Red Oak, Red Parasol

hopscotch1

The Callahans came to Red Oak at the wrong time, Ginny thought. School wasn’t quite over. Neither was it August when most people moved to start anew. She watched from the porch swing, legs reaching out so her bare toes gently nudged the back of her younger brother’s head. He was bent over a Superman comic book. When Ginny paused to twist around and get a better look at the moving van, Brian said, “Don’t stop, it feels kinda good.” She placed her foot between his shoulder blades and pushed, but he just laughed as he flattened out. Brian was too good-natured to satisfactorily tease sometimes.

The moving van had license plates from Texas, which Ginny found intriguing. No one she knew had been there nor did they desire to. Ginny knew it was a big place with too much heat. Everyone wore cowboy boots and hats. Nothing like Michigan. They didn’t have snow or endless lakes. Or autumn color or cider mills with cinnamon cake donuts every fall.

Ginny had already decided the family of five had limited experiences and were likely boring when Evie¬†walked down the sidewalk with a red Chinese paper parasol. It was held high to shade the palest skin Ginny had ever seen. She had white blond hair. Her eyes were hidden behind blue sunglasses. Her white shorts were very short. Ginny’s mother would say “not enough to sit on.” Her shirt was shorter yet. She was about the same age as Ginny, maybe fourteen.

It was spooky watching the girl glide up their walkway, then stop midway. She was like a ghost with weird fashion tastes.

“So,” she said, “are you somebody I should know or vice versa?”

Ginny frowned at the way her vowels bent and slurred. She could just make out the words, though, and shrugged.

“You’re the new one. You’d have to say the first, so be nice.”

Brian was watching from the wooden floor but popped up. “Yeah, or she’ll run you over with the porch swing someday.”

The girl nodded at them and floated up the steps. “Cool. I’m Evie.”

She held out a small hand. Ginny noted silver nail polish, and gingerly took it, thinking the girl too white to be out in sunlight. Maybe she was a vampire.

“Ginny.”

“What’s going on in this little burg?”

“Where are you from, anyway?” Brian scooped up his comic book and sat beside Ginny.

Evie¬†eased onto the top step, parasol folded. “Dallas, Texas, the only city in the U. S. of A. worth noting, Mama says. But, then, she would say that, having only lived in Dallas, London, and Stockholm. Daddy could care less, as long as he has a home base.”

“Stockholm, that’s in Norway, right?” Brian asked. “We’ve studied the globe. So she’s Norwegian?

Evie lifted her shoulders up to her ears, took a deep breath, and released it. “Swedish. Stockholm is in Sweden, kids. I’m Swedish and Irish, oddly but happily. But enough about me. What about you two?”

“I’m Brian.” He didn’t extend his hand as he rolled up his comic book and batted a bee away. “Ginny’s one and only brother and sibling.”

He said this proudly, as though showing off vocabulary or specialness. Ginny put him in a headlock, then let him go since decent behavior was expected when meeting someone new.

“How fortunate. I have two sisters. Maybe we can come over and throw a football around with you.”

It was hard to tell what this Evie really meant. Was she laughing at them or being serious? She didn’t look like she got those blue- and-silver sandaled feet dirty much less tossed a ball of any sort.

“Our dad is a Production Manager at Thompson and Teegen Furniture Design. Our mom stays home but used to be a nurse.”

“Well, what a coincidence! Mama’s a doctor. But no job here yet.”

Brian stared at her. He hated doctors and dentists. “Doctor? For what?”

“For horses, dogs and others, of course. Humans are apparently¬†just¬†too ornery and irresponsible.” She made a face indicating distaste of her mama’s attitude. “Daddy is going to work for Thompson and Teegen, CFO. It’s killing mama to have to live in a northern suburb of Detroit.” She smiled wryly. “No doubt we’ll be seeing each other a lot more.”

Ginny pumped her legs. “Yeah, we already heard about your dad. So what about school? How come you’re here before summer?”

“Private.”

“Okay, sorry I asked.”

Evie lifted an eyebrow. “I meant I went to a private school. The year finished two days before we moved.”

“Like St. Catherine’s?” Brian elbowed Ginny. “Religious stuff, right? We go to Methodist church.”

“Oh, my, Protestants. Well, don’t mention it to Daddy or he’ll worry about the company I keep.” Her laughter was bright and tinkly. “I won’t be in Catholic school any longer. Red Oak has public schools only, which is one of the few happy things about coming here.” She fixed her clear ice blue eyes on Ginny. “I’m hoping, anyway…how do you like it?”

“Nobody gives a fig what church you go to or if you do. I don’t know if that’s what you’re hoping for or not. We’ve got a great soccer coach. And our choir is the bomb; we won regional this year. If you get good grades, you can relax.”

“And the boys? Are they worthy of our attention?”

Ginny tried not to grimace. Not the sort of neighbor, then, to play soccer with or listen to her dad’s collection of jazz records ¬†or watch mysteries with during long winter nights. The conversation was tiring already.

“They’re boys. Some are stupid and some are pretty good to know. You’ll have to find out for yourself.”

Brian rolled his eyes. “Here we go! Time to read my comic again.”

