Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Nettle Creek and Love’s Rocky Terrain

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When Merle plummeted from the ladder while trying to work moss off the cedar shakes roof, I was sure he’d be a goner. He’d been doing that for near forty years but there comes a time when a man has to tell himself no. He isn’t great at that. And despite breaking his back, he’s not so good at quitting. He got surgery and recouped, and before I knew it, was back on his feet. I caught him eyeing the ladder and I locked it up. But he sits more, takes rests on our big bed. Usually there’s a sharp knife and a few pieces of wood nearby or he’s studying our weekly newspaper, acting like he can see the fine print. But the carving he can mange fine–he was born with the talent.

I can’t say he’s keeping things up so well, he uses a cane more often than not. I’m good sized and strong. As my father always told me, “strong as a mule”. (“Sly as a fox,” Mom said, as I solved problems pretty good.) That’s why he had to name me James, he thought I was to be a boy and when I was coordinated plus was strong I often was treated as such, dressed for the woods. Mom added a second name, Marie. Weirdly. I can take or leave dresses and other fancy things but like a pretty blouse and a full skirt for special occasions.

Merle says, “You never need paint on your face, you’re fresh as roses to me.” The first time he said that I about smacked him–I never had heard such a thing in my fifteen years and couldn’t figure it out–or him. But it sounded better over time. He could be generous with his admiration then. Now he says “Roses” if he’s trying to make me smile.

“Jimmie,” Merle asks me this morning as he often does, “is this a day we go or a day we stay?” He leans in toward me, two hands on his cane, the one with the eagle head for a handle.

He asks that–some days with a flip in his voice, sometimes all serious– mostly because I foretold the miracle of May Cousins. (The other reasons is because he’s just one who thinks on dying more as he ages. Not me. ) She was drowned a short time at eight but I was sure she’d come back, live and eventually be alright. Which she did, and still is, and teaches kindergarten in the next county. But I haven’t made a habit of such things, in fact, keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to be blamed when things go sideways. Don’t care for the limelight, either.

But I’ve been right about a few other things kept to myself. I have been right about Nelda sometimes. For sure about Merle getting injured (it may have just been the odds) but wrong about him dying and that’s good. I made plenty of stink about it long before he fell. Later I reminded him of it once, when he was lying there and I worried he’d never get up. No matter, he knew he had paid the price of pride. He even apologized, to my amazement, as they carted him off in the ambulance, siren blaring its alarm through woods and village. His friends lined up at the hospital until they knew he made it.

We got through it all–many months of it, surgery we couldn’t really afford, rehabilitation trials, misery—and we still get on alright. It takes some work. But he had quit drinking at 49, so most things had already automatically improved. Now we’re just settling more deeply, two ole dogs by the hearth. His ornery back, my creaky knees.

“I guess we’re stuck here in paradise, it’s another good day. You got half the beaver carving done for Ted– and another one started, right?’

“Don’t know what the second one is yet.”

“It’ll reveal itself, always does, the wood talks at you.”

He let go of the cane with one hand, pats my arm as I make breakfast, then clomps out to the round blue table put on the screened porch in summer. I have a little song humming in me and put another sausage in the gravy running richly over hot biscuits. He’ll eat well and feel better and get right to that unknown carving.

Long before he broke his back and soon after he quit drinking, things were far different. I stopped and gazed out the window above the counter, over Nettle Creek to the house beyond.

“You coming with the coffee?” he calls out, a touch of crankiness setting in. You’d think caffeine was more potent than Jim Beam the way he acts. But I know he has pain and needs those jolts of coffee pleasure, and thank the good Lord every day and night he grasps his steaming mug and not the bottle. And so does he. Or this would be another story.

******

While he naps, I finish chores and sit on the porch. I’ve been trying to stick with a book about Hawaii, a fat novel from a yard sale. It about makes me want to see that exotic place but I’ve not been anywhere for more than a few days. Just here in the mountainous, forested areas around Nettle Falls, our town, and Nettle Creek. I’ve known most of my neighbors–such as they are, scattered here and there–forever. I know this Northwest haven like my own face; it’s in my blood, three generations of it. Our son Tate, he moved, but he’ll be back one day.

Nelda, now, she’s the same as me in that way. Never wanted to pull up roots and find another place to roost. Never wanted to travel any farther than the coast to stick her toes in the salty sea, which we did many times, Merle and me, her and Gerry before he died. We stuck together, like small town folks do. I always have a sense of what she’s up to, even now. For one thing, I can mostly see her house kitty corner from ours, the whole thing when the leaves fall and only conifers stand tall and more sparse between us.

Her house is bigger than ours with a deck across the back facing the creek. (Always thought that a poor idea; mosquitoes–we do get fewer than imagined–can get you.) I could see her raising her three kids, note right off how they changed fashion and friends and how much beer they stole and drank, hear her and Gerry’s arguments and happiness when the breeze was right. We could walk over mossy rocks in the creek to visit each other in a minute. It was like having a sister, which I’d not been given, only we were best friends, too.

Then Nelda put up a half-wall right after she made the biggest mistake of her life. She paid a pretty penny for Hermann and Sons to erect it. I watched it being made and was baffled that she left it at shoulder height; I could still see over the top pretty well as we are on a rise in the ground; I could still see much. It was as if she wanted me to see her life go on as it did. To see how few people socialized with her, her kids less around.

I made a habit of keeping an eye out less after all was done. I doubt she wasn’t much looking our way, either. It felt wrong, for the first time. Why bother with someone who did what she did? Everyone felt like that if you listened to the gossip, for a good year. Then no one said much at all, but they were leery of her, some more than others. As for me–I eventually had sympathy and grief to contend with on all fronts, and all that near drove me over the edge more than just the terrible error. I refused to shun her, and told the others they’d better think twice before they carried on with it. I half-nodded at her when we passed each other, no eye contact. But that was all, so maybe it was close enough to shunning.

And yes, it was Merle’s grave error, also. Let’s face it, he had equal blame though many were quicker to release him of guilt, and who knows why? Because Nelda was a woman, though a widow woman just over eleven months? Because we were best friends and you don’t do that to friends? Maybe because Merle was newly sober just nine months? But not soon enough, as he’d already lost his good job at the post office over in Scappoose (got it back a year later; retired after his back stayed bad)–so he couldn’t be judged too harshly. That was it–finding his way with no whiskey or beer? Well, I said, yes, true, he was a blind man feeling his way though the dark alleys of his life–and he found his way right into Nelda’s tanned and glowing arms.

Was I really all that surprised?–a few of the women asked me boldly. Merle was good looking, strong-built and even though quiet he radiated a sort of warmth that drew in everyone and still does. Sure, girls admired him when we were still in school and beyond–and the boys had an eye on me. Looks are no good excuse, he was a family man, and I found it shallow of others to suggest there was a way out of his part.

We had cemented our bond at the start. And we two couples had enjoyed such good and bad times together; there was faith in our friendship, we were growing older together with ease. We had real trust. But when Ger had an aneurysm and that was that, it was a sea change. Not only missing him. We three felt like a wheel without enough spokes, and our friendships stopped rolling on quite right. Then it slowed, limped along. Sometimes we just sat by the creek, a stunned trio, then faded into a “goodnight.”

For all the unbalance, I was with Nelda, of course I was– right till the moment I found out. And it did not take a detective. I saw them. There they were on her deck, having pie and coffee when I was recovering from a bad summer cold. That was okay with me. But it was the way they were sitting side by side, their heads put together, shoulders touching, his hand moving to the small of her back. Then their lips locked. But quick-like and they peered across the creek, its rushing waters frothy and golden with early evening light. They had dearly hoped I was still in bed, sleeping, too hot and achy and snuffly to move. But I was standing at our bedroom window, paused for what reason?–to see if Merle was outdoors. Still having coffee and then checking her new umbrella clothesline’s wobble. I had been on my way to the kitchen for water, felt a need to look out. If truth be told, had a feeling. That feeling that tingles in my stomach, strikes me as something.

At first it seemed like a fever dream. I blinked, looked hard again. Merle and Nelda got up, took plates and cups inside, and shut the door against the languid heat. Or to keep it in. They didn’t come out until darkness fell and I gave up hoping for different, leaned back. Was exhausted by tears and drifting into sleep before I heard his footsteps in the dark, then porch steps. By the time he got to our room, I was plunging into an abyss of heartache. He slithered out to the couch.

Sleep pulled at me. My falling thought: Damned traitors, bet those sheets smelled bright as sunshine, mine all twisted around body and heart, hurts deep…

It took time, as all things do, with Merle. I am stubborn even if enraged. Do you throw out an entire lifetime together when one of you fails to stick to the rules? How much weight does sexual commitment–with its duty and occasional boredom–carry in the long run? Is it everything, is it the soul of a marriage–or actually a smaller part than you believed at the start? What mattered here? What do you deep in your gut want, I asked him over and over? It wasn’t the surrender to desire, that basic act. It was what we all fear and loathe: trust shaken, torn, hard things to mend. We made choices together once we got through the thorns.

The reason I stayed is that we took our time healing, made no sudden moves. He remained here despite regret, his shame. It’s love, that’s all. The kind of love that had long ago put its stamp on our hearts and carried us through near every sort of weather. And Nelda—she was heart shocked about Ger. She gave in to greater needs. Maybe he did, too, though I didn’t and won’t ever ask that. I didn’t need all the sorry facts, just solutions. besides, I about reacted to his failure by doing the same. Then stepped back right in time. No one knew–but I did.

No, it was Nelda who I lost the hardest, the worst, the biggest, and who with a desperate kiss lost me. Even though I pitied her, I could not entirely, sincerely forgive someone I had so long called Sis. Not even after praying for her all those years. Twelve of them.

******

So I watch her deck and house because she has not come out in eleven days. Well, she came out because once I heard her car leave and return. But no sitting outdoors. No hanging out laundry–she still liked to hang her sheets and towels, yes, that sun and wind. I know it is eleven days because I count as I used to in the old times and worried about her. Because Nelda gets depressed. Not just like after she and Merle had the fling and Ger had passed on which was quite bad but her daughters helped her then, and even her stuffy pastor, I heard, gave her some good advice so she got counseling. Got back to more living, got a job in the office at Dean’s Hardware.

No, this is something I don’t anticipate, though I feel concern as the days added up. I sit an hour and with each second sense her more. It builds up until it hurts my chest and rings in my brain: help.

“Merle,” I said, sticking my head inside when I hear him rustling around for a snack. “I’m going over the creek.”

He thumps his way to the door as I run down the steps.

“What did you say?”

I give a short wave backwards and keep on, my tennis shoes seeking hold on the flat and rounded rocks, trying to avoid mossy slipperiness, finally sliding into cold water running about my shins, the bank seeming far off. But when I make it I run to the back of her house, around the fence, to the gate, and find it locked. I rush to the front door, throat constricted even as I call out her name.

