What Hud Did

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                               (Photo by Alessandro Imbriaco)

When Hudson Quinlan left town in late September, Jenisse was given use of part of his warehouse. It held his party store merchandise and was 8,000 square feet, not so big for a warehouse but not small, either. Hud owned this property outright. She suspected he’d used it for other business dealings, but she preferred to not think about it. He was her brother, eight years older. His reputation wasn’t one hundred percent stellar. He was a man of many skills and talents; she knew only a few. She didn’t think they were close but they had been as kids and she missed him more than she’d admit.

In the voice mail Hud indicated he’d be back eventually but in the meantime she could use it if she wanted. There was a key left in her glove box; he’d gotten in and out of her aged Pontiac without leaving a scratch.

Jenisse gave notice at her apartment building and moved into the westernmost quarter of the building. She’d been saving for months to find studio space she could rent to work on her painting. If Hud had said he’d be back in a couple months, she wouldn’t have bothered but “eventually” meant as long as a year. However long he wanted or needed to be gone. It wasn’t uncommon that he took off for parts unknown, sending an occasional postcard to her or their parents with alluring scenes of beaches, mountains, cities far away. They weren’t clear if it was business (he owned a big party supply store, a parking lot and, they thought, more) or pleasure, but Jennise knew it was both, ultimately. He attracted lively people and events without trying, and that meant good times and bad. Her brother trusted Jenisse enough to say his life was going well or less than well (never poorly, according to him), and held opportunities or was momentarily stalled. This time he’d said he needed inspiration so she assumed it was important. She might never know what. He didn’t talk shop around family.

Everybody said she was foolish. Hud was a man with some power and more money but his connections were less than commendable. They worried about her being alone. There could be thieves and rodents; Hud’s warehouse workers would come and go five days a week. She was told the industrial district was dirty, gritty, and frequented by petty criminals. Jenisse had visited the spot with Hud a couple times and over a few years the area’s commercial properties became valuable and condos started to go up nearby. Hud had made a savvy investment.

Her parents, unsurprisingly, came knocking on her door after she’d relayed her news. They loved Hud from arm’s length.

Her dad stormed in. “Why are you doing this? We could help you find studio space. You know Hudson and his associates! You don’t know who might show up. My vote: stay here!”

Her mother was out of breath from trying to keep up with him. “Jen. Really. No good. Will come of this. Stay put. You’ll regret this. So will we. Just think!”

Her parents, dancing beams of sunshine. Why couldn’t they give Hud a chance–and her more credit? They had two smart kids.

Jennise stood with arms crossed over her chest. “I’m half-packed already, as you can see. He’d never do this if he didn’t think I’d be fine there. He knew I’ve been scraping together the savings to get a studio space set up. I am going to work on my painting.”

“He’d have done better to just give you money! Now I have to worry about both of you?” He flexed his right hand as though he was getting ready for fight but it was old-fashioned parental nerves.

“Sorry, but I’ve been handed an opportunity I can’t turn down. I’ll invite you over for pizza sometime.”

So she moved. During the day Jennise worked at the art store, which gave her a break on art supplies. It was nothing she’d wanted to stick with but somehow she had been there for three years. She liked being with other artists, walking up and down the rows of paper, ink, paint, and a hundred other common and exotic tools of visual artistry. But it could get dull on slow days.

At night, though. Oh, at night, it was a far different story.

Jenisse had never had the right circumstances to support her creative vision. She’d always wanted to do big work, paintings six feet tall and wide. Maybe panels of paintings. Or constructed paintings, three dimensional. So she got busy making things happen that she’d only dreamed. Between seven and ten or eleven o’clock she painted. Some nights it was after midnight before the weight of sleepiness rolled over her.  She’d turn on Arvo Part or Bill Evans or Gregorian chant–whatever suited her–and it ballooned in the space, adding to her energy, encouraging new calmness. Never had she felt so free of distraction, even when she heard forklifts and men shouting if they worked overtime. At night she ignored random noises and street people with their carts. But Jenisse wasn’t much bothered even when she got cold due to the space heaters barely keeping the chill at bay. Or hungry, since she often forgot to eat as she dabbed and layered, smoothed the colorful textures on each canvas that she had framed and stretched herself. Afterwards, a hot shower and bed, drifting off to the muted cacophony of night’s secret doings. She began to feel at home.

Her parents remained shocked, so they came over with a casserole or took her out to the new Thai place across the street. Her mother had the mistaken assumption that Jenisse needed her help to decorate. Two more lamps for the mammoth living area. A picture and scented candle for the rudimentary bathroom Hud had put in when he set aside an office space. For the cruder kitchen with its tiny stove, microwave and mini-frig and small sink, she brought rooster-adorned tea towels and a basket full of fruit. Jessine was grateful for the fruit.

