Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Two Wings and a Man

Everett took Trixie everywhere allowed, which meant he mostly wandered outdoors with her as he could. That was alright. They sometimes visited Gerry’s Joint for lunch–she was more willing than most to have them both. Saw a couple of friends. He was retired now from his mechanic’s work and finally had time to relax. But he and Trixie were old mates, they went with the basic flow of things. Goodness knows, they had seen it all, had dealt with high and low waters.

“Literally as well as figuratively, this is the reality, and you two have  been the better for it”, Annalisa, his niece, said.

Ev didn’t say things complicated like that.

The two of them lived on Chancy River’s west bank in a plain modular home, the sort you might note as a double wide trailer at first glance. He was pleased to be there. He was eight miles from town and Petersen’s Garage where he worked forty years. Annalisa lived with her husband (he was alright, but didn’t deserve her) and their two rugrats down the road. He never called them that out loud; he meant no harm in thinking it. They were just loud, got into mischief–well, they were kids. Everett liked them much of the time despite himself. It was family and family was good–mostly or, more honestly, sometimes.

But when thinking of family, he first thought of Trixie, his blue and yellow budgie, or parakeet as most called her. And he knew people didn’t quite get that.

Trixie was closer to him than any person, really. He did have John and Morrie, fished with them every Sunday, their own secret church, Morrie once said, and they all heehawed and snorted. And he had Annalisa and the bar and grill owner, Gerry. Bernie the garage owner. A coworker here and there. Overall, they respected that Trixie and Everett were companions 11 years. Trixies heard his tales, cheered him up, kept him company through the drizzly long winter. And vice versa.

At the garage it had been harder. He was teased by new guys and random customers like it made their day.

“Hey Ev, how’s the little lady this morning?

“Did you brush out her feathers before you left for work?”

“Does she complain about the greasy slob you are after work? Maybe she won’t sing a tune then, huh?”

“Polly wants a cracker–and a glass of wine, please!”

They cackled at him but he ignored them best he could, laughed back under his breath. Fools. Everyone who knew anything knew that Everett cared so much for Trixie for good cause.

Annalisa had found, bought, then taken the parakeet to him after his cabin burned down. He had also lost his dog to the wildfire. She thought since he loved birds singing and flitting about outdoors he might like one to live with him indoors. To talk to and such. And she was right. Trixie helped things get better.

Everett was a born bird lover. He had it in his blood; even his grandpa had kept track of bird sightings, their songs and habits. But it was different than his dad who hunted them to eat and for sheer sport. He never got that. But, then, he didn’t get lots of things, apparently. He learned early on he was stupid, for that’s what his dad told him day and night, and his ma said little to change that impression. He barely finished tenth grade but knew how to fix mechanical things with hardly a thought. That was how he knew birds and their singing: he paid close attention to them and used his own instincts.

He half-believed them holy. Those wings. Those songs. The amazing freedom from gravity’s heaviness.

******

Trixie was let out of her medium-sized, rectangular cage every day for about three hours. Ev took her to the sun room at east end of the house–so-called because that’s where pools of sunshine gathered and soaked up. There was a bunch of potted plants, a raggedy easy chair by the picture window, an end table with binoculars and a dogeared bird book. He’d have let his parakeet buddy go footloose and fancy free more, but he had things to do on his acreage. There was fishing first of all, almost daily attacks on the curse of ivy, tending his vegetable garden; errands to run; someone’s car to fix on the cheap–he couldn’t help himself on that. He found he’d nearly as few free hours as before retirement. It just filled up differently and felt better.

So Ev took Trixie out with him, her cage settled on the passenger side of his truck if he had to drive somewhere. Otherwise, they were on the riverbank or went to nearby wetlands and meadows. He could see how happy this made her. She fluttered about, hopping from one perch to the other, wings opening, closing like beautiful fans. She pecked at him affectionately and settled under his protective hold when he took her out a bit. She sang a little as wild birds called out, as if they’d invite her over. But more often she listened, and chirped and nattered at him.

“You like being out here. I wonder if I should let you go. You know, Trixie, you’re right spoiled. You wouldn’t make it out there, just chaos. We’ve a good home, ya think? Our refuge, yeah?” He wiped his brow. “Hot today.”

“Good day, Ev, good home,” she said to confirm that it was, then turned to watch a wren fly by. “Hot enough for ya?” She shook her head in slow fashion.

“Yep, sweating like a stuck pig. Good thing you hang around, buddy.”

“Buddies,” Trixie said. “Good day.”

He decided to open the tiny door and stuck his hand in. She hopped atop his index and middle finger. He placed his other hand over her body, eased her out. He could feel her trembling, almond-sized heart racing. Maybe it was wrong to do this, but she always fell under a happy spell, and later seemed calmer, and rested well. It was her little adventure the few times he had braved it.

Her bright yellow and blue mask was vibrant in the sun, her feathers so warm, shiny and soft as he carefully held her against his chest. Her head turned this way and that as she watched and then a tune escaped, one he taught her. She added other notes to wild sounds in treetops.

They sat there awhile, enjoying a light rattle of tree branches and birds working and tittering and as he was about to put her back in, the grasses behind him rustled, hushed, rustled once more but very slightly. Everett slowly turned, Trixie held closer, but he expected a rabbit or squirrel, even a beaver waddling to water. He reached for the cage, Trixie momentarily blinded by his palm, when there was the faintest swishing of grasses as the creature–bigger than he thought– closed the distance between them. His heartbeat banged away as he turned to see a sleek red fox leap out and dash to Trixie who leapt, too, right off Everett’s finger, stirring still air as she rose, a receding spot of soft blue melding with sky’s aquamarine brilliance.

Ev was frozen a second, then jumped to his feet, stared at his empty hands in disbelief while the fox glanced upwards with longing– then ran on, hidden once more in swaying grass.

“Trixie! Trixie! Oh no, no no…! Fly back to me! Where’d you go?”

He ran where she flew, ran more only to find watchful trees studded with birds who cared nothing of this small drama, and a sky so immense he’d never find her there.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why did I bring her and open that door? She was bound to leave one day. She just needed a fox for an excuse!”

He knew how silly that sounded and covered his long face with scarred, strong hands, refused to cry out as surely he was not that sort of man or friend. He’d just find her somehow. Wouldn’t he? Had to.

******

“They’re called budgies in other parts of the world, ya know. Native to Australia. Came to the USA around 1920 and we call ’em parakeets. Related to parrots, yeah, talk pretty well if you teach ’em well. Smart, unlike me, and also sociable.”

“Unlike you?” Gerry asked. “You manage fine, Ev, just fine. And Trixie isn’t the be-all, end-all..okay, so maybe she is. Sorry.”

“They can whistle any tune you teach them, you know that? Sure, you’ve heard her.” He kept running a hand through his hair absentmindedly.

“I do like your Trixie. I can’t believe she flew off…”

“She’s a bird,” John offered.

“She’ll be back,” Morrie said, washing down a french fry with his beer. “Patience.”

“Well, she might not, it’s a big world,” John said, patting Ev on a shoulder. “Sorry, sure was a fine parakeet, a good ally.”

Morrie glared at him, nudged their friend. “There are things we get and things we don’t. You never know. She might not like it out there. Might get lucky, too.”

Ev’s shoulders, broad and muscular, folded as he hunched over, lifted the beer mug to lips. Stared into depths of amber liquid. He could get lost in there, he was not above it. “She might just end up loving it,” he said and drank it all down.

“But then foxes and cougars, snakes and eagles…” John said, as he was a practical man and felt it had to be accepted. But this time Morrie reached over, smacked him back of his head so his ears nearly rang. He glared at him, but tried again. “I mean, she knows where the house is, right? She could find her way.”

“They’re tough, smart. Lots of good food out there so that won’t be a worry.” Gerry swiped at the counter, leaned across from Ev. “Have a little faith.”

Why was everyone yakking at him? His insides were pulling apart, no matter their words or that he was on his third beer.

“Parakeets prefer being with their humans, they really do,” Gerry said, patting his hand. “Read that once. She has a decent flock right here.”

“Yeah.” Ev got up, slid off the stool, walked out the door, his friends turning and calling him to come back. He kept on.

“Man. This is going to be rough,” Morrie said quietly. His oldest friend slunk past the window into the darkness, chin hanging on his chest. He’d never seen the man look so defeated except when his cabin burned down and his mutt died–much worse, and even then he hadn’t carried on about it to others. But maybe this was partly about Trixie coming into his life on the tail of that nightmare.

It had been instant affection and stayed like that, the odd couple.

Annalisa visited her Uncle Everett on her way to night shifts but all she could say was, “I’m so sorry, Uncle. The worst. Such a budgie! But she might still come home.” And then half-hugged him, as he was not one to be hugged.

After she left, he sighed and sighed, sat like a lump, and he felt her caring and sadness, too, like a good but heavy blanket.