“Nelda! Where are you!”

The front door is unlocked, not too unusual, and so I enter for the first time in over a decade to find heaps of magazines sliding to the floor and piles of clothing on the couch and a few used paper plates with plastic forks on the coffee table. The television is on, sound muted.

I rush to the large airy kitchen but she’s not there–then the bedrooms, one by one. Not there. Where?


“Nelda, it’s Jimmie! Where are you?” My voice cracks; I gulp air.

I open one bathroom door, it’s acrid, stuffy, empty. Then another one.

And there she is sitting on the toilet lid in faded knit shorts and a baggy, stained pink tank top. Her longish, once-blonde-going-white hair falls over her hands, which barely hold her head, her head which dips to her knees as I enter. On the floor is an open prescription bottle, pills spilled and rolling all over the black and white tiled floor.

“Nelda, what have you done to yourself?” I cry out and fall to my knees.

I take her head into my hands, pull her to my shoulder so that she crumples, slides down to the floor and falls hard onto me, her once-full body light like sticks in my sturdy arms. I look at her and see a once-velvety forest woman now a sad one with her insides turned out, her fineness ripped and frayed.

“I’m going to give up,” she whispers, “why are you here…go home…”

“Did you take too many? Tell me!” I reach for the bottle and see that its an antianxiety medicine. “How many?”

“Four, five or dunno, not counting…”

I hold her head up so I can look at her. Red-rimmed, half-open eyes in shadowy sockets; sunken cheeks; pale lips gone slack; unwashed hair that sticks to her face, neck. She needs a shower. A meal and coffee. A new life.

She first needs a doctor.

I pick up the bottle, then lift her and nearly fall over as my knees complain. I carry her to her bed. Then I pull out my phone, call the number on the bottle. Can the pharmacist tell me what to do? Yes, go to urgent care or if she breathing is shallow and is less responsive, her eyes closing, call 911.

“Jimmie? Jimmie…you real…” Her words are slurring. She rolls over, nearly falls off the bed. I grab her and sit by her on the edge of the mattress which, I realize, has no sheets.

“I’m here, we’re going to get help.”

I call Merle and tell him to to get to the car, drive over fast.

“Nelda, I’m right here. We’ll get you better.”

“You’re…” she says as tears stream from the corners of her eyes. Which begin to close.

“Nelda, come on, wake up!” I shake her but her eyes remain half shut, her mouth opens, her silver fillings dully gleam.

I call 911 and carry her out the front door and Merle sprays gravel as he halts in the driveway. I sink to the ground with her limp body clutched to my chest. He shoots out the car door, limping to my side, hand over his mouth.

******

Two months. That’s how long it’s been since Nelda had her stomach pumped. Then monitored, then in inpatient treatment for severe clinical depression with suicidality and generalized anxiety. That’s what they called it, as if she has a fancy predisposition to some alien thing when it was in fact a close decision to end it all. I can’t abide the psychobabble but glad they helped her. She was released after three and a half weeks, and seems much better.

Was, that’s the word we can use now. Was going to die, not now going to die. She is back in therapy, on different medication and on her feet–what a way to put it but quite true. She’s even thinking of taking a dance class at Jody’s Studio in Scappoose; she loved ballroom dancing when Ger was alive, so why not? I’ll likely cheer her on.

I don’t understand it, not all of it. Neither does she, she says, just that she can get so low and then goes to the pits and needs help but waited too long. I can’t abide thinking that I about lost her once and for all. Nelda insists this is quite true, I was there in spirit all along and that helped her hang on. Really? I shake my head. Maybe, though my sense of things was too slow to alert me quite soon enough. Wasn’t there in person until near late and how do I get over that? By living and being better, I guess.

I’m right sometimes with my feeling about people, wrong other times, and that’s just how it goes. I have no special power, that’s for sure. Just love, I guess.

It was a wimpier, half-lonely time without our friendship. Like I’d been so hungry but got used to it though I was craving more. Maybe we can both finally fill up more, a little at a time. It’s not about forgiveness, it’s time passing and time found, and life knocking off more of my edges. I’m freer inside my mind and spirit.

Still, I’ve felt the burden of my neglect since I found her in the depths. It sliced a gash inside me. My not being there all those years–knowing what I know about Nelda– is the real crime here. I want the bleeding to stop, the wound scab over–as she wants hers to close. Her old humiliation, that lingering shame. The only way beyond it is getting up. going on, and learning each other again. We’ve begun to share tales and news in person over coffee a couple days here, a couple maybe there. Merle gives a brief, hearty greeting then disappears. One of these week-ends I hope and pray–I pray for everything, that’s the way I do this– we’ll grill a fine dinner in summer’s green beauty, all together. It won’t be like old times. There is no going back. We’ve been ignorant. Suffered the hurt. Left each other, found each other. We’re getting whiter, gimpier. Maybe wiser. What a saga we have woven. But in the end there’s just what lies before us this day. And we want more peace.

We keep an eye on each other from across Nettle Creek, our creek, where I never got much of a nettle sting yet and love to hear the water running, cascading no matter what goes on. It feels about as good as it can. But I’ll aim for better, I tell myself when I feel whipped by the upkeep of our acreage and house and Merle gets cranky. Then I up and call Nelda Sis, it slips out, isn’t that seeing the bright side? I’m still just Jimmie, best friend, or as she says Jimmie Marie which gets on my nerves– except when she says it anyhow.

Wednesday’s Words/ Short Story: An Inheritance at Play

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“I’m sorry, your name again?”

He was cupping his ear like an old person but he couldn’t be more than mid-forties. He–Neal, he’d said–sported a crewcut with a smidge of silver, a cherry red running jacket with sleeves pushed up to elbows, navy short-shorts with two whites stripes on either side, white tennies and two good legs. He was shielding his eyes from the sun that lent its heat to every unshaded surface in the courtyard garden. She wondered if he was stuck in the eighties but when she imagined him in a straw fedora, grey linen shirt and pants, in leather sandals, she instantly liked him better.

“Sparky, like spark plug, a spark of fire, first syllable of sparkler, whatever helps you fix it firmly in mind,” she answered briskly and returned to parsing her book but could make no sense of it, a corny romance she’d found in a free box by the elevator. No wonder it was tossed. She closed it with a smack of her hand.

He jogged a bit in place. “Like the Dalmatian firehouse dog of a kids’ story I read a few decades ago?”

“If you like.”

“We’re both newer, I guess,”‘ he continued, and ran around her chair. “I work from home so will likely run into you again. Nice to meet you.”

Sparky glanced up and gave one short wave. “Likewise.”

“Ok, number 32 if you need anything,” he tossed over shoulder as he bounded away.

Oh dear, she was 38, so he would run into her and vice versa. She’d hope to avoid people a bit longer. And would appreciate no more intrusions on her sunny spot for the afternoon’s remainder. But fat chance. This was the third resident who felt compelled to speak to her. Mira? Kendra? Talley? Or Mariah and Candy? Talley for sure, who was a graduate student but it seemed a made up name, as if he wanted to be in movies. No matter, they at least hadn’t engaged her much–the two women, barely that– and she had only bobbed her head so on they went.

It was disconcerting to sit in public and be vaguely acknowledged by passersby as one would a perhaps an odd new plant. She’d likely be startled, too. It was so different from her home where you had to unlock the gate to even get onto the winding driveway. Sparky had to pinch herself each morning to determine she wasn’t trapped in a nightmare. If not for the faint bruising that had begun to appear on her left upper forearm, she might still believe that was so. Every morning, a rude awakening, indeed. The pinching had to end, she was no masochist despite the situation.

So here she was. At Mistral Manor Apartments. She turned to scan the building, situated in a horseshoe shape about the dappled central courtyard. There was a sort of gate, alright–a worn black iron, double gate with pronounced points atop it. It opened out to a circular drive–with fountain, no less, which was just turned on in the warm weather– that split off and led to parking behind. One could get to the apartments as well as the courtyard through this gate, but also via a big main entry at each end of the brick horseshoe.

The courtyard she found quite pleasant, at least, with round tables and chairs–metal and once a pale blue, in need of a re-do–scattered throughout the shady area. There were two Japanese maples and a lovely Pacific madrone tree, a few white oaks. And flowers–well, begonias, petunias and pansies, that sort of thing. Oh, it pained her to not be in her own garden where her peonies and hydrangeas and tiger lilies would be blooming, soon the rose bushes–yes, just looking out over the long, rolling lawn right that moment.

“You need to give it up, you simply cannot stay here forever, the taxes alone will do you in within two years,” Melody, her one and only child, had insisted to Sparky for the last time. “Your fine home is now one of well over a dozen, and those are so shiny and contemporary this one looks like a forlorn plain Jane in comparison.”

“I could have hung on that long and, anyway, who made you my financial advisor? I already have one.”

“Mom, please, all three of us have gone over this already. Conservative use of funds, right? And it’s been my home, too….and when Daddy… well, it has remained ours, been only ours and for at least ten years longer than even imagined.”

“When your father left us, you mean, twenty-four years ago, it became just ours. Well, now mine. When you imagined things might get worse, you mean. I never gave it a thought, I was making good money on top of the settlement and then my set design career took off like gangbusters. Boy, was he shocked. But I expected to be in my home until they dragged me out heels first.”

Melody slumped into the chaise lounge beside her, looking down the hill to the pond. Several large orange koi fish flashed in golden light as they swam about. What would become of the koi?

Sparky wondered, too– what of the sweeping garden? What about the little bonsai planted in a tall, heavy pot by the front door? The set of wooden chimes that made the most sonorous sounds all day and night? Should they stay? But how would she sleep without those rich yet light tones ringing in the night? It was all too much to contemplate.

Melody stirred and looked at her mother. Such a face. Those arching eyebrows, that short wavy silver hair with an impulsive burgundy streak on a small wave; snaky lines tracing her eyes and mouth, the pursed lips line atop her upper lip especially pronounced. But she looked well and strong at sixty eight, was feisty and smart and dramatic as ever. It did hurt her to push this at her mother.

“Anyway, it’s the money and your ailing leg, that’s that, so please just move into Mistral Manor since it is only a half hour from me. And do think over the house. If you want to sell after you lease it for a year…or hang onto it awhile or…”

“Huh, that’s that.” Sparky ended the words with a grunt. “Your father’s daughter, simplify everything to its meanest details. Oh, my apology, to its very bottom line. If I hadn’t broken my leg skiing last January at Tahoe, you’d not be so adamant. I’d be working full time, for one thing. Swimming daily at the club. Dancing a samba–who knows?”

“Oh, stop, Mother, you know what I mean, it’s time to move on…you work part-time, on contract now. And five bedrooms, four baths, three levels, two acres of land. Who lives like this at your…time of life? It was country living at its best, a short commute to the city. But now, it feels like a threat to a kinder future– for us both.”

