Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Winged Nights

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Alan J. was a boy who no one quite wanted around, not really. Even if they didn’t hound him with that fact, he felt it. It wasn’t that he was a nuisance; that would be something to note, make him easier to relate to. It might have made life easier in the school yard where he was ignored, generally, and at home, where he suffered the ignoble status as youngest and smallest–a “runt” as his siblings said. He could make the fiercest faces at them (which incited more taunts) but had even less to say as the years rolled by. It was not his nature to spout off or to mumble on about things. It made many people uncomfortable. He observed and learned quickly, he asked such questions for just an eleven year old, his teachers assured his parents; he was an unusually introspective child.

Maybe, he thought, he was just not ready to tell the world what he thought of its silliness and beauty and puzzles.

Even the house, once rather grand, seemed to ignore him, perhaps in relief, as it was full of raucous activity. He could fade away into its dusty far corners. It was a big house, if now worn about the edges. Gran and Grandpop (the J. of his name: for his grandfather, Jackson) had run it as a bed and breakfast for many years, then Grandpop died. The past nearly four years she had relinquished it to her daughter and son-in-law and their four children. It had become more a home, not a business, Gran said with a long sigh–as if she missed the latter and didn’t so much crave the former, anymore. At least in its present state. She was slowing down and let them deal with the greater matters.

Wintry rainfall pattered and dashed against the roof, under which Alan J. sat with flashlight in hand, illuminating the bead board of his sloped ceiling. Once an attic, the room was a reasonable size if a bit dank, separated by a small bathroom from his oldest sister’s bedroom. Sarah was now relegated to visitor status since attending college. And big brother Gerry didn’t want the room, as he was well installed at the end of the third floor hallway, the opposite end of his parents’, separated by a guest room and bath; the second floor was primarily commandeered by Hannah and Gran though there was a also study (and bath) used by both his father and mother. Alan J. wasn’t sure how he’d lucked out getting an attic room. It suited him, and he was nagged about taking too frequent refuge in the so-named “AJ Cave.”

Grandpop used to take refuge with him in either attic room way back then if none was rented, as they loved to watch the sunset, the moon and stars from up there. The old man had a telescope which was in the den now, and he’d also read some of any book Alan J. chose, then the boy would read haltingly for his soft-spoken, hunched over Grandpop. He was the one tourists loved to see again; Gran was hospitable, unruffled but sheathed in a coolness, ever the businesswoman. But that was all a long time ago, three and a half years now. Grandpop was sometimes nearby yet not there, at all, a baffling thing.

He smiled as he studied the darkening blur beyond his window. Treetops whipped about in a glistening wind. His flashlight beam then zigzagged about the bead board ceiling, then back to his personal balcony which was long and narrow. It stretched from his small outside door to his decamped sister’s. Sarah had long ago put up a bamboo screen and nailed it to the railing and outer wall. It was decrepit but ivy she’d had in pots crept up the house and over the top into his sunny or dreary part. He liked seeing it there still. Alan J. missed her some, especially the last year when there were midnight bombs of marshmallows and chocolate drops and dumb missives thrown over the screen, at his windows. She had gotten drunk a few too many times. He’d not complained as she laughed more then, and he generally liked her surprises. Sometimes he had tossed marshmallows and miscellaneous junk back and then total madness was on.

She had at least seen him, noted his presence often. But Sarah would not be home for holidays; too much money for a quick plane trip.

It was getting closer to Christmas, a week or so now. This bothered him. Alan J. usually knew what to get people, something simple like packets of seeds for spring or a good if used book or a drawing of the brick-red covered bridge over D Street Canal or a flamingo or a race car or bouquet (his one talent, his brother conceded, was that he drew well). This year he was empty of ideas, probably because they’d had to tighten the purse strings, as mother said, so the mood was less inflated. Dad, a big manufacturing plant’s supervisor (soon to be manager, they still hoped), was laid off with the rest of the workers for six weeks, on a sharply reduced pay. That meant their allowances were suspended, other budgetary cuts made.

No, he was not yet inspired to draw much of interest, but it might still come. Or he’d come up with a crafty thing.

Alan J. stood and looked out over neighbors’ houses. The whole block had houses two stories or even one. People thought they lived in a mini-mansion but the truth was, they lived in a rambling house that looked good across the street but up close showed age, even an unmistakable neglect. Still, the view from his attic room and balcony stirred in Alan J. a sense of confidence and expectancy, as if he was a ship’s captain or an airport watchtower’s commander and there were important things to see, do and plan. He liked being able to glimpse quick scenes of neighbors’ activities, too, as darkness fell and lights cast a golden glow over inhabitants. Sometimes he tried to sketch them at their tables or lolling on porches or watering gardens. He found it all worthy of a long look.

Tonight he watched various goings-on, and the black bare tree branches and gleaming streets, and felt something like a longing with discontent, even as he smelled pot roast aromas stealing upstairs. Or he imagined it, since Gran and his mother– after she’d rushed home from her bank job–were preparing it earlier. His father had been in the basement, fixing a scratched old toaster or at least looking busy at the workbench and he’d nodded at his son, asked how the day was. Then they both fell silent. His father was down there a lot lately, and he cracked jokes less often than Alana J. would have liked, despite how corny they were.

The trash cans banged and crashed about; the wind had tossed things here or there. Another sudden crash disturbed the falling dark, and then another. It could be a homeless person or a raccoon or even a coyote. Alan J. had seen the last only one time, and he hoped to see another, so he tossed on a heavy grey hoodie and went onto his balcony to take a look.

As he bent over the railing and peered down below he just made out a scrawny figure with a backpack poking about the trash cans, tossing a couple of cans into a plastic bag. His father might yell out a window at a vagrant, as he called most who came onto their lot, but Alan J. always looked. Waited. He wondered where they came from and where they were going, what they most hoped to find. Any tossed food–even if  it was not spoiled–would be a sodden mess in winter and the thought of having to eat such a thing made him feel ill.

He’d left outgrown tennis shoes out there; they were gone faster than he expected. So he left other things in bags by the cans, like a sweater he hated (had a dog on it) and a pillow that had fuzzy yarn daisies which Sarah left behind in her closet. Gran had seen him do it. And Hannah, now thirteen and too busy for him, so she just shrugged and flounced off. Gran shook her head, said nothing.

The rummaging didn’t stop despite the inclement evening, chilled and wet. Alan J. was afraid the person might fall face first into the can, so far into it was his or her body. He shivered, pulled the hood closer. He felt like calling down. What was needed at six o’clock at night in the rainy dark? His mother called up the stairs loudly; dinner was ready. Still he felt compelled to watch and when finally he was about to go indoors and dry off, the person three and a half stories below looked up, scarf falling away from the face.

Her face, he saw as light, long hair was tossed back in a chilled gust. She stood stock still, stared at him a long moment, then slowly raised a gloved hand to him. He saw she couldn’t be so much than fourteen, maybe less or more. She was short and looked terribly thin even in a puffy jacket, face also narrow, small. Alan J. raised his hand to her in almost a wave, and a rush of feelings coursed through his body, a shock of something. He wanted to call out, ask her why she was out there all alone, or what was it she needed. But she quick like a rabbit scurried right into the street and beyond.

******

Alan J. took his perch by the bedroom window to watch for her the next three late afternoons and evenings like he was an appointed sentinel. He’d tried to recall the color of her jacket–black or was it navy?–how her eyes were, how she stood with arms dangling, a half-empty plastic bag slumped on the ground, her fingers wrapped around the top. Bedraggled and worn out was his impression and yet he thought she must have been roaming all day long and still would roam more. She had to be brave, strong. Or entirely out of luck and options. Both, he decided. But she did not return.

