sat on the bed; her heart was running, running away from her. This was not what she expected, not what he ever imagined, she felt by his response. She’d long ago considered he might not be entirely faithful. She ignored the possibility, however. Her mother–so unbending yet certain of herself and well readied to corral the messiness of life– had taught her this was more or less the norm: how else could ambitious men manage for long periods out there? Bella’s own father may have strayed–“Too much, too much, stop!” she’d yelled at her mother when just a new wife–but one just gets on with it. It could be worse–gambling, drugs addiction abuse. She had to be at ease with men if they would be at ease with her.

She hated that advice. She’d struck out in her own direction, hadn’t she? Her needs mattered, too, it was an egalitarian marriage. Wasn’t it?

He folded the letter, slid it back into the envelope. Laid it on the dresser. She wanted to snatch it and read a loud.

“It was in Italy. That summer we were thinking of separating.” he rubbed his face with both hands. “So long ago, Bella! Such craziness then.”

“When were we thinking of that? You mean, during my long recovery?”

But she knew what he referred to, that she retreated, how long it was before she let him come closer, then even blamed him. Most days and nights she despaired in private, smiled in public. It was that it should not ever have happened, a ruined leg at age 28, a life unbalanced by pain.

“After the riding accident you became depressed about progress… and not being able to have kids, a last blow…we fought so much, remember?” He looked at her, brown eyes glassy, unfocused. “I was in Italy for two months, maybe more, working and staying with an old friend.”

“What friend? A woman friend?” Her words sliced the air. How could he simply roll out this story, hide his face?

“No, no, with Ian–who was with Trevor then. I told you where I stayed.”

“Apparently not all the time! And, who was the woman, Antonio? Who and why, dammit…”

“It doesn’t matter now. It was once, that is all…she was a friend of a business colleague. We all went out. I never dreamed it might happen, felt like hell about it, please Bella, believe me, it has haunted me ever since.”

She covered her face with her hands and lay back on the bed. “It has now come back in the shape of a daughter,” she mumbled. “How can you know for sure?”

He continued, voice quiet, trembling. “This…girl is seventeen. Adelina. The facts line up, she says she has a birth certificate copy with her. Here for college. Somehow she managed to get my name–and address. Through work contacts of her mother?” He made a sharp sound, bark of a laugh, once. “I don’t recall her name, her mother…”

Bella could not stop tears even if proffered a life of fame and a happily forever after. She would not believe him easily ever again–she also could not glibly accept this as truth.

“Bella, please forgive me, forgive me.” He lay down beside her. She didn’t move but wept soundlessly, then in gulps. Antonio’s eyes filled, too, as he stared at the shadowy ceiling, then let himself cry.

“What an idiot, what a fool and a failure I was that summer, Bella!”

She threw a hand out and smacked his chest once, twice. Then rolled halfway to him. Put an arm about him which he pressed close. They wept together, tried to speak but gave up and finally, silenced by hurts and regrets, they fell into a restless sleep.

Remy sat outside their door, whimpering, but no one came to him.

******

She swam three times the next day. Hid in her studio.

He moved to a guest room.

Remy looked from one to the other all day, and finally left for a breezy hallway, lay down, head on paws.

******

She swam and sat under the biggest maple with her sketchbooks and scanned each page, looking for direction, inspiration. Peace.

He swam. Drank chilled wine as he sat on the terrace. Nothing to do but wait. And think about Adelina more than he wanted.

Remy swam, too, caught the ball he threw him a few times.

******

Repeat.

In the middle of the night Antonio looked at their favorite lake spot, dreamed of a different reality.

Remy ate, chased his tail, ran in circles. Lay under the bushes until he joined first one, then the other.

******

She swam and he swam at the same time finally, though they didn’t come close or toss out words. A pantomime of a slow duel, a silent confab. Her eyes were clear beneath thick wet lashes. Her gaze held a simmering anger and it bored into him several times; even when he didn’t see her, he felt it. His own eyes, bloodshot in the high summer spotlight, did not look away.

That night they made a meal together, commenting on the tenderness of parsley and ripeness of the avocado, the smokiness of the turkey. They ate outdoors together by the pool. They sat at its edge, feet dangling in the water. Remy waited long enough, then bounded up to them.

“So. This girl. She wants to meet you, then.”

“Yes.”

“Her mother know?”

“No, she wrote. Her mother never spoke of me until Adelina pleaded with her a long time…her mother is long married, she likes her father. No one cares to talk about the unfortunate past…” He opened his hands up to the sky.

