Oscar took the rosewood-grained pen into both hands and turned the barrel over and over. The fine golden accents on cap and hefty body shone under the warm light of his desk lamp. He leaned back in the swivel chair with its worn buttery leather, and stilled the impulse to turn in it, side to side, as he mused. He needed to think without the usual distractions. Before him rested a sheet of grey-blue stationary, smooth and hearty enough for his pressured, rapid penmanship. His supply of writing papers was replenished a week prior, but the pen…it had been in his possession for thirty-six years. A gift, and one that did not diminish in usefulness or elegance after all this time.
It had been on his mind from dawn to midnight to write the letter ever since word had arrived from Addie. It was two days ago that he shuffled through the mail, then once more when realizing he’d had a glimpse of spare, careful handwriting, almost calligraphic. At first he thought, Another invitation to someone’s christening or wedding or who knows what else, and would have tossed it aside awhile. But there was something about the handwriting that brought him closer to the script, then held it at arm’s length to look again. To take it in.
The address label stated: Adelaide P. Trussman. From Wisconsin, of all places. The first name, yes, he got that, not the last–who else did he know with that name? No one. That place or the reason for the dispatch, no. It took him several seconds to entertain the probability that Addie–the Addie he’d known during college days, pre-law days– had written to him thirty five years after they had last communicated.
He took it to his desk immediately and stood above it, hands flattened on desktop keeping him upright, heart pounding. And then he did nothing more with it. But paced back and forth on the tattered Persian rug by his desk, glancing with each pass at the envelope as if it was a strange and risky thing to even cast his eye upon.
He then assembled a thick ham sandwich with white bean soup for dinner and sat in the long dining room, the two white candles that he usually lit staying flameless. The food went down fast, unremarkable but tasting like nothing and he wondered why he’d bothered, he was that unnerved. He was a man who indulged his appreciation of any sort of meal, and his girth testified to such, though his height was significant, as well. But he felt slightly unwell after eating.
And sleep failed him more than usual. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her: shoulder-length, ashy- blonde hair, as she herself had called it (rather than “dirty”, she’d confessed); medium-slim figure attired in her standard white button-up shirt and snug jeans; and her head thrown back in laughter, wide mouth revealing slightly crooked front teeth that showed up readily–she often smiled and laughed, with anyone or for any reason, he’d thought. Then he dropped off, unable to recall more, only to wake periodically, unsettled.
And then, on the second day after its arrival, he took his time reading Addie’s letter. He sat in the bright spring garden, and afterwards he stayed there a very long while, letter pages fluttering on the bench beside him.
And read it three times more.
Now he sat at his desk in a ruminative mood, jumbled feelings capsizing inside him. This was the day he would respond.
My dear Addie,
That was quite too familiar, wasn’t it?
Hello there, Addie!
Too casual, almost rudely so. Like John Wayne in a sexy, aggressive manner.
Hello my old friend,
That might be thought presumptuous. Were they really such great friends that one short final year of undergraduate school? Despite the fact that they fairly often studied together, shared a meal at least two times as week, went out with their buddies to theater and concerts and met up afterwards at various dwelling places to keep the party going? And got closer near the end? Not as close as he wished, but enough to linger inside his mind.
He pulled out a journal he used to write drafts of various things and on a white page he wrote with a cheap ball point rather than the fine fountain pen.
That seemed best. Keep it a cleanly simple and correct greeting, one that could be passed over without a pause.
It was indeed a bit of a shock to find your elegantly addressed envelopeamong the usual suspects of disposable advertisements and rancorous bills. It is seldom that one gets a real letter these days, much less arriving from someone from the past, like a ghost arising from the pedestrian and quiet landscape of life as I do live it.
Was that too much? Too revealing that he lived a more solitary life than he’d planned the days before or long after law school? He left it and kept with the momentum; he could edit later.
Your address label announced that you reside in Wisconsin, apparently a small city unknown to me. That was cause enough to look twice.
No, that would not do. It had the grating edge of criticism, even a minor threat of scorn now he thought it over. A small city in Wisconsin–as if he was shocked and in a distasteful way. Well, even if it had felt close to that… he was born and bred, now well established in the city wilds of Chicago–but wait, he did recall she loved the country. She had grown up on a ranch–Idaho, he thought–the first thirteen years of her life and had told him she missed the countryside and honest work of outdoor chores. So she may have found her Shangri-la, or close enough.
He drew a firm line through the sentences and began again.
First, it gave me pause that you are not living in Idaho or Massachusetts, after all. But Wisconsin must be a place you well enjoy; you missed more rural spaces even though you planned on being a lawyer. You did end up practicing law, too, and you do so no doubt well and diligently. This is the very good news. I practice, as well, as you must have discovered, and am now a partner at Longham, Wright and Levison. I still have to check that it is my name at the end of that line. It goes well. But perhaps we can discuss our work another time.
He reconsidered and crossed out the last line.
Oh, he’d be glad to talk about law, skip the rest, the less said that was directly personal the better and easier. Yet, in fact, that is what he longed to do, as well–talk about their last year, how much enjoyment was shared, how he’d longed to hold her much closer than a fast squeeze as greeting or farewell….well, not that, of course not, he’d not now say that.
I am glad to hear from you…was he glad, was that the word? Began again. Plunge right in feet first as Addie did, may as well get to it and get it finished. She had asked to reconnect. What did that mean in this day and age?
I was honored that you thought of me in this time of upheaval and loss. I knew you had married, of course, as you also learned of my decision to wed Jeanette, yet years absent of communication have created a yawning gap in knowledge of our experiences. My marriage lasted four years. It was meant to end from the start, perhaps; I realized I am at my best on my own and my life is full enough of events as well as my work. And Jeanette was intent on more hours spent solidifying her career in emergency medicine. Our lives rarely intersected.But we left each other with a decent, even kind farewell.And no children to bear the brunt of the ending.
I come back home to peace and pleasantries alongside my mammoth, somewhat stately cat, Titan. It is a good life I have made.I don’t regret our marriage but I do not harbor misgivings, either.I am, to my surprise, a man at my ease most of the time.
And it can get quiet enough to hear those long whiskers twitch some days or nights, Oscar thought, running a hand over forehead and balding pate. But he’d said what he meant. No sense embellishing or telling her lies.
It seems as ifyou have had more happy times than trying. Bruce sounds like an admirable man, someone with whom you experienced many joys as well as usual life challenges over thirty years of marriage. I’m saddened for you–that he was in the auto accident, that you lost him in such a devastating manner. It must have been harder than anything you have faced in your life. And to go on, to consider an entirely different array of elements that must now fill and reshape your life.
Was that hinging on maudlin? too personal?….Did she even want him to comfort her or was he imagining that? But he thought he felt her intention, that she need someone to talk to who also knew her back when. That shared history can matter more in hard times.
He considered it: snowy weather, icy roads, another driver fast out of control, an unavoidable hillside. Too much. Oscar would not revisit it in the letter despite wanting to know more. Was there an investigation or was it that simple? She had stated the bare details plainly and then only said she was having trouble with widowhood. As if one might ever find it not terribly troublesome. He could not imagine, not really, what she felt. But she didn’t sound as if she was drowning in tears. Well, it had been over a year. Perhaps she had gotten over the worst of it.
She had two adult children who cared about her, “a blessing, although they both live on the west coast and I see them only a three or four times a year,” she wrote. “But I have the beauty and sweat of hard work. You know how much that can fill up time and diminish any random need for more.”
Well, he didn’t have much need for more. But he could see that she did. It was a shock to lose her Bruce and now there was daily drudgery and longing as she remade her life alone.
Or so he speculated as he read between the lines.
You had said you would like to rekindle a friendship.
Oscar’s heart raced a bit once more. He stood up and shook his body out head to toe to calm himself, walked to the window. What was Addie writing to him about, in the end? A check -in after thirty-six years of nothing? They’d had something small, really not much, a warm friendship that mattered more to him than to her, he had been certain.
Outside were the huge oak and maple trees, expansive garden flourishing with its vivid carnival of blooms and texture-rich green plantings, the two benches he’d placed here and there in order to read, to meditate, to doze. He adored this home on a half acre. The historical brick house was too large, perhaps, but that didn’t bother him. He liked his meanders through the high-ceilinged rooms, appreciated the tidiness and the pleasing Shaker furnishings, enjoyed a sweep of views from each light-filled window. And Titan would pad behind him or overtake him, then disappear until the next mealtime or if he felt like rooting at the foot of the bed at night. If Oscar went outdoors, the luxurious cat would streak past to claim a cozy spot under a bush or at his feet– if not inclined to chase something else moving.
It was the most basic scenarios which gave him comfort after arduous and engaging long work days. Well, that and a good sherry; great literature or a fast thriller to entertain him; so much music to hear that he’d not be finished with it in his lifetime; an hour’s horseback ride at a welcoming stables twice a month for the sheer pleasure of learning something new; meeting with friends at the golf course whenever he was so moved. A satisfying meal three times a day. He was privileged and he admitted it to himself, and the way he felt better about it was to take pro bono cases, too. And he gave a bit of advice on the Community Free Legal Connection line.
He shook his head; he had drifted way beyond letter writing. He got lost in his ways and means, not hers, but it was good to reevaluate what he cared about, too.
I would like that. It has been so long since we shared any thoughts, it might take quite some time to reconnect. We both have full schedules and commitments to attend to, but I am thankful you let me know of the passing of your husband …but also that you are managing, anyway. It helps to have community such as you describe, with potlucks and farmer’s markets and many events for people to gather for celebrated or mourned occasions. And your important book club–that is a boon after all the years you have known the participants. We must not forget MahJong–there’s a game to engage you well, even back in college. (I haven’t yet learned it.)
Was he acting poorly? Brushing her off? After all this time…
He had wondered for years if she might turn up in his life one day, even in passing. Imagined that it would be what he had hoped as a young man, and might even culminate in a romantic and impassioned embrace. Or perhaps more. Love. Much to his embarrassment later, he’d shared that with his closest friend Grant, right after Jeanette, and Grant covered his smile with a hand and probed less. He knew it would take time for the dust to settle, his friend offered without unkindness.
Oscar was not the type for fluff or fuss, Grant told others if asked, but was a good-natured and well meaning man, a gentleman who could get a tad rowdy if encouraged, and simply brilliant at the law. And, it went without saying, supremely content as a bachelor–most of the time–while not averse to meeting with smart, like-minded women with which to share experiences. And that was close to the truth. Oscar could take intimate company or leave it; more often he left it as the years passed.
So, here was the moment Oscar had fantasized– and he was extolling the virtues of her new…independence via widowhood? Ghastly of him. Was he just a commitment-phobe, as a few had hinted or outright accused?