And that got to Sparky. A threat to a kinder future was not something she wanted to face, nor did her daughter.

So she concurred with reasonable deductions and let Melody’s co-worker and his wife rent it for a year. She moved to half-charming, dusty Mistral Manor, also no doubt once fine country living for the rat-race-weary, but now part of a sprawling suburban neighborhood that had never seen a grand past, honestly. It was good, though, to save money, just in case. In case something else waylaid her future.

But it was not even close to being a joy, not the merest joy, to be there. Even Melody admitted it was not going to feel very tolerable, at least at first. But she would do her best to hang in there and appease Melody. At least she hadn’t suggested a live in nurse or sent her packing to the rest home while her leg healed more. And her new tenant’s substantial rent payments were good, this they agreed on. He and his wife would be buying a house of their own after the year was up. And Sparky’s house? Who knew what would happen then?

******

She still walked with an ungainly hobble when she felt tired out, and with two grocery bags she was bound to tilt off balance just a bit.

“Let me assist you,” Neal said, rushing up to her. In his arms he held a grey cat with a very long ringed tail, it might have been a racoon if she hadn’t double-checked. It jumped down as soon as he loosened his hold and waited at her door.

She allowed him to take her apartment key which hung around her neck, and he unlocked the door and took the bags in. She suspected it was only to snoop about her place, and she was right. The cat had similar intentions.

“Such vibrant colors though they’re earthy, too,” he noted. “I like it, rich textures and a great use of the spaces.”

“Are you an interior designer?” She was unloading the food but keeping an eye on him as he cased dining and living rooms.

“No, but my father is and my mother’s a textiles artist. I got a few of their genes, and they expected a similar career trajectory of me but no, I’m a video game designer.”

“Oh? Now, hmm, do I use this avocado tonight? It has one soft side…”

Neal leaned on the counter dividing dining from kitchen. “Use it, I leave mine longer, then regret it. So how about you, are you a designer?”

She had knelt down to the vegetable bin, and with tomatoes and French onions in her hands she looked up at his open face, narrowed her eyes against light creeping in from the many windows. “In a manner of speaking.”

“Aha, I knew it. I can tell from a mile away. Commercial or residential.”

“Stage. Set design.”

She grabbed hold of the counter to pull herself up. Neal restrained himself form helping.

“Oh, different. For live theater?”

“Well, yes, people moving about a stage, throwing out lines, strutting their stuff in fabulous costumes and so on. A lot of Shakespeare for some years. I do television sets and other things, as well. Or have…” She slowly righted her body. “Now that you have the basics, may I finish my grocery organization in peace?” She smiled with teeth showing, tried to sound nice but enough questions.

“Aren’t; you going to ask me what sort of games I create?”

“I’d just as soon not, but I get the gist of it. You design and I design, so there you go, creative, aren’t we?” she said. “Leave my key on the counter on your way out.”

“Well, not that you’d likely know much about video games, anyway. Nice chatting, just wanted to help and welcome you. You know where I live. Later.” He said this with no malice, but some resignation, as if this was the norm for him.

The door shut firmly on his way out. Sparky left the vegetables out and went to her front door and opened it; the cat snipped out between her ankles. She caught a glimpse of him as he trotted down the hallway. “Neal, thank you for helping me out. I appreciate it!”

He stopped, turned, made a little half-bow, one arm crooked in front, the other at his back. “My pleasure, Sparky. And that was Esmerelda, by the way!”

Nothing like having the perkiest person in the building a few doors down, she thought, and she laughed. It was lucky for her he was trying to befriend her. She could use one or two friends. But did he create those gruesome warrior games? Hard to imagine it. Likely to him she was just a quirky old granny. She’d have to disabuse all of that stereotype with much better conversations.

******

Mariah and Talley were sitting in the corner, heads bent to one another. Sparky had been thinking of her koi and made a note to stop by and check that Jacob, her tenant, was taking care of things. She had considered getting an aquarium; she wasn’t sure she was allowed such things. Then that thought stirred up aggravation. That she even had to ask whether or not she might have a few fish living with her! It was absurd. All her adult life she’d made her own choices, lived as she chose–with the exception of Marty, who had also made his own choices many of which crowded hers, until he and that woman…well, it had come to this.

One year to go, then she’d move back. Or sell and buy another house. Or go wild, buy an RV, who knew?

She put down her task list and leaned in to try to catch what the two across the courtyard were saying.

“It isn’t right, she certainly ought to have left you more than that,” Mariah said, alto voice rumbling its way to Sparky.

“I know, that’s the thing, after all the years summering with her on the island, helping her out, keeping an eye on things when she got sick…” Talley was gulping his words a bit, voice muffled, sadness or dismay. “I so wanted that cottage.”

“But, Talley, your cousin has first rights– he’s her son, after all.”

“Who languished in Cayman Islands all these years, not a care in the world. When did her visit her? Now and then at Christmas. What does he want with an Oregon seaside cottage?”

“He’s coming here next week, right? I mean, the meeting with the lawyer and all.”

Talley nodded, then let his head drop on crossed arms atop the table. Mariah patted his back, glanced at Sparky and frowned.

“Sorry, words carry out here…” Sparky called out and went back to her list, added more items she had to do and buy. Or wanted to buy. A new place, different stuff was required. A lifestyle change deserved a good backdrop.

Two metal chairs were pushed back, scraping the flagstone floor; footsteps crept up to her table then stopped. Sparky did not look up. She was chewing on the end of her pencil, thinking what was the one thing she’d had to remember to get–that she then forgot.

“Are we too loud for your work?” Mariah asked.

Talley studied her. “Is it Sari?”

She looked at them one at a time. Two earnest types. “Of course not. And no, it’s Sparky. Oh, for goodness sake, don’t look like that, you’d think it was the strangest name in the world. I assure you it is not.”

The young adults shot each other a look.

“Hey, it’s a nickname, to clear things up. I’m a set designer, and I was first briefly a costume designer for theater, then television. I had a thing for sparkly accents and attire and a crazy sparkly kind of personality so they said–of course, I wasn’t jaded yet– and then others found me capable of sparking a wildfire of tempers over the smallest set details. One thing led to another; the name stuck. Sparky. “

They looked at her, nodding, then opened their mouths.

“But I have a real name if you that sticks better–Serena. Though I doubt I’d answer to that.”

“Oh, pretty,” Mariah said, smiling.

“It doesn’t suit me as well, so…”

“Alrighty, then, just saying hi, wondering how things were going,” Talley said. “And I’m an actor–part time amateur, but still, something in common, right? We should talk more later. I know a director who needs help…” His eyes skidded over her list. “Not to further interrupt you, but I was going to ask if you’d ever do that to a devoted nephew– leave them out of your will.”

Sparky blinked twice. “Will? Oh, your relative with the seaside cottage.”

Mariah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that one.”

“Who knows? Not given it a thought. I have a niece in India working with the poor, so likely not, she actually took a vow of poverty… but maybe I’d leave her money for her causes. My daughter Melody? She does very well in advertising. Unless I still have the house when I kick off, then we will see…”

“But I loved that house, it kills me…”

She was afraid he’d start to bawl right there. “I’d likely do what was sensible. It seems your cousin has money. Maybe he can care for it best even from a distance. My daughter, Melody, adores my house and she made me move. I’d have remained there another couple years, but she keeps a hawk eye on me as if my business is her business. Prods me to make decisions not needed. Though it may be time to be more cautious financially.” She swung her body around to face them, gesturing with her hands, pencil flying off. “What do you think, would you insist your own mother do something she didn’t want to consider doing yet? Or do you think it is all part of a dastardly scheme to get me out so she can slowly take possession? Sell it, maybe, and send me off to the old folks farm?”

Mariah wiped the sweat trickling down her forehead with the back of a hand. “No way would I do that, my mother wouldn’t have it. But she likely just wants you to be….okay, right? I mean, mothers are important, they deserve respect.”

“Well said, I like your answer, Mariah.”

Talley leaned closer to Sparky so she could smell his cologne. It was cheap but had cedar in it. “I’d say you need to keep an eye on your house. Families can be be surprisingly disappointing!”

Sparky stood. “I think you both have good points. As for the cottage, Talley–maybe have a chat with your cousin, see if he’ll share it with you. Certainly that would be equitable and he has a Cayman Islands abode, after all. Maybe he’d get tired of it, too.”

They walked to the gate, let themselves out and said their goodbyes.

“Sorry for eavesdropping.”

“Sorry for assuming the worst,” Talley said. “Can we talk about set design some day? Fascinating.” His almost-handsome, mobile face was a sweep of pleasure following his earlier consternation. Born actor.

“Come by number 38 sometime and I’ll give you my card to give your director. I consult for a fee–but you and I can chat again, of course. Theater people have to stick together, eh? I just can’t get you paying jobs based on a chat, you know.”

“Right, catch you later.”

He actually bounced a little. Talley likely believed she’d get him auditions. Maybe she could; maybe she could not. But Sparky couldn’t think what to say to Mariah, a genuine girl and his sidekick. She waved and gave her a toothy smile. A real one.

What a funny, congenial sort of place it was turning out to be.

******

Melody came by with almond and chocolate croissants and steaming coffee one Saturday morning. They sat on Sparky’s balcony. It was too early to get fully dressed and go out in public, even to the courtyard. Besides which, she could hear children clamoring and yelling out there. It might be a day inside with a book or a script. Sparky had awakened in a mood.

“It’s hot already, then it rains and it’s chilly, then sunshine blasts for two weeks and all my little potted plants are about give up, green tongues hanging out as they fall over. I wish I lived where there was an automatic sprinkler system and everything stayed green and brightly blooming…like at my own house. A place where I had air conditioning that hummed, not shouted.”

“And good morning, Mother, how is it going?”

“I have made three friends and am about to get two closer to my age. Alan and Greta, number 44. They have a schnauzer–which is a breed I can’t abide if you recall–but they seem interesting, have travelled a great deal. They like to cook and I like to eat, not a small thing.”

She smoothed her wrinkly hibiscus-covered green palazzo pants and thought that she needed a new iron. Melody looked impeccable–it was a strange need in her– in grey jeans and a white shirt with the collar turned up. Her shining hair–blonde, cut straight at the shoulder–needed streaks of darker color or a slight mussing or just a sparkly barrette. A little drama to offset the conventionality. But of course, not happening. She was the daughter every parent wanted. Sparky had been the mom her friends wanted. But mother and daughter were not that close until the last ten years.

Melody stretched out her lithe legs and let out a sigh of relief. She hadn’t spoken to her mother for over ten days. They’d had words about the koi pond, which took attention the tenant was not too interested in giving. Sparky had taken to stopping by at any old time every other day to check on her fish. And examine the grounds, look inside the windows. It had to stop and it finally did the prior Wednesday.

“So did you get my landscape guy, Paul, to come by twice week to take care of things?”