Across the street Kenzie, Tina and the others started up a game of hopscotch. Ginny had told herself she was done with jumping rope, hopscotch and making forts but now she had an overpowering desire to join in. Instead she turned to Brian and pushed him off the swing.

“Buzz off now that you’ve met her.”

“Aww!” He threw a wad of bubble gum at her but it missed, bouncing off the porch railing and into bushes. He went inside, waving at Evie. “Later ‘gator!”

“Want to swing?” Ginny motioned to his vacated spot, thinking she’d decline.

Evie¬†fully smiled for the first time and her cheeks pinked. “Sure. We had one in Dallas, on the patio. It was a white metal slider, though. One more thing to miss. But this is good.”

They swung in silence and watched the neighborhood girls tossing a hopscotch stone, hopping and jumping. Behind Evie and Ginny, furniture was being taken off the truck and voices called commands. The Swedish woman’s accent was apparent when she shouted for them to be “very, very careful with that Tiffany lamp! My mother-in-law will faint if you so much as chip it!”

Ginny stifled the urge to turn around and get a good look. Later she would acknowledge the new adults as needed.

As if reading Ginny’s thoughts, Evie said, “Don’t look now. She isn’t at her best. Jet lag and too many drinks last night at the hotel lounge. Stress is plain unbecoming, I always say. And Daddy commanded she drink only iced tea for the rest of summer. We’ll see how that works out.” She shuddered. “He’s flying in tonight, thank goodness. So do you play with those kids or are you beyond that now? You’re at least twelve.”

“Turned thirteen in January. Eighth grade next year.”

“Ninth here. Or tenth; we have to meet with school people, I guess.”

“You do seem older. Anyway, I really like sports. But those are baby games. I can bike ride ten miles. And as far as school– I just want to get through middle school so I can get to high school–”

“–and then finally leave home, am I right? But biking? Too hot in Dallas. I’d sweat to death and nasty things like big spiders and fire ants to avoid. Major arteries are choked with traffic. This place seems better to navigate, so far. I hope.”

“Texas doesn’t sound that great. But I guess you’ll miss friends.”

Tina waved wildly at Ginny. Ginny sat on her hands.

“It’s different. It was home.”

“Evangeline Therese Callahan, where are you?”

She turned around and sat on her knees. “Right here, Mama, introducing myself–I’ll be there soon!” She slumped in the swing. “Mama ruins many pleasant moments, often by saying my full name.”

“Mine’s worse: Virginie Jessamyn¬†Leigh-Kent.”

“Oh, I don’t know, it’s rather classy.”

“Huh. Way too much.”

They swung back and forth, spring heat cooling on a sudden breeze. Mud wasps hovered above them until Evie opened her parasol and shooed them off.

“Well, want to play some hopscotch, Evie?”

“My, I was hoping you’d ask, Miss Ginny,” she said, drawing out her vowels to a ridiculous degree. “Let’s show the ladies how it’s done.”

They played two hopscotch rounds, Evie doing much better than Ginny had expected and encouraging the younger ones. Tina and Kenzie took to her exotic accent and manner after the first few minutes of shock, asking too many questions. Then Evie’s mother’s high-pitched voice directed Evie to immediately help with her younger sisters. Evie picked up her red parasol and opened it, spinning the dragons and flowers around and around from her shoulder. She beckoned Ginny to come along with a rightward movement of her head, luxe hair swinging.

“We may as well get it over with. Have to keep grown-ups and siblings pacified. By the way, I love music, too. We have a grand piano that better have made it without a scratch or a sour key or I will just die of outrage! I’ll play and you can sing–maybe we’ll create a whole damn-fantastic musical and blow everybody’s minds. What are your thoughts on that?”

“I’m in. Welcome to Red Oak, Miss Evie Callahan. ”

Ginny felt cheered by the twirling parasol and stepped into a sliver of shade. It cast a reddish glow on their tanned and ivory skin that was strange. It was an excellent color on them both.

 

 

 

 

 

The Girl Who Couldn’t Swim

Photo by Stephen Shore
Photo by Stephen Shore

The teenaged girl had been overheard saying she couldn’t really swim–or shouldn’t–but frankly, no one cared. The other girls were there for their tans, not getting wet in the aqua water. They’d dip in and out, take a few minutes to submerge, rinse oily sweat off their skin. They didn’t even appear drawn to the ocean yet. They lay about on chaise lounges like lazy, soft-limbed devotees of the sun god. It was vacation, after all. If they could call Florida with the parents such a thing. Being sixteen and getting that urgent feeling every time they stepped on hotel balconies, smelling the rich tropical atmosphere even before it engulfed you. Couldn’t the adults just disappear? But this one hesitated at the pool’s edge. Advancing and pulling back. Ignoring the others for two days.

From the second story walkway, Sharise remembered that heady feeling; it winked at her from two decades past. She’d arrived In Florida at eighteen and here she remained. She’d been working at Twenty Palms Hotel for three years, which was a record. It got old, the cleaning up after strangers, staff haranguing each other, the exhaustion that dogged her all the way home after a long shift. She didn’t like housekeeping but she was efficient, got good tips. Sharise had tried to go back to college after her son left home three years ago but gave up after the second week of classes. She was in her mid-thirties then, looked younger. It wasn’t the fresh faces that got to her, it was the reading. She read cheap paperbacks from Goodwill, or library volumes protected with plastic. She read fast but she did not read things like math or science or culture. It gave her a headache. She worked alot of overtime and that left little energy. She’d fail, that was clear. It gave her a pang to withdraw from classes. Her chest burned the rest of the day; she felt ashamed of her cowardice.