The fourth night he decided to get something ready for her just in case, he told himself. Hannah saw him put a sweet roll, box of crackers and slab of cheese into a bag and rolled her eyes. He liked snacks late at night–she did, too– and only told on him when he once took the last three chocolate cupcakes. He then took it all to his room, found a basket of hair stuff in Sarah’s room and emptied it onto her bed. They had used all the string last week threading together plastic glow stars, which they neatly hung atop the windows. So he got the very long, doubled piece of yarn he’d cut from Gran’s stash of skeins and tied it around the basket handle.

It had stopped raining awhile, but he had slicker and flashlight at the ready. A half hour later he caught a glint of that blond hair under the corner street lamp by their house, then saw her run to the garbage cans. He left the flashlight behind–he didn’t want to startle her– but got the basket and entered the balcony to stand at the railing. His heart was beating almost like a hummingbird’s; his breath caught in his throat. Would she look up? He was afraid if he called out she’d dash off. He didn’t want her to be afraid. Worry he’d be mean.

After she found a few empty cans and a small portion of last night’s pizza, she ate hungrily and drank from a large water bottle. Alan J. took the newly food-filled basket, placed it over balcony edge and lowered it down to the ground. It thumped on sodden earth and she glanced that way then away, then back again. It spooked him to imagine her distrust as her elfin face slowly lifted up, up, up until she might have thought she saw someone at the top balcony of the house. But Alan J. had crouched down, made himself small, and leaned against his door, yarn taut in his hands. He did not intend on being seen. It would spoil things. He could hear her run to the basket, rummage in the contents and then, right before she left, there was a tug on the yarn. After listening a few moments, he heard only crows and the slight damp wind. He stood and pulled up the basket. Empty.

Triumph.

Each night when Alan J. could manage it, he put something good in the basket. A soft scarf  no one really needed. Four dollars from the makeshift Mason jar “bank” on his dresser. A small summer sausage with a can of seltzer. A paperback fantasy novel he’d enjoyed and Tootsie Rolls. Each time he hid under cover of darkness–she came roughly around 5:30–as the girl stealthily arrived and left. She always tugged on the basket and he never came forward. It occurred to him that she was counting on him, and that made him feel good. Alan J. had a new purpose and it propelled him through the days, gave him an uncommon sense of fullness.

His family was oblivious. His father was in the basement or at the table eating or in the den with the TV muted. His mother was frantic with Christmas preparations, working on a wreath, and Gran was busy knitting and crocheting, or up to her elbows with kitchen matters. Hannah was with friends, doing homework or telling him to stop looking over her shoulder as she read–she’d pass her sci-fi book along if it was any good. Gerry was just gone; at seventeen he had a junker car and it was his freedom ticket. Plus, he worked part-time.

On the fourth night he stole a look at her. He knew she knew it, as she turned in an oddly careful way toward him, showed him a big smile. Then she dallied a bit over trail mix and a single bottle of apple juice he’d put in the basket, and raised the empty to him in a “cheers” before heading off with bright steps.

He waited to see her from then on. They didn’t speak but communicated with a look, a gesture. He wondered if she could talk, then realized she might wonder the same. Once they both looked at the stars at the same time. It gave him chills when she waved at him without even turning and kept waving as she melted into shadow.

After the seventh time it also came to him that, since she was counting on him, what would she do if he quit this? Strictly garbage can living again–unless others were doing the same as he was. It seemed almost wrong of him to ever consider stopping, yet how could he for certain keep with it? He just would.

The ninth night, three days before Christmas, there was a weather warning: rain mixed with sleet. Possibly snow but likely the dreaded black ice. Maybe she wouldn’t come at all. Maybe she’d found shelter; that would be perfect. But he filled the basket, anyway: a pair of Sarah’s worn mittens, his striped knit cap, a small crocheted throw from his reading chair. And a fat sandwich, lots of turkey with big slab of cheddar. Gran had seen him fix that at four o’clock. She’d warned him to not eat the whole thing before dinner, for goodness’ sake, or his chicken dinner would be unwanted. And then she’d put hands on hips and narrowed her eyes with head cocked to one side. Stopped him cold a minute. He kept his face impassive and waited, but she just threw up her hands and went back to her work.

The sleet hit like bits of glass on glass of the many tall windows. There was a steady fire roaring in the living room and Alan J. sat on the floor near Gran and Big Cat, her black Persian. He listened to the clicking of knitting needles. Heard his father’s footsteps as they trudged up basement stairs.  The Christmas tree, as fancy with decor as each year, was beaming at them. His mother was running quite late and Hannah was dozing under a blanket on the couch. He had worried the cuticle of his right index finger until it bled. He re-checked the time on his cell until it was closer to when the girl might come by. If she’d bother. Gran got up to check on the browning chicken so he slipped away to his room.

He put on his winter coat, went to his balcony, lowered the basket. When he looked down, there she was beneath him the three and a half stories below. And she was looking up. The lights from the house illumined her softly. Her wide eyes were dark and her hair long and straight, the color of straw but streaked with black. She was very pale, perhaps older than he thought, but not as old as Gerry or young as Hannah. She had a grown up air to her as she stood with one hand on hip, jaunty-like.

“Hey, brother, what’s your name?”

Her voice was much louder than he expected; it cut through low howling wind.

“AJ,” he called out, thinking it easier to catch than his whole name. Sleet stung his cheeks, wind seared his eyes. She pulled her hoodie closer to her face and head. He cupped his hands, said, “So here it comes.” The basket slid down over the railing.

“AJ, okay, I’m Marley! Thanks for everything, you’re the best. Saved my belly–you’re a real prince of a guy!” She grinned at him, a big smile that showed uneven teeth.

As soon as it neared her reaching hands, she sorted through it all, tucked the sandwich into a pocket, put on the hat, pulled the mittens over her gloves. He saw her slap and rub newly layered hands together and thought of their radiant fireplace. Of the delicious dinner waiting. Marley took the warm throw and put it around her shoulders and managed to tie a fat knot in the ends. She hesitated a second then pulled out the sandwich and took a giant bite, then another. He wanted to invite her in, to make a ladder and pull her up. She kept eating as he waited; they endured darts of ice and the bitter air. He wished he had stairs to his balcony and a chair for her. What a sight she made, all decked out with the added layers. Somehow she gave off cheer and this made him smile.

Gran set plates and glasses on the table, hoping for her daughter-in-law’s safe drive home. Big Cat sat alert on a window ledge, ears pricked, head turning back and forth. Gran checked to see what she was seeing. It was a medium-sized basket dangling, swaying in the air close to ground, and a slight young girl, alone. Right there in the middle of a storm, she stood eating a sandwich. A basket in mid-air? She grabbed her coat from the coat tree, rushed to the kitchen side door. As soon as she stuck her head out, the girl started, then froze, her fingers releasing the remaining sandwich fall to the ground.

“What’s going on here?”

The girl looked over with saucer eyes as Gran followed the basket string to the crouching boy at the other end. When she looked for the youth again she was gone.

“Alan J.!” she yelled up the balcony. “What are you up to?”

But she knew full well. Her hand pressed against her heart as she closed the door to shut out all the storm.

******

His mother got home and walked into a murmur of excitement. At dinner the event was all they wanted to talk about: a homeless girl and the basket idea and Alan J.’s initiative and how good of him to think of it– but, too, rather risky. Pats on the back, hair ruffled. But still, you never knew…. he should be more careful. No more good deeds that might endanger them all, right?