*****

Ev got up at the crack of dawn day after day, made and packed a sandwich, filled his thermos with coffee, then headed to the marshy area that gave way to grasslands. Where they’d last sat under cottonwood trees. He made a spot against the best tree. He listened to birds singing their heads off and the faint rippling of Chancy River not far off and accepted sun’s offering of warmth kindly on his tired body, softly upon his mind. He’d have counted this as a fine happiness if not for Trixie’s absence. He sipped steaming coffee; more sweat rolled down his neck and disappeared under the collar of his chambray shirt.

“Why did I call you that? That’s what they always want to know. As if it matters to them. But it was the little girl in the picture book, that’s all, the one with poems and paintings when I was seven, nursery rhymes I imagine. There was a picture of her running in the field, red-winged blackbirds lining up on a fence. It was on that page: ‘Trixie gave her day away to red wings and blue butterflies, her face a beacon of happiness.’ Or maybe I made it up, the poem had to have been better… but it made me put down my own words later. We’d talk about things like that. I was reading those haiku out loud. You listened.”

He was watching, watching. He recalled the fire, how it took everything and he had been ready to leave it all, find another town but then she came, thanks to Annalisa.

“Where did you go? You had to have out-flown the murderous creatures. Got enough to eat? Fresh berries, veggies?”

At the end of the afternoon he’d trudge home and sit in the dark, doze and dream of bright wings, lightning, smoke.

It was not a surprise that he thought he spotted her on the sixth day. He always believed he saw her, in flight, perched on distant branches. This time he crisscrossed marshy parts and then there was a bundle of pale blue, tiny and crumpled in mud a few feet away. He came closer, fear filling him as he knelt. There she was–wasn’t she? Yes, Trixie, dirty, worn out and keeled over on her side, eyes opening to him.

“Trixie! Oh my, let’s get you home, there you go, girl…I got you.”

Everett very slowly put her into his cupped hand, then both hands carried her to their house. And on his front stoop were Morrie and Doc Vale.

He nearly fell to the ground in relief, only stopped by his hurt cargo. Morrie slapped his knees, stood right up followed by the other man.

“I brought the vet for ideas, to help look but– wait–is that Trixie?”

The vet took the shuddering bird as they entered the house. For several minutes no one spoke as he efficiently checked her. She was almost inert on the dining table, a twitch of foot, tiniest bob of head, barest sound loosed. She still looked half dead.

“Broken wing, surely, might be recent as she seems well fed. Dirtied up is all. She managed to stay alive–how did she elude predators?”

“Busted wing? Can that be fixed? Will she feel okay again?” Ev was horrified, expected the worst. To have found her, then lose her again would do him in.

Doc Vale stroked his white goatee and considered. “Yes, I suspect so if I determine for sure it’s a simple fracture. She must have run into something or fallen fast and hard. No other injuries. I can take her with me now, Everett.”

“Yes, take her, get her healed up and I thank you, Doc.”

******

“I see you,” Trixie called out from her cage perch as Ev popped up his head, then hid beind the couch again. “I see you, I see you!”

“Yeah, I see you, too, you ole feisty budgie. Here to stay– can’t fly too far now… what a surprise you are.”

“Surprise, surprise! See you!”

He finished frying up the bacon and set it aside his eggs. Tore tiniest bits into a small china bowl that held cooled, cooked potato and carrot, good seeds of all sorts, then took it to Trixie’s cage. He set it on her freshly cleaned floor, then she hopped down and over to it, wings aflutter.

“Eat hearty.”

“Heart and soul, heart and soul,” Trixie sang out and whistled the tune as Everett took her cage to the sun room, then got his own plate. They sat beside each other, bird cage set on side table, Ev in his easy chair.

“Yes, a pleasure, ole Trixie, let’s eat.”

“Yes, a pleasure, ole Ev–thank you!”

He gazed at her. Did she thank him, was that for real or was he hearing things? Trixie was busy gorging on breakfast so he dug in, too.

 

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Ways of Fox Lake

It is the crickets that steal her attention as she stops for a delicious drink of water at the roadside spring. Their insistent chirping, variations of a redundant theme. If it wasn’t dusk and she wasn’t getting groggy from travelling, she would’ve sped past the village. But here at the wayside she decides to look for a (most likely) dank, homely room for the night, and she will get a fresh start for home come dawn.

But Vanessa just sits in her car before turning the engine over, letting the crickets captivate her. It is one of those sounds that has beckoned and calmed her since childhood, like fireflies with their blinking soft lights, darting here and there like tiny dancers. She can’t say why–she grew up in various desert towns. Ended up in Las Vegas, to which she is returning.

The air’s rich undertow of pine and musty leaves stings her nose as she climbs back in the roadster. She starts the car, drives at a casual pace down the main dirt road, its obscure wooden sign stating: Fox Lake Corners. She unwittingly seeks out a fox’s flicking tail or triangular face along the road, then laughs at her own naivete. They are far too clever to be noted. She admires that although she is the opposite, in fact, as a showgirl, always in a center of attention, but not so much to distract from the flashier, far better paid stars. But there is an element of hiding in plain sight, just like the fox. Just another showgirl blinding the audience with sequins and feathers and long legs moving in sync, yet never really seen.

The village appears as so many others in this Midwest lake country. Tattered and slumping, blending into nature’s palette. Comprised of a gas station, general market, auto body shop, groupings of cabins and cottages among forested wooded acreage. A lake is tucked somewhere behind these; she’s been skirting such waters for days. Whether large or small, it dominates all else. That’s how it is around there: fishing, hunting, fishing, boating for fun and sweat-drenched work outdoors. The late spring light is tree-filtered and dappled, and warms her as she enters the more populated part. The village is more perky than she expected. Her shoulders relax when she spots an old–1940s?– motel; she catches a glimpse of deep blue behind it. She admits this is why she took vacation in lake country: the potential for peace. Which has mostly eluded her.

She pushes wide the low car door, climbs out and sees a man opening the motel office door to greet her.

“Ma’m. Can I help?” he says with a gap toothed smile, lifting a greasy baseball cap a half inch and resettling it. He admires the dusty green MG openly but only nods at it, and then her.

“A room for a night–you surely have one that looks directly onto the water.”

He shakes his head; thin lips stretch wide. “Lucky day. All do, comes free with the rent. Step on in.”

He opens the squeaky hinged screen door and she enters first.

Behind the desk sits a woman of indiscriminate age although she may be his wife, certainly business partner. She raises eyes to squint at Vanessa a moment too long, then smiles briefly, a hand unwittingly touching her short grey hair. Vanessa understands. Her own hair is pulled into a high pony tail but it is blindingly penny red. And there is the rest, the body that has carried her so far in the entertainment world even now, although she is well covered for this northern country. She is tall, taller than the string bean proprietor who offers her a seat. She stays on her feet. She doesn’t care to chat.

“What room, then, and how much?”

She pays $95.00 which is highway robbery but so it goes, then takes the key.

When she unlocks the room, suitcase in hand, she is surprised. It smells welcoming, like faded wood smoke–there is a small wood stove in the corner–and a soft scent of lavender, not her favorite but still, nice. Too much calico or vintage floral–whatever it is– for curtains and bedspread. Four pine walls. But it is clean and through opened curtains is the lake.

Fox Lake. She is still, breath held lightly. A wide curving expanse opens up before her. Bluish twilight encroaches upon the last of sunset rays limning the waves, and the shushing of water plays against a rocky shore. The screen window lets in a full score of soothing nature sounds. She has been at an elegant resort for a week on Lake Michigan. But it was not this tidy lakefront, not this welcoming view. She unpacks her suitcase and goes in search of food.

Which is right down the road at a small bar and grill, Lettie’s Landing.

All heads turn when Vanessa saunters in. She’s used to this, the pause and stares and ignores them, perches at the counter to order a ginger ale and a burger with fries.

“Visiting Fox Lake, I guess?” The sloping shouldered bartender pushes the plate and bottle across the counter. His eyes are deep brown; when he smiles at her, skin around his eyes crinkle above high cheekbones. “Like half the group here.” He slaps at the counter a couple times with the damp towel, makes a cursory swipe of crumbs.

“Just for a night, on my way back home.”

“Not around here, then.”

She takes a bite, shakes her had, ponytail swishing back and forth. Let him wonder over it. People can be nosy in the north country, unnervingly direct. She appreciates it but is too tired to have a such a conversation. One might say she is even feeling depressed– if they knew her well. She raises her eyebrows at him in flirty friendliness, well practiced.

“Too tan for here. Enjoy,” he says and slips away to the next customer.

The meat is well seasoned and juicy, the fat fries crisp, the place another surprise. She didn’t know simple food like this could taste so delicious. It has to be the tourist trade that brings out the best in these backwoods business people. And the bartender is at ease, might be nice to chat with if she had time.

“I’m Lettie, welcome to my place.”

The older woman’s voluminous blond hair is piled atop her large head and around her neck dangles a cord with a medium sized wooden fox attached to it. Its eyes are amber, the wood rich. She leans into Vanessa’s space but not too much, not enough that Vanessa asks for a to-go box, to shove off and go to bed.

