Wintering

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Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Joe heard the snap of the door opening and the barest crack as she slammed it behind her. One more thing to have to repair sooner than later. He stubbed out his cigarette in the dirt of the dying African violet and glanced over his shoulder. Maddy stared at the picture window, eyes asquint in the late afternoon light,  pencil tight between her teeth. He imagined she was trying to see how hard she could bite down before it snapped but maybe that was his own feeling welling up. It was hard to say what she was feeling. They were alike that way.

The two of them had hunkered down early, right after breakfast. That’s when Isla had born that look of hers right into the living room and then back to the table then to the front door.

“I can’t stand the way the rooms turn in on you, the dust and smoke and silence choke me,” she said, shaking her mane of mahogany hair, trying to clear her head. “If there’s not more light soon, I’ll be gone to Arizona, wait and see, Joe Talford!” She touched the fern in the corner, then batted it. “The desert’s needing me, that makes it even harder! I’ve surely had enough!”

He found this amusing, as if a desert would need anyone. She meant You and Maddy don’t, so why put up with this endless snow and darkness if I get so little? It wasn’t true, they so needed her, just not so much like this.

She needed ubiquitous light like water needed sky, she felt not enough herself without it. She needed attention like the temperamental violet. He saw that and tried to do better even when he didn’t feel the urge. He’d never known anyone who required direct eye contact as much as Isla did. But then, he tended to be zeroing in on other things.

It was mostly this way every winter. Joe wasn’t sure if her tone had changed much but something in her shoulders had. The gentleness was eking away, the slopes had become ledges, sharp and taunting. At night in their cramped room if he’d reach for her, she’d surrender with little delight and afterward her warmth cooled so fast his hands were surprised. This Isla was not the Isla he knew and liked so well. But to be fair she’d had little idea what the winters were about when they’d moved back to his family’s land eight years ago. Words were nothing compared to reality.

“She didn’t take her gloves or button her coat,” Maddy noted.

“She’ll manage.”

Maddy chewed on the eraser, but when Joe lifted a bristly eyebrow at her, she lay the dented pencil on the table. What she really wanted was a cigarette. Her parents didn’t know she sneaked one from her dad’s pack once a week. She liked how the smoke shocked her mouth and lungs before sliding out in a mysterious whirl of smoke. She’d take one out back into the woods as she gathered kindling or followed a blue jay deeper down a packed, narrow trail or if it was about dark, just sat on the giant stump behind the tool shed, smoking away in peace. She liked how it made her feel foreign to her age, not quite fourteen but she felt she was leaning toward sixteen. But at sixteen she’d be close to executing her plan to get out of there: move into Marionville, start community college. Right now she could play at life a little. Pretend she was tougher than she felt, have a laugh all on her own. Sometimes she shared a smoke with Hanes, the boy down the road a half- mile, and the next time he’d bring one from his aunt’s pack. He was her age but smarter about some things, she thought, as he’d lived here all his life and his family before. But she never told him about her mom, though she could have. He’d likely know about cabin fever.

It had taken practice to not cry out when her mother took off like that. She used to run after her but her dad always caught her arm, tugged her back.

“She’s not going far, my girl, she only needs bigger space, more air awhile.”

“I know, but I want to go with her.”

“That’d be unwise. We’ll wait.”

He’d put one big flannel-clad arm about her and hold her still. Maddy knew what he meant even a few years ago but that didn’t make it any easier to see her mother unhappy. Mad as a trapped animal. Which she was, she told them many times. And they can get mean. Now Maddy didn’t even move from wherever she was.

She didn’t have the same problem as her mother; she couldn’t quite recall Arizona. The tightly sealed walls felt safe to her, the radiance of heat from the burning wood and its acrid-sweet fragrance lulled her into peace. And her dad was mostly how she liked him, quiet, and there when needed. He worked on illustrations from dawn to two or three in the afternoon (with lunch at his drafting table) and then he read or worked around the cabin or split more wood or went snowshoeing. She often went with him after school; sometimes her mom did, too, if it was a day when she found their life good or even enchanting again.

“Going up to the loft,” Maddy said, picked up her books and notebook, padded up steep steps in her heavy socks, ran past the narrow office space where her dad drew, slid past the half bath and into her room.

“Yep,” he said, too late to be heard.

Joe stirred in his chair, looked out the window. It’d been an hour since she’d left and he had work to finish and yet he sat. He knew she’d be at Twyla’s house (or Marty’s, her other good friend) by now after a long slog through snow in her heavy boots, so resisted calling her. He had a commission to finish in a week but was also intruded upon by a recent dream: a mad jumble of red rock, searing sand and scorpions with faces and Isla sailing about overhead. He’d liked the amazing desert plants and many mountain ranges, the sunrises and sunsets. He did some of his best work while they were there. But the brilliant sun was relentless, the merciless heat kept him caged like the snow did Isla.

In Arizona she had taught art to elementary school children but after twelve years she’d had enough of their racket and carelessness but even more, the yearly budget problems, having to buy her own classroom supplies. She quit and was at loose ends. Isla was meant to be a painter but the years of stressful teaching had taken a toll on the free flow of her own creativity. She had tried, found the well dry of much watercolor inspiration. She’d begun to sew everything from clothes to handbags to curtains. She sold a few things here and there, and then more and more.

And then Joe learned of his inheritance, the family land and cabin. They’d decided they could do the same work in the far north. But it was not easy for her. It was like an impossible course to run, she’d told him once in the middle of an argument, tipping a tentative truce, no more faking it.

“Or worse! It’s like a foot binding–I can’t even hobble about here with any sense of balance, can’t even take off my shoes most of the year much less walk freely in and out any day, any night, or even think half the time! My creative vision is dimmed by this–this pinched density of what you call God’s country! What I’d give to cut down all these trees to see the whole sky for once, Joe…”

He’d crouched by the wood stove while she’d gone on and on about how too much of the year she had too little nourishment, the outdoors and she had become estranged. She felt lost and small and sad. That night, like many, had ended with her tears and recriminations, his laying awake most of the night, awakening with a mean crook in his neck.

Yet Joe knew this: he loved her. He needed her in his life and so did their Maddy. And every winter crisis he feared she would not come back, either she’d perish or she’d find her way to the nearest airport. He had for years believed that the richness of the north country would loosen her with greater familiarity. That she’d learn to adore the dark rich earth and majestic forests, adapt to a rugged but comforting rural life. That she would delve into beauty, each season like magic as it spun new stories from old, the back country a balm, not a poison. He’d even believed each winter she’d made some progress. She enjoyed snow shoeing and watching birds and foxes and deer, the snow falling on the land like a pristine afghan, creating gentle shapes and bright swirls of ice on windows. He and Maddy had found their place. For Isla, it was never quite enough.

He saw with a shock that his wife was, heart and soul, a genuine desert flower. She could die here. Had all the anger and tears been warnings he had thought were passing eruptions?

He got up, pulled on his jacket and cap, grabbed her red woolen gloves and his stained leather ones and set out. It was not the first time but it had to be the last.

Maddy came out of her room and leaned over the loft railing as the door closed below her. She knew better than to follow. But she still wanted to as she eyed the sewing machine at one end of the living room. It’d been unused the past month, maybe more. She wondered if it was broken, like her mom might be, and a shiver of terror ran up and down her bones.

******

Isla knew her way around their little patch of country. She’d made the trek to Twyla’s or Marty’s often enough–or vice versa. The path through the acreage was covered partly as her last foray was a few days ago and more snow had laid itself down. Still, her feet knew how to find the trail to the fence and the broken slats where she either climbed over or pushed herself through the other side to Twyla’s a half mile away. She shoved her hands into her deep wool tweed pockets. It’d have been better to wear her so-called ski jacket and mittens but she’d been eager to leave Joe’s punishing silence, Maddy’s listening ears. Snow flurries danced about her face and barely skimmed the trees. Her mink-oiled boots squeaked on the path as snow packed down with each step.

Mustn’t forget Dan might be there. He was not the most sympathetic of men, neither easy to talk with or easy to avoid in a room, his bulk like that of one of the lovely beasts he liked to hunt and kill, whose heads adorned the walls. He seemed to want to stare her down. Twyla told Isla that he didn’t hear well so was straining to get all her words but Isla found him suspicious of any outsider. Joe was not one. His family owned the cabin and land for two, nearly three generations.