He didn’t tell them how many nights it had been, just that he’d noticed her once out back, so he’d given her some stuff. All he thought about was how full his stomach was, how warm the rooms and where did Marley have to go next? Gran scared her off. He felt angry. Alarm at that and sadness. Still, the bigger thing was that no one had ever called him “brother” who was not blood, nor called him a “prince”; he heard her voice ring out, carried to him on raw wind. No one had said “thanks for everything” to him like that. He found it sad, yes, but she was amazing, out there on her own, surviving somehow when he’d curl up in a ball and die. She deserved to have more than a small basket now and then, didn’t she? To have a better life, not root about for crumbs.

After dinner, he was glad to get away and scampered upstairs to do math homework. Tried to. He knew she wasn’t still out there; black ice was laid over all now, she’d at least be inside a store or fast seeking shelter. He had a name now, he knew who she was; they’d talked a little. But that was it. It all stuck in his mind like tantalizing clues.

A few minutes later there was rapping on his door. Alan J. didn’t want to answer. But Gran walked right in–he could not recall when she had done that—and sat herself at the end of his bed.

“I want you to know I’m proud of you. Grandpop would be happy to hear it, and likely he does… And I suspect it wasn’t this one time. I didn’t want to embarrass you at the table but, Alan J., you have his spirit, his kind ways.”

At the thought of his grandfather, Alan J. nearly choked up; he was the one he wanted to talk to about the girl. Gran moved closer, put a strong arm about him. The door pushed open and in came his mother and father and they, too, sat on his bed and briefly hugged him.

“But what about Marley?” he asked, tears hot as coals sizzling down cool cheeks.

“I think she’ll be back,” his mother said, laughing, “to see if you were real.”

“You’re a sort of angel for her, son,” his father said with uncharacteristic emotion.

He shook his head. “No.” His words were gulped, hard to get out. “Marley is.”

But he knew they wouldn’t understand. She’d called him “brother” though he was a stranger; she’d called him “the best” when he’d only done the easy thing. A “prince”– for what? For giving her stuff he didn’t need. Marley had welcomed his offerings, and that made him feel rounded with contentment. He’d received the most.

“Maybe she’ll turn up soon,” Gran said as she stood up and peered out the window at the sudden snow. “Getting rougher out there.”

“If she does, can we invite her inside? For dinner at least?” He wiped his nose on a sleeve and stood next to Gran as his parents fidgeted.

She sighed. “I imagine so, we’re in the hospitality business, aren’t we? Of course we are.”

He nodded, wondering if it’d ever really happen. If she’d come in, take off her puff jacket, mittens and the thin gloves and sit by the fire and warm herself, lean in at their table and share hot food. He had to shut his eyes to remember how she’d waved at him, spoken to him. She could fade so fast.

The grownups saw he had gone inside himself again so left, carefully shut his door behind them.

But Alan Jackson Havers III didn’t leave his post at the cold, filigreed window for a long while. He was watching the thickening confetti of snow soften a treachery of ice, watching his street turn into a velvety blanket of white and garbage cans turn into bright, frosty mounds. Watching for Marley with yellow and black hair streaming from beneath his favorite striped hat, a tattered angel sliding along icy sidewalks, roaming the street for good finds.

He felt his fingers itch for drawing pencils and prepared to recreate what he could of her smallness and bigness, which felt to him like unfolding wings in the great secret of darkness.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Whispering River

She didn’t know why the river said things to her it said to no one else but she didn’t question it. It had started when she was five, the way its talk reached out to her, told her things with the ease of breezes skimming the rippling surface.

Today Dina was twenty-five, to her surprise. Nothing had changed much, not the watery offerings or her little house or distant, industrious neighbors or the life in the river that knew many secrets and gave much to people. Its tumbling, flowing, often unpredictable energy seemed nearly like her own blood in her body, a nourishment, an ancient force coursing into and out of her heart. So she never ignored its language and it spoke to her every time she was nearby. Not always did it make sense but it offered music if nothing else. And its vital spirit took from her all her awkwardness and fear.

One of the few who accepted her river secret shares as nothing to get too excited about was her aunt. She fished so much, she knew the river talked truth; it was correct in things that mattered most. For Aunt Tandy, that was bodily sustenance and common comfort.

“It talks different to each one of us, see. It tells me where to put that line and hook and when the best times are.”

She nodded at Dina, eyes on eddy and swirl of chilled water, her muddy wellies washed clean as she went a bit deeper. The two women were dressed in wool sweaters, oilskin jackets and sturdy pants and usual boots but snow had not yet fallen again. Instead, it had reached 40 degrees; the lush white blanketing of woodland and meadow from the previous week had gone dingy, from patchy to nothing.

Aunt Tandy was never one to expect the best of things, except with fishing. But she was a moderate, even yielding cynic. This day was a bonus before ice fishing started om the lakes. She’d predicted for the winter cascades of snow and high drifts and days, even weeks of no electricity–“but do we really need it when you get right down to it?”– and a lack of general services as well as contact with others. She deemed it a decent momentous winter, not the worst.

“I’ll get basic needs met. No distractions, just daily upkeep of the cabin. Got a couple of seasoned cords lined up.” Her laugh rang out and one arm flung out to indicate their surroundings. “Oh, the snowshoeing I’ll do!”

Aunt Tandy went on like this, as though Dina didn’t  know full well about her independence and work ethic. The buck she had shot already. Her famous toughness. The woman was fully skilled in nature if not a good fit for most people. She had friends and enemies, both but never married, never worked inside, never tried to fit into the community of Marionville. And she’d counseled her niece to do the same, ignore the general populace with their boring opinions, and be glad of it.

That was easy to say. Dina lived among those who chattered and that meant gossip. It meant she was expected to interact. She spoke little and listened to everything. There were many who strove after all money could buy and an elusive true love– while she strove to live simply. Alone. If you could call living on the hill in the woods being alone. There was never a lack of creatures or activity around her. And there were other solitary ones not far off, including her aunt. And Jasper Dye. And Heaven Steele down the lower hill.

“We’re alike but not alike.” Aunt Tandy droned on, “the same blood but runs in our veins in different ways, wayward tributaries of a big river.” She smiled toward Dina then held fast to her pole, responded to a tug on her line and reeled in the captured fish. “So what about your birthday, Dina? Hey! Another fine rainbow trout, I’ll fry ’em up for you later at Jasper’s.”

But Dina had begun to climb up the muddy slope and didn’t turn around, grasping branches to pull herself up until she reached the path. Her jeans were damp on the back from an earlier slip, and her thin blond hair straggled over her eyes; she shook her head so it fell away from her forehead.

She had heard the river; she would pay heed. It was whispering about Jasper, that he was in trouble again with no one near.  It disheartened her. He toiled in earnest while his son stayed too busy in town. 

Nonetheless, she’d stop first at home, have a strong cup of coffee to burn off the chill. Fortify herself. She didn’t like to rush into things, to bother others until she was ready. People were not that easy to be around and not always glad she arrived out of the blue. Heaven Steele certainly understood how that was but she was gone, in Chicago for business again, an exhibit of her unusual wind chimes and paintings. She’d one day suggested Dina might accompany her but it was shocking to consider. Dina would never set foot on a plane. Heaven smiled at her, as if there could be a tiny possibility, anyway.

She would not leave Marionville, the land and its river. Not unless it was for a funeral, like her mother’s burial last year. And how relieved she was to be home, even though it was only a four hour drive down for two days and then back. Her one close friend, Jean, a librarian, had gone with her.

