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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom? The yard–you were saying?”

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

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

“I’m fine.”

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

“Love back. Good night, dear.”

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

*******

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

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

“I heard something outdoors.”

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

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

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

“That doesn’t work for you.”

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

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

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

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

“Erika? You humming?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

Then stumbled backwards.

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Something good, I hope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, wait! It’s me, Erika!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

“My words?”

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

“So little to do, really, Antony.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is. Hey, thanks for those roses…”

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

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

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

******

Jen called on her lunch hour.

“Mom, did your intruder leave anything new?”

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

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

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

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

“Are you waiting for more shenanigans?”

“You could say that.”

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

“It was Antony.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Other Side of Things

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

“Eight tonight.”

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

******

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

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

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

“Julian.”

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

“Peter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Projects

Variety of pics 033
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What Ellen Tate ever intended to do with all that unruly front yard was anyone’s guess. And she had recently been hauling more bits and pieces from her station wagon after she backed it into her driveway, each item disappearing into the back yard. They couldn’t imagine what she was up to and strained to see just what it was she had in her arms this time–was that a peculiar table or another hunk of driftwood? Ellen liked beachy things, or at least she and Alec did some time ago.

The view from their porch was imperfect and Ellen was not just across from them but a house down to the left. And this ivy that crawled up one side of their brick bungalow and sometimes dangled over the roof edge needed a thorough whacking before the wisteria got strangled. A yearly dilemma and task.

“I suspect she’s only adding more stuff here and there, decorative touches or whatever it is that she calls it. The last time we saw that back yard was in 2011 when she had the block over for Annabelle’s graduation party. Pity.”

Clare blew her nose loudly. Simon looked away. He’d never gotten used to that alarming honking sound. Her spring allergies were kicking up already so this was just the start.

“Well, things have changed. Alec passed away way too soon. Annabelle got successful fast and hightailed it out of the country. Ellen still works too hard and you said she seems out a lot, just not around here.”

Simon stared at Ellen and Alec’s house, suddenly stirred, remembering things. Alec and he had swapped information about stocks, watched many a car race on TV and in the flesh, tried to out-do each other on their high performance grills several times a year. Even went fly fishing a few times, though Simon had little talent for it and needed repeated instruction. But Alec was naturally a man of patience, something Simon had come into far too late in life, not without considerable resistance. How had he really helped his friend? Maybe he’d been a good listener; Alec had things to get off his chest from time to time. Ellen’s love of knick-knacks, for one. He wondered if she still had that group of trolls from all over the world atop the fireplace mantle or the miniature dogs and cats on a bookshelf. He rather liked those but Alex disliked them greatly–though he never complained to her, only to friends.

Clare smoothed the heavy grey braid hanging over a shoulder. Before too long she’d have to wear her long hair up; the increased heat could fester the air and her neck. “I never knew anyone wanting to be a nurse so long. She could have retired five years ago. What if she can’t read the small print on medications and makes a fatal mistake? What is she gets tired out and doesn’t answer a call bell fast enough? She can’t need the money. Don’t her bunions hurt like heck by now?”

“Who doesn’t need more cash flow? Plus she likes it, keeps her engaged with life.” And death, he supposed, but she was aware of that probability when she took up the career. He didn’t know about any bunions, did she have such achy lumps like Clare? He’d admired her bright pink toenails in summer, he did recall that.

“I disengaged from that sort of hard work without a backward glance.” Clare stood up from her creaky rattan chair and peered at Ellen as she once more pulled something from the back of the station wagon. “Maybe Annabelle is moving back home? No, surely not, she’s in Lisbon…”

Simon swatted away the first fuzzy, noisy bee he’d seen in their yard thus far and that meant there were lots more moving in the neighborhood. Good for them; they had important work to get done. He admired their industrious, proscribed motions. How little he found to do some days. His last office responsibilities ended one year and eighteen days ago. He’d had all sorts of projects lined up and managed to get quite a few completed the first twelve months. This year he’d found himself spending more time being more still than not. Lazing around with an outdoors magazine or a crossword puzzle. A Ulysses S. Grant biography opened on his lap, trying to not doze off. Watching Clare neatly fold colorful laundry–he liked to watch her do this, he couldn’t say why–waiting until she told him for the third time that pots and pans needed drying and putting away. He fixed things, they took circuitous walks, he still met Herb and Morris once a month for breakfast, he was adept at keeping their property attractive. Some days, though, he didn’t feel like moving from the gentle warmth of their bed even after Clare had long been up and prattling about.

For her, retirement had been a breeze, transitioning from full time craft store manager to part time and now to on-call help which could amount to a couple days a week even. And she had plenty of artsy projects in the room next to the garage. Clare would have bought that crafts store if he felt they could swing it. “Clare’s Craft Haven,” that was what she’d dreamed of calling it (rather than “A to Z Craft Supply”). A place to shop but also meet others of the same ilk and a space for creating objects of useful attractiveness. Or rather, useless nonsense as Simon privately thought of it when she yet again had paste and felt and sequins and pins strewn about. But harmless enough; he had his own interests, after all.