She knew Dan was expert at fixing all manner of ruined things. Twyla was stalwart and ingenious; she made do with little and made it look easy and good. She was born to this life, not the territory since she’d been raised in the upper Northeast but this was not so different. Isla and she would have had little in common except for Twyla’s quilting passion, her creative snug alongside her practical side. And, too, there was her nephew, Hanes, who she’d raised as her own. Maddy liked Hanes a lot. Isla could see why; he was resourceful, independent-minded and easy to look at. He taught her much about how to adapt there just as Twyla had done, or tried to do, for her. But Twyla knew Isla had not the heart for this life though she’d never said so. She had grown to like having neighbors who were an arty sort and Isla read to her as she quilted, helped Hanes with his homework sometimes.

Isla was grateful for this friendship; though hard to build at first, it was woven strong over the years there. But this time, she didn’t know what she’d tell her. It had started to seem like she could not stay in this land any longer. The past three months of winter nights had gotten rockier and mornings were shaped by sameness and chores and when she picked up the fabrics they felt heavy and useless in her hands. Her website had shown a dip in sales. She had so little motivation to fill orders, made excuses to customers and felt deeply embarrassed. If this kept on, she may as well quit. May as well pack her bags and go home.

“Home,” she said, her breath aloft in crystalline air. Then: “Arizona.”

She took an involuntary intake of the air and it hurt her lungs. She licked chapped lips and kept on, cold seeping into her flesh. The sky was low and thick with grey clouds as it always was in winter, no hope of sunlight getting through. In the distance, she barely made out smoke rising from Twyla’s chimneys. They had a fireplace in front as well as a woodstove in a back room–a sprawling house, larger than most if showing wear and tear. She could have called her friend but she was nearly always home this part of the day. They could show up at each other’s homes about any time. Dan would likely be gone.

There was a muffled sound behind Isla. She exposed an ear from her cap to listen and looked about but it was nothing, or a deer streaking through the pines as it saw her. She loved the wild creatures, it was true, this was the main part holding her here other than her own family. And sheer will. She started to leap-run across the field, boots sucked into the foot of snow at times, her strong legs pulling free. Heat soon radiated from her chest as she got closer to the side door, Her thicket of hair was damp so she pulled off her hat, stuffed it in a pocket and took long strides until she reached the steps.

The screen door was closed but the inside door was open.

Isla mounted the stairs fast. She pressed her face against the nylon mesh and peered into the darkened rooms.

“Hello? Twyla?…anyone?”

Nothing but the quiet crackle of flames in the fireplace. She pulled open the creaky door and entered the kitchen so redolent of apples, bananas and oranges in a bowl, fresh bread. She looked about, and in horror fell to her knees.

On the floor was Twyla, her legs and arms askew, wavy bottle-blonde hair now half-red as blood seeped and pooled on the cracked grey linoleum. Isla looked into her unfocused, half closed eyes, felt for a pulse so soft she wasn’t sure it was there, examined a gaping wound at the side of her head.

“She must have fallen, hit the counter edge!” She reached for her phone. Not in her pockets, nowhere.

“Mrs.T? … Isla?”

Her name careened through the rooms in a barely restrained scream. Hanes came around the corner with hands plastered to his face, breathing fast with cries caught in his throat, cell phone skidding across the floor.

“What happened, Hanes? Did you call for help?” She got up and put her hands on his boney forearms.

“She–she cried out, put a hand on her head, she fell, hit the counter edge… no not yet  I couldn’t find my phone at first…” He blinked back tears to no avail, face dazzled with fear. “What’s wrong with her? What do we do?”

She grabbed his phone, called 911, explained what she could then called Joe. No answer.

“What’s your uncle’s number, is it in here? Where is he?”

Hanes pointed out the door toward the woods, then ran to it, calling out his name. Hunting, likely; who knew if a signal would carry.

“Call him, Hanes. Tell him the ambulance will be here in less than fifteen minutes. Hanes!”

The boy was pressed against the screen door, looked about to run into the snow so she called his name again loudly. He turned and caught the phone when she tossed it. Dialed Dan. No answer.

She sat by Twyla, afraid to touch her but afraid not to and so she placed her hands on the woman and prayed. What to say? What words even mattered? She lowered her face to Twyla’s.

Keep this good woman alive, damn it, don’t let her go until she’d an old lady, she’s one we all need in the world. God, you hear me talking? We need help here. Save her from this trouble, such an ending. Give me a chance to love her more, for Hanes to know her longer, for Dan to care for her better. Lord, answer me with help now.

“I see someone,” Hanes whispered out the screen. “Who…?”

The sirens could be heard from a long way off, even through the tough old trees, even with the snow-laden earth and dull clouds that capped the world. She felt Twyla’s warmth and her blood saturating one jeans-clad thigh and time was a snail. Twyla’s face was so small. Isla closed her own eyes. Life was made of many smallnesses. Microscopic, really, such tiny moments and the fine-laced snow and shards of ice and cellular mystery of blood. Anguished and joyous hands of a child, this kind woman dying right in her bountiful kitchen. Her life staining Isla’s own skin, the wind freezing tears on her nephews–no, her boy’s–face. And it becomes an infinite flood of life careening here and there, you don’t know how much it all matters until its being torn into jigsaw pieces, life strewn across sand and dirt. If only she saw more good in the scheme, felt less the struggle. Twyla did. Gave much more than sought for herself.

Oh, Twyla.

Two hands fell upon her shoulders, someone’s breath warm on her neck as chill air moved about her.

“Isla, you can let go of her now.” Joe pulled her up, engulfed her in his arms. “Isla, they’re here for her. Could be a stroke but she’ll live, they think–thanks to you, my love.”

*****

It can happen just like that, she thought later as she sat with Dan and Joe, Maddy and Hanes and Twyla on the front porch. One day you believe you know what’s best for you and then the next you see how little you ever knew and everything changes and life goes one in a decent, even finer, way.

“Snow’s about done and look at that petal!” Twyla noted happily to Isla.

Dan smiled, teeth barely showing. “Spring is coming, as usual.” He looked at Isla and Joe with quite a bit less of a squint. “You made it another winter. Stayin’ on again?”

“Not sure, we’ll see,” Joe said but his voice held hope as much as caution.

Maddy elbowed Hanes, lifted an eyebrow. He returned the knowing look and they got up and went around the back of the cabin.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure we’re staying for another year, anyway,” Isla said  as she laced her fingers with Joe’s.

Flowers, some with snow 102

 

There is Good Coffee Alone, Then There is Coffee with My Friend

I visit a suburban coffee shop right after I get work done at the dentist. And if I feel restless, unfocused or a bit lonely I can head to my area “close-in” (interesting word for inner city near the river, gradually gentrified and booming) city streets to mix with others who are sipping a latte or macchiato or double espresso. Coffee shops abound in my city and they are always busy. Within a few blocks I have my choice of a half dozen, and a 5-10 minute drive will take me to another twelve (or more). I found conflicting numbers regarding how many Portland metro area offers, but it is may lie somewhere between 750-850 shops (one source stated at least 1200, not too shocking). And then there are the cafes which offer lighter food offerings with their impressive array of coffee as well as fine teas.  I have favorite stops in my neighborhood but I won’t deign to rate them as I’m no coffee snob. I go where it’s friendly, the drinks go down easy and don’t agitate my stomach while the decor doesn’t startle or bore me too much. Though I can order a fresh cup at a tiny hangdog roadside stand and be fulfilled as I drive away.

I have always loved tea and have become more a tea person over the years (this stomach is fussy). Still, I enjoy a good cup now and then, especially an expert Aztec mocha made with almond milk, no whip. Add a tasty scone or banana or zucchini bread. That specific drink is found at Insomnia Coffee in the suburbs, and I look forward to visiting following each dentist appointment. Since I’m a frequent patient–they treat me like family–this is a grand motivator for me to endure with acceptance any indignities that are forthcoming. Last Monday I stopped as usual at Insomnia but to my dismay it was being remodeled.  What a let down, I thought the interior is great. I’m hoping this is a good sign, they’ll be back with bigger or better changes. But there are other choices, of course, though I went home to nurse my own cold brew mocha before the numbness wore off.

It got me thinking, though, how big a role coffee shops and/or cafes play in my life and apparently most people’s– at least in the Northwest, place of chilled rainy winters (but long clear summers). There are so many bars and eateries here where scores of people drop loads of money but I don’t drink alcohol and am not a big foodie. Thus, coffee and tea with lighter fare are mainstays. I go in search fairly often, as Portlanders do, for these. (We are reputedly just third in the country for most coffee drinkers–Seattle and San Francisco beat us a bit.)