No, a resounding no. He was committed to living the life that he chose. It was not what he’d first anticipated by this age, but it had turned out well.
He put ballpoint to paper once more.
I am glad to offer support as you continue to sort things out. Since, as you know from the past, I have long appreciated the art of letter writing, I am glad you reached out in this manner, as well.We surely have much to catch up on and it pleases me to think of time well spent doing so. Such a correspondence seems an extraordinary thing to undertake in these virtual reality-mad times.
Please let me know if this is something you would benefit from and still may like to share.Until then, I sincerely hope you will find the coming months opening to more fascinating possibilities that help close the profound gaps the loss of your husband has created. I am certain you will.
You certainly deserve all the best in your life, Addie. I have always thought so.
Warm regards(and gratitude that I still use your graduation gift, a beautiful thing),
He looked over the draft, made a few more changes, then picked up his rosewood pen, uncapped it and let the ink flow with his meticulous words onto the fine stationary. It was a joy to use his tools of correspondence, and more so in response to Addie. He had waited a lifetime to do so once more. But if she didn’t want to just write letters… well, then, he’d not be the one to fuss over a lost opportunity. There would eventually be other people, other letters to write thoughtfully with his cherished pen.
After he was satisfied with the pages, he slid it into matching envelope with a slow sigh and left it in the lacquered tray in the table by the front door. He patted it, then went to the kitchen to prepare fresh salmon he’d purchased earlier in the day, Titan scurrying at his heels.
They said she developed a powerful swagger after the fire, and not the sort that may bring pleasure to the eye. She had grown up fast since the fire that attacked her family’s tinder box of a house and left it ash. It took over three years for her to learn to cope at all with the loss of her younger brother and parents. It would take a lifetime to figure ways to live with and beyond it. No, the way she took up a space was not a welcome but warning, long legs moving forward in near-gallops, feet planted so hard the ground wanted to shake them off. Her arms swung rhythmically; her head, set above those Coverson broad shoulders, had chin up permanently in public, and once- sharp but dreamy eyes half-closed to survey any thing or person which crossed her path.
At nineteen Renee, known now as “RC” around town, rarely answered no matter any name called out by peers. Her presence gave off an air of having lived very long already and she was prepared to fight it out from there on. People avoided her quick tongue once she gave in to a casual conversation; how to answer someone who had suffered much yet brooked no fallibility in others?
It was a jolt at first. She’d been the Coverson family hope of a different future, the girl being smart and kind, hard working. After the fire, she still attended school but barely graduated. Her English teacher found her work often impressive but disturbing, yet gave her all As. Otherwise, she skated by, waking up in a cloud each day at her Aunt Dee’s house and met the hours with a long stare, like a rusty wind-up robot. When her aunt got her up and dressed, she just went on for lack of anything else to do. If her hair went unwashed and her clothing bore signs of an overdue cleaning (despite Aunt Dee’s tireless efforts), who cared. No one judged her back then. They were sorrier than they could say, but didn’t know what more to do much less talk about with her. So they watched her change from promising and sociable to closed, sad, even bitter. After high school, most lost much interest. RC was who she was; life did things to people.
Then Renee Coverson came down the street one day in early spring, dressed in usual plaid shirt and torn jeans and her mother’s worn boots–boots of her mother’s. When she entered Maddy’s Fashions, customers were surprised. You couldn’t avoid looking at her, either; she’d been touched with her mother’s exotic aura of beauty. They seldom saw her around, as she avoided unnecessary social situations since her family perished, including shopping done alone, at least.
“RC, hey,” Jana said from behind the counter, her mouth left hanging open.
“I need a dress. Something kinda dark, longer skirt, easy. Size 8, I guess.”
She plunked down a credit card on the counter and stood with hands on hips and feet apart, surveying the racks. Jana looked her over discreetly, considered the inventory. It was most all spring prints, light, airy, elegant or snazzy. Years ago as RC was growing up fast every one worried she’d end up being the one all the guys wanted. Now, it was a different story. Jana got married, so no big deal to her. And the guys were afraid of RC’s history which she carried everywhere like an invisible cape, with dagger.
After lots of shaking of her head, RC selected a maxi cotton dress with small scoop neck, a green-black color with a little cream–it was a viney print. It looked large for her, Jana said, but RC entered the dressing room as three young women whispered to one another, eyes watchful. Two other shoppers arrived. They surreptitiously waited to see if RC would come out in the dress. To their surprise, she did.
Renee Coverson looked in the three-way mirror, eyes narrowed as usual. She smoothed the fabric over her lithe body, slowly turned. You couldn’t say it was a terrific fit, Jana confided later to her best friend, as it hung too loose, was an odd length and the shoulder seams sloped off a bit. But with that thick, deep coppery hair, RC’s eyes opening wider, her pale muscular arms appearing, a curve of calves winking between boots and hem–well, it somehow looked very good. Forest green and ivory vines draped gently over a honed body so long hidden that no one knew what she looked like, anymore. And now that they did, the shoppers fell silent.
RC spun around, both palms up and glared at her audience.
“What are you all gaping at? You don’t have anything better to do with your money and time? It’s just a dress; I’m just me.”
The room was full of lightning, that’s how Jana described it later, and people pulled right back. RC vanished into the dressing room, came out with her old stuff on. Murmuring, the young women turned to each other, full of new gossip. Jana took Aunt Dee’s credit card, despite it not being quite right to do so, and the dress was Renee’s.
She took the bag and turned back to Jana. “Thanks. You aren’t so bad, you know?” then pushed out the door in a terrible hurry again.
It wasn’t a smile she had offered Jana. But it was still something. Maybe RC was coming back to a more ordinary life. God knew that the conflagration her daddy started was the worst day of RC’s life… or ever would be.
“RC, RC, RC. that’s all they ever call me. Did they forget my real name? It gets on my nerves hearing it.”
Aunt Dee looked up from potatoes she was peeling, then handed to her niece, the lettuce to tear up.
“It’s been a nickname awhile now, it’s only your initials,” her aunt said, her low voice going soft. Though she did know that was a white lie.
“Only since seventh grade when Rene James moved into town. Why didn’t they just call her RJ instead?”
“Maybe because you never objected. Or…”
“Never mind. That was then, this is now,” Renee said, tearing up the iceberg leaves, tossing them into a bowl. She grabbed a carrot and another peeler. “I’m Renee. Period. I need to do something about it sooner than later.”
Aunt Dee had heard once what RC really meant: “rough cut.” The young brats in town had started that, likely the boys, after Renee had changed into a brittle, grief hollowed girl. Rough cut: a major tree trunk sliced up with a serious saw and then left unfinished. Not pretty wood that was finished. Her brother Johnny, Renee’s father, had been a woodsman, eking out a living selling cords for fires in winter and snowplowing, and crafting furniture, or doing special projects for renovated houses of the well-off. Rough cut, a way to designate the sort she came from, perhaps. Not a good term for a human, not a fair one in this case. Her niece was better than that, more like teak, mahogany shined up, fine wood waiting to be made good and lovely once more after too long gathering dirt and dust.
She wondered why now she did it, got the dress. Two days before the anniversary of that horror of loss, she could hardly bear to think of it–Renee had gone out alone to get it done. Something about how she wanted to commemorate it for once, she mumbled. It spooked Dee. Her niece never wanted to make a note of it, refused even to visit the graveyard, instead going off to the woods for hours as Dee worried. And then she’d show up at the cabin, calmer than usual. But set apart, so alone.
“You like my dress?” Renee asked.
“Sure, but I’ll like it better if I see it on you and know what it’s about.”
Renee turned and leaned against the sink, pulled her hair back and slipped a rubber band on to make a ponytail. My, how she looked like her mother. Evelyn. A strong but too long suffering woman who took care of Dee’s alcoholic brother best she could, and what a wearing down sort of life it was til the end. It made her bones cry out. Dee shook her head.
“What’s up, Renee? What is going on lately? You’re up, down and more mysterious than ever. But you seem less angry.”
That was taking a big chance. Never talk about feelings if you could help it, the family motto. Since Dee was a teacher’s assistant, she’d had training and knew how to listen and to coax kids, and maybe that was why Renee talked to her a bit more over time. But they’d been overall good Renee’s whole life in many ways; after the fire, they got used to each other more, then got more trusting and their bond was nothing to trifle with, as her Russ used to say.
“I’ve got a plan, Aunt Dee. I’ll let you know about it soon. We stick together, bread and butter, right?”
This childish statement so touched Dee that she stretched out her arms to hug her but Renee didn’t respond in kind: paring knife and peeler in her hands, chin jutting a bit, eyes narrowed just enough so it was like shutters being pulled to again. And then she sliced up a tomato fast, chopped the carrots faster. And asked about salad dressing choices and if they still had sliced almonds.
Okay, then, perhaps tomorrow. Dee put the pot of potatoes to boil and hummed, ignoring her niece. Tucking away her heart, a wounded dove hiding in a thicket, waiting to heal up more.
If there was one thing Renee loved, it was dawn. It was the possibility of a new start each time, and that was what she needed to bear life. She had long awakened early, gone to bed late, and that pattern still felt better than most things. Aunt Dee lived only a half mile from where her own family had lived, yet harder to get to when it snowed or stormed. The roads were gravel the last bit to the cabin on a low hill. It was snug against forested acres like her parents’ had been, but here it was deeper, thicker, full of wild things that she might see if she was patient. Darker at night and greener by day, especially after winter.
She’d run here countless times when her father had been slobbering drunk and belly aching or, more rarely, swinging clumsily, then slumping over in inconvenient places, kitchen floor or the shed or the roadway when it was five below. She’d been at Aunt Dee’s that night, helping her with canning and then Dee helped her with exam study questions. That was not unusual; she was told she should not feel such heavy guilt every single day. Renee could hardly think at her own chaotic house, after all, Dee had said once, and then regretted it as the words were true but stung.
If she’d been there then. If Kenny, her brother, and their mother had come with her as Aunt Dee had suggested. If her father hadn’t drunk too much, built and lit a fire in the fireplace haphazardly– then spilled that damned whiskey bottle. It was finally determined by sheriff and firemen. Renee had already blamed him. She knew he’d been in a black out, took them with him out of the blind neglect that came with the powerful sickness.
Out here it was empty of all that, and peaceful. She craved it from the start. Uncle Russ was a kind man, only given to a beer now and then, then he was sick with cancer, gone when she was eleven. Only her harried, overworked mother’s needs even kept her at her own house. And her brother’s hunger for her attention, which she gave him as she could. She’d often felt guilty about wanting to leave but took off, anyway.
Still, she had risen at dawn there, too. Before he had awakened. Before Kenny asked her to take him with her. She needed that half hour. To breathe. To see clues of God. The creatures slinking about in shadows, then softening illumination of day. To just be herself, her own small, searching and more hopeful self. Blessedly alone. And now she was, that was one certain thing. Except for Aunt Dee.