“I did, and all is well. And I got a good price for you.”

“Alright, topic closed for now. How is work?”

Melody waved that aside. Dismissed, next. “Same as usual. I’m interested in you and what you think of Mistral Manor.”

“Okay, how is Leonard and how is the IVF going?”

Melody shook her head and looked out at the grove of trees. “Len is well, as ever, and his golf game still stinks but so what? The IVF goes as it goes, it just inches along. I’ll inform you of positive changes, Mom, don’t worry… Seriously, are you still angry I insisted you move here, after a month?”

Sparky knew she had to choose her words carefully. Which of many things was she still a bit angry about? What was least and what was most an issue? Was she mad that she didn’t have as much work as five years ago? Was she irritated that she needed to work, or maybe that she chose to work because what else was there actually to do at this in-between age? Not too old but so young. Not even close to done with life but great experiences not especially knocking at your doorstep. Was she lonelier here than back home, where the neighbors were a five minute walk away? Or less so where you were surrounded by others?

She didn’t quite fit anywhere, that had always been the problem. The thought of a senior community frightened her to death, being squeezed in with oldsters who could care less what she did for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” twenty years ago. And perhaps the same lack of true regard for them.

But here there was Neal the gamer guy and his sanguine cat, Esmerelda, who pranced around the place when visiting, tail high in the air as if she claimed the entire territory and welcome to her remarkable world. That cat always looked as if she was smiling, green eyes gleaming–leading lady, she was. Talley with his chronic whining–and flair for mimicry. Mariah and her desire to please and her graceful, strong body meant for dance–she was in a ballet company. The place seemed to be teeming with artistic types and brainiacs, though maybe Sparky was just lucky to have met the few who were, and quite friendly. Some hairbrained, avoidant author was also likely writing convoluted plot-driven novels in a top floor corner apartment, a pallid cast to her skin from such little sunlight.

Surely there were junior accountants and car salesmen, ambitious computer technicians and hair salon stylists–somewhere. Or was it just the artsy ones who failed to make enough money to move on? Well, Sparky had money. She just wasn’t going to broadcast that, nor use it casually these days–or she might use it up. She was here of her own accord and temporarily, after all. But what of this would Melody understand and in the right way?

“It’s a decent place, I’ll grant you that. The residents are so far, so good. I can use up our hour telling you about my new almost-friends, or we can enjoy relaxing and the view while we eat.”

“Whatever you like, Mom,” she said, biting off a huge chunk of croissant, coaxing it down with sips of hot coffee. “:I just need to know you won’t hold this against me forever.” She took another whopper bite.

The girl was always hungry, that was the problem, she didn’t allow herself indulgences. When had that started? Less restraint, more spontaneity, she’d taught her but it hadn’t stuck.

“Oh, if that’s what you’re worrying about…stop! No one makes me do anything, I have my faculties, thank God, but my beloved house has felt too big for a few years. My leg, meanwhile, is still full of pings and zings even when I’m not on it; I need to get another look at it. Maybe the nuts and bolts are coming undone. I’ll be bent over with a cane before you know it.” She laughed robustly, which told Melody she was talking nonsense, having fun with her. Although, really, it hurt too often still.

Of course it wasn’t all terrible there, and why not make Melody feel better about things? Poor mother in need of simpler lifestyle so just had to make cost saving interventions. It was all done, and the next move would be Sparky’s, anyway, not Melody’s. She had been thinking about the will business ever since Talley had brought it up.

“It isn’t that cheap here, as you know, being on the historical register. I love all the original woodwork, high ceilings, tall windows. The elevator is a boon for you, I like that though it creaks all the way up. I can see why someone would choose to happily here, it has real charm, doesn’t it? And I’m relieved you like it alright–for the time being, while you think about what you want to do next.”

“You have to see the courtyard again, it is the best spot here. But I don’t want to do anything next. I want to stay here for the duration then return home. Listen, if I sell, I sell, and that money affords me a very comfortable lifestyle the rest of my days. I just want to put it off, see what my investments do.”

“Right…but I thought we might one day move into it…Len and me and…”

“I’d take that profit–it’ll be handsome– and travel around a couple of years. I might get my own set and costume design consulting business in a small, sweet office downtown. I might buy land by a river and build a cabin on it for week-ends, for my much quieter old age. But I am going to sell it– one day. It was my home for thirty-nine years. And your father’s for quite awhile. And at some point it will be someone else’s. You and Leonard have the money to build the house of your dreams, too, Melody, and I hope it also holds a child or two.”

“I see, I suppose you are right…”

Sparky saw her daughter let the mask fall, saw a person who felt hurt, too, by changes. Tall, boney and vulnerable while hiding in her fancy summery pants and matching sleeveless top; restless hands twining long fingers that once played upon oboe keys, pearly nails glistening like opals. Her oval face was gaunt, all cheekbone and pale mouth, slightly tilted hazel eyes that reminded Sparky every time of her ex, her Marty’s. But that mouth was set so as not to let disappointment show. Her nearly pointed chin raised ever so slightly so her precision cut hair swung away from a tight jaw. Driven, overworked and anxious, even–and full of deeper sentiment, feelings gone subterranean. Like her own feelings beneath sharp words, an impudent toss of head. She understood self-protection and ambition, both.

But who was this daughter she had born and raised? A woman now of means, a once-young woman who set her own course and sailed away as soon as she hit eighteen, and who now feared her mother might be moving along a sharp timeline to a faltering stretch and then the dreadful arc of slow decline, and if that happened who would she have? What and who would be left for the children Melody hadn’t even managed to conceive yet? Her father had disappeared into Canada with his Vancouver-born mistress who became his wife…so long ago.

Sparky saw this not, perhaps, for the first time but wondered why she hadn’t accepted it as real before.

For Melody, there was also house love and a house burden as it was another thing that could be lost. Their only lifetime home, after all. The land, the modern structure with such varied rooms, two fireplaces and a third if counting the outdoor one, and the koi pond, the many places she’d played with her toys and read all those wonderful books and painted pictures alongside her mother, standing with big and little easels on the patio…

“But if you really, really want it, of course we can talk more, honey, I didn’t think it was as important as that…”

Melody put her face in her hands and wept.

Sparky scooted close to her daughter’s chair and put her arms around her. They both had a small cry. Sometimes it was the only way to say what needed to be said.

It looked like there was more to think over. One never knew what was next, anyway, a year from now she might be nursing some other injured limb though she had learned her lesson about blithely trying new sports. But Melody, that was another story. She was, in fact, close at hand. And would be staying there, she surmised, her heart swelling with gratitude a little more.

Still, a cabin on a river!….such a tantalizing scenario, if not quite for her.

******

When they all managed to make time and gather, her Mistral Manor guests bore gifts of favorite dishes. It was an informal affair but Sparky had cleaned top to bottom and put on the best of her music collection of swing, they’d have to suffer it awhile. The tablecloth had been ironed, it took forever even with the new iron, but it was white with elegant vines with a smooth sheen beneath white china she had unpacked to wash, only six of twelve place settings. Just enough. The peonies were earthy of fragrance, a deep pink at table’s center. There were Alan and Greta, Talley and Mariah, Neal and herself. She had made place cards for each and why not? Treat a potluck dinner like a happening and good things came to be, people had fun. All life was an interconnected series of acts, and full-bodied, deep-hearted actors coming forward with wants and needs awakening– just as the Bard said–and Sparky was happy to be be quite able to set the appropriate scene.



Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: A Reluctant Partnership, Pt. 3

The summer dug in its heels and often seethed with heat, so that languishing on the patio was only good in morning or evening. Not that Jeanette languished much, what with her calligraphy projects, currently five in various stages. She was content to work at least 4 hours a day. The nature of it enabled deep meditative moments within the larger design and details, the beauty of it appearing beneath her pen as it slow-danced across paper.

But Lenny craved the outdoors and socializing, so he took off for hours some days, gone to who knew where. Sometimes he alerted her to plans if they were going to make and eat dinner together. Other times he slipped away, came back quietly is her head was bent over her desk. He was not such an intrusive roommate, al thing considered, she grudgingly admitted.

But if he was there he dove right into conversation, as always.

“I was thinking, I painted the bench a sage green, so why not yellow for the patio table and chairs re-do?”

She had been listening to a book at the time but she noted his mouth moving, so took out the ear buds. She gave Malloy a pat on his big furred brow, noting his tongue dripping saliva onto the floor. She had to ignore some things. He licked her chin, which made her shudder.

“Lenny, yellow screams at you, don’t you think? A blue house, a green bench–now add yellow? Make them sage green, too.”

“You have to admit yellow is cheerful. Maybe I should’ve pushed for a yellow bench, then…” He took off his Oregon Ducks cap and ran a hand over his sweaty face. “But whatever you say, Lady Boss.”

“Oh, stop it. I appreciate it, but too much alteration is…. too much. I can get you a big canvass for you to paint if you love color so much.” Her eyebrows rose involuntarily at the thought of him making any serious art.

Stroking his chin, he nodded. “I might try that. My grandfather was a painter. Well, he painted signs and such–still, he was good at it. I liked to watch him, hand him brushes. He managed a farm supply store but made signage on the side. he wanted to teach me but I had little patience for it, I was just his admirer, his steady hand and careful ways, but my dad would have nothing to do with that business. I sort of regret not learning from him, now.”

She didn’t answer, as it would keep him talking on and on about his grandfather, nice man that he likely was. It was too hot. She moved to the slider door. It was warm even with air conditioning–though she liked to keep it less cold than more. Lenny thought that odd when the whole purpose was to chill out in A/C. She opened the slider, gazing at the bench and then the table, and went out. He rummaged in the refrigerator, found his leftover ham and cheese sandwich, then joined her.

“Sage green, that’s final– for now. Do you really want to paint?”

“Okay,” he said and took a large bite. “I never tried it except for little projects. I like creating things, you see. I’m not just a factory worker.” He focused on eating, slipping a bite or two to Malloy under the table.

She emitted a little huff. “Of course not, I never intimated such a thing… Anyway, I’ve decided to go on a walk with you as suggested. The woods are cooler now. I do miss those trails some days. Might as well get back to them.”

Lenny was swallowing but the food stuck for a second. He’d asked her countless times to walk with him–he liked to share nature with others, why not Jeannette? She was so used to being alone; it had made her sort of crusty. He thought he had gotten fusty but since the pandemic-caused layoff, he realized he truly enjoyed more people, places and activities than he had had time for before.

“Well, one more thing settled, Malloy. Tomorrow morning, three of us go walking.”

