Wednesday’s Word: A Story of a Short, Hard Fall v. the Long Haul

Oswald West trails along the Oregon coast

Apparently I think I have daredevil blood in my veins, if perhaps not seriously like stunt persons or Indy race car drivers (though I felt the attraction in younger years). Or maybe I entertain the idea that I’m quite a skilled athlete. Both read as faintly ridiculous–neither is close to the truth, at least not at this stage in my life. Well, maybe the first sentence is still true. I do have impulses to undertake some stuff that many people I know do not, even if they’re a decade or so younger. And I act on those most of the time. Risk taking doesn’t often seem such an unreasonable choice to me– physically, anyway. I trust myself, my animal instincts.

But I had an injury this morning that gave me pause. I had completed the task of changing a light bulb above the bathroom sink. As usual, I then jumped down from the counter. Except I didn’t land perfectly on my feet as I have a hundred thousand times in many situations over the years. My stocking feet slid just a bit, I lost balance and listed; gravity fast took me to my left. My arm and hand searched to find something to break the fall but all I found was the side of the tub, then the damp bottom that my hand slipped rather than grabbed onto, say the shower curtain or the rounded edge the bathtub. Thus, my left side crashed against the rounded edge of the tub even as my body loosened and recoiled from the crash. I felt my ribs press in, move out. I caught my breath, waited a moment, considered that I’d likely develop a bruise–I take aspirin for heart disease, so bruise rather easily. No body alarms rang out, though, so I got up. With nothing awry except a small sore spot on my side, I counted my blessings. I did feel a bit shocked by it, tried to figure out just what occurred. I rarely have fallen in any circumstance, and tend to end up embarrassed if anything. It has been a sort of a family joke that if I start to fall or even drop something, fast reflexes are my good luck, saving me each time.

So I decided to go on a walk after a bit, as the sunshine was amazing and no rain clouds in sight. The temperature was in lower to mid fifties: more almost-spring weather! I admit I also  wanted to see if I was okay enough to move about more. So I strolled along for once, snapping photos, checking out blossoming trees and bushes, even a first perfectly white tulip. I called my sister to share my story; she was surprised, too.

That fragrant, lovely walk was a mistake. By the time I got halfway home I was aware of pain. I put an ice pack on it and decided it would be wise to call the nurse advice line.

“Any swelling? Big bruising? Sharp pain when you breathe in and out? Can you move about generally okay?”

“Well, I can’t turn or bend to my left. How do you mean, like a knife or a side jab or a grating pulling sensation? It hurts when I laugh much–I was laughing earlier as I told my sister how very un-catlike I suddenly felt today…more like an unwieldy hippo in a downhill slide. It is spreading a bit but no, I’m not in agony when I take a deep breath. It just sure hurts along my left side now.”

“I imagine! Keep icing, take pain relievers. Come in tomorrow morning to be checked further. There are no openings today but if things worsen later, call. But just so you know, it will hurt more as time goes by, will be worse tomorrow. Just keep an eye out for serious pain, swelling or bruising in the next few hours as that requires attention much sooner than later.”

“I feel like a real idiot, stupid how I lost my footing, ” I mumbled.

“Naw, listen, people get injured all the time in odd ways. We all do things we expect will be fine, then they aren’t.”

At least she didn’t say: why on earth was a 67 year old woman standing atop the bathroom counter, then thinking she could just jump down to the floor?

That would have upset me more.

I expect this body to do better for me. I have counted on that a long time. It has been happy to oblige with fortunately excellent balance, some decent core strength and sure-footedness, generally limber movements. I guess it has been a source of pleasure plus a bit of quiet pride. I so love being physical, believing this vehicle of flesh and bones will do as it is supposed to. This despite having chronic and sometimes emergency health issues. What’s a medical challenge here and there?–they do keep us on our toes. We all have our hurdles; mine have been fairly manageable thus far. I still crave being active and so get out and about. I long ago learned that lots of movement pumps up general well being, is required for bodies to work at optimum levels despite our glitches. (Kids clearly know all this without thinking; we adults can forget.)

Okay, not that I am one of those older women who backpack thirty miles into the wilderness with a fifty pound backpack–finally  to sleep upon stony ground under an wide and possibly storming sky. My camping days have sadly faded away (though I’m definitely open to buying a pop-up camper; maybe if we save and then cash in all our extra change when hubby retires). I admire those who do this after 65 or 70–even at 50–and what a beautiful thing to have what it takes.