And so in the morning she once more threw off light quilts and swung feet over the edge of bed, rubbed her eyes, pulled off bedclothes. Got into the bathroom before Aunt Dee beat her to it and then dressed. Opened the back door as silently as she could, then sat on the back stoop, knees pulled high, chin propped on her palms.
From there she could see it happen, a slow flare above treetops, navy sky doing its magic brightening, seeping watercolor hues a report of coming weather, birds chorusing, all things coming awake with her, scrabbling in that way that soothed her ears and filled her enough to go on. If not for the stealthy arrival of each dawn, she would have lost her mind and disappeared in the forest for good long ago.
Soon she would do what she’d planned for six months.
The calendar date marked came, the one Renee Coverson had dreaded and avoided commemorating for three years. But not today.
One with gray hair cut short and one with a burnished braid and an understated dress moved in expectant quietness through musky forest following a worn, rutted path.
Long ago Dee and Russ had hacked out the two mile route to gather kindling or search for dead and down trees to cut up; visit the west meadow and pick blackberries and wildflowers; run their beloved beagles or any other dog they took to–and it was comforting to trod, as she often did alone when Renee was gone. Sometimes they took it together but not much during snows, which finally had abated.
Her chest was drumming with anticipation as they wound deeper into pine and spruce, oak, ironwood and birches. Renee took the lead decisively, her stride steady and long, energy increasing the moment they began. She wore her backpack, bulkier than usual, over her new dress.
“Slow down, what’s the rush, we have all day,” Dee puffed words out as she picked up her feet faster. “I wait three years for you to join me for this date and now you may leave me behind…”
Renee stopped and frowned at her aunt, then inclined her head and gave a slow, small smile. “I’ve been waiting, too, I’m impatient, Auntie.” Then she took Aunt Dee’s arm. They tried to sync their steps and finally managed it..
“What is going to happen when we get wherever we’re going?”
But Renee said nothing more. It was quite enough that her arm was laced through hers.
In the meadow, a brilliant light had painted the land and its vegetation golden and emerald; it pulsed with life, itself. Dee wanted to sit in newly sprouted, greening grasses. Listen to the meadowlarks for hours.
“We aren’t there yet, keep going,” Renee prodded.
At the northern edge of meadow land there came a narrower path half-overgrown by vines and grasses. As they entered groups of tall trees again, the younger woman steered the older toward an opening that was filled with dapples of sunniness and shade.
“Cover your eyes now,” Renee half-whispered,”I will lead you.”
When Dee was stopped and instructed to stand still with eyes shut, she heard her niece open the backpack, then rustlings and steps here and there. She almost peeked but knew better–it had taken so long for Renee to come to this point. Finally, she was allowed to see.
She gasped, and hands flew to her mouth. She reached for a tree trunk, braced her weight as her head felt light.
Renee stood close by and Dee looked more. There in the small clearing among elegant birches stood a perfect tiny pine house. Perhaps two by two feet, it had a roof and windows and a doorway open to sweet air and light. With a partly open back, it about resembled a doll’s house. But it was not a doll’s house. It was a replica of a most ordinary simple house. Like her brother’s family house.
There, intact in the woods.
Dee knelt down in the dirt to look inside, eyes stinging, and Renee joined her.
“What on earth… Renee—how?”
“I made it.”
Aunt Dee studied the good proportions, clean corner and smooth edges, the neat, flush nails, then at Renee. “You did this? How and when?”
“I got a few supplies from the garage last summer, yeah, from our old place…it was hard, but anyway, I stored them in your smallest rundown shed of yours, hid things behind junk. Uncle Russ had tools, too. I waited until you were gone for long periods a few times. It wasn’t that complicated. But I have very slowly worked on the people who stay there…and just finished yesterday, so I could bring them on this date.”
“You have skills, and it’s wonderful, what you have done here…”
She saw then the wooden figures Renee had just placed, each in a different room, standing or sitting. They had jointed limbs. Narrow faces with clear hand-drawn eyes, line mouths. Just sitting there, apart. Not quite smiling but not grimacing. Again came a hand to her mouth as she held at bay tears, unwilling to mar the moment with her sorrows, which lessened by the moment.
“Yes, I have basic skills and ideas, so I just did it. It was helpful, I guess. To hammer and cut and put things together. To remember– but make something clean, new…know what I mean? To try to make it a little better than it was. But we did have some love, we did….”
Her face had begun to alter as she spoke. Anger melted from her– tension released her smooth lips, narrow creases eased from her brow. Her eyes were wide open and she was looking at the house, then into the woods, and finally at Aunt Dee. It was as if Renee was coming to, even finding it okay to look at life full-face more.
“Yes, I think I understand.” Dee got up from the damp ground.
Renee reached inside the back of her miniature house. She picked up each figure, then arranged one after the other in a circle, in the room at the front of the house. They stiffly faced each other, mutely obedient, and then she made the pegged arms and legs touch lightly.
She and Aunt Dee were still, too, arms linked. Benders Creek rushed downstream behind them, a jay screeched and took off, the red-winged blackbirds gathered in the meadow and carried on. They took in the creation that sat among trees, sunlight warming the constructed pine building, its few rooms brightening, the four figures resting in sweet symmetry.
Renee bent to pick a smattering of periwinkles and marsh marigolds about their feet. In the center of her pine family gathering, she placed blossoms. Aunt Dee bowed her head as her niece laid her hands a long moment upon the roof, placed a tender kiss on the sun-touched front doorway, then walked off, lanky body easing into sunshine, soul lighter with each step, new dress swinging above her boots.
The first time my fingers felt a surrender of the strings, it was like the world was flung into outer space and I was riding it there. The sounds were tinny and screechy but the action felt so good I did it again, my left hand’s fingertips straining against light gauge steel. My right hand worked to strum and bang across the strings and as it all exploded into the atmosphere my head and chest caught vibrations on a shimmering wave.
“Naw, not good– it’s either you or the flea market guitar. Both, I’d say.”
My brother Terry was propped on his side and leaned into the edge of the top bunk bed to get a better look at me. I hit the strings again and the sound wailed through the room in search of a chord. I placed my fingers this way and that and strummed twice.
“Give it to me.”
“Dad said I could use it. And it actually is a Yamaha FG150.”
“It’s a piece of junk, you know he’s always bringing so called vintage stuff home and bragging about his deals–$200 just thrown away.”
Terry stretched himself over the edge, testing gravity. I waited for his body to slither down, giant snake of a brother. I fought the urge to remove myself but too late, he landed on his feet with a thud. Pointed at the guitar. I ignored him and tried a few more things, trying to get a feel for it in my hands, in my head. Terry sat beside me then, muscled weight causing the mattress to sink so that I listed too far, into him.
“Let me see it. Please, knucklehead.”
I shoved him away with hard shoulder against his.
“Okay, Danny, my turn!”
I gave up, my fingers raking the strings a last time. Terry got what he wanted; he was good at that, like most things.
He had studied piano since age 5 and I played the trumpet and though we both performed well, it was Terry’s capable pianist’s hands plus chestnut- curly hair and amber eyes that stole the show. Not that he loved piano; he just played it very well, so now he was in search of the next big thing he might conquer. All he needed was a guitar and his megalomania would increase by ten thousand. Everything about him screamed “star quality” by age 17, my buddy Jack once informed me with a shrug, and he noted he had a younger sister like that, center stage all the time.
I took that in as Jack tried to slam-dunk one in our driveway and of course it bounced right off. Then I got one in, if barely. We laughed as we flubbed more–all irritations slid off his back, he was easy for a friend– and went in search of food.
At 15, I was not only inches behind Terry in height but a seeming lifetime behind in accomplishments. Unless you counted billiards. At least I had that–our dad had found a billiards table with equipment and in a flash I’d found a sort of sporting call. Terry rarely beat me. And golf, I was pretty good at that. Terry complained it was too slow a game to excite him, he’d take basketball, anytime, or hockey. But then, I was always the tortoise and he was the rabbit, Mom said, and neither was better than the other, only different. Okay…I informed her it just didn’t sound good, so please quit.
As he carefully fingered the 6 strings and tried to pluck a tune, I got up and pulled the curtains back from the window. The undulating hills radiated warmth in the last of a warm caramel sunlight. Dad was throwing Riley a stick, who dutifully retrieved it and waited for the next toss. They could do that for an hour, easy. I had been the one who threw the sticks but Grey Dog, our aging, grey muzzled Labrador, died last year and since then I’d lost interest.
We’d daily walked the hills, in silence more often than not. I told him things. I even sang him songs, which he seemed to like.
I swiveled around to meet Terry’s stare as his hand took a break atop the pretty wood body.
“You done trying that out yet?” I asked.
Terry strummed away. Though it didn’t yet make much sense, he had a smart way with it like his piano notes did, clipped and sure. He shook his head and grinned. I left him to it. Fought the urge to slam the door on the way out, so pulled it to a hard close and went outside to watch Riley and Dad.
I played the Yamaha when I could, which was more often than expected. Terry had gradually and miraculously forgotten about it. He was cramming all the time to elevate already excellent grades–the goal was to get into University of Michigan. He and Dad had been discussing the merits of studying law, like he, himself, did before getting into global economics. I was less of a student–it bored me. I liked music, played trumpet in the orchestra and wrote things in my spare time, just loosely connected ideas and thoughts. I tried my hand at manuscript notation but found it hard, with no one to get help from; my music teacher didn’t write or even arrange music, he explained, embarrassed.
Sometimes Dad–eager to reassure me I was loved despite there being a star player in the family–I made things out of wood, our hands working with the grain, piecing pieces of a design together with respect for the trees that gave up their beauty. Like the oak coffee table for the basement rec room. I appreciated the shared hobby but it was that vintage guitar that was best. The rec room was where I usually played when people were gone. My hands were getting it, how the strings worked, how the notes felt under the less tender pads of each fingertip.
I had decided that song writing was a possibility only after I met Nance.
“I hear you play guitar,” she said after school. We’d just gotten out of chemistry class and we walked down the hall. It gave me jitters walking so close.
I cocked an eyebrow, surprised. “And–so?”
“Just think that’s cool, that’s all, you should play for us all sometime,” she said and was gone, her arm grabbed by her best friend. She looked back at me and I looked away. She was too amazing to look right at for long. And I had grown two and a half inches in the last four months and could barely walk down the hall without tripping. Besides, was she teasing me? Had Terry spread things around, made fun of me as he often did? I didn’t trust it. But I wondered about love at first sight, heretofore scorned as a real thing.