“Vanessa. Here one night only,” she says and takes a swallow of her of soda. “Good food here.”

“Glad you enjoy it.” She stands up, stretches arms above her head, twists side to side. “Got a bad back, keep limbered up.”

“I have an aching back from driving so much. Nice to stop and breathe. To enjoy the views you have. So pretty.”

Lettie stares at her, blinks, looks at the counter, fixes on her face again. It is annoying. The woman’s eyes are round, deep blue, a bit red-rimmed. “You from around here–like, maybe in the past?”

“Oh, no, I’m a desert dweller from way back. I would not survive here in the woods.”

“You look a tad familiar, is all.”

“You probably say that to all the passersby,” Vanessa laughs and raises her bottle, swigs the last of it. “We must blend together since we come and go all season long.”

Why is she taking to this woman? She wants to finish up, walk by the lake, fall into bed.

“Nope.” Lettie shakes her head and portions of curls slip over barrettes that anchor them as she continues to appraise her. “I have a really good memory for faces.”

Vanessa shivers suddenly, frowns, slips off the stool. Not the kind of chitchat that ever interests her. Plus, time for bed.

“Goodnight, Lettie, thanks for the hospitality and vittles.”

“Enjoy your stay, Vanessa. Come for breakfast, doors open at seven.”

******

The night is silken, deep. Nothing hurts her length and breadth, despite the bed seeming at first too firm, despite her hips becoming arthritic too young from years of hard dancing. Wind is her whispering companion as she is loosened from sleep, stares over the black-blue expanse of water, the slanting rain darting across a roiled surface and spattering through the screen. But there are stars as clouds dash by. And they seem brighter than necessary as she feels their ancient light as a cool caress. She sits on her narrow bed, falls back, gathers the bedspread’s garden of flowers over her body, to her face, and sleeps on.

A night owl listens, calls out, and the fish turn over and the crickets are mute in the swell of darkness.

******

“It got to you, right? The lake air and the quiet. Gotta love this life.” Bartender Ralph winks at her as he wipes down things, grabs her plate from the kitchen, offers steaming scrambled eggs with dill and grated colby, topped with four redolent sausages.

“You been here forever, too? Seems nobody leaves the north country.” Vanessa stuffed a whole sausage in her mouth, no apologies. It was ten o’clock and she was starving.

“Naw, moved here many years ago–before that I worked in insurance, Detroit. Hated it. Love it here. Met a gal here one summer, got married, learned how to make drinks, stayed on.”

“A synopsis like that sounds good. Happy endings for you.”

“Well, we all get bruises, some slow healing wounds. I had cancer last year but am pretty good now.”

Vanessa looked at her eggs. “Sorry.” She knows about that illness; her mother knew much more of it.

“No need. Got it taken care of. So, you’re a genuine desert person?”

“Lettie already brief you?”

“Of course. She says you remind her of someone.”

“Would not be the first or last time. Must be my rather ordinary face or how much a chameleon I can be.”

“Hardly.” He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. “Lettie never forgets a face. Some mad memory she has.”

“I have surely never been here.”

“Oh, well–enjoy your breakfast,” he says, moves down to the end of the counter to serve another.

She doesn’t see Lettie as she finishes up. A couple she saw the night before is hunched in the corner, slurping mugs of coffee and each reading pages of a newspaper of sorts. A woman with a shiatsu dog at her feet sits with chin on one hand, a cinnamon bun in the other, which she nibbles. An attractive young man has his feet propped on a side chair, and slowly eats waffles topped with blueberries and whipped cream as he checks out the window, waiting for someone. Two men in caps and worn out khaki jackets are debating something, gesturing toward the lake.

The lake of foxes, how beguiling it looks. Cumulus clouds hang in a sparkling blue sky here and there; the rain has left all things shining. She eyes it’s placid, brilliant teal surface longingly. If she only had time…she would like to stay one more day. She could stay if she left very early in the morning. Another gulp of strong coffee and her eyes sweep the room again. The old guys hoot and chortle, rouse themselves, exit. The young man hails his possible girlfriend who slaps him gently on the shoulder. The couple put papers aside and chat.

No slot machines, no boozy fools, no stale cigarette smoke.

She, in fact, will linger. Just for a little while.

******

It feels more than a bit familiar but she doesn’t know why, what it could mean in some greater context. Maybe it is just her secret geography and she never knew it before. She is so used to cactus flowers, rattlesnakes, vastness of sand under and around tamed spots, burning heat, chilled indoor air blowing on her day in and day out, and gaudy confines of the stages. She is used to the razzle-dazzle, raucous applause; of sweat racing along her spine and fancy drinks often uncounted and guys breathing down her neck: hey baby wanta dance all night with me?

Here she feels much less like herself. But she is feeling more alright with that the longer she remains.

Vanessa is walking along the rocky shoreline in clean navy sneakers, searching for good stones, feeling her long, heavy hair lift and fall from her shoulders which are no longer hunched up like a bird of prey, tensed and ever watchful. She feels unsought and even unseeking. Cleaned out of old worries and the nagging emptiness. Legs feel lanky and strong again as she jogs a bit, sees a motorboat pull a female water skier across tufted wavelets and wishes it was her. She halts her steps. She has never water skied but now wants it so much she can nearly taste mud-tinged, weedy water spray on her lips, feel it release her of aches. The exhilaration. She could do that, she would love doing that.

“Thought I’d find you down here.”

It’s Lettie, catching up with her. She’s in a holey tan sweater and rumpled fisher hat, with one hand on a carved staff and another on a leash, at the end of which is an aged, dutiful Brittany springer spaniel.

Vanessa smiles, genuinely this time, and pats the dog on his fine head. “Enjoying all this before I go.”

“Meredith Kane.”

Vanessa nearly trips over a big black rock. and then presses her hands hard on her chest, mouth agape.

“Yes, ma’m, I knew you were familiar, and that’s it. Meredith came here for four summers back in late ’70s to early ’80s. Then I didn’t see her again. Or hear from her, either, and we were real friends. But something happened–I knew.”

“You knew my mother? She was here? She never told me that…”

“I knew her well for awhile. And then she got pregnant, told me at the end of that last summer. Left fast and that was it for us being friends, I guess.”

Vanessa eyes filled. “Oh, my gosh, she passed away three years ago.”

Lettie’s bright eyes closed. “Oh! Oh dear, Vanessa…I am too sorry to hear that. I was even hoping to reach out to her again.” She let out a long, raspy sigh. “But you know what I’m saying, right?”

“This is too much. I never knew she lived here. That she got pregnant, of course, and back then it was a scandal of sorts…It was me who arrived.”

“Yes, I imagine it was if you were the first–only?– child. But she was summer folk. Her parents rented a cabin downshore every summer for those years. Three months at a time, and her father joined Meredith, her little brother, Todd, and mother on week-ends. She was from… think it was Columbus, Ohio, yep.”

“That’s right. Columbus. But she moved to the southwest after college. Had me, got a decent job.” Her heart is thudding, face shiny with unbidden tears. “You knew her, when she was so young.”

Lettie puts her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder, feels a stab of pain at her deep sadness. “Look, she was a superior gal, and a dear friend those years. She, that last summer, met the guy. They had a thing a few weeks–she got pregnant… and her family never returned. Gavin was his name, right?”

“Yes, I even met him– once. When I graduated from high school. He seemed nice enough. It was so weird, not good. He had a wife and three other kids by then. What could we say? He gave me a crisp hundred dollar bill, as if that could mend things. I didn’t know who he was, he never knew me except for my pictures, updates from mom as she felt like it. He sent me Christmas gifts, for my birthday–they stopped when I hit my teens. Mom refused to see him, but said he wasn’t a bad sort, just irresponsible and their lives diverged. I didn’t think that much of it; she was dependable, a loving mother. She was all I needed.” She bit her lower lip to stop one more trembling, embarrassing tear.

“Yeah, he was so suave, carefree, sporty like she was. They went swimming, fishing, boating, water skied even daily. I thought she was better at stuff than he was.”

“She was athletic, yeah.” She saw her mother running in the cooling dusky sandy, rocky landscapes, calling to her to keep up, they had miles to go, she could do it, keep at it, breathe and reach.

“Want to come back to my place and talk? Like what did she end up doing? Did she stay single?”

“I’m supposed to check out in an hour or so, I’m afraid. I’m a day behind schedule so must get on the road, get back home and to work. Las Vegas is a long way, still. I’m a dancer for those big revues.”

Lettie stares at the water, caught in present and past at once. “I see, my oh my.” She rubs her neck, then smiles like it is second nature to do so.

“I have a small talent for dance that supports me–but Mom was smart, ambitious; she was eventually a high level college administrator. Later she got sick, off and on for years. She married my father, Dave, my real dad. But they divorced after twenty-five years.”

