Blaze and Silverado

Photo by Blair Pittman
Photo by Blair Pittman

“It isn’t really what it looks like,” Sophie says as she shuffles the photos. “We skinny dipped back then, no big deal. Off to the woods and lakes we went during college breaks.”

Her daughter holds it up close, wondering if it’s her dad, almost hoping it isn’t. She doesn’t want to know that much.

“But it’s you, right? And if it isn’t what it looks like, then what do you call it?”

Sophie takes the picture. Cradles it in her palms. Her face closes, then she puts it back in the square box. Nods.

“No mistaking my hair. And not your dad, no.”

She touches her hair now, as if reassuring herself it still holds a gingery glow. It is camouflaged a bit by a few strands of white.

“Well, he has a nice back, whoever he is. You were pretty.”

Sophie lets out a soft laugh. Mia slouches off to watch television. Saturday morning. Sophie has been up cleaning out her massive desk for hours, placing into teetering piles the things she wants and doesn’t want. What matters now, what doesn’t. Most of the paper memories are discarded. Even most of the pictures are less valuable as time goes by. There are tattered take out menus from the last city, matchbooks left over from smoking days. The race car sketches of Evan’s are kept. He left them five years ago, but still, for their daughter. And Mia’s report cards have been kept for her; they denote certain potential, despite her lackadaisical attitude.

They’re moving again. But this time to a house. Not impressive from the sidewalk, it got to her when they climbed the steps. The screened porch, a heavy wooden swing. It was what she had been circling back to her whole adult life.

The bulk of the sorting done, Sophie stands and pivots from the piles. Catches her face in the gilt-framed mirror. Something there brings her closer. Her hazel eyes are reddened by dust she stirred up. She smooths her freckled cheeks, her pale lower lip. That old photograph has invaded her oasis, returned her to that place where anguish and tenderness are bond together, captive.

What it looked like was what it was. Finding each other. Being astonished. Feeling safe, so also more free than ever before. Being in love had been like finding out she could speak another language without any effort, or had wings that were secretly hidden and waiting to share their power. It was the beginning of a small kingdom constructed with wonder.

It makes her wince, but she remembers it all.

Martin Robishe was the older brother of Cassie, a friend she’d met in social anthropology class. It was their family cottage into which a small horde of students crammed one June. Three small bedrooms with an open living area that soared above, skylights encouraging buttery light. They had sleeping bags. Two people had brought little tents. Sophie took the couch on the porch; it was her spot, Cassie informed the others, claimed last fall.

When she got there relief banished all tension like a kind drug, making her limbs looser, feet lighter. Mind cleared. She was a dancer with demanding goals, but here she forgot. Let herself revel in simple things, heat, tree mazes and dirt. Undulating, hundreds-of-blue waters. Feral cries in the night. Stealthy moths circling light, drawing her with their zigzag grace.

Martin disrupted her train of thought when his blue-black Silverado finally pulled in.  The engine boomed. He loped over, finishing a pizza slice.

“Hey,” Martin said as he came up by her. She sat with arms wrapped around bent legs. “Sophie, right? Or Blaze like Cassie calls you? We met last fall for a minute or two.”

Sophie raised her eyebrows at the familiar, interesting face, then returned to the sputtering bonfire. Smiled a small smile. The others had gone off to bed. Cassie had said he’d be there a couple nights before heading back to his apartment in town. He ‘d fix torn screens, cut back the new weed growth for their parents, who arrived in July for a month.

“Quietness is preferred, I know–sorry,” he said, then poked at the fire gently, as though he was afraid to disturb it. It flared, then settled into a coral glow.

“Yes, as solitude is, as well.”

He laughed, a low rumble, not put off by her sarcasm.

She sat cross-legged. “I’m practicing being still in the center of the dark. If you want to join me you will have to conform.”

“Here on my land? And how do you know it’s the center?”

