Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: A Matter of the Blood Oath

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It was a radiant red and gold fall Monday morning when everything got ready to change. Not that Perth would know it from a glance around the quiet house or when crossing Dartmoor Parkway, the traffic thickening and their mother waving from the porch, or the train right on time along Fourth Street. Victoria was ahead of her but not by much.

It would take the day cracking open–didn’t everyone hear it?–at lunch hour. It made her brain hurt, all the crackling and crashing as her mind took in, then recoiled at the scene before her.

Her sister didn’t even glance her way. How could she? Her wide brown eyes were glued to Dominic’s, the new boy’s, the one who sat across from Perth in eighth grade English class. Vic, as she called her at school, ten months younger but in the same grade, had him in drama class. They’d briefly noted him during the first week of the semester. And only because his thick dark hair fell to his shoulders and his bare ankles hung out where his jeans might have covered them. It was otherwise obvious he was out of place, though all new kids were out of place, as they knew. The sisters had moved a lot. (But now all three were “firmly planted,” their mother said, “in very good soil, we will bloom accordingly.” Perth and Victoria hoped with every fiber of their beings she was in this marriage for the long run.)

Perth carried the lunch tray to where she usually sat, between Jana and Elise, across from Vic. The two of them were in heated discussion about who did better in a math pop quiz and why Mr. Mercer was a terrible teacher, so Perth leaned forward and said,

“Hey, Vic.” She craned her neck to see Dominic but he was looking at his cheeseburger before taking a huge bite.

Victoria looked the other way while picking up several pieces of lettuce and tomato and stuffed them in her mouth. She acted embarrassed by that and she licked her fingers, then grabbed a napkin. Dominic was oblivious, attacking the burger, but he lifted a free hand at someone passing by. he had a friend already, that was good.

“Hey Victoria, what’s up, gorgeous?” Perth asked again, hands palm-up in the air. She then speared veggies from her chef salad. Why was was she being ignored?

Dominic’s gaze drifted around Jana, who took off, and landed on her. Vic gave up, flashed a smile as fake as possible at her. Perth gave her a level, cool stare.

“Well, hi,” Vic said, “I’m eating lunch, like you. Like Dom and Elise. What do you want? We have fifteen more minutes to eat. So, if you don’t mind…”

That wasn’t strictly true; they had over a half hour, but if they wanted time to walk around or fix their hair and all or gossip with friends, they had fifteen more left to eat. And they always made good use of their break times. They were together in school as they were usually around home: Perth and Victoria Didrikson, the reigning “Irish twins.”

“Hi Dom, I’m Perth, Vic’s sister, or do you know her as Victoria?” She gestured to her sister. “It makes a difference. Only insiders call her Victoria.”

“Perth, quit already!”

Dom swiped at his greasy mouth and shook his head, dark hair shimmying. “Just Vic, we met a couple weeks ago. Hey, aren’t you in my English class?”

“Yeah, with Miss Marsh, good deal, huh? Mrs. Harner is a cruel one. What are you working on for the essay?”

Vic stood up, tray in hand, salad barely touched. “Excuse me, Dom, you done? Let’s go outside where there’s more air.”

He shot her a grin, grabbed his tray and, to Perth’s shock, just followed.

Perth felt a slow burn make way from face to chest to gut. She listened to Elise jabber on about something, tried to finish lunch. But nothing felt right. Perth had an impulse to go to the nurse’s station and say she was sick. Because all in all, she sort of was. Vic had found a boy when they had absolutely sworn them off for another year. They had a yearly oath, and they each signed it. Then they pricked a finger and let a drop of their blood mark the page right under their names. It was one of a few mysterious ways they did things. It was like that since they had been kids.

******

The first thing everyone wanted to know was why she had such an weird name. Perth was, after all, the capital of Western Australia. Or if you didn’t know it, now you did. Her mother was born there and she’d had a supposedly idyllic childhood. Until her family immigrated to Canada, namely Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Maddy, their mother, had thrived there even more. Although the island was a bit isolated, not nearly as much as it was in Perth (where ocean and outback surrounded that city). She’d loved it so much that she fell in love and got married there. Later, she named her second child for that city.

Neither of the sisters quite recalled the city on the island; they had been two and three. But after Maddy’s divorce they’d lived across Canada several years. And then she met Keith, an American businessman, and that was that. That was five years ago. Now they were in Cincinnati and it could be worse, they guessed. But all through the ups and downs, Perth and Victoria were stuck together, one in mind and action more often than not, even though not in age or appearance. Nothing could have pulled them apart, not really, not even their tendencies for clear territorial space or their differences in musical taste or a constant need of reassurance that they were equally loved by their gorgeous, smart, but at times distracted mother. It had so often been romance that she preferred or so it seemed to them, and they had vowed to avoid it at all costs. Or at least as long as they possibly could, until age thirty or forty when they had established careers and good friends and homes of their own. Nearby, of course.

Maddy hugged them close when they told her the plan, thinking she might agree it was smart. They did not speak of the signatures and blood.

“Maybe so,” was all she said. “You never know what’s ahead. It is all an adventure…”

But ambiguous words meant little to her daughters; they were devoted, and so bold with certainty. She’d not forgotten how hard past times had been, the pain she’d suffered. Maddy had grown up cared for and secure, though, and she knew it had saved her. She now worked as a speech therapist four days a week; she’d remarried well, was happy again. But it had taken a terrible divorce and several more promising or miserable men, of being poor and deeply lonely while slowly finishing college–all in between then and now, meaning her degree and then Keith.

Perth and Victoria got wounded some in the fallout along the way. Maddy regretted this. What could be done but live a healthier life now, be generous with love? But she was a more and more realist. Heartbreak was not something they’d avoid. And that made her ache deep inside where no words lived.

******

After lunch, Perth obsessed about things. It was as if a part of her had been misplaced, and there was bodily discomfort, and when she looked around for her sister at her locker down the hall, he was there, one hand up, his body half-circling Vic’s. Perth’s body clutched; she felt it as anger, but who was she mad at? Him? Her? Her own self? Hormones? Hers must be sluggish or defective, despite being ten months older. Her sister did look older than she did, and Victoria thought she knew more, that was clear.

When they met back home and sat at the dinner table, Vic avoided Perth’s scathing looks and talked little or to their mother and Keith. Maddy noticed but said nothing; the girls had their rough moments. Their stepfather had little clue–who got anything about freshly minted teenagers?

Since they had their own rooms avoidance was a snap later, or so Victoria hoped. She was texting with Dominic, nothing that interesting yet fascinating to her, and she had homework to do, and her elaborately designed and colored “Do Not Disturb” sign was hanging on the doorknob. Maybe Perth would respect that awhile.

But Perth pounded on the door. Victoria wished for her to go away.

“Victoria, let me in,” she said in a loud whisper into the keyhole. “Time to talk…”

“No.” Vic was watched the phone screen for Dom’s response.

“I can get in, you know.”

“Not without breaking down the door. Do not pick the lock.”

“Come on, you can’t refuse your big sister entry. It’s against the rules,” she whined.

“Your rules, not mine.”

There it was, three small words from him: have to go. She stared at perth through the door.

Perth leaned her back against it. She could hear their mother and stepfather laughing over whatever dumb show they watched. “I’m bored. I want the whole story.”

Victoria sighed, got up, walked around the end of her bed, looked out the window. It was a hard cold night; stars glittered like ice and a frost warning was up. It would be another beautiful day in the morning and they’d meet at lunch, maybe, again. In drama class. Casting had occurred for the play and if he got the male lead and she got the female lead….She recalled the way his hands laced fingers, then slid behind his head and then neck, his elbows sticking out. She didn’t know why that got her, but it did, they was he seemed more…something…open, reachable…that minute, even though it was more a stretch. He was two inches taller than she was already. He was funny in a quiet way. It made her feel dreamy.

A hand smacked hard once at the door and Victoria started, then bounced back onto her bed.