In fact, I do far less than I’d like. I could find excuses but why bother, I just haven’t done all I want to do yet. I seriously want to rent kayaks and canoes again as well as try tubing down a river, hike much farther and higher, swim at least twice a month, ice skate more, take up regular cycling after not riding a bike a couple of decades, and try more dance classes. (I had to quit flamenco due to a sore foot from hiking two years ago). I’d also like to go rock climbing, parachuting, horseback riding, cross-country skiing–some of it new, some not.

But I power walk an hour a day which is perhaps 4-5 miles, depending–more and faster when the weather is good. I dance and exercise at home, have enjoyed working up a sweat in Zumba classes. I hike often when the trails aren’t too muddy (recently we did eight miles at the beach, in the coastal forest). I wouldn’t mind weight training again. I haven’t decided to join a fitness club again; I always prefer the outdoors. But weight training was a thrill when I was forty; maybe it’d be fun now.

I also am more apt than my husband, bless him, to do physical work around our place–it’s my nature to hop to things, get them done. I used to love splitting fire wood and doing all the yard duties; I just like such work. I’m not the most daring or active a person can be but neither am I a shrinking violet when it comes to pushing my body some.

When I was a kid, I used to dream about was being a trapeze artist. It was likely after I saw a performance of Ringling, Barnum and Bailey Circus. I imagined over and over what it would be like to have such perfect timing and such strength and grace to swing back and forth and grab another swing or the hands coming toward me. It was mesmerizing. I wanted to be far up there, to feel the flight that occurred with such letting go, to sail through the air. So I rigged up a trapeze in our big old maple tree in the back yard. I’d swing and hang from that thing endlessly, as if I was really doing something. And when the trapeze broke, I put op a heavy rope from which to swing and catapult myself up onto the bigger branches. That tree was like a mountain, something to be conquered and then to rest within, a feeling of triumph filling me with happiness.

And I could be as tough and capable as any boy, often outpaced them, endured longer bike rides, climbed higher than most all of them. (This was more important as I got older rather than less. Strength, agility and stamina were crucial to my confidence and feeling safe in the world. More than once those traits literally saved me.) I also liked to practice bike tricks for hours in the medical building’s empty parking lot near our house. These required standing atop my bike seat, sticking out one leg behind me as I drifted about the parking lot. Or lying with abdomen on bike seat and chest on handle bars, then letting go of the handles. How about jumping on and off, hanging form the side as if the bike was a bareback trick horse? The fun was endless. Of course I fell, got a few cuts, shed a tear now and then. That was simply part of it.

I was athletic as a child and youth but more importantly, I was in love with human locomotion. I also wanted to see how far it was possible to push myself. I had little fear and lots of curiosity. I dearly longed to be a National Geographic explorer and journalist (besides a trapeze artist, dancer, figure skater, etc.)–that wonderful magazine inspired me far more than most tomes in our home.

I hope this lovely zest for life doesn’t subside much any time soon. But some days I wonder just a little.

Yachats, Oregon

Along the coast of Oregon are plentiful pockets of tide pools, many of which are among massive basalt rock formations. The sea crashes against the rocks sending up towering spray, waves surge and land in mighty thrusts of energy. You have to be careful out there and not many want to even venture farther than a few feet from the shore. My husband will go down to the rocks with me aided by his walking stick  so he can search for stones and starfish and anemones. After a bit I go on my own way, closer to the edge and the crashing waves. I always want to climb until I get a grand view out over the ocean; if there are peaks to scale that is where I end up. I know the dangers. I know not to turn my back to the sea, and to keep my distance from the slick edge where waves break high.

Yet…I want to get as close as I can to the swirling depths, to the action–just as a rocky outcropping or a steep hillside calls to me to climb to the top. Just as the towering maple and oak trees and the trapeze called me. It is hard to explain how it feels, all the right muscles clenching and stretching, feet reaching and finding a next toe hold, sense of balance finely attuned. Everything working together, the heart pumping happily, rich air filling up the lungs, bones ringing with the joy of it. I take chances because it is worth it. I know onlookers on the high ground likely think I have lost my mind but I am not concerned with them, only the moments when I am free, exhilarated, full of the mystery and beauty out there: mentally, spiritually, viscerally alive.