She always thought it best to know her limitations. To work with what she had. To stay true to her purpose and needs; that worked best. She could not be any other as well as herself, no matter her imperfections. This brought her peace where illusions only hampered her. Her life was what it was meant to be.

Her house was not a house in the usual manner but a large shed that was more attractive than one expected. It was enlivened by a deep periwinkle blue, pretty ivy crept along its front, small windows were trimmed in black. A rock-lined path led to a dark blue door. Towering bare oaks, a scattering of birches plus an ancient willow bounded the deep, broad yard. It had been a gardening shed and then added onto for a dog kennel when Dina was growing up–her parents had bred collies for years. 

When Dina was eighteen, her father took off for the Upper Peninsula. Her mother finally left with Linc Harlen, her friend Mary Harlen’s estranged husband. That didn’t work out but her mother stayed downstate, left the place for her to deal with.

So, Dina rented out the main house which sat snug to the road for income while she renovated the reasonably sized shed-kennel, added a simple bathroom and minimal kitchen courtesy of the Jamison brothers. She cleaned their place twice a week for a few months; it was a good bargain. The small wood stove was Aunt Tandy’s generous offering; she sided with her niece on the decision.

Dina wanted nothing to do with that house which her mother stuffed with so-called collectibles, a slew of vintage clothing and moldering magazines and bad memories. Even after she returned north to sell off her things or to sort and ship them, all Dina could see and hear was her father roaring at them both and worse, and her mother roaring right back. The mess was in them to start and it spread. It had been important to stay quiet, be transparent in a room, even more than when Dina dragged to school her worries and her growing stutter. She was mocked daily.

And so it took nothing from her to rent it out; it just brought more freedom and cash.

The stove top percolator burbled away. Warm coffee aroma swept away her pensive mood. Red the orange tabby sidled up to her while Big Dog relaxed on the huge worn leather chair. The place was now a one room home; she’d partitioned off one end for her bedroom with two folding screens. She had lived there for seven years and it suited her. Once Jasper had inquired as to whether she was going to stay stuck there forever or if she had thought of taking the family house back and renting out the cramped shed. He said summer people and hunters would pay a good price for it, though.  She’d studied him with brow furrowed until he rubbed at his beard and mumbled, “Well, then…sorry.”

Dina was happy there. Nothing went haywire, nothing made life harder than it should be and she could count on it to be a solace every day as long as she took care. As long as her animals were healthy. And she was left to live as she pleased.

She could only talk alright with her two trusty pets.

“I’m good, right?” she said to Red and Big Dog as she poured a mug of steaming brew. “I have a part-time job sorting and shelving books at the library. Get to read every new book. I have Jean as a friend, Heaven and Jasper. My aunt. It’s good. And you two are also family. But here is this birthday business…you don’t even care. Me, either…”

She got up to put more wood in the wood stove and wondered about Jasper, if his health was taking a dip, if it would hold out. She knew it might not be so sterling, anymore; he was battling loneliness, getting older than he admitted. She worried sometimes.

Today the river had seemed to indicate there was time for her to take a break, so she was, but then she should be quick. The river often offered her both yes and no, this way and that. Nothing was really clear but the currents of pale blue-green when it didn’t storm. Every movement had a counter movement and she had to let it settle in her mind. But her impressions got stronger one way or another if Dina was well focused. Listened beyond whisperings for more revelation, the core of the warning.

At five years of age, when playing by the river banks, she drew back in alarm. She heard from the roiling water, she’d almost told her parents, that a day later Mr. Jamison’s back might break as he did barn work. She had tried to say this again on the fated day: he’ll fall, he’s falling, crying. But when the frantic woman couldn’t sort her daughter’s stuttering words, Dina began to run the distance, pulling her along until they got there and found it to be about true. He’d fractured many bones as he thundered onto the floor and was ever after plagued by back pain and dizzy spells.

She was afraid of the river awhile, as it seemed to never happen other places, and she was afraid to say anything or to say nothing. What if she was wrong? What if she was too late? What if she imagined things like some said? And too, she was afraid it would only tell her bad things. It wasn’t to be so. Dina and the running waters cared for one another . She spent hours on its banks; later she entered the tricky flow for fun or work and learned more of its ways.

Dina liked primarily to talk with animals, mostly her own; she never stuttered–and didn’t have to say one thing. Her job made silence easy, too; everyone knew she didn’t speak unless necessary. All that extra help hadn’t helped her talk well so she was the quiet girl in childhood and youth, then the quiet woman.

It could be restful near Dina with her graceful manner. Her expressions, if guarded, were kindly or noncommittal. So it was all good unless a person was put off by her separateness, the sudden odd pronouncements with a harsh staccato language, and so found her presence unsettling. In that case, she was avoided and this was more frequent than not.

Everyone knew to let her be now. She finally found her life safer than she could have imagined.

Big Dog yawned, emitted a groan, then put his head on his big paws while Red sniffed about her feet with a tiny meow, tail waving. She savored the coffee as she closed her eyes. An image of Jasper came: his leaning back in bed, mouth tight, blankets pulled over his eyes. She got up and gave them each a pat and smoothing of fur, took a last lingering sip of coffee, then set the mug on the round wood table.

“Must go, lovelies. Keep watch.”

She put on her jacket, shut the door fast so neither would get out to follow her.

It wasn’t far to Jasper Dye’s, ten minutes on foot. She had thought about driving but running came naturally to her and she had good stamina. It cleared her mind; she became acutely alert with the steady beat of her boots upon the ground, her breath traversing in and out, in, out. He owned a truck; she could use it if he needed more help.

When she entered Jasper’s neat house, Rags the mutt jumped on her excitedly, then trotted to his bedroom with a whine. She found him lying in the darkened space, and was still a moment to feel the tenor of the air. It felt urgent but not so dire as she had feared.

Jasper thought he was seeing things, an apparition. He was dying, he had probably crossed over. Yellow hair alight with brightness of day, a face round with concern, hands on his forehead like pale flowers lain over his sweaty skin, a poultice of flowers and mercy, mercy and flowers of coolness, tenderness…light of life, balm for pain… 

He was too warm under the blankets and he flailed his arms, awash in hurt. She felt him cringe at his imagined weakness, these damned migraines that plagued him more lately or was it some fever or worse? He felt aflame with it, floated in an endless field of sharp stings and stabs that banded together to torment his brain, his body alive with it. He felt the room upside down but her presence righted it some. It had begun three hours ago, had dug in for forever. Where were the magic pills? Where was the end of it? He moaned, heard her speak to him on light waves, sounds carried on a fanning of air… He remembered this: he once visited Florida, sat on a dock, all breeze and sweetness, a bouquet of warmth and salt-tinged scent.. but again that pain, a drowning time, he was sure to meet his end even if he was no longer utterly alone.

Dina found his pills, coaxed him to take two with sips of cool water, then they both sat with him, Rags and her, waiting to see what came of it. She watched wintered sunlight fade, the branches outside grow blacker; saw his breathing slow, his brow smooth. Time melted like snow. She idly wondered about Aunt Tandy’s prediction, if they would have to live by candlelight this winter. Smiled at the thought.

“Dina…birthday…?” he said as he drifted, less tormented as exhaustion took him away.

She patted his arm, smoothed back the scrappy grey mane, studied his good country face. He would be better in a while. For now. He had to do something about this malady, he was under its command. She would talk to Heaven Steele when she came home to see what she knew. What could be done to work out his dilemmas.