She sank back into the chair. “Why not let her be? Either that or go on over and ask her what she’s up to?”

“Oh, I’d never intrude, you know she’s not open to idle chat, anymore, much less sharing private activities with others. I wish she was. I miss her. I’d like to figure out how to break through, make it like old times again.”

Simon knew what she meant, but he’d determined that old times were just that–done and gone. Everyone had to move on. But it was proving a challenge for himself like it was for Ellen, if for different reasons. Clare often had a pep talk about hobbies since she had more than enough but he thought the very word was indicative of their triviality. He wanted something meaty to dig into again.

“Well, we can walk by sometime when she’d out in front, start a conversation about any ole thing.”

Clare put a hand on his forearm. “Like now…she’s out there now. We can offer to help her with whatever she’d doing.”

So they got up and crossed the street when Ellen reappeared at the station wagon. Her head jerked up when she heard them call her name. The expression was neither welcoming or discouraging. She nodded at them and paused, one hand on the car as if her arm was a polite barrier to further progress toward her.

“How’s it going, Ellen? Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

She smiled, friendly enough if a bit tight around the edges. “That’s true, I’m still working and have plenty to do.” She ticked things off on her fingers. “Church meetings, book club, a capella choir, hospice training, fitness club.”

“Hospice training?” Clare tried to keep her tone ordinary but the words came out too loud. Alec had died of pancreatic cancer, and rather fast.

Clare touched her prominent chin with a forefinger, was quiet a second. “I know, seems a bit late for that but they helped us so much, so it’s now my turn.” She smiled again, took her hand from the vehicle and reached in and grabbed a box.

“That’s quite wonderful of you,” Clare murmured.

“Can we be of any help with the stuff you’re getting out?” Simon asked. he had to admit she looked strong enough to handle it all on her own. She’d changed shape– from more of an apple shape to a pleasant pear, arms and legs quite strong. He wondered if he had changed, not for the better.

“No, I’m good. Well, on second thought, this is quite heavy, thanks.”

Simon took the box, awkwardly moved around her. The three of them entered the back yard, Clare filling with anticipation. At last, maybe the spell made of grief and loss was broken and she and Ellen could be real friends again, not just neighbors who waved at each other. They rounded the corner of the house and she stopped. The grassy expanse was nearly covered with what appeared to be household goods. Blue painted chairs, a table made of driftwood and perhaps an oak plank, lamps tall and small, a box of linens, another of dishes, a big rug with an ocean motif and things that could not be fully discerned due to be wrapped or bagged.

“What if it rains? Can we get this stuff inside for you?” Simon put down the box.

“Oh, I’m not worried, I’ve been covering it up at night with tarps and the sunny season is upon us. Besides, the plumber is coming tomorrow  to finish and when the bathroom is done soon, I’ll move it all in.”

“Wait, you have a new bathroom? And all this is being added to ….?”

“Well, Clare, that’s her business, not ours.”

Ellen put hands on hips and laughed as if Clare had made her day.

“Yes, that’s right, a new bathroom! In Alec’s old study. Remember?” She turned toward the small outbuilding several feet away to the right of the driveway. “Come on, you two, have a look.”

“What on earth can you mean?”

“I know–it’s an ADU.” Simon crossed in front of his wife to follow Ellen inside.

“What’s that?” Clare said, close behind.

“Accessory Dwelling Unit.”

The door opened and Ellen led them in, arms opening wide. The old space was looking new. Not completely altered but emptied of Alec’s things, freshly painted a warm blush color. The four small windows finally had repaired screens; the sashes were pushed up so fresh air wafted about, the floral ivory with coral curtains fluttering. Signs of progress on the new bathroom were apparent and they peeked inside. It was spare but tasteful with a sleek glassed shower stall in the far corner.

Ellen beamed at them. “I’m going to make additional money so I can retire and be comfortable, see?”

“Fantastic,”  Simon murmured as he walked about the living area. He imagined Alec at his desk, scribbling away and thought he’d like it.

“Oh gosh, you’re going to rent this out?”

“That’s the idea. Like an efficiency apartment, maybe just for travelers. They’ll have to use a microwave, eat with me or go out. I don’t want to spend more money yet for a kitchenette. Besides, it’d take up quite a bit of room.”

“Fantastic idea,” Simon said, arms folded across his broad chest, eyes gleaming.”Alec’s place for others to enjoy.”

“I never thought of it until I cleaned it all out. Took me forever. You know how he loved to write and read out here, enjoy alone time. And then I had to consider if I wanted anyone else in his  special place, you know? But he’d like this. Me being more secure and self sufficient, while having more company of sorts.”

“Well, I’m impressed. You really did all this?” Clare grabbed Ellen’s forearm without thinking of it–they’d been close friends once– and Ellen didn’t step away.

“Except the bathroom, that was Gerard and Sons’s responsibility.” She ushered them out and locked the door. “I have more to get done tonight, then a shift to work tomorrow, early.” She shook out her tired arms and hands. “I can’t tell you how relieved I’ll be when I leave that hospital. Two more months.”