Only one time I slipped on wet mossy rocks and my hand found purchase to help me get my balance again. A slight scrape on my palm got infected; it was one of the worst I’ve ever had thanks to all the bacteria in the sea, on rocks frequented by an array of wild creatures and microscopic matter. It hasn’t kept me from going out there though I’m even more aware of how and where I step. I respect the ocean’s powers and defend myself against its beguiling, ferocious waves. Several people drown at the coast each year because they underestimate the danger. I do ask my body each time: can I still safely go out to explore? So far, it has been a yes.

Whew, right now, my left side is crying a bit, pain radiating out and I can’t easily think of leaping about all the fabulous earthy places I admire. It’s taking some effort to type all this. I need to ice more, rest awhile. Still, it was the day to post my nonfiction piece and suddenly there was a topic I’d not foreseen. Besides, I need to write as much as I desire to be outdoors, maybe more. My two loves, though.

My happiness expands within the wonders of nature. We are all part of an infinite natural design.

Because we never know. I’ve found myself unexpectedly very close to death a few times. This is a far cry from that but even little accidents can make one re-evaluate the order of things. One tiny tip of the balance, one alteration of the physics at work, one second miscalculated and we find out how vulnerable we can be. I can’t say I appreciate it much right now. Body messages and common sense or intuition do keep us going, keep us moving through life. Did my body feel a bit sluggish this morning? I think so…and then was not so smart although other times I’d land just right. Live and learn the hard way, I guess.

When I heal I’ll likely climb and hop off another counter or rocky abutment until my instinct warns me not to do it–and I will listen better. And expect a good outcome. But not while wearing my darned slippery socks, without better consideration of all factors.

******

What fluke accident have you had? Did it make you more cautious? Or do you have a slight daredevil tendency, too, and you just want to get back out there–and without real worry? I’d love to hear about it as I heal!

An Accidental Life

It was morning, end of August and blazing hot but humid. Now and then a lesser flame of wind swept in to further melt me. Perspiration evaporated then returned to linger on my pinkening skin. I drove along the familiar country road, elbow hanging out the window, thrilled with our new powder blue Opel Kadett. Heat waves shimmered off the pavement. On the radio Pat Metheny’s guitar was soaring, whining, reaching out to whomever had ears to hear. I was tapping out rhythms on the steering wheel, singing with Pat and his band. It was a so-yellow-blue-it-could-blind-you kind of day, the road mostly mine.

I was on my way to an art history college class, my first time back since the precarious birth of my first child in February at age 23. Jubilance filled me, I felt light as a balloon. First of all, tiny Naomi had fought a few battles but thrived despite coming to us two and a half months early. And I was going to be one step closer to my degree. I glanced at a blur of endless fields of corn, dense, tall and begging to be harvested. I missed Naomi even as I enjoyed a small rush of freedom. A perfect day all around.

But then: scramble of noises, painful jolts, car pushed and spinning, crashing forward fast and I was fading even faster. Aching head, breath heavy, pain shooting through every nerve. Car smashed into what, how, where?

“Miss, miss, oh dear God, can you hear me? I hit you, I am so sorry, didn’t see you just the corn! Stay awake now, stay awake!”

All vanished from presence of mind and body, all fell dark. Even the new silence ended as time recoiled, vanished.

Inside a small space I looked down, down, down from its ceiling at two people busy with another, a body that was mine. Wailing sirens, vehicle swaying.

“She’s in shock–lost consciousness again! Check vitals!” The man slapped the wall hard between cab and work space.

I hovered, amorphous, invisible, curious to see such a small creature, limbs flaccid, clothing askew, head and knee bleeding, body so frail. Cared for but emptied. The animal I knew well lay physically below and suffered, nothing I could do, only wait to return or leave. I felt sorry but detached and so very calm as the EMTs got busier. Flesh of me must have been charged with pain, but then more deeply stilled. What was to come of me? I desired to stay alive in that world. The men worked, I watched, waited. A breath and heartbeat called. Movement downward toward my body and slipping into that hardscrabble place of a perishable body. Then nothing at all for a very long while.