“A fish fry…for you, you’re …so…so…”

He fell away from the waking world. Dina put the kettle on to boil and sat a spell more by Jasper’s bed, touched her lips to his broad, veiny hand. Told him he would live to be quite old, no getting out of it.

A sharp knock on the door. Into the stillness rushed Aunt Tandy and Jean.

After they assessed the situation and peered at him, Aunt Tandy put the fine trout in the refrigerator.

“Best not to worsen a man’s condition with fish cooking when he can’t even eat. Good thing you stopped by to check on him and give him his pills! Some big pain, eh? They need to find a cure.”

“It’s h-h-hard since his w-w-wife p-p-passed….”

Jean loped over, hugged her friend, then slumped her six-foot frame on the couch by Rags. “What a birthday dinner. At least we have my salad and warmish buttermilk biscuits. Tandy made you a pie. And it’s toasty in here, thank goodness Jasper made a fresh fire in the wood stove before he got hit with it or we’d be unthawing him bit by bit.”

“Sp–sp–” Dina stopped and went to the cupboard for the box of pasta Jasper always kept on hand. She held it up and announced, “Make this!”

The other two women cheered in subdued tones lest they awaken Jasper, their host, now deeply asleep. Jean got out three bottles of beer for a toast to Dina.

“Here’s to my best friend, the finest, most courageous woman I know!” Jean loudly whispered.

“Here’s to the only niece I’ll ever need around, strong and true as they come!” Tandy intoned in her alto voice.

“T-t-t to t-t-twenty-f-fii—Oh, more life!”

Dina lifted her beer and clinked it against the others as the kettle whistled and Rags yelped in agreement. She shivered with pleasure, knew the coming year would work out right, any way it came.

Still, she would go to the river early in the morning, as was her habit, to hear what she could hear. Then do whatever she might do.

Jasper stirred in the darkness, pain like a film negative, dim and more frail, at last. He heard the murmuring of love, din of laughter and ole Rags’ delight and knew he was saved by the charity of friends, the strong comfort of good women. And Dina, the quiet one, strange and lovely child of the river–Dina had known what was needed once more. He’d cook up that trout for her tomorrow.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Better Times

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Photo by Vivian Maier

“Sure, there have been better times, I’ll give you that. But this life is manageable enough for me.”

She stubbed out her menthol cigarette in the hotel ashtray and looked out the window with interest, like something compelled her to study the brick building across the alley. In truth she was avoiding his eyes. It was like a tick. If he looked at her more than five seconds without blinking she would dodge his gaze. Her own son’s eyes could make her skittish and indrawn at once. He ought to be used to it. The view next door was safer. Maybe a curtain fluttering with a tabby cat peeking out, or a pigeon perched on a windowsill staring over at it. Or a fat man with a fedora in his hand as he looked back at her. She’d said on the phone she’d seen such a man. Maybe by now they were friendly in that wordless way city neighborhood people can become.

Her son made a face at the sooty ashtray. She’d carried that thing from place to place for so long. Starlight Inn, it said. Once it had a navy blue background with three stars stamped white against it and the name of the place. Now the design was obscured by relentless heat and toxins from cigarettes smashed onto it for four decades. It was stolen from the place where she and her new husband–not his father, who had died when he was five– took their honeymoon on Cross Island. Up north, the Great Lakes and those inky green forests. He’d been there once, years later, on his own, just to see. It looked like a dump by then, or maybe it always was.

“They could be much better now, is what I’m saying, Ma.”

She tore herself away from the view, eyes flickering over him. Grunted. “By joining you and Marcy at the new place? The latest three bedroom suburban delight?”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant. The extra room at the back, it could be yours. A bathroom next to it. The second bedroom is now our office, you know.”

“I’m featuring it: almond or dove grey paint on every wall, floors so clean you could lunch off them, grass blades all one length. Neighbors who draw open their drapes on week-ends, maybe. I’d sure blend right in that decor and neighborhood.” She laughed a tight laugh. “I’d be a timekeeper while you two were working, counting down minutes in Dullsville ’til the front door slid open. We’d say our hellos and chat about…well, what? I’d season the beef, cut up carrots, onions and potatoes alongside your sweet wife, then you’d watch your big TV and I’d soon after disappear to a big bed. Then we’d start all over again.” She lit another cigarette. “Thanks, but I mostly think not.”

“It’s not safe here, not even in reliable shape. Did the mice come back or are they rats? I’m calling that bum landlord of yours again if one more is spotted. What about Apartment 19 down the hall, is the ex-con still hunkered down? And don’t forget how Murray died right at your feet last February when you were taking the garbage down.”

She swept grey strands from delicately lined cheeks, then bore into him with a narrowed look. She could peer into him yet he could not do the same. He was ready for a calculated zinger. But then she only shrugged, the tension leaving.

“Murray lived a good life. That was exactly how he wanted to go, boom. A gift, that dying was, and I’m happy for it and him.” She took a long drag, blew it out slowly, and it ended in a coughing spasm. “I miss him, yes. But Bernie, he’s too old to act all criminal anymore–he minds his business, I don’t care what. I’ve got better things to do. And nicer neighbors, we stay busy.”

Here we go, he thought, the litany of days and nights rich with entertainments and fulfillment.  He pushed his window sash up higher so the smoke wouldn’t choke him and waited. When she only shook her head, got up and set the kettle on the flame, he looked out her window and saw the tall fat man, sans hat, his beefy arm resting on the ledge with a can of something in his hand, a paperback book held open by the other hand. He also saw a woman two windows up take off her dark coat and raise arms over her head, stretching with all her might. Her yellow sweater came off her waist a couple inches; she suddenly tugged it down as if she knew someone saw. It was live theater here every day, apparently. he remembered how that was, the amazing density of all kinds of people, the great palpable energy, and guessed that was why his mother still loved the inner city life. Plus she couldn’t smoke if she came to stay with him. She maybe could smoke far from his new house. She’d only quit once when she was pregnant, she had told him. Then gave in to the urge again, never thought of stopping since.

The good tea cups were taken from the shelf, the ones that held barely enough to wet your whistle. They had pale blue flowers around the rim, a touch of gold trim. They were left over from a past wherein she had a full set of china, there was a decent dining room and friends shared meals and stories. He was the one who carefully fit the candles in heavy glass candlesticks for company. When he was nine she let him also light them. They cast a honeyed light across the oft-bleached, off-white tablecloth and shadows danced about as invisible drafts pushed the lithe flames this way and that. He loved that moment before he was given the next chore, maybe running his toys to his room or fetching a vase for her roses just cut from the little yard. It became a heavenly place, he thought, food cooking and his mother’s strong voice calling out to his stepfather Teddy to remember folding chairs in the closet if many were coming, and then soon the door chimes ringing out. Everyone treated him like an important person, or teased him for the “plucky cowlick” on back of his head, squeezed his shoulder, patted his back and smiled when he answered all questions.

And yet, their life was not easy, and it got worse. Teddy was a man of many moods, as his mother told him over and over, but if anyone had asked him, Teddy was a man of two moods: good and bad. But he was excused; he’d lost his own parents and a sister in a fire. That was sad. And it was the reason he was not altogether well–not counting the beers. Still, he worked hard at the foundry. He loved his mother as he could. He managed to help raise him.

“Still,” his mother was saying, “I see what you’re getting at. I’m not young and I have my deficits and the place is falling down bit by bit. I just never was the suburban sort ,you know. I’ve lived down here most of my life, one place after another. Come on over here, now.”

He got the sugar bowl, sat down at the little round table in the middle of the kitchen as she poured hot water over mesh bags of black tea. So, where was the usual listing of daily fun events? Had she edited this part of their discussion today?

