Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Conversation

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He went to the park, early, to be alone while availing himself of the company of others; they trickled in as time passed. There was a bench he’d long ago chosen and managed to hold onto in winter–there were fewer grabs for seating then. His bulk settled into the generous curves of wood–newly replaced and varnished last summer–and thin light wrapped coolness about the cliffs of his shoulders. The warmth would come later as long as precipitation didn’t, or a wild wind. A woolen fedora covered his head, the large head his parents thought meant bad things but, in fact, meant nothing other than intimate his body type and stature. He kept it covered since he no longer sported luxurious waves of black. Pride is a thing quite useless and thus disposable, he told himself as he glanced in the morning mirror. His balding pate winked at him in the flourescent light.

It happened that he could be more at ease with himself at the park and occasionally cheery. Much more so than at his building on Northwest 32nd. Having less corwded conditions gave way to more comfort. Even when the days and nights warmed, groups came and went like human murmurations across grassy expanses. He could walk or not walk and without commentary; his clumsy leg jimmied with nuts and bolts made no difference to strangers. At Mistral Manor, occupants seemed beside themselves with eagerness to include him. Or cast looks his way that were questioning. Or questionable. He understood they were intimidated by 6 feet 5 inches coupled with significant girth. Some were unsettled by his misunderstood silences, the off-kilter gait. He preferred his charcoal grey tweed overcoat, the effect courtly perhaps when topped by his hat, a foreign garb to those who wore seatshirts, sneakers and, often, shorts even in the drenching winter. He was not from around here. And when he opened his mouth to answer, what a shock. It appeared difficult for people to be civil, or politely ignore him and go on their way.

How could it be so different from Chicago? He ought to know better; he had travelled extensively, even other countries. But now he lived somewhere new, a far cry from visiting.

Ah, but the park. He pulled out his newspaper and began to read, squinting in winter’s skimpy sunlight. Beside him was a thermos of black coffee, strong, almost bitter, and steaming hot. In his pocket was a napkin-wrapped hard biscuit just in case he got hungry or, if not, the birds came begging as was likely. He was an easy mark. An hour or so on the bench and he might walk the park some, though the four block distance from the Manor was enough of a work out these days.

He considered himself a man visited by enough good fortune that the other times were significantly improved in his memory. And that would have to do. Sitting on a park bench like the old man he would before long become did satisfy something. He was relieved to be among collective humanity and not be daily affronted by confounding life matters. He’d grown less fond of the future during the last couple years, it was true. Living with a challenged body after havinbg been plucked from disaster, he’d had to make choices and deal with people in whole new ways. Especially those who barely knew him.

When the seagulls circled ’round him, he shared his biscuit. It was the right thing to do; he had more at the apartment.

******

It went on for him that way for a few months, as he’d hoped, though now and then there might be someone else sitting at his spot and he’d move on to another. He wasn’t proprietary about the bench; that is, he wished to be civilized about it. But when he spotted a red hat atop a young woman who wore two yellow rain boots, he halted on the sidewalk, the handsome walking stick rising then falling with a staccato thunk on the cement.

He had not seen her there before. First impulse was to leave the area. He was not without other choices at seven-thirty in the morning. He liked to savor the park in solitude as long as he could. Then she pulled up her legs and crossed them like a yogi with each foot at a hip so the boots soiled her baggy sweatpants, and leaned her head back and closed eyes, arms dangling at sides like a rag doll’s. Another warning sign that it best to move on. Still. She was took up little space, and his leg had been gripped with pain all night and into morning. He continued a slow pace to the bench and sat as far as he could from her at the other end. He didn’t look at her but if he did he’d have noted her eyes fluttered but remained closed. As he unscrewed the thermos bottle’s top that was a cup for his coffee, fragrant stem reached her nostrils. Eyes opened in a flash and she looked right at him. He blew on the cup to cool it a bit, then sipped. He glimpsed the yellow boots: half muddy. As if she had been tromping about in sludgy puddles.

“Heavenly,” she said, gesturing at the coffee thermos.

He was forced to look up and quickly took in a small face with pointed chin, almond eyes. The handmade red knit hat snugged over hair and ears. She smiled but he looked at his own large, well-heeled feet.

“I hope you don’t mind me sitting here. I’m waiting for a friend–she’ll come this way.” When he didn’t respond, she added hopefully, “It won’t be too long. She’s at a dental appointment right down there–” she pointed east–“and hopefully she’ll be able to eat breakfast with me.” She sat up and stretched, legs and feet loosening; next she twisted her torso side to side, shook out her hands.

He hoped she wasn’t unhinged–to talk to a stranger so easily. Then he wondered if she was a gymnast or a yoga fanatic, but that was alright. The idea intrigued if also disconcerted him. She was quite young, that was it. He’d once had full control of his own body, rather superbly so.

“How nice to be meeting a friend,” he said.

She gawked at him, then appeared embrarrassed by her startled response. It was his voice, of course, the unexpected basso sounds rumbling and rising and released from his cavernous chest. It always startled, one of a few reasons he tended to quietness around unknown people. He was the subject aof taunts as a young man–his size and voice, kids saying he was one weird monster, calling him names u ntil they knew better.

Surely she would move on to another spot, he hoped, so he could sit in peace. But she half-turned to him, legs up and crossing partly once more.

“I’ve actually seen you here a long time. I used to catch the 73 bus on the way to work and since there is a stoplight near it, we’d wait and I’d notice you here, under the ancient oaks. You always come to this bench if you can, am I right?”

“Well,” he began, affronted by the fact that she had seen, even watched him for such a time and unbeknownst to him. He’d not given thought to the possibility that others might watch him as he watched them. Not seriously. And not from a passing bus each morning. “Odd…but as you say, it is my established habit. You go to work; I come to the park.”

“Makes sense to me,” she said and uncrossed her legs, dangling them over the bench edge. Her booted toes just touched the ground. “Anyway, when I saw you today I thought I’d wait here by you. I don’t care to be in the park alone for long or so early with few others around.”

He found this extraordinary. A little flattering in an odd way. She didn’t even know him, after all. Or perhaps she did a bit since she’d observed him awhile and yet. “How long have you been watching me?”

She let go a big laugh that belied the smallness from which it erupted. “Oh, not watching you as in stalking or something! I’d briefly observe that you come here, read your paper or drink coffee for about…” she put a finger to chin–“six months. For maybe five minutes at a time each morning when on the bus. You’re kind of hard to miss.” Her smile dimmed. “But not the last month; I haven’t been on that bus much.” She saw him looking her way calmly, and sighed. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be coming.”

Now he felt himself drawn in despite his natural resistance to unplanned dialogues. Should he ask what changed? If she lost her job? No, far too personal. They were unknown quantitites sitting in the park.

“I often wondered what sort of work you did,” she continued, “what your life is like. You know, ordinary curioisity. People see each other all the time, taking the same routes, but never ask what’s going on with someone else. I guess I might not have, either, before a few things changed.” Her hands were fidgety and reddened by the cold as she glanced down the street. Wishing her friend would come soon.

He was suddenly compelled to answer so any concerns she had were allayed. She clearly took a chance and sat there in purpose, quite a surprise.

“Three years ago I retired from…the music industry. But I remained in Chicago where I had friends and colleagues for thirty-five years. But then I was in a bad train accident accident right before retirement.” She might have heard of it, let it please be enough that he just stated the fact. He gently tapped his leg with the walking stick to indicate it was injured. “When my son, an only child, asked me to see how I liked it here, I reluctantly agreed. I came last spring. Only temporarily.”

That ought to cover it, he thought, shocked by all he’d revealed. But why not? They’d part ways soon.

“Oh, I see.” She stared at traffic beyond a row of trees, noting the old bus stop, thinking of old times. “We never know, right? I’m a dancer. But I have lupus. It took over my life finally so I can’t dance with my old modern dance company. It affects many aspects of my health. At least for now.”

He said nothing, not certain what was reasonable. The pigeons and seagulls were crowding up to them both. He took out a biscuit–he baked a dozen once a week–and crumbled it up, gave a chunk to the young woman, and then they tossed bits to the ravenous birds.

She said softly, “You sing, I imagine.”

His heart contracted hard; it trembled. His chest almost heaved as he struggled to gain control of himself. How could she know that? Why should she dare speak what she imagined? Hadn’t he said enough to occupy her attention while she waited?

And then he barked out a laugh.”Well, that’s so much nicer to hear you say that a radio DJ or news announcer or a powerful lawyer, even!”

“Why, I can imagine those, too!”

“But, yes, I sing. Sang. Opera. Classical art songs.”

“You are a singer, that doesn’t change. Like I’m a dancer forever.”

And with that they said little more, and rain started to fall frm the thickening clouds, then pelt them with darts of wetness. No umbrellas. The day had started partly cloudy and dry, milder than usual; he’d left his behind.

“Do you want to duck into the coffee shop across the street?” she asked. She pulled a rain jacket out of her large carryall, yanked the hood up.

He might. But would that be rather peculiar, a man in his mid-sixties and a woman in her–perhaps–early thirties hunkering down in a coffee shop within a half hour of meeting?