If there were rats–her only real fear–they didn’t bother her. The workers left her alone. The foreman, whom she had met and was memorable for smooth skin and crooked nose, knocked on her door one morning.

“Doing alright by yourself?” He ground out a cigarette on the cement floor, then picked it up and thoughtfully tossed it outside. “Hud says to keep an eye on you.”

“Okay, all is well. Thanks. Have you heard from him?” She didn’t want to say she wondered where he was this time.

“Naw, you know he’ll show up as needed.” He turned to leave then swiveled around. “Let me know if you need anything.”

So Hud had made sure of her safety, just as she’d thought. She worked even longer, easier hours, her body moving from paint to canvas to paint with a blood-deep rhythm, the music on her stereo a chorus of encouragement.

By December, Jenisse had nine paintings lined up against the cinderblock wall, most of them as big as she had hoped, a few smaller and oddly delicate. She had loosened up; her landscapes had morphed into undulating swaths of color and motion. The small ones were of watery iamges. It had been taxing to develop a quality of light that had long been elusive but she saw it was beginning to emerge, paint illumined from within, rich hues vibrating. She took photos for her portfolio and posted them on her website, hopeful.

A couple co-workers she enjoyed were spontaneously invited over to see them. They stood with hands to chins.

“Gorgeous,” the guy said. “Really good stuff.”

“I didn’t know you did all this.” The woman looked around at the huge space. “I didn’t know you had all this!”

It was then, three weeks before Christmas, that Jenisse got the idea for a public showing of her work along with the other two. They would put a sign outside, post a few ads in weeklies, announce it at the store  and online, and see if anyone came. A holiday art sale might bring in some appreciative persons–and they could mention the store to stir up interest in business.

Jenisse had worn her short fake fur coat for warmth with good black slacks and silvery sweater. She stationed herself with the others at the entrance. She’d cleaned up the area and set the paintings against the walls. Coffee carafes and cookies were at the ready. The lighting was great thanks to the foreman. Her parents were studying their work along with a few curious souls, a couple on their way to the next thing down the street. Some of the store’s staff were chatting amiably.

It was seven-thirty, a half hour into the show. Nothing had sold. The street was dead. Disappointment bubbled up even as she told herself it didn’t really matter, they made art for love, after all.

At seven-forty she could hear a low murmur with a few laughs, and then she saw them come down the street, some in twos and threes, some in larger groups. They were coming to the warehouse in elegant dresses and suits, high heels clicking on the street. To their little painting show. As the first woman passed through the door she smiled, tossing a mane of ebony back from her burnished face, then leaned in to Jenisse.

“Hud said this is just the beginning for you, darling, so let us in to see!”

Then she handed Jenisse a postcard with a picture of the lustrous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Jenisse flipped it over to read. The name he called her was the one only he could use when they were kids.

“Merry Christmas, sister/artist Nissey! Get ready for a fabulous New Year! Later/love/Hud.”

(Photo prompt supplied by Patricia McNair.)

So Many

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                               (Viet Nam Memorial/soldier)

So many names.

I could talk about being a youth and young adult during the sixties and seventies and the myriad events I witnessed, the upheavals that altered this society’s institutions of many kinds. Or the ways family was redefined and individuals found community in new ways. There were pioneering and also risky ideological movements; women’s rights made progress and many men came to know themselves differently, as well. The assassination of JFK alone would have ben enough to rock our young worlds. It was a time of change that made an impact we would feel decades later.

I could tell you my little story. But this attempt at saying something that matters is about theirs, almost all of which I barely know. This essay is not “for” or “against” anything, but simply in remembrance of those who have gone before us due to being soldiers. They have had expectations and thoughts regarding events about which I have understood less than I should.

But I can at least say that back then there was Viet Nam first and last in our lives. It permeated the news, our consciousness, our fears, questioning. Television left less and less to the imagination and the images followed us into sleep. Front pages held news daily that stopped us in our ordinary lives. We had our own ways with the war: enlisted or were drafted, debated, protested, marched, prayed for peace, tried to ignore it, worried, waited it out a very, very long while.

So when I see this picture my breath leaves me and it sears on the way out, aches upon its return. I stood at that memorial, that wall, many years later, touched the names chiseled in the smooth, obdurate surface. I watched the soldiers and families, felt my face burn and eyes fill, heart contract. But I have never been a soldier. Standing there was so private, yet so public as all who were present shared grief and memories together at the wall.