“What good news, at last you’ll be free! Well, now this…but far freer.”

They lingered by the station wagon a moment.

“You know, I think it’s high time for another backyard party –to celebrate my retirement. Are you interested in helping me some with that, Clare?”

“You know I am, I’ll wait for details and direction.”

Simon smiled warmly at Ellen. “And if we can help you with anything before that, let us know. I’d like to pick your brain some, too.”

Clare frowned at him ever so slightly.

“Well, I likely do need to clean up my front yard, and then my collections ought to be sorted. One thing just leads to another…never ending, really. Yes, we have to chat more, you guys. And nice that you stopped by.”

She looked comforted by it all. The brooding sorrow over Alec’s death was now a residual feeling peeking from the far edge of her deep brown eyes.

******

When the two of them climbed into bed, Clare eased toward her husband and admired his scratchy square in the soft light of the bedside lamp.

“I wonder about you sometimes, Simon, even at this time of our lives.”

“How’s that?” He looked at her narrowed eyes, admired how the deep blue sparked through the slits.

“I saw how you became engaged by her.” She poked his belly.

His unruly eyebrows shot up and he grunted. “I was engaged by her ADU, that’s what you saw.” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly, then cleared his throat. “Clare, I have found a new goal again, a worthy task! A kind of calling, even, in a humble form.”

“What now?”

“It’s a great idea and we need to steal it, make our own ADU. Maybe build on top of the garage. Or build a tiny house behind the apple tree. In the southwest corner, isn’t that a good spot? And think of it, we’ll get to meet new people, won’t that be interesting?”

Clare turned her head and stared at the tiny crack snaking into the ceiling from a far corner. Imagined being always at a stranger’s beck and call. More housework. Meals at certain times. It was one thing to admire Ellen’s initiative; she lived alone, she had no one else to tend to and share time with day in and out. But for them it would mean a third person about, in the way.

“I have so been needing this, a good project! Think of it, Clare, the money, yes, but the opportunity to learn about other people, stretch ourselves.”

She felt stretched plenty between her on-call work and hobbies and him. She wondered if he’d just crank that enthusiasm down a bit. And learn to automatically wash and dry the pots and pans. Maybe do some of his laundry, at last. Would he be making breakfast with her if they took on a, well, what did they call this person, a renter, a guest? Or was it going to be her load to carry, as ever? She was not the least bit fond of housework. She’d rather make nifty–even nonfunctional–things, create for the pleasure of it. And she recently sold some at an arts and crafts fair, to her surprise.

He pulled her into his still firm arms, fingers woven in her unbraided hair. “This is something we can plan and do on our own time frame, Clare. It will be great to have extra cash and we can choose who we want here and when. It could be a good time shared, my sweet darling, don’t you think? A whole new adventure!”

Maybe this could be his own project. She’d approach that later. She let herself fold into him, closer and closer. How could she refuse a man who called her “my sweet darling” after forty-six years? She realized how much they had–their storied past, the limited years ahead–and she would not spoil them with doubt or hesitation. He might go any time. Alec did, after all.

“Yes,” she said to it all and kissed him firmly, turned out the light.

 

Running Late at the Jolie Cafe

He was at long last good and tired of waiting for her. Not just the past 22 minutes, but all the times he had sat in restaurants even if mediocre, on benches at parks in a spectrum of weather, at charming cafes tucked away in a district like Little Paris where he was waiting, or even at home with take-out cooling on the wobbly table they’d spotted in a thrift shop. It was his habit to wait, he’d been good at it ever since being a contemplative child in the country, where all around him things took their own time, quite apart from what his battered pocket watch stated. It was her habit to keep people waiting as she did one last thing, booked two appointments at once or was compelled to stop on the street to save the rabbit that got loose from somewhere and was about to mowed down by a skateboarder. So it wasn’t just Timothy who paid for her lateness; each person had stories to add. But it felt like it when it happened again. She knew this was unacceptable, surely.

Madeline was flat-out in a rush, energetic about everything but over-engaged with life, that was the problem. It had been one of the issues when he’d interviewed her for the vacant spot as apartment mate. The first being she was female which, when she proffered full cash for the first month, he promptly forgot. It was a large vintage-style apartment close to city center; Timothy had lived there two years and did not want to give it up after his original roommate exited for the paradise of New Zealand. Most people he’d talked to couldn’t part with the hefty sum despite their excitement over wonderful views of the river from the front windows and from a small balcony at back, colorful storefronts and ongoing activities.

“I like to quiet things down by eleven at the latest.”

“Even on week-ends?” Madeline had asked, shocked.

“I sometimes work on week-ends.”

“Yes, but I hold on all week long for Friday and Saturday nights, like most people.”

“I’m a web designer on the side, if you recall. I work on week-ends often, just as when I’m at the office being a cog in the techie world during the week.”

She half-frowned, more a vague, acquiescent look of knitting together her eyebrows and tightening her lips, which were brilliantly glossed. He couldn’t quite stop looking at her lips. They were like two bright flags waving under the pier of her nose, rather too long for her face. He found her a bit funny but kept his face empty of telltale ripples.