Who would know but themselves and why should he fuss over it? he thought as his face dampened, his fedora dumping rivulets.

“I get it if you can’t. My friend must be delayed, she’s 20 minutes late already so I’ll wait it out there, text her my location. I’m getting hungry and need a hot latte.”

“I could use a scone, perhaps,” he said.

They stood up with some difficulty, neither of them seeking aid nor offering it, then went to the corner where her bus had stopped for so long, where she had gazed out a window and noted his existence, constant and curious.

******

The burst of air as they entered was warm, redolent of pungence and sweetness. They found two stools facing the big front window after ordering. She texted her friend of her whereabouts.

The brightness that had teased at the park seemed suddenly swept away by a gusty wind. People hurried down sidewalks, embarked and disembarked from buses, taxis, cars. Few had umbrellas; this was the Northwest, and umbrellas were for tourists and those unused to rainy weather. He usually carried one since he was that visitor, unsure if this place might become home, uncomfortable with sudden downpours that marked winter months. He missed snow. Felt at such a loss being so far from his friends, that other lifestyle. Music with the stages, the pressures and rewards–the applause. The singular fulfillment his passion enabled him to experience.

“How did you become a dancer” he asked, nibbling his almond scone as he waited for the drenching rain to let up. Then he’d go to his one bedroom apartment for the rest of the day. Not a house like he’d shared with his wife until the divorce, not the townhouse he’d bought fifteen years ago on a coveted stretch of shoreline along wild, majestic Lake Michigan.

“I leanred the traditional way–from an early age study, study, practice, perform, audition over and over, then finally joining a few companies. I came to the Myra Duvall Dance Project seven years ago and I love it.” She sipped coffee, chewed on a portion of pumpkin bread. “I knew something was wrong off and on, but it took awhile to figure it out. It has been mostly affecting my joints and, just a bit, my kidneys. Not helpful when you’re a dancer. In fact it stinks.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. I do know someone who has it. She’s had flare ups, then periods that are much better so then she goes forward with her life. She’s been doing well for some time. I was told it’s different for each person.”

“It is. But every day I’m so miserable I can’t dance…My joints are too inflamed, there’s pain. I might have to resign, even.” She looked up at him sitting several feet above on a stool which seemed barely able to hold him. But he looked secure and steady. “By the way, I’m Maya. Maya Kwan.”

He swivelled a little, held out a hand and shook hers; it was engulfed in his warm grasp. “Anthony Keating.”

“Say, Anthony or Mr. Keating– I remember that catastrophic train wreck in Chicago…. I assume that was it. You lived through that! Then you chose to retire…?”

“Certainly it is next to impossible to turn up and rehearse much less perform when you have multiple surgeries on a leg and additional injuries to heal….as you might understand. But I retired after the crucial healing occurred. I simply felt it best to let things end at a good peak. I had a fine career, it was a joy.” He put hand to heart, lit up with that truth.

“I hope you still sing, you really must.”

“We shall see how things develop,” he said, touched that she’d suggest he might keep on with it, at all. If only his dignity was not at stake, if only he could embrace other possibilities. Time, more recouperation in every way. And practice, practice, practice–for goodness’ sake, it was critical to any movement forward musically. Particularly at his age. And one had to build a way of living by an envisioned design, and trial and error. The rest was up to chance. He leaned toward her a bit. “And perhaps there is still dancing in your future. Somehow you might make things work, if just differently.”

Their eyes–her wide dark ones, his pale crinkly ones–searched and connected for a moment. And in that span they recognized and understood one another: a giant of an aging, usually reserved white man with the sonorous voice of a seasoned opera singer; and a strong and graceful Chinese-American woman deeply yearning to keep dancing despite the hurdles. Artists, creators, seekers. Human beings trying to do what they could with what they were given.

They were thrown off a bit by the realization that they had even met much less talked in this way and made a connection. Nothing more was said.

Outside the big coffee shop window a woman slowed, pushing sodden hair from her eyes, peering into the shop.

“Oh, there’s Janelle!”

Maya stood and went to greet the woman; Anthony stood, as well.

“This is where I say good-bye to you, Maya Kwan. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, despite not being thrilled with a bus passenger keeping an eye on me!”

“Oh, let’s not say good-bye, let’s say until next time,” she said. She raised her hand above customers to gesture to her friend. “I’m so glad I finally got to meet you, the man I saw day in, day out. It meant something to me that you were always there. A steady occurence, a man in a fedora feeding the birds and reading his paper. Now it is something better.”

“I’m glad,” he said, as they pushed past the coffee line.

As a drenched Janelle came closer she stopped, mouth open.

“No…Mr. Keating?”

Maya looked at her, then him. “What–you know each other?”

“Ah, yes, number 46, second floor, Ms. D’Angelo. A small world, indeed…” He touched the brim of his hat, nodded at them, and hurried out the door. Too small, he thought, then chuckled. At least she hadn’t gawked then made stupid jokes about his size or surprising voice.

“You know Antony Keating?” Janelle asked, incredulous.

“A chance meeting. Or serendipity, I’d say.”

“Well, give me the story. He’s such a quiet, rather sullen man, no one can figure him out. You may bump into him again at Mistral Manor when you visit.”

“Yes, I’m suspect I might,” Maya agreed.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: In the Night Houses

The first time I heard my mother’s bare feet pad down the hallway, I didn’t think too much of it. I was aware they descended the stairway. In the deep yawn of night, I was nodding over my journal, and my little solar powered, muti-colored lamp cast a rainbow of watery light. I’m a very light sleeper and Mom’s bedroom door’s hinges had needed oiling for months.

I half-waited for another bedroom door to swiftly open and Dad to call out her name, though that was silly of me. He has long slept in a diffrent room due to sleep apnea. He finally began using a CPAP machine to help him breathe correctly and–we all hoped– sleep well. Since it was working so far, I rarely heard him get up, anymore. So it was strange sitting propped against my pillows with pen in hand and hearing my mother’s footsteps. For years it was my father’s I might hear as he’d gotten up for a sandwich or shortbread cookies and chocolate milk, then to read in his kingly leather chair until he snored away. Luckily, we didn’t endure that annoyance from upstairs.

Since it was unusual for Mom to get up, I waited. But, of course, mothers and fathers can do as they please. And I was groggy–but questions bubbled up and I nearly tiptoed down to see what she was doing. I didn’t hear anything, but that wasn’t surprising since our house was big enough to accomodate twice as many people and still be about empty. The kitchen, for example, was on the far side of the glass, cement block and steel structure that was our house. Smelling the coffee in the morning required sleeping on a sofa that was a few hundred feet from it–food odors didn’t reach bedrooms. Part of my mom’s design.

The only thing I worried about was her leaving the house, but unless she was awake enough to use the security code, she’d set off the alarm.

Mom is not an ordinary person. I mean, she does all the things you’d hope or expect any parent would do–long days at her job, then domestic work at home. But she actually lives in another realm, and daily visits us on earth, I think. She’s dreamy and quirky, can be struck with sudden seemingly odd ideas. Like when she decided to build a custom treehouse in the gigantic oak that overlooks our back yard one way, the valley, the other. I was ten years old when she did that and was so excited. But it was for her idea and for her use. Didn’t she imagine I’d happily spend time there with my friends? But no, it was not to be for it was hers; not even Dad got to hang out on occasion, but he had his own space on the top floor. Seeing how upset I was, they built me a mini-dome clubhouse by the creek, complete with bright plastic furniture. Which was very cool–but it was a far cry from a treehouse.

The fact that she’s an architect–Ellie Harbinger and Associates– didn’t allow for forgiveness of her stinginess of spirit. I didn’t understand its importance until later. And eight years since it was built it’s still a top choice for her “think time” or “R and R”. I’ve been in it, sure; I just don’t stay long, not that I wanted to since getting older. The dome house came down before my fourteenth birthday. I found it embrarrassing to yet use a play house, though my friends were disappointed. We held a farewell party for it. Perhaps for our childhood, too.

So I was thinking of the treehouse and Mom as I sat in bed. I sure didn;t want her to go out decide to climb the rope ladder to her treehouse at nighttime. She’s fifty-two; she could work out and get stronger, she needs to practice yoga, get more agile. She’s attractive, and so tall she can’t help being the center of attention. But beauty and muscle strength are not priorities; brains are. In that area, she excels, if you wonder sometimes where it will lead her.

I lay down, unable to keep figting the need to sleep.

The next morning we were finishing a breakfast of blueberry waffles.

“Mom, did you have trouble sleeping last night? Is this going to be a thing now that Dad can finally sleep better?” I laughed, thinking that’d be a weird scenario, neither of them in sync yet. Didn’t they get lonely at night?

She did a full pivot, straight dark hair swinging at blue sweatered shoulders, and frowned at me. “What?No, I slept fine, dear.” Then she turned her attention back to the waffle maker, sipping her espresso.

Dad looked up from his phone. “Why do you ask, Dani?”

“I thought…well, I heard something….” I glanced at them both. Dad got up, then waited for me to finish. Mom popped a broken piece of waffle into her mouth before serving me a last one. “It’s nothing, only sounds in the night. Have a good day, Dad!”

