Mementos for Living

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Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The crowd wasn’t holiday-large, not jam-packed in corridors, just impossibly thick with kinetic energy, bodies propelled from the mall storefronts like party favors tossed into the electric air, mouths chattering about nothing, eyes alight with the thrill of the hunt.

Nell didn’t much like crowds. She observed from her perch in Madrigal’s Mementos, her workplace. Her store, in a way, since her mother, Rona, was semi-retired and hightailed it to Santorini with a new companion. She wasn’t surprised Rona left her to deal with problems actual and imagined, as well as their thriving trade in “fancy this and that”, as her mother called the wares. She was more like a good older friend and seasoned business partner than a mother in most ways, she admitted. That was how it had always been.

The store was tastefully arrayed with small stone animals, elegant glass paper weights, fine pens and papers, hand crafted jewelry, silk screened scarves, hand bound books of poems and wisdom to live by, bright woven baskets and so on. In other words, an expensive gift shop for those who are used to the best or those who want to indulge once a year.

She felt less like a snappy sales person than a rag doll who had been propped up on her stool and directed to come alive. This was not what Nell had planned on doing right after college, yet here she was grinning at three customers who likely had little extra cash to spend and another two who did, each of them absorbed in examining the interesting pieces, wondering aloud if one person or another would enjoy an item. Nell could care less even though she was proud of Rona’s business acumen–she had two more stores–and glad of a decent paycheck. But she would rather be studying for her Masters in Ethnomusicology, doing musical and cultural field work in the Ozarks, say, or on Prince Edward island, in India or Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia would suit her better than all this.

The two women she thought would purchase something left the store arm in arm. But two of the other three lined up, items in hand. Stone elephants, a stone eagle, a bracelet of silver and good turquoise. As each was carefully wrapped, she thought how this business was partly responsible for Nell’s interest in other cultures since much of their inventory came from worldwide markets and crafts people.

“Such a great shop,” one woman breathed, hands gesturing toward displays and making coppery bangles clink. “Is Rona not here anymore?”

“Ah, yes, and no. She’s considering retirement, meanwhile just travels.”

“To locate more neat stuff, no doubt.” She dug in an enormous shoulder bag for her wallet, bangles jangling more. She looked at her friend. “Rona has such an eye, is so interesting, I could go out for coffee with that woman once a day and never be bored, she’s quite a talker.” She found her debit card and handed it to Nell. “You’re new here, right? You know her well?”

“For quite a few years. She’s my mother–I’m Nell Madrigal.”

“Oh! I should have known since you have her thick black hair, so pretty, I guess we’ve never met.”

“Likely not, I come and go. I’m not here for good; she’ll be back in time for holiday shoppers.”

“Lovely, I’ll be back then!”

They finished their transactions and left. Stillness billowed in the room, a relief. Nell watched more people stream by, a monotonous blur, a mass of colors and shapes, a telegraphic signal from another world that she didn’t understand. That she wished fervently was not her domain. She’d rather be on a mountain, in a holler, by the sea. But last year at her East coast university had brought a defining moment that left its mark. She turned on a CD of benign spa music and settled into the exorbitant but beloved “clam chair” covered in sheep’s wool near the counter’s end. It was for Nell the safe place in the store where she would watch and not be seen, could rest and the ache in her back and shoulders would ease.

If she dared close her eyes while still awake, she would still recall it and anymore it seemed better to let it come, rather than fight it. She had no desire to go into battle with old demons. She was tired, as always. Nell let her eyelids lower.

Back at Hartford School of Music he’d fast become her first love. Quinn: excellent oboe player, a composer of abstracted woodwind quartets and trios. They made her think of watercolors, layers of morphing shapes–yet these belied a greater intensity of feelings she didn’t recognize on first listens. The music could have been a clue but for her it was then all surge and flow; seeking, giving and taking and waiting for more; following less trod trails into a wilderness of surprise. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been in love before, just that she hadn’t ever known a man like Quinn before. Hadn’t found the proverbial rabbit hole so enticing as to willingly tumble into it and risk being lost. Which soon, she was, then she sailed right into his arms, out of her life, into his.

Was it his amped up adoration of her, even as her own ardor had begun to settle? Was it the way he had of subtly and frequently chiding and correcting her when he insisted she was wrong about something, no matter how small? Was it how he needed to know all her friends’ names, where she was going–then that he preferred she spend her free time with only him? Even then she saw it as signage of his enveloping and rock-steady love for her–the way he attended to her every need, how he graced her apartment with armloads of flowers when they’d had a spat, how he’d serenaded her at her window one night.

His mellow oboe sweetly filled the night air, calling other women to their windows, as well. But it was only her for whom he made music, no one else.

Nell flicked open her eyes, checked to see if anyone had slunk into the shop and was trying to nab anything but no, it had been a mostly quiet afternoon so far. She glanced at the shoppers then shuttered her vision once more.

Quinn was not handsome, not even quirkily so. That is, his features were not noteworthy and his torso was long and gave off a hint of natural athleticism but not one blazing with prowess. Still, his presence sooner or later filled the space of any place he went. It was his eyes, for Nell. Not the shape or color–though they were a warm brown, caramel-tinged in the right light–but the force they exerted, and his honeyed voice. Yes, a delectable force, that was the word Nell came to identify with him. His eyes on others exuded the demand that one pay attention and if one did, a rapid and intense response was forthcoming. Nell succumbed the first time they met. She saw him; he saw her. They talked of music and how it enabled people to become more attuned to nature’s complex notations and each other. There was nothing to be done but give in to such lively energy.

“Hello there…?” A male voice rang out.

Nell startled in her chair, stood up as if commanded.

“Yes, sir?”

“I was hoping you could show me some possibilities for my fiancée’s birthday.”

“Of course, tell me a little about her if you don’t mind.” Tell me you want her to be delighted not indebted, that you want to grace her with a token of your caring not your ownership, Nell thought as she listened, then led him to a display of pens–since she had beautiful handwriting.