I like the fact that these shops are meeting places and they support our artisan culture. I like the civilized air that presides in such businesses no matter how humble, how varieties of people come together and don’t find anything to fight about despite a good caffeine buzz. And most of our coffee shops are independently owned, despite Starbucks’ ubiquity (only 295 here owned by them…) and they do thrive. Beyond that it’s the atmosphere, usually cozy, sometimes sophisticated, and wall to wall packed with humans. (And sometimes dogs; Portland is dog heaven, one wonders if they are the actual ruling class here.) I muse over how we can be shoulder to shoulder yet claim our bit of privacy, too, and everyone goes about their own business–or not, if given to spontaneous conversations. Often computers dominate the tables, though, another pro for coffee shop hounds.

Just last Saturday morning my friend Brenda and I met to catch up. We live thirty minutes or more away depending on traffic so we usually talk on the phone, then meet up as we can. We were in the atmospheric Costello’s Travel Cafe, started after a young man traveled the world, then returned with a vision for a family business. (Other good spots for us include Grand Central Bakery, Jim and Patty’s, Townshend Teas, Stumptown, Caffe D’Arte, Petite Provence, Fleur de Lis, Peet’s, Cadillac Cafe–yes, it showcases a real, very pink vintage Cadillac inside). We thought we might be out of luck getting a table but spotted a narrow one pressed against a front window. She snagged it as I got in line to order at the counter, then she took a spot in the longer line as I sipped my mug of coffee and tasted a mixed berry scone. One comes armed with patience at coffee shops or you might even stand outside to snag a table or even a bench as someone leaves. Or up and find another nearby spot.

We had a good view of full tables outdoors–it was chilly but no rain. There was sheer blue sky above houses turned into businesses, a few older offices. Pedestrians attired in various fashions or lack thereof, hard to say, sauntered by. There also stood a medium sized, buff colored, luxuriously furred mutt tied up at a bike rack. He’d accompanied a couple of guys who sat across from him. That dog attracted everyone who passed, like honey for bees, though he did nothing but sit, then stand assuredly, a model of a dog. Perhaps that was it–he didn’t set off alarms and was just being gorgeous.

“Watch this,” Brenda said, “his parents should check that dog and talk to the owner first but there some nutty kid goes!”  She sloshed about the tea bag in a bowl-shaped cup, started on a generous slice of cinnamon coffee cake while fascinated by the child’s seemingly reckless actions. “Too late!”

This from a woman whose own dog, Gypsy, growls at me most of the time I get into her car despite having known him all his life. I bare my own teeth in a smile that may be a half-grimace. It’s the protective nature of the beast. Only Brenda has the magic touch. But the owner of the cafe dog had no concerns plus he’d been trained to be nicer…perhaps. Gypsy hasn’t worried me, even lets me pat his head with his mistress’ assurances.

The perhaps four year old boy plunged his hands into all the lovely fur, ruffed it up good as a series of squeals rushed forth. The dog looked at him from the corner of his eye but was pleased to offer enjoyment. The child was loathe to leave–only his parents tugging hard at him pried him off. The next child, an older girl, put her head on the dog’s back and hugged him. Several others paused to pet and speak to the animal who was the most popular being on the block.

I was about to dash out to get my admiring moments in but asked Brenda just how she was doing. Brenda offered a health update which has not been very good for a long while, and then came scenarios involving her six year old niece (for whom she provides care every week-end),  and her work with women prisoners (also in treatment for addiction) at a correctional facility. The stories get longer the farther she moves from her health.

All this when a small round table to the right was not three feet away. A young man with laptop had been joined by two female strangers who chatted away, voices medium quiet so he was not disturbed. Brenda’s voice doesn’t lend itself to sotto voce even when it might be applicable. We just mostly talk as if we’re alone. Anyway, the room resounded with conversations; we joke that we’ll next need hearing aids that also block out others. But it’s another coffee shop/cafe with a reputation for talkative gatherings, soccer game gatherings and other events, with worldwide travel footage on two screens. One might be in Europe for all the languages ping-ponging around.

“My niece is a lovable terror, she knows too much and says it all and she always needs attention! I’m very happy to give it. I love that kid.” She laughs from the belly. “Rug rats, that’s what I called children, aye? Not ever my fate! Now I’m a doting aunt. Huh, karma, maybe!”

Her grey–blue eyes squinted in warm light brightening everything. She shook out long, still-damp, reddish-brown hair so it was artlessly arrayed. Her Native American genes show up in rising cheekbones and how they sit next to other features, her circuitous storytelling, and becoming still, taciturn when emotion runs deep.

She sat half-sideways; we were that close to the wall, but not uncomfortable. She is ten years younger than I but walks in pain every step. Never complaining unless it is so bad she can’t contain it. Her wild life story is evident in her face but so is a quirky good humor. Brenda finds life generally funny despite the horrors humans live through (or do not). She maybe should retire from her work as the battle her body fights takes its toll but she loves her clients, is committed to being of service to others. This is all she knows to do.

She’s been talking about life span lately, how fast it all goes, how it is best to seize every day and find it good before it seeps away. I know she means both of us–my heart problems, her multiple issues. But more often I sense in her some clouded if infinite horizon as she talks, see the wisp of a most uncertain future in her gaze. I look away for the sharp hurt it brings. And then she is back in the present with a joke and I talk about my adult kids and writing–she has never read it and I have never asked, it’s not needed for she knows me at heart–and the ways of my marriage and our recent trips. She cares for her elderly and similarly feisty mother, travels occasionally but only to hear music, Las Vegas or San Francisco. Once long ago she she took a cruise ship. She listens to my life as I do hers. She want to have lunch with a daughter and me.

We talk about the concert we’re attending in late spring. She has bought tickets (she buys online the first minute) for every Bonnie Raitt concert we could go to–is it five or six or even more, now?– and then I always ask what my portion is. Demand it.

“So just how much is my ticket to this concert? I know it costs a lot, this is Bonnie Raitt  and James Taylor, come on! We’re in the ninth row, the middle!”

She waves my words away, shakes her head. “You can get me dinner before and a t-shirt! We’re all set to go.”

“You’re impossible, you always say this when you know I can pay my way and am glad to do it. How can I possibly repay you?”

“I like to do this, you’re my friend, go with the flow.” She grinned, closed the topic.

I think over where we might eat before the concert. Think how I can never do enough for her, she won’t often accept it. But I am her friend.

It has been over twenty-five years since we met, working at a facility for gang-affiliated, addicted, abused and homeless youth. We did not trust each other, only grew to like each other when we took smoke breaks together. We stood near the locked doors at night and under eaves if it rained or sat on the curb if it was daytime, clear skies. Made coffee runs together to breath a bit.  She initially noted I was “too Miss Junior League and sorta snooty” and I found her dominating, quickly abrasive. I felt tempted to smack her some moments but of course, professional hopes and good sense corralled irritation. We discovered we were far more than what the eye could decipher: she was interested in both God and politics as well as the arts, especially music-. Not just her beloved blues but opera (though she didn’t and doesn’t like jazz, to my consternation). Treating people with respect despite the sharp edges she had. And I was no delicate cream puff, not by a long shot, having lived life on and off many edges if not right in the street. She later said she suspected that, she just had to test me to see,  but she was surprised I could handle such tough kids. I soon appreciated her frankness and gave it right back. We laughed hard, something I had forgotten I could do. I liked that we laughed at ourselves, too.

The cafe was buzzing. She picked at her cake as I finished my scone, her voice trailing off as she finished responding to my sharing. She was tired. I glanced at my phone to check the time. I had a commitment with another friend later, a wealth of good times for one day.

“Ready for the music hunt?” I asked.

“Sounds good, sis-tah.”

We exited for Part 2 of visiting. This was how it went when we got together–coffee or tea with food, then music, then maybe something else. (She rarely comes to my upper floor apartment as the stairs are too much to tackle.) After checking on a congenial Labradoodle dog–the Royal Furry One had left– we took off for the independent music store we love. It has an intimate, cavernous semi-darkness and the various music played, loud. After twenty minutes Brenda was empty-handed while I’d found a jazz trio. She was coughing, that cough that would not let go, and her steps had been more halting after we’d parked. Despite all, she laughed it off, as ever: “I get premium parking in handicapped spots since hips and foot went bad!” The surgeries helped but not enough.

A broad-shouldered woman, taller than I am, she commands a room even when feeling compromised. It’s her air of authority right or wrong, the laser-like vision and instinct that scans a scene, her way of asserting that she’s able to hold off any threat as necessary with her will or a few choice, well-paced words that ring in heads for long moments after. She stands as she lives, with courage and clarity, exudes a passionate interest in life. Even when she, herself, may be vulnerable. Of course, she is just a person felled by what most are felled by even while asserting it’s all good, she’s got this. And I stand by her.