He was already thinking of his work, and smiled at us before leaving.

“Love you–later, Erik,” Mom called out.

He lifted his travel mug in cheery salute, raced down the hallway to the foyer. He owns a construction company, but builds commercial buildings so he and Mom don’t talk business as much as you might think. In fact they are more like two different universes, and still coexist fine.

I got up and set my dishes in the sink as Mom wiped down the counter, humming to herself. I slipped by and afterr getting my backpack I turned toward her to say goodbye and when I did, caught her eye a moment. She was gazing at me or perhaps through me like when thinking hard, so I waved. She half-smiled.

“How can I convince them to finance an entire stable so I can get an equine therapy program going after college?” I asked Mel who was in the driver’s seat.

“Hold on, that’s in the far future. Just do incredibly well at university. They already know you can ride and love helping kids. Just stay passionate, they’ll get it.” She paused, then said as if lightning had struck, “Maybe you can get your own money, a small business loan for a smart woman!”

“An idea, I suppose,” I said, looking out the window at the rainy streets. And suddenly I saw my brother on a bicycle, grey hoodie loose on his slim body, face hidden as he passed in the other direction, legs pedaling hard, and I pressed my hands against the window.

“Quinn! Get over! Watch out for that car!”

But it wasn’t him, of course; he died six years ago.

“Oh, Dani,” Mel said, and she pulled over a few minutes so I could clear my brain.

******

Three nights later I was sketching an idea for a multi-purpose barn in my journal when I heard the telltale squeak of Mom’s bedrom door. I got up in a few minutes. Looking around the obscured rooms, I expected she’d hear me and say something. But she wasn’t in the living room or the library with its massive stone fireplace giving off that musky smoky scent I loved, nor the kitchen and dining room. Light leaked into spaces just enough as my eyes adjusted. I loved seeing the woods and creek beyond a wall made of glass in the living room so stood a moment, thinking how beautiful it was in the softness of moonlight. And then I felt her.

Mom was standing at the oppposite end of the room. She was looking out, too, so I began to walk toward her quietly so as not to startle her. But then she slowly backed away, turned and floated across the cool tile floor and ran up the stairs, her long ivory silk nightgown a fluid brightness. It was quintessential Mom.

“Mom?” I whispered, because to call to her, have her answer or come down suddenly seemed too risky.

There was some purpose to what she was up to and maybe I didn’t need to know what was going on. Right in the middle of the night, of all things. Nothing much, though, from what I could see. And what if she opened my bedroom door at night when I was journalling or maybe having a cry? It would feel intrusive. It would make me wonder why she didn’t trust me to either be alone or ask for her help. We all knew the temperature of things when we came home. Especially if one of us was alone. I mean the turned inward, dreadful alone. We knew to be there for each other.

When we lost Quinn after so long expecting things to get better–he recovered from a bad cycle accident, got cancer, went into remission twice, got it worse and died–all three of us feel into each other, got so close it felt like one breathing, aching human being sometimes. Survivors in a wilderness of loss. And then, gradually over the next couple years, we separated some. Went on. More or less. We were going forward or so we hoped. Yet we still think of him every day, we just don’t say it as often.

I looked in the distance at the treehouse, then at the hulking mountains beyond in black silhouette. I went to bed, fell asleep and dreamed of Gray. The one that rescued me from a kind of adolescent madness, the one that Quinn had said would become my favorite despite his unruliness. But that’s what I’d liked about Gray and my brother. I dreamed of Quinn, his horse Volt and me on Gray galloping all the way to the mountains. That’s as far as we ever get in that repeated dream–in reality, a very long way–but it’s far enough.

Mom was already leaving for work when I finally ran downstairs to grab two slices of cold toast.

“Is Mel picking you up as usual? Because I have a meeting with a client, pronto,” she said and scooped up her briefcase, high heels clicking brightly on the tile.

“Were you awake all night, Mom?”

Mom paused at the door leading to the garage. “What was that?”

“I just wondered if you were up late, too?”

“I slept as well as usual, and what a relief your dad finally is, too!” She blew me a kiss and was gone.

Mel arrived on time and hurried me out the door with one long blare of the horn on her ancient aqua Mustang. I settled in beside her and looked out my window.

“What’s up with you lately, Dani? You seem distracted.”

“I think it’s senior year ADHD or something. I can’t be focused, entertaining or joyful every single day!”

Mel gave a short laugh. “Well, you can, actually, if you try. And it’s only January, so we gotta stay on task, right?”

“Yeah, January…rain, sleet, rain, snow, rain. What I’d give for no mud when we ride!”

“True, but our beauties can handle anything, and it’ll be nicer in the woods.”

I sighed. She was right. But what about Mom? Was she becoming a sleep walker?

“Out with it,” Mel said.

“Okay–my mom is doing weird things at night. Like getting up when she’s always been a sound sleeper.”

Mel shrugged then made a U-turn too fast. “Stop it, Mel. I am being serious.”

“Look, she’s at that age, right? Men-o-pause and all that. You worry too much about everything!”

“Yeah, but she just wanders, stares at something I can’t see. I follow her but she never notices me.”

Mel waved that aside, then parked in St. Mary’s lot and we hopped out, running for the door to avoid being late.

She was probably right, I thought, but one more time and I might… just do something.

******

Everything went smoothly the rest of the week. Even the stony, rutted trails were good enough if a bit sludgey here and there; the meadow in the valley was manageable so Mel and I kept on. Gray and I were in our usual sync; I was comforted by the sturdy rhythm of his pace. I felt strong, and happiness welled up. Margot Henderson was quite interested in my help starting in spring. She suggested Mel help. too, out of politeness. Mel is not a kid person and working with anyone who has physical and mental issues requires patience. She just wants to ride– full throttle.

“Any more night adventures?” she asked later over turkey burgers and fries at Kat’s Corner.

“Not any for six nights. It must have been a fluke. Mom is consistent. Work and sleep, play on week-ends if work doesn’t interfere, daydream every minute in between. Spacey but highly efficient, you know?”

“It’s that she’s a creative type, that’s how they are. They still figure it out, sometimes they’re even spectacular. Like your mother. Mine whiles away the time with charity work and reads more books than I think is possible, but how do I know? She says she’s read four books already this new year!”

I chewed on that and my burger. Mel’s mother is a speed reader just like my mom is a speed thinker and worker–they both get their goals met.

“Mel, if my mom gets up one more time at night, I’m going to confront her. Something is on her mind, or she’s entered a sleepwalking phase. It just makes me nervous.”

“Oh leave it, Dani. Sometimes we don’t need to know what our parents are up to. I think we just need to deal with our own stuff, you know?”

I flipped a French fry at her. She caught it, then ate it. That’s Mel for you. But she doesn’t go as deep as I wish she would sometimes. She has three siblings she detests and adores, and very little weighs on her mind.

******

It had been unseasonably warm for two days. Even though I left the window open a couple inches at ten, I was radiating heat shortly after midnight so kicked off my blanket. Or was it a noise that awakened me? I sat up and listened, every fiber of my body coming awake. There was a heavy, muted strike on something. I looked out my windows into the side yard. A faint light fanned out from the house’s far corner. I made out very little. Voices, not alarming yet people talking. I got up, looked up and down the hallway, towards Mom’s room. Her door was open. So was Dad’s. I peeked into both; their wide beds were mussed and empty.

All the way down the stairs I was trembling, whether in anger or fear I wasn’t sure. Afraid of the peculiar density of night and unknown events, anger at my parents for doing things in secret that made no snese to me. My heart pummeling my chest, I slid across the slick tiles, opened and ran through a metal door that led onto our back acerage. Clearly the alarm had been disabled even as I felt it go off in me.

The ground was wet, my socks muddied as I ran around the house to them. They were standing on the deck of the treehouse, looking things over, talking or maybe arguing, as if it was nine in the morning and people could care less. Dad, I realized, held a sledge hammer; Mom, a flashlight and an ax which slipped out of her hands, and she was still in her nightgown, a coat over it.

I stood with my hands on hips and shouted at them as a few raindrops spattered on my face.

“What are you doing up there? What is going on here?”

They were startled by me, looked over the deck railing of the treehouse and gave me a look that seemed to say, We have this under control, go back to bed, stop bothering about things.

They stood in a mute solidarity that intimidated me a moment.

“Mom?”

She swung the flashlight my way then held up a hand in a gesture of self defense. Both hands fell with a soft slap on her thighs. “Aw, Dani, not right now.”

“Dad!” I yelled.

He put down the sledge hammer and came to the deck railing, leaned over. “She’s finally had enough of it, Dani. She’s been thinking about it for a good year and is done with it.”

Mom rubbed her forehead wearily, entered the treehouse, lit a candle.

My mouth fell open. Her beloved treehouse that she designed, that they built to last a lifetime? And if not for me, then maybe a grandchild one day…

“I’m…struck dumb…” I said, a lump gathering in my throat.

Mom poked her head out from a window and said, “Come on up, dear, maybe it’s time to talk.”