He considered the bathroom sharing, how much space she might take up. His vanishing friend, Evan, had used half of one drawer for all his essentials. They had never tripped over each other’s stuff unless there  had been a big sports night with friends, beer and crunchy snacks.

“Are you saying you have restrictions on when I can be up or make any sort of noise? Do you snore?”

He looked away, narrowed his eyes at the wood floor. Who was she, questioning him? But yes, he did snore, that had irked Evan until he’d found good ear plugs. And also, he was a periodic insomniac so could get up a few times.

“I see how this is, my friend, so good luck with finding someone who fits all your needs.” She started to rise form her chair.

“No, wait, we’ve just begun. I really need an apartment mate. Tell me more. Basic info about your own lifestyle, is that okay?”

“I work as noted in the county building handling building permit requests and such, go out with friends often enough but am not a raging drunk or pitiful drug abuser and have no pets at the moment; I do have one stuffed dog from years ago–don’t ask–named Goldie who will stay put on my bed. I like classic movies and cook some but prefer take out. I am tolerant of most tunes and love world music. I run each morning around six–well, I used to have access to a stinky gym in my other building but now I’ll run again, along the river, that should be fun! I’m a hiker and a dragon boat team racer. I have no boyfriend now and won’t be looking. I’m neat enough.”

“Dragon boat teammate, nice,” he murmured.

She studied him as he jotted notes and laughed. “You’re writing this all down?”

Timothy put aside the note pad and pen. “I took info on the other three, too. I’m sharing a home with a stranger, right?” He tried to make himself look at ease, took a breath, let it seep out. “Look, I’ll check your references and get back to you in a few days.”

“Come on, Timothy, I have the money right now and if you need a security deposit, that’s fine, too. I have to get into a place ASAP–they’re tearing the three-story down to put up one hundred-sixty condo units that will rent for some crazy price.” She looked about. ” I can afford this, it’s a wonderful place–even near my work. And I think you’re a nice enough guy, a far better sort than the third roommate we had a short time who was a bona fide slob and kept a few scary reptiles caged in his room. You’re just a little rigid…we’re workable, right? Or do you have some nutty habits I’ll run from, screaming  in fright? Because I don’t need all that.”

He cleared his throat to cover his surprise over the money as well as her dwelling circumstances and the snake handler. “Well, I’ve got my ways, but I’m not an intolerant person, just organized. Quiet by nature.  I’m a kind of studious sort of guy except for some sports on TV. I don’t get too wild, no–that’s a serious understatement…so, guess that’s it, then. When will you move in?”

It took her over two weeks to haul in possessions–not so many, just one piece at a time, it seemed to him– despite her emphatic statement that it’d be five days, max. This was his first clue about her lateness.

But she ended up being a fine roommate, paid her rent ahead of time, kept her things picked up, was cordial and lively without being intrusive. They’d found they had a few things in common, despite her opinionated frankness and his more neutral philosophizing. Despite her terribly long hot baths and his fast cool showers. Despite the contrast between her chatty friends–one of whom slept on the couch after concerts or films or drinking a few and dancing at a monthly ceili, of all things–and his two very good friends who he met out somewhere else excepting baseball and basketball season on television and playing golf a couple times a month in good weather.

And Madeline liked baseball a lot, it turned out. And thrift store shopping, going to see travelogues, volunteering for park clean ups, sitting by the river with a book and music. They had, day by day and activity by activity, just become friends. Timothy suspected this meant more to him. She had an interesting and busy life compared to his and the more she went out, the more he stayed in it seemed. He worked hard on his side jobs and saved up–he wanted to buy his own place one day. It was a relief, his solitary immersion in silence so the high ceilings echoed only with the click-click of his computer keyboard, the bright clink of ice against the sides of a tall glass of minty green tea. He nearly forgot she lived there when she was gone a couple of days, then he realized he waited for her to show up when she said she’d be home.

But she kept him waiting no matter the plans. It had irritated him so long that he felt he might blow up the minute she walked in this time. Timothy had to tell her in no uncertain terms that such lack of consideration was unacceptable. Either they should not plan things together often or she had to promise to be on time.

He settled in with an espresso and a notebook for recording ideas for his next projects. But he did love Little Paris district and the Jolie Cafe. They’d discovered it when thirsting for a great cup of coffee. That day they’d bought an antique gilded mirror for the foyer. And they’d taken home delicate apricot croissants for late night snacks and two bear claws for breakfast the next morning–though she’d been late for work so rushed off without hers. But it was that day when there was a switching of tracks in his brain, when something appeared at the edges of his sight, even though they’d said and done nothing different. She’d turned to laugh her belly laugh at something he’d quipped, long hair whipping about the planes of noteworthy cheekbones, and he saw all that light welling up inside her and haphazardly spilling over, and he felt a rush of warmth, even in the lines of his palms and fingertips, along the back of his neck, and then it paused and bloomed in the center of his chest.

He didn’t think she noticed. He was so unsure of himself with women. Even of their friendship after that.