I came to amid brutal lights in the emergency room of a trauma center of inner city Saginaw, Michigan. Ned, my husband, and his mother stared down at me, relieved and talking to me, trying to explain things. I could hear so little. Feel surprisingly little; pain medicine coursed through my veins.

“Cynthia,” my husband said. His rough hand went to mine.

“I was watching a movie of me…from above,” I mumbled.

“What?”  My mother-in-law asked, startled. “What  does that mean?”

“You were? Oh…” Ned said. “Not good, but it could be worse. You had a concussion, banged and slashed your knee and forehead. They sewed you up. You’ve been out for hours, between medicine and slipping back and forth…somewhere.”

I squinted up at worried faces, closed my eyes again. I wanted more than anything to sleep a long while more. My whole being and body ached despite pain medicine, as if it had been shoved side to side and I hadn’t caught back up with it yet.

“Good to see you’ve awakened. You’re extremely fortunate, young lady, no internal damage. The nurse will keep monitoring you. I’ll be back in a bit.” A white coated doctor had stuck his head in; out it went again.

“We have to keep you more awake for the next 24 hours or more. I’ll keep waking you every hour to make sure you’re going to be alright–the concussion,” he explained.

I moaned. “Naomi! Where’s Naomi?”

“With Grandpa, of course.” My mother-in-law looked at me oddly, not the first time.

“For a minute, I thought… so glad she wasn’t with me.”

“You were going to class, remember?” Ned responded, worried I had lost track of all.

“Yeah,” I replied, a sweep of relief flooding me. As if I had lucked out to be in the car all alone, that she had been home and safe as needed. “What happened?”

“A man was driving along, about 50 mph at a perpendicular angle to your road and didn’t see his stop sign as he neared the crossroads. He said all there was, was cornfields. He assumed the intersecting road had the stop sign but wasn’t concerned and there you were. He kept talking about there being all that high corn.”

I shuddered: the shocking impact, that barest moment before I blacked out, then awakened then lost consciousness again. And the ambulance ride when I was on the top of the ceiling. But all else before and after those few moments was gone.

“He’s a minister,” Ned went on, “and he stayed for hours after he was looked over, worrying about you. He gave me his card; I said I’d let him know. He’s got a few bruises and small cuts but he had a much heavier car. He’s very sorry and of course it’s his fault. His car T-boned your side of the Opel and it spun around then finally crashed into a stop sign post opposite the one he should have seen. Our new car was totaled. They used the ‘jaws of life’ to get you out… you lost consciousness quite awhile. A pretty bad accident, Cynthia…”

His square, warm hand was one mine as I drifted on the edge of a netherworld, in and out. Our pretty new car, gone. I was alive, no internal injuries or broken bones! But my head and knee were starting to hurt like hell…my neck felt seared by awakening pain and I had on a stiff neck collar. Major whiplash, I guessed.

Did Ned say the man was a minster? I wondered who he was, where he had been going, and then recalled how distressed he was before I passed out.

******

After more hours I was deemed fit enough to go home since I seemed lucid and cognizant of all. I was given crutches. It would be over a month before I could walk unaided on the bashed kneecap–not broken, miraculously, but tissues deeply bruised and a wound across it about two inches now stitched up. On the way home we got stuck in evening traffic in city center. My body was returning to itself more fully; it was so hard to sit, and to bear the roaring of engines, honking and grinding of gears, the passersby staring at my bandaged head or so I thought. I worked at keeping at bay the fear that another car might zoom into us.

And then the full bladder suddenly awakened, too, and demanded attention.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t wait until we get home!”

“There aren’t restrooms nearby and we’re stuck. Everything must have slowed way down when you lost consciousness… If you can’t wait, you just can’t. Let her rip. It’s a truck seat, it can be cleaned.”

“I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry!”

“It’s okay!”

I felt betrayed then by that simple physiological function, the body a bit battered yes and then it had to test me further. Embarrassed, even ashamed, I obeyed his suggestion as there as no other choice. He looked away. I began to cry as the seat got wetter and covered my face. Marriage brought many things unexpected and hard.

After that I examined my forehead in the visor mirror. A huge bandage covered the space above my left eye. Ned glanced at me from the corner of his eye, saying nothing, driving the rattling truck on home. Home to our daughter. Home where the back yard spread out like an open field, and wild grasses swayed in sweetest summer breezes, stars glittered and winked, and the moon glowed benignly upon us. We laughed a little as we rolled windows all the way down, tension easing as we moved through city congestion toward the outskirts where we made a life. Back to our miracle baby.