“Oh, you should see those kids, they have all the time in the world and not a tired bone in those perky bodies.”

Turk looked at her sideways as he cleaned the pool. “I know you want to get out of here, Shar. Maybe you could get it done online?”

“What do you know about it?” She smacked his back with her disposable latex gloves. “It’s all good. I get an education here every day, how to get the job done well, how to work with all kinds of nuts, how to let your mind wander when a customer is trying to call you out on something idiotic. Next year maybe I can buy a little shack near the beach at last.”

Turk took off his t-shirt and wiped his face with it. He was¬†colored bronze from being outdoors and fairly glistened all the time. On the stocky side, he had a way with the ladies nonetheless. But not her. She was ten years older and so much smarter she half-intimidated him. Not that he’d say so. She treated him like a kid brother. But he liked her company.

“You’d make a good business woman, so I hope you try again. You could open up a used book store, the way you go through those things. Add a juice bar and you’re all set for the touristas.”

“Sharise!”

She looked up at the boss, then waved to Turk as she trudged up the stairs. No doubt someone found a bit of lint in the sink. Instead, it was the sheets not being tight enough to toss a dime and see it jump to the ceiling and back. Well, maybe not exactly that, but a woman had complained they had come completely undone during the night and the maid had failed to re-make it correctly. Sharise knew it wasn’t her room but smiled at the guests as she anchored the wandering sheets.

The girl who had said she couldn’t swim was there with, likely, her mother. Sharise noted the older female’s glossy black hair, shell-pink¬†toenails and beautiful coral, one piece suit. Ivory skin, dangerous in sun. She was putting on white hoop earrings. The younger girl was looking out the open sliding door that led to the balcony, a striped bathing suit cover-up pulled close to her slim frame.

She said without turning, “I’m thinking of going swimming later. Might even dive by the time we leave.”

The mother dropped an earring. “You’re to stay away from that diving board. We’ve had this discussion and I’m not repeating it now.” She glanced at Sharise and then at her daughter’s back. “Of course you like the water–who doesn’t? Enjoy poolside, stroll the beach, Kit. Make friends. Your father will be here tomorrow.”

Kit stepped onto the balcony and bent over it, looking at the scene below.

“Sweetie? I’m taking a nap before drinks and dinner. Take your key if you go.”

Sharise slipped out the door before the guests could test the bed and find it wanting.

It was at the end of her shift, not long after correcting the bed problem, that Sharise saw Kit enter the pool. The other teen-agers waved at her half-heartedly; they were likely drugged with heat and boredom. Two families were gathering their gear, calling to their kids. A lanky middle-aged man dove confidently off the high board, then hit the surface with a loud belly smack. He swam to a corner and rubbed his chest, chagrined.

Kit stood very still, as if the water’s radiance was too dazzling, as if she was waiting to be led forward. Or go back. Turk was putting equipment away and stopped to watch her, too, then shook his head as she dog-paddled from the steps, turned around and went back. He was Twenty Palms’ life saver in a pinch but he cleaned and maintained the pool; he had never had to save someone. The young girls at the far end were laughing, eyes closed as a boy came up and threw a glass of water on them, making them screech.

But Kit was going into the water again, this time floating, legs not even sinking, hair spread out. She was at ease, floated on. Upon arriving at the diving boards, she pulled herself up and sat with feet dangling, studying the boards.

Sharise walked over to Turk. “See that kid? I think she knows how to swim nicely. I just don’t think her mother wants her to. I heard a conversation in their room. Seems mom is scared the girl will get in trouble. No diving allowed.”

“Yeah, she acts worried but this time she went right in. She has the body type of¬†a swimmer so I keep waiting to see what she’ll do.”

“Me, too.”

Kit walked over to the group. They got her a soda from a cooler. Sharise looked up at the balcony of Kit’s room and saw her mother there, hand shading her eyes, searching for her daughter. When she spotted her, she disappeared into the darkened room.

But Kit was just getting started. She dove into the deep end and started a breaststroke, gained steam and at the end turned around for another lap. One of the boys whistled at her.

“Hey, faker, we thought you didn’t swim! If you sink, don’t call us!”

“Stupid kids!” Turk wrapped his sweaty head with a towel, then sat in the shade. “But look at her.”

The girl’s strong arms shimmered in¬†the amber¬†light as her strokes developed strong rhythm. She was rusty but had skills and finished four laps when she finally floated to the end of the pool. The obnoxious younger boy threw a beach ball at her. Her hand shot up and batted it back at him.

“Great reflexes,” Sharise said. She gathered her purse and book. “Gotta go.”

“Just when it’s getting interesting,” Turk said. “It’s like a movie around here sometimes.”

When Sharise reported to work at nine the next morning, Kit was already in the water, doing laps. Sharise pushed the cleaning cart down a walkway, dawdled a moment. The girl was looking good. Kit’s mother was not far away, reading a magazine. A man in a wheelchair was beside her, maybe mid-forties, sandy-haired, already reddening on chest and shoulders. Kit’s father, then?