Vanessa wants to say more but she also feels she has said too much. Lettie is hanging on every word, but it is just not enough and this can go on and on. She needs to get home, back to her real life, away from this idyllic and curious place. Still, it stuns her. She is so drawn to the same village and lake as her mother was. She feels she draws in and exhales Fox Lake’s air, is in concert with it before she realizes what is happening. Like falling in love. She loathes leaving it, the new and tender connection to, perhaps, a better world. A least a quieter one, where no one cares about her other life which grates and clamors and even claws yet pays her way.

She barely grazes Lettie’s hand with her finger. “Maybe I could come back later this summer.”

“Book a room now, dear. I’ll circle the date in orange!”

They take some time getting back to Lettie’s Place. They talk about Lettie’s growing up and not ever venturing far from there; about Meredith’s athletic ability wasted on a desk job even if she was good at that; how Vanessa had wanted to be in musical theater once. And Vanessa keeps looking at that beautiful water, then they are at the entrance so they have to wrap it up.

“Well, I have to say you are some like her.” The older woman pulls her sweater close despite the warm breeze that skims her face.

“Maybe. You don’t know me.”

“But I do see you, Vanessa Kane, you have heart, a good mind and much to offer, like your mom. Plus, you have her square jaw, beautiful eyes and mane of hair. A bit like the way she walked, too.”

“How do you mean–how did she walk then?”

“Like the dirt and stones welcomed every step. And she well loved it all back. At the core she was more one of us, of Fox Lake. Maybe you will be, too, who knows?”

“She did crave outdoor life on week-ends… Anyway, I’ll be in touch.”

Vanessa pays her bill, makes an expensive reservation for a coveted late August date, then climbs into her MG. Idles a moment. The pine trees rattle their branches at her, a blue and yellow lake light winks from the distance. It is the place she was looking for, she thinks; it offered a slice of peace so needed. And one day she may find her way back for good, when she has had quite enough of the spotlit stage and glitzy parties, the good money. It is beginning to take more from her than can be replenished.

Ralph and Lettie watch from a window as she shifts into a faster purr and roar and stirs up dust, the glinting sheen of her auburn ponytail lifting, her hand suddenly raised in a wave. He reaches an arm around his grandmother. Gives her a strong squeeze– she squeezes back– before they get back to the summer season’s workload.

Half a mile away, Vanessa is looking for foxes, thinks she sees a nose, the tip of a tail, skids to a halt. But only elegant wild grasses lean her way.


Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Penny Park

If she could have avoided Marsten Street she would have, but the traffic was so bad Cam had to take the lane she could grab. It made her turn right and there was the street she tried to not use, cross, go near. It was inevitable that one day she would be corralled into its proximity. In this case, broad daylight, that mid-day blazing sunshine baking sidewalks, awnings casting heavy shadows, folks dabbing their brows while rushing to restaurants, shops, offices.

Then it came upon her, the small triangular park called Marsten Park–though that conjured up visions of columned manses and overarching, elegant boughs, of shiny long cars and women in linen dresses with floppy-brimmed hats. Now, however, it seemed closer to that incarnation. A neighborhood many invested in and it had paid off, she heard, but she’d not been here in two decades. Back in her childhood there were smudgy row houses that raucous families inhabited, sometimes two or three generations, life spilling out doorways any time of day, even night.

Penny Park, they’d called it when she was a kid. About big as a penny, her ma had said, and worth half as much. But they loved it, the kids, and some of the parents who brought smaller ones, Never mind it had one wonky swing for some years and a dented slide, with a horseshoes area (if you brought your own horseshoes), and four splintery picnic tables positioned close enough that they’d sometimes share extra burgers or frankfurters and even private info despite trying to keep talk to themselves.

Someone honked and she came to, saw the light was green, turned again since there was no choice, skimmed past the shady park. Such mammoth trees and so many more plantings the park looked foreign. She had to look again and hard. It was about empty, a small parking strip only half-full. Cam checked her watch, pulled into a spot. Parked and idled. Tapped her index finger, long tapered nail clicking against the steering wheel. She sighed and got out, shut the door. The place she had loved her life must be faced.

The first thing: play equipment painted primary colors and clean as can be– monkey bars, swirly slide, seesaws, four working swings. It took up the entire northeast corner of the triangle. That they stood empty dismayed Cam but she took a seat at a varnished bench–one of three. The day had been brutal, that Bampton case gone awry, the DA chomping at the bit and growling at her. Some days she didn’t know why she had gotten into this business of justice for all. It clearly was otherwise. But the wily ins and outs, the complex and intriguing nature of people and even the process had pulled her in from the start.

Who would have thought it? She was a pianist in her earliest and dearest of dreams. She imagined freedom from many conventions that had become part of her life, anyway.

Maybe it had started here, she thought, and pushed flyaway hair under a bow of perched fancy sunglasses. It certainly was not a family destiny, her father being a supervisor at the steel plant, her mother an overworked cook at Eagle’s Perch. But she had been a bit different, enough so that her dad said a few times a year: “How did your DNA sneak into this common stew pot?” She sometimes wanted to say that it was him, he had a far better brain than most, he had just not had a chance to exercise it all ways he wanted. But she did her own– because she’d willed it so.

A little boy ran to a swing and his mother trailed after. Soon he was pumping chubby legs so fast the swing was jerkily lifting higher bit by bit, the mother pushing only cursorily as she checked her cell phone. A half-attendant mother, much like her own, only better dressed. Cam worried he would fly out and then what? Maybe land on his feet, like she used to, mostly.

Cam and company hadn’t needed mothers much, fathers maybe less, or so they thought. They’d all lived across the street or around the corners, and after school they made a beeline for the only decent green space within arms’ reach, Penny Park. In summer they hung out until they couldn’t any longer bear the hot metal slide or smothering humidity of a Midwestern summer. They had a ball for kick or dodge ball, a found can for Kick the Can, a slingshot or two for whatever, and tangy Lick-a-Made packets saved up all week or rich butter mints snagged from blue glass candy dishes. They came there to share snacks and tales, play a game, do nothing, to hide from grown ups and maybe get into a little trouble.

Except Ben–he hung back, always with a book and a cold and sweating bottle of Vernors ginger ale. Despite the fact that the two of them lived next door, they were as suspicious of each other the first couple of summers as if they’d lived ten blocks apart. Cam excelled at games; Ben excelled at little but reading and just being outside, yet not even school held much interest. They nodded at each other after she had tried and failed to engage him in a good conversation. He watched her from behind the books and she attempted to ignore him.

But things began to change when they each turned twelve. For one thing, his father was out of work when her mother lost her job. They talked about it once briefly, a tentative, small bond over the failures of adults. They had zero allowance then so there was nothing to do but hang out at the park or sulk at their tense homes.

And that led to more chat.

“Why always the books?” she asked and plopped beside him under “his” aged elm tree. He was worried it’d be cut down for Dutch elm disease; he was likely right.

“I like what I like,” he said, scooting over a bit to create more space between them.

“What this time?”

Habits of Mammals in Spring,” he read off the cover. “Would you like to know about them?”

“Would you like to hear about my piano lessons?” she said.

“That would be a ‘no’. I am not so thrilled by your piano playing.”

“There you have it on those topics, then. But you have to talk and listen to know more about anything, not just read.”

Still, his words had stung–and did he actually listen to her practice? She tried to remember to lower the window sash in the living room.

“See, you’re the talker,” he said, upper lip curling slightly. “I hear you every day, talk, talk, talk.”

Cam rolled up a tiny bug into a leaf and tossed it at him. “That’s what we humans do.”

He laughed and batted away the leaf, laughed as if pleased by that assessment or the bug or both. It was a good sound to her–surprising. They sat quietly another few minutes until she got tired of looking over his shoulder–he didn’t move, just kept tuning pages– skimming info about beavers. It was interesting but she wasn’t going to admit it.

After that they spent random bits of time together. He explained food sources for small mammals and where good bird lookouts were. She talked about playing Bach and pleasures of the always cool Beatles and why she found them both so fascinating. But when she took part in an impromptu foot race with their neighborhood friends, he hooted at her.

“Back and forth on the same grassy stretch, that’s no dang race!” he’d yell.

“Try me–I’ll beat you before you even say ‘go’!”

Then one time the kids paused to see if a miracle would occur and Ben would join up. When he shrugged, put down his book and got set to run, they tittered among themselves. Everyone knew Ben was not a sporty guy. Cam was good at this; she won three out of five times. So when they lined up behind the pine cones, she was ready to impress him again. They got off to a good start, she was ahead by several feet, outran Sam, then Ken, then Marie, when suddenly out from behind shot Ben, his skinny legs wound up and set loose as he dashed past all, and barely stopped himself with the natural barrier of a hefty tree trunk.

What a sprinter! Cam and the others gathered round him. Why hadn’t he shown them this before? What else was he hiding? Good grief, he was faster than all of them.

Ben smiled graciously, then went back to his tree, huffing and puffing a little, face reddened. He didn’t need to prove such things, he thought to himself, but now they knew something more about him. In fact, he had surprised himself a little.