A narrow window revealed the sun sliding behind thickening clouds. We both had other things to do, not like some days when our agendas are clear so we can waste time and do things like shop at Target for nothing special or visit a dog park so Gypsy is freed from the back of her car.

In the car, she stated, “Don’t put that CD in, I don’t want to hear “your crazy-ass jazz.” I retorted,  “I don’t want to hear all those moaning blues, either.” That’s how we are sometimes, smart-mouthed, quick to point out differences that are really just a few steps apart, like the span between chartreuse and pine green.

Next time. There has always been a “next time” year after year, and we have each changed. She’s gotten more careful with language and more pensive. I have found more joy and peace, shed my reserved amour some. Perhaps we’ll meet at a pretty place that has fifty fine teas in big glass jars or  at a spartan setting with bagels and cheaper coffee or a brunch spot where we’ll wait for fifteen minutes and the superior coffee costs a fortune. It may be a hideaway coffee shop with a spacious patio and vines snaking up a fence; there’ll be flowers blooming soon. She’ll fuss about pesky, noisy birds and I’ll offer a few nature stories gathered during hikes. We’ll sip and snack and talk about things, the hardest and the easier, the idiocy of this world and the beauty we still find.

Next year she may feel better, maybe not. Likely not. But we have this stellar friendship, and Bonnie Raitt again in June, that much I will count on despite life being fickle and this flesh wears out bit by bit, mostly without our permission.

I cannot begin to imagine all those fine coffee shops without Brenda.

The Cost of a Good Day’s Lunch

It’s not often that he goes to Gideon’s for lunch but today is a good day so he celebrates with a small act of charity for himself. Charlene at the office suggested they share a meal but he persisted in watching his computer screen until she went away. It is better this way; she is loud and sometimes uncouth in ways that can annoy him, like slopping coffee when putting the pot back on the hotplate  or noting that so-and-so has about gone bald this year or clipping her shoulder painfully as she rushes around a corner. Not that Peter is the most graceful or civilized person. But he tries to be, at least at work, whereas she tends to let things fall where they may, words included, though her work is good. She sits four cubicles away from him, so there is relief in that. But he still sneaks around at times to avoid her; it depends on his mood he’s noticed.

“I’ll have to hogtie you one of these days, then take you out on my own dime to see what else can develop,” Charlene informed him once in the elevator, smiling rather wickedly before flouncing off. He has been afraid she might manage it somehow, and that image is not pleasant but its funny, too. He can’t imagine why she persists when he tends to feel flattened by such boldness.

To be fair, Peter avoids most people, they are all too much in some way. He has one good friend and their camaraderie is based on passion for video games, something they can’t quite abandon despite closer to thirty than they ever imagined. They get together on every other Saturday night to play and compete and share a couple beers and pizza. Peter doesn’t much like pizza but Tim does; they both enjoy the strange trance that playing provokes when adrenaline kicks in. Other than Tim and his sister, Everly, who lives twelve blocks north and occasionally comes by on a Sunday (though they text once or twice a week), his world is solitary. He prefers it that way, overall. He has had more friends but they end up being a distraction from his research on gemstones or forest canopies or alternative fuels–whatever grabs his interest. Gaining knowledge is his main activity after the workday at Drummond Systems. It staves off the bleakness that creeps in like mildew, a little at a time until it cannot be eradicated.

But today he has received clear praise from his manager. It goes a long way in scrubbing the grayness from his cynical being even if it is temporary. To prolong the upwelling of happiness he felt after supervision, he has come to Gideon’s on Rose Terrace Boulevard, so-called because there is an old and neatly terraced rose garden across from the restaurant.  Peter glances at the garden as he pushes the door open; it has a long way to go before pruned bushes grace them all with greenery and showy blossoms. When they erupt into color he will come more often, maybe twice a month until they die down again. A small extravagance he allows each summer.

“Mr. Ellison, welcome back.”

The hostess nods at him and he follows her. He has been coming here off and on for six years yet he still forgets her name, he could be more mindful. When seated he glances at her name tag, Ursula, that’s it alright. He smiles at her and when a new waitress arrives with coppery curls and an overbite he smiles and orders what he often does, a club sandwich on triple toasted sourdough with a premium dill pickle. And then he sighs audibly, glad to be here, and sips ice water.

Matt Carter has been a tough boss to please. In fact, very few do and Peter has not been different in that respect. But he wants to move up, make more money so he can save for a bicycle trip to Holland or France, perhaps both, he works harder and longer hours than most. So the talk today acknowledged this; Mr. Carter knows a loyal and upward bound employee when he sees one, and Peter Ellison is fast becoming most expert in his domain. A bonus is due.

It might actually happen, his trip, maybe a promotion before he knows it. Peter gleefully looks about the open space with its casual but certain loveliness as if to spread his unexpected good cheer. Everyone is, of course, busy with others or on phones or staring out the window. He gazes out at a news stand and the cars inching by, and imagines telling Tim, then wonders if it will matter or if he will be envious since he’s stuck in a low paying, tedious sales job. Everly will shriek and throw her arms about him so he’ll have to pry her off. He might call her at her museum job so she’ll maintain a calmer demeanor. He chuckles. She’s three years older, is kind and protective of him ever since their parents split up when he was sixteen. If he calls them tonight,  Dad and Mom will murmur “Good work, Peter, really, it’s about time”, then swamp him with details of their busy lives until he begs off and hangs up. No, he won’t share it with them. Not yet, he wants it to be his good news, safe and sound.

Looking down at his glass beading up from warmth of his hand, he removes it and studies a ragged cuticle, picks at it until it reddens.

Lunch arrives. Peter reaches for his earphones when someone roars with laughter. He looks  over at the red-faced, bulky man in a charcoal grey suit. He tenses, rumples his napkin. He’s so like his father, boisterous, big, commanding attention of two others at his table. Both Peter’s parents excel in making their presences known. It was a chore for Everly and him to be properly seen so they got by those years like overlapping shadows until they moved to this sprawling city for college and work. Let their parents have their world, they had made their own; sometimes they got together, but not too often.

He plugs in to a playlist of electronic music and takes a big bite. Savors tang and saltiness, crunch and chewiness, feels lucky to have a place like this to enjoy lunch. To feel a little relieved and even good about his success today. Peter half-closes his eyes as he follows along with the music softly soothing his brain, is in a silver roadster and head out on the highway, the top down, the wind gleefully wrecking his hair, and he’s headed to the mountains when there is a fast flick of a sinuous tail, almost a snap at his shoulder. Peter’s eyes widen.

A dingy white and rusty brown cat. Parading along a low room divider as if performing for treats, tail swaying, head high. It then licks a paw a couple seconds. There was never any mascot at Gideon’s, certainly no breathing, licking, scratching cat so what is it doing here, a restaurant at lunchtime? It thrusts its head at Peter, sniffs, whiskers twitching, then pulls back and primly sits right above his table. The cat–a girl, Peter decides–has no intention of leaving him to his sandwich, it smells wonderfully of thick bacon and turkey and ham so he looks nervously about for his waitress who’s at the far end of the room. Waves at her but she moves away. The next table’s occupants don’t notice the cat as they’re intent on coffee and dessert, so Peter shoos the creature away, who simply follows his hand with bobbing head, then eyes the food. He pulls out the ear buds, unnerved. Takes a bite, then another and chews with mouth shut and stares at the cat in defiance of its motives to make ruin of his meal. How irksome and odd to have a cat present. It has to have run in when a door opened wide.

Peter overall feels neutral about animals unless they’re in the wild, then he’s all eyes and ears. They’d had a terrier when growing up but he got hit by a taxi in a rush to get their father to the airport. That was that. Everly asked for a cat once but the answer was a resounding negative; their mother found them fussy and unpredictable. His sister now had no time for pets; Peter had no inclination.

“Go!” Peter commands of the calm statuesque cat.

“Oh dear, where did this one come from? Now aren’t you something, pretty thing?”

Marcy, the name tag announced, is smiling at the cat despite a tremor of alarm in her high voice. She pushes back long wispy bangs. Squints, reaches out with lips pursed as if about to kiss the furry thing but her plan is to grab and hold on despite fear of scratches. The cat leaps down and behind half-wall so she moves slowly around the end, whereupon the cat darts between her legs, under Peter’s table. He can feel its warm body atop his shoe and moves the foot but it moves, too, remains there wedged between the wall and the world, a benign bulk settling in.

“I need to tell the manager,” Marcy says frowning.”A shame, such a pretty feline. Not yours, I assume?”

“No, no, I was enjoying my meal and it appeared as if invited.”