Kit kept swimming, back and forth, back and forth. Families moved aside as she swam between them with bold grace. One child started to swim beside her but gave up.

Sharise opened up the next room and fluffed the bedspread, changed sheets, disinfected the bathroom. Six more to go. At noon she slipped by to see what Turk was up to on a break.

“What’s the deal?”¬†Sharise gestured toward Kit and her parents.

Turk was sweeping dirt away from a walkway. “Oh, guess her ole man is paralyzed waist-down. Friendly enough, nicer than his wife. Helped him with a bag when he got off the elevator.”

They watched the trio a few seconds more, then Sharise went to buy a tall iced tea with a sprig of mint. She took it out a side door and sat on a shadowed bench, positioning herself so she could see the pool area.

A cry of alarm burst into the soft air, then a small splash. Turk and Sharise arrived poolside and searched for a poor thrashing child.

“Get out of the water!” Kit’s mother was racing alongside Kit as her daughter swam past. Her jewelled flip flops glittered in the blaze of high noon and her floppy straw hat fell into the water. “How dare you, Kit? Get out this instant!”

“No! Leave me alone! I’m doing this!”

The father had rolled closer to the pool. He removed reflective sunglasses, peered at his daughter and called out, “What did you just do, Kit? What was that?”

Kit bobbed at pool’s edge. “You know what I did, Dad!”¬†Then she got out of the water, walked rapidly to the high dive and climbed the ladder.

“Kit! Stop… Kyle, make her get down now!”

The mother was desperate now, face flushed, hands at her chest. But her father was wheeling himself even closer to water’s edge. Kit walked to the end of the board and stood very still, arms close to her sides. Then they glided outward and her body lengthened, all sinew and sleekness. She bounced once, twice; arms rose higher and she jumped, her navy tank a blur. Kit’s mother let out a chilling wail.

Kit executed a perfect flip that morphed into a swift swan dive, back arched, arms reaching for sky, toes pointed. Her body snapped back into form. People were silenced and stood up, even the teenagers. Sharise’s hand went to her mouth, and Turk crossed himself. Kit¬†streamlined her body more, slipped into the water with barely a splash. After a few taut seconds, hands, then head broke through, face ecstatic.

“What the–? That was great!”

Turk ran to the pool to offer Kit a hand but she declined. Sharise went to the parents to make sure they were okay. To Kit, she  just nodded a deep bow with her head.

At the end of her shift, Sharise checked the pool deck and water. It was empty, a simple rectangle that hours earlier had seemed like a theater, an enchanted one. It was still luminous in the unrelenting sunshine. She wondered about Kyle and Helena, Kit’s parents, and if they were relaxing at last. Kit was likely off with new friends, or so Sharise hoped. Kyle had been so proud of her he had bought a round of drinks for all, alcoholic for adults, sodas for kids. He invited Turk and Sharise but they’d declined.

“I was a once competitive swimmer,” Kyle had explained when all calmed down. “A very good diver, as well. And then I dove the wrong way in the wrong place off the side of a boat in the Caribbean. That was four years ago. Kit always wanted to follow in my footsteps, was learning fast, but her mother…well, you can imagine how that went. Kit stopped her efforts. But now, a new beginning!” He raised his glass to the sun, or the future he imagined for her.

Helena smiled a wobbly smile at her husband. He seemed happy, not saddened by memories. She was calmer, a tall Tom Collins in hand. Kit had apologized profusely for nearly giving her a heart attack, then turned back to the diving boards.

Now Turk came up behind Sharise and flipped her ponytail. “Off now?”

“Yep, enough excitement.” She slapped him on the shoulder with her purse strap. “Know something? I just¬†decided to try one college class this summer. See how it goes.”

“Good plan,” Turk agreed. He saw a fallen blossom that was marring the caf√©’s water feature¬†and knew it should be fished out but he liked it there. He whistled a little of an old Disney song, then danced a few beats for Sharise. She laughed and took off. There was a new, used book waiting at home and thank goodness. She had to return tomorrow with mind and body fully intact, ready to work.

DSCF5328

Reading What’s Good for Me

DSCN2357

I don’t always read what’s hyped as invigorating for an older woman with reasonable intelligence. At least, what well-read persons may deem excellent. In fact, I read things that are edging toward lowbrow or holding steady in medium-brow. I can’t tell you much about definitive literary standards, as my bookshelves are not bulging with books that have primarily garnered prizes or gotten five star reviews. I read everything from travel memoir and collected essays to literary novels and short stories. Then there are mysteries and thrillers, broadly defined spiritual books as well as Christian writings. Fantasy, less so; sci fi, even less (so far). Biography, psychology, nature and architecture interest me. I’m always on the prowl for something good, like all readers. I even snag oddities from “Free Books” mailboxes in my neighborhood, like a trade paperback I would otherwise pass by. I’ll try a few pages of most genres.

So, I’m not exactly indiscriminate, but not so picky my choices are few. My passion for reading impacts me daily. I keep planning on doing something about it because how many years will it take to read so many things? Unless you’re like my brother, who reads a book a day, I will simply run out of time.