******

There was the candle, there always is a candle that burns if anyone is there as the sun goes down. It’s for light and warmth of atmosphere, but it is also lit for Quinn. The long flame wavered in a breeze that carried more rain; it cast a yellowish light upon the walls in slinky shapes across our rounded shadows.

Mom pushed the dark auburn hair from her face and met my eyes with gentleness, her own brown ones a familiar hue of earthiness. “Yes, I saw you a few nights that you discovered me looking and thinking it all over…. I didn’t want to talk about any of it, Dani. I had to make a decision on my own, make my peace. The treehouse came to be in this place near the time our Quinn died. It has held great importance, necessary with its solace. I needed my own comforts. The solitude it afforded me, the refuge it offered. It has given me much for mourning and recovery. But now…I don’t need hideaways, do I…”

Dad linked his arm through hers and they sat closer together on the worn yellow and sage Ikat rug. I sat on alittle desk chair made of knotty branches, Mom’s design, their joint crafting. I glanced about at handmade cups and boxes, other items in their places on the built in desk. The blue glass pencil and pen holder. A small tapestry of birds and grouped botanical prints. They had done much for the interior, but that was long after its orginal build. Then it was sparse, empty of ornament. It had held only my mother’s sadness and dreams. Her prayers, likely, although she likely kept them inside herself. But in its past design and its present, it was radically unlike the clean sharp edges of the impressive house we lived in, which she’d designed and they’d built when I was two.

This was another sort of home. Sometimes I felt it had selaed her within it, taken her from me. But in time I saw it as her healing place. And it became a comfort to see it there, whether or not she was in it. It was part of our larger sanctuary of family though it held secrets. Part of my mother’s heart.

“Why would you be done with it now, though? Why not save it for the future?” I asked, trying to grasp what she really meant and wanted. It seemd too much.

“Now you’re leaving us. More change, another transition.” Her voice petered out as she looked down.

“As well you should, my girl,” Dad added.

“But only for a few years and I’ll come back home, I have a plan–“

“The point is, I really don’t need it any longer. It was selfish of me at the start to claim it as mine for meditation and fun–but then it became necessary. It became a monument to loss, to Quinn…It is past time to create new from old, or let the old be. We all have the urge to learn, take on greater projects. To live bigger, I think. And hopefully better. I want to be full of the present good times and tough ones. I need to stop dipping into the past, see where time takes me next. Open more doors. Close others.” She turned first to Dad then to me, eyes glistening. “I think we all should let go of this. My treehouse is a symbol and not needed now. We keep Quinn in our hearts. The treehouse must come down–and be repurposed elsewhere.”

I nodded as much to myself as her. Dad kissed the top of her head, hugged her. I saw the labor in her decision, how she had pondered it for long by herself. And I was on the verge of melting into a pool of emotion due to words amd feelings bursting open in rich damp air: their loving ways, marvelous peculiarities, their vision. Strength. My parents.

How lucky had we been? Quinn and me, ending up with these people as our guides. I’d always felt guilty that he had to go, my big brother who was always off and running but kept me in partial confidence, some corner of his life, in the beautiful hoop of his love. He’d lived almost as long as I had now, so far, I realized. And I could carry on with my life; he’d not be mad if I released some sadness, but pleased I didn’t hold back growing up.

“Well, are you satisfied now that you know what kept me awake? Are you alright with t his decision I am making?” Mom asked.

“Okay, so you’re dismantling it? But not with a sledge hammer or ax!” They laughed a bit. “Yeah, I will get okay with it.”

Dad said, “We’ll be careful taking it down, of course. Maybe we’ll hold a ceremony for its being put to….rest, huh, Ellie? Maybe we’ll save it in the pole barn until someone else needs it.”

Mom said, “Or maybe start over on another piece of land…?”

I immediately thought of the stables, equine therapy. How might I reuse the treehouse there? And then thought, Another house no longer needed. Will they build a new house for only themselves?

“Just put that idea aside, Elllie.”

“We can donate it to a park, Erik. I do have plans all figured out in my head. I want to create a garden out here, one with archways and secret doors, a place where grandchildren might roam. Though we might manage a tryst in the maze we design. Then there’s the glass house I’ve always longed for, with a few stained glass panels handmade by possibly me, so I will need topnotch instruction and….”

I drifted away. Stared at candle in the center of the treehouse, its brilliant flame casting a dancing golden light about the one room. On us. I had my own plans, yes. We had between us such dreaming and planning and hopes for the future. Quinn would approve.

The room was filled with my parents’ intimate laughter. I stood and impulsively bent down to kiss their cheeks. They pecked me back. I let myself down with the swaying rope ladder. They needed to enjoy the last days and nights in the treehouse. I would miss it. I hoped they waited until I had left for university. But Quinn had long departed. And I was in search of my own country of happiness, to make another sort of home for myself.


Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: The Saint She Might Be

The new neighbor, a younger woman named Marta Swinsky, was to be greatly admired. All the women said so and the men didn’t disagree. Kari mused over this as she scrubbed final traces of grime in the upstairs bathroom sink, tub and floor. How many times had she seen Marta heave bags of gifts or donations of unknown sorts into the back of her station wagon then head out to deliver the goods? Every few days there she was again with a few more bundles, bags. Kari had asked her about it and she’d shrugged, saying, “It’s what I do, add a little something to others’ trees–I spend months getting ready. It’s what I enjoy.”

Kari donated items to charity, too, just not on such a grand scale. Year around. And she took several toys to the car dealership to disperse, bought art at the one day holiday market as they donated 50 percent of profits to the community center. But she could do more. She was focused on her own holiday preparations, admittedly.

And Marta was a real baker; that is, the air between the houses smelled as if she was. Even with only one of Kari’s windows cracked for a freshening breeze, fragrances of molasses cookies, lemon bars and cinnamon buns made their way to her nostrils. Next would be sugar cookies and Russian teacakes and more, Marta said yesterday. Kari thought she could smell sweetness even now, rising above the offensive odor of bleach in the bathroom. She intended on making iced butter cookie stars– soon. Maybe a mince pie or two.

The truth was, Marta was likely a better woman than she was. She was younger, more motivated, great at domestic creations, she’d noted. The living room alone was wonderful with its good taste and comfort. She seemed a young saint in the making, industrious after her already-busy work day, always ready with a wave and friendly greeting. Her stunning smile added to the overall appraisal that she was one of those who was touched with something “extra”–charisma, or perhaps more than the usual heart for humanity. And it was likely true. No one was displeased she moved into the neighborhood– nor her smart, dapper, polite husband, Evan. Four months later they were already settling in.

There were plenty of tasks checked off Kari’s lists but nothing to warrant modest neighborhood acclaim, not much of passing interest. It was a quiet rolling toward Christmas and New Year’s. Not many were excited this year although there might be a little relief from the pandemic. If the world was still subdued, she didn’t start her day fighting the fact. But she did try to make it more festive. Charles suggested they put more colorful lights on the garage–he got right to it. She played holiday tues and hummed along as best she could.

There was less and less to do each year, but it was only Charles and herself. Their son, Craig, had already flown off to see his girlfriend and her family in Hawaii. Not that he was obligated to come back home; he was twenty-nine and lived four hours away. But it would have been nice to see him a couple of days. Such a life, busy with his lawyering, his cohorts, flying across the Pacific. He deserved it–anyone who had to debate and harangue for a living deserved a sweet respites. In this case, with Delia the chemical engineer, again. Craig and his equally upward bound girlfriends–well, alright, good for them. Kari had liked a couple of them, but hadn’t met Delia. Craig and she met online six months ago. He’d told them he’d gone to see her twice already, that she might be “the one”. Kari would have to meet her to determine if that made any sense.

But love often didn’t, did it? She and Charles were like rutabagas and raspberries, both uniquely satistfying sparately but an odd pairing.

There was, however, nothing to gripe about during her morning assessments of reality. They owned a good dwelling; she had a companionable if somewhat distracted, often snoozy husband; a secured retirement following thirty-seven years of teaching high school world and American history. Charles still worked as a consultant regarding organizational and team building issues–from his office at home for the time being. They had a sluggish white Persian cat named Dot for a dab of black fur between wide eyes, and an active mutt, Mr. Grimly–or as Charles said, chuckling, The Grimster. That dog had fixed on its mug a somber look, even when happy. Maybe he was influencing Kari–she was increasingly the one to walk him. She talked to him at length as they walked; he made noises back, a whine or a grumbling.

But her everyday work was never done and that’s what loomed at her as she got up at dawn. If Charles had been more fussy as well as retired, it’d be harder to carry most of that load. She was just tired out–it bothered her, she long the one with unstoppable energy. Maybe being well over sixty was the problem or, again, the unending pandemic. Or work not being at school but household labors. She needed a new direction for the New Year.

Christmases past had been quite an event. But Charles saw it as so much fuss though he was glad to spoil her with a big gift (last year, a new computer, sorely needed). He didn’t easily join in the merry spirit she displayed–mostly the light displays he put up, a few classic holiday movies. Son Craig was all in until he was fourteen, at which point he found better things to do than decorate the house or corak along with their holiday tunes. He left at eighteen with hardly a backward glance, home only for brief periods after that.