They spent a few minutes perusing his options and then he wandered, returned to choose the flowing ink pen with a green and gold barrel, then silken paper with a tasteful ivy design along its left edge. He added delicate earrings with tiny sapphires. As she gift-wrapped them, they spoke of the weather–bright and warm, still–then he was gone, loping beside the others  into the outer realms.

Easy and at ease: Quinn was not these, never could be. He was smart and talented, given to flights of fancy that ended in wakeful nights of composing, revising each measure as he found more gaping chasms of error in the music and himself. It was the one vulnerable spot inside him, this part that privately did not feel good enough, and it seeped into other parts of his life though especially composing.

“I’m not meant to do this, have no gift for it!” he’d cry out and she would wrap her arms around him and he would shake her off. “Father was right, I didn’t catch the right genes, I can only conjure the right things in my mind but not execute, never fulfill my desires!”

His father, it was true, was a renowned composer of choral works, Terrence Carlton, he said proudly. Then he complained of it, how he lived in Spain, out of reach, unable to help and had little interest in woodwinds. He was far out of Quinn’s league. Only Nell could soothe him after the anger had been lit, then it subsided a bit. That is what he told her, only she seemed to understand him, no one else. It was not hard for her to be there for him. All he asked was devotion and she loved him, didn’t she, this is how it felt, to belong entirely to one person and be there for them always?

Nell sat back down and stayed put even though a couple came in, picked up a few stone animals and then left. A wave of panic had welled up in her, then slowly receded as she dusted the glass counter tops, rearranged elegant necklaces that lay on colored sand. She paused at the animal totems. She had given a stone creature to Quinn last Christmas, before he left for Spain and she, for Arizona. A coyote. She had liked to watch them in and around Tucson and he found it enchanting, said, “Thank you, that’s an animal I do admire.” And even that might have informed her better but it did not, not soon enough, not until they had returned to Hartford and studies resumed.

One snowy week-end in February they ate at Tango in Bridgeton Village, a funky shopping district.

“I don’t want to see him again soon, but he wants me to spend a couple weeks at spring break. He and his new wife at their new house. A villa, really.” He eyed her ruefully over his burrito, eyes suddenly a deeper brown as if a shadow had fallen over them. Then he smiled shyly. “He asked to meet you, said he’d even buy your ticket. I agreed I’d go if you come along. How about it, Nell?”

She put down her fork. Studied him. “I think that might be a little…too soon?”

He was chewing so didn’t speak a moment but his face changed nonetheless, from hopeful to irritated to a precarious cliff of anger that she saw in his narrowed eyes. “Why?”

“I mean, it’s been seven months, hardly as if we’re, well, betrothed!” She said it lightly, as if the whole idea was absurd, truly.

“What if I was thinking of the future? Our future?”

“I am, too. Getting our Masters degrees, finding good jobs. I’m not anywhere ready to have parents reintroduced into my world–our world. Certainly not marriage…surely you aren’t, either?”

He got very quiet, leaned over the center of the worn table top. Put fingers on her fork, then a knife, then drummed both sets of fingers beside her.

“I must be thinking of it, to agree with my father’s wishes. He has the right to meet you if I am imagining you in my future life.”

Appetite gone, Nell leaned into her chair, saw his index finger fiddle with the knife, saw him look her over as if he wasn’t clear–or happy–about who sat opposite him. Hr fixed his gaze upon her and did not blink.

His throat was cleared and when he spoke his words were hard and loud. “Don’t you agree, Nell? That meeting my father soon is best?”  He grabbed her wrists in both hands, and applied pressure until her fingers started to feel odd, then numb. His face was a mask of someone else, a man she’d glimpsed lately yet not known face to-face.

Until now.

“I don’t think so. We haven’t even talked about things past graduation much. I can’t go to Spain this spring, Quinn, I have the store and Rona.” She dabbed at her lips with a napkin, hands shaking, unsure of what to  do. She needed to leave, give him a day or two to rethink things and calm down but knew in her gut she could not leave without arousing a worse response.

He reached up, slapped her across the cheek, then grabbed her burning wrist again.

“Are you entirely sure, my love?”

She looked down, shocked, heard whispering, felt the humiliation of it. She could not get out of this! Or could she? Why not just go?

Nell stood up and doing so her hands were yanked so hard Quinn was pulled forward into the table so she she spun around, her wrists freed and pushed her way through tables, pressed the entrance door open, and ran. She wanted to be to just walk away, hail a cab and not look back but heart and legs would not do as she told them and she was moving fast. She ran one block, crossed a street, her booted feet striking slushy pavement and uneven sidewalks, hair whipping in the wind, wrists aching, arms freezing–she had left her coat behind.

“Nell, come back! Stop!”

Nell glanced over her shoulder, just streaked past a moving car with its horn blaring, then she crossed again, ran between quaint shops, barreled into startled pedestrians, pushed her way through a more languorous group that stood smoking outside a bar. They shouted at her, then turned at Quinn’s yelling.

“Nell, stop right now. STOP or you’ll be sorry!”

She stumbled and fell, got up again and ran into an alley. A door to the bar opened as if by magic and she rushed in past the shaken kitchen help.

“Shut that door tight, he’s chasing me!”

The door closed with a bang. She could hear raised voices, Quinn pounding on the door but she kept on, raced through the cafe with apologies flung out, into the street again and running the other direction. Her chest hurt, throat stung, eyes watered–was she crying?– and face and hands were chilled as fat snowflakes fell.

Nell did not stop until she was crouched behind a dumpster in the alley four blocks down and her breathless voice came roaring back as a piercing scream, hands over ears to dampen the sound of her own fear.

Someone came, called the police. People talked to her, reached for her. An APB was put out on Quinn. She was taken to the police station to give a written report. Her mother was called. She went home for a week until Quinn was in jail. Only when she was sure he had left, was back in Spain–Rona had called his father to make things even clearer–did she return to finish the year. She could not believe she had still graduated, if barely. She had made it, was safe again at home in Arizona. If only her mother was here more. But Rona felt Nell had to find her own way, regain confidence. And she was right, of course.

At Madrigal’s Mementos, a familiar place, even like home.