Marcy giggles. “It likes you, apparently.” She looks under the table a moment. “We could offer it some bacon.”

Peter shakes his head emphatically. “Not acceptable to encourage finishing off my meal.”

“Oh, right, sorry, sir, it might just do that.” She leaves in search of the manager.

Peter pushes the cat off his foot with the other foot. It remains close at his ankle, purrs, rubs its head on his pant leg.

“Leaving your fur on me, are you? You need to go.”

It persists with rubbing its head on his pants. Peter  looks under the table again, worries his pressed jeans pants will be hairy with cat fur, shakes his leg. It–she?–stops but stares at him without any concern and rumbles its purr even more.

“I got a bonus today and you had to interrupt my victory meal. Why not bother someone else? I never much cared for cats.”

The next two tables’ occupants have taken notice and watch with either distaste or amusement. He reaches under, tries to snag the cat but it slips around the barrier.  It has begun to feel like a battle being lost so he quickly finishes the sandwich, determined to get back to work late. The cat reappears, disappears, hides under the table. About the time he is ready to get the check, the manager rushes toward him.

A lanky man with a long nose, he looks down through thick black rimmed glasses toward the floor, then at Peter and the others.

“I am so very sorry. This has never happened before. I’ll deal with it, don’t worry.” He studies Peter, his features exuding regret. “It didn’t nab your lunch, sir, did it?”

“No, she must be full of mice as she might have made a pounce for it. May I have the bill, please?”

The manager beckons Marcy, whispers to her, reiterates regrets to him then finds the recalcitrant cat. Swiftly he grabs her by scruff of the neck so four legs stick out straight, then they rush between tables toward the front doors. Out she goes. Peter can just see this from his spot, tossed out just like that. He wonders if the cat’s fate is to scrape by and die on the street.

“No charge, sir, we’re so sorry this happened but hope you’ll return,” Marcy says, blue eyes downcast–but no tip, either.

Peter unfolds himself from his chair, smiles vaguely in her direction. “How generous of you. Crafty cat. No worries, I’ll be back.” He gathers ear buds and phone, gets his wallet out and tucks a tip at plate’s edge as she steps away, lips parting to reveal bright big teeth. He grabs his backpack, eager to leave it all, and exits. Marcy finds him attractive in a disheveled, studious way, hopes next time he remembers her name.

Once outdoors, Peter consults his watch–ten minutes for two blocks–and steps forward, nearly squashing a mass of something. He just catches himself from falling and it yowls–damned cat! She’s been lurking, wishing to hold him up. Now she slinks along the building’s wall and eyes him suspiciously. Maybe she’ll at last go, he’s fed up with shenanigans when he just wants a few more moments to celebrate on the walk back.

She dashes out into the street as a truck lumbers up to the corner so that Peter must run out and hold up his hands to stop honking traffic, then scoops her up, presses her writhing mass to his chest and makes for the corner right by the garden. He plops on a bench, clutching her. She stops wiggling, pokes her nose at his, licks it to his mild dismay. Now he will have to be responsible, how can you not be when you save a life? Isn’t it a spiritual law?

Peter accepts he will now be late. He worries…he knows his boss will not like it–but he will also overlook this slight error of his man of the hour. The cat settles in his lap as he takes out his phone. It rings three, four times and he is about to hang up when it is answered.

“Everly, what are you doing after work? I have news, work-wise and otherwise, can’t say what just now. A surprise, yes. We can order take out, Indian.” He pets the cat firmly. “I have a favor to ask, also, not that big, maybe just advice.” The cat tries to turn a full circle on his now-ruined lap. “Good, see you at seven.”

When Peter enters the office he walks right to Charlene who is startled by his sweaty face. He crooks his finger at her and she gets up, follows him into the empty break room.

“Hold on, now, I just have a chore to ask of you.”

“What’s that?” she asks, curls shimmering at him.

“Where can we keep a cat until I leave?”

“A cat? Here? A real live one?”

“Sshhh!” He lifts his backpack, undoes the flap buckle so two ears and a pointy face pop out.

“Hello, gorgeous! How exciting, Peter, I never imagined you—”

“Pipe down, Charlene, this is serious, I can’t leave work until five but this cat followed me, more or less…so where to keep it? Without being found out and duly dismissed, both of us?”

“Oh, well, there’s the storage room, put it in a box maybe. I do sit right by the door, no one can get in without my knowing. I’ll check on it a couple times. Hopefully it won’t be noisy. I even have leftover ham sandwich, we have milk here, I can feed it if it fusses.” She beams up at Peter. She’s finally gotten into his good graces. Or will soon. “I hope it doesn’t make any messes, though…”

“Perfect, you’re a titan of fine ideas. I really appreciate it. And if you want a cat at the end of the day…”

“No thanks, I have a white poodle puppy to oversee.”

He shrugs, hands off his backpack and she takes over as he lopes back to his cubicle. He turns at his desk and goes back.

“Want to go out sometime, maybe?”

“I passed a test or something?”

She looks undone by his question and it tickles him.

“Maybe.”

“Sure, of course, why not?”

She almost glows some moments, he thinks, like a peachy-orange sunrise moving along the horizon.

Peter returns to work. He has plenty to do and he’s no slacker, that’s for sure. Neither is he a cat person much less a people person. He hypothesizes that life changes at times without his full approval or understanding. But he suddenly feels ready for more happenstance; he’ll figure out the necessary details and make a few accommodations as need be.

 

Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

Lawrence W. Guenther and Edna Kelly, two examples of very good teachers, shown on their 50th anniversary (my parents, now deceased).

For a moment as a teenager, I thought I might become a teacher. My DNA prompted this. My parents were educators. My father taught a variety of musical instruments, how to be a part of a successful orchestra, music history and music theory and even how to educate youth about music. My mother taught all ages and subjects in a one room country school, and later in several urban elementary schools. A grandfather (and my father) taught about the Bible in church while being county superintendent of public schools; he was all about teachers and teaching. I had an uncle who taught music, flute, particularly, but also composition and more at a university; another uncle taught students sports and health. There’s a cousin who has taught high school students music and given private string lessons for decades. There are others like this perched in our family tree, as this was one of the legacies handed down–like being a dog breeder/trainer or a dentist or shop owner or artist. Generational work expectations yet thrive. And many heed that clarion call. For us, it wasn’t just teaching but primarily teaching music.

Some of my older siblings also wanted to teach subjects such as English, history, psychology. A brother taught at a college and a sister taught high school. Another brother completed his required practice teaching of music education in pubic schools, but that was the end of it. They all gave the idea up though they gave private music lessons, no doubt– a good way to garner extra cash. But they focused on professional music careers, most also adopting a business, human services or military career. I had many industrious role models to observe yet after that passing impulse to teach, I was sure I’d always be involved in the arts. Doing them, not teaching them. It didn’t seem possible at 13 that I would not as my passion was that unquenchable.

It wasn’t that there weren’t positives to recommend teaching. It was clear to me this was an honorable profession. I just loved performing and creating, either alone or with like-minded groups. I also frankly deducted that teaching people various skills plus disseminating diverse ideas and a ton of information required a huge amount of energy and work. By contrast, engaging in artistic pursuits seemed more fun, less exhausting. I, after all, watched my parents prepare for each day’s lessons, grade assignments, worry over students needing extra attention or to be given the boot; commiserate over parental interference or unspoken and unhealthy domestic matters; or funding for next year’s educational needs. And this was labor beyond what was undertaken in class rooms five long days a week. I saw how much their devotion cost them even as they gave their lives over to guiding each child and adolescent as she/he discovered excitement of learning,  and overcoming insecurities in class and beyond. Being a teacher made a difference in lives. I still hear how my parents influenced others in positive ways, not just in school subjects but in life. Love can be transferred via teaching, I think; they cared that much for and helping others. I saw this at home, as well, as they were always teaching us something, their excitement in sharing overflowing.

I’ve had several good teachers, many not remembered, some not even useful in my quest for knowledge and fledgling mastery. My own music teachers (cello and voice, mostly) were strict and meticulous, even unyielding and before I had left school I knew classical performance was not for me. There was too little good humor in my fine teachers, too much of the tyrant–perhaps they felt they had to be that way to get perfected results. Or because my father ought not be let down. I’d leave lessons knowing I could perform classically yet it meant less to me each year, even as I made good strides. I longed to, for example, sing folk music, belt out blues and jazz and Broadway tunes. These I was taught by records, other musicians, other aficionados– and did sing these genres a few years. By high school I sought on my own the means by which to keep my own passions ignited and the dreams aloft.

Then I took Advanced Placement English with Mrs. X., excited to have the best teacher I might ever have–so I imagined.