Cam slid down in the dirt beside him after a few minutes.

“You had us fooled, you prankster,” she said.

He slowly turned his head and those blue-grey eyes reached in and it was like she was staring back at slow creek water, and there was something moving under the surface. Cam felt it, an energy that frizzed and she barely caught it, it was swift, wholly baffling. He shifted, scratched his chin as he did when thinking, and narrowed those eyes as if trying to see more. Then he was back to his book on rock hunting.

“I like to run, you just never asked me to,” he said.

And that was that. They were not as before, but more than before. They walked home later talking about running and rocks, her piano teacher who was mean and their parents who were more and more annoying. He felt the dry warmth radiating off her hand as it dangled beside his sweaty one; she felt the soft release of his breath on her bare shoulder as he said “later, then”.

It was as if they had always been that way. It seemed unlikely that things could ever go back. But there was plenty of time to ponder it if necessary.

******

Cam observed the boy and his mother tire of swings and they grabbed hands to cross the street; she heard trucks bump and roar past, crows scolding whoever passed. She noted a meter maid putting a ticket on her car–did they now dare charge for parking here?–but she looked into the trees and saw only Ben, age seventeen as he informed her that he was accepted into Stanford as soon as he graduated and, of course, a year early.

They had been to the riverfront all afternoon and finally–after dinner at The Floating Cafe, after they’d browsed the shops and bought matching copper and silver wire bracelets, after they’d run out of odd trivia to trade–darkness slid over sky and onto pathways and their persons. Bobbing boats were all lit up, and decorative lights gave a festive air to the marina. They leaned on the railing that kept them safe from the swirling brown river.

“I have to go, you know that– I wish it’d all work out differently,” he said, looking down at his holey sneakers. “But we are still together, right?”

She nodded, afraid to talk. He was two heads taller than she was and she was tall, and when he pulled her to him she felt as much as heard his heartbeat, steady and a little fast. It was always steady and fast– like a bird, she thought, and that swish swish had been a reassurance, a kind of audible tether to life when things got rough. His dense, warm chest, that heart, his chin resting on her head, his strong, long arms about her. This was the way they were to stand forever. She for him, he for her.

He held her head still with his, a few fingers woven through her thick, wavy hair and then he smelled the top of her head. This spot always gave off woodsy scents, the barest touch of musky something. Maybe it was because they’d spent so many years in the forest hiking, camping, sweating, dreaming: it was part of their skin and hers was richer than his. His comfort, each inch a fine venous map that led to greater things, to hope, to the next moment.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Ben asked, pulling back to see her face. “Be reckless for once?”

“Stop. Have to graduate, then University of Michigan if I am lucky, law school, a maybe or maybe not…As if you’ve never head this litany before.”

They let the night cover their sorrow; they talked of bears and Dvorak; they walked stealthily through the streets past midnight; they heard the river run with a vast indifference and then certain exuberance. It hurt to say goodnight, as if their words were windows shutting firmly to keep out a storm but also the sweeter breezes promised afterwards.

******

It was time. Cam leapt up from her bench in Penny Park, got her car, drove away and parked again fifteen minutes later. Here she was prepared to pay to park awhile, it was Bonner Auditorium, a small venue but all shined up, one meant for important events but smaller crowds. Lectures, solo concerts, chamber ensembles, readers’ theater, obscure dance company performances–these she had attended often the last three years since her return to help her mother relocate to a condo.

Since her divorce and the need for deeper peace. Which she had not quite found or created though she was getting closer.

Inside, people were talking excitedly, milling about and greeting friends, threading their way one end of the auditorium to the other. Cam found her seat easily; she had two reserved seats for the season but her mother was in too much discomfort from arthritis, to her regret. Cam’s breath caught in her chest and she coughed, fanned her lightly perspiring face with the program and wishing they’d ramp up the AC. When the lights were lowered she bit her lower lip to keep calmer. Someone was talking on stage, then there was a spattering of applause.

“Please welcome one of our very own, the esteemed microbiologist and author Benjamin Widdstone as he shares stories of his worldwide travels and research from his latest book, ‘Promise and Pleasure of the Humble Pond’.”

Sustained, excited clapping rang out and he was there in the spotlight, the boy and youth who had avoided all spotlights. Her hands clasped tightly in her lap: yes, that same slight leaning forward, darkish hair longer than she had ever seen, hands expressive as he warmed up to the topic, his deep, melodious voice–oh, that voice. She closed her eyes; a tear loosened.

She will wait for him backstage, tell him she can finally almost play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, yes, with some difficulty–but still, she has managed it a few times, it does please her a little–and perhaps he’d like to hear it? If he has a free hour before the next plane, next book, next field trip. If he has the inclination, if he cares to recall just a little of what she did–and find out what she does now. How they both have done without each other.

She let herself look up. Ben tilted his head, turned his body to one side and as if searching the crowd he peered into rows of shadowy seats, a flattened hand cutting off bright light. He paused one beat, two, three– then nodded, smiled, scratched the close cut, graying beard on lifted chin, and then continued.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Ernest Makes a Splash

Ernest was a man who got things right. He knew this for certain when at work because he was told so often. He managed a grocery store that had finally found its sweet spot within the hierarchy of holistic grocers. That was his word–“holistic”–as opposed to “natural” or “locally sourced and served” or any number of other words and phrases that somehow didn’t quite meet the innermost desires of customers. In his humble opinion. But “Hale’s Holistic Marketplace” was now its name (no longer Hale’s Good Foods) and since the revamp of appearance, pricing and image, optimistic stats were booming.

How was Marv, the CEO, to have foreseen that this unassuming man, barely hitting the five foot eight mark and weighing in at maybe 150 pounds (if Marv was a casual betting man) could turn things around way under a year? There was a compact quality suggesting deeper strength and energy, but it was metered out just so. A fastidious man, he guessed. The guy had steadily climbed the rungs of  the food business, then suddenly pushed his ideas on a store manager. That was four years ago and HHM  had taken over a niche that caters to those with highbrow leanings, perhaps even instincts, but won’t admit to it. The added corner bookstore/ lending library was a hit, for example, because their consumers were a literary–academic, even– type. This meant that soon to follow were paper products and writing utensils, then intricate, bold maps (why did they love maps so much, he didn’t know) and so on, Marv had lost track but they sold.

The guy now at a helm was a genius at marketing as well as overseeing the latest store. No one disagreed. But not everyone liked him; some sneered when they saw him coming but smiled over their judgments. Ernest was a stickler for details, unerring and demanding. He had some patience and tolerance for others–he was not unkind –but it didn’t show well, as he tended toward a poker face. This was a feature developed after childhood when his mother constantly told her smart, string bean of a boy to not be such a crybaby, life was rough so toughen up. He found hiding feelings was half the battle at repelling taunts–especially after he became a fine swimmer. One could not see emotions when submerged in the water. He became a smooth muscled, aquatic creature, fast and adept and best of all, free. Cheering crowds made no difference; he had found his physical element and it complemented his intellect.

The swimming pool still did the trick. If work grievously rattled him or his wife, Lynette, got on his nerves too much, he was in the water for a good hour. That’s what he told her–“Time to refresh and keep my physique in good shape”–when she complained he was gone too much. The lap pool welcomed him every time; the forgiving water flowed about him, a shield of light-filled mystery and power, and he was made stronger with each stroke. Lynette, on the other hand, had tried it three times with him and failed to see the value, much less joy in it. The chlorine, the chilly depths, the need for goggles since she wore contacts. She stank of chlorine for days and her fine hair rebelled. Let him have it, she was meant for mostly sunbathing by their own tidy pool. Oh yes, they had a pool, now, but he could not swim real laps or execute a good dive there, so he left backyard indulgences to her and Sammy, their preteen daughter.

He thought he had done well so far in life. He made good money now and Lynette was happier than the first ten years of marriage. But it didn’t stop her from finding fault. Daily. That he wore bow ties when getting dressed up; the tiny limp he retained from an old hiking fall; his rumination over this and that, quietly to himself; his unfortunate choices of jewelry for her gifts and his lack of insight into Sammy’s moods. His smartness surely rivaled hers and sometimes they sparred for the wit of it, but it could cross a line. It could get dangerous, words like swords.

His size always vexed her–she was two inches taller. He thought she was attracted to him so she could diminish him further by saying he was a “tidy guy” or a “cute shrimp” yet give her a sense of more control, as well. When she pulled herself to her full height, he thought of a giraffe and smiled as one might at such a curious creature. But he thought her rather sexy, anyway, though who would know it lately.

“My Queen, forgive my stature but adore my income,” he would say when really aggravated by her demeaning way, and peck her hand. It was not kind, no, but he did have his limit.

“Be a proper man, stand taller as if you mean it, Ernest, you are such a slouch sometimes,” she insisted and swiped at his head with her palm as if he was truly her subject. Whereby he’d back away, out of the room, head bowed. As he turned to go, he would throw her a scowl, a fierce look, a warning (though of what, really?– just a look)–she couldn’t mistake that feeling in any case.