******

He looked at his pocket watch given to him by his grandfather, a dairy man who also bred fine horses. The old man would be happy to know it stayed with him all these years, that he’d taken care to keep it running. What would he think of his work, he often wondered, of the way he’d turned his back on the family legacy and toward this city life? He’d have been pleased after he thought it over awhile, just like his dad, Timothy imagined. He checked the time once more, sighed in a rush of caffeinated breath.

Both of them would have appreciated Madeline–her respect for nature, exuberance, how she handled herself with confidence and humor. Grandpa wouldn’t worry so much about her penchant for forgetting time and he’d take Timothy aside to say, Have to go with the natural rhythm and order of things, no matter who or what, be patient with women, too.

Thirty-five minutes now, no, forty. He checked his phone–no messages–then slammed back the rest of the espresso and gathered up his things. He wasn’t waiting any longer.

At the cafe’s heavy front door was an explosion of motion as it was shoved open. In rushed Madeline and a waitress looked up in surprise, reached out to slow her down then stepped back, hand to mouth. Timothy’s back was turned but when Madeline uttered his name in a strange voice and grabbed his shoulders, he pivoted. He took her by the arms, lead her to his table, sat her down. He leaned forward as he took her all in, trembling knees touching hers, her jeans dirtied, torn. Words were useless but customers had begun to whisper. The waitress had run off and fast returned with wet towel in hand, the manager right behind her, both white-faced.

Madeline’s own face was a ghastly study in pain, of raw gashes and swollen pink areas that were already darkening to bruises. Blood seeped and flowed, the worst from a large cut two inches beneath her right eye. Her neck was splotchy and her hands dangling at her sides were marred by scrapes, broken fingernails that bled, too. Her rain jacket was torn and stained. Her whole body, her expression held the feel and look of horror but no tears fell. She tried to slow down her breathing and making little headway despite encouragement from the waitress, Carol, and Timothy. The manager hovered, asking repeatedly if he should call 911, then he just dialed.

“What happened, how did you get hurt–who did this?” Timothy said as he gently dabbed at blood and grime and soon giving up. He had to get her to help.

“From the bus stop I took a shortcut–I was so late!–ran through an alley I’ve taken before oh my god Timothy, two guys, a woman they grabbed and tripped me– I was–tried to fight, got up, was hit again, dragged me back down, took my purse, everything, oh no this really hurts–”

Tears then, great heaves, her hurt cheeks streaming as people gathered about or quietly exited the cafe. A siren wailed in the distance and Carol knelt down, put an arm around her but Madeline reached for Timothy so he pulled her slowly onto his lap and held her there. She buried her damaged face into his sweater-soft shoulder, wept hard. All he wanted was to carry her out of there, pick her up and take her to medical care and then home, far away from police reports and gawkers. Far from her burgeoning fear as adrenaline subsided so that the nightmare and pain came forward to assault mind and body again and again.

******

They lay in her bed as the long white curtains with tiny green ferns billowed at a half-open window. Late morning sunlight spilled over exposed skin, illuminated their eyes as he stared beyond the window into an unreal new day and she, at the most ordinary comfort of a textured ceiling. A robin sang its loud, repetitive song; cars and buses and trucks  honked and made their way to the next stop.

Madeline rolled awkwardly toward him, trying not to emit a moan but finally letting go a whimper. Her neck, head and face; arms and hands; hips and knees had been x-rayed, prodded, disinfected, stitched, butterfly band-aid patched, swathed in gauze as needed. Antibiotics had been administered since she’d been taken down in the alley. Nearly beaten. Nothing was broken; she’d sport such big bruises. Scars that might be fixed later. She’d had a mild concussion; doctors had kept her in hospital for twelve hours. The police had followed, taken her complete report, then seemed to have an idea who the attacking thieves might be. No comfort, that, not then and not in the morning. It had happened to her, it was an event no one could have foreseen, and the damage had been sustained and would remain for some time. Long after flesh and sinew healed.

“Timothy?” she whispered, one bandaged hand lain crumpled on his chest.

His face turned to hers and he held her loosely so as not to jostle or squeeze one wounded spot. He ached for her aching but had found few words.

“Can we stay right here… a long, long, long time?”

He blinked back sudden dampness at the corner of his eyes, raised his head to barely brush her quivering lips with his own.

“Forever if you like.” He put a hand lightly atop her arm, felt her warmth and his mingle. “But maybe we could work on time issues, and then there’s safety…”

“Mmm, um, good,” she mumbled then slowly draped a leg over his. “Glad that’s at least settled.”

Madeline drifted off again. Timothy knew she might mean the matter of time or safety as well as staying there forever but all the same, he had to clench his teeth to keep from shouting out in sorrow and in joy.

 

Here I am Without You

He didn’t understand, he was right about that, she thought. To him it had to be glamorous with jewels as the commodities of her trade, all that gadding about with fancy people, seeing sights he’d not see now. There was truth to this but it was the only part he wanted to believe.