“Go away, Perth, you’re only making things worse…”

She lay very still, staring at the ceiling, fiddling with silky fringe on her purple flowered pillow held against her chest. There was no more said, and not even Perth walking away was heard. And that suddenly scared her. Enough to stop thinking about Dominic, enough to make it tough to get on her homework. What was happening? How could such a thing make them slide around each other, but ready to fight?

******

It went that way, more or less on Tuesday and Wednesday, then Thursday. By Friday Perth stopped going to–much less talking at–her sister’s bedroom door. She stopped sitting at her usual lunch table so she wouldn’t see the two of them excluding the world. She and Elise ate outside on the lawn as there was a warming spell, and when Janna joined them one day, Elise warned her to not ask about Dom and Vic, it upset Perth more each day and it was all over school already: Vic and Dom, together.

“Are you so freakin’ mad or jealous or what?” Janna asked, anyway. “Why her and not us?”

“No, it just isn’t what I expected, that’s all,” Perth said. She made a scornful face, then pulled her long hair back into a ponytail so the wind wouldn’t readily catch it, turn it upside down.

“You have the best hair,” Elise said. “Vic and you got lucky.”

“Thanks…I have the best sister when she isn’t an idiot,” Perth said.

“She’s not an idiot, just dumbstruck with puppy love,” Jana said and Elise socked her in the shoulder. “I mean, who can blame her?.”

“Oh, please. He’s okay, just a new eighth grade guy and why she is so mesmerized…well, I don’t get it. He isn’t all that smart or anything.” Her eyes filled suddenly and she closed them. “And she promised!””

“Mesmerized…he’s dangerous magic!” Jana wiggled fingers at them and gave them a hard stare, one eyebrow raised, the goofy one as usual.

Elise sat up straight, ears perked up by Perth’s last words. “Promised what?”

Perth wasn’t listening. Dangerous. Yeah, that’s how it felt, as if they’d entered a dark maze, and she couldn’t quite find the way to Vic even though she felt her so nearby she almost heard her breathing. Laughing at her. And that guy calling out to Victoria. But why did her sister avoid her? They’d always talked. They’d always known what the other most needed or wanted. Yet Perth could figure almost none of this out. It was as if she had been suddenly closed out. Victoria took one step that way, not the other way where Perth and she were used to going, and the world they shared stopped turning. She felt queasy and dizzy–again.

“It’s like Vic pulled down the shades, turned out the light and even my banging on the door doesn’t matter. Okay, 911–but big deal, just not answering, Sis.”

“Oh,” Janna said.

Elise put her hand on her friend’s shirted back, smoothed away damp wrinkles from unseasonable heat and wondered what it was like to have a sister. She had an older brother who she might do without.

“Crap, Perth,” Jana said and sat closer to the other side but the truth was, it was just a boy so why all the drama? She sort of had a boyfriend who was really just a good friend. Much better that way. They were only thirteen, fourteen, anyway.

******

“Quiet down some!” Keith called upstairs.

It was Victoria’s music for a change, very loud soul or was it pop music. Perth liked Ella Fitzgerald lately, a real shocker, but then she was a unique one. A couple months ago it had been David Bowie, of all people, and before that, some rapper he had never heard. Sampling, that was a good thing he thought. He’d also noticed the girls weren’t talking much, and Maddy was getting worried. He lingered at the bottom of the stairs. The music quieted. Perth stuck her head out of her room, took one step into the hall, so Keith retreated.

Perth tiptoed to Victoria’s room, bent down and slid a note under the door. She backed away then disappeared into her own room.

Victoria’s head was bent over the first play script, hair draping a side of her face as she tapped her pencil against her lips. She had gotten the lead but told no one at home yet. But she heard the paper slip over the worn floorboards and knew what it was. Her eyes lost focus on the words below. Dom hadn’t gotten a part so a stage connection was out, but he was working on lighting. She was excited. She’d always imagined being a stage actress so now it could start happening. A lot was changing. She felt breathless at times, her situational anxiety rearing its head (or so their mother would say, it ran in the family).

She slipped off the quilt and retrieved the note. It got right to the point.

What have you done with my wonderful sister?

She opened the door but Perth was not there. She crossed the hall and knocked.

“Who goes there?” Perth called out in a booming voice.

“One lady of the forest, to another.”

“Are you armed with sword or words?”

Victoria paused, almost letting go a chuckle. This is how it went.

“I come in peace…my sister bids me welcome,” she said.

“I will confer with my cabinet and ferns.” A momentary silence, then a brass bowl was struck. “Enter with hands and mind open and free.”

Maddy was halfway up the stairs when she heard some of the exchange. Her throat tightened as she pressed hand to chest, and returned to her husband.

Victoria entered a room lit with soft white, star-shaped lights strung about two windows and across top of the wall behind the bed. Two huge ferns hung in planters in opposite corners; a tarnished brass deer perched on her desk beside an ivy. Perth was seated at the desk–as she often was–but stood gracefully, shoulders back. The one who danced best, had such posture.

“Okay, I know, it’s stupid, but Dom is the first guy I’ve really noticed and–“

“So stardust got you but that shouldn’t interfere, should it, with us–“

“Right. I thought he might like you, though.”

“Sure, no interest indicated either way.”

“So what’s next?”

Perth and Victoria eased back on fluffy bed pillows, looking at the soft lights.

“I think you need to revise the oath a bit,” Victoria said.

“Me? I did nothing, changed nothing. You’re the changer.”

“But we’re getting older.”

“I suppose. But why do I have to alter the document”

“You know.”

The wind came up, rattled maple limbs like a handful of dry bones. Soon Perth would be able to see out across the street again. She liked the comfort of dense greenery more than an open vista but that was nature.

“I know, I’m the writer Irish twin. Really ought to be accurate and say Australian, that makes more sense…”

“Perth! Listen: no more bloodletting?”

“Agreed. I will just revise a bit: we’ve determined that flexibility and understanding are crucial when faced with a possibility of any outside love, but we must never lose our sister bond.”

Victoria lay her head on Perth’s shoulder. “Yeah. Well stated, sister.”

“Well received, sister.”

Perth and Victoria knew their mother was anxious downstairs, hoped to hear what they were up to this time, but they did what they always did. They kept their secrets to themselves, unless threat of harm was evident and imminent. And none was.



Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Fortuitous Forgiveness

If only, if only, if only…it was a well worn refrain, no, perhaps more a mantra for Maxine.

Eve worried they might be her mother’s last words one day, they hung between them so often, cluttered up space like meaningless items. It made her want to bolt, or at least grab the wine bottle and pour a tall one. Her parents didn’t drink, so that would come later.

“If we’re revisiting this topic even before coffee and pie, leave me out of the discussion.” Eve rose, took a serving dish and wooden salad bowl in her hands.

From the corner of her eye she noted her father had picked up the paper from the next chair over–Alden’s chair, topped with a booster seat– and proceeded to hide behind the Culture and Arts page. She wondered how long it would take him to check the stock market and predicted thirty seconds max.

“It is what it is, Maxine, let it be,” he mumbled. The pages were rustled, turned faster.

Eve disappeared through the kitchen’s Dutch doors; Maxine’s words sailed through like crows on the wing, undeterred.

“If he’d just finished his degree, this wouldn’t have to happen, you know that, Douglas, and he still could do that,” she intoned, dabbing her thin lips with a beige linen napkin, four of which I had ironed before they came. “If only he had given two thoughts to what it would mean…” She sighed and shook her head, a luxuriant bun freed slightly from its pins. Her hands–so like parchment they scared Eve lately– deftly re-secured it.

The leftover chicken and dumplings and salad disappeared down the garbage disposal and Eve turned it on. Let it run longer than needed.

What her mother was really saying was, If only you had gotten your Masters’ in chemistry or business management, this might be avoided–and: if only your husband did more to secure your family’s future. And saying it to her, not to the tension-saturated air. Eve being a teacher wasn’t enough for them, she knew that already. It had always been about the correct education and supposed power that brought. It was as if they were stuck in another decade when degrees meant financial and oddly, perhaps even spiritual victory. It brought respectability and status, after all. In their day. That was another story. One that Maxine seldom grew weary of sharing, putting a present day twist on things that was entirely made up.