“I remember, Ma. I was around, too. A life that was good, overall…”

She sat, too, back straight, and buttoned up two more buttons of her burgundy cardigan. It was bulky on her thin frame, nubbier each time she wore it. The color always lit up her cheeks and he sometimes thought that if he came and she no longer had it he’d have to buy a replacement, as it was her favorite. And his. They blew on their tea and he mused over what to say next. There was a relaxed expectancy in her now that he wasn’t pushing the topic of her moving soon.

“Okay, well, I remember sitting by the stoop on Marsh Avenue many afternoons, counting different colored cars as they went by. I kept a little notebook over the years, I guess you knew that.”

“Sure, you told me how many of each. Showed me the columns of marks. Then the makes and models when you got older. You had a memory like a fine sieve, you caught all the interesting stuff. No wonder you ended up a lawyer. Saw variations in a pattern. Had a mind for puzzles. Give you a maze and you made a new way out if the ready-made one boring. My little smart aleck.”

He snorted. “Sounds like you, the mystery maven, and a smarty, too…But you find intrigue where there may not be any at all, am I right? is it entertainment?”

“Sure, intrigue is what life is about–pay attention, you’ll see it all.”She placed a finger alongside her pert nose. “But I can still remember you on that curb, clear as day. I’d have to yell to get you off the damned street curb and go sit on the stoop, what if someone mowed you down? Playing with Pete Callaghan’s cat, what was her name? Sonsie, friendly thing. Remember how you always wore that cowboy holster and gun? Begged me for a hat, then you lost it or a kind stole it, you never said for sure. I hated children playing with guns and still do. But it was the one thing your dad got you when you turned three and you wouldn’t let it go.”

Of course he knew all this and she knew he knew it but she always said it. It was a cap gun and he loved it, shot it off all the time. He and his buddies thought nothing of it as they made a ruckus, chased each other all over the sidewalks. No one got seriously hurt back then, not there.

“It was quieter then, overall, and fewer cars.”

“Who could think to afford a car? Not like today, you with your silver machine –what is it? A Lexie?”

“Lexus, Ma. And it’s taupe. And you’re thinking of an Alexa…”

“What’s that? And taupe! A color to put you to sleep. Well, we walked, it was good for body and soul as well as necessary. Took a bus if it was far and we had too little time. Though it seemed to take longer.”

“I counted a lot of cars on that street. And trucks, buses, motorcycles and bicycles….”

“Things have changed, the way of the world.” She sighed. “But here I am–it’s important to be rooted.  I know what’s what, who’s who, that the store on the corner is still a place I can get fresh kosher dills from the jar and a small bag of freshly popped popcorn for free and a gallon of milk cheaper than the new grocery two miles out. Plus a swanky, bitter coffee,  if I’m so moved. Though that seems expensive to me for what you get, two bucks for a 12 oz. and it’s just in paper.”

“That’s kind of cheap, Ma, but then you’re cheap. Otherwise you’d at least upgrade your walk up. Or at last buy a small condo.”

She pulled her sweater closer to her chest and frowned at him.

“Buy air, you mean! See? Your values have changed. You were frugal right from the start, then you grew up and got professional, married up, bought two different houses already. Now you want me to move in the same circles with you, I suppose. Well.” She sipped as he played with her silver lighter, flipping the top open and closed, then made the flame flare. “Stop, it’s repetitive and annoying. Anyway, I’m not saying it’s bad for you and Marcy to move on–I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished, you know that–but just not so good for me. I guess.”

He put down the lighter, held up his hands in surrender. “I’m not going to keep at you. You know you’re welcome. Marcy and I like the idea of you with us but since you keep telling me to back off and let it be…well, you win.” He gulped down his tea and checked his phone for the time. “Anything you need me to get or do before I head out?”

His mother paused, looked him over with hooded eyes still so blue– then beyond him as if trying to conjure an idea. She picked up the teacups on their delicate saucers, the got up and set to work at the counter. “Can’t think of one thing. Go on home. I have business to take care of, people to call. I happen to have a picture to finish painting tonight, a watercolor of my violets.”

“Good, you’re painting again.”

It was usually flowers she couldn’t plant there; she had a keen sense of aesthetics. He put on his jacket and waited as she puttered in the kitchen, rinsing off this, wiping that. She had energy, good sight and hearing; she was sharp and strong minded. But she was lonely ever since Teddy left her nine years ago, even if she finally admitted he was a beast at times. “But he was the common beast I knew, and not always mad,” she’d said and then looked away.

He’d sent her a postcard of a turquoise ocean, palm trees on glinting sand all the way from Mexico and with an apology. He’d always said he’d do it; she’d always said she would not so he had to go. She wasn’t sorry she stuck to it. And so that was that.

It was a relief when it was finally over. The yelling, his terrible insults, the darkly sad times and in-between times after which the man would be happy-go-lucky for awhile. It had been exhausting and hard work for his mother and him to manage it all. He had wished for her something so much better, no, something miraculous when he reluctantly went off to college and then, happily, law school. Now he could help her at last, and she refused. She would not budge. Like someone who had made a nest where there were few spots left (at least on her small income), she was set.

“I’m off, Ma. Sunday for dinner with us, right?”

“If I am not otherwise engaged, I’ll call you Saturday to RSVP.” She put her arms about him lightly and he gave her a soft squeeze. She hoped it might be veal Parmesan.

Once downstairs and outdoors he stood at his car and found her smiling, hand in the air. She always waved, she had been waving at him from windows all his life. Except when she worked at the neighborhood paper several years. He was a sassy teenager then but he’d discovered she wrote an informative city gardening column. She always made something beautiful of the pinched spaces behind their flats. Now she didn’t have a garden, she had two African violets and a few potted plants brightening up those shabby four rooms. He longed to see her help Marcy work up a boisterous jungle of beauty at their new place. To place fresh flowers on their table between glimmering candles.

She held herself with cold hands and long arms as he disappeared, then took her seat by the middle window. Squinting into the duskiness across the way, she picked up the cordless phone and punched in numbers, then watched until she saw a lumbering figure arrive at the opposing window. The big man picked up his receiver and turned to look at her, settling into his easy chair. She was so tiny over there she almost faded into shadow. He saw the glowing tip of her cigarette so lit one for himself.

“Well, did he convince you to leave yet?”

“No, but it is getting harder for me to refuse and easier for him to persuade me. Though tonight he gave up rather fast.”

“Well, I know, you’d have all the amenities, right? People to look after things.”

“I don’t know if it’s all that. Maybe great home-cooked meals? The possibilities of a garden? Though what I could do I’m not even certain–my knees aren’t what they used to be, Floyd. I deny reality, at times, pretending I’m nowhere close to the end.”

This required no comment; they both had left behind more years than they would gain.

“The odd thing is, today I half-wanted to give in.”

“Let that thought cool a bit, please.” He took a drag and exhaled and she did, too. “I’d miss you like all get out.”

“I’m not that much company over here. But we do have good chats. We need more of interest in our lives than a daily phone call.”

“You’re my one true friend these days, even if I can’t visit you in the flesh.”

She pictured an actual meeting and felt they were better off this way, sweet as he was. “We’re dying off, for one thing. And then it’s hard to meet people that you actually like and that will stay put.”

“You mean, like us.”

“Guess so, Floyd. We are two stuck people.”