So many.

But not all who left passed on.

My brother came back from the Viet Nam War a changed spirit, a different kind of man altogether, and for me a brother I feared lost. I was confused. I could not touch him so far away was he from us. His easy laughter had long left and the rooms were emptier for it. I was not a child but it sorrowed me in a way that nothing and no one could explain away. I did not find the brother from before but he did return to us in body, and slowly, he redesigned his life. He lived each day as he best determined it. He unfroze over time but the thoughts were kept to himself; pain, no doubt bitter, never named. Yet somewhere his changed destiny allowed him to unearth indelible beauty and love, which he offered again. Or it found him, like an angel settling in. One way he may have been renewed was through photography, a way of seeing and translating life even when he was a soldier. I have seen his pictures of the women and children, men in doorways, streets full of the still-living, the country and city landscapes so haunting to me. Perhaps they helped him salvage the good that survived. I don’t know. He stepped forward and continued on.

I’ve rediscovered him again since becoming an adult. I’ve become less innocent but more attentive, too. I study his photographs past and current and think they hold a kind of vivid austerity, a lean and elegant power that comes from burning. A quietude. Something sacred and also forlorn co-mingles in light and shadows. He has travelled around the world many times and brings back stories for my eye and spirit. I can wander with him. For all that, I am more than thankful. And he shares kindnesses in more ways than can be noted here.

Yet as he himself would likely note: too many gone. I once walked through the Arlington National Cemetery. The endless white, simple crosses with stringent light streaming through trees…that unavoidable silence, yet a silence potent and heavy. It hollowed out a place in me from which a tidal wave of weeping issued as I walked on and on.

I feel it again today. There is so much more to the story we see in the photo above. Tales that survivors hold secret. Things some release in increments that nonetheless feel vast. And it still haunts and covers us with a cloak of pain. Prayers like songs that never end: they fall like drops of blood to earth yet also take flight. To the Universe. To God, who waits for us to remember our compassion, seeks to heal without our ever knowing all the answers. Or the right questions, I sometimes think.

So many separate lives, sacred to the whole of this, our humanity. That is what I think of when I see my artist daughter’s mammoth handmade quilt, the fabrics into which she sewed and counted porcelain “bones” to represent each soldier who died in Iraq. “In memoriam” was the engine of her industry and moved her heart. Her lap was heavy with yards of fabric sheltering clay pieces, then folded on the floor. She sat in a rocking chair exposing, stitching, recreating, remembering the losses. And the spirit of her work was unleashed. She has shown it in art galleries where few of us may fathom lives lost, to forces we poorly decipher. But the essence of those gone is evident.

How many wars this world has counted and still counts. Soldiers who have taken their places. Our country alone: those going, too often not returning. So many lives. I bow my head. Tears do not, cannot speak enough- cannot touch enough- cannot change this world enough. But that doesn’t keep me from hoping and praying, still. It doesn’t put out the light. But we cannot forget who and what has been, and who still carries on.

large_fit_Falk_recalledquilt_0073_1_1000                                “Recall(ed) Quilt” by  Naomi J. Falk

*Please view more on this and other works at: http://naomijfalk.com/media/2095

*Note: Vietnam Memorial photo is courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog.

Priscilla at Loose Ends

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(Photo: “Priscilla” Joseph Szabo, 1969)

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and I’m watching my friends  surf a last time in the season when this kid comes up and grabs the cigarette out of my hand.

“Are you crazy? Give it back–you’re about the age of my niece and she’s only ten!” 

But she inhales nice and easy like she’s a pro. I’m not sure what to make of it. I stand up and make a grab for it but she steps back. I take another tact.

“Who do you think you are? No one grabs a smoke out of a stranger’s hand. It’s rude. For you, also illegal.”

She smiles, and the thing is, it’s a charming smile despite the cigarette dangling between her small white teeth. It fits snug against the space between the two in front. I’m disgusted by her smoking but I wave her closer. She pulls up her pants and puts her hands on skinny hips.

“Okay. What’s your name?”

She blows out a thin stream and watches it slink between us as though it is a standard greeting from a little monster. Because I think that’s what she may be or at least tries to be.

“Priscilla.” She lifts her chin a notch and peers down at me. A smaller smile starts and stops.

The sound of her voice is smarmy, like she’s trying to impress me with her kid wondrousness. I would’ve thought she’d had a nickname to offer, but how do you nicely shorten a name like that?

“Well, Miss Pris, I’m Constance, Connie if you’re a friend of mine which you’re not. What are you doing out here, anyway? Where’s your mom or sister?”