Certainly she was not talking to Eve’s husband, Mick, as he was out, just as he tended to be for every Sunday mealtime. He was at his best friend’s huge garage where Garth was working on another of his special order paint jobs. Mick loved to see the shiny designs come to fruition; some of them were his ideas, in part, though he never shared the credit. “I’m the amateur, a spectator, he’s the pro; it’s all good,” he always said.

Mick was a landscaper, and he used his design sense in garden and lawn development and execution. But he had been laid off. As usual. It was heading toward winter and Mick was the most junior member of the team. He’d do snow removal until spring, and watch Alden, their three year old. They boy slept now, thankfully; he could dream about puppets and parks and wooden blocks, unaware of the stress his grandparents created with a few tiresome words.

Her father said something low to her mother– likely, Maxi, soft pedal it, play this snafu down, not up. He isn’t a bad sort.

Eve hung her now throbbing head, then straightened up and looked out a window, took in the expanse of open land. The mountains beyond. Breathed. Turned off the disposal.

“Look at Alden, there’s my boy, sleepy head! Come to join us at Sunday table, have you?”

Douglas’ voice boomed with happiness and relief. Eve could hear Maxine getting up and tottering over in her too-high heels to give her grandson a soft hug. She was not a hugger, but for her only grandchild she made the exception. Eve rinsed her hands, dried them, lifted her head and smiled, then greeted her son.

“Hey, my Aldy boy!” She wanted to squeeze him.

“Alden, up just in time for apple pie?” Douglas reached out a hand.

The child took it, then rubbed one puffy eye and ruffled his straw-colored hair. “Yes, pie and then match-the-cards game with Grandpa!”

Maxine sighed. “It’s always Grandpa. You boys! How can I get this child’s attention more? And where do you suppose he got all that blond hair? Maybe it will still darken.”

Stop talking so much nonsense, get on the floor and play, Eve wanted to say, but retrieved the fragrant, warm pie, the plates and forks. The thought of Maxine removing her heels and sitting sideways on the cat-furry rug in her herringbone skirt and silk ivory blouse made her smirk. And Alden’s messy, gorgeous hair? She wished Mick was there, his thick, bright waves making the overt point for her. Again. She checked her watch.

Maxine and Douglas should have stayed in Chicago suburbs another couple of years. But Douglas had retired and they wanted to ease into a simpler life, or so they said. They might have given Eve and Mick more time to get ahead, to build their lives with one another. Now her parents were a half hour down the road, through the hilly farmland, in a smaller manse in East Braxton.

******

Eve wished she could say it was always this way. But things once were normal, or what she knew to be normal, and she had been happier. Then all changed when her father got the Big Promotion. She was eleven then, halfway through school and already itching for more freedom. The family home, a sweet 1920s bungalow, was sold and then they moved into a five bedroom brick house, too much space but never mind, they had intercoms, and a yard that took half a Saturday for her brother, Tim, to mow. Their father was gone more than he was home; when he was home he was near-invisible or they wished he might leave again for all he understood about their lives. Their mother was gone, too, maybe more–to the beauty salon and spas and on shopping trips, at various club meetings and luncheons. She learned about roses and had many planted, front and back. About costly perfumes and handbags and had her closets renovated. About Chicago’s splashier charitable events where she’d get her photo put in the “People Out and About” section. She found being home more and more tedious as time went by. She liked to celebrate her sudden good fortune with her new friends, with new clothes.

Tim and Eve got many things done for themselves or they learned who to call. Eve became a budding cook but against her will. They got hungry when their parents were late, then later, so at last Maxine hired a cook three days a week. They learned how to fake their parents’ signatures if they wanted or needed days off school. If they got sick they checked in on each other more often than not. Tim ran quietly down the long hallway before he went to sleep around midnight–he was two years older–and stuck his head in, told her good night, good dreams. Even if she was asleep, though more often she lay there staring at the ceiling where starry stickers glowed. And Eve checked for light seeping under his door when she got up to use the bathroom or listen for her parents and if she saw it she knocked softly until he said to come in. Usually he was reading. If he had had a nightmare–which he had pretty often– she patted his arm, gave him a little hug.

In the morning, when their parents asked if they slept well, they smiled in unison, said, “Of course.” They knew better than to distract them from their fast-paced lives. Even then, their mother could turn up her lecture voice in a flash as their father hid behind work or the paper.

Things might have gone on like that–not comfortable in most ways, but pleasant in others– until they were sprung from the brick house by virtue of time: their eighteenth birthdays. But Eve and Tim grew restless long before they were ready to handle what beckoned. They drank on the sly, they smoked pot. They had some interesting, wilder friends in common. They helped each other with school work that otherwise may have sunk them; they waited until they got out of detention for tardiness or skipped classes. Share and share alike. “Two goofy heads together are better than one,” Tim liked to say.

Then Tim turned seventeen and decided he wanted to be some kind of race car driver. Street racing. Illegal, risky. He drove far too fast and took chances that scared her and she liked to avoid it. And that was it, wasn’t it, for the madcap duo? She was not there; he kept on. He didn’t last at it despite a sterling reputation. It went bad fast and as hard as possible. Spinal injury, head trauma, they whispered at school as Eve slumped down the halls– when she even attended. Before he got a decent chance at more life, he was stalled completely. And not surprisingly, Eve was blamed in large part. Why didn’t she stop him? What happened the night she ignored his antics? Why didn’t she tell their parents about it before it was too late? Never mind that she was with a girlfriend that night, watching old movies. She and Tim had been less attuned to each other that past year. Still. Why had she not done more to discourage him? Why, why, why?

If only…

Maxine and Douglas faltered under grief heaped on them a long while. They looked to Eve for much and got little back; she was worn out, she was drowning, too, as she tried to tread waters of her daily life. So Maxine blamed her, too. It was one long sentence that never seemed to end.

“If only you’d been there, you could have stopped him, he adored you, I know you could have…”

Douglas stopped talking. Not entirely, no, he had that big job and its demands to navigate daily, and it took his mind off much. But at home, he was a quiet man made nearly mute, like a creature that goes small and silent as a bad storm comes.

And Tim lay in a hospital bed, tended to by nurses, specialists, physical therapists. And he still did. At home, yes, that came finally. But what was the difference? He saw little he desired as he looked out at the world.

Eve was determined to finish high school and leave. It almost killed her to go to classes knowing Tim could not, would never come along with her as he once had. He barely stayed alive despite her daily talks with him, her ministrations to him, her prayers mumbled in tears. When he stabilized and could flick his eyes at her, she knew she had better leave then– or never. She could not bear the “if only” anymore.

She got a degree in earth sciences–botany her favorite–and then taught middle school students ravenous for knowledge about the beautiful and changing earth. And that was something, wasn’t it. It was about all she had. She counted on that need, to get up each day, be there for her students. It carried her until the week-ends when she drove two hours each way to visit Tim for at least a day. And their parents. So it was working then in a way, despite the continuing loneliness she hadn’t anticipated. The roaring silence of night as she tossed and turned in bed, a darkness beaded with hardness of guilt. The stunning lack of peace in early morning even as coffee brewed, a good plan for the day at her fingertips. The fact that she could not call her brother to tell him about the kids, her book club, the sporty car she was thinking of buying. He could not even put a mug of steaming brew to his lips or smile at her. Eve didn’t know for certain if Tim knew she loved him even more than before. But she thought so, felt so. How could he not when they had always known what the other thought? Well, almost, almost.

Nothing was sure and good enough to bring real happiness back. Until practical, cheerful Mick came into her life with dirt on his hands and room in his heart for her. Who knew kindness could be such an easy thing for some to give and for her, so hard to learn to accept? They got married, they moved to the semi-rural town of Marionville.

******

Douglas and Alden were on the floor flipping and matching little animal cards as Maxine read a book Eve had recommended and loaned her when the back door swung open.

“Hey beautiful, what’s cookin’?”

“Chicken and dumplings,” she said, smiling at him. “Just put it in the frig.”