It was a strange–yet familiar–sort of year. I had not been doing well as I battled with PTSD, downing mostly prescribed tranquilizers and barbiturates to sleep and illicit amphetamines to stay awake several times a week, sometimes daily. Plus, some of this and that to further make it tolerable. I did not understand how complicated it was even though I had been resided in a psychiatric ward in a far city for a couple of months, recovering from what everyone determined was acting suicidal. I truly had felt they were more of I can’t stand this state of being anymore but who has useful answers that don’t hurt even more? sorts of actions and words. I wanted a break with assistance but got far more than bargained for, in a place that wasn’t very tolerable. But they offered me more drugs.

The transition to home once more was rocky, marred by suppressed anger and overt anxiety on both sides. My much older siblings had long flown the coop so there were no sibling distractions. It was the parents and me and the same deeply hidden sexual abuse history resulting from countless times with the man my oldest sister had been married to a few years. She likely thought she loved him after briefly knowing him. She also wanted to escape her four year, full tuition music scholarship for cello at a prestigious university without a loss of face, without letting our parents down–those scared her far more then. (It has taken six long decades to say who it was in public. My cherished sister passed nearly three years ago, long and happily free of him. He was an elementary school teacher. Time’s Up.) Things were not at all clear, though my body and soul sustained remnants of ruinous events that haunted me day and night. It was like I was running in mud, getting nowhere better.

But I was making do, piecing things together again. And I was writing, as usual– even when I wasn’t, the words kept working away– and it was one of the means by which I was able to keep going. And hoping. I felt an ardor for story, for language, and discoveries of wide ranging knowledge.

Getting into Mrs. X’s class was very  hard, everyone wanted to be with her, even those who feared her which was the majority. From the externals, one might never guess Mrs. X. wielded an influential magnetism that drew English students. She possessed intellectual prowess mixed with arrogance and pushed students to their limits. Perhaps even beyond. I wanted in because I qualified and because I wanted to write a lot more, far better. I knew she could teach me how. I made the cut.

That first week in autumn I sat in her class, it surprised me how many seemed at ease with her, as if they knew her well. Some had had her as their teacher the year before, but I wasn’t quite motivated to pursue entry since there were other goals and trials to address. It seemed she favored a handful–not so frankly but by implications. I was bothered by this–wasn’t teaching supposed to be more fair, especially when you had a room full of excellent students preparing for college? Or was this when it got harder, as competition among students ramped up? It seemed the latter. So I diligently prepared and completed assignments, spoke up in class (easy as  I enjoyed oral communication, too). I thrived on discussions of writing genres, techniques and far ranging literature, debates about the merits and failings of our own work. I did well, but not as I’d imagined. My essays and papers were decorated with bold red marks and comments that undercut my confidence and enlarged my understanding. I could see what she meant, what I had to amend. I did wonder how it was that I could write with the best of the group but a few still captured top grades. I observed further and intuited it might be in the nature of relationships, as well as their style and topics about which they expounded. One had to be edgy, witty and cynical–and , arch. Or sparely romantic in tenor but justifiably,, elegantly, no whiff of sentimentality. A twist of existential romanticism, I thought, and how odd that read. Not my style.

But I had to know what was going on beyond the classroom parameters.

I was invited to Mrs. X’s home along with maybe 4 or 5 others that winter after school on a Friday. It was ostensibly to talk about a collaborative class project but when I arrived there were pizzas and soft drinks; music lilted in the background. Her husband wandered in and out; he was a photographer, seemed gently distracted. The older students of Mrs. X’s got comfortable on couch and chairs or floor and as talk rose and fell, food was scooped up. I joined in the camaraderie, that inner circle of delights where the teacher treated students like equals. She offered her philosophy about life and art, not only English literature. A plain yet appealing woman, her bespectacled face glowed when she got going, and as time passed the more eloquent she became, words like silver balloons in the gathering dark, messages of adult wisdom that floated into our open minds. Those at her feet looked up at her with dreamy smiles, nodding. There were cross connections made between favorite authors , their morsels of insight and we discerned how those applied to our daily living: my breath caught in my chest as if a door opened. This was the writing group I was looking for. They were bright, articulate; she was so capable and, it turned out, generous with time and ideas. Such succor–she was leading us along the road to greater things and I was “in.” Yet, I felt wary even as I laughed and critiqued with the others.

I felt more at ease as gatherings occurred month after month, if also more uncertain of the growing intimacy. I was not that trustful. I worried that a couple seemed enamored of her presence and even saw her on their own. I thought this might not bode well for them or her, though her hospitality was authentic. We savored folk and blues, protest music played within that rarefied atmosphere, the candles and incense burned, the alcohol students sneaked in and drank without any comment (though I never drank), such heady conversations. Philosophical weavings. Being among the elect. Respected as more than “just kids.”

Mrs. X was there for us, for very few when they were faltering, it appeared. She basked in our affection and awe; we warmed in her direct gaze. My work output and quality changed; my grades were excellent. Mrs. X. welcomed me each day into her classroom as if I deserved an honored spot. It was as if we were special friends in the making but even better to me, she, the teacher, wanted to refine my rougher ability.

That spring following the winter, however, things got tougher again outside of school life. My grades were a seesaw, excepting, so far, AP English. I had those confounding emotional matters but needed to figure out how to recover alone, how to juggle drugs and a facsimile of normalcy as a teenager while starting to date more. I thought I might be in love but had no confidence it could be a safe or fully reciprocated love. I felt split behind head, heart and body at times.

At some point as the tender yellow forsythia bloomed and tulips were parading their wiles, I crashed again. My wrist was sewn up after avoiding temptation of overdose by becoming “blood sisters” with my best friend, an action ill-imagined and badly executed. It was another impulsive, scary thing to cause more worry for the parents and more anguish for me. After staying home a few days, by an act of will I returned to school. I felt if I just kept on getting up and living life I might get through it all and end up where I wanted to be: at ease in the world, fully engaged in all I still valued. I vowed to give up all illicit drugs, at least. I vowed to be industrious again and hopeful.

A research paper had been due for Mrs. X’s class before that event. I had barely gotten it finished, much less proofread and well edited, but it was late so I handed it in. Classmates gazed at my bandaged wrist as it edged from beneath my shirt sleeve. Swallowing deep embarrassment, I slunk back to my seat.

The following Monday I was handed back my paper. A failing grade. I sat in class deaf and dumb, afterwards spoke with her.

“I missed school for a week. I had a very bad time of it, I think you saw that, so why are you being so hard on me?”

She looked at me a long moment as my palms sweated.

“I’m sorry. Life is truly taxing at times. But the content is not convincing, your footnotes require  attention, your bibliography, sloppy. You did not give it your all. It was late, very late.”

The hand, the one with the obvious bandage, was shaking as it held my paper. “But I was not able to work on it more–at least I got it in! This is not that serous, this is a research paper!”

The lines about her blue eyes furrowed but her voice was cool. “That isn’t enough, not now, not tomorrow. You’re in this class because you have a gift and you have failed it. What do you think a college professor will say if something is late and this quality, give you a pass because you had some bad days? What will an editor think if you don’t do the what is required to write the best you can? Publish it, anyway? No. I’ll let you re-work it–I should not do that– and bring it back to me on Thursday. We will see what you can do with it. Get to work.” She waved me out the room.

The revised paper received a “D+”,

“It was still late, too little was done! This is a generous grade.”

I could think of no rebuttal and held back enraged tearful.

That was still as poor as a failing grade in that class; it didn’t count for anything. I ended up with a very average grade for AP English that year, and was humiliated by my failure to meet the highest mark, my true desire. It would not impress college entrance staff. It felt like a betrayal–hadn’t she seen something in me, liked me, too? Didn’t she also know I had a few problems but tried to carry on? But I heard her words and took them to heart– she was my teacher. And teachers wield power in many ways for they just know things students do not.

I did not go to the after-school and week-end meetings much, anymore. I felt distanced from the others. It also had felt a bit close for comfort in those walls, a hothouse of teen-aged angst mixed with adoration of teacher-mentor. Like a warning, I felt maybe there was something else. I didn’t like how one classmate kept his eyes and mind on Mrs. X. as if a puppy blindly attached to his master’s every move and command, how she bestowed warm smiles on him. He and I had been friends once but no more, not the same way.

The next year I took another teacher’s AP English and did well. I remained friends with a one or two from the old group. I would see Mrs. X. in the hallway; her eyes would pause on me, then flick away. I found her stature a little smaller. The end of that year she left the school, got divorced, moved away. I imagined reasons why it ended that way but said nothing. No one said anything. We had had moments that were beautiful. And it was over.