Priscilla makes herself at home a few feet away from me, sits and smokes, her hair flying in the cooling breeze. She holds it between her thumb and index finger, handing it back to me. I examine it, take a short drag, and smash it into the sand.

“Well?”

She shrugs, shoulders held close to her ears for a few seconds, lips puckering. When they come down, she looks away. “Don’t have one or the other. I live-” she opens her arms and indicates the beach and surrounding park”-just here.”

I guffawed. “No, you don’t. You’re too clean for that. You’ve got shiny hair and nice clothes and a look in your eye that tells me you’re up to something.”

Priscilla takes off her red tennis shoes and digs up the sand with tanned feet, making the sand spray at me. It’s not silky sand like you’d want to lay on in a bikini. It’s grainy, cool and none too clean. She narrows her eyes at me.

“What are you doing here? Looking for a boy? Trying to be cool  with your Frye boots when it’s only sixty degrees out?”

I have an impulse to swat her like I would my niece but of course that can’t happen. “No, fool, I’m with my friends. They’re surfing out there. ” I point. “Don’t change the subject. Do you live around the neighborhood?”

She turns and gazes at the ocean so long I about give up and take off.

“I used to. In that big house at the end of the road.”

She pointed at a nearby two-story grey house with black shutters. It was large enough for two families, at least. There was a covered veranda that looked empty and a very long dock where a boat, a small yacht, really, was tied up.

“Hmmm, nice.”

“Yep,” she asserted and turned her attention to me again. “But Father lost all our money in a bad business deal and mother, well, she took off with her best friend, went to Hawaii, and never returned. So now father lives in a crummy little apartment. I have this narrow, cramped bedroom with a day bed, that’s what he calls it, which means it isn’t really a bed, at all. He works at a car place, you know, where they sell used cars.”

I sink down beside her, pull a last cigarette from the crumpled pack, and shake my head when she tries to reach for it. I light it. “So, what are you doing here alone?”

“My father gets home late so I come down here sometimes. I have this dream that I will find my mother.” She scrunches up her face and rubs her eyes, sniffs a little, the trains her big brown eyes on me. “I’m twelve, anyway.”

I get an odd sensation. The girl’s tone is dramatic, strange, too old for her age but I feel her sadness, too, so maybe her parents did have bad times. “I’m sorry. But you can’t just wander around here all afternoon. It’s not safe, Priscilla.”

“Oh, I’m fine. I know the area. The apartment is just a bus ride away. I have my crappy old cell phone.” She pats her pants pocket for reassurance.

I can see my friends coming in. They’ll wonder why this kid is hanging out and I have to be honest, though I’m worried for her, I want her to get lost. I have plans. I don’t want to feel responsible for a smart-alecky waif who steals cigarettes and who knows what else.

“Good,” I say, “because I have to meet up with my friends. We’re going to eat, then have a bonfire later.”

She looks at me imploringly.

“No, you can’t stay. Do you need money?”

“No, I’m good.” She shakes her head, then walks away.

I watch her as she ambles down the beach. She stops a couple times and looks back, then stops by a man in a straw hat, hands in her back pockets, her stance like a tough kid’s, which she sort of is. I’m about to turn away when I hear her laugh. She sits down by him. Alarm runs through me.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking.”

I turn to see who’s talking to me. A guy, medium tall, tan, scruffy and pleasant-smelling. Older than me. He looks like a runner, all trim in tank top and shorts, low-cut socks and sneakers.

“She stole my smoke this morning, too. She’s a brat, really, but what can you do? I can’t break her of her bad behaviors and dad is very busy these days. Pris is too smart, funny, and a little rougher since  mom left.” He looks down the beach and nods. “Looks like dad interrupted her stroll.”

I follow his gaze to Priscilla and the man. “Ah. Your dad. You live over there?” I point at the grey house.

“Yeah. I’m George. Come by later and join our barbecue. It’ll be a crowd like no other!”

Relief surges within me but I wave him off. He smiles the family’s magnetic grin and starts running. I head down to shore and catch up with my friends. I am sorry and scared for Priscilla but also stunned. That’s the only time I plan on being conned by a ten year old. But I worry it won’t be the last time she snags cigarettes or chats with strangers. I wonder if my friends want to stop by a barbeque tonight.

The Meeting

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It was later than she planned on waiting, but still she walked the grounds and watched the periphery of the garden. Lena was in the thick of it, both the grounds themselves and history. She languished in the former more easily. This place was her solace, being out-of-doors and finding small beauties, even a homely leaf resting on the surface of a pond. The great oaks were vibrant beings, their branches entreating sky and earth.

