Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: A Man, His Dog and That Two-eyed Woman

MI trip, day 5, TC 036

I.

So, I tell Rags my trusty mutt, this here is our Marionville, a nice spatter of land that sidles up to Lake Minnatchee, encased in the humming woods that crowd our eastern hillside and make a barrier along western meadows, then spreads about here and there, willy-nilly. We might call the generous sky ours, too, if we want; it lights us up, hides us in dark, too, rains and snows on everyone like we were chosen for it. Though nobody can own sky. But those stars do such tricks for us, I tell him, and he yawns as if this is old hat, get on with it. And this here, I tell him, anyway, throwing my hands out to indicate the acreage around me, this is ours because I won it from my brother Darnell when we tossed an old silver dollar for it. Damn fool, he liked the drink more than life itself. Some said it must have been luck, him being the oldest, but I know better. It was Daddy’s land, was his daddy’s. Next it came to me and that was right and good.

And that makes it not just mine but yours, I say, lightly stomping the ground with my boot to make a bigger point.

Rags looks at me sideways, lifts his graying muzzle to a bright breeze, watches another few red leaves falling and lays his furry black and white head on outstretched paws again. He makes that throaty noise that tells me he is bearing my words because he has nothing else to do but he’s tired of them already. He could chase a small, insignificant thing that rustles the grass beyond us or sniff around property edges for something good but why bother this moment. It’s a perfect Saturday morning. After our chores we are sitting pretty up here in the September heat and cool. Sometime we’ll need to go into town. We’re putting it off as long as we want.

So here’s our Marionville, I say again and it’s like some poem just saying it out loud but don’t let anyone else hear me. I’m Jasper Dye; nobody expects me to think a feeling thought even ten feet close to poetry. But things change as much as they stay the same. Even up here on the hill where I have worked the land and hunted and fished and taken care of the old place near as long as I’ve been alive and kicking. That makes it seventy-two years, if I count from start. And Ma strapped me on her that afternoon after a quick early morning birthing and we tended the corn, which she mumbled about deer getting into again. If you had been there, Rags, that could have been avoided, we both know how skilled you are. Anyway, Daddy yelled at her, she said, but I was happy swaying and hugging her chest in a worn sling of a blanket piece until he sent her back into bed and told Darnell to get to work. My brother was lazy even then.

This Marionville, we can nearly see it all from up here, save for the trees–soon they’ll open up the view as the leaves turn and go–but we know what’s there. And it’s damn good. My home. Sweeter words never spoken, I say to rags and he moves closer and licks the scuffed, dusty toe of my boot. I sit back and just breathe along with him, counting all the reasons why I am so lucky.

Then I reach for the crumpled pack of smokes in my jacket pocket. And leave it. I promised her I’d try to quit. Maybe I at least ought to really try, do you agree, Rags? No one ever put her arms around me like she can, much less asked me anything once. And so kindly. And she always brings you something good to chew. Rags, you hear me? No more smokes.

He sighs. Rags has heard me say this many times before but now I mean it. I settle into my Adirondack chair, the one my son and I built twenty years ago. It really should be called a Michigan chair, it is here, not over there. Anyway, it might need work so I can avoid splinters. For now it’s good enough. Sunlight pours on us with a rich warmth that in just a few more weeks we will sorely miss.

 

II.

The 1986 Ford F-250 truck rattles its way down our dirt road, then calms down on the pavement as I turn the corner and go toward town. The hill is steep here and I slip it in neutral. Rags sticks his head out the open window and his ears go flying, his tongue lolls, eyes go squinty and he’s happy. He used to ride in the back but now he’s getting older like me. I spoil him some.

We reach Marionville sooner than I’d like. It used to take me at least ten, fifteen minutes. But houses have cropped up along the county road in recent years. Big ones, take up so much space us wonder how many are in such families, don’t we, Rags? First one, then another, then more. The sounds of earth movers and chain saws and carpenters at their jobs, it used to grate on me, and Rags you’d bark at the din like a crazy boy. Enough chaos to put us both in an early grave. Now they’re here and that’s that. And some trees were planted to make up for bare spots they made. Still, look at ’em, too big, waste of space and supplies–those summer and winter week-enders, right? But good for the building trades. Thing called progress has its bad and its good. I mostly think poorly of it. I’d rather be like before. Undisturbed.

I ruffle his head now that he’s sat down and looking out the windshield again, at the bugs that hit and fallen summer and early fall leaves that fly off. I don’t get out as much as some think I should. My truck’s tank can be full a long while. Unless I go further north to hunt and that happens soon, eh, Rags? A saving grace for winter coffers. If I bag my whitetail this year. If Shawn goes along we should do okay, but that son of mine, he’s gotten away from it. Let’s check out my bows and arrows tonight, in case he wants to go out with his old man. You know he’ll tell me I don’t have what it takes, anymore. Ancient, that’s what I’ve become! We will see. Last three years I’ve missed but you never know, we can get blessed again.

Rags ignores me. He’s over my rambling, perks up at first sight of the busy streets. Unlike me, he loves to visit civilization, as they call it. Everybody chats with him and gives his rubs, and so many smells. I slow down, put it into second, then first and Rags barks cheerfully at passersby and cars and stores, brash hellos. The main street is inviting as far as town streets go, that hasn’t changed too much, we all want the charm of it to stay. Colorful awnings now, freshened paint, businesses booming more than not. The lake draws lots of people, is decorated with boats and moving bodies until it starts to freeze up. Then there’s ice fishing. Skiing not too far off and more. Marionville, though, is a place you search for. Once you find it, you don’t care to leave. Unless you’re Jasper Dye as I  surely am and you’d rather admire it from the wooded hill.

I park and we get out, head to the hardware. Don’t need a leash, Rags is good at minding. If they make me get one–there’s talk of one of those leash laws–we won’t be coming down but once a month or less.

Here comes Hank Butler, his thick body moving like a freight train toward us. His long red nose is a warning of his approach; it shines today in the sun. We try to ditch him, stepping over and lowering our heads.

“Jaasss! My man, long time no see, what’s up?” He thrusts out a paw to me. I ignore it. Rags sniffs his leg and backs off. “Hey there, good seeing you, too.”

“A few nuts and bolts is all.” I start to go on.

“Got a new grand-baby, another boy,” he says, all puffed up.

“Okay, nice for the others.” I nod at him, make to move forward but he blocks me.

“Yeah, now there’s five. Ellie and me are pleased as all get out. Still, she hangs in there for a girl baby. Let me show you the picture. ”

He pulls out his wallet, then the picture, holds it right before my eyes like I’m a blind man. I nod at the wrinkled infant. Seen one seen ’em all in the Butler line, anyway, and I have to hold back from saying it.

“Okay, there you go, good for you, Hank. Gotta go.”

“What about Shawn? He ever getting married? I seen him with Melissa Everlin again, he’s going out with her, right? What’s he now, thirty-some?”

“Can’t say. Better ask him about any gal.” I step around the nosy hulk and Rags trots along. “Regards to Ellie, see you around.”

“See you at Fall Fest pig roast and bonfire?”

“Might at that.” I touch the rim of my baseball cap so he can’t say I’m terrible rude, then finally hurry off. Tough guy I am thought to be, I still do my manners unless provoked beyond the usual.

That’s what I get for being a silent type. Old-time loner, one of the few left around here, and Shawn says I’ve alienated folks along the way. Alienated? I said. Really, Shawn.  He’s gotten fancy on me. Says it almost like I went out of my way to put off people. Maybe I do, sometimes. I don’t worry over none of it.

I’m about to step into Mike’s Hardware when my eye catches sight of someone else. Rags runs over to a woman with silvered hair, who wears a long skirt with boots, black fleece vest over a red shirt. Her large wire and blue stone earrings sway as she walks. I bet she made those–she can create anything, I suspect.

“There goes Jasper Dye,” she calls out in that soft but firm voice she has. Her steps lengthen as she moves down the sidewalk, a shopping basket hooked over her arm. “I was thinking of you today. How’s it going up the hill? Mister Rags, a pleasure.” She squats to smooth back his rough fur and he licks her hands, then she stands again and her earrings make clinking sounds as all parts shimmy.

I let her hug me, give it back. Only her, outside of family. Because we are friends. And she always asks me the same thing despite knowing my answer. It’s how we talk if we haven’t seen each other face-to-face in a spell. Like we know but don’t know things.

“Well, now, Heaven Steele. I see your house and more day and night, across the road and right above you. And it’s all still good.” I smile, that is, I show my teeth and my lips curl up a little. “You were gone awhile.”

“I was, and I’m back, gratefully. Come by for tea tomorrow if you can. I’m off to the bookstore.”

“I might do that. ”

Of course I’ll make time. Rags and I wave goodbye. We head into Mike’s Hardware for the nails I need to fix my leaning fence.

 

III.

Ten years ago I didn’t like her anymore than most when she moved in across the road, down the slope a little. Her name for one: Heaven Steele. Who carries such a name? And that house she bought belonged to Millie and Carroll Johnson, neighbors forever before they retired to Florida. Snowbirds. Just had enough of winters like more and more do. But it was harder to deal with when she built an addition on the pretty ranch house, a studio space nearly as long as the original house.

She scared people right off. Not hard to see why.

The scuttlebutt was she was a divorced artist from Chicago, had money and seemed purely different, kinda strange. Two strikes against her (didn’t care about strangeness)–three counting her renovating my neighbors’ house. It was big enough already, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living and dining room, expensive kitchen (Millie was some cook), a big side yard and patio that were good to look be in. Land about her, a wooded acre total. Why did she need a huge addition if she was alone? More trees downed, that racket. I could hear and see it unfold.

It was for making her paintings and her chimes. Glass chimes. They sell all over the world and she makes a good living between those and her paintings. And those chimes make sounds like you’ve never heard when the air moves over them. Like from another planet or farther out. So I learned that chimes aren’t all equal. But I’m a plain sort of man, an everyday person, and that isn’t what got me.