One night Terry and the parents were at a basketball game–I had to beg off, saying I had too much homework to watch him play. I started to work on a tune. It was just a few notes that sounded sloppy but then got silvery, then there came a verse with a mishmash of words, then a passable verse. I wrote the words down, revised them, tried again, again. Then a chorus came right to me. My voice had gone and changed, gotten deeper– it growled and caught but I found with less air pressure forced through my throat it could sound decent. I practiced that song for weeks, only when I was alone, but finally it came together. A victory. I told Jack but refused to perform it for him so he dropped it. He was into old rock and metal bands which was fine but it wasn’t really me. I didn’t know what I was trying to create. I just did it, then did it more.
Once I heard footsteps on the stair landing outside the rec room and kept on singing, as I was recording on my PC. But I knew they were my dad’s by the way his weight slogged up creaking steps; his pace picked up as he hurried on. I almost wished he’d come in but was relieved he hadn’t interrupted. A couple days later he stopped me on the way to the garage where he was repairing a lamp.
“You have a feel for that old Yamaha, son,” he said. “It was a worthwhile find.”
“Thanks,” I said, and that was that.
I wrote, played and sang what I could never say to Nance. She was going out with a guy already, I found out, but I still could look at her, wait to hear her speak in a hallway or class. Her voice was strong as a brass bell when excited, then rushed easy like water over a hill; it was soft as a leaf falling to ground when she whispered. Her presence filled a large part of me but all I wanted with her just became more music. I kept it all to myself. Not even Jack heard those songs. But he did like the spasms of hard, fast chords I put together for him.
There wasn’t much else I liked doing and my grades showed it. I worried the parents would take the Yamaha, at least limit me so I vowed to study more.
“You’d better get on those grades, bro,” Terry said. “You want to go to the local community college?” He popped a slice of last night’s pizza in his mouth.
I grunted, shrugged, stared out a window in my second story bedroom. A potential chorus to a new song looped around my head as clouds formed and re-formed. I needed to record a few bars. But there he was, lounging on my brown plaid love seat against the opposite wall, big feet and long legs all over as he dug in for awhile. Taking up my time.
I sat at my desk, guitar wedged between bookshelves and bed. Terry had moved to another room years before but at times stopped by our original bedroom. Which meant, I pointed out, that I’d not entirely had my own room since he just walked in as if it was his, still. No one seemed perturbed about that though Mom expressed sympathy and asked Terry to be more considerate. I had to yell at him to stay out more often. Finally he’d stopped by less and less.
“To what do I owe the honor of your annoying presence today?” I asked.
“And he did it, Terrance Michelson slipped right into U of M, touchdown, let’s hear it for blue and gold!” he announced in a bombastic sports commentator voice.
I regarded him evenly, unsurprised. He was fist-pumping the air, screaming a silent triumphal scream as air hissed from his mouth, overjoyed and proud of himself.
“Congratulations, wise ass,” I said with a fist pump of my own to be more brotherly. Fair. “A few more months and you’ll sweating it out in Ann Arbor and I’ll have this place to myself, at last.”
“And you can sing your heart out all you want, I won’t have to plug my ears but no one really cares, anyway. Maybe you can visit me sometime–I’ll get back to you on that.”
“What?” My heart thumped faster. They had all heard me? And he never let on?
“You think no one’s around. You get so into it! One of us comes home and can hear you in the basement or from up here, you don’t even know we come in. Singer slash songwriter stuff, huh?… What’s that about?”
The sneer under the words–singer songwriter stuff; I was surprised he’d gone that easy on me—told me what I already suspected: it meant little to nothing to them, it was stupid to his family. Otherwise, they’d have said something, anything by now. The trumpet, sure, that was a worthy instrument but guitar and songwriting? I flushed, studied my hands. I had great callouses now, the strings never bit flesh as they once had. My fingers fit with those strings.
Terry sat up, guzzled his soda. “You can do a lot better than that, right? I’m glad you got into the guitar, though–not my thing, too busy, anyway. Makes Dad feel good that someone uses it. ” He surveyed the bedroom, looked at me a beat or two and laughed. “A few more months, Danny boy, and I’ll be outta here!” He rolled off the couch, squashed his soda can and tossed it at me, then exited.
I shouted after him, “Guess what, it’s blue and maize, idiot, not gold– look it up!”
The room was so quiet then I already knew how it’d be when he was at U of M. Peaceful. Maybe lonely, occasionally. But I sincerely doubted that. I might let my music be heard by the parents, test it out. Maybe. I was tired of hiding what mattered most. Tired of being afraid to show who I was, not a rock ‘n roller like my brother and friends admired. I was, basically, a sort of poet who loved music, and if that felt awesome in deeper reaches of me, it was also terrifying.
And I was not going to college. I had to break this to our parents before long. I was going to make a lot more music. And make a basic living doing it. I could think of nothing else I wanted to do.
This stage was like every stage but smaller. Intimate, homey. The capacity crowd was cheering like every other audience, enthusiasm spilling over into manic energy, but the massive roar felt softer inside me than usual adrenaline surges in my body and mind. This time it was the hometown stage.
This time I had nothing to prove, right?
Yet even as I played as always, my head was bowed less toward the mike, there was less of my usual closed eyes–and before long rose an intensity that at times had been lacking as we toured. It was as if I needed to come home after the years of struggle, then success that I sweated to maintain. I wanted this audience to know that this–this was exactly what I had been made to do all those years when nobody knew me. When my music was kept under lock and key. The boy who was becoming the man whose music they now danced to–the kid transforming while no one noticed. Even, it seemed, my family.
I looked over the crowd, scanning, scanning as the band played and we sang out, music rising and falling. I had called my parents and we’d chatted–they were mildly supportive once they’d heard my earliest music, and more so when I started to make a decent living. I’d not gone to the house as they’d moved, it wouldn’t be the same; we were flying out early morning, too. Instead, we’d had an early dinner and a good catch-up. They’d be out there just as they had been at a handful of other concerts. “That Yamaha FG150,” Dad always said with a happy shake of his head.
I hadn’t heard from Terry in well over 2 years–he was a lawyer in Pennsylvania, married, had a son. He’d called and congratulated me on our second, more lucrative album and I’d sent kudos when he joined a good law firm–but we had little more to say.
Neither of us was to to blame. He was another kind of person, ambitious in another way– for our parents, for himself. I couldn’t share music twelve years ago; it hadn’t felt real or nearly good enough. Life felt so tentative then, made of dreams and longing, like a shaky attempt at a magic wish. Now music lived in my days and nights; it was the whole of it.
My band, Dan and the Grey Dogs, had made three albums in seven years. We had traveled thousands of miles, lost track of the countries, found ourselves with more money than we’d dreamed of having. I was doing what I had desired, and this great band had made every laborious moment and crazy dream connect and it worked. I sang out. My guitar cried and soared, quieted and called out– and the other guitar and percussion lines rose up, turned this way and that, unreeled the notes and carried the tunes into the universe.
The crowd was swaying, jumping about, calling back to us. I closed my eyes again, let my voice respond, guitar riffs reach out to grab or caress: this language that had given life to a boy’s lovelorn poems told broader, deeper stories. Stories I no longer needed to hoard or protect.
Back to our dressing room. Squeezed between band members. I threw my arms around each, thanked them as always. Jokes and criticisms, relief of laughter. Beers passed around. A loud knock on the door, three times. Our manager answered as we seldom saw fans at a dressing room. I ran my hand through dripping hair, grabbed a towel for my face, took off my soaking shirt and rubbed down, leaned against the wall. Waited.
“Dan, hey-is that you?” He glanced at me, then all over the space and back to me. Stared as if surprised to see me there in the flesh at last. As was I, him.
“Terry… come on in! My brother, guys.”
They nodded at Terry, a couple slapped him on the back, then the band melted away from us.
He looked too big in the noisy, cluttered room, sport jacket folded over his arm, shifting from one foot to another as the door closed, his eyes squinting, eyebrows unsettled. He put hand to forehead, rubbed at a crease. His shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly and he began to speak, then stopped. I stepped closer, held out my hand, which he grasped hard.
“Great show!” he said to the band, then, “Good one, Danny” to me but without much enthusiasm.
“Thanks. But where’s… Iris…?” I asked as we moved to a corner, that had to be right, a flower, yes. “I knew you wouldn’t bring little Thomas if you came tonight, but maybe Iris?…I know I only met her at your wedding four years ago, but–“
“Well, that’s the thing, you never knew each other, did you? We haven’t been much in touch. And she couldn’t come.”
“Oh, okay. Sorry, I hope all is well.”
Terry looked past my shoulder. I followed his gaze. He stared into the mirror above the counter where we got a bit made up, blown dry and so on, and his eyes drifted from the strain of his face to tiredness of mine in the reflection.
“She left,” he said to my image. “Five months ago. She has Thomas–for now, not all the time, either. I asked Mom and Dad to not tell you.” He gave me a weak half-smile, as if this was all there was to it and it was what it was.
“Terry, I’m sorry, man….” My hand went to his shoulder but he stepped away, looked around again.
“I always wanted to play, you know, but I had a lot on my plate, not enough time and you had a natural feel for it….I had to be the lawyer. It’s okay, I’m good at that. Anyway. You always had more true talent.”
“Always? I did?”
“Of course, so I ignored you, at least your music. I couldn’t compete well and win, for once.” He sighed hugely. “Competition, that relentless engine that has driven me so hard.”
“It does most of us. I guess we succeed when we push on, right? And you succeeded in your work, too, so we both did okay.”
One of the guys from the band pointed at the door asking if I was going to join them at a local bar or the hotel or stay. I inclined my head–go on.
“I should go, your band is ready to pack it in.” He started to the door after the Grey Dogs.
I felt an urge to leave just as he did. It had felt very personal fast. Uneasy at moments already. Maybe it was enough that he came and said it was a good show. Enough that he shared a hard thing, the truth. But I didn’t know when I’d be back that way again or if I’d get to Pennsylvania in the next year or two. Or ever, who knew? What else would happen in our lives? When would we get to know each other as adults, anyway? There was no more bunk bed in our lives, no yelling down the hallway. Time took us down a damn big river and here we were, both mid-stream for once.
I swiped my neck again with a towel and grabbed a clean T shirt from my battered duffel bag and pulled it on.
“Hey, want to get a drink and a bite to eat at the ole Eastlake Bar and Grill?”
Terry looked at his wristwatch, said, “I guess, sure.” He tapped the gold and diamond face, “a gift I got when I made junior partner at the most financially prosperous firm in town,” he noted proudly. “Dad would love this fancy throwback of a watch, right?”
“Just what I was thinking! It’s pretty nice, bro, hang onto that. Maybe you should go see them, show it off. Now I say let’s get out of here before more fans congregate at the back door, okay?”