I was awakened every hour. I lay on my  back, Naomi close on my chest, and listened to her light breath, felt Ned’s quiet body gravitating to mine, his words few. The cooling breeze flew into the window, a summer night’s healing. I thanked God for being with us once again.

******

A couple of weeks later the gravel driveway announced the arrival of a car. Ned was home from work; I was tending to Naomi. It was a man’s voice and it sounded Southern. In a moment, Ned ushered him in. He wore a brown, fedora-style hat that he took off as he nodded at me.

I don’t even recall if his name was given though surely it was, preceded by “Pastor.” The name was not the important part to me. His presence was.

Ned looked skeptical but was polite enough. “This is the man from the accident…he wants to meet you.”

He was tall and bony so that his modest shiny suit hung loosely from his frame, a shock of pale hair was receding, and his light blue eyes were full of emotion. He clutched his hat in fidgety hands. He began to speak in earnest, voice soft and lilting.

“I just had to find you, Miss Cynthia, had to know what had happened to you and how you are doing. Your husband told me your names and I found you in the phone book…and here I am. I still feel terrible, toss and turn at night wondering how it could have been avoided. I should have known better; I’ve gone over and over it. The corn was so high everywhere I looked–the country roads…But that’s no excuse. I failed to stop. I hit your car and caused you grievous injury. I’m a Baptist minister. I have prayed every day and night for your good recovery. I hope you can forgive me.” His eyes welled up. “You hurt your head badly–and your knee! Will you be alright? What about the scarring? You’re so young. And you have a little baby!”

“There is really no forgiveness needed, it was a true accident,” I reassured him.  “All will be alright.”

We told him what the doctor had said, what we expected, which was that all would heal up and all should be well. I had barely thought about the scar with its twelve long stitches; it curved in an “S” shape, a deep red tiny snake a bit above my left eye and all the way to my hairline; it was true the doctor had not made an art of his stitchery. My kneecap skin was the same, less stitches but not pleasant.

We talked a little about the crash, but I spared him my details. I didn’t want to cause him more distress. Like being on that ambulance ceiling staring down at my body and feeling there was a choice to stay or go. And the pain and losing control of my bladder.

“I suspect the scars will fade in time. My hair naturally falls over my forehead, anyway!”

“I would pay for plastic surgery, if that would help–you are too young and lovely to have that all your life. And it’s a reminder.”

The very idea stunned me. Plastic surgery never entered my mind. It was simply unneeded. I was far more concerned about my knee so I’d soon have less hobbling about, return to more vigorous activity. There was physical therapy to help out.

“No, not necessary, really. Your insurance has covered everything else. That’s wonderful. And I’m going to be fine, healing up more by the hour. But it was very kind of you to come by and check on me. To offer more.”

He stood there with that sad hat in hand and I offered my hand to him. Then I felt a need to hug him; he hugged me back. We walked him outdoors.

He turned at his car door.”I’ll pray for more good healing. God be with you all. Thank you for seeing me.”

“God was with us both… I made it out alright and you did, too.”

We waved goodbye.

I got better fast. The accident seemed long past as autumn arrived. I never heard from him again. I thought about his compassion, his prayers, at the crash scene and their continuance. His accountability. Good will.

His genuine caring presence has stayed with me all these years.

******

I have written of that good man because I have had cause to remember him vividly again. The old neck injury flared in my early forties in the form of early onset arthritis of the upper spine. There had been a second injury from an assault to compound the matter. By the time I was in my late forties, there were increasingly difficult headaches caused by neck/shoulder muscle spasms and increased stiffness. I kept active and tried to stay limber and continued on. But into my fifties, that burning pain and headache could morph into a ceaseless state, a nightmare, lasting all day and into the next. I refused opiate pain medications and took acetaminophen and ibuprofen despite the latter causing stomach problems. After my heart disease diagnosis and new medications, my cardiologist said ibuprofen was out. I have had a great many physical therapy sessions over the years, chiropractor treatments, acupuncture, massage, have used heat and cold, frequent daily stretches. I love being active and so have done the things I always have loved, as much as possible.