“It’s a fact that things change and that’s that, get on with it,” she reminded herself and put away her cleaning supplies and ran downstairs, contemplating dinner plans.

“Pizza?” she asked at the study door. Therein Charles stared at his computer screen, then looked up blankly. “For dinner?” she prompted him with a grin.

“Oh, right, but on a Wednesday night?”

He said this with furrowed brow, as if she’d lost track of time and thought it was Saturday. They ordered take out Saturday or Sunday. Not Wednesday.

“I didn’t get to the store and don’t have a taste for soup and sandwiches. Or roasting a whole chicken, our only meat.”

He tilted his head at her, nodded, went back to his work.

When Dot wound her way between her ankles, she picked the cat up, held the fluffy mound of squirming fur close. Cats and dogs had barely a clue about the goings on, good or bad, were happy to be fed and walked, petted while given lap space. She appreciated them for that alone.

She ordered pizza and went outdoors to wait for delivery. It had warmed some in the afternoon. There was a loose weave of cloud with rain in the distance, but also a soft wash of crimson and pink as the sun went down, For those vivid colors given by sunsets she gave thanks. Christmas would come, it would be fine, it would be gone again. But sunshine and moonshine provided artistic touches to earth, waters and plants, the sky, and they’d keep on. She felt better to realize it once more.

The vehement slamming of a door broke her reverie. Voices rose and fell, muffled across the side yard. Marta stepped out the kitchen door, headed toward the garage but stumbled a bit. Her husband’s voice was commanding but unclear. She paused, turned around, leaned her back against the house, panting, then right before she walked back she saw Kari. Stood up straight, walked rapidly to the door opening to her. Went in. Kari grasped both sweatshirted forearms and shivered.

Had she seen anything, really? Heard –what? Who didn’t argue at times? Everyone did and sometimes neighbors knew it but respected others’ privacy; sometimes they never knew, which was a good thing, she thought. She and Charles had had an argument a month ago that still got her a bit riled to think of it, but they’d moved on. She sat on her porch and wondered about her neighbor. Drifted back to her son and how he was long gone. Young children especially made the holidays meaningful, fun….She wondered if Marta wanted children. Kari hadn’t, not really, but when she had him a light went on; she was so pleased for them all. How she missed her son pulling up into the driveway a bit fast, with reasonably warm Thai take-out on the back seat to share, and a couple of days and nights of good talk at the ready.

The pizza delivery car pulled up, a teenaged girl hopped out and ran to Kari, plopped a warm box of savory delight into her hands and took a small wad of cash proffered, no counting it.

But then Marta’s side door opened. Her body was ejected and Marta fell hard. Running acorss the damp grass, Kari’s heart pounded in her throat. Marta was lying in the driveway, face covered with a mass of long auburn hair. She was crying softly like a creature from far off and wounded under cover of night. Kari pushed back unruly hair to better assess the state of things.

Marta’s lower lip was sucked between her teeth, eyes squeezed shut though tears eeked from the corners. Face contorted, hands to sides of her head.

“Marta.” Kari smoothed her hair; the cheek against cement was bright with blood. From her fall? “Marta, tell me if you’re badly hurt. What happened?”

The woman’s eyes blinked open, one partly swollen shut, the other brimming but she shook her head back and forth, hands dropping away to the driveway. Then she brought a forefinger to puffy reddened lips, one split open and said, “Shhhh….”

In the small window above the kitchen sink, there was a shadowy movement–and Kari knew Evan was there watching them. He didn’t come outside. Kari felt sick to her stomach as she gathered Marta into her arms, though the woman resisted.

“I’m okay, let me be,” Marta whispered, then sat up, pushing Kari back. “So sorry, had a couple of drinks…wine doesn’t sit well,” she murmured,

But there was no smell that shouted alcohol, not wine or beer or liquor. This was a sober woman severely distressed. Kari helped her up, looked her full in the face.

“Please,” Marta implored, more tears flowing.

“Come to my house. We’ll make Christmas tea. Let me help.”

“Tea?” her eyes widened at such a preposterous though. “No, no–I can’t,” she said, looking quickly at the kitchen window, now dark. She turned back at Kari, strands of hair caught on her lips. “Please. Don’t say a thing.”

“Check in with me tomorrow, alright? Come by, even.”

Marta may have nodded or maybe not. But she clasped Kari’s arm before turning and stumbled off, holding her side. She reached the door, opened it and was enveloped by shadows.

Kari backed away to her own yard, watching the window for light, which did not trun on. Hesitated, atill, and listened. Only a slight pattering of rain which she now felt on head, face, hands. A sighing breeze among two stalwart pines in the back yard. She wanted to stay but was certain if she did she’d crash into their house and pull out Marta and march her to their own home. But Marta had told her nothing, did not want to go with her. Why would she? Recently new in the neighborhood. The marital fight an embrassment and, worse, worry about–no, fear– of the man waiting in the kitchen. It was so much more than a tiff.

The gravity of what had happened disturbed her; Kari felt caught by some twist of fate, mere chance, inserted into someone else’s bad dream.

“Kari! Where in earth did you go?” Charles stood on the porch and when he saw her turn to him, held out his hand. “Pizza isn’t much good now–we’ll have to nuke it.”

“I’m here! Oh, I was…talking…to Marta, sorry.”

The pizza respponded well to reheating. She smiled at his small jokes, nodded at the update of work and she thought of hurt and love, kindness and sorrow, trust and fear. And what did it really take to become a saint in this world, in such times? Was it ever possible–or simpler than imagined? Was it necessary, even? And, in the meantime, how did one live with pain, and knowing about others’ pain? Did you look at it, name it, or go on and still hurt with it?

How could she save Marta from any more? Had Kari surmised correctly her situation? Domestic violence. As if naming one sort of violoence separated it from others. It never told the whole story, she believed.

What was this Christmas meant to be about? Charity and pain?

It struck her as Charles lay his toasty, broad palm over her narrow, chilled hand: if not for shared compassion, it was all for nothing; if not for tenderness, it was all far less than should be. Cookies and lights and even sons visiting were smaller matters when considering greater human needs. And she’d about forgotten. That you had to rise up to meet life more, all of it.

That night in their wide, lumpy bed, covers heaped upon them, Kari and Charles embraced a long moment then fell asleep. Kari, to her surpise, did not awaken once until morning, a wide blue morning. As she turned to him and he opened one eye then another she decided she would tell him. Maybe they could figure something out; maybe they could offer safe haven. And Marta, being cared for, might find her way better. Maybe she’d learn that novice sainthood was not all it was cracked up to be, and that was alright.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Revising Life

Visiting Flowering Springs was a long tradition Mirielle kept, and for many reasons. The garden and pond were convenient for a bit of solitude when she visited her parents each winter and spring. They lived down the street and around the corner, and the oasis of abundance held sweet memories of growing up. She’d escape the house to safely roam along pond’s edges and along pathways, weaving between dense groves of rhoddodendrens and azaleas. Later, it became a refuge in which to mull over problems or visit a friend without parental surveillance. Only her best friends came with her. It was a public garden but strangers had their routes and resting spots and she had hers. Flowering Springs held enchantments, senuous beauty with heavy boughs rich with brilliant blossoms, the peaceful ducks milling about and territorial geese making known their authority by honking and strutting, sometimes chasing people. Shadowed mazes of paths were good for sharing confidences, and offered meditative nooks.

She was glad it was there for greater security amid unsettling times. Mirielle was finding this December visit taxing. Her father had had hip surgery and was recuperating slowly, often napping, dulled by pain pills. Her mother was getting hard of hearing so conversations tended toward a tragicomedy of errors. And even admitted she got gout attacks at at night, awakening her from a sound sleep. Not that their minds were going. They read alot, played Scrabble and chess if they could stand the length of the games, and occasionally attended lectures and performances. Her parents were enthusiastic in intention if not always in action. She should be happier about their general well being.

But she had a life, as well, and it had been a harsh year for her, too. Thomas had left six months ago without a backward glance, only a note about Kong the humungous, princely cat, saying he’d slip b ack in to get him in a couple days. She wasn’t even there when he lugged the creature to unknown parts. Good riddance to them both. Yet she’d cried for hours.

The end of everything that really matters, she had thought then, but of course it wasn’t true. Mirielle continued to go to work (in the guest room/office) cranking out articles for a city paper. She ran daily at 6 a.m. for 30 minutes, as usual. And gave into her love of cream cheese and blueberry bagels, smoked salmon and onion bagels, sunflower butter with apricot jam slatherd on plain bagels, cinnamon and raisin bagels dressed only in butter. Thomas loathed bagels, decreeed them boring and fattening–what is the point? he’d ask, lip curling.

She quit restricting herself in most ways since she no longer needed to consider his habits or preferences. If that meant going to bed at 2 in the morning, she did so with a roaring good mystery or trashy magazine until she slumped over, face planted in a pillow. No more tedious discussions about post modernism or the peculiar habits of weasels. No more annoying bike rides at the same greenway each Saturday so he could tally up mileage each time. Sometimes his arrogant intelleigence could wear her down to a nub.

“So what really happened? With Thomas?” her mother asked at dinner the first night back home.