An elderly, soft-bodied woman hobbled in.

“Hello,” Nell said, hand at forehead, smoothing away the memories. “Can I help you with something special?”

The woman readjusted a hand knitted orange beret,  white hair spilling out of it and curving about her lined face. “I so hope you can–Nell, is it?” She pointed to Nell’s name tag. “My granddaughter is graduating from nursing school. I want a gift that’s different, something she can take wherever she goes but useful, too. Something to represent a milestone. She’s a wonderful girl, let me tell you. She waited so long to get to where she wanted to go and it was tough, school can seem tougher as time goes by. But she did it. Now she’s to be an RN.”

The woman smiled warmly at the thought and began to consider possibilities, picking up objects and looking them over with care. Nell suggested a few items.

“Is this your store? It’s quite good. I see a few things I’d like for myself, drat!”

Nell laughed. “Oh, no, my mother owns three stores. I’m just the sales person.”

“I doubt that,” she said, holding a hand-blown paperweight’s bright colors up to the light.

“Well, I want to be an ethnomusicologist but life is unpredictable.”

“So it is, but that’s a great field. I’m an historian myself, taught forever at City College, now I get to relax.” A ready smile sparked blue droopy eyes as she chose another paperweight. “Mandy would love this one. She has a nice study at home to manage her bills and to read and such. The turquoise with green are her colors, so soothing. Just look at that.” The paperweight glowed in a stream of recessed lighting.

She wandered as Nell worked on inventory online. In a few moments a purchase was made. They chatted a bit more about the granddaughter’s plans. The older woman waved good bye, then turned back, came back to the counter.

“Don’t let life derail you for long. Take hold of your dream and pursue it doggedly, it’s the only way to go. You will not regret it, believe me.”

She patted her hand and left. Nell watched her disappear into the crowd. As she returned to the computer, she noticed something white on the counter.

“Harriet Millsand, PhD., Retired Educator and Historian,” it noted, then further stated, “History is our own story: the past intersects present while the present anticipates future.”

She turned it over and read aloud: “A memento has been defined as a warning or a reminder of what has come before. But one can create new mementos of a life, Nell. Best wishes, Harriet.”

The Islander and the Gardeners

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Sometimes I hated taking these jobs, which was ridiculous because anyone would give their eye teeth to get a job one like that. But it was also nuts how much money people could spend on lawn maintenance. How fussy they could be. While most of our customers required basics like a good sprinkler system, regular trimmings and mowings with fertilizing and weed eradication, the Howes required painstaking edgings and hands-and-knees labor. Had to oust those mosses and tiny sprouts of grass that persisted between cobblestones and so on. I wondered if we were hired to beat back a pesky beast named Nature, lest it creep up, pry open their massive front door and invade the family. I told Rudy this was the last time. I was getting tired of worrying about unattainable perfection.

“Of course it isn’t the last time, Cassie,” he said good-naturedly. “You know we count on these customers.”

He was boss despite the fact we were married; it was his business first. It had grown enough to add two employees since I came on, I reminded him at times. I got a pat on the back and a vacation of my choice when we did really well. With Rudy, of course. My best friend, business partner, lover.

We went to the Howes’ every Friday around ten. Not earlier, or it would annoy the Mrs. The Mr.’s first name was Brent but we called him Mr. Howe. His personal name on the check he signed each month almost made him feel more approachable but not quite. I thought he was an oral surgeon, or was it an investment banker? I couldn’t keep him straight from the other well-off customers on the West side of the city. It didn’t much matter. It might never have mattered if Mrs. Howe hadn’t been in my view every Friday. If she hadn’t made him matter.

She’d appear like clockwork around the time we got there. The second story sleeping porch was outside, I assumed, their bedroom. I guessed she got up, got ready for the day and ate before we arrived. Then she promptly sat in her white wrought iron chair and table overlooking the side yard and she’d get to work on something–reading, calculating something, writing?–while drinking a cup of coffee or tea.

The first time I saw her was when carefully going over the lawn’s requirements with Rudy. Mr. Howe had left a voice message that one spot was on the verge of being water-logged and there was a bit of a spongy area, that was true, but earth’s density wasn’t necessarily uniform. There might be an issue, maybe not much of one.

I heard the door open with a homely squeak, then shut with a thud. I thought it needed a squirt of WD40. Mrs. Howe looked over our heads and across the street, pressed a flyaway strand of light brown hair behind her ear. She wore it back in a ponytail, low and sleek like those women pictured atop fancy horses. She saw me but turned to the table and sat down.

We walked the yard talking about saturation and soil types and readjusted the gauges and pressure for the sprinkler system. All seemed okay overall, time would tell. Rudy got started on edging; I started on the ivy, taking out the lowest vines, hard to do as they were so tenacious.

It was interesting about the ivy. It was considered a nasty invader by and large, yet many building and home owners let it creep in and up for decorative effect. It seemed to endear itself to some. Mr. Howe said he was wanted to vote for full removal but his wife liked it latching onto the trunk of an old red oak tree. Typical of herbera hibernica, it would take over entirely so we were meant to try to contain it as best we could.

“Mrs. Howe thought ivy–a different sort–was beautiful when growing up and residing in the Azores the last three decades,” he said with resignation. “So it stays for now.”

Rudy smiled at him blankly, then squinted his eyes as he tried to think.

“There are nine of the islands. Just west of Portugal.”

I had read of them so jumped in. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful there, a little like Hawaii.”

Mr. Howe smiled back at me, lips closed over his teeth. “Yes. Their ivy is a symbol of heartiness and loyalty, she says– the romance of it is what she likes. As long as it’s growth can be reasonably curtailed, I’ll try to live with it.”

“Yes, sir,” Rudy said. They strolled about, talked of other needs as I studied the plantings of flowers, the richly dispersed colors, and planned out what needed what.

I gave a brief thought to the Azores. How exotic its name, how far from home Mrs. Howe was now.

“He isn’t going to be my favorite customer but it’ll be fine,” Rudy said during break.

“Why?”

“Maybe a little arrogant. Not the first time.”