Bella kicked at the water, splashing him. She felt like she could dive in and maybe not resurface…or she could dive in and come back up and just try swimming with him. Her husband. The secret keeper, that fool. The man she loved, and deeply hurt long ago.

She had turned away from him. It wasn’t right, his impulsive diversion, no. But she’d left him with only his work, friends, no promise of better times ahead. She had forgotten those soul battered days and pain wracked nights. The well of loss. She had thought she’d been alright at first. She’d survived and overcome and kept on. A bit heroic perhaps–see how she learned to walk? To become a a more well known artist? See how she managed to beam at Antonio’s side, and that she was acceptable to him, still?

Until he left that summer. She no longer could face the scrutinizing realms within which they resided, any time in the world a reminder and her leg stealing her attention with roaring pain. Her awkwardness and weakness commandeering a life she had lived intensely, body, mind and soul. She had suffered, it was true. As had he, helpless. They made wrong choices–she with pain pills and isolation, he with a stranger. But they came round to one another again by that autumn, didn’t they. And that was a choice, too, but of a greater, not a lesser, love.

“She wrote that she is studying theater arts…costume design, maybe.”

Bella stared ahead. Then burst out laughing. “Her mother must have a few good genes.”

He inhaled a huge breath, let it slide out in a soft whistle so that Remy came running, barking, with tail a-wag.

“Oh, Antonio… what needs to be done, that’s the next question. Perhaps tell her to come–when you are ready,” Bella said as she slipped into the water. The half moon glowed, a pearl in night’s velvet hands. “I will help figure things out with you.”

he had hoped but was not expecting it. “Thank you.”

Antonio wiped his eyes. Never had he wept so much as the last three days.

“You see what kind of person she is, Remy? Do we deserve her? No. But she is still with us, she always perseveres, so we shall love her even better, and more.”

Remy licked his face of sadness. Bella embraced them both.

******

Rollie stood by the fence and tried to jump up to peek over it, but he wasn’t that tall and he got nothing even bouncing up and down. His wife smirked as she weeded.

“Nance, it’s just that I know he’s home already, I saw his car. Kinda miss the guy when he’s been gone long. Want to hear about those trips, the deals. Shouldn’t we stop over, say hi?”

Nance stood and shook her head as he gave up and sauntered over, hands in pockets.

“If they want us about, we’ll hear, Rollie. They’re still young and lovely, and interesting people. Her art really is wonderful. And he’s got that spark that makes a man reach farther. They aren’t half-bored out of their minds like we get. I suspect they could use more time alone, with each other.”

“You often have a nose about people. But we could ask them over here soon, too. And I was thinking about that pool. It might be fun. Our son might visit more, too.”

“Now you’re talking. Our son might or might not come, but it’ll be great. Drinks on a floating swan, imagine it.”

******

Bella and Antonio spread three comforters on the upper terrace that night. They watched the sky offer minuscule blooms of light, talked about the lake. They slept well, and Remy, too.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Vesta Arrives on Tuesday

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The library was not like home, not like work or family’s or friends’ homes, in fact not like any other place, and that is why Vesta entered the ivy sheathed building twice weekly. It was a deeply neutral zone to step into, and that made up for much else in her life.

On Tuesdays she went by noon, after she had risen by ten and savored a leisurely breakfast–or, as her mother said with a cluck of the tongue, brunch. Since Tuesday was her day off she had more time to wander aisles, read through a pleasing spread of periodicals, then make black-inked, backward-leaning notations in a spiral notebook on many nonfiction books she had no intention of checking out.

On Fridays it was an after-work visit at 5. It was a comforting pause before the long night ahead. Vesta picked up a book on hold if there was one, examined New Arrivals, then perused the stacks, her forays dependent on last week’s choices. She chose one or two books to read over the week-end; she was a speed reader, thanks to a high school summer course. On Tuesday she returned books and stayed longer, settling into sway-bottomed armchairs chairs or hunching over smooth maple tabletops with her literary bounty.

This had gone on for years in one variation or another, since Vesta had graduated from college prepared to be a real estate legal assistant. At Marsh and Wright Properties she filed, managed inventory, answered calls and provided information, interfaced with banks, prepared documents and reports. In other words, she made sure all was in order, which some assumed was the dullest of positions, but she demurred. It held a small thrill when shoppers found their ideal home and all went slick as could be. But work could get fast and pressurized, impacted by sudden, errant matters, and could be rife with emotional fireworks due to the complex nature of human beings.