The estate had been left to her a year ago, but she only came on week-ends when the flat began to pinch her with its abominable smallness. The city preferred she stay there and since she was newly rooted here, it was best. She was welcomed just as a writer at an arts publication. They did not know the rest, who her family was yet. How she dreaded those “yets”.

The light unspooled over the lawn in a wide arc. Shadows drew her with a waft of coolness. She leaned against a tree, rough bark hard against her backbone like a warning. Where was Thaddeus, her brother, generally an opposing force of nature? It was like him to keep her waiting, chose this day when the sun was full of power, nowhere to hide. Of course Lena could go inside but that required three keys and discussion with Randall II, the stooped but demanding caretaker. He would have questions, he always had questions and needs, as well he ought. He had watched over Great-aunt Lidia’s home for forty-two years. Randall knew the manse and gardens better than any one else, anymore. It was up to Lena to learn more, she agreed. It was all the sorting and tending that had deterred her from a full commitment. Yet if it used up her time and stripped her peace what was the point of this ecstasy she felt with one sweeping gaze? Paradise is what it was. Safety. She wished Lidia had stayed a little longer, told her more about the family’s legacy and lies.

It was not good that Thad had called, demanding she meet him. He would find her on the lawn, near the great tree, where the bench awaited, as was their usual spot. When had Lena last spoken with him? Four months ago, six? He was always abroad, meeting with someone or other from the diamond industry, talking business and making deals, checking interests. Basking on boats with lanky bronzed women who knew little of the value of a coin or the charity they reaped so carelessly from her brother. Thad had a lukewarm interest in Lena’s work. He had once berated her for asserting her need to make her mark. That had been done for her by the family, he informed her levelly; all she had to do was get involved in the business, do her duty. She had left her place on the board two years ago. Instead she strove to become a freelance journalist though making, as he pointed out, an uneven income. What did that matter, she laughed. It wasn’t ever money; it was curiosity and even a small promise of love that drove her.

Thaddeus never knew what to make of her, nor she, him. Well, he was their father’s son in most regards and that was not bad, only righteously bound to work and inaccessible. She was her mother’s daughter…well, one said so even when one suspected otherwise. And Lena was fearful that Thad might state his suspicions now that she had inherited this place. Proof that she was the daughter of opera singer Helvetia Simonson of San Francisco. Yes, that was the woman she knew about; Great-aunt Lidia had made it a point of pride to clarify details others disregarded or denied.

IMG_2273The shadows lengthened quickly. She checked her timepiece. It was soon dinner hour and she supposed Randall would need to be seen. She saw him enter the back door, impatient with her as she awaited Thad. A good man, a paragon of efficiency, dear Randall II was so-called because Lidia’s parents had employed his father. Lena recalled when she came each summer. He’d welcomed her with a smart bow, a pat on her head, then let her go as he gathered her things. The river shone past the grounds like a teal ribbon; she would run there first. Then the pathways that wound around the acreage, the ponds and stream, flowers swaying toward her. She was happy here. It had saved her, this freedom protected by orderliness.

Lena saw Thad round the corner of the house. He was striding toward her, and in his hands was a flat leather envelope that she knew carried more information than she wanted to know. She backed into the trees and hid. The lawn was striped with shadows; it separated them still. A sharp intake of breath as Thad stopped not fifty feet from her and turned a slow circle.

“I know you are there as Randall told me. You need to show yourself. I don’t have time to play games.”

Lena stepped forward as he turned his back. She ran to the path that led down to the riverfront and kept running, her bare feet stung by stones, her legs hindered by her skirts. He was not going to stop her. He must not threaten to take Elderberry House from her. His thirty-seven years seemed ancient to her twenty-four and she felt his power as she had her father’s: worldly, driven, final.

But it was too late. Thad cut her off and she stumbled into his outstretched arms, fell upon his tweedy jacket. The angry tears escaped before she could stop them but as she began to protest he held her close.

“It’s alright, Lena! I know! You can stop hiding now. Your mother wrote us and she is coming to visit us. Helvetia Simonson, who would have thought her? Amazing voice! I suspected for years, then father let something slip when we met in Switzerland, the miserable….well, he is our father despite his failings….We must simply move on.”

Lena sat on the ground, pushing from her face the mass of unruly yellow hair, so unlike Thad’s dark brown. He reclined beside her. She could not speak. It had been like a breath held in for her entire life and now all she could do was let it out in jagged, soft sighs. Thad twisted a stem of lady’s slippers and placed it in her hair and she lay her hand on his shoulder. It was a start, perhaps a kinder one. Something she might write about one day.

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