******

Jeanette entered a kind of dream state as they moved deeper into trees. The greenness covered her, seemed to enter her pores by osmosis. It was disorienting. But each step brought her closer to an easier surrender. It was the heat, she told herself, many strong scents permeating the air, or her allergies leaping to life. But in fact, she was becoming more enchanted by earth and sky, plant and animal life. Lenny knew much about these things so he talked, explaining, for example, differences between Queen Anne’s lace and its poisonous look alike, water hemlock. His voice almost blended with the surroundings–full of nuance, light and shadow, a rumble of earth’s underlying energy brought to the surface. It was soothing to her ears, unlike at the house when he talked voluminously, sometimes without particular direction.

They dawdled by a tinkly creek, its musical flow steady and sweet. He stood with hands clasped behind his back, and beamed all around as if he had found a secret garden and was introducing it to her. They saw fat skittish rabbits scurry off, a garter snake rippling between grasses; heard vesper sparrows, juncoes, tanagers, woodpeckers and she thought she heard a Cooper’s hawk call out. Lenny agreed. It thrilled her that she remembered. But other than his identification of things–she let him go on, despite the fact that she’d lived behind these woods for twenty years–they were quiet, their footsteps light.

Why hadn’t she availed herself of all this more the last few years? Because teaching had worn her out. Week-ends required more labor without her ex-husband to help, and when she retired, she wanted to do what she loved and rest and not be bothered by compulsory conversations or additional agenda. Still, here she was. They were. And it was a sort of revelation–despite passing others on the trails, or hearing cars in the distance, or sweat streaming down the back of her light cotton shirt, it was good. She needed to walk more, explore again more of what lay beyond her closed door.

After twenty minutes they came to a meadow with tall, silky grasses. She spotted a brand new bench; she had enjoyed a pause there when it was still splintery, long ago. They sat down in the shade of a mammoth white oak and she pulled two bottles of water and two bananas from her rumpled paisley backpack. Offering one each to Lenny, they then satiated their thirst and hunger. She noted wild roses stirring in the breeze as their perfume came to her and Lenny. He got up and picked one to sniff more closely, then handed it to her. They chatted about nothing of note, then fell silent again, eyelids drooping under the veil of early summer heat.

A sudden country song filled the quietness, and Lenny pulled his phone from a back shorts pocket.

“Lenny here.” He pressed his ear closer, his eyes widening. “Wait, slow down– just what exactly happened?” he barked, sitting upright, ear pressed closer.

Jeanette sat forward, alarm shaking her from reverie. Was it something or someone at his house? His best friend?

“Oh, no. When was this…? Where is he now? And what do they say? What does that mean? Hold on, I can’t understand–yes, alright then…” He wiped beads of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, took a long intake of breath. Let it out. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I do want to come! Give me a half hour and I’ll get back to you!”

Lenny turned to her, his face drained of color, void of calm.

“That was my brother, Joe. It’s Willy–remember, my nephew? A terrible car accident. I’m getting a plane ticket to Pittsburgh.” He grabbed her forearm.

Willy, the nephew who was like a son, and always would be.

She grabbed his arms in both of her hands and they sat there a moment, face to face, Lenny’s eyes alive with fear, hers wide open. They got up and took off at a fast pace, Malloy running between them.

*******

Lenny let her know when he arrived safely. Then it was 2 days before Jeanette got a brief update via text. Multiple organs injured, head injury, badly broken leg, fractured pelvis. It was bad. But he was alive, so far. Intensive care, a group of specialists working on things. He couldn’t see him, of course; no one could due to the pandemic. It was hell to not see him. He and his brother, Joe, and sister-in-law, Ellie, were holed up at Willy’s house with his wife Meredith, their two kids. It all was just crazy. He’d text her again tomorrow if he could.

She found herself unable to concentrate well, losing her place in her calligraphic work, starting chores, then stopping halfway through. Malloy and she sat, listened to the radio, then slouched out to the patio, then returned indoors where they watched television together, Malloy’s head on her bare feet.

Lenny texted again late on the fourth night. “Long night here, can’t sleep. They’re still assessing things, keeping him going. They can fix. thank God, the pelvis, leg. Can they fix kidney and pancreas damage? Will his heart ever calm down? Can he even respond much? No new answers. My brother is a wreck, his only son….Willy’s kids are freaking out but his Meredith is a strong mother to them…Hug Malloy for me. Give him treats, walk him, of course– please and thanks.”

She said of course she would, hung up. Gulped down a small lump in her throat. Got on her knees and hugged Malloy.

*******

So walk they did, just around the neighborhood, mostly, at least twice a day. When he whined at the slider door, she opened it and he romped a bit, did his business, lay down in the cool grass under the trees’ great, leafy branches. Once she found him under the bench, another time, he was sitting on it as the sun went down.

She sat beside him, stroking his long back. “I know I’m not the guy you want. But we do alright, don’t we? It’s family, you know–for Lenny, it’s all about family, and almost anyone can be family.” She laughed softly at that. “But this time it is blood ties, you know, and that’s big. His pack. So we will just wait it out until he gets back.”

Malloy held her eyes with his deep brown ones that never looked miserable or empty but, rather, calm, perhaps often wondering, and simply kind. Could a dog be kind? Malloy had had a good teacher in Lenny; he had been raised right.

As no doubt suffering, beloved Willy had been.

******

One morning she plugged in the coffee pot and made coffee. Malloy’s long nose sniffed deeply of the aroma as it dripped into the carafe. She poured a small mug of it and put half and half in it and a little sugar and carried it it onto the wrought iron patio table. She sat down and took a sip and spit it out.

“Tell me. Malloy, how do people drink this dreadful brew? I have to make my tea now.”

Malloy grunted and stretched out on the still-cool flagstones.

When she came back with tea, she left the mug of coffee at the place opposite her. As if he was coming back shortly from his early morning breakfast with his best friend, smiling and carrying fresh pastries or bagels for them to nibble on.

******

On the eighth day, Lenny texted as she was making a snack of apples and cheese for herself, and bits of cold chicken for Malloy.

Her phone dinged and she read: “Pelvis surgery went well two days ago. Willy is responding better to interventions. His heart rate is steadier, lower. He can nod a bit, blink and tries to talk but part of his face was fractured so he can’t talk…he may look different, but who cares, he gets surgery for that. And the leg in two days if all goes well enough. Wires and tubes, they say, doing their work. Joe and I are spending more time together than we have in twenty years…sad, huh? But good, too. He’s so shook up. I have to go, Ellie needs me to do an errand.”

Usually Jeanette responded with something like: “Thanks for update. Keep your head up. Willy is in my thoughts, hope for the best for him and your family. Malloy is just fine.”

But this time, she wrote: “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you, for all. I’m saying a prayer each day. Malloy misses you, I can tell, but he likes our woods walks. Hang in there, Lenny, just hold onto hope, okay?” She felt as if tears were possible as she said these things, and it felt strange.

He answered: “The woods, good! I can use all the prayers you got. Glad Malloy misses me, but glad he is with you.”

“Willy will get better, I can just feel it.”

“Yeah…he has to.”

Feel it, why did she say that, what did that mean? It might not be true. It was up to the doctors and Lenny’s nephew. Willy had to strive the best he could to stay alive. So many factors went into recovery from a catastrophic accident. But she meant it. And believed it. For Lenny’s sake, if nothing else. He just could not lose his nephew who was like his son.

That’s when she knew. Their partnership meant something. Lenny meant something, after all. She’d never expected an unknown, down-on-his luck tenant to become an honest-to-goodness, real-as-life friend. It was something to wonder over. A sudden good fortune. But with that came everything else, too.

******

After that, they texted two-three times a day, check-ins about Willy’s progress and how the family was faring, and what it was like in Pittsburgh in June. Sometimes they chatted about what they were watching on Netflix, or what her work was currently, how he had projects on his mind for when he returned, especially her yard if he could have at it. The city he described sounded quite marvelous. She’d visited Pittsburgh once in her late thirties, and recalled a sense of progress, the beautiful setting against steep hills and its two large rivers.

She looked forward to their talks. But it was a surprise when he called one morning, two and a half weeks after the terror of severe crisis had waned just a bit. Willy was beginning to make some tangible progress, and surgeries and treatments seemed to be working.

Lenny was keen to talk about a botanical garden he’d visited. His descriptions enthralled her and he sent pictures to her phone.

“You should see this place, one of the prettiest I’ve seen. Not that I’ve been to many but I sure would like to take a tour of more. You would love it, so lush, colorful, and the orchid collection and the butterflies! It’s very old, too, still going strong. What a paradise.”

Just to hear the pleasure in his voice made her feel better. “You went with your family?”

“Naw, alone. I let them be more, now. Joe and Ellie just went back to work. Meredith as you know took leave from her job, is home with the kiddos. I’ve begun to ping pong between the two houses a little. I think I’ll give it a few more days, see what’s happening with Willy. But they say he looks better–I can’t imagine when he came in–and every day brings a small improvement, so far. They saved the kidney; the pancreas will take more time healing. Special nutrients are helping, too. He’ll be there awhile.”

She could hear him clear his throat, cough.

“I’m so truly sorry this happened to Willy…I can’t say it enough. You and your family must worry every minute.”

“Yeah, a drunk driver, didn’t tell you that before.” His voice cut the space between them, then diminished. “Thank goodness he made it, though. The other guy, unfortunately, did not…”

“Oh.”

She could think of nothing more to add; the silence fell hard between them and held. She decided to break it.

“Well, at least during this time Malloy has gotten more comfortable with just me. Though he whines on your bed at night, it is heard to hear but he barks at me to take him for walks. Drags his leash over when he’s good and ready. So off we go!”

Lenny laughed readily. “Good job, both of you.”

“Yes, I agree,” she said. They wrapped up the conversation with their respective weather reports. It was a signing off they did each time they connected.

******

“Lenny?” she said as she answered her phone. She and Malloy had moved into bright sunshine as they left a meandering wooded trail and she put on her new aqua sunglasses.

“I might just come back. But I hate to leave them. But what else can I do? Kinda in the way now. None of us can go to see Willy, just daily updates. Then, yesterday we finally got to see him on a video call, and again today for a few. He looks…Jeanette, he was so good looking– but he’ll be alright. It looks like he’s starting to heal much more. He can’t talk, jaw wired shut, but he seems to get all we say. We just yak at him for ten minutes. A total relief to finally see my nephew… Joe and Ellie are working to keep sane, I think. I’m at loose ends, spend time each day with Willy’s Meredith, bless her, she’s a good gal, and I play with the kiddos. We swam in their great swimming pool a few times–dang, he worked so hard to get where he has gotten… They all seem some better. There’s hope, a continued, slow progress. I should let them live their lives, not have them fuss over me, which they do. I don’t want to be overstaying my welcome.”

She imagined him worrying each night as he tried to sleep, wondering if Willy needed him to stay even though he couldn’t be with him. If he’d done enough, if he could do more. She saw how he was like that, mindful of others, putting others first more often than not.

She had lain awake often, herself, thinking of the situation and everyone affected. It impacted her more than she’d expected. She didn’t know them, had known Lenny three months. But how upset he was about Willy, how brave he had been to get on the plane, offer his help, face the bleak unknown.