But he sat opposite her, fire between them, the night’s depth and breadth embracing them. Sophie listened, eyes closed to better hear waves advancing and leaving, the simmering of wood in flame. She expected him to jostle about and clear his throat, say something stupid. But nothing. Nature had many songs,and a fine hum vibrated in her core. Until he broke the spell.

“The sky is a map of places we have been before, I think.”

Sophie opened her eyes. He was leaning back on his hands, looking at the constellations and other tiny lights in the blackness.

“Where do you think you’ve been?”

“I don’t know. I just feel this isn’t the whole story. Look at the way the darkness dances up there. How much are we missing?”

“I second that feeling. Dancing heavens…” She let out a sigh that felt good.

Sophie observed at the fine shape of his head, dark hair falling forward, shoulders set against the gleaming midnight. The way he seemed to fit in the woods and this moment. The fire was nearly out but they stayed on, speaking only when it seemed necessary.

In the morning the weather wasn’t good. Wind rattled the screen door; the sky looked like a bruise above a swaying treeline. They played poker and chess, ate leftover spaghetti and too many brownies. By late afternoon someone suggested they sit on the dock. See how the storm swept in. They went down as felt the air crackle as thunder boomed, crescendos of sound through woods, across rough water. Lightning cut the sky into puzzle pieces. They waited until rain broke loose, first in splatters, then in a torrent that stung their skin. Cassie and the rest took refuge in the cottage. But Martin and Sophie found refuge in the boathouse, watching from an opened door.

“Ever sail?” he asked her, leaning against the boat.

“We had a sunfish. It was great, the challenge of it, and the way it sped and bounced along.” She leaned back, too, a few inches away, far enough to not give him false ideas.

“I always wanted to build a sailboat. My dad has this speedboat but I want another experience. That’s my goal this summer. I’m taking a class on week-ends. Have to work at our store long hours, but I can do it.”

“I like that. I’d try it out when its finished if you invited me.” She grinned at him. “I’ll be at an arts camp as a  camp counselor for three weeks. I get to practice my dancing, too, which is why I’m going.”

The wind died down; thunder was a distant echo. The rain was pummeling less, was now a pleasant drone.

“You do ballet, I guess?”

“No, I ‘do’ modern.” She laughed and pushed his shoulder. “Have you ever seen a dance performance?”

“I saw two snowy egrets. They looked pretty good. Can you do that?”

She laughed, head to the side, eyes seeking his. He looked down at her, smirking, then was intent on memorizing her features. She saw a surprising glint of silver in a wave of his hair and wanted to put her fingers there. She felt warmth from the lean lines of his body. Or it was their combined energy, travelling through their cells and out to each other. Everything felt dense but elastic, as though time was fluid and they were moving far beyond it just by breathing. She had to move or she would combust, even disappear into thin air.

“Let’s swim in the rain!” she shouted and ran. At water’s edge, she tossed t-shirt, bra and shorts onto the shore, kicked off her sandals. Then stopped. What was she doing?  But he was there, too, stripping off shirt, pants, shoes, wading into sterling grey waters. He sank, a beautiful, shining stone.

Under the surface and up again, under and up, she swam against the waves until she felt a luxurious weariness. Martin sliced through the water, then floated beside her. Waited as rain melded with lake water, their skin with the air.

She moved closer as he reached for her.

“Come here, Blaze, let’s hold each other while we can.”

They met like they were meant to, face to face, heart to mind and soul. It was that simple. Crucial. It was unavoidable–to be together, be happy all summer long and longer still.

Sophie returns to the photograph. She knows what to do with it. She’s going to frame it, place it in her new office in the little house. And some day she might tell Mia: “He was there for a summer and a fall, then he left our country. To fight for it. He did not return. He passed over to the places he showed me that first night. And I love him. Even now.”

Eben Waiting

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On the morning he left there was a gathering across the street. Four women and two men sat in a circle by the fountain in front of The Manor apartments. He watched them talk and drink coffee, thinking about his trip. Annie had been cold on the phone when she said good-bye last night. They had argued, same old things, money, their future. He was currently working the counter at a deli while he looked for a better job. She wasn’t thrilled about that.