“Wow, impressed.” Terry gave a small mock bow but it didn’t feel mean spirited. “Please–after you, Danny boy,” he said for the first time in his life, and maybe the last but it didn’t matter, anymore.
We ran for the car, flashes going off around us, people screaming as I grabbed my brother’s arm to drag him faster along–and there was Jack hanging at the edge of a growing clot of fans, both hands waving, smile infectious as always. I strode over to greet him and thought, Lucky dog I am, lucky life.
“Get up already, it’s late…” she mumbled into the neighboring mass, then covered her head with the patchwork quilt.
She could feel the slim landscape of bone and muscle of the man who somehow took up most space every night. She nudged again with her toes, contacting on a thigh. Nothing. Eyes opened, she reached out and felt for the light growth of beard, the heated skin of slumber. His feather pillow surrendered to her touch. Marnie sat bolt upright and rubbed her dry eyes, looked again. Not a body in the spot it should be. A haphazard gathering of two firm pillows took his place instead, the ones they didn’t like but kept on hand for propping if they read.
So Chris had left already, early for once. She always said it was late right after the alarm went off, it helped motivate him. Marnie glanced at the extra pillows and a tiny fear snaked along her spine. Maybe he had left earlier and didn’t want her to know at first. She got up, fumbled with her robe and padded downstairs–no coffee fragrance enriched the crisp air.
The quietness was the same if quieter since it didn’t hold his presence. But she persisted, checking living and dining rooms, bathroom and a guest room. She scanned the laundry room she had wanted upstairs but he’d said to keep downstairs so she lugged overflowing baskets up and down every time. She knew it was foolish but she ran back upstairs, peered in the updated huge bathroom–there was no white (always white) towel tossed over the edge of the oval tub–and the pleasant second bedroom that one or the other of them used when at times if nights were marred by sleeplessness. She admired the “bluets in a meadow” strewn over the coverlet, tapping her nails on the door frame. She needed a new dust ruffle, maybe to match the flowers.
“Think,” she muttered, “and remember: did he have a dental appointment? Is he working overtime at the forestry office and I forgot–or maybe there’s a special meeting? Was he going to meet up with the guys for breakfast despite it being Monday, not Saturday?” She gave this thought and shook her head–not likely any of those.
Back in their bedroom, she stripped off pajamas, picked fresh underwear, grabbed her robe and entered the bathroom that was finished four months ago. She stepped into the luxuriant shower with double shower heads. The white subway tiled walls might have been watercolor blue with dove grey accents in an elegant pattern, not this stark area that blinked at her each morning, threatening to trigger a headache from light reflection. But Chris only thought of resale value every step of the renovation they’d begun a year ago. Plus, he preferred white over any color. She huffed as suds covered her face. He was definitely not a guy to wear bright or soft hues; not a man who’d tolerate daisies on an accent wall of the guest bathroom; not even one to complement her on a silky coral shawl she wore with a standard black dress for their eighth anniversary last summer–he liked the clean simplicity of it, the sharp silhouette, why distract from that? He liked to admire her, not see the clothes. He’d grinned and she had relented.
Marnie looked at the soap-on-a-rope he used, brought it to her nose: spice and smoke was how she thought of it. It suited Chris. Basic maleness with hints of danger glimpsed when it seeped through his usual calmness. She knew things others did not: angry flash from nowhere, a growing craving for sex, how he took chances when driving in the country, ones no one should–you never know what might show up on those roads, person or beast. But most of the time Chris was the man she married, caring, she thought, a dedicated worker who supervised seven others and ripped out kitchen counters–the one counted on in any crisis, for sure. He was careful and neat. He folded his socks in such a way that when she looked into the drawer they looked like little white boxes nicely aligned. It made her think of the small rectangular bank check boxes she’d buried dead parakeets in as a child, settling each in the dirt with a pat, then forgetting it until the next burial.
The shower’s temperature was turned up so steaming, rainy rivulets coursed over her chest, back, legs. She closed her eyes, imagined waterfalls in faraway places, bright birds and swaying palms. Or desert cacti and sand, shocking blooms. What she wouldn’t give for a holiday far from this town in such distant north woods. She switched the water to cool before getting out, rubbed down reddened skin, careful of more tender areas.
After she checked smoldering remains of burnt logs in the wood stove–Chris usually did this first thing– and made instant oatmeal breakfast, Marnie checked her phone messages for the second time, but still none from him. She put on her warm jacket and boots, looked outside, front and back, checked for his car because he could be lingering in the garage, maybe checking the oil–couldn’t he? But he wasn’t and crows fled overhead, broadcasting commands,and startled her. The sky weighed down on dirty snow and leafless treetops, still held a darkness, and it was eight-thirty already. Was it to be more and more snow again, plunging temperatures after they’d just had the saving sunshine? The bitter cold could make her cry sometimes, she was so tired of it.
Back inside, the coffee maker delivered coffee into her mug with sunflowers on it; she drank it black for once, hoping to wake up faster. Her head felt as if someone had drawn curtains over her analytical mind, the one she valued most and enabled her to teach mathematics at a community college three nights a week. It was her emotional mind trying to get a grip on her, but she was stuck between, wavering, at odds with facts, uneasy with implications, sharply aware of his presence despite his being elsewhere.
Her cell phone rang. Dana.
“Got some time today? I’d love a huge cobb salad at Grace’s, what d’ya say?”
“I don’t think I can, Dana, not today.”
“Working on a teaching plan? Come on.”
“No, I… don’t feel that great, not good enough to go out for lunch.”
“What is it?”
“Just an off morning. I’ll call you tomorrow after I get more rest, okay?”
Silence fell between them; Marnie could hear Dana’s little black terrier skittering around.
Dana released a short sigh. “I see, okay then. You’re usually too busy or something, Mar. Call me if there’s anything I can do. Or when you are up to it!”
Marnie could hear her breathing heavily, as she tended to do, but imagined her friend’s thin lips clasped into a line. She liked Dana partly because she knew just when to say less, not more. No questions meant no lies forthcoming.
Take me to Las Vegas with you next week-end, that’d be helpful! Marnie thought and pressed fingertips to temples. But Dana had a husband, too, and they went places like that.
They hung up, and for a minute Marnie wanted that lunch, just an hour out of the claustrophobic house. But it passed.
She knew she could call his work but she puttered. Got the feather duster and knocked the dust off every last surface. Washed a load of laundry, then another. Snacked on dried, spiced mango slices until she felt a bit sick. Wrote a grocery list: cheese, crackers, creamer, pork roast, carrots, cheese. Crossed off the second cheese, looked at the items, wadded up the paper and started over. Who cared…? Eye wandering, she picked up a book Chris was reading on wildlife management programs in the UK. Saw his well-worn hiking boots at the back door, so she cleaned them up and rubbed in mink oil.
Before she knew it, noon arrived. Marnie called his office.
“Oh, hello, Dennis! Isn’t Chris at his desk–or is he at lunch?” Likely only their forestry office had a landline, Chris had said, a weird throwback to the good ole days, they all kind of liked that, black phone with clunky handset on his desk and at times the guys called him on it with their cells. Like she was, a habit.
“Hey there Marnie. I’m not sure, he left a bit ago, didn’t say where he was going, probably the Rooster…ya wanta leave a message?” He wheezed a little; Dennis was not in great health–so many Camel cigarettes– but still a hard worker. He apologized as he coughed. “Dang cold.”
Marnie didn’t answer a moment. So he had gone to work, that much was certain. Of course. She thought of going to the Rooster to see if he was there, why he’d left like that in a hurry, and said nothing more. She wondered if he was in a booth, that one they liked with the best window view, or if it was jam-packed and he was at the counter shoveling food in as he thought about more work.
“Marnie, you there, girl?” There was a tapping of a pencil or pen on wood.
She noted how quiet it just got in the office, as if everyone had suddenly left. Or someone important had walked in.
“Sorry, Dennis, just thinking. No, that’s fine, I’ll try his cell. Thanks.”
But she didn’t try his cell. She got a glass of red wine and sat on the couch, listening to the radio Chris had saved from items unsold after the estate sale for his father. Gus had unexpectedly died last year. She liked the radio, too, and missed Gus. More than he did, perhaps; they weren’t real close then, but she’d become fond of the irascible man.
Then she thought how men in their fifties or later still called women “girls”, like Dennis had, yet wasn’t sure if she hated it or found it irrelevant. But it bothered her right then. She was his boss’ wife, but also she was a professor and none of them seemed to appreciate that. Even if she did teach online now. St. Ignace was so far from contemporary ideas and changes that she felt it wedged between times. Most just hung on to what they knew.
Wind rattled a loose shutter they’d fixed properly. She saw flurries sweeping past the windows, white feathery bits propelled into layered greyness, like feathers into dirty wool. She brought a heavy afghan up to her chin, closed her eyes, thought and tried not to think.
The snowstorm had shown its fierce intentions so that white flakes were now swirling, zigzagging, entering the mad mass of snow. A good hour or more had passed. Marnie shook herself awake, got up to put wood in the wood stove and rekindle a gasping fire. Her nose was getting cold.
They’d been there almost four years. No, Chris had been raised in St. Ignace then went to university, then got work in Minnesota where they eventually met at a climatology conference. He did well in the Forest Service there yet wanted to return to his roots and she, faithful, followed. And it was just go with it or teach math with no husband. She worked at liking it as much as he did, but found it trying. She was from Minneapolis-St, Paul. Her life left behind so easily had come to feel a million miles from St. Ignace, a world like a dream. But they loved each other, right?–that was the crux of it.
His black fleece was slung over the rocker and seeing it jarred her back to the moment. Hovering before pungent, radiant heat of the stove, she still felt chilly so pulled on the fleece, inhaled the fabric’s scent–spice and smoke and wood, just as it smelled all the time around him. She suspected roots would soon grow from his feet; he’d fit right in, even with those.
The allure was simple: being opposites. She with her love of pretty things, fascination with equations and adoration of jazz. Her outgoing impulses tempered by deep pondering. His devotion to the land and its needs and demands, curiosity about almost only earth sciences and wildlife, and that great desire for action, physical risk. Their shared love of nature kept them mutually interested, and the physical attraction which still took them by surprise.
The snow hit the windows with such force it was as if it begged to get in. She knew about winter from childhood and youth but never had intended on living again where it dominated. To her geography was personal, each individual drawn to a place that spoke to him or her. She’d hoped to move to Nevada or New Mexico or maybe northern California. Chris got the better job deals; they weren’t there, that was that.
Time ticked by. He didn’t call her. She made a sandwich, made more coffee. The winter storm warning was in full effect according to her charging phone–in case power went out– and she knew Chris might come home early, he might come late or check in from his friend’s outside of town where he’d remain– due to the roads, he’d say. This had happened many times.