If anyone at work saw this they would have a field day. Even Sammy waffled between sniggering and looking away, embarrassed for them both. Ernest and Lynette had had better days when younger, living simpler with few worries. They had not mellowed; they had soured.

He would leave for the pool if it was finally enough. It often was more than enough. What else did she want of him?

What was it that made him happy besides monetary success and being right and swimming? So little else.

******

“I hear you swim,” she said as she stirred creamer into her mug of coffee.

Ernest looked up from his own steaming, bitter mug-full of caffeine.

She added more vanilla-caramel to sweeten it up and as she did so, she pinned back a sweep of glossy hair with her other hand. To keep it from falling in, it was that long and swingy.

“Well,” he said, surprised, and paused, torn between his agenda and this unknown factor.

“I do, too, used to competitively dive, for one thing.” She laughed lightly. “Okay, years ago. But I still do what I love to do.”

“Oh, I see, nice,” he said and started off.

“Where do you go? I’m new in the area.”

He slurped a little, then studied her as she stirred away, eyes on pecan cookies left from a meeting. She snatched one up and dipped it in her coffee.

“There are several good pools, depending upon where you live.”

“I’m just down the street, Premiere Apartments.” She raised her eyebrows at this as everyone knew they were at best mid-grade. One would rather avoid those long-term. “Just for awhile, we’ll see how this works out.”

“This?” he asked as they left the break room.

“Sorry, I assumed you knew…I’m Celeste, an unemployed accountant who is the new cashier?” She held out her hand, cookie already gone. “Remember? I know who you are, of course.”

“Ernest, yes, and welcome.” He shook her hand briefly and she smiled at him again; he thought she had remarkably large front teeth but the smile was downright dazzling. Great for cashiering. He guessed he did recall her but he had met many over the past year.

Dazzling, he thought as he shook her hand. As he walked back to his office, he mused further. A strange thing to think in the middle of the day at work  after talking with a new diver. Uh, cashier.

******

They nodded at each other each morning. At times they passed each other in the aisles and smiled if so inclined. They shared a cup of coffee once more the first month. Some mornings she was not there due to her schedule–he might think of it by lunch time when he vaguely wondered if she’d had a break. He heard nothing but good reports, saw good results. Everyone liked her that was clear, both men and women chatted away with her, both customers or employees.

Ernest once had to pull her aside.

“Mustn’t get too chummy, mind on work, keep the pace brisk, not everything is about personal relations.”

Her pronounced cheeks colored the slightest bit as she turned back to her cash register.”Yes, sir,” she agreed amiably but she was quieter, at least when he appeared.

He felt he might have made her commitment to the store more tenuous by criticizing too soon, so beckoned to her when she was on the way back from the restroom. “You are doing very well, Celeste, keep up the great attitude.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said and hurried on, as if she was only too clear he was the Boss now..

Well, so be it. But he’d  been about to say she could have a day shift exclusively if she kept it up. he heard she was taking classes somewhere and wondered if the change would help. He didn’t mention it; let her seek a change if needed, that was best.

All was well at Hale’s Holistic Marketplace, and made better by her being there everyone said. he was about to get a decent raise; he was feeling generous and was about to recommend a couple, too.

******

Water, the water. He slipped into the deep end without a sound and  initial strokes powered him to pool’s center. Slip and slice, rocket through with quiet ease. His lungs were strong and heart steady. His eyes saw legs and feet and hands and arms of others who came for exercise, relief, fun. The color–a rich but soft turquoise, wasn’t this the true and correct color for a pool?–unbound him as well. He felt the sun’s caress although light was primarily overhead lights; he heard the wind in treetops if he pretended long enough. He was entirely himself.

Ernest had lived at a lake for a time before finally marrying Lynette, and if he closed his eyes and floated on his back he was there again. There he was truly liberated from constraint and self-consciousness for the first time, and then various swimming pools were in his life. He was a lucky man to have had them all.

He propelled himself upward and then dove again, slipping through sinuous flow, resistance enough upon his skin to make him work a bit as he sped up. And then–he never imagined or saw it coming– there erupted an explosion beyond his fingertips, wavelets of color with sounds that engulfed him. Someone had dived in, regardless of his presence–though underwater, of course–and forceful bubbles escaped a mouth, legs stirred up the turquoise to a fizzier green-blue.

Before he broke the surface there was a glimpse of a one piece coral suit but then in it was Celeste, her taut, lithe form racing toward air as if to beat him at it. He broke first.

But she didn’t see him, or if she did, she was far more intent on diving. She climbed up, over the edge in one swift movement and strode to the high dive board and walked out like a champ, steely nerves and clear head. He side stroked to the pool edge and watched, hoping to be invisible. Such an elegant form as she bounced once, shoulders and arms clean of line and potent of muscle and legs, too, how all of that moved as she sprang into steamy air. Over and over, a double flip, a clean entry into waiting water and then a quick swim to the edge. And back to the board.  

Mesmerized, he forgot about swimming. An amnesia took him from being too little of this and that and the almighty paycheck and residual emptiness and it was just water and her dives and a stillness he felt, an increasing vibration of stillness that somehow moved him as he hadn’t been moved in too long. Celeste and her diving were extraordinary, he saw this in entirety. It was like being awakened from a habit of common thoughts and the dullard of sighing days, then pulled though another dimension where water ruled and Celeste was this creature beyond all others. At least, here. Now.

He put his whole head in the water, resurfaced, shook it hard, got out and went to the roped off lanes to begin necessary laps. He stayed at it long enough that he thought she’d be gone and he’d stop envisioning her dives. Until he rested finally, breathless and wrung out by the cement edge. It was late. Few swimmers were left as it was dinner time. Celeste stared right at him from the distant end, then was gone, too. The last of the light shimmied and skidded across the water and put itself out.

******

The next day, they didn’t see each other. The following days if happenstance brought their steps toward one another they only nodded, as if nothing had happened. He surmised nothing had, yet he felt as if it had. Yet work was work; swimming was swimming. No one else thought anything was different, and when he looked in the mirror he was the same moderately nice fellow who was short but trim, and smart but not blazingly so, he knew that, and he was lucky to have what he had. But there was something…as if he saw things more clearly, and yet exactly what was it he saw?

This question drove him a little mad–as if a well known picture had been altered, but what and where was the slight mark that had changed all? There was the nagging mystery of it, a puzzle. He kept on with all he knew well and studied it less as the days rolled or lurched by. Lynette only glanced at him a couple of times, as if he said something but she didn’t quite catch and wondered what he meant to say. But he was circumspect as ever. And he never asked her what it was that rippled over her face; she didn’t bother further. he lay in bed listening to her gentle snore and thought she was good at heart but her heart wasn’t really even in this. His was still. But barely, his loyalty and hope the few leaves hanging on a low branch; a gust might do it all in.

Near misses, all.

But there was the pool.

******

Three times a week, that’s how often he swam laps, when she almost exclusively dove. Some days they came in at different times due to her shifts; some weeks they saw each other once or twice. That is, they spotted each other and almost imperceptibly nodded–and watched one another on occasion as they shared brief performances. Eyes sliding toward the far-off form. They were each expert at what they did so others offered appreciation and wide berth. Ernest was a master of stamina, nuance and fluid rhythms. Celeste was a bolt of lightning, a dancer in midair. Everyone knew their names. Yet the two did not cross paths unless there came a flurry of movement underwater and there–it was her, it was him–closer for a passing moment. No words, no touch.

It was, after all, swimming and diving, water slipping about them and empowering them, transforming a mundane day into eternity, and a blessing. They made the most of it. Their movements meant something, but they couldn’t say exactly what part of a bigger scheme, meanings both nebulous and full of heft and beauty. They awakened in the pool, then gave over to the clarifying brilliance of water. And were happy and no longer alone in their happiness. But they always came and left alone.

Ernest began to chat with people at work, to loosen up a fraction and found he was willing to forgive some wrongness of things from time to time. Then Marv out of the blue sent him a memo: “Remember the bottom line, keep high the bar with your expertise.” It shook up Ernest–had he been failing?– but momentarily. He kept to tasks at hand and learned to relax without slipping up. Others gossiped some about it. He, oddly, had started whistling and caught himself just a bar or so in usually. Celeste heard him but denied it to the others as they snickered, and she just smiled to herself, never veering from the rhythm of her job.

Celeste was working more hours, taking another class and still looking for an accounting job; she wanted more in a life. They worked together, one might run into the other in the break room, and then a briefly shared cup and chatter about ordinary things. He had the family, such busyness, and his good stressful job and there were many little things that made things interesting. They parted as people might who worked together but unequally, each being congenial and going on without a backward glance. They kept their thoughts cool and calm and no one else was allowed access to their knowledge.

The pool never came up; that was the other life they led.

When they swam they were aquatic people, a wilder, finer breed. They moved together, though parallel, within different aspects of water’s identity and embraces. It worked perfectly. And for Ernest, that was excellent enough. For Celeste, it was evidence of an alternate reality of pure love.