I thought of her as I became an adult and realized I had learned a few life lessons from her mistakes and dispassionate, penetrating mind. I kept my own boundaries and ethics clear during my career as a counselor. I got more therapy if I needed it. I took care with what my words conveyed, what my face and body telegraphed. I made sure my compassion was that of an attentive clinician, not of a friend.

Seven years later I got in touch with Mrs. X. when visiting the university city where she’d gotten another teaching job. I wondered if she was happier. She never referred to the time in my high school. Her shoulders sloped more, her face was fuller and  softer and she was still hoping for admiration though I was married, in college, had had two children. I also knew the best teachers and mentors free us while carefully guiding us and imparting their knowledge; they do not require devotion but, rather, avoid it, get out of their own way. I was relieved to say farewell but thanked her for encouraging me once.

She’d certainly had poor boundaries; I knew that difference early on. I had had the satisfaction of learning from fine teachers. I have had a few very bad ones. I know Mrs. X. desired to help us find our paths as creative youth even as her personal issues interfered. She was harsh at times, certainly towards me at the end when kindness would have netted far better results. Still, she’d said I had ability, had to work harder, integrate the right skills to practice the best craft. I well knew those words from my upbringing; it boiled down to discipline. Something I had but didn’t always feel up to using those years.

Rather, the best help was given with the words that I had “something to offer”. This was urgently needed confirmation: I might even become a true writer. After all, she was supposed to be an exceptional teacher, everyone said so; she knew her subject matter, had a brilliant mind. And I had been, for a short time, one of her star pupils. Whatever else happened in my life, the passion for storytelling would remain my ally and a true love, a joy that reinvented itself, a rich illumination–and a measure of faith.

Sorrow is an Arrow with No Place to Land

Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The first sighting occurred on a late afternoon soon after Dae bounded out the door before her, barking furiously after a squirrel who’d just scampered off. The water before them was uncharacteristically still, mirror-smoothness reflecting only heavy clouds. Stillness, often a first sign of a thunderstorm, had settled deep in Sophie’s bones when she awakened and she’d felt a peace, despite knowing there might be a storm. She had worked hard at this, the coveted equilibrium required to live a life she valued.

She stood with flat of hand to brow as if that would help her better discern a cause of the flicker of light. Unease pricked her insides. A glimmering spot above a gun metal Ring Lake disturbed the day. No spare light filtered down as raindrops plopped onto the deck. As she stepped closer, the glinting glided away at a rapid pace. A green canoe was briefly outlined, a small body in it. The big dog had seen the person, too, as he or she rounded the narrow peninsula–Sophie’s land–then slipped away. His sharp barks were more greeting and farewell than warning; the canoe was gone.

Dae ran to her and licked her fingers; both hands hung at her sides limply, as if she was deflated. It was nothing to think twice about, the lake was open to all for boating and other pleasures as long as weather allowed. But not so often did she see people on the water when a storm was brewing. Sophie shivered in the cooling wind, her eyes unavoidably drawn to Stump Island. The community island. Thomas had nonetheless tried to commandeer it to work on limnology research notes.

That he’d tried to reach, perhaps, that summer night. But his boat faltered, his body sank, languished in muck on the lake bed.

She could not speak of it after nearly a year. In fact, could still not speak at all.

She signaled to Dae and they entered her remodeled and historical chapel-house. Once inside she paused. Distant thunder and lightning illuminated the expanse, now textured with waves. A curtain of rain fell and semi-darkness spilled over all. The husky-German Shepherd mix took his place on the rag rug before the fireplace, despite no fire. He panted lightly, blue eyes following his mistress. She closed the curtains on French doors to the deck as he lay his fine head on massive paws, eyes closing.

In the loft, Sophie removed the silk caftan that covered a leotard, then lit three pillar candles and danced, or rather acted as if she might still dig deep into that primal force and bring forth movement, coppery, white-streaked hair cast off her back as she floated, lips quivering. The elegant dog lifted its head. Listened.

******

The second sighting happened as Sophie was driving down 137 in her truck. She was off to Haston, not far from her village of Snake Creek. Dense white pine and hemlock, a grove of birch flew by as a mostly green blur as she barreled down the road. It was also that kind of day she thought of as cornflower blue and forsythia yellow, filled with a promise of more heat to come and a day of small pleasures. She would get errands done, then stop for a steaming chai and warm chocolate chip cookie at her favorite coffee house, then stroll along Lake Michigan. Clarissa–Rissa to closest friends–said she might meet them if she got done with her restaurant supply run in time and felt she could take a half hour to relax. Sophie turned up the music, a lively pop tune. Behind her Dae sat with twitching nose pressed into sweet air a half-opened window afforded.

They were perhaps fifteen minutes out, the road empty except for towering trees lining either side and a raptor circling above. Around a wide curve in the opposite direction roared a blue sports car, top down, and at the wheel was another bold shimmer as had been seen at the lake two days before. The two-seater began to slow, presumably to approach a private road to the new Nine Lives Spa and Resort. The woman’s long champagne blonde hair unfurled like a fancy scarf freed by spring wind. Soft sunlight bounced off it spinning golden filaments. Her skin appeared an ordinary, not tanned, tone. She wore something coral.

Sophie’s eyes shifted between blue car and winding road and resisted the impulse to slow down, as well. It was no doubt a woman from down state, likely Detroit, here for a pricey rejuvenation vacation. The patrons had begun to show up more in the village already. The place offered Tai Chi, Bikram yoga, a eucalyptus steam room, an indoor-outdoor Olympic sized pool with hot tub, fancy massages by the hour, earthy skin treatments and all the rest that no one she knew wanted to undergo, much less could afford. In truth, Sophie would like the steam room after a deep massage. She already practiced Tai Chi but swam in the lake as tolerable in summer like everyone else did. No one was happy about the resort other than Rissa’s husband, the developer who sold off the waterfront parcel; he was tight with the investors.

The blue car downshifted as it arrived at the turn off, then stopped just short of turning. Sat there idling. Sophie slowed enough to get a fast peek at the driver. The petite woman looked over a shoulder; huge sunglasses obscured most of her face. She caught her flying hair with a hand as she gazed at Sophie, then abruptly took off down the driveway, engine purring.

Dae had been keen to look as well but offered no response. Sophie pondered the coincidence. Was it the same person she had seen at the lake? And if so, who was she and why might she be interested in her? The driver looked too polished and self-impressed to be a regular Michigander. She didn’t even look like a usual buyer of northern summer cottages. More akin to Sophie, perhaps, an East coaster. Did Sophie know her from somewhere? Were she and Thomas acquaintances of Bostonian friends of hers; had they met at a dinner party or lecture?

Sophie gripped the steering wheel, sped along the curving road. Maybe the driver had another interest–if indeed, there was a true interest and not some prurient curiosity. Maybe Ms. Champagne Blonde was a reporter after the story of the suspicious death of Thomas Swanson, famous biologist. And his wife, Sophie Swanson, well-known dancer and choreographer. Once of the Bostonian bramin (which they were not unhappy to leave).

She hit the wheel with her palm; she wanted to be no one of any interest, to have less of Thomas in her life now. Dae’s head rose to rest at her shoulder and she patted his head. Her eyes burned; she blinked to refocus on the road. It wasn’t going to happen, a story. She didn’t want to be found, didn’t even respond to old friends’ cards and notes, nor to emails. That life was abandoned when Thomas retired. She had long ago agreed to come with him, leave her career behind at age 45. Despite any regrets, despite hellish losses–including that of Mia, her daughter, now living with an aunt–this was meant to be home. There was no turning back, anyway.

Grief had a way of weaving you into the landscape from which pain erupted. It was a sore comfort, a remembrance of hope and a scarring rawness even as the aching was, bit by bit, subdued. And she had to start over from here, nowhere else.

A fragrant, almost warm blast of air mellowed her thoughts as the window was rolled down. The day was still new, it would be salvaged. Sophie was a pro at such things.

She felt deep pressure under her ribs, an urge to scream but when her mouth opened only a rush of soft air mixed with the breeze. Dae, on the other hand, whined, eager to run.

******

And the third sighting was other than what Sophie might have imagined.

Rissa waved as she wound her way between tables then sat on the wooden chair with a thump, uniform askew, dark hair stuck to her forehead. She blew up at her bangs to cool off. It was busy at Bluestone Cafe, the thriving restaurant she owned and managed.

“What’s going on, lady? Sorry I couldn’t meet up but I was running late Thursday and the supply order wasn’t quite right and then I got into it with Stan about numbers tallied!” She flipped a hand in the air, dismissing the annoyance, and smiled. “I’m glad to sit a little. But you don’t usually come in during rush hours. Did an appointment bring you in?”