“I thought the same.”

“It’s only work,” Rudy said and offered me a bite of his apple.

He could put things in such a simple, clear perspective. He was like the Buddha of Northwest gardening; I’d thought about renaming our business “Zen for All Gardens” but he’d dismiss it with a chortle.

******

The second week, Mrs. Howe was on the porch by the time we arrived a bit early. She was bent over the table again. This time it was clear she was writing as she raise a hand with a pen or pencil in it. Sometimes scratched her head with it. I’d look up every now and then to see if she was gone but she remained rooted in that spot the two hours we were there. It threatened rain, and we worked more quickly. Right before we finished I glanced up again and saw she had disappeared inside. I wiped the sweat from my neck and face with a big white handkerchief and wondered what it was like to write and relax on a breezy porch, then do more of the same in air conditioning the rest of the day. I had done physical labor most of my life and it suited me well. I couldn’t imagine sitting that long except at end of day when my muscles held a righteous ache, when my body got refueling and rest.

I wondered if she had kids but that didn’t seem so. She was younger than he was, for sure, closer to my age. Maybe Mrs. Howe worked the other days and on Fridays she was home. And that’s why we came then, so she could watch over our activities. But she hadn’t spoken to us and seemed unconcerned about what we did. And so I put her out of my mind, didn’t think about the Azores, either. You could never really know about customers–your employers. Do the job well, then be done with it.

“I’m already a little tired of Mr. Howe’s griping about the bushes,” Rudy said the fourth week. “First he wants them left alone, then he wants them trimmed and wonders why I didn’t suggest it. Well, he said no to start with. We’d better get on with it.”

I heard the porch door behind us as we wielded pruning shears, knife and saw. There was much to do, but she hesitated, leaned against the porch railing and looked right at us. Then me, eyes sliding over my features and away. Her hand lifted from the railing just a little, a shy wave that was mostly flattened fingers, then she sat down at her round table.

The gesture got to me a little; it was as if she let me know she knew I was aware of her. And she paid attention to me–us–from up there.

“Come on, Cassie, they’re having a shindig tonight,” Rudy said under his breath, “so we have to get it all done right and on time.”

“A party? That’s so nice–such a gorgeous day. I can just imagine that wide, deep back yard, the patio strung with fairy lights…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He gave me a quick rub on the shoulders. “We have our own little oasis, too.”

“That’s true,” I agreed. A patio hemmed in by a shed and garage and  lots of potted plants, a koi pond smack in the middle. All Rudy’s ideas; it had been his house before I arrived. I did like it, it just wasn’t expansive and filled with lush flowering bushes and giant trees–all that we kept in great shape. And they had that blue-tiled pool by the southern exposure property line.

I could smell the jasmine hanging in the air, its rich sweetness cloying, saw magnolias’ waxy whiteness glow in the sunlight. The pink and yellow roses would be perfection in moonlight. I daydreamed as I clipped back the rhoddies.

“Hey, how about we invite Sandy and Gina over for steaks tomorrow? We’ll stop by the butcher’s, grab extra beer on the way home. But we’ll have to clean up the patio.”

“Sounds good. Maybe they’ll hogtie Jim and bring him so he and Roger can play video games.”

Roger, our son (mine, now also his), aged fifteen, was aggravating when he had to stay home for more than an hour or two at a time. We were waiting for him to morph back into the person we knew he was and could be again. There were sporadic signs of hope.

I studied Mrs. Howe as I worked. There was a slump in her thin shoulders, a deep curve in her long neck as she scribbled away in a journal or sketchpad, it was hard to tell. I wondered if she was excited about her party and what food she was making–or maybe it would be catered. I thought not, something special from her islands, and imagined the light conversation, scrumptious food and glittering pool.

The next week as I worked on ivy again, Mrs. Howe sat at her table but watched me awhile, then stood and paced. She sipped from her cup and stretched and twisted to loosen kinks, I guessed. She had a lithe figure, not like mine. I was of medium build but very strong, my thigh and arm muscles getting a bit massive from all the lifting, pulling and reaching we did. I felt healthy, was certain Rudy liked my looks. He moved to the back yard as he handed me clippers, directing me to another spot.

“Cassie? So sorry…is that your name?”

I looked up. Her voice was a gentle eruption, her accent filling out the words. She smiled and it changed her small face from sad and pinched to more open, even lively. Though her shoulder-length hair was light, her brows were darker and dramatically emphasized deep-set eyes.

“If you and Rudy are thirsty, please help yourself to fresh lemonade on the porch.” She pointed below and to the front. “On a table, left of the bench swing.”

“Oh, nice, ” I stammered, surprised she spoke so much to me.

She tentatively raised her fingers, a timid gesture, as she had before, then sat and got back to writing with renewed focus, left hand pressed against her head to prop it up.

The drink was homemade, wafer-thin lemon pieces floating in it. Cool, crisp, sweet and tart like my grandmother used to make it. The pale green glass was etched with vine and floral design. The many miniature ice cubes clinked like they wanted to clamber out I pressed the cold surface beaded with moisture to my hot forehead, then finished it off. When I went back to thank her, she was gone.

Did she write about the Azores? Her life before and after? Did she write about dreams, her friends here or abroad? Maybe it was a long letter, the start of a memoir as an Azorean–was that the right word? I’d read it.

I sometimes wrote about my dreams when I awakened. They were good, mostly, but not always, so then I wrote about them to get them out of my head. It worked.

******

It was August already, nearly the end. And boiling, so hot that my brown t-shirt stuck to my chest and back. I was more wet than dry. Rudy didn’t sweat like I did. He tended to be cool and collected physically and mentally as I shoved saturated curls back under my baseball cap and scoured my face with a handkerchief, which was already damp just from hanging out in my pocket.

There were moles, Rudy suspected, so he was off to investigate their tunneling in the back,look for more dirt-filled holes. He was good at ridding yards of the solitary insectivores but often said if every one had a cat it’d be less of an issue and cheaper. The byways they made fascinated him. I was getting ready to manicure the lawn and fired up the mower for the front. Heavy clouds were piling up in the southwest behind a line of black walnut trees. Warm rain would arrive soon.