He was standing outside his place waiting for the taxi. Early, he was always early. To be late was to toy with the outcome of things and that was not a good idea, he’d found. You had to have a plan and stick to it whenever possible. Besides, if he’d stayed in his apartment Uncle Josef would talk him senseless. He’d welcomed Eben after he lost his good legal assistant job to downsizing. Now that his nephew was back on his feet the decision had to be made whether or not he was going to stay or move out. Annie was in Portland; Eben in Seattle.

“Well, you could marry her,” Uncle Josef had advised. “The girl has a career going, she’s pleasant. You won’t regret marriage–it’s said to mellow into a very comfortable thing. With the right one, of course. It’s pitiful that it’s just you and me here. Should have married Jane Hartner back in 1980. Do you think we could find her on the Internet?” He sat back and eyed Eben. “Your trip may sort this out.”

Eben pondered the situation. Annie had a way with words that could split him into little pieces, then put them back again before he knew what was happening. It made his head spin. He wondered if she was trained to do that in her therapy work or if it was just a defect. He couldn’t be sure; she was generally nicer although she seemed to find him annoying more and more. Not that he had an altogether sterling character. He tended toward introspection and that could be excluding of others. Of her, she noted often. He was particular. He liked documentaries primarily and hated anything made with eggs, beans or pork. He lined up his books as though they were on exhibit. Right up until June he wore cotton socks to bed. He also liked to play bocce once a week or so in good weather which he saw as an asset but she hadn’t decided.

Eben leaned against the wall. He tried to not think about the visit and watched the neighbors across the road. He only waved at them occasionally. They appeared to be an extended family.

A child popped up from the group. He was maybe seven, eight, a wild one– you could tell that from the way he looked: like a wind up toy that never unwound. He was alert to everything the adults were saying, leaning forward, climbing on one lap, then another, popping up between legs and elbows. He was wanting more attention though the adults were engaged in serious chatting. One man yelled at the boy to slow down, so he stood stock still a few seconds. The woman next to him lay her hand on his head, then he zoomed toward the street and zigzagged back to the fountain. He jumped right in; it was a hot day for fall.

“Marty, what are you thinking, getting your new shoes and pants wet?” the man berated him, scooping him up. He took him inside before he could wriggle away.

Eben could hear him screeching and he flinched. Loud, unhappy sounds were not to his liking. He enjoyed his aging painted turtle and Uncle Josef’s aquarium full of fish, silent, fascinating creatures that enjoyed lives of unimpeded ease. Eben did not look forward to the two Yorkshire terriers Annie had gotten when he’d moved out. They liked to bark at nothing, claimed her lap and snapped at him when he tried to be friendly. She said Eben wasn’t around enough to expect friendship but the truth was, he didn’t look forward to adding them to his small social circle.

The taxi was late. He was about to call when Marty came flying down the stairs again. Red shorts now, no shoes. At the edge of the fountain he dangled his hands in the water. The adults were laughing and sharing food, muffins Eben thought, mouth watering.  They took out cards and moved under the shade of a giant black walnut tree. The man who had yelled dealt them swiftly and they all concentrated on their hands. The boy was whipping up the fountain water with his hands. Then he looked across the street at Eben.

Eben looked down the road. No taxi. Marty looked both ways, then walked up to him, dripping.

“Hey, you going on a trip?”

Eben didn’t look at him. “Yes.”

“Family? Work?”

“No.”

The boy fiddled with the suitcase tag and read his name.

“Eben Hanson.” But he said it like “eebean”, drawing out the vowel. “E-bean?’

“Eben. Short ‘e.’ And you’re getting my things wet.”

“It’s just water, Eebean.”

Eben looked at Marty then. He had striking hazel eyes and freckles tossed across his nose. He was grinning and there was a blank spot where a front tooth should be.

“Well, who? A girl?” He giggled and poked Eben’s side with his wet index finger, making him jump.