But the issue that hovers in my mind lately is my magazines. I admit it’s an emotional challenge for me to let go of them, too, even when they’ve been read and re-thumbed and take too much space on coffee and end tables. But don’t rip them, and don’t put mugs on them as though they are coasters. I like them close to pristine for as long as possible.

Do I collect special editions or certain decades because of possible value? No. But I do look them over after I read them to cut or tear out pictures for future reference. This means: to put into folders for the time I will have little to do and want to make a scrapbook or montage. Good articles that educate or illuminate also find a place in a folder. But so does a page of classic and contemporary perfumes glowing within chic bottles; another of a garden surrounding a fountain cascading by a cedar bench; and one of Joni Mitchell in her fifties, a lily in her hand, hair still golden. On my laundry room wall there is one magazine picture of a field stone country house with two chickens pecking at the ground, trees tall and warmed by sun. And another of a good looking man sporting a fedora, suspenders over a chambray shirt and supporting, on a gloved hand, a great horned owl. They make me pause and smile.

I never know when something will strike me as informative, lovely or quirky enough to savor. Give me respite while I sip a cup of tea. Move me to hang onto, even after pages curl a bit.

I recently had to change our mailing address from a mailbox back to the residential address. As I was changing the personal info for each magazine the number of magazines were tallied. Twelve. Without listing every one, the variety includes¬†Smithsonian, Architectural Digest, Entertainment Weekly, The Writer, Bookmarks, Simple Living,¬†American Craft, Town and Country.¬†In addition, I often purchase magazines such as National Geographic (subscribed for years and miss it), Scientific American, HGTV, The New Yorker, and Vogue. Did I forget local literary journals? A few of those. (Not included are my spouse’s magazines as I’m writing about my tastes. His piles are his concern!)

??????????

I read for reasons others do. To educate myself about places, events and people I may never get to know in the flesh. For entertainment other than radio, computer or television. I also read for peace, a safe place in times where so much of what we are bombarded with and alerted to involves suffering, danger, the urgent need for solutions to mammoth problems. I need more contemplative ideas, moments of wonder. Beauty discerned inside and out.

I needed all this from a young age. My youth was a puzzle of deep loss and anger, faith in God and passionate dreams. I teetered between them, and wondered when it would get easier.

As an adolescent I tried hard to balance after effects of earlier trauma on the emotional tightrope of just being a teen. I felt responsible in large part for my own recovery. I needed to redetermine my destiny. There were already resources and skills I could use. For one thing, I grew up in a creative family. We were encouraged to be inquisitive, trained to be disciplined in choices and actions. There were solutions to problems and answers to questions; all I had to do was seek and find. If music–the centerpiece of my life–enthralled me, it also was a competitive endeavor in a family of talented musicians. If sports were a release of stress and a natural high, they, too, were competitive and at times depleting. Nature always allowed my soul a place to move beyond my self, to rest, and prayer on a wooded path did much to release stored pain. But I needed something more.

Books were already companions. But books on school reading lists and in the family living room were classics, were old, important, apparently critical in molding minds. I took refuge in our excellent city library and found my world enlarged. A few authors helped save my life. And I wrote daily in a journal–and also poetry, plays and short stories.

Still, I was lacking something.

It came to me when browsing through a few other choices at a dingy Rexall drugstore: there were materials right at my fingertips that didn’t necessarily meet the acceptable standards of my rather conservative, educated, achievement-driven family. Reading experiences that were not so serious, so well-intentioned. I got tried of competing and trying to be happy. These were simple fun. I bought my first Harper’s Bazaar, and a travel magazine (wherein I happily discovered one could send away for free brochures about the Caribbean or California). I was thrilled.

I found pictures that reconfigured forms and colors, that revealed exotic locales and smart ads. They showcased unique people who took risks with appearance and lifestyle. People whose stories provoked. I salvaged parts, then bought poster board and pasted them on. I soon took more pages, some from my parent’s (Life,¬†National Geographic). I scoured them for interesting words or phrases to snip, then arranged them strategically within the graphics. Added paint or marker. A little glitter or a feather, a piece of fabric or a found object. A woman added to a stretch of sky so she appeared to be flying, a colored pencil turning an ocean from pale blue to rich vermilion. Poems made their way there. I found curious ways to speak to things that mattered most.

It wasn’t that this was a new trend in the nineteen sixties, but it felt like I had personally discovered the joy of making collages. One quarter of a bedroom wall was dedicated to my humble art. I changed it often. For when I was working with scissors, paste, bits and pieces and pictures and words, I was freer, emptied of strife. My training whispered that I might be wasting time but my heart knew otherwise. I was relaxing into an exploration of life. Remaking my world. Creating for myself, no one else. Telling myself new stories. Addressing sorrow and fear. Finding or designing women who were braver and stronger. I was re-imagining my own life.¬†I was, in fact, healing. I kept cutting out images to construct a new vision of who I could become.

My magazines sometimes take over where books leave off. But I like when people visit and pick up one they’ve never seen, or they ask if I still have a favorite of theirs. In the reading spots in my home, they can rest as they flip pages. Eventually, of course, it is time to recycle. I choose what to keep. I give them away if I can, take some to medical offices where magazines expired long ago. My old work place regularly received mine but I’m not sure anyone knew it. When I walked through the waiting room and saw people absorbed in an article or studying a photo, it felt good. I knew it gave them a time out. Maybe even ¬†inspiration to make their lives into something different. Like I did, so that it’s been rewarding and full of gratitude. Yes, buoyed by laughter, spontaneous fun. Far, far better than at somber fifteen.