Her father looked up from final bites of meatloaf, green beans and potatoes to listen better. He didn’t ask anything personal but he always wanted the lowdown. One heavily white eyebrow was cocked as he waited.

“A better job, as I explained. Multinational company in Denmark.”

“He moved to Denmark?” her father asked, incredulous.

“Not yet. Six months here, then to Copanhagen, but who cares?” Mirielle said, ready to close the topic.

“He didn’t want to take her along, Dan,” her mother explained quietly, clearing off serving dishes.

“I didn’t want to go, we’ve been so over,” she muttered.

Her father peered out from under the line of bushy brows. “Best to stay put where you are, anyway, Miri. You live far enough.”

“Yes,” she agreed, yet mashed potatoes globbed on her tongue. Denmark, she might have lived in Denmark. Well, it was much, much colder there and he was not at all snuggly the last year.

Her mother came back with slices of Key lime pie. “You said the cat stayed, though. That may be a comfort to you. But poor guy, probably misses him.”

Mirielle didn’t bother to correct her–and who probably missed whom?–and was glad dinner was coming to a close. With a favorite dessert.

Then her mother patted her back like she was eight years old, presented the plate with its pie wedge and said casually, “By the way, I saw Harrison at the grocery today–he’s visiting his folks, too, and asked about you.”

She had taken a big drink and sprayed seltzer water onto her Key lime slice. Thankfully, her mother disappeared into the kitchen and her father was clueless, though irked by the sudden seltzer mess, and looked as if he stifled the urge to reprimand her for gauche behavior. Instead, he tossed her his clean cloth napkin. She was thirty-six, she could clean up her own messes.

******

After a short walk, Flowering Springs was where Mirielle ended up the next day in late afternoon.

The cold had arrived abruptly at dawn, and it sneaked past jacket and sweater to find barely defended flesh. She pulled arms close and cast a fond eye over the pond. There were Wood Ducks, Mallards, Buffleheads, Canada Geese, American Coot, great Blue and Green Herons, Double-crested Cormorant…so many she recalled, though there were close to 100 species. In middle school she’d written a though report on this wildlife; she found that investigating then commandeering facts was satisfying. And that decided her future as a reporter.

Harrision had thought it a great idea but he believed most anything she said or imagined was great. “Nothing but the best for you,” he’d tell her with that generous smile that drew people to him. He demonstrated his appreciation in many ways. She was 14 and Harrison,16, so that meant two tickets to a popular Friday night movie or a bag with bagels and coffee brought to her house after the second church service. Or it might mean a bracelet with enamelled daisies on it, or a sweet note slipped through a hole in her bedroom’s screen window at midnight. It seemed excessive to his buddies but to him it was simple: he was in love.

They were in love. And it remained that way for two, almost three more years. Mirielle and Harrison, a perfect couple– so certainly they would marry after college. It was true that they were a good match. He, the quiet one and she, more gregarious; he, a natural in theater and she, a track star. Harrison always knew what to do when she noisily displayed feelings of distress or discouragement, and Mirielle was the only one who semed to understand his unspoken thoughts, his subterranean moods. And they were beautiful together, no one could deny that: he sported dark wavy hair, tawny skin with softly brooding brown eyes; she had thick auburn hair, fair skin prone to a burn and blue eyes that shone with curiosity.

Except following graduation Harrison decided to attend a family alma mater five states away, and the third year he met someone…and got married before he had completed his B.S. degree. She never got over it, and if he was honest–which he was, once—neither did he. But there were so many miles and alterations to their lives; it was the way it unfolded. It had been a long while. The keen hurt had almost faded. Even if his sonorous voice and his probing eyes had not faded from her memory.

And then that morning when she’d gone for her usual run (much later than usual), he’d called her parents’ old landline number and left a message: meet him at Flowering Springs. A place they’d shared many talks, pensive times and stirring kisses. It seemed absurd to not see what he wanted. To not see him, period.

Mirielle began to walk around the pond, wending her way through huge bare-limbed rhoddies and azaleas. She was nerved up, alive with anticipation but also uncertain. He had been married for 15 years; he had children. Why was he meeting her? The last time they’d spoken was after his sister had died nine years past; they’d seen one another at the funeral home. Fewer words were exchanged than heartfelt glances, and it had been taxing for her, perhaps for him amidst his grief. But his wife was always at his elbow as she ought to have been. His lovely wife that had somehow stolen his heart, after all.

And there was nothing more. She still felt that tug, a clarity of heart that insisted they’d been meant for one another. But were they, in fact? They had been living separate lives for over a decade, close to two now. There had nothing for it but to keep on, adapt on the fly, make do, create most of what she needed in her life. Mirielle had done well– with or without a man being a part of it. And there had been a few, though not a husband. She was a very good reporter and had friends, garnered some happiness here and there. She didn’t need more complications; she preferred a hiatus from romantic relationships.

The geese didn’t budge from her path but neither did they attack–they had known her so long, she liked to think. To what age did geese live and did they recall human faces? She forgot if she’d researched those for the report made. Their presence reassurred her with their brazneness and familiarity. All of it comforted her as she moved through the landscape on quiet feet. This was a place she had often dreamed and grown up strong, independent. Where she learned about nature, but also learned about hearts made full and empty.

The platinum sky was weighty with clouds; bands of light slipped out like phantom fingers. She could almost see the small waterfall and a fountain by the south end of the pond, where they used to meet. It appeared deserted.

The truth was, she’d be surprised if Harrison showed up. It was one thing to have an impulse, another to make it reality. And should one even act on impulses like this? Perhaps just as well nothing might occur. Time gone and comittments made, so many changes of fate. It was too much to figure out. Things needed to fit together much better to build a cohesive whole of her life. She was not 14 or 15 but heading toward middle age before too long. No more did she entertain childish fairy tales.

Mirielle sat on a weathered bench at the waterfall’s edge, leaned over to dangle fingertips in brisk clear water as it cascaded over mossy rocks. The ache and then slight numbness startled her. December days in Oregon were not like December days in southern California, but both places were home.

She’d give him fifteen minutes, no more. She was not being left stranded once more. A wood duck flapped its fancy wing by the pond and lifted its elegant green head, and she thought how simple a life it had. She closed her eyes and breathed in clean sharp air.

“Mirielle.”

It was almost a whisper, that rich, gentle voice sliding across the air to her. She stood and faced him.

“Harrison.”

He was shorter than she recalled and his black hair was nuanced with white at the temples. But his searching eyes were the same and, too, his sensitive mouth, which broke into the smile she knew well. He stepped forward.

Mirielle was frozen in place, whether by the sweep of emotion she felt for him still or fears that fell upon that joy. Before she could stop herself, she looked at his wedding ring finger. She had to know.

Bare. That was enough. Harrison’s gaze scanned her face with near-disbelief, then held his hands out to her. She moved to him, let his warm hands take her chilled ones. He pulled her to his chest, her name spoken happily, arms snug about her. Mirielle leaned in as close as she could–to be sure. They fit one another, still, and after k moments that threatened to undo them, they released one another reluctantly.

They squeezed side by side on the old bench and began to talk as if in an old and secret language, layered and muted and kept close between them–the waterfowl heard little of import. Harrison and Mirielle began to discover what story might blossom from their chance encouter, even as the sky closed over their garden and darkened. The rain fell and lamps flared one by one, illuminating the way as they dashed to shelter.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story on Thursday: Out of the Mouth of the Lion

If the Cabrellis were certain of anything, it was that they were a family unit that resembled a landlocked ship. Every one of them had leanings toward greater individuation or dreamed of enchanting distant destinations. Or just wanted a day or two for themselves. But they were bound by not just deep familial affection but loyalty to one another, that tenacious glue not likely to be pried away without great laborious effort. They were the classic American unit, off-kilter and indispensable.

Or so it seemed to her. Sometimes Charlotte imagined herself in a three-legged race though life, doomed to be stumping along while everyone else passed her by. It didn’t help that she and her brother lived with their parents in a crumbling corner mini-manse.

“There’s a gutter that seems to hang low at a corner,” she mentioned to her father after stating the obvious: that the place was starting to crumble more. It wasn’t money, it was lack of time and other priorities.

“I wouldn’t say it’s near crumbling, my dear, it just needs a little repair.” Frances, her father, peered over his readers at her. “I keep an updated list going, don’t worry over it.” he did not want to be irritated; he was still getting used to having Charlotte back home. He was delighted and concerned and annoyed by it. When was the nest going to be emptied?

“And the list keeps going nowhere– hire someone and it’s done in a jiffy, well–a few jiffies,” her mother, Mirabel, said dryly, finely penciled eyebrow rising. She studied a page in her tome of contemporary art. “What we need is great art to improve on what can’t be undone or rehabbed.”

Charlotte nodded, but kept on with her notebook scribbling. She was trying to recall song lyrics that came to her when suddenly awakened too early in the morning. It might be time to give up; she sensed a sore spot of her parents’ was being poked and regretted her own words.

“I think the house still has its graces,” she offered.

“We’ve run out of wall space,” Frances reminded them both with a sweep of his arms, “and that is one of the things on my list to remedy.”