First, I should say, are her eyes. Everyone says that, can’t help it. One is blue, for seconds can seem blue-violet; another one is maple brown. A fluke of nature, she says when people stare at her too long, shows up in less than one percent of babies born. Then there is how those eyes have their way of looking at you. Steady, straight into yours. You want to look away long before she does, and I think she knows that so tries to not stare much. And then there was gossip that she was one of those woo-woo people. A psychic lady. Really, they said she was near-crazy. Artist plus those eyes makes up a person that makes people cringe. Wonder. The psychic part she laughed at from the start but lots argue it. An artist is all, that’s enough, she still says, never mind mismatched eyes, they work the same. She didn’t say never mind how she looks at you. Never mind how she can read you. It’s something just her way. I don’t notice it now.

But what she is actually like is another thing.

One day after a year of her living there, remodel complete and business booming, I was slumped in my chair on the rise of my front yard. Dozing. Feeling dark and weighted with misery like the skies above. Even Rags couldn’t make it better. It was early May, cold still, and had rained recently. I found myself longing for more flowers, which was a clue to how bad I felt. I never tended flowers, my wife did. Her passion and pleasure. That was the day that marked twelve years since she passed. I was sick with the absence of her. Her easy talk and deep silences. Her chicken and dumpling soup and pork chops and whipped herb and butter potatoes, her flaky fruity pies. Softness of her skin when I sought her across the bed, the creaking sound and lightening of the bedstead as she got up early to wash up and get out to the chickens. How she accepted me. Laughed out loud. I was too empty of her goodness. All she shared with me.

It was Yancy–an obedient, lame German shepherd mix I had then– who heard her moving up the slope, over the road and up my hill. She waited by my stand of  birch trees, almost invisible but not to Yancy. He slunk over to her, a low growl held in his teeth. She moved through light fog, silver hair crowned with it. She made quiet sounds to my dog. They came over; she sat next to me, uninvited. Was quiet ’til I looked right at her, not friendly. She had nerve.

“I was making new chimes, and felt like I should come over, say my hello. You’ve been out here a long time. It’s damp and cold. And you are heavy with it, too sad…. Come, let me make tea for you, and I made brownies earlier. I’ll give you a tour of my studio, we can sit in my new garden.”

I was more than surprised. I admit it, some scared off. Her knowing my feeling from down in her studio. Her welcoming me. The unasked-for kindness. Her realness went deep  and like that it was a sudden light turned on me. I went along with her, down the hill, over the road, into her house where she showed me what she did. Then we sat at her table awhile. She wasn’t at all nosy, just gave me mint tea, chewy brownies. Me, sipping on tea. Nibbling brownies made by an unknown woman. Young enough still to be my little sister, an idea that came to me later. A crotchey farmer-archer and an arty chimes maker (and something else), like family.

It’s changed me a little. Week by week, we were better friends. Heaven, Jasper. We couldn’t get along without each other now, the three of us. Right Rags? We watch over her place and all from up here; really, talk doesn’t matter. She watches over us in her ways. We now understand each other.

Rags puts his head on my lap and I scratch that one spot he loves scratched. We watch a big moon sit just right in the fall night sky. I say again, This is our Marionville, old boy, a decent smudge of land, water, trees, people coming in, going out. Kindness restored more often than not. It’s home, Rags, all we need.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: My Prodigy

She was a mathematician at heart, in her very marrow, but what Stella loved secretly was composing music. More than anything, which was certainly a reality of which I had to take notice. Not that the two subjects were so dissimilar, music being built upon a signature of rhythm, connecting notes set aloft by designated half, whole and sixteenth beats and perfect pauses and complex flourishes that just elude my language– but there it was, simple fractions creating all the difference in the world, another world entirely. Each mode of exploration required careful observation of how one thing related to another to make an exemplary, useful and exciting construct.

So she told me and I agreed.

How did this set of numbers or notes impact a prior or later entry on that paper? What was the internal dynamic that supported the growing whole? How did one numeral change the meaning or perhaps unhinge the entirety? Mathematics and music were  both symphonic in scope and just amusing. Or dramatic, even life altering. They were reflections of and underpinnings of vast webs of life.

These were the questions and musings that came naturally to Stella from quite an early age. I know this because I was her tutor from ages six to sixteen, though I also knew from the start that shortly she would hold more instinctive knowledge than I  and entertain me with it. I could teach her facts and formulas, draw up intriguing puzzles of thought but she could solve or undo them before she had left childhood. In truth, she would reconstruct bits and pieces and deliver something new to me with a shrug and a laugh. It was frightening as well as thrilling.

She ought to have been sent straightaway to university by adolescence but no, Kenneth and Aurelia Lanningham knew what was best for their child. The plan was to not expose her intellectual superiority to the common, often specious aspects of the world’s realities until truly necessary. She had to be given a solid chance at childhood, maintain less awareness of her brilliance until…until sometime later. Keith proposed garnering a worthy mentor, a scientist or mathematician within his diverse circle. There would be direction given in time, he believed.  We all knew she would pass any college entrance exam; an Ivy League school could not refuse her.

Stella’s father was an absolute quantity in her life, a tireless supporter of her keen mind and cheerful heart, doting on his only child with a fine balance of affection and well-placed discipline. He had found me in the Want Ads and determined I was “it” when I inquired if Stella had shown interest in geometry or calculus yet and was not cowed by the idea of genius; I had been a rather bright child, myself. And I laughed at his sharp dry humor. Stella observed me after the interview with bright eyes and a few questions of her own. Was I interested in pond life and amphibians? Did I own a number of hats and any with feathers and if so, what were those? Was a lady alone or did I have a favorite beau? She was so young but not intimidated by life’s frontiers. I started my new position the very next day.

I didn’t meet Aurelia until that first 24 hours. With hand held out to mine, she smiled the way a crocodile might before a sneak attack, I thought in passing, then chided myself for my judgmental ways. She was just  reserved. With impeccable manners, she could be charming, was willowy, even statuesque and had the finest skin I have ever seen. It looked illumined and I had to tear my gaze away as she led me to my rooms. It was a sprawling big house, one fit to hold her, Keith, their precocious daughter and more. But at times over the years it felt small, too constricting to roam freely, to allow Stella the joy of noisy play, to hear my own thoughts at night when all was still. And Aurelia, despite her gorgeous name and countenance, was not cut of the same cloth as her husband and daughter. I am not sure I understand even now who she was. Restless, conspiratorial. She had what she wanted–until she did not. But, too, she had more than she had quite bargained for–a genius for a child. Not a mild and dutiful, conventionally beauteous girl. I noted the tensions like a noxious fume some days.

Still, those years rolled one into another. I was happy for the most part. My weekday mornings were taken up with the tutoring of Stella, afternoons spent on my own or with her, depending on our schedules and personal needs or preferences. She worked on dance competency with her ballet teacher and was most attentive to the grand piano, practiced baking with the cook, ran races, built forts and put on plays with her cousins Riley and Harriet who came to visit for the week-ends once or twice a month. Stella had social engagements with children of neighboring estates now and then; in time she wished fervently she might go to school with them.

“I am not always cheerful here alone, Margaret,” she confessed to  me after her tenth birthday party and the small but lively flock of children had gone home. “You know it can get so boring that I’d rather be pricked by wild blackberry bushes than endure one more hour of myself. Especially after so much fun like today. I would enjoy school with regular people my age.”

“That’s why I’m here, I think,” I said quietly. “To offset some of that.”

She slumped in the overstuffed chair by her bed. “You do give me good ideas, but you’re too old to play a rowdy game of tag.” She sat up and reached for my hand, a look of real apology in her eyes. “I mean, I am sorry, it’s true you’re only twenty-three, of course not old, but that’s still thirteen years older than I. And there are limits.” She smoothed her party dress and grinned at me, eyes crinkling beneath pale brows, “Even for us.”

I tried to not burst out laughing. She could be so serious, say the oddest things for a child but I kept a stern face. “I must say you are right, with my older legs I might trip and fall in this maddening skirt and pinching shoes and then we’d not be able to race around here again since we’d both be in trouble. Especially me if your mother had a say.”

“Correct.” She nodded and gazed out the window. “Mother always has her say. That never bodes well for shenanigans.”

We were still a few moments. Yawning, I made to leave and read awhile when her hand rose, hovered in the air as if to delay me. She was riveted by something out a window and I could guess what it was.

“Listen. Our Baltimore Orioles are singing so loudly right now. They so rile up the air.”

She got up to hear better, pressed into breeze beyond the open window. I followed. She took a breath and held it. They were there daily on tree branches, yellow-orange feathered breasts flashing within the greenery. She thought all creatures on their acreage were “ours” and birds were near the top of her favorites list. She never tired of their songs. She tapped out the rhythm of their tune with fingertips on the windowsill and soon very softly sang along with them. It riveted me, always.

“I’d like to write that down.” She turned to me. “Can you get me musical manuscript paper or do I have to make my own again? It is just not the same with ruler and ink, I make blotches rather than notes.”

“You could use pencil,” I suggested as usual.

“You could buy me some manuscript paper…and better ink.”

I knew Aurelia wouldn’t approve of my doing so or her daughter’s writing down even innocent, intricate songs of birds. She didn’t like the idea of Stella getting too involved with music. She barely tolerated the art; Kenneth had purchased the grand piano against her wishes. Her mother had been a very good singer, apparently, and finally left the family to perform in vaudeville. She was never heard of again until she died in some manner no one spoke of, despite Aurelia’s family’s status being the one redeeming factor in all messes. Or it was unknown, more likely, because of that.

She did not want Stella to indulge in many musical pleasures (nor slip down the path to which they led). She had even suggested the piano be sold but Kenneth had forbidden it–he liked to play a few tunes, himself, for fun. He was a harried businessman; music quite relaxed him. And Stella loved it, too, so they’d play together sometimes–Aurelia glaring from her perch in the neighboring drawing room or hiding out in bedroom or garden.

“I know, it’s dangerous in this house,” she conceded, but with a shrug. “What’s the worst that could happen? My music manuscript paper taken away. I’d find another way. Right?”

Her smile gave me such joy. She was invincible, this girl. And sometimes reckless.

No,  more might happen. I could be sacked. But I made a decision. I knew she had music begging to get into the world. I had heard her sing and hum for years, watched her hands play their own way across piano keys to such good effect. Her father knew all this, too, and yet was reluctant to encourage her further. He had a wife, too, after all; he had quite a bit at stake.