The rest of it he tried to hold at bay any way he could, sometimes blaming her. And there was good reason for that. Admitting he was not going to walk again, at least not right–never mind play his horn, dance at one a.m. with the last customer, drive like crazy along some back country road–was like admittance to hell. Well, that had already begun when he had the stroke. Forty-one, relentlessly alive and just like that, cut down by a vagrant piece of circulatory trash that got stuck in an artery. Now his legs were mostly useless for the best things. His left hand couldn’t hold his trumpet mouthpiece to lips for more than a moment if he tied it there and dictated those beautiful, once-muscle-memories of movements required for sound.

But Mirabel kept on. Of course she did, what else was she to do, watch the seconds of their lives tick on as the pantry was emptied? She’d been a jeweler by trade when they’d met–he’d been browsing for someone who became irrelevant that snowy day–and remained so. He was a musician, he had some regular gigs and even when he hit it bigger there were more bills than income at first. Her work tided them over and she kept at it. She got good, then better, and then she was managing the finest jewelry store in Detroit metro as well doing the best work around, as she’d often been told.

Now she traveled more. Okay, a lot, every month or more. She had trade shows to attend and consultations to carry out, gems with just finished settings (or the final designs to deliberate) to hand deliver so an out-of-town customer could see up close exactly what big money was paying for. A personal touch was how Mirabel preferred to do business. It cost a bit but it was worth it for connections and subsequent referrals. Success had arrived. If she had to go out of her way to keep things well oiled, she’d do it despite Hal being held hostage to the damnable wheelchair.

He understood this much: they now lived in a beautiful spacious condo with a fine river view and he had good help. Alma came to care for him every day, and she had a fair for it. She had expansive congenial feelings for him which she could dispense lavishly; she went home each night to a good humored, healthy husband.

Mirabel meanwhile speculated what a warm bed would feel like as someone sidled up close, held her all night. Those days felt over for her, to her sorrow. Not that Hal yet believed it but he was more a dreamer, not so accepting of gritty details.

“You must stay at nice places. And stay occupied,” he said. “Don’t tell me ‘no’.”

“Right, occupied by my usual historical novel or a sitcom on T.V. It’s a blast. I do find most people I meet are interesting, you know that, and thank goodness. It’s not all diamonds and rubies and money.”

“Oh, come on, there are many men in this business who’d be happy to hold your hand, your waist, then–”

“Right, those men are older by far than you and gassy and balding, or baby-faced and ambitious, or very married with two kids. And what do I care? The others circle like hawks, I know how to put them off. How many times do I have to remind you? I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I’m more likely to meet up with business women for a late dinner. But none of us love travelling. We’re flat out whipped at the end of the day so it’s no party. It’s not a great way to see the country, either. No, it’s not great fun…”

Hal grunted. “Yeah, it’s so hard to be free, on your own out there.” He turned up the music, checked out.

The anger never quite quit, it just went underground. It abated if there was something good, like his musician friends coming by for dinner and talk. Then Hal was all affable bluster as ever he’d been. He applauded his friends’ recording contracts or tours or the latest band they’d put together. Never moaned on and on that he wasn’t with them. He wouldn’t consider doing that to them or himself. They missed him. They also saw him as man of steel despite extraordinary ways with his instrument. Well, once extraordinary, once on the high road. He was a guy who could take punches over and over and still come up chirping about this surprising and wild life. How thankful he was he wasn’t a Benny who’d died of an overdose at the apex of his career, or a Margo who literally went over the edge from too many bad breaks. He’d had it pretty good since he was nineteen, overall. Now he could again read some (the stroke rattled that piece of his brain), listen to music all day, compose in his head all he wanted. Sit the terrace and breathe pungent city air without worrying, planning the next big gig. Maybe he’d take up electronic music in the end. He was working on bettering hand strength and dexterity.

And then Mirabel was one of a kind, she stepped in, took care of things, they knew how steady she’d always been. She never once hinted she’d leave him. Besides, there was now Alma with the short blonde bob and so-so jokes–she was such a cheerleader and they got on well. Maybe he would be okay.

Hal was a braver person than any of them but it was so sad to witness his demise that they couldn’t speak of it later. They put on his recordings now and then and raised a bottle.

Hal’s anger spilled over after they returned to making music and he to useless days and nights. Mirabel gave him enveloping hugs and good words then stepped aside, worked longer hours. Loneliness might bash him any time. He’d feel it burrow into his sleep and his waking when she left for a three day trip or worse, a long week. He’d think himself into exhaustion wondering what she was doing, who she was doing it with, even though nothing telegraphed that she was  disloyal. It was his humiliation, the teeth-gnashing depression that ran his mind in circles like a mad dog. But she was a person others gravitated to, that was the thing, eyes sparking with intelligence, a listening ear that put you center stage, a soft laugh that rolled into body and mind. She was attuned to life’s nuances as he was to music’s dynamics. He’d also seen her operate in a competitive, male-dominated trade that centered on obdurate, cool, magnificent gemstones with people to match. Mirabel had the right touch for so much.

But now more than ever there were things they did not know about each other.