“Are you building another room for my collection, finally?” Mirabel said sweetly.

Frances grunted and left in search of more coffee. It was a Saturday morning but he had a virtual meeting in an hour. He needed a clear mind and a hefty dose of caffeine to prepare him for price negotiations on a new product he might order.

Everyone–her family, friends and neighbors– knew Mirabel had long studied drawing and painting before she had Charlotte, then three years later, Tony. Lately she’d been talking again about putting obligations aside and devoting herself to art. Making it. A residency somewhere might be an effective starting point, she’d said, and Frank had squinted in her direction as if he wasn’t clear it was Mira speaking. (Oh, he guessed she once did do those nice paintings of wildflowers–in college?) But she squinted back, thrusting tiny daggers with both eyes. Frances was thinking how he had more talents unfulfilled–woodworking, for example–and he had precious little time, either, but what was the big deal? He owned Cabrelli Lawn and Garden, and business was booming more lately. This was not the time for Mirabel or him to slow down. That was way ahead, plenty of time to sufficiently relax.

“I think you ought to apply for an art residency, draw and dab paint a couple weeks and see what happens. I know you have thought of it a long time,” Charlotte said to her mother. “Show Dad he lacks the right viewpoint on art–and your creative vision. You will fall in love again…I mean, with creating art!”

Frances shook his head at his daughter and laughed. He thought this a silly idea, in spite of adoring his wife. He generally exited such “conversations of the soul”, as he called them.

“We shall see.” Mirabel smiled gratefully and stood up, shook out her arms and hands, rolled her shoulders.

She had tender spots and aches that indicated she was on the far side of 40, skidding her way down to imminent decrepitude. She had found several new gray hairs threading their way through impeccable walnut brown locks. She sighed and asked Charlotte, “A coffee refill?” Maybe coffee was aging them all, one never knew. It was an obsession of Frances’ that they have the best beans readied for a fresh pot at any given time. He never was any good at letting down, it was always go-go-go.

“I’d love some, use my big grey mug, please!” called out Tony as he slid into the living room, arms open wide. Twenty years old and still sliding around in his sock feet.

“At your service, Mr. Antony,” Mirabel murmured and was gone, her high heeled boots clicking on the tongue-in-groove wood floors. You could hear her all over the house whenever she abandoned comfort (quiet-soled loafers or sneakers) for an attempt at chic. It worked fine now and then, looking sharp and confident.

Charlotte examined her brother. He appeared to be in too good of shape for someone who’d crept in from a party later than was decent. But he didn’t have to go that much bother to shape up. Bags under his eyes did the talking, and also a maze of red capillaries on his eyeballs as he blinked at her. And attractive despite himself.

“Good morning and all that.” he yawned rudely.” It was quite a night… Hey, are you still refusing to go to JT’s next week-end with your friend? That one I like?”

“That greasy food about gags me and you know I don’t like much beer and you shouldn’t drink again. Carly is babysitting her nephew tonight, anyway. She’s ancient, like me, Tony!”

He didn’t need an ID at JT’s but he got a fake one in case anyone bothered to ask. Why bother? Most everyone knew the Cabrellis. And he bought everyone drinks and his birthday was in two months.

“No reason to refuse an offer of a free meal and music, you’ve become absolutely solitary and lazy as a log since you came home.” The words held an undertone–subdued anger? sarcasm? envy? But he plopped beside her. She swatted at him, he pushed against her shoulder and she got up.

Charlotte wanted to tell the truth for a change: Who is lazy in this room? What have you been doing since I have gotten not only a B.A. but an M.S. in social anthropology by age 26? Working at JT’s as a part-time DJ and getting drunk most nights? But she frowned at him, took her book of song lyrics to the sunroom.

Mirabel gave the mug of coffee to her son and took refuge in her office. Let the kids enjoy each other while she schemed how to get away and make art. Tony took a slurping gulp and followed his sister, at which point she gave up and looked hard at him.

“What? What do you want now?”

He managed another small slurp then sat down. “I dented my car last night. But I’m not sure how.”

Charlotte shook her head, put down her notebook, looked out the window at the sheet of rain drenching the sweeping, verdant side lawn. She took a deep breath. This was being home with her family: entering the mouth of a beautiful, testy lion and hoping to get make it out alive again. Likely not entirely whole and functioning. She prayed every night and day for a job far away. Even though the lion was beloved and she’d always miss it.

“Tell me what you know, Tony.” And she did feel ready to listen.

“Lisa and I had an argument and then I had a couple more beers….”

“Lisa again? I thought that was done. But far more importantly, how many?”

He shook his head head side to side and covered his face. “Maybe… four more? After three?…”

It took all her strength to stay seated and not to yell at him, not to call her mother. “A huge overindulgence. Get on with it, Tony, you have my undivided attention.”

And he talked, drank coffee and talked more until he was just repeating himself and getting a worse headache. She saw a brother in serious distress over more than he could articulate. And it hurt her. Scared her some.

“I will help you as much as I can. It may not be much, though.”

“I know I can count on you, thanks. I’ve missed having you home more. Maybe you’ll stick around…despite being preachy and self-righteous.” He smiled, teeth showing.

“Oh come on, you know I’ve always been your advisor, but you ask for it!”

The fledgling song lyrics Charlotte had committed to paper lay dormant in the closed notebook for the rest of the day. Songwriting was, according to her father after dinner that night, a nice hobby but obviously her other capabilities were more sorely needed. And she wondered: was it giving aid to Tony? Was it succeeding at her goals to make her father look even better? Was it buoying up her mother’s artist heart?

What about her own needs?

******

Mirabel found four residencies west of the Mississippi that looked interesting. They required samples of her work, among other things. Did she have a couple of respectable drawings on her files? Should she attempt a few fresh pictures? One residency was pointedly for women over forty-five, with or without a college degree in art, with or without any exhibits, who had never attended an arts residency. In other words, slackers or newbies. Biting her lip, she poured over the details, insides trembling with excitement.

Or was it fear?

The last time she had created anything was for her best friend’s birthday four months ago. She’d made an original card–something she enjoyed doing. It was a pen and ink with a wash of watercolor. Yes, she got praises from Lara who simply adored anything arty and especially Mirabel’s renderings; she felt they should be framed, and hung on as many walls as possible– why not start a little side business? The woman had no idea how much it took to find time and mental space to make even a throwaway card. She was always engaged in other matters, even filling in at the family business.

Frances rapped on the doorframe, then entered. Mirabel shut her laptop.

“Yes? Was the meeting productive?”

“I think I got what I wanted–not sure they did.” He chuckled and glanced at her desk, then the small gold clock that rested on a square of marble, a find at an estate sale. “I just wanted to tell you I’m swinging by the store and nursery for a few hours. When’s dinner?”

She tapped her bright lips. “I haven’t gotten that far, it’s only late morning. How about take out?”

“Naw, how about your chili? It’s cold out there.” He came closer, gave her a peck on the cheek. “I’m off.”

As she heard him run down the stairs, she reopened the laptop and griped to herself. “How about chili? Well, how about bringing home something fantastic from Stafford’s?” The clock reminded her she had cleaning to pick up, groceries to buy, a stop at Lara’s to get a dress she’d loaned her which would turn into an hour gabfest. She’d see what Charlotte was up to; maybe she could help out. Isn’t that what adult children were supposed to do–help at home when they couldn’t find a decent job and lived off parents?

What an uncharitable thought. When, to be honest, Char had sent out plenty of resumes and had completed three good interviews, just not good enough. And she’d been home only seven months. And she was helpful, mostly with moral support. Unlike Tony, who took more than gave and never offered an apology or any other thought about things. A young man who still collected model planes and cars…would he never grow up? And then what? Was there a decent future for him? Her head felt beleaguered by worry.

Both of her kids would be long gone and glad of it one day. She’d still be attending charity functions and shoring up their business work force, making chili and stuffed Cornish hens when she wanted simple take out and a glass of wine.

Mirabel stared at the residency’s website a long moment. It began to elicit a flaring desire. To nurture her creative bent. To get the heck of out of there, away from all the fine and cracked things and people claiming to be her beloved family. Which they were, but that was often the rub.

******

“You’d better call Paul right this minute and see what he knows. If he can’t recall, you have to keep asking around until the full story comes to light. Or maybe look on the news?…Tony, you make me crazy! Alcohol will be your ruin if you don’t watch it, I mean it.”

Charlotte left him to it. She had an errand to run.

Tony was in trouble. He called it making another dumb mistake. He had gotten into the argument with Lisa over something not worth recalling. Drunk more then driven home way too late with his buddy, Paul. He’d let Paul off down the street and proceeded home, right? But he had a gauzy memory of Paul yelling at him then he got out of Tony’s Charger. And Tony wanting to fight his best friend. Before they got into it, they gave it up. Paul went into his house as Tony drove on. Barely able to command his body to get the car into their curving driveway, open and enter the garage. And stop. As he stumbled out of the car and rounded the front of the Charger to go into the house, he noted a weird, bad something on the fender. Too bleary, he kept going, forcing his legs to carry him upstairs so he use the bathroom, flop on his bed. Of course he drank too much again, that’s what he did these days.