I bought the manuscript paper, new pen with a fine nib and silky ink out of my own mad money. And so it began.

******

Stella touched the paper with the tip of her right index finger, letting it meander over the preprinted five-line stave with four spaces, the treble and bass clefs.

Her oval face was pink with excitement as she waved the page in the air. “Do you know different clefs are used for different instruments? And that there are many of them, not just the usual two we find on piano music? There are treble, bass, tenor and baritone and soprano and alto and mezzo-soprano but they’re not altogether different looking and–well, anyway, like human voices in a vocal choir.” She shook the expensive paper at me. “I can write a choir’s worth of music on this piece of paper, imagine, Margaret! But for now I can write the Baltimore Oriole’s song right here, then look at it anytime I want, and hear the melody in my mind… I could tell you more about this wonderful paper but, of course, you know about it already, and I must get to work… Oh, excuse me, Margaret, pull and lock the door tight behind you…no one must know but us!…thank you so much for this, you are a truly righteous dear.”

I took one last look. What had I done?

But she was in heaven as she started, bent over her little roll top desk. Her hand flew across that paper in a series of special dashes, dots, slashes, pauses. her lower lip was caught by her front teeth and she breathed hard at times, head angled close to the calligraphy of musical notation. She was transformed from a rather extraordinary child into a creature infused with passionate calling. Her being was lit up.

I finally tiptoed out though I longed to stay, to see what she could do with it, to offer minor guidance since I read music, too. On the other hand, Stella had a basic grasp of basic musical notation after six years of excelling at her piano study and already playing with finesse. No, more important was my patrolling–casually–the second floor hallways, keeping an eye out for Aurelia’s whereabouts.

Most days it was easy to avoid Aurelia. She was busy with her social calendar, her charitable works and managing the house. Stella and I had agreed on two days a week to start, a half hour each time. After I heard her hum the very close rendition of the Baltimore Oriole’s song (which she had so neatly written as if she knew exactly how), she managed to stretch that to longer sessions as I gave in. Once or twice Aurelia had called for her daughter repeatedly until she came to the door, popping her head out with a sulky, “What is it, Mother? I am busy studying.” I distracted her on numerous occasions and got quite good at it. It was often her advice I sought; flattery had a tempering effect on her unpredictable nature. She began to teach me some about the garden which I enjoyed in any case, and she saw that I had good results with Stella all these years and told me so, to my surprise. I felt some guilt that I was duping her, being the necessary yet untrustworthy diversion so her daughter could pursue the very thing she feared.

Of course Kenneth knew. I found him with an ear pressed against her door one day. When he heard me his raised eyebrows  and smile betrayed his delight, and he placed a hand to heart and said nothing more of it. But he’d sometimes nod at me with a covert glance; we had a pact from then on and I felt reassurred.

I wondered at what cost this meant to any or all of us only once. Aurelia had stored a large portrait of her mother done in her mother’s youth and came across it when Jane, a maid, found it in the attic recesses. She had been looking for another family painting her mistress desired dusted and hung and thought it worthy of a place. Jane left it leaning on the outside door for inspection. layer she informed me that Aurelia gave a gasp and became faint, her hand steadying herself against the wall and Jane steadying her other side, then commanded it be taken to a trash bin far out back and, if possible, burned. The force of her rage and renewed horror of abandonment kept her in her rooms at dinner that night. Over the next few days she was sullen, white about the mouth and red about her eyes, and offered tears in response to a slightly charred roast beef. She had never cried openly. I thought it a mark of progress that her poised demeanor could be so stirred. perhaps there was room for other emotion that might open her further.

But, oh, what music Stella began to write as time fled. I did not regret it, how could I? The child was so at her ease, in her element with music. And I still am not sorry, not even a little.

******

It was only very small songs at first; she would hum and tap it out, show me her neophyte’s work. Then it got more intricate, the music flowing.  She’d ask me to take a second part or third and we’d make do with the severe paucity of instruments, imagining the whole of it if only we had an orchestra. During morning studies she would make time to share the pages and I’d nod and wonder over what was happening there. At times she’d hide in the pages in her clothing or a bag and we’d take a picnic at the far reaches of the garden. We’d take a trip to town, sit on a park bench near the fountain, just hum it out as she showed me what she’d change to make it work better. Sometimes Aurelia was blessedly gone for the day. We’d sit in the music room at the grand piano without fear, both of us cozied up at the keyboard. The truth was, I sang just well enough to add harmonies and my piano playing didn’t match hers even when she was a child. But it was exhilarating to be part of what she was developing. Stella Lannigham had a gift–she had more than one, yes, but this was possibly going to be a magisterial blessing among the others. Meanwhile, she excelled as usual in all her subjects. I wondered how much longer they would keep me. She was far past due for grander challenges; she needed university coursework  and more very soon.

Before too long–the years got fuller and faster with each one that arrived–she was sixteen. There was a party, a coming out party, replete with extravagant dress and food and legions of guests. It was a thrill to see her pull it off, as I knew she found it “a complete bore, Margaret, there are so many things I could do with this money and time if they’d let me–how about a charitable event? How about my very own adventure in Italy, Greece and Spain? How about a new really good telescope– or a full-sized harp? I’d so love a harp and lessons!” But she played her role well.

I wandered about, nibbling and drinking a bit and caught the eye of a man, Theodore Taylor, whom I had met briefly once or twice before, the son of Kenneth’s friend. I liked him. We were both past the age of reckoning, too old to admit we yet hoped to marry but not ready to give up that hope.

“I can’t imagine she would have turned out so beautifully without your instruction and interventions,” he said as we sipped champagne.

“Thank you for that, I have worked hard all these years but she has never been difficult to reach and she teaches me more than I teach her, I’ve long suspected.” I felt his hand on my elbow; it disturbed me in all the right ways so I smiled back at him.

“She’s such a brilliant young woman. I hear she’s a natural mathematician. What are her plans?”

“I wish I knew. Kenneth expects her to enter college–she is due to entrance exams soon–but Aurelia…she has her eye  on a suitable husband already.”

Theo laughed. “A losing battle, It’s not medieval times, the girl can do–and should– as she chooses. Time for marriage later.”

An enlightened male whose touch warmed me so readily?  I turned to face him and his broad hand fell to my wrist, lightly, then my fingers over which his own slid, then were gone.

“Don’t be fooled, her mother is a powerful influence on her husband, at least. His daughter, however, has less and less patience with her demands.”

“I know how much he adores Stella. He knows her gifts and wouldn’t deny her access to a bright future.”

“I agree. Or at least I hope you are correct, as for Stella to waste all that brilliance and curiosity and zeal for life would be painful to see.”

We stood shoulder to shoulder and watched the lovely, fluffy girls flutter by like a bevy of butterflies, and Stella easily outshone them all–her pleasing face notwithstanding, it was her bearing and characteristic joi de vivre that carried the night toward a  sublime conclusion.

“Would you like to dance. Margaret? I was hoping al night.” Theo asked. And that was that.

At around eleven, people were tiring of merriment and starting to float towards the door when Stella’s clear alto speaking voice rang out: “Please stay if you can, all! I have something to share with you as my thank you!”

Theo and I, hand in hand, blended into the group gathered about the piano where she sat. I felt goose bumps race up and down my back and arms. A lump cast about my throat and I swallowed hard. She was not going to do it, we had spoken of it a month ago and she had agreed. Just a quick few musical delights, something from Broadway or just a light sonata or two. But not anything revealing, nothing that could change the course of things.

Stella placed her hands on the ivory and ebony keys and began to play. The piece began with a delicate touch, arpeggios of light on water, swift rounds of melody that danced, then merged with a vast array of notes, a growing tapestry of sound that wove with verve, coloration and texture and grew into a greater story as it crescendoed into something so exquisite that as it hovered there, the crowd held its collective breath with chins up, chests leaning toward the music, and the girl, and then waiting for release. Which came fast, then a slower cascading of notes like leaves twirling within brilliance of day, then landing within a mysterious softness of twilight. Quietude. Fulfillment and deliverance.

She sat still at the piano, her hands slowly leaving the keys that had responded with vibrancy. The room was full of sudden stillness. It had been a short composition, a simpler one than she had been able to create, and yet its charm was in its varied movement and its bursts of happiness, and how it completed itself, easy yet complex at once.

One then another and another applauded until the house vibrated with it. Stella stood, bowed slightly, her eyes sparkling with excitement, even while Margaret knew she thought even then of risks just taken. Yet Stella knew she had succeeded in forging her own path. Kenneth was not about to regret anything. He simply loved her and so he rushed forward and embraced her, held up his hands, with one of hers in his, to the guests as if to say, “How wonderful a thing this moment, how fortunate I am to have such a daughter–can it be denied?”

It could not.

And yet Aurelia thanked the guests for coming with her gracious manner and generous smile, then slipped out the back doors and into her refuge, the garden. To cry or shake her fist at the sky–or to possibly thank God, I would not have the privilege to know. The next day, despite tearful pleadings of her daughter and a well- spoken defense of my worthiness by Kenneth (who did not quite admit he had knowledge of what went on within Stella’s hidden life), Aurelia let me go. With not even a thank you for my service, only an indictment. I had betrayed her trust, it was true, the worst crime as a tutor and in this kind of home.

Stella pressed her face against her bedroom window, tears streaming, as I got in the cab. I pressed both my hands against my own window and squelched a scream. I was not an innocent and had known the high stakes. Yet. Stella. And teaching. Gone.

******

It has been ten years now. Ten engaging and momentous years but without Stella in my daily life, though nine with Theo and our son, Damian. My husband’s work has taken us far from that city, my glorious and demanding life lived with a prodigy who had large, defiant dreams (when young girls of this age are directed to more proscribed paths). With parents who alternately gave to and withheld much from their daughter in surprise or fear and, it must be said, sheer awe. Caring was present, Kenneth’s sweep of love, Aurelia’s rather timid love that surmounted the barrier of her blindness. She gave approval in small bits and later, much later, she gave more I am told.