Vesta needed respite from all that despite being good at her job, passably content most weeks. Thank goodness for Tuesdays off, though it was not helpful for an extended week-end. But Ms. Marsh’s college age niece, Kendra, had a sort of internship on Tuesdays, so that was that. Not that Vesta objected much. Kendra would otherwise be in and out more. She was not a young woman to be trifled with, her pale face overcome by flaring glares which rendered her paler eyes mere slits. It was like being forced back into high school when Kendra waltzed in. So Tuesday off was perfect.

Vesta not only liked routine, she used it as a shield. Library visits were part of her scheme to maintain equilibrium in both the outer and inner worlds she inhabited. If work could seem full of screeching hawks on some days, well, her mother could be a character from a Wagnerian opera with her miseries, passionate wants and needs. She hit the booze too much and ruined everything she could, all the while calling her full glass the only faithful love she had ever known. It was more than sad to her daughter.

Inside Pine Grove Public Library, Vest found critical relief. She found random and persistent reasons to hope.

******

Libraries tend to be safely sociable but Vesta most often avoided people, even–or especially–their glances. In fact, they made her sweaty beyond the crisp, regulated office environment. It wasn’t hard to manage once she found the areas she wanted to pursue–she mad a beeline to it, got focused. Every patron did that, they weren’t there to chat up just anyone, though some made passing comments on books others had in hand, a free five second review. She ignored those; she made up her own mind. If stumped, she sought a librarian, though their formidable knowledge trotted out for the asking often made her feel lacking in greater intelligence. It wasn’t their fault, she knew. She had a lesser view of herself, anymore.

But there were some who too obviously were seeking hearts’ longings in the benign visage of an incoming visitor. She spotted singles in need of a partner; older folks who wanted a congenial conversation over a cup of coffee; a youth who longed for a research buddy to get him or her through tedious projects and then to hang out. Homeless folks who lounged, read and dozed in corners said nothing but their steady presence reminded Vesta that she should be more grateful and kind.

So she slunk down aisles until she fingered the spine of a book of intent, then stood quite still with back straight, feet apart, and turned pages fast as she could scan. The constant hum of electric lights, murmur of voices at the check out desk, people’s clothes rustling as bodies slipped by her–none of this marred concentration as nagging odds and ends of her life began to slink away, the thin pages offering portals into greater possibilities.

On a Tuesday in June Vesta had gathered three books about natural dyes, how to make and use them for ink or textiles. It was enough to keep her engaged, notebook at hand, for a good hour or two before the fiction section beckoned. Perhaps westerns, she hadn’t tried any western themes in years, or historical romance, though she doubted she would check out the latter–not usually written to her tastes. She claimed a rectangular table, though shortly there came a man who carried National Geographic magazines, glancing over from the other end, then getting engrossed in his pile. They were situated near four chairs in various positions, two at a farther distance.

Vesta was deep into dyes from plants whose names she was trying to memorize when a man and a woman entered the area. They were talking in more than a whisper, not that people did that much anymore. A flash of persimmon–this color name had leapt from a book she studied–startled her peripheral vision and she turned to see who it was stirring the air. Tall, reedy, the woman was nearly enveloped in an orange red cardigan worn over a black dress and fully crowned with burnished volumes of hair, feet clad in tall brown boots. Her companion listened to her but with head down, and wore a navy pea coat like ones Vesta admired in thrift shops, and jeans were black. When he looked up from the chair that faced the table–the woman’s position was sideways in relation to Vesta– his tanned face framed by black mop of hair was so startlingly, unavoidably handsome that Vesta let out a tiny gasp. Then she returned to her book, biting her lower lip and burning with embarrassment.

The guy at the end of her table didn’t raise his head, so intent was he on travelling to Mongolia’s vastness with its legendary horsemen and women, Iceland’s elf haunts or the Oceanic islands’ beauty. Vesta made two small boxes with her pen on a notebook page, underlined her last note, tried to refocus, turned to the next book. She leaned in, hand under chin, her handy veil of hair falling forward.

“Have you taken care of things? Is the vacation all booked yet?”

The mellifluous voice of Persimmon Woman came to Vesta and she stiffened, bent toward the pages. Quiet, she longed to shout.

“You should be dead!” Navy Man said, trying to control the volume and not much succeeding. “Why would we do that now?”

“Because you promised, and we have to go.”

“Of course we don’t–this is what is stuck in your head since the, uh, the accident–“

“Don’t even try to get out of it.”

“I’m not trying, I am out of this scenario, all that was then, this is now.” He made as if to get up but the woman yanked at his sleeve.