Mrs. Howe was on the porch; I stifled an urge to wave. She made sure there was a pitcher of iced water, lemonade or limeade on the porch for us now. She was barefoot. I could see that because her legs were stretched out, arched feet atop the railing. A wide brimmed straw hat shielded her from the sunshine and obscured her face. Her shoulders trembled, then rocked ever so slightly. I stood there ready to start the mower but couldn’t move. She was weeping, I thought, yes, she was definitely crying and not easily. I hesitated as she bent over the table with face in both hands, then I started it up anyway. It wasn’t my business, after all, was it? I was a bit embarrassed for her, wanted to offer her cover. She remained there but I turned my back worked away. The lawn was huge. It took a lot to get it just right but the wind came up to cool me, a boon.

We wrapped things up, raindrops spitting, Rudy hefting things into the truck, I was gathering up a couple stray tools and it was then I saw her. I was in the back yard a moment and she was carrying out a small pile of notebooks in a rush, and opened a big trash can, opened up a tied off bag and shoved them in. Then she smashed the lid down tight, leaning on it with her full weight, as if it must never come open again. And then stood with arms dangling at her sides, head tilted up to sudden heavy rain, hat slipping down against her back. Her eyes were closed and she swayed, leaned back as if gravity was pulling her. I stepped forward, afraid she would fall and hard. But she jerked her head back down and looked around the yard. Then saw me.

“This rain is a blessing.” She held her palms up as it splashed all over her. “It reminds me of…well, it’s just good.”

“Sure is,” I said.

“I better get in and let you go.”

Mrs. Howe entered her big house, closed the back door tightly, her face and a hand pressed briefly against one small, rectangular window. Then she disappeared.

I didn’t think about a thing, I just walked to the trash can, opened it, tore open the smaller garbage bag, took out the notebooks, crammed them under my loose, wet shirt and walked fast to the truck. I wondered if there was anything disgusting on them but kept moving. Rudy was coming around the other corner. I beat him into the cab, stuffed three notebooks under the seat.

He jumped in, slammed to door, fired up the engine. “No cook-out tonight!”

“No, but we can order out.”

He leaned over and kissed me on the tip of my nose and then a long one on my rain-wet lips. I kissed him right back but knew I would be reading notebooks that night, not much else.

******

Roger was at his friend’s house so would be home tomorrow. Rudy was sleeping, his arm flung above his head, a light burr of snoring emitted from the slit formed between his lips. Part of me wanted to wake him up and tell him things. Part of me said that was foolish, let him rest. I listened to the sensible part.

Downstairs I curled up on the couch, turned on a small lamp and opened a notebook. This was the second time I’d read them, the first being a fast look as I took my nightly soak before dinner. The pages were a little damp but nothing was obscured by fragrant bubbles.

In late June she wrote:

He is not just the man he shows to others, he is someone today that he will not be tomorrow. I cannot keep track of who he is. Two nights ago he was attentive, found me inviting and lovely and we played a word game–he loves those and is good at them. I won but only once and he was alright with that. Later we ate cold roast beef with Italian bread and drank wine on the sleeping porch and he said he wished we had sleeping bags and a lantern. He said it was the best roast beef he’d ever eaten and thanked me. He held me so close I felt we dissolved into the night. I felt this was bliss, I could never love him that much again.

I was right. Today he told me I had better learn to cook, entertaining was critical to his career and he wasn’t going to always hire a caterer. And it wasn’t about my Portuguese heritage and what my mother taught me, it had to be sophisticated, damn it, why didn’t I know this? He threw out the roast beef, said it was badly seasoned and stick to fish, which I should know, being from “that island.”

I turned a page to July:

And when he is late–three hours too late for our usual seven o-clock  supper–he tells me he was with Harold and Jim to discuss another case but then there was a receipt. I was washing his shirts and there it was, 21 Club, charged a lot of drinks and food. I looked it up. It is not where he would talk about cases, cocktail waitresses dress little and badly, the  place is a misery. I can’t ask him. He’ll shrug it off, say that it was just a late business  dinner, he had called me and I didn’t answer and so what? He works hard, I need to lay off.

He is right. I didn’t answer. I was angry as the food grew cold on the terrace, I was watching television in desperation. He is late more often but this? I didn’t expect it, that’s all. He is always so the gentleman. For three years of marriage he has portrayed an example of respect and commitment to work, to the community. I thought–well, not recently–to me.

Except that I have been wondering awhile: what else, what else is there, who is this mystery man? I am afraid of what isn’t known. How to know even as I do not want to know…or how to make it work, still.

Two weeks later in July:

This time he says I have a terrible memory, he never said that and sometimes wonders if I even listen well and what is my problem that I can’t do that?

Why does he say one thing, then later completely deny it? It keeps happening.

We were talking about jury duty, how I have to go. He said it was the most boring thing, he hated it, a sad waste of time. But last fall he said how much he enjoyed it, that it was fascinating to hear the arguments, that being part of a jury was so important. I told him he told me differently before and repeated what I recalled. He looked at me as if I was acting absurd; he’d never say that and it was obviously wrong. He sure would not say it was a great experience. A civic obligation, yes, but not of personal interest to him. He laughed harshly.

I felt so confused, maybe he was right and I was wrong. I went to bed long before he did and pretended I was asleep when he came in. But I can recall that conversation a year ago as clearly as if it was yesterday. I have an excellent memory. It is he who is wrong or is living some other reality. Or something…

Two weeks ago, August:

This is the most daring thing I have done since marrying Brent. Told some of  the truth in these pages. But I know these notebooks are dangerous in this house, in my reality. I don’t know why I do it. I just have to put it in real words, I guess.

Today I mentioned that it’s his father’s birthday. I suggested he call him, that’s all, tell him happy birthday and have a good update. Brent’s practice has gotten so strong and I feel his father will appreciate that. They aren’t close, I know. Todd lives so far away; he travels a lot since his wife–my mother-in-law– died. I barely knew her, six months and she was dead. I didn’t like her very much and feel guilty about it but she wasn’t kind like my mother.