And there was my affection which grew into love but easy to give, the devotion of one who risks much but knows the worth of it, so cannot help it.

More and more we now hear Stella’s music on the wondrous radio, and have attended her concerts, and read the rave reviews of her compositions which are performed by many others. We have remained in touch, how could we not? Many times I have thought: I was there to witness a good portion of transformation. And it was stunning and humbling. There is a steady glow that knowledge yet gives me.

She has thus far lived the life she could not refuse. As have I. A lesson gained long ago has guided me: that we all are given gifts and pivotal moments within which to chose our use of them or not. To follow the talent or passion. The trick is to let ourselves be led. To surrender, as did Stella.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Longest Day of August

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Mama Leah waited showing only the barest signs of distress for two years, expectations high and prayers fattened with gratitude. After all, she’d had everyone for twenty years, longer than many if shorter than some. Pops had gone his own way on it but then he would, he was the one who had caused it all. Or so part of the extended family determined. The others kept their opnions to themselves after the first go ’round. No one was as heated after two years passed by, though. And Pops was the type who sooner or later shrugged off all hard times as the way of things, the general luck of the working man. He didn’t mention it after the first year, when he told Mama Leah to take any other tears right out of that house, they’d had three other children in case she forgot. She made four rhubarb pies instead, then gave them away and that was that. For the moment. She could not believe he did what he did. It was a near-lethal puncture in their full lives.

But the second year of a certain date, the second actual anniversary of the event, she sat on the porch and studied the yard as if it was laid out just for the eye and soul to hunger over. Adorned with flowers every season, the expanse of rainbow hues caught everyone’s attention and gave succor to many who had all but given up on their plodding or ravaged days and nights. At least Mama Leah’s garden carried on like a dream, big and bountiful as she was, bursting with the glories of life. It gave them hope when all else felt paltry. And she shared vegetables from the kitchen garden, too; you could walk right over and snap a fat tomato or strapping pumpkin right off the vines and she’d wave at you next time you passed by. Though almost nobody did that much excepting Terry Harney. And he could be forgiven with crooked leg and lopsided face, all from jumping the train and missing.

So there Mama Leah was, leaning over the railing, head moving back and forth, making sure her plants had soaked up the daily feed of water. Then she sat on the railing, her girth settling about, her hand steadied against a corner pillar. The sun was high and it was blazes out. She had been at work all day in the yard, in the kitchen. Pops had come from the mill for lunch and lastly savored a berry crumble, then left her with just three words even if they were good ones: “sweet like you”.

“Sweetness gone sour today,” she said to herself and slapped the railing with her dish towel. Then she descended the stairs and sat under the oak and willow trees and contemplated what the date meant to her now.

She recalled shouting and heat so inflamed her head hurt and her thin shirt stuck to chest and back like another skin despite the overhead fans and a lush breeze. She recalled how Pops had stopped her from reaching out a third time to Jonas, not stopped with his hand but with that single look, the one that curdled her insides. She’d ignored him, just run after Jonas, feet stumbling, but he’d gotten into his truck and backed out with a skid, yelling as he slammed the gearshift into drive.

“I won’t be coming back with tail between my legs, no sir! I’m good and done with the lot of you!” He swiped at his mouth with back of hand but kept going. “Sorry Mama,” he called out, “done is done!”

“Jonas!” she yelled. Not once, not twice but until she made him stop and idle in that street. And he gave her a stare that was weighted with feeling, his eyes filling with tears. Or that’s how Mama Leah remembered it. It might have been the sunlight’s certain angle glinting off him, but she sure felt all those tears raging inside him despite the anger and bravery and, yes, maybe foolishness. Then he was gone, rocks splitting apart the saturated August air.

It was like a long slash across her spirit, seeing that country dirt and their misery and grief caught between his teeth, and that good head full of dangerous ideas. And in her mouth were trapped the words of love she had uttered every day of his life in one way or another and could not now dislodge as she fell into the well of grief. Oh, how things bled from her, sacred things, and she could not put them back inside, not the same.

Mama Leah sat heavily in one garden chair and lay her straw hat in the other, patting the frayed top one time. Emphasis was on saving the seat. She might sit there the rest of the afternoon. Just in case. Her dark hair lifted off her neck in a gust, a fine blessing.

It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She had the patience. And she had the heart for it.

******

It was that August day again of the twelfth year. Time had begun to spin its tales on Mama Leah. Her big frame was whittled down enough that folks still looked twice, not sure if it was her in there. And her face, if still lit with a ready warmth, was roughed up with furrows on her forehead and lines a little like seams sewn under newly revealed cheekbones. Her hair stayed bound up now, white strays sprouting curls about her temples. Her talk was still generous, just much quieter, as if trying to not actually whisper though it felt more natural.

Pops had gotten louder when he needed to speak. It likely was worsening hearing that made him bolder and harder. Some said he just had to make some kind of statement out of his presence since he’d been passed over for the foreman’s job. Oh hell, he’d said one day at Clary’s Cafe, no one wanted to boss around his friends, anyway, he’d ride his job out another ten years and retire and get lazy and fat. Which he would not, not Pops Riddle with his knife- thin torso, that still-muscled back and arms and relentless love of work.

Their kids, Mallory, Ginny and Red, had one by one vacated the old family farmhouse–the first, Mallory, off to a two year college, then stayed in the city to their surprise but she did well for herself. A computer tech person, they said proudly. The other two migrated down the street, around a few corners in either direction. There were grandkids, one each, and the required (Mama Leah and Pops were relieved) spouses. They visited time to time and always for Sunday dinner and an hour to chat or watch a game or play games with the little ones. Ginny and Red scoped out Mama Leah with sideways glances, but gave no signal of worry. She had changed but, then, they all had, only natural. Pops saw it, too. He’d every now and then put an arm around her, give her a squeeze. She acted as if he wasn’t there at first, then glanced up at him with a mild smile, get busy again. Other than that they did okay, their kids thought, and then would ponder how that could even be.

That day they’d stood face to face in the front yard, well, passersby couldn’t help but hear much of it. Pops had told Jonas to “get out then, feed your own self, pay your own way picking a ratty old guitar in a dark corner, become regrettable.”

This came after he’d offered Jonas a good job at the mill and Jonas said he’d not stoop that low, not anymore, he’d quit his butcher store job, too, he couldn’t stand it another minute.

“I’m not gonna be chained to this worthless dump of a town, work the grind day in day out until I’m worn down to smallness, then nothing! I’m going out west, making an interesting life and I’ll be a singer for sure, never a factory rat, and not like you!”

Pops looked so terrible hard at his oldest that his eyes weren’t even his anymore, and spat on the ground. Stomped back onto the porch and turned a last time.

“You foolish, ungrateful boy, your mother and I have worked our skin off to raise this family up from the dirt, to give you more and better! Did you think a man labors hard for less than that? You want to just sing about it all? Go on. Don’t you ever throw your shadow on this house again.”

His face puffed up, beet red, he’d slammed the door behind him right after Mama Leah came around from the back, running after Jonas.

The younger children and folks stopped on the sidewalk had never heard Pops speak so eloquently, and Red and Ginny hadn’t ever seen Mama Leah lose control and holler out their brother’s name so the whole town could hear their business.

So after this, no one said his name in that house. No one dared say how they still missed him every day, big brother with his dreams, quick laugh and temper, the echoing silences that he’d once filled up with songs and jokes. His flannel shirts hung in a back closet, still sturdy and nubby to the touch, pants and miscellaneous in a box, a reprimand behind a locked door. But no one moved his leather boots from under the back stoop where they grew a thin mesh of greenish mildew, and filled with ants and spiders. They’d disintegrate before they’d ever show themselves in the dawning of day.

Mama Leah didn’t have to check a calendar as each summer drew to a close. It was an ordinary day to anyone else, but on August 24th it announced itself in her center as if ten cow bells were rung hard. The early hours of the world just vibrated. Morning sunlight passed through her skin, flashed inside her so everything felt ablaze.

She took herself from the laundry room at last and then to the weather-worn chair, removed her new sun hat and lay it on the second seat.

It had been so long, day melting into night over and over, one season turning to reveal the next, sun and moon and stars traipsing across the sky in a good rhythm. Never had she thought to be this old, fifty-two now. Leah had just been twelve, climbed the biggest maple in the side yard and boasted of her independence. She had been loud and clear. She had been possessed of youth’s unstoppable joy. But her mother fell ill, was better off and on while Leah somehow finished school, then went off to work.

And there was Pops. Horace it was then but he hated that name so when they finally got married–after he’d gotten a better job at the mill, after she’d worked front desk some years for the small real estate office, then got possession of the family house– only then she had begun to call him Pops like some others did, no good reason why though he was to become one. Her own father had gone back to Georgia relatives after her mother fell from the ladder. She had been picking apples from their own tree despite her tiredness, and so fell fast as lightning. Broke her neck. Leah had been picking some at the other tree and was struck helpless, terrorized by the scene. Her father didn’t leave until he’d chopped down that demon tree and blasted the giant stump out. With all that, she’d shrunk and paled with loss until one day she saw how she had to become all that was necessary just to be alive. And to be ready for hard things to happen. They would again, she was certain of that much.

Now it was twelve years to the day that words like bulls on the loose edged her first son way past the family circle. Beyond an embrace of its strength and affection. Maybe all Jonas could recall anymore were those added up hardships. The sloppy boots that had to be repaired over and over despite his sore feet and embarrassment, just no way to make enough money to get really good new ones. Their dinner table usually a jumble of cross talk or jabs of silence, their father at the far end who chewed on without comment as out from beneath heavy brows those eyes were sharp, questioning. And there was the dense emptiness lurking about Mill Street after he had sung karaoke, no one there to applaud but drunk buddies and those same few girls who flocked about and made him scared he’d end up captive.

That first son, Jonas, singing to her while he helped her with the back straining work in the gardens. Son of dreamy eyes, and a sudden reach of temper, a heart of a poet-warrior that found no war worth the effort. She got that much but how does a person grow up right without something true to fight for? He’d had to find it, get a firm hold on it.

Mama Leah had her children and her gardens and a marriage. But not all her children and so not all of her marriage. Only her gardens were ever faithful. These things wore on body and soul some days.