Sophie shook her head, pulled from her soft leather bag a medium-sized notebook and shoved it across the table top. This was the  means by which she talked to her few friends. She’d written about the two times in a few days she’d seen who might be the same woman. She hated to admit to such an odd and likely irrational worry but she was starting to think she was being followed by a stranger. She described her the best she could and asked if her friend had seen anyone like that.

Rissa frowned as she read. Sometimes Sophie had fears that couldn’t easily be tamped down, much less erased. But it was best to take what she intuited or felt seriously. She was not a crazy person despite what some suggested but a hurt human being who was still healing. That night of the drowning was a complicated story.

“A person who looks like that would stick out like a sore thumb. Summer people haven’t taken over yet…but the resort is up and running, yeah, so…Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity if she thinks she knows you, that can happen. But, no, I haven’t seen any one just like that. Champagne blonde? We just have badly bleached straw blondes!” She chuckled. “I think you should keep an eye out, tell others if it keeps happening, anyway.” She narrowed her eyes and thought. “I wonder if that husband of mine has seen this person around. If anyone would recall a woman like that it’d be Sonny. I’ll ask.”

With a shrug, Sophie picked up her notebook and tucked it away. Rissa lay her hand on her friend’s.

“You do okay with the thunderstorm this week?’

Sophie smiled assent.

“That’s good. Not bad, no power losses. Gotta go, girlfriend, catch you soon.”

Sophie squeezed her hand and let go. After she finished off her iced tea and cinnamon scone she paid the bill and left.

Rissa watched her go, the tall, lithe form and legs and arms swinging, the gingery-white hair that fell nearly to her waist in a loose braid. She wished her a happy afternoon and no strange sightings.

The main thoroughfare of Snake Creek paralleled the eastern shore of Ring Lake. Right across from Bluestone Cafe was the old field stone library and behind that, an inviting grassy park. Beyond the library ran the waterfront with the public beach and boat rentals. Sophie ran across the street, toward the shoreline. She had brought a book to read on another unusually sunny day. Mainly she wanted to be among a few people though she was always somehow apart. At times her house felt so small, constraining, bound in echoing silence; it could barely contain her then and she either worked on the property or went into town.

In the morning Sophie had gotten up early, walked with Dae, made an apple pie for her older friends Will and Anna, who’d had a stroke. Then she’d sat on the deck listening to fado music, the most plaintive and bittersweet of all choices. She’d caught herself drifting into a dreaded state of longing and sorrow so put the pie in a bag and went for a short visit with her friends. Dae was left behind for once. She half-wished she’d brought him as he loved to race about park and shore. Everyone knew him, admired his friendliness, agility and handsomeness. He was her buffer, she knew that.

The waterfront was busier than usual but it was a Friday, almost May–more people were coming to visit. She sat on a bench under a newly leafed poplar. After reading a few pages she looked up and down the shore, watching people hunt for attractive rocks and toss a few, play ball.

And there sat Ms. Champagne at southern end of the rocky beach, knees drawn up to her chin, pale hair blowing about. Alone. Sophie started that direction, wishing she had a friend with her. What would she do when she got there? Ask who she was  and why she was always around when she was still so damned mute?

The woman turned and saw her before she got there, her legs flattening onto the rocks, hands grabbing the brilliant mass to tame it again in a ponytail. Then she got up, shifted her weight. Sophie stopped about ten feet before her. She dwarfed the stranger from her height of six feet; the other woman was nearly a foot shorter. And so much younger, perhaps 30, 35?

The woman offered a tentative smile that drew wider when Sophie did not respond in kind.

“Hello, I’m Signe Johansson. I know we’ve skirted each other a few days. I’m glad you came to greet me as I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach you.”

Sophie inclined her head at Signe and found her open-faced, eager to talk so offered her hand.  Signe knew who she was, so no speaking was necessary. Her notebook might yet be useful, she would wait.

“Can we find a bench so I can explain…?”

They walked with only the lulling noise of waves to the spot Sophie had been reading, sat, then half-turned to each other. Sophie stared at the woman’s sparkling white and red tennis shoes. She glanced up, had burning desire to ask her ten questions and bit her lip. Signe smoothed her black khakis and took a deep breath.

“You are the Sophia Swanson, I know that. And I knew your husband, your famous partner.”

Sophie’s lips formed his name as alarm spread over her gaunt features.

“Yes, Thomas…I worked in the same building at Boston University. The Earth Sciences department where he lectured many years in between research trips.”

Her dark blue eyes–too bright, marred with redness– locked with Sophie’s.

“I know you’re at a disadvantage as you don’t talk. That’s what I heard. We heard. After his death. That it was too much. I’m sorry. He was…amazing. We were…friends, good friends… ”

Sophie fought the urge to get up and leave. Who was this Signe to be following her, trespassing on her life, talking as if they were bound to make a friendly connection via her spouse? Speaking of her entirely dead husband–familiarly, casually?

“Wait, Sophie– I’m here.” Rissa’s gravelly voice penetrated her distress and then she came around to stand before them. “I’m Clarissa, Sophie’s closest friend and ally–and you are, exactly?”

“Oh, hi. I’m Signe, an old friend of Thomas’.” She smiled sweetly, too fast. “I’m glad you came. Now maybe she and I can talk with your help. I know an investment partner of Nine Lives Spa and Resort and I thought I’d come up  and visit the new place and also…” her voice petered out.

Rissa sat on the end of the bench by Sophie and leaned forward . “I see, very nice, we have a great area to enjoy. My husband is a developer. I appreciate your interest. But what does any of this have to do with Sophie Swanson? Did you come to give your condolences?”

“Yes, I did.  I guess I wanted to share memories with her. He was a brilliant man and a gentleman.”

Sophie drew out her notebook and scribbled a few lines. Rissa read them.

“How well did you know him and for how long? And what do you teach?”

“Hydrology, environmental interventions. I knew him for six years, he was a mentor,  co-worker, a friend.” She looked at Sophie and then at Rissa. “A truly good friend,” she emphasized.

Sophie scribbled another few questions. Rissa spoke once again.

“How come Sophie never heard of you? Did you two meet, even at a public function? And why would you find it necessary to come here and talk about this friendship with Thomas? It’s peculiar.” Rissa’s nose wrinkled.

The woman took a deep breath and turned toward Rissa sharply. “Look, why are you interrogating me? I came to pay my respects, to tell Sophie how much we appreciated his work and his kindness, that’s all.”

“Funny, it doesn’t seem like that. She doesn’t even know you and you’re avoiding the real answers. My gut tells me you knew him a bit too well–“she put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder as Sophie ‘s fingers clenched her sweater–” and you’d not planned on meeting her yet now you have and with an unsavory interest. Meeting his mourning widow now…I don’t like it any more than Sophie does.”

Signe sat up straight, shoulders back. “There was a lot she didn’t know about him, that she didn’t care to know more about–she was so busy with her career and he was alone a lot–who could he talk to about his research –and his dreams? Some of us were there, that’s all I want to say! I–I just wanted her to know how much I adored Thomas Swanson!” Her voice had risen like a frantic adolescent’s. Face flushed, her blue eyes darted about, filled with tears.

“Stop there, Siggie,” Rissa said. “You need to take this to your shrink. You’ve  no right to come here, say these things to her. You don’t know Sophie, not one bit.”

But Sophie got up and bent her graceful height over the sniveling Signe. Sophie tapped her lips so Signe would watch them. Carefully formed the silent words:

Thomas was never yours, he was mine–she touched her chest–our daughter’s. Now goodbye.

Rissa and Sophie left arm in arm. Sophie was not crying. She was not shaking, not wanting to run back and hurt that woman. She knew so many things Signe Johansson would never know. And she had long felt tired out by that knowledge and since his death, whittled down by grief of the darkest sorts. No, she felt sorry for this younger–and weaker– Signe, who must have been left alone. Far too lonely. And Sophie was not. She realized she finally missed her husband less than she ever had. Or, at least, the man she knew, his cynicism, his spurts of tenderness, his brilliance and dependence. And finally, the undoing of his life by a sly and ego-hungry madness in a boat on a thunderstruck night. Night of terrors, her life nearly lost, and Sophie had barely survived the man she had loved. She would keep searching for her own voice.

 

(Note: this is a story based on a novel of mine, Other Than Words, written many years ago. I keep revising/ coming back to it. Another post about Sophie can be found here: https://talesforlife.blog/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/

If you are interested in reading more, let me know and I will post more links.)