Wednesday’s Fiction: Trial by Henry

Corbin never once felt a simple passing desire to have or even hold a cat. His aunt had had cats, numbering past a half-dozen, she didn’t really keep close track of them. He certainly didn’t bother. His visits were all about his cousins each summer. He enjoyed the boisterous company of two boys and one girl who lived the country life on a small farm. Corbin lived in a tidy cottage in a small city three hours away with his school teacher mother, and a month’s visit was an exotic vacation. He began to wait late winter for the thaw and then forsythia and crocus and finally the first intoxicating waves of late spring heat that heralded school’s imminent closing.

At Miller’s Farm there were three kids, a father who was his uncle– who actually talked to them straight up– and an industrious, sturdy mother, his aunt. He loved his aunt but he sometimes loathed the cats she adored. Mostly he was avoidant though tried to be neutral, which wasn’t so hard since they roamed outdoors and made themselves useful. But they were known to creep inside to wreak havoc now and again. Every now and then, though, he met up with one under sudden circumstances, as when he daydreamed in the hayloft. His body half-lift righted right off his cozy spot as the crazed animal jumped on him. The large black and white mouser swiped him on the nose, leaving it sore, oddly itchy and bloody for hours. That took a few days to heal and left a deep, small scar. had he resembled a mouse or bug as he’d enjoyed his rest? Did the cat lack the common sense required to avoid a boy’s enraged smack at its vanishing tail and behind? Corbin from then on was fully alert when he saw a whisker or a tail or heard the barest echo of a meow. He usually got at least three scratches a summer, anyway, and a nip or two at bare ankles. He washed and washed them. Aunt Lou covered them with snug bandages as he was convinced he’d die or go delirious from cat fever. She only shrugged and patted his back.

“You’d run if you even saw a cat shadow,” Marty teased, holding one of the creatures out to him.

Marty was heading toward burly at twelve; Corbin ran sometimes from him. But the cat scrambled out of his cousin’s arms to seek whatever it was he sought.

“Naw, not true, I just avoid their claws and teeth, which means keeping my distance.”

“I bet when kittens come again you won’t even want to pet one, you never do, not even the fluffy sweet ones,” Fran sniffed as she passed by.

Ott laughed, gave him a raised eyebrow. “Cat hater, huh?”

“They don’t like me!” It was as if he was committing a crime to not like–much less adore–felines. “I like your pigs fine. I like the chickens, mostly, and Clarence the horse–and goats the best. Lots of stuff.”

“Goat Man!” Marty shouted and grabbed his arm to give it a shake, which was a good sign as they were all headed to a field and he was never left behind. Corbin was a good pitcher.  They played ball awhile and climbed trees and the topic was forgotten for the time being.

But when the next batch of kittens did come, Aunt Lou tried and tried to get him to cuddle a tabby and gave up only when he shrank way back, stifling embarrassing tears. Later she apologized but shook her head at him, as if he harbored some strange streak in him. But he was her only nephew, her only sister’s son; he was a good one, she and her husband, Ronnie, agreed. Good for him to be out of that city.

But that was the thing he did not look forward to when he visited his relatives. Everything else was so different and fun it was hard to say farewell after July 4th. His mother came to spend the holiday, which included a delicious pig roast, more bonfires and a spectacle of fireworks for starters. After three days or so, they drove back home.

And the cats did not mar his memories, they were no longer an issue. He was satiated again, full of the warmth and simple happiness that a kind aunt and uncle offer, and the bond that is built when cousins sleep, giggle and freak out in small tents all night, gather eggs for sunrise breakfasts, see night decorated with a gazillion stars and trees loom and shimmer with firelight, and also when hunting squirrel and rabbit (not his favorite but still) and suffering a lick of skunk spray (they had unbelievably lived to tell of it–afterwards it was a small legend around those parts). The sizzling thunderstorms were something that resonated in his mind forever, too, taking over the landscape, the house vibrating with it differently. It all marked him in secret ways.

Out there spectacular forces reigned. The cats were a footnote. Growing up changed some things. But not the essence.

******

“Fran, you’re really doing it!” He held the phone between cheek and jowl as he finished wiping down the counter top after dinner.

“I am, it’s taken me four years to save enough for this trip and to take the time off. Two weeks of heaven along the Seine and exploring Parisian haunts and wonders I’ve read about so long.” She sighed with delight. “But I’ve an issue I need you to help me resolve.”

“Ah.” He often got these calls from people, mostly family, sometimes friends. It was as if he was their helpmate in a pinch–being single, childless, pet-less and living a quiet life teaching at the university. As if he had not only spare answers but spare time or cash or whatever else was needed. “I can’t water your plants from this far but I would take you to the airport, I guess. Depending on day and time.”

Silence. He could hearing an intake of a long breath, and a brittle tapping as her long fingernails got restless atop the coffee table. Fran had grown up to be a successful business owner, cupcakes and specialty cakes, and he often wondered how long it took to get frosting from beneath those pretty nails. But that was Frannie, full of contradictions he always liked. She lived an hour away but they got together every two or three months and there were the calls.

“Out with it,” he said, rinsing the sponge, tossing it into its holder.

“Okay, then, take Henry for me.”

His laughter was fast and rich. Of course she was kidding. “Okay, what do you actually want?”

Silence again. He imagined her frowning, eyes narrowed. “Take Henry. That’s it and please don’t reject the idea out of hand. He is not one of those bad cats, you know he is a prince, and you and he get along. Overall.”

“Henry– here? You have to be joking, Frannie. I would no more have a cat here than I would–well, invite a crocodile in! You know I distrust cats, I do not have the nature to sympathize with their ways, nor inclination to change my view. I can bear them now, but only just. I–“

“Yes, yes, Corbin, I know they scared and aggravated you as a kid. You’re now an adult, and I’m your cousin and I have a critical need. Corbin, this one time! Mom would rather not as her gout is really acting up and Dad, also not great, said he’d just turn him into the fields to fend for himself–“

“Henry can make his way out there fine.”

“No, he’s an indoor cat only, you know this.”

“Fran, I have enough going on with my classes and I am dating a little and I still wear a blasted two-inch scar on my forearm after all these years.”

“But not your nose or chin or ankles. I am asking you because I can’t really spend extra money or incur the risk of germs at a pricey cat hotel, and I really have run out of options. No one else is able to help me. I leave in three weeks. Paris, Corbin.”

He knew there was no way out of this one. He truly wanted her to go on her trip, she deserved this beautiful vacation. But what did he do to deserve Henry? How could a cat-loather welcome a cat? She was foolish to imagine he could do this.

He felt the heat of her desperation, too.

“Alright, I’ll give in this once for the sake of family– but you owe me, big time.”

She screeched, they made arrangements, said goodbye.

Corbin stared out the window, hands in pants pockets, full of regret. The cat was not his family. Why couldn’t she take ole Henry to Paris? Henri might have found love, just stayed on and on.

******

Henry was becoming gargantuan at just nine months–even as he sat (in that detached way of his sort) snug in a corner of the sun room. This Corbin had forgotten, the weight and bulk of him. And he looked similar at a glance to another type of cat, with ginger-colored tail about nearly a foot long, a torso lengthening to a couple of feet, and that Sphinx-like head perched atop bright chest of white. His back was mottled white and ginger, his paws mostly white and huge. Corbin thought those paws could climb mountains, and held an image of him stalking all that passed within ten miles of nose and ears. It was wild, that’s why; it had to be. Frannie admitted it had been feral the first weeks of life, than climbed under her car and camped out, even took a ride underneath the frame once to her horror. And that all made him hers.

She had worked to socialize him and had been moderately successful, she said. Henry no longer felt compelled to attack in a savage manner as it had the first four months. Corbin had met the beast a few times, greeted it with a wave that betrayed a flicker of trepidation–he didn’t turn his back on him. In response, the fledgling cat had regarded him with snobby disdain, barely sliding against an ankle their last short visit; Corbin had been prepared, so didn’t jump. But he only dared let his open hand run over his sleek back as he went out the door. Fran told him this give and take indicated they had acknowledged and even welcomed each other and so all was well.

Well, she was the amateur cat whisperer while he was a bystander with self-interest as primary.

Henry turned away from Corbin’s stare. Instead, he watched a fly buzz at the window, suddenly leaping three feet high to deftly smash it with a paw. Then he watched it writhe on the wood floor before batting it about and giving it a cursory sniff.

Corbin grimaced and left the room. Time to make his own dinner. The cat might get his can opened in a while but he must not disturb the brazen hunter.

******

It was 5:45 in the morning and there was an annoying scratching at his bedroom door. Not that cat already. His “Intro to Medieval Life” class didn’t begin until ten. He’d been up late reading Owen Sheers and his head felt clogged with cotton after barely four hours out in. He turned over and pulled a pillow atop his head. A thump commenced at the door, one-two-three thumps. What was he doing, throwing his body against the door? For what? Pancakes and sausage? That was what Corbin liked on Thursdays, it was a happy habit. He turned over again, threw the pillow at the door where it slid down into a yielding heap.