She let her hair down, let it gently scrape her neck, a bare hint of shoulders, swing under her top and between her shoulder blades until that skin recalled a hand of her husband’s, sweetness or desire. She shook the heavy weight of it, gathered it back in the clip. There was no good breeze, only the heat, only the heavens above like a giant blue eye. She watched the street, waved at walkers and cyclists who looked her way, murmured soothing greetings if they stopped. Told them to pick flowers or veggies if they liked. Bees buzzed about her head, deciding if they wanted to commune with their old friend until fast they zipped back to business of honey in blossoms. The afternoon slipped away; her eyes shut halfway. She could make out a thin glimpse of tree limbs, and it was restful to think of a world defined by such.

Yet Jonas wasn’t coming. Not this day, no. It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She had the patience. But she had less heart than she expected.

******

Another, then another and more robust, thundering, glistening Augusts maximized and spread out their verdant beauties like a buffet until finally it was twenty years after that first day.

Front, side and back yards were stippled dark and light as sunshine played among trees, crowds of flowers, rounded bushes. Pops was holed up in his garage workshop repairing a three-legged wooden stool and tinkering. Mama Leah was upstairs resting after canning more peaches. He’d check on her soon, make sure she wasn’t having one of her spells. Red and Ginny had warned not to say that; she had heart trouble, not any passing “spells.” But Pops preferred thinking she’d lie down or get up any time she pleased. Nothing stopped her long. She’d had a bad time of it the last couple years but it was another year and she dealt with it, was strong, stronger than he was. Though he had no physical fault lines that he knew of–he didn’t stop to think about it, just a fool’s pastime to ponder such things. He–they–kept going. If there was something broke you patched it; it’d last a long while, maybe forever. Mama Leah knew. She repaired much, even people in her way. Pops was a tough one but soon he’d retire, then she’d have less to sweat each day, less to worry over alone.

Sheer whiteness with edges embroidered in serpentine vines swelled with air, went slack, billowed and deflated, and were sucked against the screen. She knew what day it was. She lay in her sun dress with arms outstretched, bare legs and feet splayed. At the windows maple and oak leaves shook, a soft, innocent sound. Mama Leah felt she must count blessings: heart beating one more day, healthy children and grandchildren (three now), food on the table and in pantry, her garden. A husband who came home every day, gave her a kiss on a cheek, loved her in his way.

Oddly, the gardens flourished better than last year, even the years before. It was as if the more she longed for her son, the more earth offered up its consolation. She sometimes wept over the flowers pulled close to her chest–she wept nowhere else–and they took those into their lives and gave her spectacular petals, sturdier stems, deeper roots. It showed her a future of more abundance and  some days it was unbearable, that span of beauty, but she would not stop, could not resist caring for all things that grew like magic from the simple toil of her hands.

The open door to the sleeping porch let in perfumed wafts of air. Late afternoon’s caramel light hovered, a canopy of delicacy near suspended over the bed. Her damp skin shivered, ears were attuned, her mind clear.

It was that time when the day answers your flesh with a sigh and you succumb to the pause. The spirit looks up and sees the veils between bitter and sweet, love and loss, and the essence of it all just fills you up. It is the moment you wait for even if you don’t realize it, that frisson of energy hissing in your veins, a tiny suspension in eternity.

She rolled to the edge of bed, got up, went to the screen door and pushed it open. There was a song drifting by. It came from the trees so Mama Leah stepped into the sleepy day, parted silvery hair from her face and surveyed treetops, then the yard and finally the grassy earth below her.

She remembered, and took one deep breath and released it. It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She knew this to be truth and she had the patience. But she found she had so little heart for it as the past year had rolled by; the organ had roiled and ached in her so long, it’d had to be finally cut into, and things rearranged, and then stitched back up.

She pulled up a chair and patted the empty one, anyway, and watched the street and its people, heard birds tell tales, then crickets faintly begin as the sun sank lower without complaint. She could have stayed til dinner but that she had to cook it. So she stretched out her legs, pointed naked toes, thought of pearly nail polish, how she sometimes missed the simplest silly things.

Then appeared a candy apple red car, just made its way into their driveway and parked nice and neat. Music turned up too loud, a door flung open, and the person who emerged strutted across the yard like a man who had found a miracle, arms opened wide to land and sky and house.

To his mother looking down in disbelief.

Mama Leah yelled, “You–thank God in Heaven!–came home, Jonas! You’re home again!”

“Yes, Mama! With my songs, Mama, you hear that music? My own songs!”

Mama Leah rushed downstairs and every step she screamed for Pops and he burst from the garage just as she exited the house. Before they knew it, they were all three thrown together, stunned. Humbled. And about to be freed.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Snookered No More

82102980_snooker-tricia-porter

“I don’t remember any of that. I remember the way he treated us kids to sodas, each got our choice, every time. And treated us as bigger than we were, always joking and nice. How over the snooker table, light bulbs flickered half the time, there’d be at least one out and it’d take forever for it to be replaced and he’d do it, not Bud. And spicy onions on his breath. I remember how he laughed, short and loud, shot out of his body like a ball pocketed fast. His eyes were intense, happy or sad, it was hard to look away.”

I took a long swig of my beer, leaned forward, eyes on my old friend’s tanned, lined face. “Old” more than “friend” at this point but I’d wanted to see him. Catch up in the cautious way people do after so long and such changes. I had avoided high school reunions so long that I had to manage one, at last.

Jerry shifted in the bench seat. “You always pointed out good stuff, even when we were kids, that sorta Pollyanna attitude,  naive, you know? You folks didn’t get to suffer enough to know any different…” He gave a snort, waved his hasty words away as my eyebrows rose. “Hey bygones be bygones, we were friends, we are now. But  your memories, that’s not  much to retain. You missed a few things but, then, you got out of Dodge fast.”

He scratched at his grey stubble, mouth slack as he noted my crisp blue sport shirt and stone colored khakis and sock-less loafers. Should have worn the sandals. He tried to not stare at the Apple watch on my wrist, a custom ring with lapis lazuli and two small diamonds on my right hand. I moved both below the table. I’d maybe take those off tomorrow. I didn’t need to stand out, there was no reason to prove anything; everyone knew that if I was honest with myself. We all had our paths, some harder, some much better, like Jerry’s.

“I could go on, Jerry, but you wouldn’t likely hear it. Some arguments never quit but I hope you’re still not so against him. He was a mix of things like anyone. I hope to see him again, he still lives here, right? He didn’t die, I guess.”

Jerry examined his dirty fingernails. He’d just gotten off the job, had apologized for his state, after all, we were meeting after so long, but he wanted to get  there faster. A faint ring of dried sweat stained his t-shirt around the neck. I didn’t care about that but wished we’d met later for drinks at one of the new places, not here for the indigestible greasy burger and fried okra in Bud’s Bar and Grill aka Mash and Fritters. It was like revisiting the scene of old tales and petty crimes, plus I never got what tasted so delicious at the place. I liked the shiny jukebox, now long gone. I scrounged in a pants pocket for a chewable antacid, popped one in my mouth.

“How would you know what I have done or do– or not? Hello, Madison, you’ve missed the past thirty years. Gone up over the Ozarks, never came back except for funerals twice, gone in a flash.” But he gave me a kindly look as he grinned wide to show teeth yellowed by chew and coffee. “Clary was someone you had to know a lifetime to really know at all.”

Everyone here had nicknames, even me–“Mad” or the obnoxious “Madi” for Madison– but I started at hearing that one. “Clary.” Short for Clarence Maine. I’d called him by his CB handle, “Ghost Panther”, the few times we’d used our truck CBs, and like a private joke when passing each other on the street (mine was “Navy Boy”, I liked boats). So it stuck in my mind. And that’s what he’d looked like to me, pale, muscular, stealthy. Something untamed at heart.

There weren’t that many times we’d talked much, otherwise–he was seven years older than my friends and me, so there was little reason to call him anything. I watched him at the bar and grill–we kids came and went despite the alcohol. At the rundown community center where he showed kids on how to better shoot baskets or dive in the semi-scummy outdoor pool, or how to faster tie high top Converse sneakers. In the street as I grew up… even as he became half-notorious. The crafty Lothario, Snooker King, a tough fighter who stopped most of that after he broke his best friend’s collarbone, the drag racer who won more than lost and wrecked a few junky cars in the process.  But he could be attentive, good to others, that was plain to me; people just didn’t want to see. My parents, especially, would never commend him and even condemned him for the increased erroneous ways. And I still secretly thought he had more going than most. More life, more nerve to just jump in and live it.

“Well, you got Marvel in the end, not Clary, so you should have put that to rest. And you’re still married–what a testament to Marvel’s strength! I always liked her, no bull, fun to be around. Glad to hear she did become an RN–I know she’s an excellent nurse.”

Jerry punched my arm playfully. “Yeah, she’s a good one and she didn’t do too bad. I own my own roofing company and she–we– got the four kids. Plus two pampered, fussy poodles and a house that we built.”

“That’s what I call good fortune.”

“It’s a damned lucky thing, my happy ending.”

The chilled bottle sweated in my hand. I rolled it across my forehead. It was screaming hot in Missouri, a swelter that clings to your pores and dares them to leak out more sweat. It near suffocates. The cicadas were buzzing with abrasive constancy and the sky was heavy with threat of rain that wouldn’t leave the air freshened only saturated with the same degrees. I suddenly longed for Seattle, cooler, leafier, busier. Home. That comforting if at times grating silence. Waves lapping near my house overlooking the expanse of water.

“So where did Dina go? After she left?” He thumped his bottle down. “If I can ask.”

I looked away. Dina was not a topic I indulged in with people who didn’t know her. She had accompanied me to my father’s funeral and made quite the splash with her quirky, stylish dress, her fast, smart talk. Jerry had texted me that the townswomen had wanted to know where she got such clothes. Dina designed and made them. I’d referred him to her Etsy site and heard nothing more. They’re pricey. Dina is motivated to make money even more than I’ve been. Now I’m content with my work, the lifestyle I’ve built and not looking for more peaks to conquer.