But as they talked, she imagined being at her son’s, not conversing with someone across an alley, and it didn’t seem so terrible a thing to leave decades long grime and cranky appliances, the snuffling, scratching creatures of the night and sketchy characters even if fascinating that inhabited her crumbling downtown world. That chill she sometimes felt even when it was heating up fine outdoors. Nights like long circlets of licorice no longer even palatable. Floyd was sweet, a practiced conversationalist who was once a cartoonist. He was quirky, a plus, but he was so fat and severely diabetic it scared her to think he’d soon go next.

Her son and Marcy–who ran a small import business on Fifth and Tallwood–were healthy, of course, kinder and smarter. At least in the way she understood. They just cared about her best. She had to let that sink in, face all of it as fact. They were family of a commendable sort, she admitted it. And her stubborn loneliness fell under a specific category: true home, gone missing. She guessed that meant love.

Maybe when he came by next she’d have boxes and bags packed, the forbearing violets and his cap gun and all. Much would need to be let go but how much did she care about the material world? Little to none. She stubbed out her cigarette and  shooed away the noxious curls of smoke.

She finally said goodnight to Floyd who stated he’d see her in his dreams, unlikely if she was honest and she was sorry he was more alone than she, and wondered if it might be her job to be there for him. But no, not actually so and it was like a smear of sadness to think it. Then she picked up her almost full pack of menthols, opened the trash can and emptied the pack, crumpled the package to toss in. She watched it all mingle with teabags, burned fried egg, stained junk mail and several stale macaroons she had shared with no one, so had forgotten to entirely enjoy each one. The lid banged down. Sunday she’d be as ready as any day to go forth into unknown territory, so time to get on with it.

Wednesday’s Fiction: Life, Amplified

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It was not that she was the most attentive housekeeper but, still, the accumulated dust clinging to spans of webs shocked her. Underneath the bed was not the first place Meredith attended during a once monthly dusting and vacuuming. If that. In fact, she couldn’t even recall when last she flogged the dust bunnies under her queen-sized bed. She shimmied on her belly, retreating from the noxious view, then looked again. There were things under there she couldn’t identify right offhand. It was a shadowy, narrow passage where things disappeared and possibly changed form without her barest knowledge. Truth was, she recoiled from this spot and what had possessed her was only a night-time ghost, a thing of no import, anymore.

She had been looking for a box of photos, pictures the sort examined every few years but not deemed ready for the garbage. They held pictures of a brief marital experience and before that, herself in youthful moments ranging from boring to absurd. And some from university, the fun,  the madness and hard labors.

It had been awhile since she allowed any reminiscence but the night before she had dreamed. Not the usual ones of dilapidated houses with secret rooms or journeys that led somewhere familiar and with a dead-end. She had dreamed of Trevor. And that was dangerous–and had led to pilfering dust heaps for a few old photos in a moment when she forgot herself.  Now she sat on the floor, back against bed frame, and blew her nose. Dust allergy was not a benign one to have in this case.

Trevor Frank was a cellist from university days. Trevor was in fact first chair cellist of their university symphony, and so attractive that Meredith had refused to look at him a second time from her concertmistress’ chair. She had no patience with faulty dalliances, and he had a plague of females trotting after him. Of course, he’d acted as if he couldn’t be bothered even as he appeared to woo half of them–from what she had heard. She was much too busy practicing her violin and studying music theory and composition, performing in a trio plus a chamber music group that required occasional travel.

And then there was music for fun and small profit. Traditional bluegrass, Old Thyme music at a couple of city bars once a week, or a farmers market or crafts fair. A few music festivals for enthusiastic crowds. This was when she woke up and just gave herself over. Not that she wasn’t a serious classical musician, she was just not a thoroughly sincere one when it came right down to it. She had admitted that to herself during second year and began to play bluegrass more. Everyone could see it, that she felt it to her core. Of course, she would. She was taught by experts, her father and aunt. She was not studying that music but classical and it was a hard thing to determine which mattered most. As if that was even possible; they mattered differently.

But all those thrills and conflict came well before the accident. Trevor and symphony and fiddling and degrees–another lifetime. Meredith pushed herself up from the floor and grabbed her cane from the bed and listed to one side, then righted herself and walked away from the dust and the past. She should never have looked underneath the bed, as now she wanted to pull things out. The pictures, the memories. And maybe, just maybe, even her fiddle. She realized again that they all lurked beneath her restless sleeping body, hidden and cocooned due to neglect and time.

Meredith had three violin students in the afternoon, then an errand or two, and after that she had her exercise with the stretchy bands and free weights as she watched the news. But a door had been opened in her consciousness, and it was would not close without a struggle–and then would stay shut with only a much heavier bolt and greater locks. As night spread its lustrous dark upon her townhouse, Meredith fell against her pillow and prayed for a dreamless sleep. But it was not to be.

The definitive night. Blackness and whiteness swirling and stupefying noises, crushing pain.

It wasn’t long after Meredith decided to get her Masters in Music Education while playing bluegrass more. Her band, River’s Gate, had gotten more gigs. The onslaught of snow thickened to a veil of white after they’d played in Cincinnati, Ohio, then set out in flurries for Ann Arbor. Roads were predictably slick, snowfall soon turned into a blizzard but they couldn’t easily stop or turn back. They inched their way home. A few vehicles had stopped along roadside, engines running to keep heat going as they waited. Tom had suggested the same but Jeremy, who was driving, had insisted they keep on as best they could. Char agreed; it would soon close in on midnight and they were all tired and she was hungry.

The awful accordioned sounds-even in a blanket of snow- and power of the multiple collisions were so sudden that they barely cried out in horror. A pile up of nine cars and they were in the middle. Tom and Jeremy and Helene: badly bruised and shaken to the core. Sitting in the passenger seat, Meredith’s ankle and femur were fractured and right shoulder was dislocated; the little finger on her left hand was broken. Her forehead sustained a three-inch gash from which blood flowed down into her eyes as she blacked out.

Trevor, the man she’d determined not to love but did, anyway, arrived the next morning to her hospital room, took one unnerved look and fainted. She saw him crumple through the gauzy blur of pain and drugs. In three more months while Meredith was working on healing and trying not to think about packing it all in and dying, he was on tour with the Divergent Quartet, and did not return to her.

Meredith sat bolt upright in bed and covered her ears as if the sirens were still wailing. Her chest vibrated painfully with the pounding of her heart, her forehead and neck were wreathed in sweat. When she lay down again she stared at her hands, held them up to her face, then threw back the curtain and searched the starless sky.

But what was that other sound? That half-mournful tune that betrayed a broader human happiness? Who was the someone playing out there, perhaps standing on a corner playing that violin, alone with the music in deep of night? She recognized it, that song, that fiddler from somewhere. The expansive night was alive with it, pulsed so sweetly with it. She collapsed on the bed, let her breathing slow, the music playing on. She nearly wanted to go out and find it.

It was as if her life had been turned back on and the volume was set to “loud” and she knew the entire song of it by heart. Every phrase and pause that counted. Every high and low note. And it was a redemption.

******

The respiration mask was in place over nose and mouth, and Meredith had taken her allergy medicine. The cleaning and sorting–it was something that finally had to be done, she’d concluded. When she’d called Helene and explained how she felt, there was no turning back. Helene had known her eight years. She was still her closet friend, despite going forward with her bluegrass career, travelling for weeks at a time. Despite a lingering guilt over not having been badly hurt like dear Meredith. Over still having what mattered most to her while Meredith did not.

“You know what you’ll find, don’t deny it. I think taking you to the symphony concert was a good idea last month. You have had no peace, which is ultimately a good thing. Music has visited you more; it’s calling to you.” Helene smiled and knew it was felt over the phone.