He pushed the back door closed with a foot and placed two bags on the table. Eve could see a couple of garden tools and his requisite bags of snacks, her own list of nonfood items.

Maxine and Douglas were just putting on their coats at the front door. Mick gave Eve a kiss on her neck and then went to bid them goodbye.

“Hey, folks, how was dinner? Sorry I couldn’t make it, Garth and I were busy working on a car, a 1992 Chevy–“

“Well, we missed you, but your afternoon was likely more entertaining,” Douglas said, eyebrows rising, his narrow hand shaking Mick’s square one briefly.

Mick wasn’t sure if his father-in-law was joking or serious. He knew the older man was not much for family chat but he loved his daughter (and her cooking) and, of course, his grandson so came along dutifully. Perhaps Mick really ought to show up more. He could deal with being given a hard time but it was worse when he got barely a nod on Maxine’s worse days.

“Ah, hello Mick, nice to see you, how’s business going?” Maxine said as she pulled on her favorite burgundy calfskin and cashmere gloves. Mick thought how much Eve might enjoy those, too, but would never consider asking for such a luxury.

“As a matter of fact–I was waiting to tell Eve–” he turned toward the kitchen, then swept up his babbling, reaching son. “Honey, come on out.”

She wiped hands on jeans and leaned against a door jam, crossing her arms. She’d hoped her parents would slip out faster. They of course asked him about work and they already knew he’d been seasonally laid off, so why?

“I’m happy to say I just got hired on at the Jameson Farm. Their evergreen tree farm needs more help, along with other land maintenance jobs. I can work through Christmas, at least! And a part time job tending the art museum’s winter garden just came open, so that’s an option.”

Eve moved to hug her her son and husband tightly. “Wonderful, Mick!”

“Mick, good news is always welcome,” Douglas said and patted him heartily on the back.

“It’ll pay for bread and butter, I suppose…” Maxine buttoned her coat, smoothed stray wisps of hair at her temples. But she paused, almost unsteady; her husband reached out but she batted him away. Her wrinkled pale eyelids lowered as if to shield them of her real thoughts.

Eve looked at her mother with the one look she tried so hard to not show. The one that could set fire to stone. But her mother stared at her with a face gone softer, then took a step closer to Mick. When she spoke her voice was almost frail. Tentative. But gentle.

“You do know you’re a good man, Mick, don’t you? And that we’re -I am–so glad you married our daughter.”

Douglas drew himself up, nodded at Eve and Mick, then opened the front door and let themselves out.

“We’ll see you and Tim next Saturday then,” Eve called out.

She’d followed them past the open door, wanting to offer something more, words floating in twilit, chill air. The visit was their routine, but she wanted to make sure; an urgency had come over her. Tim needed to see his nephew every week, Alden needed to see his uncle. She had to be near him, tell him things. Had to believe he heard her, even now. And Mick, he just had love enough to share.

Maxine lifted a hand in the fast falling darkness, her back receding. Douglas touched his hat brim with a finger, opened the car door for her, helped her in.

The shivering family of three went indoors. Alden got his blocks out. Mick built and lit a fire in the sooty old fireplace.

“Well, Mick.” She had to be careful what she said–Alden was all ears and too much feeling wanted to spill over. “I suspect–I know–it’s time for me to let the past go. I just decided that I have to forgive what was not, and cannot be, any different. And just be there more for my parents. For Tim.”

He turned on his knees and patted the floor beside him as fledgling flames spat, sputtered and flared. Mick sat cross legged, put an arm about her, pulled her into him. When she settled with a sigh, Alden sat in her lap one hand held up to the fire’s warmth and one hand on his father’s knee. Their good and right fit.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Autumn’s Wiles and Wooliness

The air is golden today, but with a slight undertone of copper that burnishes the woods. I sit by half-open glass doors, appreciating early autumn air laced with warmth–sunshine cheerily dapples all–and then come alarming blasts of brain rattling noise. Reddish pine needles, small branches, lots of twigs and dead leaves rain down on my once-inviting balcony. They prick and blanket the potted flowers, plants, outdoor furniture. Overhead, thudding footsteps remind me of what I forgot: this is roof-and-gutter cleaning day. It’s that time of year as habitats are readied for long winter rains. We already have had a small storm. So–necessary if annoying for a few hours.

I am not as tolerant of noise since I’ve become attuned to nature’s songs and silences in the forested hills. Finally, the atmosphere calms as falling debris stops and brash machines move on. I know the work done will make coming months safer, more comfortable.

Autumn is settling in, despite slightly balmier temperatures today. For a few more weeks it will swing between sandal, sneaker and boot weather, to being coatless to donning rain jacket, and this cavernous, west-facing room will be defined far more by shadows from early ’til bedtime. When I come downstairs in the morning–if Marc hasn’t already opened blinds–I’m met with a sheer darkness no matter the hour. The air seems bluish-grey and it is chilly. Rather, it feels cold for me by 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit indoors or out (with Raynaud’s, hands and often feet get unusually cold and hard to warm up).

I have to get at the ready a heating pad, woolen socks and fingerless gloves brought to me from Iceland by daughter Naomi. This year I also know to be prepared for sporadic snowfall around our new home, as we are at 800 feet, high enough to get flakes that stay. But I have good slippers and lots of blankets, handmade. thick velour, woolen. Swaddling up has already commenced at end of day as we get situated on the couch to read or watch television. I long for a fireplace but haven’t had one in decades, although there have been a few wood stoves– I enjoyed chopping and splitting the pungent wood, once, tending the fire. But here I am loathe to turn on heat until it is late October-early- November-cold–it costs more than it used to.

But despite the few less desirable features to this season, I love the changeover from summer into fall and beyond. How, like sublime peaches and plums, tasty corn and vivid pumpkins, there is a steady ripening of abundance until there is the peak–and a subsiding, then a spinning of the cocoon-like state of rest. I think of it as a courageous, somehow silvery turning inward, a gathering of a deeper energy and meeting one’s self at a more still point. I watch spiders at work and admire their diligent industry, how they create complex netting to snare insects and prepare for mating. And then they wait. I can learn from nature each season.

I am an outdoor person, and the cold, wet months ahead are not always welcome. But now the fall beckons me to still get out, take the last great mud-free hikes and walks. I pay attention, mind the rolling rocks and sliding earth. There are few level sidewalks and paths here than the previous neighborhood; I must locate my waterproof trail shoes, dig out fleeces, scarves and gloves.

As a youngster, little of these concerned me. The air took on that sharp tang and the bright sky could be so crystal clear it about vibrated. The leaves of the sugar, red and white maples shone like vivid little flags as they twisted about in a gusty wind. There were red and white oaks, hickory and quaking aspen, larch and poplar. The trees of Michigan were glorious to me and remain so as they “turn”—and people flock from far away to see “the color.”

As those transformed leaves fell fast, for years it was up to me and my siblings to rake the scattered beauties into piles, throw handfuls at each other and cover ourselves up. The best was making huge piles to jump in, as which point we would have to start the raking all over again. Bits of leaves stuck in hair and around the shirt collars and smelled delicious despite dying or being dead, a weird thing to think so I did not. I would gather a few lovelies and press them between sheets of waxed paper to keep as bookmarks, or set them around a bowl of fruit in the dining room table until the tips began to curl and my mother would toss them.

The city allowed people to burn leaves at certain times, and in yards bigger than ours, my friends and I would gather round to warm up in the spreading dusk and secretive dark to chat about school, life, love. I can still smell that scent of leaves burning–it’s very meaning was autumn, and it’s rich fragrance was heavy with poignant happiness. I felt magic descend on me as if rising smoke of charred leaves reached out to the stars and blessed each one, and then, somehow, also me. It made me a poet long before I appreciated it fully.