“Dina is still in the city but we seldom talk. Her first brick and mortar store is doing well, I hear. I’d say it was best for her to leave and better for me, too.” I cocked my head at him. “In time, anyway. It’s been two years now.”

“Sorry, Mad, no doubt you loved her.” He leaned into the table, spoke quietly. “Sarah Dennison likely wishes you were available. She’s single…”

A teen-aged Sarah flashed before my eyes: pale blue eyes, skinny and energetic, shy. Plump lips, first real kiss. Her talent for math, a full scholarship to Southern Methodist University–but after that? Did she get what she wanted?

“Not open to returning to the past! I’m fine on my own. But I’m surprised she’s living here.”

“One marriage might just be enough for any of us… No, in California but she’s here for the reunion. She’s in touch with Marvel–they’re so different but still friendly.” Jerry’s head jerked up and he waved toward the door. I looked through the growing numbers of diners and drinkers and spotted who it was. One person only had that bright penny hair–still!–and wide smile bestowed on everyone.

Jerry shook his head. “Well, what do you know? Here comes Melba. Big surprise. She and everyone else knows you’re finally in town for a class reunion. It’s just starting, Madison Townsley, so get ready.”

Melba, Clary’s first love and first wife, I heard, had stopped at the snooker table. She picked up a cue stick, bent over and laughed louder than everyone; several people crowded about her. She beat her boyfriend a few times, I recalled, and that was that, they were in love, more or less.

The air swirled about the swamp of it all: steaming dusky air,  faded faces with blurred names, hard luck stories and better ones, rasp of insects a hum under a shock of lightning, grumble of thunder. If only the rain would let loose.

I stood up. “I’m going to watch Melba play.”

Jerry followed past the noisy round tables to the end of the room. People squinted at me; Jerry nodded their way as I avoided the curiosity. Who had I become? No one should be surprised I’d followed the family trajectory laid forth from an early age.

She was bent over, swaying bulk of her skimming the tabletop as she took aim. I counted the fifteen red balls, six colored ones, one cue ball. Just as always. All readied, taunting the player to tap or slam them away. Contact was made, crack, it shot across the table, left side pocket.

A ripple of energy shot up my back. I’d been here with cue stick in hand so often my parents at last forbade me to play: I had to study harder, had to make something more of myself, get out of that town. In the end, I got it. But what a game it was, what fun as we all shared those hours and more.

Now I owned a luxe pool table. There had been times I’d played with the same enthusiasm–she and I even played. It had given me such pleasure. But for months it has sat abandoned in the great room that overlooks Puget Sound with its carnival of  boats, the mystic orcas, reflections of changing skies above our grand, green city.

Sadness swept over me and I refocused on the game.

Melba was in her stride working the table, her adversary barely keeping up. Spectators admired every pause, each stroke, cheering or booing as they saw fit. In a short time she trounced the other woman and was ready to flounce off to her spot packed with friends. Then she turned, her body seeming to follow that red ruffled skirt that swirled about her. She bumped into me with a force of voluptuousness that had taken over her sturdy frame. Time had made the most of who she was. I held out my arms to her.

“Madi?”

“Melba.”

She tossed an arm about my shoulders and we moved through the crowd, Jerry at our heels.

“Where you sitting?” she asked, linked her arm with mine.

They found the booth at the back, ordered more drinks; hers was whiskey on the rocks.

“I was just telling my girlfriends you weren’t due ’til tomorrow, in and out for our fancy dinner and dance. How sly are you? Welcome back, darlin’.”

She clinked her bottle against mine and Jerry’s and surveyed me openly.

“Looking good, Madi,” she murmured.

“Ditto,” I said, as it was true. Her large amber eyes flashed the same. All that hair swung in a high ponytail, a flag that unfurled in the overhead fan’s breeze.

“Tell me all in a nutshell, then I’ll leave you alone awhile.”

“Wait, Melba, he just flew in this afternoon and had to drive from St. Louis, he’s tired out. Give him room to breathe, love.”

“I didn’t wait for forty years to find out how this ole buddy has been doing, settle down. But it looks like you did good, look at your handsome self, all shined up, smart as can ever. You a high paid corporate attorney now or what?”

Laughter spilled from her like a warning or a friendly offering,  I wasn’t sure which. I wasn’t sure of much here so far, caught in a time warp. It wasn’t feeling all that supportive of a need for privacy and ease. What did I expect?

“That’s right, making the rich richer. Naw, I’m an engineer, Melba, work in aeronautics.”

Her eyes widened and she whistled. “Planes, space stuff? And where’s the wife?”

“Doing her own thing…ten years and done. Where’s your spouse or whatever?”

Whatever is right. Which one?” She flashed neon white teeth, tapped silvery oval nails on the table top. “Oh, maybe you mean… Clary?” She winced but a bold smile came back on. “It’s been a long time since you lived here. I forgot for a minute. And sorry about the wife situation. If you loved her, I mean. Of course you did, divorce is a pain for us all. I’ve had three. But Clary…yeah, well…”

She glanced sideways at Jerry who’d slouched over the last of his third beer, now looking for another. A long night already, what the hell, he seemed to telegraph, so I raised a hand to a waitress who took our order. Though two was enough for me. I had no interest in inadvertently spilling my adult life story here or elsewhere on this trip. And it was stuffy there. I wanted to step outdoors to catch a breeze, then absorb chilled air conditioning in my motel room, that aging and questionable Bel Air Suites now a well reworked Motel Six.

“Madi, he’s in prison, you know that, right?”

It was like she punched me with both fists.

“What? Behind real bars for a long time?”

Jerry took drinks from the waitress then gazed at the table, a broad palm sliding over stains and scratches.

“Yeah, he’s doing time, likely ten to fifteen years.”

“What? Why?” I shook my head hard.

“Money, it all boils down to money! He burgled a place, a 7-11. Armed robbery, St. Louis. And probably more. They caught him on tape, found him, convicted him.” She rolled her shoulders back hard as if unpooling years of hurt and anger, then downed the whiskey. “What could I or anyone do? He gambled too much. Snooker became his worst enemy in the end, and pool–then cards and horses. For so long he was rode an easy wave ’til he came up against bigger fish in the sea, if you follow. And he listened to nobody, right? Not even me. Always the joker, the wiseguy and always his way.” She touched her lips with glittery fingernails as if to still them. Stop the memories. “So that’s that, ole boy.”

“I can’t believe it or maybe I can, but I don’t care to think of it.”

“That’s just how it is, Mad, it went sideways for him.”

I leaned back in my wooden chair, balanced on two legs. Clarence, Ghost Panther, Clary: he was a guy I wanted to model myself after, even if only in private. Swagger meant confidence. An easy way with people. I might also be a whirlwind snooker shark. I might become smart in all the ways I was not yet: how to fix cars, how to drink right, how to make a fire at the river so it glowered low and long into night. How to evade blame if necessary. How to fight without making a ruckus. How to hold a woman just so when she wanted to be held.

I had watched and learned a little. But the gambling and the terrible price paid…I felt sucker punched. Like the good times had been squelched. I actually had suspected I’d see him, catch up some.

“OK, enough of that.” Jerry patted Melba’s arm.

“Yeah, I should get back to my girlfriends. Sorry to break the news.  I’m glad to see you– you seem great. We’ll talk more tomorrow, right?”

When she left it  was like a vacuum opened up. We were quieter, extra careful to say less that might rock the leaky boat of the present reality. I stretched after our bottles emptied. We looked about as people came and went; now and then he’d point out someone. Most I barely remembered. His eyes were bleary and he mentioned Marvel, she’d be waiting for him and likely me.

“I’m tired out, think I’ll head to my room, Jerry. Why not let me give you a ride in my rental car and we’ll call it a night?”

“Yeah, sounds good for now though we could talk for hours.”

As we threaded our way through the dimly lit room and busy tables, people called out to Jerry and he waved; a few exclaimed my name then started to rise. I waved, moved faster, overheated, overdressed, over-informed and a little sick to my stomach.

I flung open the entrance door. Heavy air embraced me, half-smothering rather than relieving me of the lingering heat and a vise grip of tension.

Jerry whistled. “Some car! Is that called, what–ocean blue?”

“It’s a Mazda RX-8, not a Cadillac or Tesla, Jerry! Hop in, enjoy a ride.”

I stopped myself from saying it was what I drove at home most of the time. The rest of the time I drove a refurbished, finely tuned 2010 BMW. Kerry got in as I looked back at Bud’s Bar and Grill, peered into yellow lit, rectangular windows.

The cicadas were rasping their wings off. I wondered how I endured it all those years. I closed my eyes, smelled rain coming over the mountains. Heard tree branches rattle like bones.

There was so much I didn’t want to share, things I didn’t want noticed. Things were better than ever in some ways but emptier, too, since Dina had left. In the end, my life was just not like theirs, anymore. Was it ever? Yet I had missed this from time to time. Even longed for it. For the invisible traces those beautiful if uncertain times had left on me–the same ones I had tried to scour off. It had been easier than I had imagined. Go to college, get a couple degrees, get a decent job that pushed me up the ladder and marry a woman with plenty of her own talents. No kids, but hey, I couldn’t expect everything, could I? Still, I could adjust my life, discover what was missing, re-calibrate. There was a great deal I didn’t know.

“Wait! Is that…Madison!”

Sarah Dennison came toward me like she always had, swiftly, arms outstretched. long legs reaching for more ground, pixie face strangely illumined by the bluish-green tint of mercury lights in the parking lot.

“Is it really you?” she asked, a little breathless. “I just got in a couple hours ago, I called Marvel and she said–oh, hello, Jerry!–she said you two were here, so here I am!”

She placed her arms around me gingerly as if asking permission, and I gladly brought her to my chest a moment, then held her away from me. One person I  understood better than the rest. At least once.

But this was that Sarah? Sleek, swinging silver-streaked hair and so quick to speak? She leaned her head to one side, took my hand into hers.

“Madison, a pleasure once more.”

“I’m glad to see you, Sarah, such a long time.”

“It is. From Missouri to professorship at Stanford University for me; for you, Seattle,  and aerospace,  Marvel says. We need to talk.” She peered at the car, patted it. “Nice. Are you guys leaving already or going on a spin?”