She zipped herself into his thick fleece and got a book she kept trying to read because it should be good: Mathematics and Wisdom of the Ages. Instead, she skimmed it, put it down as usual. Wisdom was something she sorely coveted but hadn’t found there.
Marnie sank deeper into the plaid second-hand couch, legs and feet curled under her, and watched snow act alive as it tumbled and fell, lifted and gathered and draped everything in formidable whiteness. Its stark beauty– a tyranny.
Chris would stop at the store and get dinner for them if he could; he’d buy more coffee. He’d hang up his parka and take off his boots in the mud room and come find her. He’d have chafed apple red cheeks and his reddish hair would stick up all over when he pulled off the wool cap. He’d ask what she was up to, “no good and five feet six and a half?” Bury his chapped lips in her warm neck, breathe in deeply, and they’d forget dinner for awhile.
As the darkness crept into the house and the fire burned lower, Marnie didn’t turn on the lights. She sat and remembered. How it had been, how they had engulfed each other at first, how they had grown up some, weathered trials. How they had lost her mother and his father too young and just held each other like never before. How they’d found the simple country house, made it so much better. Planted a garden each spring. Danced to country songs at the Eagles Lodge. Watched astounding sunrises and sunsets over Lake Michigan, Lake Huron. Camped under the star-pierced night.
She knew in her bones much more than all that.
He wasn’t coming back.
She faced reality after the relentless wondering: he was done with her ingrained city ways, her longing for other places and things besides the wilds of the Upper Peninsula and its insular world; and her desire for less sex and not wilder like he preferred, and her want of much less silence between them when she was wasting away from a strange kind of hunger —she was starving for ideas talk, music talk, college teaching talk. Getting lost in a crowd if she wanted to And having choices.
They had fought in great spurts the past year. They had said too many wrong words. And had forgotten to forgive, and forgotten how to find and stick with those intersecting points that had guided them for so long.
He had left under the shield of night.Left her with a foolish facsimile of a man in her bed. He had left her with nothing good to eat in a raging snowstorm. He had left her with simmering self loathing: he had a job to do so he was doing it, and she had a job to do–get herself together. He might have left with heart torn and bruised but sure not bleeding out, as it was back to his buddies, to the woods, to those who always knew him inside and out–while hers was slowly cramming and crushing her insides so she could barely breathe. He left her behind as if she was a wounded creature that was not likely to be useful again, not enough for all he needed. Best to let nature run its course then. Best to cut his losses, as he was fond of saying when it came to the business of forest management. When it came to shooting the hit deer on the dark road.
Marnie shuddered, afraid.
Then, slowly, relieved.
The snow drifted, the house held firm in the manic, deep darkness of the storm–it held with its creaks and moans, circled about her. She loved the house most. Her fire sputtered and failed so Marnie got up and put more split wood in and tended it by herself as she had more often done. She appreciated this wood stove, its being central to home, the hearth that had drawn them close so long at end of day. She did know well how to start necessary fires and take care of them, keep them going to keep herself alive.
Chris was truly and finally not ever coming back to her, just as he had said last night as she fell into exhausted sleep from the laborious efforts of hearing and speaking such things…of feeling the long-tangled web of joys and sorrows tear apart.
And there were even now the imprints of his hands on her skin, and they always left every fiber aching, flesh stung, her spirit adrift, alone. He believed he loved her but then could not, or not enough, nor in the ways he should–safely, fully, easily. Their promises finally failed them and so he was done. Before worse happened. She ought to be grateful. She ought to feel released from the growing cage of their marriage but felt herself turn and twist about, panicked.
And then it passed as the minutes went by. She had all night to get used to this redirecting of her life.
In the morning, she would find her way to leave, too, and move toward a good destination. To turn her back on the home they’d made of a rundown house would test her resolve. But now nothing was the same. She wanted to find a place where she would not have to cover shame and hide truth. Where she’d be free to tile a wall or wear a dress in any color, work at a better job and be proud of her work. Somewhere out there were red rocks, desert light and shadow, desert flowers and wide, clear horizons. Another way to tabulate her passion for mysterious numbers and ideas, vivid design and music. And less a conundrum of love, more a shared life that might well shelter two.
There he was again, that old man with the mid-chest-length beard that looked like a thick grey brier patch. A bristly trap. She was afraid to look at it in case it carried scraps of egg and cheese or something crawled out. She resolved to help pull anything still alive straight out, though–to save it from early death.
“Miss? A coffee?”
“Right, what kind?”
Tree studied the menu board as if to point him to it, like he had no knowledge of their offerings. But he seemed to come in at least every third day, though she’d just worked there 14 days so who knew. He always had a pile of books that he browsed for a good hour or two before leaving. Like he was in a library. Maybe he bought one. But Tree couldn’t imagine wanting to sit with books that long.
Well, it was a bookstore, after all, not just a coffee shop.
Fourteen days,payday, she thought, then looked at him with mild eyes or as best as she could manage.
“The usual, a grande cappuccino, and I do thank you,” he intoned with a bit of a rasp.
He pushed a ten dollar bill towards her. She slid it off the counter, put it in the till with a brief acknowledgement. She got to work as he tipped his wide-brimmed hat and walked away. He never took it off–she suspected he was bald. Too much on the chin, too little on the head, what a weird way to get old. She’d never get so old if she had her way.
She got busy with the preparation, glanced at the clock, four more hours until Ginny came in and she could go.
Maybe she should name the old guy, just for fun, but what?
There was Rusty, hunched over two bright, impossibly glossy pages. She gave her the nickname because of the middle aged woman’s dyed rust-colored hair neatly pulled back each side with tortoise shell combs, and she just looked autumn-like, tawny skin though lined, lips an old fashioned flaming orange. Rusty came in every morning, took a seat along the wall, watched people as she skimmed the magazines. Which had to be gathered up later and made sure they were still clean, usable. Rusty was careful, overall. She didn’t want to get kicked out, Tree suspected. She toted an ancient backpack stuffed full and her jacket and shoes were wearing thin at seams and soles.
Three more lined up and she called out the cappuccino and got back to work. There wasn’t a lot of time to slack off on her shift. Tree had begged for a shorter one, but her Aunt Margery held firm.
“I’m down one now that the university is back in session. I intend on keeping my bookstore and coffee shop humming along. You learned enough at your last barista job. Besides, you have anything pressing to do with your days, Treesa Marie?”
“Nope. Okay I got it. When do I start?” She’d studied her boots, tamping the anger down until it receded to a tiny fox of a growl.
Her aunt wasn’t awful, just bossy. And sneaky, Tree thought–but why did Margery and her parents think this was the place for her? Oh, right, she’d gotten drunk too often, dropped out of high school and lost her first job at a fancy hotel. But a used bookshop? Aunt Margery would’ve taken issue at the adjective as she sold new books, too. But Tree could barely stand the sight of all those books. Dead trees, after all. Sentence after sentence of dulling content, few decent pictures from what she could tell, little inspiration.
“Right now! Ginny, our primo barista, is waiting for you.”
Ginny. Now there was someone who knew what they were doing and why.
“It’s a decent job, you get to know the regulars and meet new interesting ones, and you’re back here where you can eye all those beautiful books. My feet and legs and arms can get tired. Other than that if it paid more, that’d be better, but it’s still a good job. Your aunt and uncle are fair bosses, too. How about you?” She showed her teeth as she spoke, a front tooth willfully crossing over its neighbor, but Tree suspected she easily stunned people into blind submission with relentless positivity and her spunky blond haircut.
“Oh, I dropped out of school and this is my punishment.”
Ginny’s face fell but she offered a bright smile. “Well, listen, I got my GED at 19 and it all worked out.” She paused. “I’m only 23, been here three years, and your aunt is especially awesome.” She reached out to give a reassuring touch on Tree’s arm, but Tree stepped back just in time. “Okay then, welcome. We’ll get on fine. Let me show you the ropes.”
And they did get on fine, Tree admitted, as she made a mocha with almond milk, no whip. Ginny was harmless as people went, had a boyfriend who was studying hospitality, lived with her best friend, a kindergarten teacher. The two of them infrequently overlapped shifts after the first three days of training. Tree had been declared capable of managing on her own four or five hours each morning, five days a week.
The problems with all this were: number 1, she didn’t want to work as a barista (she’d rather sweep cut hair at a beauty salon floor and sterilize combs and brushes, for goodness’ sake) and number 2, she didn’t like books or reading or anything that remotely made her think of her recently ended public education experience.
“A refill, if you please?” It was Uncle Jonathan with their bookstore logo– Page and Bean–mug. “How’s it going?”
She gave him a pleasing glance. He’d sense to not berate her for leaving school. Or he didn’t want to make a fuss. But he only said he’d also struggled with high school–due to battling leukemia. That had unnerved her. Now he was well, more or less–she’d never suspected he’d been though all that. Somehow she felt he was trustworthy. They shared small talk that meant a little more, being relatives.
“Fresh hot brew, coming up.”
He was wheeling about a dolly stacked with new books and he studied the cover of one.
“Ever read sci fi?” he asked as she poured the coffee.
“You know I don’t volunteer my eyes to paper and print.”
“Yeah, just wondering why at times. I thought you might like this new one we got in. Keep up the good work.” He took a sip, raised his mug, went on his way.
Relief flooded her. It was only a little job, barely spending money. But still, he was fair and so was her aunt. Kindly, even. She got to washing some things up, then took four more orders. And there was the old man again, his palms flattened on the counter top.
“Thought I’d have a piece of pumpkin loaf.”
She took his cash, put it on a plate, handed it to him.
“You’re new, I noticed. Staying on?”
“I suppose so.”
“Good to hear. You make excellent cappuccinos.” He nodded his head and the beard nodded, too. He retreated to his spot and she noticed for the first time a beautiful wood cane with brass handle leaned against the chair. Was that new? He didn’t walk so poorly, crooked maybe, mild limp is all.
What did it matter? But she would name him Sir Beard. He read so studiously. And his beard was impressive, like it or not. She checked the clock. Another couple hours she was out of there. She got out her phone and looked into the camera to check face and hair. Could be worse. Her eyes were much less puffy and bloodshot than they used to be. Eyes being her best feature everyone said, tending toward purple end of the blue spectrum. She put down the phone and got to work when a skinny tallish guy ambled up, hands jammed in pockets.
“Not Jimmy Malloy. Why are you here?” she said with a snort.
“I like graphic novels and steampunk,” he said, eyebrows rising then falling. “I like this bookstore. Why are you here?”
“Ugh, steam what?” she said, “I am working.”
“Lucky you!” He laughed, but not quite meanly. “It’s all good, maybe you can get me some stuff on a discount.”
“I doubt it, Jimmy.”