Feeling his absence, if she was honest, though it took her awhile to figure out that was the discomfort in her own home.

“Maybe ask them if they need you there now? Maybe you can go back later when he gets home, help out more then.”

“That’s a very good idea, Jeanette.”

When they hung up, she got back to her calligraphy, more settled than she had been in a long while. She loved her work, how it blossomed into more than she planned, the words scrolling elegantly across the pages as she gave her all to each stroke.

He called an hour later. “They said to go on, they’re managing now that Willy is improving, and they’d love to have me back another time.” But he sounded sad if somewhat relieved. “I guess I can do video chats with him when he’s unwired. I’ll tell him farewell till next time– and I definitely will be back.” He paused, then added, “But man, will it be nice to be back in that familiar bed.”

She laughed at that. “Sounds good. I knew you’d do what was best. Malloy will be happy.”

“Yeah, ole boy, sure have missed him. It’ll be good to be home again.”

Home? She repeated that in her head and aloud a few times after they ended their chat. He said it. She guessed it had become true, then. How odd a thing. How it touched her. And unnerved her– but that feeling vanished as soon as it arrived.

******

She put the medium-sized portfolio bag on the end of his bed. It was stuffed with painting supplies–brushes and tubes of gorgeous colors and disposable palettes and small canvasses, along with a couple of books about painting with acrylics and watercolors.

And closed his door again. He’d be walking into the house in about one hour.

******

He’d roughhoused with Malloy awhile, they were both way beyond pleased. Then put away his things, and came out pf his room with the art supplies in hand, mouth wide open. She smiled and waved his thanks away, taking their drinks and a cheese plate to the patio.

“Well, here we are, back on this dull but loved patio. How did we get so lazy that this is our daily thing? I have to get at it, paint this table and chairs. Maybe we should plant more flowers, how about zinnias, they’re pretty when they get tall, colorful. And we need to find more trails to walk–hike that is, if I can ever get you to be more adventurous. Plus, I was thinking of having a barbeque soon. Invite my buddies, you invite yours, we’ll cook up some burgers and franks, maybe barbecued chicken! Sound good, Malloy? Yes? Of course you can have a taste!” Lenny rubbed his exposed belly and looked up at Jeanette. “Alright by you?”

Jeanette gawped at him. He was surely back, bigger than life. Overflowing with plans to put into motion, to push ahead. Anxious to make the days and nights peppier, more interesting–as if life wasn’t interesting enough already. But he added an extra bit she had missed too long.

Zing. Pizazz. Oomph.

“Yes, it is alright with me. As long as you leave me in charge of detailed planning and we execute things together. Just because I missed you a little, don’t get big ideas of huge changes and sudden good will spread all about. And I’m not about to have a man push me around again, you know, I am perfectly able minded and self-directed. I was thinking the other day that we’ve managed to become friends and I’ve missed you a little despite our differences and a certain lack of interest on my part, so let’s not–“

“Wait, you missed me?” He leaned over the table toward her, reached for a hand which she pulled back.”You missed me. Well, feeling has been mutual, Jeanette, my friend.” He patted her hand, anyway, then sat back again and held both palms up to the treetops. “But try to take over here? Never considered it! Why, that would be disastrous, I’d be out of house and home, and Malloy and I would be running back to my poor old place with tails between our legs. No, ma’m, we’re going forward arm-in-arm. If that suits you, that is.”

She raised her iced tea glass and he raised his beer bottle, clinked them together.

“And here’s to Jeanette MInthorn, who has the gumption and generosity to get me art supplies. Me, soon officially a painter!”

“Yes, no excuses. I expect you may have talent, the way you talk about beauty and color and–“

At that he got up and went over to her. Put an arm around her shoulders. He couldn’t help himself, he squeezed her close to his side so that she had to say, “Enough! Don’t you push the limits, Lenny Grimes! You might still be on semi-probation as a roommate!”

He doubted that, but he just sat back down with nary a quip. He was so glad to be back, and they talked until both of them–more accurately, he– ran right out of words. For the time being.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: A Reluctant Partnership, Pt.1.

She was not interested in a roommate but, then, neither was he. Life, however, has a way of upending sure plans and then you have to improvise. Jeanette Minthorn wasn’t good at that. But Lenny Grimes was, and that was to his advantage he’d realized.

When Lenny first lost his job at the factory, it was the last thing on his mind to move and learn to live on a bit of a shoestring. He knew several there who looked their worst fears in the face due to the pandemic–either they got sick or lost their jobs, too–but they had wives or adult children to help out. Even if reluctantly. But Lenny had never been married. He’d been partnered up twice but by fifty-seven, he’d settled into a more companionable routine with Malloy, his terrier mix buddy. All had gone along without incident for a good decade. And then, not. His supervisory position was one he had fought for and enjoyed when promoted from floor work to the floor plus a closet sized office. So when Lenny put his few bits and pieces into a cardboard box and trudged out the door, it was not without grave disappointment, if he also understood the boss’ drastic action. Who buys appliances during a pandemic? Their orders had shrunk miserably. He retreated but with expectations of getting rehired soon somewhere. It was a kick in the pants when it didn’t turn out that way. His aging tri-level house–too big and in need of repairs, just too much to deal with at the moment–had to be rented out. He was not sharing a place with a family of four, the father being fifteen years younger, an optimistic and handy guy who was able to work from home, as was his wife. Their two boys, under ten, were polite enough. It was a quick deal, then he answered an ad looking for a roommate to share a house. May as well not fight reality’s vice grip.

Jeanette lived on a wide, sunny street with a dead end, at which she lived. It bordered a county park, so solitude was the norm even if voices drifted over her back deck. There was a trail bordering her back fence with a tidy line of emerald green cypress; privacy was complete. She had retired early two years prior, so not working had become more the norm. A teacher of elementary aged students, it was a relief to finally clean her desk, turn off the lights and close the door. Education had not exactly prepared her for managing as well as instructing rowdy, unique, inquisitive, demanding children. Though it had been an expansive experience, it had not been her first choice. A few of her younger, single cohorts felt teaching children was good training for having one’s own. Jeanette found it only emphasized her inclination to remain childless. Being married thirty-four years had been enough to handle. Jeanette had tried so hard. In the end, he’d left in the night. Their mid-century, three bedroom, three bath ranch (soon painted blue, cedar accents added later) house had remained hers and at times she found it no longer useful. But could not let it go yet. It wasn’t quite paid off, but she increasingly wanted to downsize. To move on….somewhere else. She determined that renting out a room a couple of years could get her there faster; the sooner she got out from under such upkeep, the better. She turned sixty-four recently and though she felt strong and alert, she also felt the threats of merciless time at her back. And at her neck, as she’d finally noticed in the mirror with a stunned double take.

When Lenny Grimes presented himself as the seventh possibility, she gave in from sheer exhaustion. Never had she imagined it so hard to root out undesirable renters, to pinpoint one who was not only trustworthy but independent- minded. She had little patience for someone carrying the baggage of neediness. Only someone who was self-directed, moderate in habits and a full adult would align with her temperament. Malloy, Lenny Grimes’ dog, was not a bonus, but neither was it a breaking point. She’d lived with one then another dachshund in her marriage, but they’d been more her husband’s doting pets. The last had left with him and fare thee well. Once imagining herself a cat person, it was a passing fancy–she never even got to the animal shelter.

She was quite relieved when they both willingly shared proof of having recently tested negative for Covid-19 and being fully vaccinated. They agreed that they lived carefully out in the world. They seemed quite good risks on the health front in a treacherous time.

Neither of them was the least bit bothered by living with the opposite sex. It wasn’t as if they had any antipathy; they were simply indifferent, especially after meeting one another–they each were entirely not their types. In the beginning, they avoided each other, overall. It wasn’t hard. Lenny went off masked and chipper to the harbor to meet up with a friend or buy a paper, coffee and a simple breakfast at his favorite food truck, Breakfast and Extras–an old habit, he’d said. Jeanette was used to sitting in the breakfast nook, gazing out the picture window into the back yard with a magazine, scrambled eggs with chopped turkey sausage and strong black tea.

They might see one another off and on during the day, but beyond a few neutral if friendly words, nothing else transpired. She was a calligrapher who always had a project going. He was a walker and an enthusiastic reader of earth science and woodworking books, and left to go camping for three days–she didn’t ask where, he didn’t offer info–perhaps two times a month. It worked out well enough for both.

One May morning after he’d been there six weeks and two days, Jeannette languished at her spot: her deck. She was pulled up to the glass-topped table with a half-full mug of tea. She’d been slow to start, and sunshine spread itself over oak trees and a big magnolia, the last of raindrops glistening and fat on leaves and blooms. She had little urge to move faster. Sometimes being in the middle of moments slow like molasses was the best place to be. But she had not expected or looked for company as she heard blissful birdsong, welcomed a pervasive peace that lay on her as light hands on her shoulders.

“Thought I’d join you,” Lenny said and sat down with travel mug of coffee in hand, Malloy curling up beside his feet. “Got up earlier than usual to meet my buddy Fred at the harbor, then decided to come back–never really hung out on the deck, just a look-see now and then.”

She looked at him and nodded, a slight frown appearing beneath wispy grey bangs. “I see.” If he thought this was her private domain, he was right. Then again, he paid rent and she hadn’t said it was off-limits, had she? She ought to be considerate. Generous. She turned her lips up in an almost-smile, teeth clenched.

His eyes swept over the neatly mowed yard, moved past the cypress soldier trees–he thought of them as frozen at attention –which he had never liked much, and then the magnolia and oaks, which he did appreciate. There were almost no flowers. There may have been daffodils once, but otherwise–wait, there were four irises, lavender, standing cheerful and tall in a back corner. A saving grace. He sorely missed his lilac bushes, the towering big leaf maples. He used to garden, once. The thought triggered a happy smile.

Jeanette noticed his assessment and wanted to seem more welcoming. “You have a nice yard at your place?”

“I do, and hopefully will when I get back. You never know with children what could happen; it’s a big yard, plenty of room to romp, though.”

“Oh, you do know with children, they’ll tear up the grass and pull leaves off, make every bush a hiding hole. You likely won’t recognize it when you return.”

Lenny laughed, then saw that she wasn’t joking. “I thought you taught children for years.”

She nodded and shot him a look from under her brows, left one raised high. “Exactly.”

Was he getting friendly for a specific reason or only to pass the time? She knew he wasn’t being rude in his reaction to her teaching history–nearly everyone assumed teaching the young was a joyride or one wouldn’t do it.

Lenny sipped his coffee, looked at his watch. Time to wrap this up and revel in the great weather.

“Enjoy the trails by your house?” he asked.