“I need rest and so does Jerry. We’ll chat tomorrow.”

I beamed back at her but felt noncommittal. I was in need of more antacids and sleep and still had to run Jerry home. It was just a lot to take in the first few hours back in the ole hometown. So much felt the same but Ghost Panther, in prison. He wasn’t exactly my childhood hero but he meant something. It set badly with me. The small fire in my belly was roiling, likely to carry me into a long, restless night.

“Alright, see you tomorrow at dinner or before?”

“Tomorrow,” I agreed and folded into the car.

I dropped Jerry off at his pleasant two-story house at the edge of town not far from where he had grown up. Gabbed for ten minutes with Marvel, who was feisty and warm as before. Sped back to Motel Six, flung myself on my bed. Stared up at the at the popcorn ceiling, then took a cool shower and pulled on shorts. Studied my face in the mirror to make sure I still had a grasp of who I was. I had a mind to pack up the few things unpacked and leave in the morning. Who needed nostalgia or jolts of current reality? It was too much in one visit. I wanted life stories to unfold carefully, slowly. I wanted to hide my own longer though it wasn’t that sad, just not what I expected it to be. But, then, did anyone of us?

My nightly ritual had to be kept even in this room, this time warp. I pulled out a notebook and my drafting pen and began to loosely sketch those I had seen. Melba, flare of laughter, a wealth of generosity but eyes hard and sparking, too. Jerry all rough angles and weariness made stronger, sweeter with contentment. Sarah, beauty revealed and brilliance undimmed, her soft shyness finally undone. And Clary’s–Ghost Panther’s–face came to the fore. But it was of the past. A person I did not the least bit know had evolved. He was…older now, too,  much older, in case I forgot that time had slipped away.

How to make heads or tails of the news? On the clean white page, at least, a creature elegance rising from leanness. Eyes that delved, captured everything, committing it to mind for reference. Future acts. Dangerous capers. Yet he had been kind to me. He had taught me to be braver than I felt: a steady gaze back, a solid stance, head held up. He had given me tips on how to win some snooker games. How to withstand losing–with a shrug and “see you turkeys later” tossed over a shoulder, striding without rush out the door. He’d applauded my jacknife dives.

A person could be deeper and better than the wrong things done. I had faith in greater possibilities. He no doubt still carried some magic, had more to offer if he’d get through the misery and wake up. But it wasn’t for me to know, I conceded.

I closed the sketch book. Popped another antacid. Wondered what was on the dinner menu at the reunion. Punched up my pillow so it fit about right under my too-stuffed skull. Turned out the pearly plastic bedside light. Turned over, avoided thinking of Dina. Wondered about Sarah.

The cicadas were singing above the purring A/C, a comfort, after all. A mournful wail of a train whistle tunneled through sodden Missouri air, the same one that used to set me to dreaming as a boy. Tomorrow would arrive one way or another. I’d not often been stymied by people or places. I chose to take in what I needed or wanted then moved forward. But it was clear some of us got left behind, like it or not. I shut my eyes. It was only a quick time travel to finish up, then back home.

Ten-four, Ghost Panther, I know you’re around, wherever you are. Sorry I missed you this time. Good numbers, 10-7.

 

 

This I Can Leave You

Yachats, MR 66, Days 3,4 252
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

When Tessa thought back to the day she first saw Cliffside Court, she couldn’t for the life of her recall seeing that thing standing like a relic amid sea salt-licked, sun-burnt grass. She’d only been drawn to the bluff’s edge, and the ocean’s roaring like a wild thing it was yet which from up there sounded like a comfort born of the neutrality of indifference. Acceptance, that was what she felt as she peered at cottages and stepped across the dry lawn which offered a shared area. She observed the kids squinting at her then scattering, an old man hunched over his walking stuck with cap pulled to his eyes. If one was inclined to share an area, that is, which she felt was unlikely overall. It suited her. She was here to do nothing, for as long as it took to feel at ease with that. Doctor’s orders, finally.

“I’m not yet a basket case; you can’t just order me to some obscure asylum where I  must lunch on a manicured lawn with the crazy ladies,” she’d protested when forced to see Dr. Matthews. “I have scads of excellent miles left on this mind and body.”

This was the day after her meltdown during a useless, contentious staff meeting wherein she threw her favorite Waterford pen across the room. It then bounced off the window and hit Jarrod’s cheekbone, her comrade but also boss. Then worse yet she began to weep as she mumbled another something regrettable and fumed out.

“The operant word there is ‘yet’, Tessa. You’ve given much and are paying for the 16 hour days and sleepless nights. You know I can more or less order you to take a leave since I work for this company–part of your perks, our wellness team. Your blood pressure is sky-high. You aren’t eating right. You have no one at home to corral you or advise you so I am sending you off. Six weeks, then do a check-in. Take the tranquilizer as needed, it can help. But go far away, and don’t answer emails or that phone.”

She hung her head like a chastised puppy and slunk out of the room, face burning with embarrassment and anger. No one dared look at her as she tidied her desk, watered her creamy white orchid with shaking hands, turned out the light in her office then walked very fast in her spike heels with head high to escape one more second of humiliation. No one was going to see her fall down, certainly not into any terrifying emotional rabbit hole. Jarrod observed Tessa with two fingers gingerly touching a tiny bruise on his cheek. He shook his head, turned away. He sure hoped she’d get a grip.

******

There certainly was no dependable internet connection at Cliffside Court or surrounds. Anyone would think this was not the place for her, such a step down in the world according to friends and family–why didn’t she take a month’s cruise to the south of France, for example? Find her way to a spa resort on St. Lucia? It was a getaway she needed, a break from a job that had begun to take her apart, her composure and authority disturbed like silky threads torn free of a fine embroidered work. She was VP of a well-tuned interior design business, after all; anyone would need a serious time out after ten years running. But at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot on the road?

Tessa wanted nothing of chic or exclusive or trendy. She wanted unreachable, ordinary, earthy and weathered Cliffside Court fit the bill. After only a week, she had begun to sleep again. She’d found a Saturday farmer’s market in the hamlet four miles away and had begun to eat more than once a day, like a surprisingly hungry person. Off coffee bit by bit, she drank soothing medicinal teas the local coffee shop kept in a green glass jars beside homemade lemon peel and poppy seed scones.

She’d taken to sitting n the deck, careful to step around split or missing boards, settling into her plastic chair with mug in hand. When a thought from the rat race world wriggled into her mind she banished it with a choppy wave of a hand. Tessa primarily focused on the horizon when she could see through fog; she loved how things disappeared and reappeared as a brew of  sweet-tangy mist burned off or fell upon all. She watched fishing boats make careful progress, and the rolling, cresting waves were a like spell for healing. When her aching back yelled at her, she walked down a treacherous stairway that led to the miles-long beach and spent an hour loping up and down a blinking sandy stretch. She walked until her leg muscles and brain felt liquid, just another part of the sea. Blessed sea. Sea that scared her in the right way, like God was talking to her. She soon listened to the wordless poetry of it all and breathed in thick or shimmering damp air.

On the week-ends, it got busy; she kept to herself, inside. Or perhaps chatted with the old man who repeated much of what she said to make sure he got it, and had lived there four years since his wife passed. She liked the mischievous sister, Mae and brother, Ty, who soon approached her, and Elle, their mother with a close cap of silvered hair–it could be dyed but Tessa thought no, it belonged on her, framing olive skin and moody eyes. She admired it and Elle’s patience with those entertaining but madcap kids. A family of five from Canada stayed for ten days, friendly from afar at best which was fine with her. A single man came and went after three days; an older woman stayed for two, on to California next, she said as if relieved. People came and went as she stayed on.

The couple who owned the place was always busy. Mo hummed as she worked, sometimes chatted awhile; you’d have thought it the radio as her songs were tuneful and her voice sonorous. Henry tended to silence in a satisfied way. They’d been married on the bluff long ago, bought the cottages six years after their first son was born. Tessa believed the place and lifestyle were their dream come true.

It made her wonder: was her life the one she chose or one that chose her? It seemed a trite thought and dissolved as she relaxed into the pace of coastal life. It made her nervous that she was adapting so quickly to doing so little. Where was the adrenaline rush she loved of the looming deadline? That memory fell over the bluff and headlong into the sea.

So mostly it was good, better than she had imagined. The summer breezes left a kiss of salt on her lips, her hair frizzed and billowed off her loosening shoulders, her bare feet carried sand and dirt inside the cottage and she left it all as it was as long as she wanted. No one cared; not even she cared.

By the end of the second week, however, Tessa found herself unable to see past that odd thing, the two sturdy grey poles with a lateral top pole, and it rose in the middle of her sight line. Useless old beams cutting up the grand view. It struck her as a sort of gallows. She played with tat thought and found it morbid  but fascinating. It was as if her vision sharpened, her mind refocused in a fresh way so landscape and surroundings were perceived as more dramatic than soothing. But she began to feel that someone or more than one had hung from or hung onto those frayed rope ends. It scared her. Re-positioning her chair didn’t help; the thing was just there, a reminder of something that made her squirm. It was worrisome, that structure. And her wondering about it, so she’d get get busy with something pleasant, like quickly sketching the morning glories or the ocean, kids at its edge. To draw like that seemed like freedom, like play.

Days passed uneventfully, just sunning and walking and reading two good books she had put off for too long. The nights sweetly whispered to her, the push, lift and fall of endless water shushing her mind, the deep darkness gentle about her body.

One afternoon Old Man–he didn’t offer a name, saying his real one was ridiculous, no one could pronounce it–sat on the bench longer than usual, face to the glinting expanse of water and sand below.

“May I join you?”

“Eh? Join me? So you are.”

They sat a moment quietly. He liked to chew on an unlit pipe as he stroked his white beard, now scraggly but reasonably short.

“I have a feeling your beard has longer than this,” she said, pointing with her chin, her hands grasping the bench. There was a strong, chilling wind this time.

“My beard? You’d be right. Down to middle of my chest a long while.”

“Why’d you cut it?”

“Cut it? Well, my wife didn’t like it that long. But I didn’t whack it down until she died.”