Even then I took long walks (preferably alone, the better to daydream and take it all in) along often damp, tree-lined streets in September or October, gusts slinging leaves at my face, new sharpness on the wind making nose run and eyes tear up. I loved it, pulled my collar up closer, eyed treetops and limbs to see which ones had yet more glories left, which showed off their elegant, muscular bodies. I didn’t really want all the leaves to fall, those fine branches to more vulnerable in winter storms to come. But I soaked it up nonetheless, that mystery of the seasons, the trees being so bold and strong to withstand the elements until spring remade earth and whatever lived in it once again.

Up north with family or friends, staying on smaller lakes or by the Great Lakes, fall was even more enchanting. Because many cabins or cottages were closed up for winter and so the last trips held more meaning. Because there was all the water, and air blew by like a cool mist and was layered with a perfumey mix of wet leaves, pine needles and lake; the earth underfoot was far less dusty; rocks seemed to carry more weight, rough or smooth; and lapping waves brought music and odd treasures to shore. There were huge old pines and birch groves to explore anew. There was peace and pleasure in row boating or canoeing in fall, surrounded by a vivid palette, watching the sky run blue to steel grey in even a few moments and after a hard rain, show off its rose and tangerine.

Later in a cabin the fire was lit in a stone fireplace. All was hushed indoors as wind regained momentum. The soughing in trees turned to rhythmic beating of branches against the roof, and the night was good, fresh perch or lake trout fried up, easy talk. After dinner, not much more going on than a cheerful game of rummy or bridge and crackling of wood as flames spit and flared. But contentment was never so fine as that, even as the wind howled through the wooded acres and waves smacked the rocky shoreline and the lights might flicker. We had all we needed. Life reduced to the simplest and best moments.

I look out the sliding glass door and note the woodsy mess I need to attend to following the gutter and roof cleaning. But I look forward to going out with my broom, working in the late afternoon glow, under the trees. I do still know how to ease into autumn: embrace these changes. The challenging, circuitous walk I took before writing gave rise to a gentle joy as I noted the slight turn of Oregon trees’ leaves. I have stew and chili on my mind. Woodsy candles set on my tables and a couple of tiny white and orange pumpkins. I was made giddy by the looks of surprise my two twin grandbaby girls’ faces held as I put one each in their beautiful little hands. Next year they may visit the apple orchards with us but this year Marc and I surely will drive out by Hood River and search for the best cider and apples as we have for decades. And I also must look for a woolly bear caterpillar to see how wide its bands are–to forecast how long and hard the winter will be (the wider the rusty bands, the milder; the wider the black ones, the harsher).

I am thankful for autumn’s graces and stirrings, its preparation for the long haul of winter–and how it brings me to myself and others differently. The seasons seem like bridges from one phase of nature to another unfolding. And they each accompany me through my own seasons, offering me a certain aplomb and greater gratitude.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Jill’s Gospel of Colors

The narrow street below was rife with movement and sounds that kept distracting her from her focus: finding the exact combination of pieces that added up to the whole of what she should wear. Her name was called out in a bellow–Tee, as he paused to stub out his cigarette against the facing wall of her brick townhouse. How many times had she asked him to stop the vandalizing but he was barely seventeen with miserable acne and a penchant for dabbling in electronic music nobody yet appreciated. Her neighbor Mariah’s son, in fact, and even she admitted, hand to head, that he got up to mischief more often than not. He complied with Jill slightly by smashing it near the sidewalk so it looked more like a smudge than a marred spot.

Jill pushed up the window sash to call back, “Hey, Tee, stop harassing my building, get on with your day!”

Two other people glanced up at her–including Mrs. Scallon who never acknowledged anyone– and then hurried on; the black lab, Scotch, barked before squatting as her hungover owner squinted at his phone; and the garbage truck honked loud and long so it could lumber on and squeeze through.

But Tee’s sharp laugh scuttled up the wall as he dashed off, backpack bouncing against his thick back. He kept his music low, but she could still hear it across from the street some week-end nights when he was braver about shoving it into the world. She didn’t think it was bad, maybe some of it was much better than bad, and she told him so. When first she said so, he’d looked down at his feet, just puffed away as she swatted the smoke away. Since then he’d been more civilized in general but his cigarette habits didn’t waver–her exterior wall was not the only one to bear the brunt of it.

“Tee and his own Teendom,” she murmured and tore off the gauzy fuchsia scarf she’d wrapped three times about her neckline. The mirror glared back at her.

It was all about color schemes. Jill thought in color, dreamed in color, solved work problems that held their own colors. Right now it was the dress, literally a color; it was all wrong. A navy chemise meant to be worn to a classical concert, perhaps or gallery opening or important work function–navy meant being orderly and restrained, meant business or even authority. Not a casual meeting with an old friend. She needed more light-infused color, maybe more jewel toned. But not blue, after all.

She glanced through the rest of the berry hue’s incarnations to see if another item jumped out at her. She looked good in this hue. And she needed help. Her hair was just a tad early grey at the temples–she refused to toy with that reality–but worse, her eyes were bloodshot and crinkly about the edges. The smiley eyes that had eased her through many of life’s tight spots looked worn out from the very act of ordinary seeing. It was, in truth, sleep deprivation wrecking havoc. She squirted eye drops in each, than started at the other end of her closet.

A fine panoply of greens and blues, then reds gradually going to rust toward sienna brown and beyond. Jill had them organized, cataloged–she saw them in her mind when drifting off to sleep, a lovely rebuttal to any disquiet that taunted her. Life was a parade of colors and they each had their place. They all meant something different, and found themselves adorning her slim–if hippy and a bit long-waisted–body as required each morning. According to feeling, instinct, her considered dictate. Each day was set by its tone, its matching color.

This morning had become more knitted with tension and that made it murky and in need of repair. Although the sun cast buttery tones across the bedroom floor and tried to soothe her, she felt chilly and tightly drawn, hands fumbling with each item, her neck developing the fuzzy ache that followed a restless night. Her hand went to the boat neck, raspberry sweater, yes, that was it. Today needed a softness that was lively. She needed that kindness, a vibrant warmth like a promise of good fortune. She lay her chemise on the bed to hang later and pulled on the cashmere sweater, light and airy but warding off the new autumn chill in the air. The pants were easy, charcoal grey, a fine wale corduroy that felt and looked like velvet. Her streaky auburn and greying hair was pulled back into a high ponytail and a slick of sugar maple lipstick dashed on. Black ankle boots were tried on; her summered feet settled, ready to stride into fall weather.

To finally take on–no, she didn’t dare let that image enter her kaleidoscopic brain cells–to finally see him face-to-face one last time.

******

“It wasn’t like that,” she had told Mariah a week earlier as they shared a mammoth pumpkin spice scone over coffee. “We weren’t equals and there was no question, he was an associate professor. Photography was his talent, and I was another student waltzing through an easy class. I knew how to point and shoot, I had a good brain, how hard could it be? Or so I thought. But Carter Tennington’s passion for it hooked me, and I registered for more the next year. Finally was allowed into his upper level filmaking series. I could do more than frame a simple shot. But not much more yet.”

Mariah smiled at that. Jill Manwell had pictures in galleries now. Mariah had a gorgeous view of the city and mountains hanging on her wall.

“He was–what, thirty, thirty-five?” she asked, pressing crumbs onto her fingers, then licking them off.

“I guess so, yes, to my twenty. And I found him too serious, shy, and though the adventurous girls tried to shake him up, he wasn’t having it from what I saw. Carter Tennington wasn’t apparently married or gay; he just was not available. Which was fine. By then I was so enthused about photography and film that I changed my degree program from mechanical engineering to fine arts. We worked on some things together, a documentary on student debt, a short feature that I wrote, projects with others. There was one exploring the cycle of seasons at a local nature preserve, how the seasons were impacted by human abuses–that one got an award at a national college film fest. Over that last year I got to know him a little more but could not cross any lines. He got me, he saw me, yet he was too decent or I was too young. I was scared of something like that. I went to grad school, got a decent job with a marketing company. A start if not my favorite.” I shrugged and grabbed the last bite of scone. “And that was that.”

Mariah studied her, that sharp gaze cutting though historical narrative. “But you had a thing for him.”

“I might have if encouraged but it faded. I didn’t date the last year or so, anyway–it was all about meeting my goals.”