So, magazines remain on my reading lists and in my stacks, likely to gather and topple as just one more is added. For edification and pleasure. My own good. And I have some ideas for those saved pictures. It’s just a matter of time, scissors and paste.

DSCN2362

Earley Waits for Mail

mnDtgrrWH_PPRCjOXFSRFmQ

Earley waited for the mail all afternoon like he did every delivery day, with the patience of Guernsey cows, which he’d loved as a child on the farm. His grandson would take issue with that idea, tell him,¬†Cows don’t know enough to be patient,¬†but that’s what Earley thought of when faced with the occasionally slow passage of time. Cows liked to eat, rest, socialize, all with a deliberate pace and acceptance. It seemed a good lesson. Being human created issues with time. For Earley, time generally was dashing away. As far as the postal service went, he was just grateful he still got it. What sort of life would it be without a little junk mail and a letter or package now and then?

Sol was too smart sometimes, explaining calculus and reading thought-provoking passages from his contemporary novels. Earley had patience with his grandson, but who cared what sorts of odd tricks numbers got up to at this point in his life? But the books he liked, or rather the being read to, especially when it had to do with a little love or a lot of history. One stimulated the other in the world, he thought.

When his son, James, was at work and¬†Sol was at school¬†he had some waiting while he did chores and puttered. Today was–he checked Sol’s calendar on the fridge–computer club. Three days a week the boy had obligations he said were fun. Earley had neither for the most part, unless you counted being a grandfather.

“You have to get a hobby, Grandpa. Ever since Grandma passed you’re just waiting all winter to garden. I know gardening is your thing but really. You need more than that. Maybe like playing Sudoku or checking out that new fitness club. I saw one of your friends over there. What about your woodworking?”

“I’ve made enough stuff, why do I need more? I do my crosswords and word searches so I don’t get soft in the head. I walk everywhere. Cook. Do laundry and pay bills like when Nana was alive. Plant my garden in spring. What more? You have hobbies, I get some free time.”

Sol and James looked at each other, eyes rolled. It made Earley think a bit. He did get restless at times. Then he saw the ad and put in an order.

For the last week he’d been watching over Sol by himself. It wasn’t hard but it took a little more out of him. Worrying and making sure he did all that homework, catching up with him more than usual. No James as a buffer or disciplinarian. It went pretty well.

James had gotten to Florida on Tuesday. He was supposed to have have come back home by now, not that Earley was anxious for it. It was never much real hardship being there for Sol. James called twice, once when he got to Miami and once when he found out he would be back a few days late. James was a fully degreed person, a writer and a construction worker, which Earley didn’t quite get, but the building trade usually worked out better. Bills had to be paid for three people.

James had this desire to swim his way into that smallish pool of people who might find their stories on shelves. He had been working on a psychological thriller for four years and it was almost done. Earley hadn’t read it yet. He wondered if it would scare him; the thought of that captivated him. Well, in good time.

James poked his head out of his office door one morning.

“I’m going to Miami, you guys! Kevin was hired as editor of Killing Justice, that new thriller and mystery magazine I mentioned, and said I’d be a good addition. But I have to do a formal interview. We’ll all move there, start fresh if this works out.”

Sal frowned and considered. He was fifteen. He had a small, well-defined life that he liked just enough. The house they shared with grandpa was big and had a garden he helped tend. He wondered how his grandpa would manage down there. He did want his dad to be happier. Sal could try Florida after ten years in Omaha despite leaving his best friend. The thought of tan, beachy girls and large reptiles soon held him in thrall.

As it lowered, the sun shot out pink and orange rays behind houses across the street, making half-halos about trees and rooftops. The sky warmed up like a tropical vista. Earley wondered what it would look like in Florida. He watched out the bay window, then saw the porch bathed in a glow despite a deep chill he kept at bay with the heat jacked up too high. The mailman–well, mail woman now– should have been there long ago. It annoyed him despite his resolve. So much for Guernsey patience. He wondered about James coming back late, what that all meant. His stomach growled as he glanced in the refrigerator. Leftover meatloaf when Sol got home.

He grabbed the seed catalog and sat in his worn, smooth leather chair. When he turned on the light and opened it to the first page pictures dazzled him with their lushness, as always. He could hardly stand that he had months to go before the planting.

51X2z748CfL._SX300_ (1)

What would it be like to grow things all year long? he wondered. Florida looked like it sprouted life without any effort. It unnerved him a bit. The winters in Omaha were a good time to hibernate, which he liked. He might have to wear madras shorts in Florida, learn how to swing a golf club well, use terrible smelling sunscreen all the time. Or stay indoors even when there was no snow and no rain because of that heat. He wanted his son to use his degree in English and Sol to be able to try other things, but this was a lot to ask. If it was to be asked. He breathed into the gathering dark, a ruffly sound making its way down his commandeering nose. What if James thought it was time for him to join the others over seventy in those cramped places they pretended were communities? He had one already, right here, on this street, in this house. It had been good enough for forty-five years. The house had conformed to him and he, to it.