Vesta wriggled in her seat. The Nat Geo Guy remained mesmerized by his pages, never mind the odd conversation near them. None of her business, either, so she turned to an index, her fingertip sliding down the list until it landed on indigo, page 102.

“You should have died!” Navy Man whispered fiercely.

A pause, then hissed response, “You, too, Max–“

“But we didn’t so now–“

“–let’s move on. I’m well enough to get on with it, you know I am.”

Vesta cast a look their way. She sure didn’t sound convinced, though the woman made a good show of it, tossing her head, hair flying out from her like a banner of protest and courage as she moved in, knee-to-knee. Her mane had its own personality; she used it to effect, and he melted back into his chair. His patrician face–nose perhaps prominent, Vesta noted, but overall he was miracle–became obscured by Persimmon Woman’s bell-sleeved sweater as she sat taller and forward, as if to do something more, who knew what.

Why weren’t they at home talking this over? At a coffee shop or a park or anywhere else but in the library? This was a different space, not really public like all that. It was getting to Vesta; she closed her books. Then Navy Man sat forward, glanced around. Before Vesta could turn away, his gaze caught hers–she actually felt it, like a hook caught on an unsuspecting fish, an easy snag– his wide eyes, full of penetrating vision, only blinked and then slid away as he realigned with his companion. They resumed talking but softly, their voices a muted tapestry of higher and lower, darker and brighter, rougher and smoother.

The Nat Geo Guy leaned back and stretched, not a quick shake-off- drowsiness-stretch but one that betrayed tight muscles that had to release, arms held high with wriggling fingers, legs lengthened far under the table. He rubbed his palms over his balding head and then sat up straight.

He did not look at Vesta but looked straight ahead, then at the magazines, then at his phone. He was silent, rather inconspicuously alert, it struck her, and he looked…officious, official, perhaps a reporter, a researcher who was looking for more than good articles and photos. He was oddly still in the way a eavesdropper or even a predator might be… Oh, she made too much of his presence! He was only reading, paying no one any heed–as she certainly was.

She could not further sit there, ignore things. They were all three so intent on being contentious or immersed that she couldn’t regain her sense of gravity, that modulating calm that descended on her when she first walked in. The Navy Man had said, “You should have died!”–had he not? Did he mean he wished she had died or that she may well have died or that she wasn’t grateful enough or he was still feeling shocked by her almost-death?

Why did this matter to her?

She gathered her books and stood, pushing her chair back hard so that it almost fell backwards. The Nat Geo Guy never acknowledged her leaving.

“No trip right now, that’s that,” the Navy Man said and his partner laughed but not kindly.

The Nat Geo Guy didn’t move but his gaze slid over the table top, as if he was reaching for something she couldn’t see.

Vesta felt the urge to run.

She grabbed her books, loped away from them, and her heart shook off reins, galloped toward an unknown finish line. She entered the restroom, turned on the water, splashed her face with cool refreshment until she was calmer, leaned back against the white tiled wall. Her breath slowed. Vesta took out a comb to smooth back her damp, wavy bangs. She applied a pale sheen of lip gloss and pressed lips together, peered into her eyes and saw they were not too jumpy, were clear.

But she had been in the library for a little over an hour and nothing good had come of it. People airing personal lives was not what she looked forward to–she heard enough in her work–despite her curiosity about the entirety of it. She debated on staying or leaving and was definitely leaving momentarily when the door burst inward, thrusting Persimmon Woman into the path between door and sink.

“Take it, toss it, don’t care!” she said and dropped a small leather backpack at Vesta’s feet, then lost her balance a bit. As she grabbed the door handle the swift motion threw all that coppery hair away from her face. The woman turned, lips tight but breathing heavily, hands on hips, staring right at Vesta with eyes that could knock you through a wall and into next Sunday.

Her forehead were bruised, her neat nose scabbed over; her jaw and left side of her face were marred by a sinuous red wound held together by countless tiny stitches. The gauze had slipped, dangling by a bit of tape.

Vesta shook her head and pressed her back against the wall as Persimmon Woman surmised who she was, what was next. She looked as if she should sit, but the door began to open and the wounded woman pushed it hard, sweat coursing down her neck. She was feverish in all ways, Vesta saw.

“Don’t faint, shut up, you heard.” She pointed to her face. “Work-related, I’m in a risky business, unavoidable. Oh, so what!” She leaned onto the door, which bumped as someone tried to push it again and more successfully. But they both knew she’d fail in this fight.

“Open up! Put your hands up!” someone barked out and this was echoed by another.