He knew he’d made some huge mistake after he woke up in a panic and checked his custom metallic blue Charger. He was aghast at the sight of an ugly dent and scrapes on the bumper. A light had a jagged line in the cover, too. It felt even worse when he called Paul and left a message, then had to wait until he called back, angry and still half-asleep at noon.

“What did you feed me last night, bourbon?” Paul demanded. “Now that I’m 21, I can make my own idiotic choices, you’re supposed to stay a lot more sober to drive but no, then to top it off–oh never mind, you’re just in for it!”

He hung up on him so Tony called back to no avail. Then he texted him: What did I do to my car? And something else? No animate objects… right?

Then Paul called.

“Crap, Tony, you knocked over the mailbox. My parents’ mailbox! Plowed it half-down and never even understood what you did. You wanted to fight me when I got mad– you were out of it.”

Relief flooded him, then a quiver of panic. “Oh no! It’s ruined? Even the bluebirds perched on top? What did your dad say?” He was starting to sweat, nausea threatened.

“They’re gone for the week-end, remember? Other wise we wouldn’t be having this nice conversation and our fathers would be having it out. Maybe we can fix it. But I’m so hungover… aren’t you?”

He touched his forehead then wiped his face with a shirt sleeve. “Yeah–but we have to fix this! I’ve got to fix it before my parents find out.”

“Ask Char what to do, maybe she can help smooth things out. Because your dad and mom will see your Charger and then what? And my parents, when they get home, hate to think of it.”

“Oh my perfectly hot blue baby…” He moaned and dropped the phone, ran to the bathroom.

******

“The bare facts of the matter are that you have a son and I have a brother with a big alcohol problem!”

Mirabel closed her bedroom door and shushed her daughter, then replied as quietly as possible, “How can you determine that? You know young women and men have to experiment until they have had enough! It’s a rite of passage. he has to get it out of his system now, not later when he’s forty or fifty!”

“Not everyone has to go through this stage, as you call it.”

“Well, you were different, you never liked it much, were very studious. Are studious. You have a fine mind.” She placed her hand on Charlotte’s arm and led her to the two big armchairs by a window. They sat. “Not that Tony doesn’t, he just has different strengths…”

“It isn’t one bit about me, Mother, you don’t know what I got up to in college–let’s face up to Tony’s issues here and now. He got really drunk–again–and hit and ran over Carter Harrison’s fancy mailbox.”

Mirabel stifled a snicker despite the discomfort tightened her chest. “A big, unsightly one, you have to admit. But yes, that counts for more than a little thing. He’s never had an accident that I know of…yes, this is not good.”

“He got two speeding tickets, it’s only luck that he wasn’t drinking then.”

“But he’s very young, honey, they do these things, your father was the same. Well, he didn’t drink much and you know he still doesn’t. That was my mother’s side, she liked her wine, her father drank a bit much. But if Tony had a long list of alcohol-related issues, I’d see why you’re so upset. He simply made too close a turn into Paul’s driveway and–“

“Will Carter Harrison feel that way?”

Mirabel sighed. “Of course not, though it was Jane’s idea to adorn their mailbox like that, love birds and all.” She laughed too heartily. It was not stacking up to be a great Saturday evening and she hadn’t even begun the chili. “He’s lucky he didn’t hurt his Charger even more. And I am grateful no one was hurt! It can be fixed. It can all be fixed, Char.”

“Yes, I suppose so. Things are always fixed one way or another–or utterly ignored–around here. I can’t believe you aren’t more concerned about this or Tony.” Charlotte felt tears rise and she swallowed them back down. Steady now. “He’s one day going to get hurt badly or damage someone else, not just his car, Mother! This is no small thing–driving while drunk!”

Mirabel felt the rapid swing of a heavy door deep inside herself–the door that closed tightly and locked up the aches and bruises of the past and kept her feeling safer. Yet her heart galloped because she knew Charlotte was right: Tony had to be taken in hand. She had lain awake so many nights worrying that he’d get home in one piece. She’d nursed his hangovers with him. She’d given him advice on how to stop at just one or two drinks and then told her darling boy that that he should stay away altogether from it, alcohol seemed to push him to the limits. And of course, he was too young to be drinking like that out there. Although…they’d served wine in their home; their kids got to sip at a young age. And it was this way many places. But her son had trouble written all over him now.

Charlotte didn’t know how Mirabel had tried to help Tony, then protect him from Frances’ short fuse over what he deemed sheer irresponsibility. Her daughter had left at eighteen, went far away, and attended university a long time. Mirabel just hated it to be this way now. To tear the sturdy fabric of their family over a ridiculous mailbox, a minor victim.

This time. Next time it could be hell.

“You’re likely right, Charlotte. Your father will be home soon, we’ll face it somehow, deal with it. Thank you for warning me about the accident.”

Her mother put her arms around her. For a moment Charlotte felt entirely protected with care. But then Tony called upstairs, looking for food like a hungry child. They gave each other a long look and went down, toward dinner time, and more.

******

She walked along the darkening street, shadows melting into rainfall. She’d felt if she didn’t get outside she’d explode into a thousand pieces like confetti sprung from a bashed piñata, but no sweets, no goodies as reward. With a taste of rain on her tongue and wind playing with her hair and leaves crunching under her footfalls she felt more sane, more herself. Less alone.

For months she had watched their mother sigh and gaze out the window, yearning for more–it was worse than her teen years at home–and her brother get drunk, charm everyone and flounder, and their father run in circles with work, always work his medicine and his poison. The house held such subterfuge; she didn’t even want to know what it all was. It was Charlotte so often who was the center of the turning wheel and who people turned to, sought solace from when worse came to worse. It seemed an affliction of hers, this energy of helping that she emanated, but she knew she might be helpful. It had gotten very hard, and she sought freedoms of every sort at a university in Vermont– the far side of the country.

Charlotte had a piece of news, too. News she had kept to herself for three days. She was soon to have an in-person interview at a place she’d admired next Friday. In Honolulu. And she had a good feeling about it, even if it didn’t pay what her father could brag about. It was a nonprofit Institute for Humanitarian Studies and Advancements. She loved saying that over and over, relishing a sense of things to come. And no matter what came of it, she’d be elsewhere, in Hawaii a couple of days. Sunshine, sea air, sea life! Respite.

The moon barely made it appearance from beneath the floating clouds but the rain had stopped. She dug her hands into her rain jacket pockets and found an old ticket for a concert in Vermont. One that had inspired her to try again to write song lyrics, try out her tunes that she had sung to herself. She wasn’t a great talent; it wasn’t that. Though there was a man who she had loved who partnered with her then sang them on their university coffee house stage now and then. Charlotte so enjoyed creating lyrics. No one in her family got it since she rarely sang.

She arrived as rain began to pelt her: Paul’s house, where the debacle had occurred. The mailbox was put into position again, to her surprise; there didn’t appear to be irrevocable damage done. Or the guys had fixed it well. But the bluebirds were gone; she was sorry, but they might be replaceable. There might be little harm done. This time.

She headed back home. But all she could do was care about her family, try to be there when they needed her, yet she had to get on with her life. She had to leave the mouth of the lion and forge her own path.

Tony came bounding up to her out of swaths of dark rain.

“Char! I was looking for you., Dinner’s ready and Dad found out.” She linked her arm with his and they walked slowly, out of sync as ever, trying to better match each other. “He’s so angry with me, you should have seen his face, all deep red when he saw my Charger, then heard about Carter’s mailbox…it was pretty messy. Mom, too. I do feel terrible, Char! But Paul and I worked on the mailbox, as you just saw. I’ll pay for body work as I can, Dad insists. I have more DJing jobs coming up. But he informed me I have to start work at the nursery, too. Snagged at last by the Cabrelli business.”

Charlotte slid a glance at him. He had said all that with an equanimity, no anxiety or outrage. “And that’s fine with you, the last part?”

He lifted his shoulders high, paused, let them slump. “Guess so. I’ve avoided it forever but I’m not ready for more education so why not? Anyway, I have no other choice right now. I might learn something. I might like the it, who knows?” He stopped and turned to her. “What do you think?”

“I think you should take a hard look at your drinking problem before you make other plans or dream any dreams.”

He stepped away, began to walk faster.

“Because I don’t want to ever lose you to alcohol and maybe worse consequences, Tony. I love you– and this family–way too much. So–enough!” Her voice had wavered mid-shout but she got it said.

When she caught up to him, he let her put an arm through his again. In a moment he squeezed it to his side briefly. “Okay, I’ll give that a try. I promise,” he conceded. “Besides, the parents are gunning for me now, I have to stay sober, or at least try hard.”

They entered their family’s elegant home (if constantly in repair) with verdant lawns and a long history that kept on being made anew. They knew the chili would be excellent–they inhaled it like a fine fragrance– and the table would be set beautifully, as ever, no matter what they ate. Even if it was mixed with admonitions and escaping tears, a seasoning of strife, loyalty and care, the meal would be enjoyed and a funny anecdote might be told. Charlotte would finally share her own news. And her mother–she was apt to have something to divulge, as well. They were in this together, no matter what.