He eyed her from under lowered lashes. She was smart, she was cute, so what was she doing here? Oh, yeah, can’t hold her booze, left school, too bad.
She served him a double shot of espresso and thought, This will get back to school and then I’m done for, they might drop in, I’ll have to be nice. Or get even tougher. But what do I care, anyway?
Rusty sidled past her, set her empty mug on the counter and stared right at her, not a cold stare but not a warm one, more like trying to figure the girl out. Then she raised and lowered shoulders with an exaggerated movement and kept on. She walked with feet turned way out. Jimmy smirked as he watched, then slouched off to another area.
She had to admit: what sort of place was this, all these weird people milling about a sea of books? Tree could drown in those rows, they made her dizzy just passing through. But it was money and it was keeping her parents off her back. It was something to kill time until she knew what to do next. It did not include going back to finish 12th grade. That much she knew. But that didn’t make her feel as giddy as when she quit going. Who was the joke on? But why did she give a care about that, anyway?
Treesa Hallaway’s parents were professors at the university. They lectured on differential geometry, infinitesimal calculus and Renaissance art and literature, respectively. Linguistics was a secondary passion for both. And their son and daughter were thought to be academically gifted from the start, they admitted to others, and should be happy with the pursuit of learning. As they were for a few years.
Then Trevor was outpacing his sister in school by middle school, but he’d always longed to be a veterinarian and sought to prove he could do it. He’d just last year begun the higher education required. Though he and Treesa got along well enough when they weren’t surreptitiously fighting, he did not understand why she hated school. All she ever said was that she found book learning boring and she’d rather be doing anything at all outdoors or maybe helping their dad repair things or hanging out with friends in the park. Later, it became more hanging out in Wexford Woods, the party spot.
“You drink too much,” he warned her each bleary week-end morning.
“You think and talk too much,” she retorted.
“You better watch it, you’ll end up being and doing nothing.”
She had slugged him when he said that–he’d tackled her and screamed at her to “grow up!” Luckily their parents were inside while they were on the big hill behind the house. They separated as they fought, rolled down the long bumpy descent. When they landed against a line of bushes, he sat up and stared aghast as she retched.
“Serves you right. But you need help.”
Tree didn’t respond as she lay back and closed her eyes, hoping the world would stop spinning and he would leave.
“I don’t think Mom and Dad even know how bad this has gotten, Tree. I found a pint of rum under the seat of my Fiat last night. Empty. You can’t just drive like that! In fact, you can’t ever drive my car again.”
“Sorry, I know it is sacred, hate to leave a mess…”
He hung his head, felt his pulse rise, that scared feeling he got when he saw her out with her silly, mad drinking buddies, or thought of her getting in another car loaded or coming to school so out of it. Once she kept trying to get open the wrong locker–she was sure it was hers, she’d said–and finally broke into it open by kicking and beating it, causing a huge scene. She was asked to leave for the day, their parents called and they were humiliated. But they offered excuses along with reprimands.
Trevor was going away soon. Who would know what was more seriously happening–unless he told their parents?
“You have to stop this, Tree, please. The guys talk, you know what I mean.”
She groaned, turned over. “Leave me alone. You’re an idiot who knows nothing about me, you are allied with them. Drinking just…helps.”
“Helps you fail classes, miss events and possibly screw up your health at 16? You look bad, sound and smell terrible, and you’re falling down the rabbit hole!” He wanted to make her see, but she was so hungover he knew she felt his words only rush by her like a bad wind.
“Goody! Maybe I like it! Back off, genius, live your own beautiful life!”
So he did, but not before he brought up her increasing alcohol abuse at breakfast the next morning. Their parents immediately assessed the additional dire facts and presented her with one option: alcohol and drug outpatient treatment. That plus grounded for a month, at least.
And so she gave in and went, barely got through three months of outpatient addictions treatment. And finished that year at school without failing. But she had a rough summer trying to stay sober, trying to be okay. Tree quit school the following fall, her senior year.
What she wanted to know was, what was the big deal with formal education? Did it really change anything in the rotten world? Did it make you a deeply better person? Did it mean she could do whatever she wanted without chronic criticism regarding whatever she did not well enough? Who benefited most from further educational endeavors? Her parents and their smug sense of success?
Trevor, their golden child, was long gone. He’d be set up nicely one day, administering to dogs, horses, his beloved llamas. Good for him. All Tree liked was being outside, even raking the leaves, or skiing on the mountain or climbing forest paths, but her parents thought there was no payoff for that direction unless she became an environmentalist or oceanographer or anything but a backpack or ski bum. How would that make a living? And it was all so purely physical.….
Tree stopped going to school because she’d suffocate if she had to spend one more hour listening to adults drone on about things that mattered to them but little to none in her life. That, and she was considering becoming a hermit if all else failed.
Her parents, wanting to seem more progressive than they were and terrified of losing her completely said, “Then stay sober, get a damned job and demonstrate some sort of measurable responsibility for your actions. And we’ll revisit this arrangement in four months.”
Why four? But that was her father; he’d determined that number was right, it met his requirements for a workable equation. And they would arrive at a solution, he was sure of that.
Tree slipped trough the revolving door and waved an acknowledgement of Aunt Margery and Uncle Jonathan at the front of the store, bypassed a clot of readers around the “new nonfiction” table and slipped past a woman and her service dog and on to the back. She donned her blue apron and took up her station. It had been over a month at the coffee shop and all was moving along. She still did not read the books. She did like an outdoors magazine on her break.
Rusty was waiting and got her regular brew, the cheapest of the lot, and looked hard at her again. This was her routine: getting her coffee, seeing if there was any day old bakery goods (usually was) to eat, giving Tree a stare that might have said something if only Rusty would add a couple words to it, and then she hid along the back wall.
This time, however, Tree had something to say,
“I can get you a bag of scones or something at day’s end for nothing of you come by then.”
Rusty pulled herself up taller–she had curvature of the spine so this wasn’t so easy–and said, “Well. I pay for what I get. But if you’re just going to toss it…”
“Yeah, I know. Check in with me after 8. I’m working a split shift today.”
“Ginny has never did this–you sure?”
“Yep. And do I care if anyone agrees with my new policy?”
Rusty wiped her nose with a large pansy-decorated handkerchief, gathered her worn face into a more pleasant expression and shuffled off. She studied Tree awhile, as if she was seeing a different girl.
It had gotten busier. Her aunt and uncle had had three readings and book signings by area authors recently who were deemed “up and coming”. They’d improved the lighting in a corner lounge area where six chairs and a love seat were positioned around an antique wood stove. It had gotten colder so more customers came in and stayed longer. And they were buying, too.
Tree had to admit she liked the smell of wood burning. At her house her parents rarely took the time to use the fireplace, they were either in the study or cooking up a storm together or gone. Tree had used it more once but now all she had to do was go to work, enjoy the crackling fire close to the little coffee space.
Ginny, it turned out, had started to think about doing other things. In fact, she was taking an esthetician course.
“I care about healthy skin,” she said, “and yours looks good.”
“I don’t do anything to it, just wash and go. I’m outdoors a lot.”
“Hmm.” She put a fingertip to her cheek and tapped. “Maybe it’s the fresh air and healthy lifestyle, plus you’re still so young.”
Tree gave a short laugh. “I doubt anybody would say I’ve had a healthy life.”
“Why is that–you seem good to me!”
“Well, I don’t sleep enough, I haven’t been on a good hike for over two weeks, I skip meals in favor of coffee and for three years I used to….well, what the hell, drink hard.”
Ginny’s eyes widened a bit, then she slapped the counter with her towel. “I knew we had something in common! I used to, too!” She looked about and lowered her voice. “I got help last year, AA meetings.”
Tree was surprised by this and yet not, then she noticed a man waiting at the counter. “Huh, no way! But that’s not for me.”
“Never know,” Ginny replied and took off her apron. “Off to my class–see you!”
The rest of the day Tree off and on considered the uncomfortable idea of AA but each time she rejected it. Who at seventeen went to AA? That was for serious alcoholics, not her short-lived issue–right? Plus she didn’t drink anymore. So far. For awhile.
She kept her head down,nose to the grindstone and everyone was happy for the moment. Not too hard to manage.
It had been a good idea to work at the bookstore cafe. Having the set hours of work and a casual atmosphere and regular customers was nice. Having her aunt and uncle around, she had to admit, was not a bad thing. And her parents were full of words about how conscientious she’d become, how glad they were to see her making changes, they were starting to believe in her again. It irritated her last nerve, and some days she’d want to drink again or worse, just quit the whole scene and wander wherever the wind took her. The Hallaways were such products of and captivated by the rarefied atmosphere of their ivory tower of higher education. Superior in attitude, she might add, even though she knew they were not intent on disparaging her, and even loved her. Didn’t they?
“Well, Miss Hallaway, there you are.”
She lifted her head, then stood up from the low cupboard she was sorting out. Sir Beard.They had gotten to know one another a little. Even if they didn’t talk, it was as if they were friends, in an odd way, the way an interesting, intelligent old guy and a smart-mouthed young woman could be.
He was in a wheelchair.
“Hello…? Way down there somewhere.”
He put on his glasses, peered at the baked goods. He tapped at the glass with his cane, pointed at a pecan sticky bun. She got it out and started his cappuccino.
“Treesa, I think just decaf today if you have fresh brewed.”
She spun around. “Sure, if that’s what you want.”
“It’s better for me. I already will be filling my veins with refined sugar in that roll. And I have to wean myself, better for the heart, you see.” He leaned into the counter, hands on the ledge. “Hip surgery soon.”
“A letdown, huh. The regular coffee and the hip thing.”
“Blast it all– that’s what I have to say about it.”
“I meant the coffee change mostly, sorry. Like a most reluctant deceleration on an uncertain descent… ” She held up her hands as if to say, What can you do but roll with this? Trying to lighten the mood.
Sir Beard frowned at her, then let out a belly laugh. “You do have it in you after all!”
“A firing intellect and humor!”
He wheeled himself over to a small table and waited; he smoothed his beard, then folded his hands. She took him his coffee shortly, hesitated, then jumped in.
“I’ve wondered. Do you write or something creative? Or were you–are you–a teacher? You read a lot every time. Take notes, too.”
He held the steaming mug to his nose and inhaled deeply, then took a sip. “I have written a bit and given lectures, if that’s what you mean. About mountains and forests, that sort of thing, and living off the grid. And I enjoy research about those things.”
“Really?” Tree felt a shiver of excitement. A naturalist or a forest service man or something good like that!
He sipped again. “Been a few years since I was living in wilderness, though. So it goes, we all wear out.”
“I think–oh, more customers, have to go back–that is amazing.”