Vesta tried to pull a deep breath, moved back from the backpack as the woman picked it up, slung it over her shoulder. Shrugged though her eyes still blazed, and the wound glared. “Sooo naive, sugar, well, too bad,” then she released the door and walked right into the presence of three policemen who spun her around, handcuffed her so fast that Vesta felt dizzy.

Vesta sank to the floor; it was impossible to stand.

The Navy Man looked over his shoulder as he was taken away, hands locked together. And his look of cunning combined with such force of life–and perhaps there was a twist of dismay–landed right inside her, setting off a quiver of fear that mixed with her own regrets–the latter of which she did not quite grasp yet.

And there he came, the Nat Geo Guy, talking into an electronic device as he offered her a hand. Pulled her up, took the backpack, led her out of the restroom to a public reprieve.

“Sorry, that got messy fast,” he said, “but you’ll be okay, right? There’ll be questions.” He pointed at another man on the periphery, muttered something more into his device, nodded at her and left the library.

Her knees quaked, feet felt like puddings as a bevy of librarians rushed to her, one with glass of water, another with blanket as if she was in dire need of help. They didn’t even know how little, or how much, they were helpers, after all. All she wanted to do was breathe clean air, book in hand. Go back home. To a life she could fathom.

There was the investigator who asked tons of questions, and then she was allowed to go. Outdoors, the bystanders–and news photographer by the size of the camera– managed to get several pictures as she left. The TV van screeched into the lot but she ran to her car. Vesta fought back the urge to smile and wave like a crazed beauty queen. She let tears eek out as she raced away.

******

“So what exactly happened?” her mother asked for the tenth time.

Her suddenly fawning mother (gone half-bad with alcohol in her blood) was only on her third beer at 4 pm. She was still enunciating well, not emotionally unpredictable, but Vesta didn’t want to say more than she had when she walked in–the bare facts. Her concerned mother’s voice was akin to a mosquito buzzing, circling, buzzing and she was sorry she felt that way. But it had been a weirdly exhilarating as well as a frightening day, so far. She could not explain all this to her mother–she was not a truly empathetic type.

And Vesta could not endure much of anything but a good run and steamy shower, then a layabout in the back yard, dark sunglasses and wide brimmed sunhat blocking out more questions. Read the paper, look online, she wanted to say to her, feeling guilty–just get the nutty details yourself.

But when the sun set, and smudged silver and charcoal glimmers gathered like voluminous, gentle creatures hiding in grassy corners, and her mother had retreated with a Tom Collins and TV, Vesta sorted it out in the back yard. She knew her mother would look out the kitchen window from time to time to check if she was there. It was enough of a comfort for the moment.

She had only, as usual, gone looking for those books which emptied her as they clarified details of nonessential matters, the topics that made her wonder and study, not seize up with life’s toxic detritus. She had been interrupted in that comforting process by three people. Two were mysterious, found to be criminals who triggered a nervousness while capturing her fancy. One person was an ordinary man with extraordinary skills. Vesta’s natural suspicion and growing irritation had sent her away from unknowns, a danger zone. But it had found her, anyway. And though the events were unusual and crazy to a degree and not expected by any stretch of imagination, the experience was not as bad as others might think.

It was jarring. Unusual. Compelling as well as repellent.

She said to no one but herself, “That Navy Man was the best looking man I will ever see and be seen by, for the duration of my entire life…”

She said, “And Persimmon Woman was something else, scary and extraordinary…”

She thought about the backpack, if it held weapons or drugs, something secret or worse. If the woman took it back because she was who she was, no denying it. Or if she thought she might still escape. Or she just wanted to be with her cohort– alive, imprisoned or soon dead.

What was the accident that had ruined her face? Did he care so much that he was reconsidering their plans– or was he evading her demand to run away with him? Or had he been the perpetrator of the so-called accident? No, she determined, he just did not keep Persimmon Woman safe enough. He had another part, and she would never know.

She had known real, deep fear. And a kind of awe. Repulsion, and wonder.

As she saw them move again through her mind with their energy of otherness, danger and beauty, she said to herself: “Will they ever be surprised at work, holy cow.” She looked up at the newly star-punched darkness. “And Kendra, upstaged…”

At last rosiness of sunset, she held onto her historical mystery novel like a frail armor. She decided her life would just go on as before on the outside– for now. But on the inside it would be different. Already who she was felt rearranged, loosened, reconsidered, dashed. Vesta might just take a two week vacation, finally–somewhere far away, get lost in the newness of things. There was more to investigate than what she’d been willing to learn for years and years. Until this Tuesday at the library when life erupted right out of the books and into her own.