The front opened, then slammed shut the same time his cell phone rang. Sol tossed a package on the rectangular table in the foyer. Earley got up, then looked at his phone.

James. He answered.

“Hello? Son?”

“Hey, dad. I’ll be home tomorrow but I wanted to talk to you guys. Is Sol there yet?”

Earley beckoned to his grandson and he came over.

“We’re both here.”

Sol put the phone on speaker.

“Sol?”

“Hey, dad! See alligators yet?”

James laughed. “Not yet. But we might sooner or later.”

“We? You got the job, dad?”

“I did. They liked me and I like them. I’ll start in May.”

Earley walked to the table where the package lay. He could hear the two of them talking, excitement tinged with disbelief in Sol’s voice. He shook the package to confirm it was his order for sure, then went back to to his chair and sank down in the old cushion, box in hand.

“Hey Dad? You there?”

“Yes, I heard you.”

“Are you glad for me?”

“Happy as a clam.”

“Grandpa, clams aren’t even close to being smart–”

“You don’t know that, Sol. We don’t know every single thing.”

“Dad, I have to get going. Kevin is taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I’ll tell you everything when I get home.”

They hung up. Earley fished his Swiss Army knife from a back pocket. Sol had sunk into the couch, his jacket still on, backpack at his feet.

“Florida… sweet. I think.” He sat forward, hands clasped together between his knees. “What do you think, Grandpa? Oh, you got a package. What’s in it?”

Earley cut through tape, tossed the paper and pried open the box. Inside were neatly bagged pieces of wood. A whole ship.

“Behold, Sol, the Santa Maria. The largest ship of the three sailed during Columbus’ voyage. Modest, really, especially by today’s standards. About one hundred tons of her. Deck was 58 feet. A good seafaring ship until she shipwrecked in Haiti.”

“Nice! A wooden model. So that’s your new hobby?”

Earley smiled. “Could be.”

They looked over the plans and talked about history until Sol said he was hungry. At the table over meatloaf sandwiches, they were quiet awhile. Then Earley spoke up.

“You think you could head down to Miami, then? Or would you want to stay here?”

“We’re all in this together! Dad’s taking me and you if you’ll go and I’m sure taking you, so we’re going together. Right? Florida, like it or not, here we come.”

Earley wiped his mouth and sat back. “Well, it could be a good place to make and sail ships. But I’ll get back to you after your dad gets home and we talk. I’d have to have a garden. At the very least.”

Sol agreed; no garden, no move. He put the kettle on for tea and got out the organic peppermint teabags. That’s what his grandpa liked after a meal. That’s what Sol would always make him.

Monet in the Garden by Monet
Monet in the Garden by Monet

Afternoons at the Ice Palace

alec-soth

                                              (Photo by Alec Soth)