He tipped his hat, then took it off and smoothed his hair down for the first time that she knew. And she was wrong. He had thick wavy white and steel grey hair on his head. And he didn’t put the hat back on.
As Tree waited on people, she kept glancing back at Sir Beard. She had to get his real name sometime. Who was he?
In a few minutes, an official looking man dressed in a charcoal suit came up to the old man’s table and sat down, his back to Tree, and she couldn’t guess what they were talking about. Was he his agent? Publisher? A medical consultant? That would be weird… Maybe Sir Beard had a business proposition going on, like a new wilderness survival invention.
It was getting to her. This job.
Not eight weeks and she was becoming part of them, the world of everyday people. Workers and some schemers. And booksellers. Not a reader yet, but even that was funny, how her eyes drifted to this or that as she wound her way through the aisles. No one had even asked her to read. No one had bored her to tears with their reviews of favorite books. Her aunt and uncle hadn’t once mentioned that she come to a reading or help them put books on shelves, even. She worked in the coffee shop, that was all they expected and so far it had worked out. Margery had even told her a customer or two had sung her praises: she was fast and efficient, polite. Ginny was a bit slower to get things done as she was quite chatty.
“Ginny is a good person and I hope she keeps her job, she really makes the place.” Tree had defended her though she knew things would change without her input. Ginny wanted to serve people with skin needs, not book needs.
Uncle Jonathan had said as Aunt Margery attended to the next stack, “Well, she coached you well if she does go,” as if they knew what was happening, anyway.
Rusty left the building. The mysterious man in the suit left. Sir Beard finished his coffee and read. Jimmy Malloy came in on lunch break with a couple of his friends, including Riley, the one girl she’d disliked the most in English class. She was a know-it-all and a self-avowed snob.
“Hey,” he said.
“Yeah, and make it on the rocks!” the other guy–Evan the future lawyer with a Tesla, no doubt–offered.
Riley slapped her thigh and giggled as if this was the most clever thing she’d heard. Tree got the espresso, then filled a plastic glass with ice, ppoured the espresso over it, and served it with two straws. She handed it to Jimmy with a big smile.
He looked at it, shook it up.”What the—-you think this is funny?”
“He needs his money back plus a new free drink,” Evan said in all seriousness.
Riley stepped up. “Just a joke, can’t you tell the difference? Take that back and fix it. And I will have a grande mocha, a latte for Evan.”
Tree was about to say something in return when Aunt Margery glided by.
“How’s it going, kids? Nice of you to say hello to your old classmate, I gather. Anything else we can do for you?”
“Yes, you can–“Riley began.
But Jimmy elbowed her so they found a table and turned away from Tree. When she called out their names for the drinks, Jimmy came up.
“Sorry, being stupid, I guess.”
Her lips fell into a little moue, then she shrugged. “Who cares? I’ll make you the right drink.”
“No, it’s fine.” He backed away, then went to the table.
At the end of the afternoon, when she was about ready for a break, Sir Beard beckoned her over.
“It has been two months since you began here. You figured it out or dare I ask?”
“Whatever you’re working out.”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I think you’re heading in the right direction. You are adapting. All creatures adapt as needed to survive. And it works out fine most of the time, certainly better than if they had not.”
“But they can just make a choice to leave the pack, can’t they?”
“You mean like a lone wolf, for example, or one rousted? Harder that way. But sure, that can be an option, another kind of adaptation.”
His eyes met hers and she didn’t shy away. His were tired eyes, soft, damp eyes, though all about them were bunches of deep leathery lines and they lit up when he was attentive to things or people.
“I know…you must be a wilderness expert, or a guide.”
“That’d be about right. And, have to mention it again, author. That is how I make most money these days.”
“You are…hmm, I’m not sure. But I love the outdoors more than anything.”
“Well, I’m a white-bearded loner of an old man, my heyday was years ago and you’re young. I’m Dale Everly Nelson.” He stuck out a beefy, still powerful hand.
She took it and they shook.
“Dale Everly Nelson… I do know that name, somewhere–maybe from my dad’s bookshelves, he’s into math and science. I would love to hear your stories.”
“That would be nice sometime. Or you can read them.” He tapped one of the books he had. “I figured you for one of us nature nuts after a bit. You’re hearty, different-minded, you seem like a fledgling–forgive me for the pun– trail blazer to me. I hope you climb mountains and paddle down strange rivers one day, too.”
“Dale, I see you have met my niece.” Uncle Jonathan stopped a moment. “She’s a good barista, right?”
“Indeed. And so interested in the great panorama of nature.”
“She is that. She might do something interesting like you one day,” he said then continued on his way.
“I want to ask you–did you go to college, sir?”
“Well, I didn’t, then I did. I spent years backpacking around the world and such, learning nature’s ways so closely, then decided to study botany and wildlife management. But it didn’t work out so well. I left after two years in. Bored stiff. I went back out and became my own kind of expert, eventually made a bit of a name for myself. I did alright, Miss Hallaway. But I had the best time of it for more than fifty-odd years.”
She shrank back. “You aren’t done getting out and about, not yet, are you?”
“Could be,” he replied, and patted the wheelchair. “Old injuries caught up with me. Not all that outdoor living was only a thrill, lots of dangers and issues come up for a human. We’ll see after the surgeries the next few weeks. Best to get out there while you have stronger bones and more resilience, you know! My son seems to think I’m nearly done for–he was the man in the suit, by the way. A finance guy.” He rolled his eyes.
“Oh, really?-I mean, who would have thought?”
“You got that right.”
“I have a questin. Do you go by tree becasue you love trees?” He laughed as he said it, but gently.
“No, not atall. My name is spelled with no ‘e’ after capital ‘t’–Treesa– but it was shortened to Tree as a kid. An omen, perhaps, huh?”
“Anybody manning this coffee shop?” A man with two whining kids waited at the counter.
“I better get back, but thanks for all this. I’m glad we had a chance to talk more. And I want to hear more.”
“Yes, indeed, as am I,” he said and leaned back into his wheelchair, hands seeking the next book to study.
Tree mused over all he had said as she finished her shift that evening. And thought about it in bed that night, as well. Why couldn’t she get her GED, then enter college to study forestry or something worthwhile like that?
To spend her life in the woods among friends, nature’s creatures and like-minded people. It was as if a door swung open for her and she could almost see a wide open vista.
After three days off Tree went in to work. Her aunt and uncle seemed caught up in new inventory so she headed back to the coffee shop. Rusty was there. She got her a grande coffee and took it to her table, a cranberry muffin thrown in.
“Aw, not into cranberry.”
“Well, what then?”
“I can buy it.”
“Ok, what would you prefer?”
They went to the glass case to look the goods over.
“That. A chocolatey cross-ant.”
“One croissant coming up, Rusty.”
“Heh? Rusty who?”
Tree clapped hand over her mouth then made her face calm. “I’m so sorry…I didn’t know your name and you have red hair so in my mind I call you ‘Rusty’ but didn’t plan to say it out loud. Sorry.”
Rusty took a large chomp out of the croissant, slid her five dollars across the counter. She stared into Tree’s eyes, her own brown ones blinking twice as she thought that over. Then she walked away.
“Good name,” she said.
After the morning flew by she started to think about Sir Beard, Dale Everly Nelson. Where he was. If his surgery was coming up soon. If he’d stopped all coffee, though she didn’t know why he had to–but he’d be back on it again, surely.
Then her shift was ending and Ginny came soon shortly to take her place. The esthetician class was going well and she was excited to move forward with her goals. She might even quit in six months, she’d confided.
When she arrived at the coffee shop she noticed Tree was sitting on a bench, staring at the floor. Everything looked fine but Tree did not, really. She sure hoped she hadn’t gotten drunk.
“What’s up? Ginny asked.
“Oh.” She shook her head. “Just thinking, that can be dangerous, you know.”
“Ha ha. Is anything wrong, though?”
“Just wondering how Mr Nelson is.”
“Oh, Sir Beard.”
Ginny was puzzled but started to work.
“The old guy with the long beard and hat, you know? Dale Everly Nelson.”
“Oh,” she said. She hadn’t known his real name, either.
And then Uncle Jonathan was walking through the aisles towards her, eyes on the floor, and Aunt Margery was scurrying behind him, a hand on his back.
Tree stood up slowly. Waited, arms lank at her sides, hands tightening into fists.
“He…he had the surgery, then, right…?
Uncle Jonathan’s face was nearly slack, forlorn.
“He is doing badly? Or…he died? He didn’t, not Sir Beard, he couldn’t!”
Aunt Margery took her by the hand and walked her back to the office. Sat her down in a comfortable chair. Her uncle sat next to her.
“He was a friend of ours for decades, Treesa. He was such an adventurer, you have no idea, and what a writer, what a storyteller! His books sell so well even thirty or more years later, and his last one, in 2018, rose to the top of the indie list in nonfiction. But mostly he was just a big ole guy with a big heart and a fascinating mind and he–“
But Tree didn’t hear her, nor her uncle. She heard Dale talking. About how you could do what you were passionate about. How he had loved it all, it was his life. How he thought she might be like him somehow.
She didn’t move, didn’t blink, not even when they said her name sweetly. The old man had told them she would not be prepared if he didn’t return, that they had to tell her carefully.
“You have to watch out for young ones,” he had said, “their tender hearts beat hard despite their other finely developed survival skills. Everyone feels pain, even those creatures out there. For us, it is the young, and the passionate, and the very old ones.”
Two soft tears wet trails down her cheeks, her unusual violet-blue eyes covered with sheen, her face full of stillness. The tears were moving as if doing their best to be dignified, unafraid, with no regret. She refused to break down here, among books, in the coffee shop.
But she did have regrets, she knew that, and later she recounted it all. For not knowing Sir Beard longer or better. For not being friendlier to Rusty from the very start. For not saying good bye to Trevor when he left for university, not talking to him much now. For making her parent’s lives harder than they should be. And not finishing school–of what was she thinking? She hated school. Of trying to drink away her anger and hurt. But she knew what she had to do now. Well, in a few months. After she had saved more money. Travel, her GED, then perhaps…college.
The next day when Tree came in, she found two books in her locker where they kept their personal things and took breaks. Her aunt had said she had something for her.
He had left her the books. One was about exploring the deep Alaskan wilderness in the 1970s and ’80s, and living off grid. The other was a collection of nature essays published in 2018: “My Views from this Mountain” by Dale Everly Nelson.
Inside the second one was handwritten inscription in spidery script:
Some of us are destined for a life beyond the norm. A life that more diligently encompasses the majesty, ruggedness and serenity that Nature offers those who adore and respect her complexities. It was my destiny. It may be yours. But whatever path you choose to follow, do not give up heart. Believe the impossible, take risks that will lead you to joy, awe and wisdom.
Is that asking too much? You can answer this. But I think it is not.