******

When she went on work trips, after she was done for another day or evening, Mirabel wandered. If she had been successful or not, it was the same. After she window shopped and consumed a juicy steak, fish and chips or street burrito, she walked as if she was going somewhere, stride confident, footfall secure. But she was just moving fast from corner to corner, street to street, waiting for lights to change, people to pass without making eye contact, feeling breathless. Waiting for her life to stop blurring, as if she was on a runaway train and had to hang on for life.

Sometimes she ended up in a bar. The first times is was a shock, she was not a bar person, but they weren’t fancy or suspect, just any neighborhood place when regulars swiveled their heads as she slipped onto a stool. They knew she was passing through, she had the look of a visitor, hair neatly swept up at the sides neatly, her good leather bag full of things like scarves and elegant sunglasses, glossy pamphlets and who knows what else that made it bulge. She kept it close to her body.

The women who tended bar wondered if she was looking over their men but saw the plain gold band (her right hand wore a large single contemporary-set topaz) and her distant look. (Mirabel never wore her wedding diamond with two sapphires on either side when on trips, it was vintage and worth a good figure.) So they got her the simple mixed drink to get her started, minded their own business unless she stayed late for one too many. Which happened too often on trips, never at home since she rarely drank otherwise.

They’d pause at her spot, one hand on hip, brushing back unruly wisps of hair with the other. Tired out but always curious.

“BBQ sandwich? Pretzels? We’ve got a pile of garlic fries.”

“No, thank you very much.” She jiggled the ice in her glass full of rum and coke. “I suppose I need my husband… but he’s home and I’m–” she looked around as if surprised–“here.”

“Visiting someone then, huh?”

She shook her thick brown hair with white gleaming at the part and leaned into her glass. “Work only, I’m a jeweler. I’m on business.” She slurped the last of that drink.

Then they’d talk about jewelry and the bartender would show off shiny earrings or a dainty necklace from a boyfriend and ask if they were worth anything. One thing would lead to another until Mirabel would put an end to the questions with another drink, then a third and she’d start to slump. She was an amateur, they noted.

“I do miss the guy…”

“Have you called tonight to let him know you’re thinking of him?”

“Oh, no, he’s surely asleep. Alma the Nurse usually puts him to bed before she’s done for the day.”

“Oh?” Both hands on hips. Quizzical looks shared with those who’d been listening in.

“Hal’s paralyzed. Stroke.” She’d press fingers to lips–she hadn’t meant to tell these strangers, never anyone—would get up, hurry out the door unsteadily, hail a cab.

They were sure to watch her climb in okay, then regulars shook their heads, regulars frowned at their beers, muttered about fate and its misfortunes. The bartender slapped her rag hard once on the counter and got busy. Lots of pain in this place.

Back at her small, too bright room, the cheapest one available that didn’t cause worry about bedbugs or neighbors shouting all night. Why spend money where it didn’t help business, after all?

Mirabel somehow got off her clothes. Sat on the edge of her bed awhile, listening to the traffic below, the night a meaningless void. Where would she find some comfort for the night if she didn’t collapse under the influence of alcohol? Her five hundred page book or the same shows again? She stood motionless in the inadequate shower, shivering even in the hot spray. Then came the ache of longing, the gaping depths so empty where rich love had flourished. Her music man, crackling wit and loyal partner. Struck down. She wanted to hold his hands in hers, feel him squeeze hers three times like a young man: “I”, “love”, “you.” She wanted to hear that music had not been the one and only love of his life. That he still had room for her. For them. If his heart might still pull out the old joy–she could help if he’d let her–one day.  She didn’t need him to be this strong. Or this sorrowful. It would end, wouldn’t it?

The steam billowed, suffocating her. Mirabel opened her eyes, turned off the water and slid back the curtain. Grabbed a towel, readied body and mind for one more vast, chilly bed in the drone of the dark.

******

Hal watched Alma clean up the living room, her muscular arms and square hands moving with efficiency as she picked up things, dusted a little, took the tray with his dinner leftovers to the kitchen. She hummed to herself much of the time. He’d never commented despite his flinching; she was always off key and it pleased her. She spent all day taking care of him except when Mirabel could be there so he tried to be generous. To encourage her when she had trouble getting him moved, to laugh at her silly jokes, to not make more of a mess than possible.

She’d lasted ten months now. The others lasted two or four months. The stroke had terrorized him into submission close to two years ago. It was hard work to help him; he was not a short man, no longer toned, lithe, quick to respond. Alma was possessed of broad hips and shoulders and moved with such grace that he marveled at it. She had good muscle in those biceps. Mirabel though lovely, sleek, inhabited her body as if she had to command her limbs to act natural. She was confident while working, her hands so deft, but otherwise she might stumble, ram into corners, drop glasses–about which he used to tease her. Not now; he envied she could rise up, move alone.

Alma’s dishwater blond hair was spiky and bright. She wore black stretch pants and a long, loose pink shirt. Hal found her attractive if he was honest but made sure she didn’t know it. Her company was priceless, she had to know that by now. She hummed and chatted as she labored, and never lost her patience. He guessed that’s why they paid her a hefty wage. Well, mostly Mirabel’s health insurance did but Alma got bonuses. For such aid and company he’d give up other things if needed. She read murder mysteries to him. She cooked well enough. And never made a face when he needed more help in the bathroom, unlike Mirabel, whose dismay could not be hidden, nor deep frustration over her limitations.