“I have. A pretty woods, and a nice, open, often wet meadow. Quite hilly areas to pump blood through the panting body. Benches. Picnic tables on the far side. I’ve lived here a long while and know it well. Now it is overrun with people.” She sighed and shrugged, blue cardigan slipping off her shoulders, her hands pulling it close again.

Lenny shifted in his seat, unsure at this point how to react; she was humorous at times, but who knew when it was sarcastic? He stood up and slapped his thighs once. Malloy opened lowered eyelids and promptly stood beside him, tail wagging a little, sensing another outing. An anticipatory bark jumped out of him as Lenny took the leash from his back pocket.

“Think I’ll go exploring. You interested?”

She pulled back and gaped at him. “Heavens, no. I have a calligraphy project to begin and the morning is already underway.”

“Okay, have at it. I need my daily power walk. Keeps everything working right.”

Lenny pushed his chair back in and left. He was surprised he felt mild disappointment. Who didn’t like a walk in a park and a chat on a morning like this one? He was aiming to be a congenial tenant, better that than feeling resentful at the change of fortunes. After all, they shared an attractive house–his was more of a shambles if he was honest. Hers, well, it smelled good and decorated with things he’d never have considered. A jolt to the senses. His was “catch as catch can” and a functional background.

He tipped his baseball cap at her and disappeared around the side of the house.

“Have a good day, Lenny,” she finally got out as he trotted off with Mallory–who looked back at her, tongue lolling. She suddenly waved at him, then felt ridiculous for doing so, though he gave a yip in response.

Jeanette felt her initial mild alarm recede fully after fifteen minutes more. Why on earth, however, would he sit right down and talk with her? She hadn’t rented her generous third bedroom with an en suite in order to make friends. She got quite enough contact with people online, and managing her growing Bespoke Calligraphy business, and when making crucial runs to stores that left her worn out and obsessed with the ever-floating virus. She thought she’d left the germs back in the classroom, but no. She retired for more.

He took a sharp left out her driveway and then a right on a footpath until he came upon a post that indicated the county park was accessible ahead. He’d have to bring Fred out there. It was more tranquil than his urban house, with its constant racket of cars and passersby and the train that ran three times daily. He wouldn’t mind being on more easy terms with Jeanette; it’d make this pause in his life more bearable. But, then, a person who did calligraphy–he’d had to look that up after he’d met her and desired to live in her sweet house–was not likely a person who’d ever enjoy his company. No matter. It was a good deal for now and he was grateful.

It was time to get to work so Jeanette stood and stretched, her long, narrow body loosening and pulling taut as she reached high, albeit with effort. She had more inquiries to look over, and had to sort requested quotes and then map them out on fresh paper, inks and pens to get readied at her drafting table. A luxury she was anxious about buying and what pleasure it now gave her to work there. Who would have thought she’d get back to calligraphy at this time of life? But then, who would have predicted a pandemic of such proportions? And that she’d share her house with a man again after a decade of living alone? Clearly, she had things to learn, the first two being: one can never rule out anything, and one must develop a more open mind.

It might be a good summer despite the hollow sadness of the pandemic. Lenny and Malloy about, greater financial security and these resurrected creative impulses. But the thought of a renter-rentee kind of friendship…? That was going quite a lot too far. Business arrangements might be pleasant enough but it was still business, after all.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Breathe and Catch Fire

It’s not like you truly belong anywhere, so this is as good a place as any. Remington Heights, a fancy name for another uninspired suburb. Sort of; it prides itself on being a beautifully compact, near-exclusive town. You guess it is; you can see the BMWs, Audis, Mercedes Benzes mixed in with Subarus, Toyotas, Fords. There goes a red Porsche, its top down in March, for crying out loud.

After moving five times in fifteen years, how audacious is it to say when you’re asked: “We’re from Knoxville?” Hand held out for a good strong handshake.

What then? After they proceed to ask about that city’s milieu, its weather? You can only offer so much–that stop was for two and a half years. The others, even shorter for the most part. They already know you aren’t government or corporate consulting or an interesting entrepreneur. For one thing you teach, take on short contracts. Now, also, your husband. Well, he does one adult ed class at the community college where you teach one theater and two creative writing classes. He hasn’t contributed much to bills with his woodworking schemes and dreams no matter where they’ve moved. But he keeps trying.

“And we also lived in Arlington, Fort Worth, Everett, Rochester and–wait, there are a few more. You can’t imagine how fascinating it is to interact with many sorts of people and places…”

In ten minutes they raise eyebrows, glance at their ubiquitous phones, make excuses, talk about having coffee sometime and take their leave. In Remington Heights they’re thinking, Of all the boring places to have lived, why not Athens? Paris? Singapore...So back to their mammoth, comfy homes with their own loving, complicated families and deliriously devoted dogs.

Or cats–but that’s your preference. A cat can be left alone so easily, and it moves from house to house with nary a blink: every window has a view; every yard has birds and dirt. You need a cat, you keep planning on it, never do it. No time to further consider such an investment emotionally and monetarily. It might just run away.

Not that you are unfamiliar with such a response as raised eyebrows and a shrug after you introduce yourself. It’s on repeat no matter where you go. Gerry says some places are much friendlier than others. His vast experience dealing with direct sales to the public informs his viewpoint. He reminds you this when talk of a job possibility that offers tenure comes up. Gerry thinks you don’t like any place you go, not really, and he’s getting tired of it. That it’s having to put down roots, not the job that’s the issue for you. Okay, but you’re pretty tired of having to secure a great job that keeps a roof over your heads long term, and a job that gives you enough incentive to aim even higher as time goes by. That can be such a grind when you want it to be–dare you say it?–a happy endeavor.

“Next time, yes, always next time,” he says, looking away as you have lunch at a stylish outdoor cafe. “There won’t ever stop being a next time. I could put in roots any place if you’d just stand still in one spot. How long has your longest position been? Four years? Wow, we might still be there, Kit, and we might be glad of it.” He wipes his hands and mouth. “Oh, Kit, I’m sorry, it’s just…” He holds up empty palms to sky.

This is where you have to bite your tongue and not point a finger. If only you had gone to medical school as planned; if only your had a hobby that made us money; if only you stopped complaining when I am doing the best I can do. If only you’d use some of your inheritance for common costs of living instead of insisting it has to be untouched until we have a child or get old. Like it’s precious and must stay in a vault unless we are on the verge of noodles and beans every day.

Well, wait, it has been invested in lots of power and hand tools and wood and nuts and bolts and clamps….that money is good for all that.

If you say any of that, he’ll either crumple or walk out. After all, you’d agreed to let him get into woodworking as a small business. He has excellent talent–those hands that would have made a fine surgeon’s– and plenty of perseverance. But you have to make the cash to keep your lives afloat. So you do. Every new job has managed to do it, mostly–you just haven’t found the right one, the one you can foresee holding until that far-off retirement. Gerry wants that even more than you.

You are okay being a nomad of sorts. He is right about not setting roots too deep. That’s how it’s always been; your family moved almost every year for much of your childhood and when you were finally settled, it was not any kind of a happy settling. When your gambling father left when you were fourteen, your mother threw a huge party. It was also the start of selling overpriced makeup from home but weirdly, she did it well, made good money. She bought a condo two years before you left (right after your brother), and got married for the third time. Farewell, kids!

No, you do not know the comfort of a long term home. As far as you are concerned, a home is a place to lay your head, eat, and hang out if possible, preferably on the back stairs and no one knows. You still look for that–the relief of privacy on a back stoop that offers a better view than the indoors.

Gerry, he’s another sort of human being, at heart. He longs for roots because he had them so long. He will fit in better in Remington Heights. He knows how to act without even thinking, and that’s why he has done well off and on with his business. Maybe here he can make his mark, he’s said–these people can pay for fine bespoke furniture and toys for their kids. You think he’s dreaming but you love him for it, and how he stays with you no matter what. He just that morning told you to go ignite a thirst for knowledge in those students–even if it is just a few students, if only one today. He has faith in you, if he also worries you’ll not make a real home with him. You do need to have greater faith in him–that might go a long way toward building his success, he says. He holds her up; she can hold him up more beside paying for most of the bills.

You just stare at those bills piled up thanks to the last couple of moves crossing six different states. Stunned by it all. But you have a good chance at RCC, the Remington branch of Rand Community College. They pay well and they might keep you on if you try very hard. You hope this time you also can work in laughter more often. You actually pray for it secretly–it has gotten harder to keep looking and rarely find what you want.

Maybe it’s because you aren’t sure what that is. But you will not stop looking.

******

We–Kit and I–now live on a very old estate, and that is comfortable for a man like me. Of course, it’s the carriage house converted a decades ago into full living quarters, but there are ten acres here. I can see the big house rising above the garden walls as I head to the west end of our new place. A portion of the building, right under the apartment, was turned into garage and workshop. No more horses, carriages and how perfect is that? It isn’t cheap but what we get for the money…I’m hopeful this time. I think that if I can make this work long enough, I might create, sell, and make a decent profit. And then invest some of the inheritance to get my own workshop and store and then a house of our own….well, naturally, I don’t tell Kit all this yet. She’d be freaked out, just so many castles in the air, she’d say, slow down.

Kit says many things and I know she means something else half of the time. But I saw her eyes light up as we toured the place and put in our rental application. I was worried we might not get it–we have moved so much–but having my nest egg to show us as being ultimately solvent helps. Plus Kit’s a college teacher, how can they not like that? So here we are, and Remington Heights has no idea that I have what they need: beautiful furniture made to order. But it will soon.

After I got my M.S., I decided to skip medical school and pursue working with my hands differently than planned. I’ve always loved the scent, textures, colors and grains of wood. How it can yield to careful labor and give you its best when you respect it. There were plenty of woods to enjoy on our land growing up–several thousand acres for the giant cattle ranch that also boasted many trees. I was always sneaking off to the workshop used for a variety of reasons and fiddling with discarded or broken pieces. And our manager had the skills I needed. It was a fine line for him–teaching me what he knew while doing his main job well and keeping my father satisfied. But it worked well enough for me–Jack told me I had the right feel for it–until I stopped making things to enter college. Then it got shelved.

If I am being honest, I’d have to say that, in fact, it was the inheritance that set me free from the family expectation that there be a doctor in the family. I loved ranching but had not seriously thought I’d be one to run it–my older brother and sister do that now. But my uncle was a very wealthy businessman. He’d stayed in touch since childhood and figured out I wasn’t destined for medicine. He once told me when he saw me making a chair that I should put to use the sciences in a more artistic way. He left me enough when he passed to not make the wrong career choice. I knew it was for a woodcraft business.

Kit knows all this. She supports it, more or less, she’s just worried. Anxious that I’ll tire of her quicksilver temperament as her parents apparently did; afraid she won’t have what it takes to be a first class professor; scared she’ll never make enough money so she can stand on her own two feet if I do leave her; afraid I won’t ever be a success with my wood crafting or that I will be a great success–it goes on, this terrible tangle of fears she harbors, even nurtures. I sometimes hold and rock her like a scared little creature, shivering and unsteady, until she calms. But that’s marriage. I lean on her a lot for acceptance of my chosen path.