“Shouldn’t you be with them?” He pointed at the group.

“They can see me. They know Josef. I see you come and go.”

“Really?” This surprised and irked Eben, that a child would know details of his schedule.

“If you have a girl she ain’t heeere!”

Eben sighed. Maybe if he just told the kid his itinerary he would get lost. “Well, I’m off to see her in Portland for four days.”

“Marty! Don’t bother our neighbor!” The big guy waved the boy back.

Eben pulled his suitcase to the street. “That man your dad?”

“Naw. Uncle. Don’t have a dad. I have a big family, though.”

Eben could hear the taxi. Marty tapped the suitcase, then Eben,  damp fingers cool on his arm.

“When you come back, you should play cards with us. You don’t have to be alone.”

“Thanks.” Eben imagined himself playing cards with them and smiled.

Eben nodded to the taxi driver. Marty looked back at him when he got to the other side of the street and waved hard and fast, as though all his energy was exploding from his small hands. Eben got into the back seat, then waved back. Marty climbed into the circle of adults, disrupting the card game.

On the way to the airport Eben thought about Annie and her intelligent insults and his quieter ways and he knew already. He was not moving back in, ever. There was time to find the right one. Someone he might have a family with one day. He wondered if Uncle Josef figured that out. Josef and Marty, they both knew a couple things.

Bus Stop

They used to meet here, back when things were easy. They dashed through the winter rains and caught a bus to Markham and 8th, then found their booth in a café. Leon liked the fish and salad combo; Celia dug into the Shepherd’s pie as though it was something special. Every Thursday it was lunch here and then back to their respective jobs. He was a doctor’s office assistant, taking classes at university and hoping against hope for med school. Celia danced then, hours and hours of it. Strong back and legs and a gift for lithe improvisation landed her a scholarship, then a place in the dance company. Such big talk they shared, plans growing as they ate and gabbed. Each savory lunch underscored their vitality, the possibilities.

It was odd, but suddenly things stopped for them, as though there was finally a period pressed hard into the page at the end of a series of stories. She didn’t see it coming. Nothing was resolved for Celia but Leon shrugged off her calls, his voice embarrassed and soft. They parted ways the summer of nineteen eighty-two. He married a journalist within the year and he invited Celia. She didn’t attend. She heard they ended up in New Zealand a few years later. He may have become a doctor, but she suspected he let his wife work harder. He’d liked to talk more than work (he was so good at it) and had confessed he’d always wanted to loaf on a beach.

Celia mourned despite her best intentions. Her father told her she had better do something besides weep about the rooms. Her mother said nothing, just looked at her from hooded eyes and shook her head.

On a night when the moon was so clear she could imagine living there, Celia had a vision. It left her unmoored, then sent her to back to church, the one by the bus stop, the same one where Celia and Leon had sometimes waited on shaded steps. From that point on it was as though things were meant to be. She had found a way back to a useful life and it was part solitude and part service. It was the service part that filled her up and made her strong. The solitude pared her down but it also brought things into sharper focus, sorted what mattered and what did not. She got up each day with a vivid need to give back what she found by accident the night the moon dipped low.

Still, when she and the Sisters visit this part of the city looking for homeless who needed care, Celia wondered sometimes if it was the wrong turn in the road, the moon watching, her visionary moment gone mad, the church that finally brought her to her senses and the work that now claimed her. She felt Leon’s presence like a happy breeze in the street. Only once did she feel a bit more, startled when she thought she saw his face at the bus window. It haunted her all day and into the evening as she tried to pray. It was as she lay half-sleeping that she mused it could have been his son and this cheered her. Yet, likely not. Leon had left for New Zealand thirty years ago. She had stayed and made a durable life out of other wonders. The past was something that lingered only if you let it. It was a small revelation and long in coming. The bus stop was just a bus stop; people got on, people got off. Celia sighed, turned over. Her snoring was musical, sweet as birdsong; she shifted, moved on.