“Then you got married, though, to Nelson, the big shot.”

“Well.” I opened my mouth, closed it. She didn’t know the whole story about that. I tried to forget. “And divorced five years later, and have stayed single, as you know, mostly.”

“So–now?”

“The ‘now’ is a simple catch up of old student and teacher, Mariah. Now he is a pretty big producer of independent films. I’m flattered that he remembered me, at all. If it wasn’t for Lucy at work, we’d never have connected.”

“Right, the husband’s acquaintance. Then why is he meeting you at the market, not at a more businesslike dinner?”

“He does his shopping there? Who knows, anonymity?”

“When he’s at a hotel, on a business trip?”

“He said bring along my camera.”

“Well,” she said, laughing, “that’s a weird thing…vegetables, fruits!”

Tee poked his head in the dining nook. “Hey, got some new music, Jilly, wanna hear it before I blast it out there?”

“Theodore, don’t use that name–“

“It’s okay, pretty harmless after five years. Let’s hear it, if I must.


I followed him into his chaotic room–coats, socks and sneakers piled on the bed, vinyl records on the floor, books in piles that teetered, prints and posters of various, vivid sorts on the walls. It wasn’t the first time she’d entered his den to hear his creations, but she stepped lightly, the last time there were grapes under foot.

When he first played the three minute recording she found it too dissonant, no cohesive center. Then he played it two more times, and she discovered lead lines, then unusual harmonies, got caught up by the beat more. She had grown up with music–her parents owned two jazz clubs and another small venue–and she knew a little. This was not bad, at all. She had confidence in his abilities.

“It’s good raw sound, it could use refinement of melody but it has a nice groove. I like the middle part and last few seconds best, they stir things up, then tie it up. Grab us more with the start, make me need to listen from the start. Play with the harmonies more.”

“Yeah, okay, we’ll see about that.” Tee nodded sagely, put on his ear phones. Jill edged her way out the door and waved at Mariah as she exited the apartment.

Tee stared after her, shook his head. She was alright, Jilly, she was smart, had respect. He thought her sweater and all looked good. But she was kinda old for his music genre and way too conservative for his personal interest. Not to say, again, way too old.

******

She grabbed her Nikon from its shelf and left, a few minutes behind schedule after changing her boots to lace-up burgundy ones. The colorful ones were energetic, bold; her feet felt happier, so she felt better. No jacket–the late morning had heated up even though the breeze had an edge, nipping gently at cheeks and hands as she rushed to the plaza.

Jill knew what Cater Tennington looked like because he was in social media, in magazines now that he was getting known. She had followed his progress and noted he got fuller bodied, developed a bronzey-ruddy look that reflected world travels, she’d imagined. He had the same full head of unruly hair, a small smile.

As she walked rapidly toward the fountain, she wondered for the hundredth time what this was about. All the text had said was he had a morning free, could they meet after fifteen years, have a chat. There was nothing to get anxious about though her stomach had refused breakfast. And, after all, Jill had done fine, too, was Creative Director of VIP Marketing. And had published or shown several of her photographs. Maybe he was just pleased she’d done well; when she graduated, he’d wished her the best.

Her eyes scanned heads and faces as she neared the market and central fountain. Shoppers hoisted cloth bags of fresh produce, gathered and parted, then crowded about yellow tables with lunches from food stalls. They tied up their salivating dogs, offering them tidbits. Everything was about eating. She hoped Carter wouldn’t suggest lunch; she was not relaxed enough to enjoy it.

Nowhere did she see anyone who resembled the man she only knew from media. She stopped by boxes of early apples and tasted a sample slice and found it went down fine so took another.

At the fountain, she put camera to eye and snapped away. It was a happy scene with families and friends enjoying each other, and the moving, impressionistic swaths of colors buoyed her further. If he didn’t show, the visit there was always worth it.

“Jill?”

He had spotted her first. She swung around as Carter hesitated a few feet away, then took steps forward, as did she. She noted his jeans, a comfortable tweedy, camel-colored sweater, and a worn straw fedora. It all gave off a mellowness: slightly rumpled, old fashioned but classic. The prof.

“How’d you recognize me? Your face is much more familiar these days!”

They reached out a hand and shook each other’s, then he motioned to a low wall they could sit on under a shade tree.

“Well, not so hard to manage. Tim Spalding, Lucy’s husband, mentioned your company and job, so I looked you up a few weeks ago.”

My eyebrows rose in surprise as I tried to still feign poise. “That was easy, then…I know you from the media, of course.”

“And here we are, Jill. It’s fifteen years, right? When I heard you were living here, I had to see how you’d fared. Congratulations on a stellar career.”

“I can sure say the same for you, Carter, though I can’t find the best admiring words to encompass what you’ve accomplished. Wow! I guess that says it.”

“Yeah, well.” He looked at his open palms, rubbed them together, then folded them in his lap. “It happened faster than I imagined and yet it was all the right timing. I taught two more years after you left, after I showed my film, ‘Erasing Melancholia’.”

“Ah.” Jill hadn’t heard of it; she hadn’t heard of anything until “Zero at the Start” over ten years ago.

“Don’t be embarrassed, no one knew of it but the right person saw it, a small door swung open. Off I went.” His shoulder touched hers briefly and he pulled right back. “The thing is, we worked together off and on for two, three years, right? And I thought you had such talent. I’d hoped you would do something with it. I hear you have sold photos; that’s good. But marketing, though it is a good career, no doubt–is that what you wanted?”

“Well.” She leaned into the big maple’s shadows, pushed her bangs out of her eyes. Should she be offended or flattered? What did it matter? Here she was sitting by Carter Tennington! Her stomach fluttered. She took a deep breath. “Lots happened after I got my Masters. I got married to a guy who knew all about that world, I had some bad jobs, then I got divorced, I got better jobs–I had to take care of myself and I was not shy about my ambition. And I like much of what I do.”

“He fired you because you were so good at the work and he couldn’t abide it, he was not a good guy,” he said quietly. “Not that anyone could prove he did so because of that.”

She stood up and crossed her arms. “Well, you’re sure not shy like you were before. I don’t know how you’re getting my personal info but it’s off-putting, this is just a casual meet-up, right? I didn’t comb the news for your flops or mishaps.”

He stood, too, reached for her forearm, withdrew his hand. “Quite right, forgive me. It was Tim– Lucy told him your story. He and I had drinks last night…I apologize, Jill. He was only preparing me for today, I suppose.” He took off his hat then, ran a hand over his perspiring forehead and through the thicket of hair. “Let’s move on. Can we start over with a cold drink and a stroll?”

She took my camera in hand and positioned it so she caught images of the cheery crowd milling about, the fountain erupting and cascading, then shot Carter starting to walk with one hand outstretched toward me, his hat being secured with the other. Without sunglasses, people would know his face. If she ever edited it, printed and matted, then showed it. Which she would not.

“Fair enough,” he said, hands held up. And suddenly he laughed.

She snapped another of his congenial smile, then we got raspberry iced teas and kept on. They were surrounded by vibrantly beautiful produce. He bought two peaches and she, a bag of plums.

By the time they reached the end of the market, they chatted away like old friends. And perhaps more now than before. The years had not deleted a basic comraderie they’d shared, if only in passing. They stood silent at last, and looked out over the sunlit lagoon, the water almost turquoise, then deep blue green as fat clouds passed overhead.

“The point of my seeing you today is twofold.” His vice was lowered and he looked at her steadily with clear eyes. “One is to admit that I hadn’t stopped thinking of you after fifteen years. You were special, as a budding photographer. As a person. I’d hoped to know you better sometime. It was just…it was a hard time back then. I had cancer then, you see. I was having chemo all that time. It was a very rough patch.” He shook his head to stay my words. “And then I went into remission and you were gone, my film work was put out there. Things changed faster than expected. I’ve stayed well, surprisingly. My whole life was turned around. But I fell for you once,you see, and never quite fell away–at least from the possibility.” He loked away. “And I heard you’re single…”

When he looked back at her, he lay his hands lightly on her shoulders and she shivered. “What do you think of all that?”

