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.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: My Prodigy

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

So she told me and I agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

I took one last look. What had I done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could not.

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

 

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

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To his mother looking down in disbelief.

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

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

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