I know I look kind¬†of miserable but that was the first day of my punishment.¬†Aunt Lucia¬†thought I was just fulfilling the¬†sentence she’d determined¬†after I got in trouble: twelve figure skating¬†lessons, Tuesday and¬†Thursday after school. I had¬†skipped school a¬†half-dozen times¬†and on top of that was¬†caught smoking pot in October. I’m not¬†saying I did the right things, but to hear her tell of it I was on the road to ruin and if she didn’t get me¬†turned around¬†she would next be¬†visiting me in prison.
“So this is¬†what I’m expecting, Kara: no more skipping, no smoking anything, no¬†staying out past midnight. Also taking figure skating classes twice a week¬†for¬†six weeks, or until I say you’re done, whichever I decide.”
I jerked my head up¬†from the book I was reading and focused on her freshly permed burgundy curls.¬†“Okay, okay-but really? Figure skating? What’s that about?”
She was ironing my¬†best white shirt. “You’ve always had a knack for sports, am I right? I¬†saw you skate¬†a month ago, remember? You got a knack for it. Exercise is¬†good for mind and body.” She sprayed a¬†mist on the cotton and¬†attacked the wrinkles. “Or in January you can go back to Vinnie’s.”
I shuddered. My dad–her brother, Vincent/Vinnie–didn’t have¬†space or time for me¬†in his life what with¬†his business and¬†a new wife.I’d¬†just turned fifteen when I realized¬†Harper–that was her name, says she was a¬†model once–had never been around kids. She also had no sense of humor¬†so we really didn’t hit it off. What she did have was¬†close to eighty¬†pairs of shoes that spilled out of my dad’s closet, not to mention who knows how many dresses and accessories. I stayed as far away from her¬†as possible.
“Since you put¬†it that way…if I must, I will comply,” I said to Aunt Lucia and turned¬†the page. “But I’d rather¬†skate my own way. All that ballet stuff added¬†on is a bit too much.”
She kept ironing. I could feel her staring at me, those dark eyes drilling a hole through my skull, reading my thoughts. I closed the book and went upstairs.
“That’s my¬†Kara,¬†back on track,” she called after me.
She’s like a¬†cheerleader with kindness overriding the pep,¬†encouraging me even when I¬†don’t want it, making me stand tall when I feel like a million scrappy,¬†scrambled pieces. But I wasn’t ready to give her the¬†upper hand–or, at least, to let her know I was giving in.
I really attended skating lessons after school at the Ice Palace because I liked the ice. I thought this was a good way to have some fun and fulfill the sentencing. Despite its name, the Ice Palace is just a plain outdoor rink with a medium warming house that has a roaring fireplace. That saves the place. They sell hot chocolate, coffee and snacks that are less than delicious.
imagesCA3GHVLA
That first lesson¬†wasn’t¬†too successful. I was used to skating fast, not gracefully, and¬†plowing my way through¬†clumps of weaker skaters. Ordinary peons like me with¬†nothing better to do¬†on¬†Saturday, leaving the ice surface gouged.¬†Now I shared a smooth, clean rink with a¬†dozen students who acted so serious, practicing various jumps, spins and fancy backward skating called¬†a grapevine. And figure eights, which terrified me. That’s where you make two circles, one next to another so it looks like an eight, and try to stay on the same line as you re-trace it on the edge of one blade. Complicated. I wobbled and scraped the ice and made not one perfect circle. I had an urge to¬†make a¬†seven or an eleven but Steve, my instructor, was¬†stern and very tall.¬†When I finally completed one he punched a fist at the sky as though I’d won a¬†race. Everyone else looked over.¬†I¬†felt I’d melt as heat¬†crept up my neck. A giant gust of¬†wind¬†swept¬†up,¬†bringing me energy and release. I got to free skate.
The second class went better. I picked up things fast, Steve said. I already skated backwards, turned well and could stop so that ice sprayed everywhere. I overdid that so I learned a quick T-stop, flashy but neat.
I started to hurry over to the Ice¬†Palace¬†each day after school. On lesson days I’d¬†warm up for a half hour,¬†stay a little after the class and then catch a late bus. It was hard work and sometimes tedious. But by the end of the third¬†week I considered that my aunt was actually a sage¬†who knew figure¬†skating¬†was an alchemical process whereby I was transformed into someone¬†different. But I didn’t tell her. I just let things happen.
“You’re sweeter lately,” she said one night as I was helping in the kitchen. “Maybe¬†it’s the figure skating?”
I shrugged. “I’m operating under a mandate, remember? I can do this.”
She snapped me with¬†her¬†tea towel. “Steve costs a lot so he’d better whip¬†you¬†into shape– or more drastic measures will be¬†needed.”
I snapped her back¬†and it turned into a chase. Aunt Lucia, she¬†ran¬†fast for a large middle-aged woman. Afterwards she¬†told me she’d excelled in¬†track and field as a kid. I stayed up late and drank spearmint tea with her as she shared surprising stories.¬†She’s my favorite aunt¬†even if I do resent her demands and nosiness. She’s sly and good all at once, a master (mistress?) of many things.
I kept skating. I’d found my place at the rink and found it harder to not be happy. I learned new things, shoot-the duck, the sit spin and waltz jump. But¬†skating was natural while living felt awkward; it was not anywhere near what it should be. I read a lot and I liked¬†stories that made me ask questions and dig for answers, but nothing had helped me understand my¬†parents better.¬†They¬†basically abandoned me in tiny excruciating steps. Well, not my mom. She up and left for due to “a passion for Chardonnay”, as dad explained it, graduated the program and left us. Years ago this¬†had happened but still. I resented and missed her and my father. There was¬†a place inside that felt like a wound that had to heal too fast, and did so badly.¬†Some scars remain oddly sensitive; numbness¬†with a shadowy ache is what is left me.
But when I entered¬†the warming house and sat down with my used Riedell¬†figure skates (they’d cost Aunt Lucia too much), my heart started to drum on my ribs. My scalp¬†tingled. My¬†spine got straighter, my back stronger. My feet wanted to¬†hurry and take off as I loosened, then tightened my laces¬†just right. Then I took¬†off the rubber blade guards at the gate, stowed them¬†in¬†a¬†cubbyhole, and burst¬†onto the glittering ice. In the late afternoon sun¬†it was a jeweled winter lake, glassy and bright as light and people skimmed¬†and¬†sailed. When it snowed the light softened and the air was silkier even as¬†my cheeks stung, but sweetly. I loved the way my thigh muscles burned as I sped around the rink, how I was learning to¬†control every muscle as I¬†sweated and improved each¬†move. I was Kara the girl who could leap and spin, not Kara that weirdo from out¬†West who had to live with an aunt. I¬†was sloppy and tired at¬†first if pleased. After the¬†seventh class I’d caught¬†up to many of the others. Steve said he was proud of me; that surprised me. I had discovered abundant¬†freedom in a world where some freedoms seemed¬†to shrink the older I got.¬†It was¬†a kind of ecstasy. My mind opened¬†and¬†my heart embraced what came; fear dissolved with the small acts of bravery out there. Those silver blades on my feet took me out of¬†myself, made me reach farther, higher. I felt bigger. I felt safe from sadness.
So when Aunt Lucia¬†came to the last class to see what I had done with twelve lessons I showed her. I had to let her in on the secret, the passion I’d found.¬†I completed a stag jump to¬†applause and felt myself turning into¬†gold¬†beneath a high winter sun. And my sentence was completed just like that: I got¬†more¬†lessons. I still have the picture that Steve took for us. Aunt Lucia is smiling¬†like a madwoman¬†and I’m¬†laughing, imagining all the ice that lay ahead of me like a magic pathway.

imagesCA9K6N19