“Okay, then…not too sure right now.” That was all she say. It was too much to take in. If she’d known he was ill, would that have changed one thing? Maybe not; she was young, unsure of herself, far more than he was. Her mind swirled with colorful memories and newer feelings.

“The other reason I’m here is that I’d like you to consider being an associate producer for my next film. I know you have the vision, and now you have formidable organizational skills, no doubt, and confidence. And likely the needed creative insight. But it’s Chicago, not here. Maybe you can think about it, at least? We can talk money, details– if you even want to go the next–“

“Yes. I do want to work alongside you. And what on earth took you so long, Carter?”

We held each other so long I thought we’d meld into one out there in public, where anyone could see us, even recognize Carter Tennington and break the spell. But no one did–or dared to come closer.

“By the way, I love you in raspberry and charcoal–and what are those boots, pomegranate?” he whispered into my hair.

“Burgundy, is all. And I do love you in an old straw hat and camel sweater,” and then I hugged him closer as he slipped an amethyst dahlia blossom into my hair.

******

Much later, after a boat trip on the lagoon, after dinner, after a long walk and more talk, then their first truthful kiss, she returned to her townhouse. He had to fly out early. Jill had to catch her breath, then figure out how to quit her job and join his team. Commence to fashion a new life.

As she turned out the bedside lamp and crawled into bed to contemplate it all, she heard a familiar swell, crackle, then a drone and meander; it slipped and rippled through the air. The little song that could, the tune that traveled well beyond its simplistic origins and merged with something finer, richer. Tee’s tune.

He turned it up louder, shoving higher the glass window.

“Hey Jilly! Listen!”

“Tee, no, quiet down!” She pressed her face against the screen. “It’s past midnight, no one wants to hear shouting– or your music, for that matter!”

“If not now, when? It sounds good, right? I messed with it!”

She listened after she gestured to him to lower the volume.

“Yeah, alright–it has energy, interwoven melodies and harmonies, great rhythms. Spark.”

“Spark?”

“You know, mojo.” He shook his head. “Well, it has….some magic in there.”

He did it–he whistled his train whistle, he was so excited by the progress. She never did know why her opinion mattered. Tee just said and did odd things, being a rather brilliant young man. But even though it was Saturday night and the neighbors knew Tee, a piercing noise like that was not tolerated. Right then dogs started to bark; two doors opened wide for people to check things out; one guy yelled from his balcony, “shut up, you nutcase!”; a woman yanked her companion into a dark corner and did not emerge.

She settled back as Mariah entered her son’s room, blond hair a flash in the overhead light. She came to the window, looked toward Jill, then added her voice to the mix.

“What’re you two thinking? Turn it all down! Where do you think you live, the desolate prairie? Some cheap-o street?”

Mariah said something else, maybe she asked if Jill was doing okay after Carter. But Jill wasn’t telling anyone anything a few days. She sank back into her pillows and pulled up the sky blue and rich cream floral quilt. The perfect colors and pattern for tranquility. For comfort. For a new-old love to bloom along the horizon. But she’d miss this familiar kind of fireworks night, too. She’d miss Tee’s music emerging and expanding, the notes each a different color, gliding and diving through space.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Not Who You Thought I Was

Think you basically know who your neighborly acquaintance and co-workers are? And perhaps can get a good idea of the stranger’s state of being who stands behind you at a coffee shop and offers a cheery “hello”, a two minute chat? It’s likely you trust that you do after x many years of  various sociable interactions, and that you can pretty much “read” first impressions received–but maybe best to think again.

I’ve lately perused several reviews about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. His research and conclusions intrigue me; people intrigue me, in general, as a writer and as a retired counselor. I also suspect many of us know already that strangers can be almost any type of person behind the knee-jerk performances given us. We generally tend to be cautious by teen-age years–and certainly by adulthood. Now more than ever, it must be said. I will read his book at some point, to see what new insights have been discovered.

Beyond that, his ideas obliquely dovetailed with my post idea for today. It may seem the opposite of Gladwell’s subject matter and I admit it’s too-large a topic: the origins, nature, and outcomes of friendships. (I will keep it more personal and shorter than all that.) But the reality is, our friends generally begin as strangers unless we knew them shortly after birth and even then, there was that first meet-up. Our knowledge starts close to zero before climbing upward toward some imagined one hundred percent, yet we probably never draw near to the fullness of deeply knowing another. Or we might be more fortunate, who knows at the inception of connection?

We are drawn to others for certain reasons–consciously or not–and we tend to see what we want to see. Suspense novels demonstrate this over and over; crime headlines and stories do, as well. yet we blithely go about our business of developing assessments, making new friends and perhaps becoming closer in time, determining who we can count on and who is a fair weather buddy and who is–let’s be honest–is a wash-up.

I’ve not had the most prolific friends compared to many. An introvert with strong extrovert bursts for pleasure or customary needs, I take my time, try to choose carefully. I learned to withhold  who I am until I am more certain of what may come of it. I had more friends when younger, due to circumstance and personal leanings. But when I review my history, it turns out those I decided might not be such fine cohorts were better, often far better, than first determined. Because I surmised who they were rather poorly, too wary at times. Or perhaps we found opportunity for a diversity of interactions and it changed things. Or a common cause led us to team up, then held other benefits.

The truth is, my good and even best friends were quite surprising–not who I thought they were more often than not.

My first close friend as a youngster sat with me at church. We passed notes on a Sunday bulletin and watched from the balcony all the other goings-on. After church services, we often met near my house at a drugstore counter to delve into a huge shared plate of  hot, salty French fries and cherry or lime Cokes. We enjoyed the occasional sleepover but mostly we enjoyed each other’s company at church events for years. Then we went to the same school by grade seven and became closer. She came from money, I was middle class but it seemed less important then–having parents who were educated and church going seemed to be the expectations for making friends back then.

We share the same first name, and that was dealt with by my name being shortened to “Cindy” which I detested–but then we both answered to that, too. She was the oldest of five kids in her family; I was the youngest of five. She even then seemed older than I. Both achievers, we did well academically but while I was involved in the arts, she was more politically inclined, running for and winning president of the student council. Many must have thought we were an odd couple of friends but it made good sense to us.

But she was not really as I first thought. She was deeper, gentler, and also much angrier. Her family life seemed blissful in their beautiful house but in fact, it was not. There was strife in her parent’s marriage; her mother was deaf and often seemed unhappy and her father drank a bit much. Loud arguments were not uncommon–between adults and  kids. In my family, no one argued; we tried not to even raise our voices. No one talked of anything too personal. And there was no alcohol in our house; none was drunk elsewhere. She was not athletic but I was; she was a class leader and I became more a rebel in mid-1960s. We still shared a desire to achieve; a sensitive nature under which was a well of deep hurt; a passion for fashion and books; and a sturdy trust of one another. And yet, when people change, friendships alter, and can fizzle out little by little. There is not the same alignment as before. And when one moves past the unusually intense bonds of teenage-hood, the need of closeness evolves. One grows up, and there is a loosening of ties while others form in appropriate ways.

We moved away from the hometown. She ended up in television news production while I raised two children, attempted to complete my degree and kept on writing, letting go of music and theater. She was yet my childhood best friend, and we kept in touch via letter, some phone calls; these dwindled to nothing. After over twenty years of not being much in touch we bumped into each other, fatefully, in yet another Methodist church service. She had been living in my city, too. But our get-togethers were strained; she was wane and terribly thin, pushed a piece of bread around her plate. She spoke of things that meant little to me– and vice versa. She’d never had kids; I had raised several. She had never remarried; I’d married three times, four if counting a remarriage. We had our childhood in common, memories, that was all. I was baffled, and worried about her mysterious frailty never explained, a vagueness in her eyes that had once been clear and quick, though they’d always been beautiful and still were. My heart was softly bruised by loss as our friendship was void of relevant meaning. She was not anymore who I thought she was. Maybe time had altered us that much. It is as likely that she never was who I imagined, just another youth trying to find her way–a partial stranger who for a time was known a bit and filled an important need in my life. And I, in hers.