Brent suddenly lost it,  yelled at me. I can’t bring up his father as he is “a witless little man who made his fortune leeching off others, including Mother.” I started to leave, said I was sorry, but he grabbed my arm, squeezed it til it hurt, repeated that his father was a fool and a weakling, he learned from that, at least.

His voice and eyes went cold: “He’s nothing to me. I made myself who I am without him–alone. Don’t forget that.”

I slipped away when he let go and got his drink, then started reading the paper. It was like–a furious storm…it was over and it was nothing to him.

Shaking. I am quivering. Shaken more each day.

Where is that man who visited Ponta Delgada and swept me off my feet? My family was so happy for me, proud of my coming here to start a new adventure. He’s a stranger to me.

All I can think of is the ocean breezes, the taste of fire-grilled fish, the laughter of aunts and uncles, my mother and father, all of us around the big table on our stone terrace. The stars were so lively, the breezes sweet and savory, salt and honey. What was I thinking? That money would mean more?

I will go mad if I stay, I can feel it–worse is ahead.

I have been warned enough.

I turned out the light, felt wildly awake so waited for dawn to arrive, for sadness to drift off. I had known something was wrong from the start at the Howes’ elegant house. As I watched her write and write. I felt a muddled secret clawing its way out. But I was only the gardener, not a friend. Not even a well-meaning neighbor.

And then: I’m a thief, anyway, and what can a thief do? I had knowledge I could not even use, could not share without unhappy repercussions.

And my last thought before sleep found me: How fortunate I am, with Rudy and Roger–this simple life.

******

“Hey, I forgot to tell you that Brent Howe called last night to cancel the rest of the month. Said he won’t need us awhile, in fact. He may get back in touch later.” He paused work on a wild juniper bush.

I clutched an empty planter I was carrying. “Really? Why?”

“Says he’s cutting expenses a bit, some sort of legal issue, I guess, with his oral surgery practice.”

“Oh. Did he say anything about his wife?”

Rudy looked up. “As a matter of fact, he said she was leaving for somewhere tomorrow morning, a vacation maybe? Anyway, I had said she was a nice lady and he said thanks for our hard work.” He surmised my response. “Why do you ask?”

I made a little moue. “Oh, she said something about missing her homeland. Seemed sad to me.”

“Huh, I never talked to her once.” He shook his head and smiled. “You get attached to our customers, Kay. That makes things more complicated…but that’s my girl, an open heart.”

As soon as we got home from work I bathed, then took out my laptop. I looked up flights to the Azores the following day, a Friday. One at six a.m. I closed the laptop and felt relief wash over me like a cool wave.

“Kay, there’s an actual letter here for you!” Rudy called up the stairwell.

I went down, snatched the pale blue envelope from his hand. The spaghetti sauce he had started made my mouth water. Calmed me. No return address. I ripped it open, then sat on a stool at the counter as he hummed and made a mess cooking.

Dear Miss Cassie (aka Mrs. Rudy Blair…),

You were there. As I wrote on the porch, as I thought about things. I wondered if you might say something to me, but you never did, you were busy with gardening, you had a job to get done. You were careful, discreet.

But you SAW me. You watched, suspected something, I didn’t know just what but I even wanted you to see me. And finally you noticed I tossed the journals. I sat in the kitchen plotting my escape as you looked in the trash. Stole my journals! I almost ran out and grabbed you, said those were my property, who were you to invade my privacy? But in the end it didn’t even matter as you could sense my fear, I knew it. My misgivings. And that was some relief, like safety offered me in a pit of heartache and confusion. It was almost like having my sister, though we didn’t even get to be friends.

I thought: how is it I cannot speak aloud these things? But my own family and friends are not here. Only the gardener knows, she is a stranger.

So you are the only one who knew some truth. It was bad, but I am leaving it behind. Please destroy the journals, they are useless now. I am returning to our pretty wine-stemmed Canary ivy, a stubborn heart-shaped sort that claims a wall along my mother’s house. Back to my rapturous sea, to my tiny island. To those who know and deeply love me.

Miss Cassie, I am leaving so soon. He now lets me  go. I would make trouble for him if I stayed!

If you ever want to visit the Azores, contact me at the email or address below. Contact me, in fact,  anytime. I would like to hear from you, how you are doing with that gardening and your life. You are quite good at both, I think, you with your pleasing Rudy.

Thank you for not letting me be invisible. It gave me strength. A small gift to hold onto as I prepare to depart.

Atenciosamente,

Lucia Galanos 

(soon no longer Howe)

A big sigh escaped, one of relief and satisfaction as I pressed the letter into the envelope, folded and put it in my pocket. Patted it twice. Swallowed hard.

Rudy’s low bushy eyebrows were up high and on hold; I knew he was wondering. But Roger burst through the kitchen door.

“What’s for dinner?” he said, his voice warbling, then cracking.

My husband would have to wait, maybe for a long while. I sort of liked having a good secret–not the theft, I felt embarrassed, knew it was bad–and savoring Lucia’s good words even after I stole those glimpses. There were tons of pages I never dared to read; I’d seen enough, felt Brent Howe’s dark shadow pass over me. And I already had hauled them off to be shredded with my own recyclable paper products.

“How can I help, good  lookin’? How about a salad?”

Rudy tossed me a tomato and onion and I grabbed the cutting board. Roger snagged the Italian bread and tore off a hunk to gnaw as he joined in a simple everyday conversation, a major score–for us all, as I saw it.

 

Escape into the Beauty Bar

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She enters this corner kingdom of marvels with a little push from the woman behind, someone who thinks nothing of it, the place or the push. But Merilew is sweating. Her throat is closed over a hot pebble of fear. Her hands are knitted together, as if praying. A tidy handbag swings from her forearm. It still aches from last night. She steps forward, out of the way of those who pass by, and nary a glance tossed her way.

What makes it easier is the anonymity. No person here is anyone Merilew might know. All are nose-deep into the array of colors and lovely packages, gossiping with friends or enjoying a solitary visit, eyeing a lipstick or powder as if there are secrets to be discerned with scrutiny. Patience. Maybe there are.