“You waited until then?”

“Ah, yes, I waited…and then it seemed the right thing to do. Respect for her memory. And I didn’t enjoy it long, anymore. She used to brush it out, oil it up for me.” He puffed on his smokeless pipe a bit. “That’s the sort she was.” He glanced at her, heavy-lidded eyes keen and clear. “You married?”

“Oh, no. I mean, once. Not anymore.”

“Once, eh? Enough for some, that’s it. You look like one of them fancy lawyers, too busy for such.”

Tessa laughed. “No, not one of those. I work at an interior design company.” She wondered what it was that made him think that.

Old man shrugged as if he heard her. “I guess it’s how you talk.”

She started again. “We create interiors of houses and commercial buildings, make things functional but attractive.”

“You create, huh? Make house stuff? Well, that’s fine. I loved woodworking, myself. Made some money in handmade furniture.” He then held up a hand and showed her a pale scar running along his gnarled thumb all the way to the tip. “About cut it in half, but they got ‘er fixed.”

She shook her head, pulled her jacket about her. “Well, good thing. Going to storm?”

“Naw, not tonight. Just bluster, a little wet. Might even get a good sunset.”

She glanced at the moldy looking clouds, unable to see how that could happen.

“Just wait,” Old man said, “that sky will likely shine.” He pushed his stick into the ground and helped himself up. “I saw you looking at the thing out there. We all have, too much.” He pointed at the poles behind them. “Don’t ask Mo and Henry. Not a good story.” He lumbered off, all six feet of him, a long crackling branch bent over by time and wind.

Tessa waited for the sun to set, arms crossed tightly, hood pulled up over her head. She heard the children run inside as Elle called twice and almost wished they’d come sit with her. Her cottage could feel too ancient and quiet. Empty of much, not such a bad thing but sometimes a tad lonely. As she stared out to leaping and cresting waves, a yellowish-coral light seeped through heavy banks of clouds and there was a small thin line that grew, a spot amid the dimming distance that shone, just like he said.

It was beginning to feel right, being there, and she still had three more weeks of wonders. And then she did not know what next. She did not miss the power of her title, the problem solving to create a heftier profit. She missed making art.

******

In the morning she was possessed of an immense desire to find out why the thing was left to rot over the years. Though it still stood tall and straight it was a blight. And clearly someone wanted it to remain. She had awakened knowing it was just meant to be long swings, two by the looks of the ratty rope ends flapping away. Even if Mo and Henry weren’t going to tell her, she could explore it more. Set a chair by it and step up higher to look it over. So she perpared to do that after pancakes for breakfast and strong black tea she gave into and bought at the coffee shop.

Mae’s small face greeted her, nose pressed flat against the screen of the door.

“Miss Tessa, what’ve you been cooking?”

“Pancakes, want some?”

“Blueberries or raspeberries or what?”

“Gluten-free flour, no berries, but walnuts.”

“No thanks.” She shrugged, picked up a ladybug.

They sat on the deck and surveyed the bright blue sky when Elle sauntered around the corner with mail in her hand.

“Look at that, something from a Mr. Lance Forman.” She smacked it twice on her palm.

“Oh…a nice surprise, huh?”

Elle looked down, smiled widely.

“It’s Daddy! Read to me!” She tackled her mother’s waist.

“I guess he’ll get around to coming back one of these days, the kids are powerful magnets. Maybe I still can persuade him, too. Well, well.” She smoothed back the long bangs from her daughter’s forehead. “Not now. Wait for Ty to get back with Henry. Then we’ll see what’s what.” She unlatched her child. “So how’s it going, Tessa? Pretty out here today.”

“Yes, all except this thing, the weird blight on the bluff,” she said, pointing at it. It’s all I can see, anymore, until I get to the beach. And then I still see it as I look up. What is it, Elle?”

She studied Mae’s surprised eyes, then sighed, opened her mouth to speak.

“Mama-you said not to talk about it.”

“Yeah. And Ty’ll be back soon. Why not go find Mo, see if you can help her.”

Mae jumped down from the deck and ran off.

Tessa thought better of her inquiry. “Maybe… just forget it?”

“It’s just, it was tragic, that’s all.”

“I see. I felt maybe that was it. An accident?”

Elle nodded, ruffled glimmering hair. “I guess I can tell you. Just say nothing to anyone else.” She glanced around her. “Their other son. He fell from the top piece, way the heck from up there. He climbed all the way up to show off to his little brother, I guess, who was swinging down below him. Those swings could really fly, I guess, fun if a little dangerous if you pumped too hard and flew up too high. But it was the climbing that got him, not the swinging.”

Tessa’s right hand pressed hard against her chest. “Oh, no. Then why keep it there? Why not take it down so it isn’t a reminder every single day?”

Elle narrowed her eyes at the sea. “A kind of memorial, I guess, to Wally. The little brother, Rusty, didn’t talk for months but he finally turned out okay, he has a welding business over the mountains. Doesn’t come by much. I’ve met him, he was nice-looking and polite but oh, those eyes.” She shivered. “Like two deep wells of sorrow, you just want to fill them with happy times until he can smile without hurt fighting its way out… After one visit Mo came over, explained to me. She wanted to finally cut it down but Henry said no, not yet.” She let out a long sigh again, then got up to start dinner. “Best to try to overlook it, go on and enjoy your stay here. You’re a good sort, Tessa, say a prayer for them, huh?”

Tessa held herself very still as she looked up at the weathered wood and tattered ropes. The ghosts of two perfect swings, made for children and grownups alike, and  the remnants aged in the salty wind, rains that swept in from foreign places, the swift sunlight that cut through all the fog and burnished sturdy grasses and morning glories that grew wild. The people who withstood such a place of mysteries, and miseries.  Like people everyhwere, she guessed. But Wally seemed only half-gone, lingering upon the vehicle of his ending. It suddenly angered her to think that they would always see him just lying broken on the ground, or falling and falling, or cheerily waving so high up before that fall…that this was the last they would recall of him.

Tessa got out her camera from its soft case in the bedroom. She held it in her hands and thought about what she was doing. She needed a picture of this ghost thing and then she needed to think a lot more.

Outside she quickly snapped a dozen pictures from all angles, hoping no one would see her and ask questions. She then looked more closely, zoomed in right on the cross board. And her breath rushed out of her, eyes stung.

She flew back inside, shut the door and leaned against it, felt the universe swell and open as Wally or something more than she understood held a hand out to her. She closed her eyes, willed her heart to stop its rampage at her ribs. Did Rusty really climb up there a furtive hour to carve those words for his brother, take the same risk that ended Wally’s life? No one but he, surely, needed so badly do it.

Old Man sat on his deck, puffing invisible tobacco, watching her figure things out and then hiding behind her door. A thing of the past, the smoking business although his pipe fit just right there and so it stayed. So much was a thing of the past. Like that Wally. A good boy. A kid who’d have grown up handsome and smart like his sweet little brother though a lonely man he now had become, bless him. A hard knowledge to carry. But some things are not to be, others are, and what lies waiting between one or the other you just never can guess.

He wondered a lot about Tessa. A woman who instinctively knew a way to better things but couldn’t quite grasp onto it. Maybe soon she would. He tapped his pipe lightly against the chair leg, went inside and turned on the radio to the oldies. He and his lady used to dance to these tunes. Sometimes he still did.

******

It was barely dawn but she had to get it done and then–vanish. Tessa propped the tall, rickety ladder (taken from the shed with Elle’s help after midnight) against one pole, climbed slowly. At the top, she steadied herself. In the soft bag at her shoulder she fumbled for fabric. She had brought it along for her “work time out”, a few pieces she was considering for a project that had everyone else stumped. It was odd lengths of fabric she, herself,  had hand dyed with muted, mostly primary colors. Something for an airy white gazebo that overlooked multiple fancy water features for one of their bigger design contracts. No one had deemed it appropriate, but she remained engaged by her larger plan and had begun to re-imagine it the past month. To present it again, brilliantly. Though it gave her less and less pleasure to picture her suited silhouette against a window which framed the city’s mad bustle.

The night before she had torn them into narrow strips, leaving the edges raw. She had seen just what she needed to do, how to embrace but change the abandoned swing set. She enlisted Elle, who now steadied the ladder below her.

“Hurry!” she hissed. “They all get up early!”

“Patience…hold on tight,” Tessa cautioned.

She had tied each varied length of fabric, some a foot long, others several inches, on a sturdy cord and now secured one end of the cord on one pole, then climbed back down to re-position the ladder. Then up she went to tie off the other end to the opposing pole.

“Is it straight enough? Look quite taut?”

Elle gave two thumbs up.

She climbed back down and studied what Elle was seeing.

A dozen strips of colorful fabric fluttered in a light wind, flapping, twisting, spinning–sunny yellow, rich turquoise, fern green, soft rose, tender lavender, the bonus of a wider mango-bright strip in the center. Flags of fancy, signals of life, in remembrance of all the lovely, lively children. A beacon for others, a sign of hope despite harm that can happen to all. A reminder of Mo’s and Henry’s devotion, a gentle greeting for Rusty should he dare look up again at his carved words of love.

It was what Tessa could leave as a portion of her gratitude. For kindnesses. For a taste of freedom. For a glimpse of better living.

She was enveloped in a brisk hug from Elle, then loaded up her suitcase and then, “Give Old Man a farewell for me, hug the kids. I hope Mo and Henry don’t get distressed by it…”

“It’ll be a good change, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone along.”

Waving, Tessa drove away. Elle patted the address and phone number Tessa had shared, safe in her jeans pocket. Such an odd thing, a city friend. The kids would miss her a little, too. She saw Mo come to the office door; Elle hurried away to Old Man. He sat on his deck gumming his pipe. He’d seen it all now. Elle nodded at his faint smile, his feathery eyebrows rising, falling, a clue to his feeling. Yet, too, he was steady as the tides. She leaned into his aged bony warmth.

“Going to be a good day,” he said, pointing past Elle’s boy Ty on the bench–or another Wally vision, he never knew which. Swaths of bright fog skimmed the horizon, glowing pink, the eye seeking the blues beyond, a bit of heaven.