I had another best girl friend to whom I swore loyalty. She was fierce from a distance. I was practicing becoming fierce. She was sullen, too, but one who always spoke her mind and defied convention– but displayed more compassion than I’d ever seen among our peers. We became the support needed for three years. She left town after high school as did I. Over time we lost connection.

Fifteen years ago we learned of each other’s whereabouts. Our email updates were lovely but brief– then ended. As if that was all we needed to say after the past intense years. She had become a biology, chemistry and psychology teacher at a high school in the Southwest. I’d imagined she’d been a world traveler/vagabond or maybe, if she settled down, then a social worker. Clearly I was mistaken but not entirely surprised–she was bright and she’d liked knowledge, the give and take. I wonder if we had tried harder if we would’ve enjoyed an adult friendship across the miles. But I always think of her fondly, a firebrand who smoldered less or differently, settling into her life, as I did mine.

There were college friends, too, many of whom lived on the same street in ramshackle rented houses. Like a mini-colony or commune, just a brief walk from one door and through another. Who knows if we would have been so keen on friendship except for being in an accessible place, at a propitious time. We met in class or at a college event or during a crisis hotline volunteer shift shared. It might have been our common sense of irony–so popular then–or similar degree program or mutual friend that first linked us. But before long we camped, hiked and skinny-dipped in backwoods lakes, took turns hosting dinners and musical gatherings, critiqued each others’ poetry or songwriting, held each other’s hand as loves soured. The women were engaged feminists; we had weekly women’s meetings that empowered us, attended protests, helped educate one another. Most of us went our separate ways but they are with me internally, as those were happy, passionate times of community in a real sense. (I married one of the men from then– eventually–and am married to him now, a best friend, too.)

I have had the good fortune to make friends everywhere I’ve lived and I’ve moved a great deal since nineteen. For one thing, since I’m in recovery, I can find twelve step meetings almost anywhere. Many of my closest friends have also been in recovery and what friendships those have been! In every city and countryside I have lived, there were women of all ages and stations in life who’ve been smart, honest, caring, and always lively. We’d go on walks, out for coffee or a meal, talk on the phone for hours, laugh over our ridiculousness. We’d hold each other when life felt unbearable, and mine the humor where there seemed to be none left. We were willing to be there for each other, which is not always the case in the more ordinary (not in recovery) world. And often what we’ve had in common was mainly a need and desire to live fuller, healthier lives, with no substances abused.

I initially seldom guessed how friendly we might become. Even at those meetings as people try to be open and thorough about serious addiction issues, you don’t–can’t really–know the complexity of a person. We each don our worldly masks, some more than others, and addicts and alcoholics are well known for being chameleons to survive their lives. Who knows what a nice smile really hides or means to convey? We all harbor a prejudice or two even when we wish we didn’t, and all kinds of people come through the doors.

But you know about their recovery or how they are working at it, not much that might reveal a whole truth. That is only one part of their story; one’s essence is multi-layered, even more fascinating. Gradually people take more steps forward, learn to build trust so solid relationships grow. I have often felt that many of the finest people I have come to know have been those I’ve met at meetings. When you have lost or are on the verge of losing everything thought to be of value, you discover what ultimately counts most. You keep things to essentials. And that can make for profound ties for those who get it.

I recently enjoyed a visit with a woman I met 26 years ago. We were working with homeless, usually gang-affiliated, abused and addicted youth. I had fallen into the job, or so I thought until I fell in love with it. She had chosen the field. Larger and taller than I with a mane of hair, her swaggering attitude and assertive words intimidated me some. She acted as if she knew everything and commanded those kids–at times aggravated them with her boldness. I didn’t like her at all, I thought she was hard and crass and I had seen or felt enough of that in life. I figured she should get a grip on her style if she was going to be an example to the youth. She obviously felt otherwise and we went our own ways if we could, throwing looks at each other in the charting room but cooperating on the job.

But we both smoked then and took our smoke breaks behind the building’s fence where the kids–forbidden to smoke–couldn’t see us or smell the smoke. Rather than stand silently, we got into various conversations. I offered just a little of who I was. She told me right off that I was “prissy, a nit-picker, too inexperienced in all ways for this work.” I didn’t show it, but it got to me enough that I shared a bit more of my story just to get her to stop the commentary. I figured she might respect me more if she saw beyond my “Miss Junior League” clothes (her idea but she wasn’t the only one to think such things), ingrained manners and reserved presentation. It almost seemed if I swore here and there she got more congenial, but I informed her I didn’t like it. We swapped a more stories, shared our last cigs with each other, then stopped the mutual hassling–mostly. (Much later we laughed over how to annoy or tease a person can mean you like them, a peculiar method of showing it.)We worked better and better together and the kids in the facility saw that, how such different personalities could work in tandem for their welfare. After four or five years I moved on to another job as did she. At best she was a good companion in our work and we laughed a lot once I got to know her more; at worst still rough-edged and hard to know more deeply. And I think we both figured that was that and “good luck to you.”

Oddly, or perhaps serendipitously, we found ourselves often working for the same agencies in our city. And on the same teams again. Or one of us would be leaving an agency and the other would be coming into it. We began to spend time after work, going out for coffee and catching up, sharing inside info about what we knew of places we worked or wanted to next work. And gradually I began to hear about her parents, siblings, lovers and partners, past mad exploits and current sobriety challenges, her foibles coming forward as well as many strengths. I learned she loves opera as well as Bonnie Raitt (we’ve attended five concerts) and Mavis Staples. And also live theater–so I took her to a musical theater performance and had a great evening. I soon knew that she is part Native American; we’ve been to a few pow wows together. I realized she’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, both with time and money. That she is devoted to whatever dog she has last rescued and made her own. That she loves to go to Las Vegas for glitzy extravagant shows, yet also has a fascination with politics and volunteers for various campaigns. That she dislikes the outdoors as much as I adore it. And that she will never marry–we accept this difference despite my being the marrying kind. She does, however help raise a great niece and adores the child despite bellyaching about her hi-jinks.

We are getting older now, yes. There are even more things we can guffaw like fools over when we meet and slurp the steaming drinks with sugary scones, muffins or rich chocolate cookies. I have had the pleasure of enjoying five of her dogs; the last, an unlikely cross between a terrier and a basset hound named Dave, is a peach. She is not well; she has not been since I first met her. She has recovered from some things and developed others, serious maladies. She walks with a cane and a major limp despite being younger than I, and I know she is in pain every single moment. She doesn’t talk about it unless there is a crisis; I don’t talk about my health issues, either–we have too little time to enjoy all the good, the absurd, the miraculous, the strange, the love that circulates about despite many barriers to it. She has long worked in a women’s prison, helping them learn new things and get better, find their way back to lives more worth living. She is tired out by it but she won’t stop as I have; she wants to do this until she cannot take another step, I think. She will do it because it is what she loves–and to stop might mean not so good things are ahead for her.

I certainly had not sized her up correctly at first meeting eons ago. (As well, she did not make the correct evaluation of my personhood; she saw externals and decided who I must be.) She was this whole entity with interesting facets, far less like her projected demeanor than I even surmised. I found in time that she’d become a dear companion, someone I find marvelous and can count on. Laugh and weep and celebrate with, as needed. Someone who always can count on me.

A beloved friend. Once a stranger, as I had been to her. We both had been in error.

I could write of many people admired and gradually loved. Though I am not as social these days and can feel a bit too alone, I know that despite my share of heartaches and horrors–some trying to throw me off what can seem like the tightrope of life– I’ve been gifted with wonderful people to care about. They each have entered my life as a surprise, for all the right reasons. (More so than the people I should have avoided and also, unfortunately, judged inaccurately.) I believe we ought to pay better attention, make discernments the best we can–but then we must take our chances. Give others the leeway for reassessment and perhaps acceptance into our lives. Otherwise, we miss out on finer, richer truths of other human beings, the kaleidoscope of insights, delights, and mutual enrichment.