There isn’t much time. He, the one she has been married to thirteen years and two months, is at a meeting four blocks down, a restaurant that serves men best, he says, with its room for cigars, made intimate, exclusive, with lustrous dark wood and burgundy leather-clad banquettes. She looked into the windows once and felt annoyed.

Today he is trusting her, for a change, to enjoy her time downtown; two hundred dollars is only part of a thank you for being a good partner. They’ll eat at Jake’s Grill later.

“Buy yourself lacy lingerie, a good new dress,” he suggested as he dropped her off at the department store. “I’ll be back in an hour and fifteen minutes to meet you.” He pressed his cool lips to hers, then patted her back.

She had watched him proceed along the sidewalk, his mammoth shoulders squared, arms barely swinging, each foot set down heavily as if to leave his mark even there. In a charcoal pinstripe suit he looked like a CEO. In shorts and a white T-shirt he looked like a well-turned-out but serious wrestler, not someone taking a small break from racing up the corporate ladder. He looked like a man who would bend your needs to meet his. Or could bend you into a knot. He had a certain knack, he admitted.

He fit well down here, geometric, tall, hard as the ponderous, arrogant skyscrapers. Merilew waited until he disappeared around a corner and thought, Go!

Inside the store, there are more displays than she imagined, glittering, sleek and topped with pretty words or models’ faces. It is a room of curvaceous shapes and lucious color, of silver and light–though she feels she has stepped into a cave, a special scooped out refuge where only the savviest females are allowed. Their own special club. But she has not worn make up for thirteen years and six months. He would never suspect this is where she has gotten to behind his back. He wants her “fresh-faced and simple, it’s one of your better virtues”, he has said many times. After a surreptitious swipe of a leftover coral lipstick resurrected from her bottom drawer, he impressed upon her that he meant it. Hence the sore arm, soon to show a bruise. But she has been captivated by this store for months. She can’t ascertain its magnetism except that she has seen herself grow pallid and listless when she studies her mirror at home. Not really herself, not even who he thinks he sees, either.

Her hand flutters at her throat. She is ridiculous standing here, mad to think she can get away with experimentation he won’t deduct.

“May I help find something for you?” Jade, a sales associate  with pink hair and cat eyes speaks up.

Her eyes are, in fact, barely discernible beneath emerald green smudges of eyeshadow and black liner added like two wings, two thick lashes that look furry. But her smile is inviting as she tries not to telegraph the truth: What is this woman doing in here? Old fashioned ruffled blouse and too-long black skirt. Fancy leather jacket from, what, 1990? Maybe vintage? Then: Face like porcelain. Long nose. Bordering on exotic. Eyes…so blue and scared.

“No, thanks, I’ll look around if that’s okay.” Merilew licks her lower lip, then forms her mouth into a crescent moon smile.

“No problem. Just find me when you need assistance.”

The first stop is rouge, or blush as she remembers to call it. But there isn’t just one section, there are many. She sees it now, how the store takes you from brand to brand, from one island of wishfulness to another. A maze of enticements. A hall of mirrors. She ambles toward an elegant display as if this is the brand she is seeking. But as she touches everything, she thinks, the wonder of eye shadow names, ancient amber, blue note frost, midnight disguise. The last appears shimmery black but purple bleeds through as she rubs a fingertip across it. What a terrible name for what could look like violence. Merilew shivers, turns toward the next aisle.

Razzle dazzle me, set me free for an hour, she thinks as she finds blushes aplenty and so many pretty ones: I’d forgotten how it is: roses of morning and sunset petals; baby pink, almond latte, barely blushed, midway mauve. She takes the creamy “midway mauve” and dabs her fingers with it, then tries to pat it onto a cheekbone while searching for a mirror.

“Over here is what you’ll need,” Jade offers generously.

It’s like a movie dressing table, a cozy vanity with puffs of cotton in a clear jar, brushes and wands  of all sizes and shapes for adding more colors, Q-tips for smoothing, sponges and wedges for something else, she can’t imagine what. The mirror is illumined by large globe bulbs. She sits in a tall swivelling stool and sees her light blue eyes flash, the lightning of anxiety. Faded auburn hair straggles over pinched shoulders as she leans close. She steadies her hand, then spreads the color, her tender skin marred by a streak of mauve.

She jerks back. It is alarming to see her face changed by something not meant to be there. It seems akin to lavender, rich as the scent of the flower, not her color or floral choice at all. The curve of the bones of her face jump out at her. She takes a tissues and rubs it off, skin reddening, stinging. Tears pop up to aggravate her. She feels ignorant, foolish. This won’t work, none of it. She needs to leave, go find a dress that he will appreciate, look for lace things he will love. What is she doing? Here, of all places? She’s lost her mind, maybe, so steps down, beige leather purse with its documents that identify her as his his his clutched to her waist.

“How about this to clean things up?” Jade asks.

She brandishes a small bottle of make up remover and fat cotton balls. Jade dabs and daubs with cautiousness, washes away remnants of mauve and soothes her skin. Merilew leans back, feels the touch of a fresh cotton ball like the kiss of a dandelion.

“We’ll start over. Are you going some place special?”

Merilew’s giggle sneaks through discomfort. “I might.”

“Then I’d be glad to help it happen for you. Let me look at your face, your overall coloring. You’re ivory pale; we’ll be careful with color.”

“Yes, please,” and she wonders if she means that. Now that she’s here. Now she has elected to put what is forbidden upon her face. Her light eyes stare back at her, wide open, blue as a spring sky. They startle her.

Jade gathers various products from different places with the speed of a pro. Merilew feels more relaxed, knows she is in the hands of someone who understands things she doesn’t, who may even discern an inner potential she has misplaced, a spark of someone better, smarter. Freer. More whole.

Powerful.

“Can I close my eyes? Is that too odd?”

“Shut them only if you trust me!”

“I’m Merilew, by the way. I have to trust you. I don’t have a clue what to do with all this stuff. It has been….over a decade.”