“Not yet!”

He watched as a big cat paw reached out and snagged the edge of the pillowcase, pulled it closer through the crack. Not that the pillow could squeeze under there but the sheer gall of that! The case would be sliced by those killer claws. He got up, composed a fierce face, opened the door fast and Henry ran downstairs. He smiled to himself , returned to bed.

At 7:00 the thumping  commenced once more. He stifled an urge to yell. No sense giving in to an animal that was no taller than his shins. It was only a cat, hungry is all. He threw on his sweat pants and descended the stairs.

Henry sat on the dining table, tail swinging off the edge, and the thought of cat germs was too disheartening. He grabbed a bright pink emergency spray bottle and lightly squirted the leonine body with cool water. Though Corbin backed up in anticipation of a frontal attack, it worked. Henry leapt like an acrobat, up, up and out and landing on his feet, then sprawled in repose, looking at his host without blinking. Corbin started on the pancake mix, heated up a small skillet for sausage and brewed coffee and smiled. Sunshine poured through the window above the sink and the cat was lying on the floor by the door. Score a first point. Maybe he would let him out later into the back yard. Just for a feline look-see, a taste of the real world.

 

One third of a sausage was added to cat food. A tasty bribe worked wonders with creatures. Henry liked it so got a tiny bit of pancake which he ignored.

Corbin left for class early. Best to let cats inhabit their cat solitude. He had the relief of people awhile.

******

“Corbin? How’s my Henry?”

“He’s asleep by the fireplace though there is no fire. It is nearly spring.”

“He’s probably bored. Do you talk to him? Is he acting depressed?”

“Good grief no, he is fine, he’s napping. How is Paris?”

“Divine!”

Henry yawned, stood, sidled over to him and the phone. Corbin did not offer him a chance to hear his owner or to speak, so he appeared to eavesdrop. The cousins chatted a few more moments. Before she could tell him to give Henry a hug, Corbin hung up with a cheery goodbye.

“Your mistress misses you. Now go lay back down, tiger.” It half-scared him to hear himself talk to a cat. He tightened his lips into a line line and got busy doing chores.

Henry tilted his head; his ears twitched before he briefly leaned against the human leg, then streaked across rooms, hunting something Corbin could not identify as anything at all.

******

Henry was missing. This occurred to Corbin around bedtime. It had been three hours since he was last seen. Did the cat sneak out when he took out the garbage? Cats cry out when they want to be let in, don’t they? Like dogs. Let him hunt insects–he seemed good at that–and root around for grubs and such. He continued to read students’ papers, engrossed for once. At 11:00 he headed for bed,  remembered the cat. Shrugged. He sank onto the mattress, turned on the reading lamp, reached for his pillow to fluff. And got sliced by a swift sharp knife.

He held the left hand with the right, close to his chest, blood streaming. Henry lay back and groomed himself. The blood was more a very fine trickle, but the small gash was open and red as he raced to the bathroom to get a clear look. He swabbed it with alcohol and found an old Band-aid, all the while cursing softly at the mad animal who had usurped his pillow, And supported his belief that he and cats were essentially enemies. As before-not capable of being friends.

Despite his cooling anger, he had a quiet talk with Henry.

“You cannot sleep here. It is my sanctuary, not yours. I own this house, you are a guest. Not even a paying guest. And you cannot scratch me. If you must be here, you absolutely must get way, way over there. Or on the floor, yes. I prefer you to get out but don’t want more violent confrontations.”

He picked up the cat with both hands–he was so heavy it felt an effort– and clumsily tossed him on the other side of the bed before another wound was incurred. Henry gave a protest, jumped off the bed and padded to the armchair which he occupied instantly but not for long. He looked about, found no more victims, and slipped out the door. Corbin got up to shut the door tight, leaning against it.

“Little monster!” he said to the darkness.

The light was turned off. He did not sleep a long time; even his face covered with quilt, just in case. He dreamed of hot dirt and hay, of cats’ tails like shadowy snakes on walls and mice scampering for their lives, his feet following them.

******

In the morning, they greeted each other with the barest nod. Henry’s was more a twitch of whiskers as food was offered. Corbin dashed off to class and was glad of it. Only for Fran. Never again.

******

On Sunday they sat outside as it had begun to feel like spring. Corbin held a tall glass of iced tea despite a chill and hint of rain on the breeze. But nature was fast transforming, clusters of daffodils a bloom, two robins zipping about with songs to spread. He had a world history magazine on his lap, unread.

Henry was  dazzled by all that lawn; he chased whatever had wings or tiny legs, chewed on grass and flowers and gagged a bit. He scampered about the edges of grass as if he was playing tag with another of his kind. For an hour he ran about and showed off that lean long body and shiny fur, then cleaned himself thoroughly, more like preened. He had to be fixed, didn’t he? He drowsed under the oak tree.

All this Corbin viewed behind sunglasses. He was delighted to wear his favorite warm weather attire, sip chilled tea and he wished he’d invited Cecelia over. But not with that cat here. At least not unless he behaved better.

Henry scampered up a tree in search of feathers but no luck, the bird had other plans, flew off. He navigated a half-slide down.

Corbin shook his head. What a predator, an alpha cat. He drank to the beast– but ho hum, what a lazy day.

******

Corbin was sick. Not a hangover, not the flu, sick with something big enough to make him want to lie down and die for two days. Might have been the lettuce, where did that come from? Did the FDA forget to test that field? Farmers, he thought, ought to be paid more but be more careful. What would Uncle think? Or was it a common student plague? He hung his head over the toilet bowl.

Henry lay on the bed, dozing. He was getting hungry. He was also waiting for Corbin to come back around, things to be normal. He got up, sauntered to the bathroom, lay flat upon the cool tile floor and watched, listened, waited. He returned to that spot after running downstairs to get water from his bowl and lay his head on two paws until Corbin glanced over at him.

They stayed put awhile.

******

Time passed and they were both in bed, Corbin with his arm flung over his eyes, Henry with his body curled up on the pillow next to Corbin’s. They slept–Henry took breaks elsewhere–and said nothing for another 24 hours.

Finally he resumed teaching. The cat sat in his beautiful way on a window ledge and saw the man leave, and liked everything else after that; it entertained him an hour or so.

******

“Corbin, I am on my way to the airport, darn it. Mom isn’t handling things well since Dad’s bleeding ulcer sent him to hospital so I’ve cut two days off. Home tomorrow. My brothers are so far away!… isn’t Paris far enough? We’ll get some dinner when you collect me at the airport. How is that Henry?”

“He’s fine. Sorry you have to return now, and to hear about more health issues. I need to see them more. I’ll be at the arrivals curb.”

She gave him details and he hung up. 

He felt a slight spring in his step as he prepared a dinner serving for Henry. Soon: once more alone. Then he ate his turkey burger and salad, even offered a bite of meat to the cat, but Henry was so picky. They finished, cleaned up and the less-wild feline sat calmly until Corbin took a seat in the sun room to sip a coffee. Corbin reached to pat the furry head and Henry began to purr very softly as he trotted along, tail swishing.

Corbin whistled quietly, a thing he enjoyed. The cat kept sliding a glance at him. It occurred to Corbin that he might like to sing, too, but was too circumspect to do that. He soon was distracted by a tidy line of ants that made their way across the white painted wood floor. 

******

“Henry, this is it, you’re now going back to where you belong.”

They were in the dining room where Corbin had paid a few bills and Henry had chased a fly until it gave up and then ate the whole thing. At least Corbin thought so– he looked away at the last moment.

Henry meowed a little, something he did at times if Corbin spoke, more often if he was hungry, wanted to be outside, or was bored or heard a weird noise or for no discernible reason. He raced to Corbin and,with an elegant slice through air, landed in his lap. Corbin’s arms flew out and he leaned back so that their weight was just balanced on two legs of the old oak chair. The cat rubbed his head on his chest and forearms, purring.

The other chair legs it the floor with a thud. “My gosh, stop leaving fur on me, not dignified behavior,” he said, arms still hovering, hands flapping.

But Henry settled on his lap. They paused like that until Corbin picked up the silky body and held him close just a second. Released him. No damage done but this was the end of it.

“Okay, let’s get that Frannie.”

******

Breathless and waving, she rushed to her cousin’s sports car, face rimmed with weariness and wide with happiness. She looked livelier than ever despite the long flight. He got the luggage. She grabbed Henry’s cage from her seat and sat with it on her lap.

“Hi, you two! How is my Henry? I so missed you–you would have loved Paris!”

“Take him next time. He was pining away, bored, irritating and needy. Back to the cupcake shop with you both! But we got by.”

She laughed in relief and murmured to her cat.

He looked over at Henry who gave him a good stare with a slow blink. Corbin slipped the car into first and took off with immediate speed. Henry gave a sharp meow then purred as he ran his rough tongue over Fran’s pearly fingernails.