If you met her, you wouldn’t see the scared part. She’s strong with words and actions. You know you can count on her. You know there’s an imaginative, quick, intense intelligence behind her clear, penetrating gaze. Any job she has had, they wanted her to stay–sometimes they couldn’t keep her as it was a limited contract, sometimes they just wouldn’t offer better pay or other terms. But she always finds work. And she knows so well her realms of theater and writing.

I’m pleased this time that this is where we landed. Kit finds it “too rich for her blood”, as she says with slight derision, but the fact is, this city offers opportunity for us both. I don’t care what people think of me but she says that’s what privilege spawns–a self confidence that is unshakeable. Maybe so; she never had that in her life. But all I want is to make beautiful things with my big calloused hands. And to love her better so I have to be smart but gentle. The best things happen to wood when you treat it well, learn its natural inclinations, find its hidden beauty. Same with Kit.

All this is a challenge I’ll not back down from until I more than succeed. But first off I have to set up my tools in the shop under the living quarters and walk the estate. I wish Uncle Cam could walk with me. I can almost feel his pat on my back when I made my first wood toy, a pine truck, when I was ten–whereas dad directed me to get back on my horse, get to work. That simple thing made a difference.

******

You know this is the place when you see a generous arc of tree branches swaying over and about an old carriage house with the sheen of long use but kindly. Then moving up the side steps to a wide sunny living room and three small bedrooms off a hall, then circling back to a neat kitchen with white painted cupboards. A bathroom with an antique tub in it and a small desk turned into a vanity. You imagine yourself in that tub, candlelight casting a glow, how you love long quiet soaks and seldom get them–and all the while looking out windows with ivory and viney half-curtains. You can see a garden from there–as you bathe! Everything about the carriage house feels well used but the wood floors shine with care; comfortable furniture is freshened with bright fabrics and interesting textures. It is quality but has no pretension, is pretty and cozy enough without being syrupy- nostalgic. And it has a wood stove. What else can it need?

You don’t show Gerry too much enthusiasm until you are accepted as tenants and even then, underplaying it is better than letting too much emotion show. Even if the rent is high it can be worth it–you can manipulate the budget somehow. Besides, to watch Gerry as he lopes about the property and talks to the fourth generation owner of the estate–how can you dampen that excitement? There’s this feeling both of you might find some peace here, on this huge corner lot, under the shade of maple and elm and oak trees. There are even fruit trees not far from the front door. You fantasize about sneaking out after dark and snapping up pears and apples–until Gerry says the landlord told him take any fruit desired at no extra cost (Gerry laughs as he relays that), it’ll go to waste if not eaten. Never have canned. Wondering about that but the idea makes you anxious so just think of Hunt’s pears with cottage cheese like when it was dessert as a kid–you were told it was a treat. And it was.

So you’re in, your are the chosen ones. You find that first week with the unpacking, learning the ropes of a new town with expensive tastes (that make you squirm and itch) and then visiting the college–you find those first days lighten up with a simple pleasure you haven’t felt in forever.

You want the job to fit well. After a month it may not be a perfect thing, no, but you aren’t getting tension headaches. Not hurrying from one class to another, shoulders set as if pushing against wind. The drama class is filled with interesting students if a bit haughty (well, it’s Remington Heights, it’s theater), and the writing classes are a mixed bag but you can cope with it all so far. Time will tell who has capabilities, how hard you’ll need to work until late at night even at home–and how pleased the Dean of Fine Arts will be. Or not. If tenure will ever be a dream come true. You learned long ago you must stay in the moment while even while designing a future.

Then, at a major monthly staff meeting, someone says something. That way that makes you shiver a little. You turn your head to see Ms. Brunette Bob who is tapping the table with a silvery pen and Ms. Luxe Ponytail who is smoothing her forehead as if she’s just gotten back from toiling in the fields. They are whispering, heads tight together.

“Were you wondering about me?” you ask, half smile trying to move across your too taut face. “I’m Kit Barnett, drama and writing, formerly of Knoxville.” Trying not to spread a Southern accent on it, hard to resist. Something has to amuse or please these women, you suspect.

They blink at you in unison, look down at their notepads a moment before smiling back. A waxy sort of smile, Caught us, but oh hi there!

“Oh, right, you have Marnie’s old job–I thought so,” Ms. Brunette says.

“You’ll find her students miss her already but don’t despair, they’ll settle in,” Ms. Ponytail reassures. “Marnie was a kind of legend after ten years…she had such flair. I mean, not that you won’t or anything…”

“Thanks for the heads up. And you are?” Marnie the Great, dang, more pressure!

“Oh, I’m Selene Rossiter and she’s–” she turned to Brunette–“Jana Leon. We teach drawing and ceramics, respectively, and this term I have 3 D, as well. Welcome to RCC, Kit Barnett. It’s a good place, overall. A good way to move on to better opportunities, it’s already my third year and I’m getting restless.”

Jana said, with a shrug, “I’ll likely be a lifer. I like Remington Heights and so does my boyfriend.”

You find all this friendliness entirely suspect but say thanks and pair their faces with names, hoping the other seven people there have distinctive names, too, so you can elicit them as needed. You determine to make a brilliant name tag for fun to stick on your shirt, will that make you better known? You know how this goes when new, you’ll be passed over a long while unless you remind them. You are not all that unforgettable in looks, either, though this has never mattered. It’ll take time, that’s all. Selene and Jana are as nicer than most are when you start out a new place. You doubt you three will be going out together, one too young and uppity, the other otherwise engaged–and it’s fine. You don’t really need friends, per se.

The meeting begins and you listen intently to what is said and not said, how people interact with words and eyes and hands, who speaks up, who is doggedly silent. It’s a game you must play to do the job and get paid.

But when you teach, you feel that urge to impress upon the minds behind upturned faces (and those that do not show themselves) that what they are about to learn and explore has the power to alter their lives in ways that will set them free. Yes, set them free, as art is that potent. And this is what carries you over the country in search of a place to set yourself down, share knowledge and create. A base to inspire as once inspired as a college student when your first good art professor told you: “Your work has such energy; let it breathe and catch fire.”

Professor Harmon did not say to you like Mom said, “Why do you waste your time making up stories, trying out for those dumb little plays? Get a real life and a real job and grow up!”

No, Madge Harmon said, “Let yourself have an adventure, Kit, make things happen. You have plenty of talents.”

And it turns out that teaching was one of them. You have what it takes. So keep at it–RCC will see what you can do. Or you’ll make them see it.

You need to hang on to that bathtub and those fruit trees. You need to support Gerry’s big hope in all the possibilities. He might be right one of these days.

******

“They don’t much belong here, really, you can tell by the way they…just are,” Viv Arnold said as she filled her basket with garlic, carrots and onions at the covered farmer’s market.

“Well, Selene says she’s a very good teacher and friendly, not pushy. I think they’ll find their way around in time.” Jude Rossiter squeezed the avocados just enough.”I think you are wrong about him. The husband is a class act, anyway, did you see him earlier at the bakery? Gerry somebody from Utah–big ranching family, I heard.”

“What does he do now? Does he teach, too? Not much money in that.”

“No, he makes bespoke furniture! Well, one class in woodworking, Selene said. But didn’t you see the huge ad in the newspaper? The pictures are beautiful. I may give him a call about a chest I want designed and handmade. Or maybe we should both just drop by when his shop is open, that would be informative.” She picked up bunches of fennel and dill.

Viv sniffed a tomato. “Is this really fresh? I sometimes wonder! He has a certain elan, I must say, dark hair and blue eyes. Yes, I saw him, Viv. His wife is rather plain, from what I noticed at RCC after my quilting class. But if she’s a good teacher–well, we need more of those around here, so cheers! Maybe we should consider inviting them to the Spring Fling, find out more and see how things go?”

“At the Club? Hmm, a good thought….But watch yourself, dear, you’re old enough to be his mother.”

“Never so old one cannot be wistful, Jude. Now let’s get out of here and chat more over a nice drink.”

Jude thought about what Viv said about Gerry and Kit. She didn’t know much about the wife, the teacher–she had always wanted to write, maybe she should find out more. But he reminded her of her son. Though Thomas was a patent attorney, no good at doing manual anything. Maybe it was the similar charm and a way of carrying himself. Honestly, Viv needed to own up to her age and exhibit proper decorum. It was getting embarrassing. The Spring Fling, however, was an easy way to introduce the couple to Remington Heights in all its boring self-glorification. She would do what she could to encourage them if they were interesting, unlike much of their citizenry– and, of course, fairly generous hearted. You never knew when you might need an extra helping hand on some project.

******

When Gerry got home from teaching his class three weeks later, he found Kit sitting on the steps on the carriage house, the porch light a soft haze in the growing darkness. A notebook was flat on her lap, a favorite mechanical pencil in hand. She looked up and smiled at him but kept on writing.

He sat down on a step above her and placed his hands gently on her and massaged her tight shoulders a moment. Kit exhaled a steady stream of air, closed her notebook, leaned back against his knees. She’d have to mention that invitation to the Remington Country Club “Spring Fling” but for the moment there was this: navy sky above towering trees, a few stars glittering between branches. A night bird called out once, twice. She wanted to learn about the birds and flowers on the estate. She’d like to talk to the owners about its history. She’d like to take a bath every morning and every night even in summer, open the bathroom windows to the breeze with all that was carried on it right to her.

She’d like these moments to stay in their places and never leave her.

Gerry ruffled her hair, it shortness feeling like a downy chick but he might never share that, just keep it to himself. He loved her hair and put his cheek to it a moment.

“How was your day?” she asked as she pressed notebook to chest.

“I got two more orders already, a couple came by before my class. Two side chairs and a nightstand for a child. I have my hands full, so surprised it’s happening fast. How about you?”

She put the notebook on her lap once again, hands flat atop its cover. “I’m so glad, Gerry–things are looking up for your business just like you wanted, it’s what you deserve.” She looked up at the treetops and found a tiny star among newly leafed branches that was bigger out in space than she could easily ponder. “Well. I’m finally writing again.”

“You are?” He came down the steps to one below her. “What are you writing?”

Kit gave him her real smile, the one that showed pink gums and every big square tooth, the one that told him how much she cared that he asked this question on this night, on the steps under trees and stars. Their steps. Their fine night.

“I’m working on a full length play…Gerry, I’m good and ready to do it.”

He reached out for her, pulled her up and embraced her tightly. This is what he’d been waiting for, her true self to emerge and find its way back to creating. To not be afraid so much. To believe the life they inhabited together would be alright. It was happening, right there, right then, a change. Kit hugged him closer and they left the world behind, trailing a tender and plaintive song of nightbirds.