Alma was interesting to contemplate. She’d be one of those women who stood right up in a nightclub and swayed to the jazz, arms raised, ample form mimicking the beat, high on his acrobatic trumpet. Livening up the crowd. This imagined scenario as she worked dovetailed with his sadness, shaping it into a lighter, prettier thing. She’d glance at him as if feeling his gaze, eyebrows flitting above cheery eyes as she hummed louder to make him chortle–surely she knew she couldn’t carry a tune but just didn’t care. She stirred things up a little as she watched over him. Perhaps that was her best way to help people. Distracting them from any self pity.

“Mirabel back tomorrow?” she asked since her work was done. She took off her pinafore type apron with its big bright flowers. Old fashioned, pretty, a fun touch.

“I suppose, wasn’t sure about this tran–trans–I mean, deal. I thought she’d call tonight.” His language use had returned bit by bit a year after the stroke but he still spoke with care, had to simplify some days. He gestured to the table. “Phone charged yet? She call or text?”

Alma picked it up, brought it to him. “No, Hal, nothing the last hour.” She handed it to him and then sat in the armchair across from him.”I was thinking lately. You ever consider going with her on a short trip? I know it’d be tiring but just for a change of pace.”

“No, no, that’d never work! She couldn’t help me. Even the airport would be a nightmare–can you imagine it? Everyone staring, too.”

She leaned forward, hands on knees. “They have wheelchairs there and those electric carts that whisk people about–they’re many places. You might get a portable wheelchair or find a hotel where they have extra aids.”

“Naw, not a plan of mine.”

“What if I came? I mean, a little trip, one that wouldn’t cost too much.”

Hal shook his head, glared at her. “What are you getting at?”

Puzzled, she took her time answering. “I was just thinking, if it was me, I’d want you to come along some times. See a couple of sights. Be there when I got back to the room. Share a nice dinner with me.”

“But you’re you, not Mirabel. She’s a busy pro with people to see, things to do. I doubt she thinks much about me when she’s out there. She calls out of duty. I mean, she escapes!”

“I’m busy, too. You’re not my only patient, I work at night sometimes. But if I could–”

“You work at night?” The idea seemed absurd, no one could do this another eight hours. “When do you sleep or see your husband?”

“That’s neither here or there but yes, on week-ends I do overnight work.” She sat up straight and sighed. “Hal, you are starting to look at me like your best friend or your mother or something… it’s time to get you out more, not just to the park. You should ask if you can go with her.”

His face flushed as he turned wheelchair away. “I see. So, are you done here?”

“Yep, all done. Your chili is in the frig if you want to microwave more. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”

“I can do the necessary things better now, thanks.”

“I know, but I’m here.”

“You can go, thanks, Alma.”

She came around to face him. “It was just a suggestion, Hal! It might make you both happier.”

He looked into her eyes, saw compassion. Her soft face was so close, her skin radiating a scent slightly sour but even more sweet. He looked down at his knobby knees, the near-useless hand. His wife was so far away. It almost lured him, this closeness that wasn’t even Mirabel’s.

“Maybe so.” He managed a wan smile. “I’m alright, never mind.”

Here was a woman who knew all his needs, frailties, moods. He tried to think of himself in a bland room with Mirabel in a strange place, greeting a morning together, sipping a cup of coffee, chatting softly and then he’d realize they weren’t even home with some comforts. Did he even want that? But maybe it could happen; likely not. And she’d have to leave him once more. Of course, he’d also been gone every night when she came home, for years and years. Did she feel abandoned? No, she had had two legs and arms working, a resolute mind.

He felt confused by all this, saw Alma study him.

His phone rang. Alma got her sweater, opened the front door. She almost waited to see who it was then waved at him and glided outside.

Hal looked at the caller ID, answered. “Mirabel. It’s late in Boston. All okay?”

“I miss you,” Mirabel’s voice wafted to him, weary.

She missed him. “That’s nice to hear…tell me about your day.”

“Hal, I drank too much at a corner bar and feel so lonely. When I got to my room I desperately wanted to just hold your hand. To press forehead to forehead like we used to do, remember?”

A crummy Boston dive of all things, his wife alone! But the timbre of her voice reached in. His body–all parts that still could be swept up in feelings, so many places–tingled, and his mind’s usual fog lifted just enough that he knew this was real, his wife was speaking truth.

“Are you there, Hal?”

His good hand holding the phone shook a little. “Baby, when you come home, let’s figure out how to take me with you next time, okay? I want to be with you more, hear me? I need you.”

There came the ease of relief, then he heard her snuffling. She hadn’t cried around him since the first days after his stroke. He had become the weeper too often. He put the phone to his chest, his heart as she caught her breath. Because she would. She always regained footing even when he had no purchase, himself. But he saw it was possible she could use help, too. Hal felt her head against his shoulder, her warmth melding with his, soul opening a little like a flower to the light.