“Wow, that right? Well, then, let my magic begin.”

As she sits there feeling the lotion, the fluffy brushes and deft pencils, each one she feels as an offering to her–of who knows what except they feel so kind, so sweet to her skin. Like little fishes dancing past her in turquoise water, a relief of rain on parched lips, like a million tiny valves being opened to her heart and soul slip through. She rests and imagines that she will emerge transformed beyond recognition and that she will be able to do something with her life as she has never done before.

Of course, that is a daydream. This is so risky she cannot believe she did it though she is still glad to to lean back into this oasis of time.

“Are you out shopping alone for fun?” Jade asks.

“Not exactly. My husband is at a business meeting.” Her eyelids flutter as eye shadow is smoothed over delicate hillocks. “I have been charged with purchasing only things he likes.” What is she saying? “You know, got to keep them happy, got to play the game.”

The words fall like burning matches into the happy din around her.

“Will this make him happy?”

“You know, Jade”–she feels a hot flush, how open she is being–“nothing actually, deeply makes him happy for long. My hair isn’t right or my dinner is overdone or I look at him the wrong way when he needs another way….”

“Been there, done that, never again. Sorry, but hold still so I can figure out what to do with your sparse but nicely arched eyebrows.”

“Make them bold. Like…Joan Crawford.”

“Joan who? Oh, like in those old classic movies?”

Merilew shrugs. “Yes, I like that. Her. She was sassy. Maybe a little bossy.”

“Don’t move.”

She feels her eyebrows grow from timid to perhaps inquisitive and wonders if they will act more expressive. She tries to not show too much of what she feels since he prefers her quiet, calm, to be capable enough but not overtly so. Good natured and grateful. Helpful. If she isn’t, she pays.

“Is that where you’re stuck? Back then, nineteen forties? Just asking… but so you know, we’re living in the twenty-first century. And you can be gorgeous in 2015, believe me. You don’t need make up, anyway, to be honest. Lucky you!” She guffaws as if she made a joke. “But you should buy something from me, anyway!”

Merilew wriggles; the eyebrow pencil pauses, then begins again. She has said too much, as if she thinks this is the sort of place women can say what they won’t elsewhere. Like a hair salon, somehow therapeutic though not that she has been recently. She places her palms flat on her purse, stays stock still. Her breathing keeps her company as Jade’s hands draw a line here, blends the hues there, presses a gloss stick to each lip, then removes the stain to start again.

The rumble of a man’s voice as he speaks to someone, perhaps his girlfriend, finds Merilew so she startles, murmurs “Sorry”. Has he chosen her a perfume? Is he guiding her with hand at the nape of her neck, right out the doorway? Or if he is just saying farewell so he can get a cup of coffee across the street, let her have her own time. Maybe he’s saying, “Have fun!” She imagines it’s her husband and his hands are in his pockets as he lopes past her and whistles on his way out, then holds the door open w ith his shoudler for a smiling woman coming in. And when Merilew is done, she will meet him and buy an iced coffee. They’ll sit and talk as sun kisses her face and dust swirls brightly, the cafe all brilliance and warmth. Contentment.

Of course not.

But...what if he forgot to meet me? If he decided not to come home tonight? If he came home and said he was leaving me, we aren’t right together, after all? Her breath catches in her chest and her fingers go to her mouth whereupon they make contact with a luxurious lipstick. She licks a fingertip, finds it sweet.

Her eyes open as her pulse leaps.

“What do you think, Merilew?”

In the mirror she searches arctic blue eyes that seem deeper set with swaths of summered bronze on eyelids, a dash of peach on each bony rise above. They dominate even new eyebrows that exclaim, then reach for points unknown, arches like graceful bridges linking her wide, smooth forehead to luminous center of nose and mouth. She has a widows peak that at last looks right as it draws attention to the auburn waves framing her face. Her prominent pointed nose is complementary to two glistening coral lips. The warm tones make her think of shells and sea and palm trees, running barefoot. Sculpted cheekbones are a landscape configured of tender peach and honey. This Jade is an artist, that is truth.

“I look like someone else.”

Jade frowns. “Are you a good or not-good someone else?”

She turns her head to one side, then the other, leans close to her image. “I look like I’m about to have a grand afternoon. I think I wouldn’t recognise me on the street. It’s a tad frightening, exciting to see how all this can change a woman. But it’s more surprising to me that I am even sitting here. I walked in that door. I was looking for a change. Maybe it’s been a little rebellion. It might be something else. I’ll leave. I might find nothing will be the same.” Merilew leans over and bestows on the sales woman a smile that would illuminate the dark. “You’re wonderful, Jade.”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s all that, it’s just make-up! Your face was a great canvass. Glad you’re satisfied with my ideas.”

Merilew slides off the chair, takes off her jacket and tosses it in a heap on the stool. Then she pulls out the tail of her blouse. She sleeks her hair back into a long ponytail, securing it with a common rubber band dug from her ladylike purse.

Getting out two big bills, she says, “I’ll buy it all.”

“Fantastic! Follow me.” Jade hesitates, then turns. “Before you pay, I have to say you’re far more, much better than he thinks.” She reaches out and touches her customer’s hand lightly like a nod, an agreement, a quiet understanding.

Jade calls after her. “Your leather coat!”

Merilew leaves the beauty bar. She spots him leaning against the building where they parted. He is checking his watch, running his hand through the blond thatch of hair, then stands up tall and brushes off  lint or something displeasing from his suit coat. He swivels his lion’s head all around. Merilew shudders, thinking he glances right at her but she crosses the street, moves faster toward him as he searches groups of pedestrians.

Her stride lengthens, she is coming close, she is looking at him and sees his eyes flicker over her. And then he turns away to find his wife. She keeps on walking, sees the corner and the green lights and the people rushing across a wide, congested thoroughfare and she slides in among them and her feet are flying, her heart a drum calling for bravery, for a life to be truly lived and she is panting as she flees like a creature leaving a place that must be left and she steps up and finally Merilew, eyes and mind blazing, is safe, she is safe on the other side.