“Don’t be so emotional, it wasn’t that. I teach, I listen to my CDs often and radio, I go out to the brew pubs to hear live music, I attend concerts here and there. I play some by myself. It was just those dreams… Trevor. And then the other.”

“What was he doing in the dream, by the way? You never explained it.”

“I’ve been trying to forget it. Just playing. I couldn’t hear him, of course–but I could remember his gorgeous tone. A faint echo of sound… He  glanced at me, those eyes. Then got up and walked off stage, his cello in hand.”

“Maybe he was saying good-bye, vacating your life for good. You know you need to do it. And address the rest, right?”

Meredith sucked on the end of her mechanical pencil. She’d been making a list of pros and cons for dragging out any and all treasures and junk from under the bed. Trevor’s pictures were one part. Face it and forget. Isn’t that what people did with phobias they wanted to get over? So maybe her looking at their last beautiful, happy pictures–that brief year and a half together–and then, say, a ritual burning? But what of the rest that awaited?

“Anyway!” Helene cleared her throat loudly, “I think getting out the boxes of music and violins and dusting it all off  is the most crucial part. It’s the first time in all these years you’ve even mentioned this. Trevor is one thing–a man like that…it was hard to move on, but you did it. The dream was just that, don’t you imagine? A reminder perhaps, of many things past. And I still remember our terrible night, the accident, too, you know that. And the aftermath. But your losing so much music?…I mean, Meri.”

Meredith held her breath. Don’t say it, don’t say another word, she silently pleaded. “So, do you want to come over when I decide to get under there and finish things off? But I don’t need counseling every step of the way. Give me some strength, okay? And just hang out with me.”

“I’m all about change and progress, girl, just say when.” She was elated that it had finally come to pass. “Maybe afterwards we’ll go to Burt’s Brews and Beef to celebrate.”

But Meredith didn’t think she would be in any mood for that. She’d rather douse her feelings with a hot bath and murder mystery after Helene went on her way. Or a whole bottle of chardonnay.

Now they stood in the golden light of the room, windows flung open to encourage the fleeing dust to find its way out. Helene wielded a long vacuum attachment that would more easily suck up dirt, miscellaneous debris and potential spiders. They had pushed the mattress and bed springs off the frame to allow easy access. Meredith let her eyes roam over the lightly fuzzy-draped boxes of papers and books, the plastic containers of sweaters and some of the photographs. And at the head of the bed frame, right below the area her head rested on pillows night after night,  were the two violin cases covered in a film she could trace her name in.

Helen turned on the vacuum and maneuvered the attachment into the stronghold of her past, the mustiness that swallowed it up. Meredith started on the wiping down and sorting.

The boxes were much easier than she imagined. Some contents she kept intact after cleaning each storage container with cleaning rags. The few photos she’d printed of Trevor and her were tossed after only brief looks; it was far more painless than she’d thought possible. She felt a wisp of sadness –his beauty, such gifts–and then a sore acceptance. He had been her first true love, maybe her last but it was long ago. There was no more bleeding to staunch, she realized.

It was the violins.

She did not even wnt to touch them until Helene reached for one.

“I’ll get it– please!” Meredith said.

She pulled it out, unlatched the case clasps, biting her lips tightly closed, her chin trembling. As she opened the lid, there it was, the instrument that was to take her far into a classical music world, toward a career that might have sparked greater accolades and excellent remuneration. Like it did Trevor and others. It gleamed but dully in late afternoon sunlight as she held it up and they looked it over together. The strings were loosened; one was unwound entirely. She saw that the bridge was a bit askew and a small crack was evident at the neck. The bow was a mess, the horsehair broken and flapping as she held it aloft. No hands upon the fine wood, no bow on taut strings–it all led to disrepair. It tugged at her, made her sad, this instrument, but she put it back in place as she heard Helene exclaim it could be refurbished; it was in fairly decent shape. Then she got the other violin case and put it on her lap.

“Go on, Meri, open it up, it’s okay,” Helene said gently, a hand on her friend’s forearm. She turned off the vacuum, sat down beside her.

“I can’t.”

“You can. Good things are in there.”

“Terrible losses are in there. Family legacy. My failed love life. An absence of hope.”

“You’ve done more with music than some would expect. But you can likely have more.”

“More what? Self-loathing?”

Helene drew a little away from her. Waited. Maybe it had been wrong of her to come. She knew it would be rough but she wanted her friend to find a glimmer of happiness in there, too. And it was possible, the finding and doing something with it.

Meredith was taken aback, too, but who was this friend of hers to say anything–who thrived where she, Meredith, had nothing? Who had every single day what she had once loved so much she had had to let it go? To survive better. What might she have done instead with a damaged shoulder that never felt quite right and a weak, crooked finger? All that time away from her instrument. And a faulty leg that made her look like incapacitated at so young an age. She had tried to not bemoan her fate. There were worse things than the life she led now. Her deepest thoughts and feelings had been kept to herself most of the time. One did what one had to do.

Even Helene did not know the truth of it. How she ached some days when her students played, their skills increasing each week, their determination and talent emboldened by progress, their pride and  pleasure growing as they reached one more hurdle and cleared it. They had won awards often; she had won recognition, too. And yet as she had closed her front door or walked off stages after recitals and competitions for her students, there remained a nagging sense of defeat. Not triumph. For Meredith, the real music had long ago stopped. And her own (successful musician) aunt had said impatiently after some years passed, “Why not simply accept it? Get on with your life, do what good you can with the remainder and the music!”

Meredith clutched the third generation fiddle case to her lap. How sweet it had become from all that singing it had done, and now how silent. She had been surprised no one demanded it be given back.

“Please,” Helene said, an arm wrapping around her thin shoulders. Holding her in place.

So she just did it. Opened her  instrument’s case, blew off vagrant residue, held it up to golden light. It did not look too bad. In fact, it seemed okay except for needing new strings. And a re-haired bow. The mask was removed from her face and she stood up with Helene’s help, abandoning the cane.  She placed it under her chin, held it there with her strong left hand and felt it snug up right above her collarbone. Her faulty shoulder did not complain. She closed her eyes as Helene got the bow and put it in her right hand, her corked little finger clasping itself along with the rest to the bow’s end part, the frog. Broken horsehair strands dangled forlornly but she drew it across the limp strings anyway.

“How does it feel now?”

Meredith smiled and looked at her friend, clutching the violin to her chin. “Not too bad. familiar and almost comfy.”

“We’ll fix it all,” she said, beaming at her, “and then you can begin to play again.”  Helene was ready for resistance, tears, even wounding words exchanged but she was ready to hold fast.

“Alright, then. Let’s get it done. I’m ready to try to get it back.”

Helene clapped her hands and laughed.

Later, when she was ready to start, Meredith wondered about it all. After trying weeks and months of practice and discouragement and then more slivers of hope shining inside her, she mused over everything. Success required making  many adjustments, harder work. Swallowing pride. But she was not often daunted. Lingering fears seeped away, day by day. Hands, mind and soul managed to take over.

Still, even after her first tentative sharing with Helene and then others, playing those Appalachian and old Irish, Scottish and English tunes that sounded good or nearly good, after all– she still didn’t know quite what had turned the tide. Was it Trevor bidding her farewell in the dream? Was it her students’ joy even as she was missing her own? Was it nightmares of the accident again, how she saw she’d lost some but not all of what was needed to seek again her truest calling? Or maybe it was Helene who helped her face it and work to get it back.

Or it was an unknown fiddler offering fine music to the night’s deep attention, and to her, the only one able to hear its plaintive call.

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.