One can certainly learn to live with and beyond even hounding pain without narcotics. I don’t want to use medication I don’t absolutely need to take. But now, occasionally, I do. To just rest, to keep blood pressure down and my heart rhythms happy when it is at that point where it has dug in too deep. It runs right up my neck to my skull, into my brain or so it seems. I cannot think of anything else when it will not let go.

There are far reaching effects of old injuries and damage done. I have been laid flat for parts of days at a time. I have had daily routines impaired, as certain head and arm movements aggravate bone-on-bone friction, those nerves a conduit of sensations not desired. Writing and sitting for long hours can agitate the inflammation and muscle spasms. I can’t turn my head fully from side to side and spinal stenosis is creating other problems. So something needs to be done before greater degeneration of the spine facets occurs. There will be a consult soon with a neurosurgeon to learn of the options.

But this week I think of that gentleman with hat in hand, recall his consideration. Empathy. Despite being a stranger he wanted what was good and helpful for me. Enough to find and see me face to face and offer regret for something that was not truly his fault. It was a freak accident, as accidents often are. My two long scars have remained, paler and softer yet I still do believe God was with us. And his prayers may well have held back the specter of death as I lay in that ambulance looking down at my damaged body, wondering: is it time?

How can this not be possible? Faith and prayer are potent in a world of disbelief, ironic disputes of spiritual matters. But I can tell you that anything is possible.

No, it was not the right time to go. A whole lifetime was yet given to me. I have come close more than once to leaving this world; it was not the first or last occasion to be jolted from my body, watching drama unfold below, wondering many things upon return to flesh, blood, bones–this temporary home we move within. But one does simply hold on if possible though I find it is little more loosely. Life can’t be clutched to love it well or for it to embrace us back. I am planning decades more to explore the gifts of this tilting planet. And to plow through rough spots. Something can be learned, no matter what. And I remain thankful for all chances to live life in its entirety, whatever comes.

I hope that good man has been happy with his chances, too.

The Cat that Changed the Rest

 Hollywood California, 1961 Photographer- Ralph Crane Time Inc owned merlin- 1201638
Hollywood, California, 1961;
Photographer- Ralph Crane

He found cats unbearable to be near, so when Alice informed Tate she now not only owned one but was bringing it by “for a visit”, the very idea almost did him in. Tate locked the front door, went out back with an icy lemonade and a mystery book he’d been putting off starting. The air registered a degree of hotness that any smart person would avoid. Grabbing his stained, misshapen fishing hat, he patted it down and called it good.

He had no intention of answering the door and would hide out a long while if needed. It was unlikely she would come around back in her high heels after work. The ground was a bit spongy after last night’s drizzle. Curls of steam arose from the rich earth as sun’s heat settled into it.

Alice had been around for awhile. They had met at one of those useless parties at the start of the university’s year. They’d shared the end of a couch. She’d talked enough to save him from the onset of sleep. It turned out she was a new office person in his department–Geology was his domain. He had become lazy about meeting women. Proximity often had something to do with his relationships. That, and a shared interest in second-hand stores and antiques. Fishing helped but he’d not found a woman who fished willingly in over two years, a grave disappointment. Passion for desserts helped; he liked women who loved dessert as much as he did. Tate baked sometimes. She was into making homemade ice cream. It seemed a decent match. They went to movies, discussed cooking, ate many a good meal and listened to music. They had scoured the city for an Arts and Crafts sideboard recently. Tate said it was too pricey, though Alice was for it. She was good company, in general, and he did appreciate that.

Tate also liked the way her hair cascaded over her collarbone and that slow smile starting in her eyes. He wasn’t so sure what she liked about him. Perhaps his lake cottage; they had gone up for the holidays and she’d asked if they could return this summer. He was waiting to see. Or it was his easy-going attitude that encouraged students and faculty to interact with him, like it or not sometimes. He was more a man to himself than not. Alice had popped up and was already influencing his well-run, quiet life, like dill weed and lemon influenced the walleye he brought home.

But Tate didn’t have room, time or inclination for pets in his life. And not cats, certainly.

“Why ever not?” Alice asked a couple of months after they met. “Pets keep things interesting. They create friendly feelings yet are neutral, sometimes sympathetic listeners and give you reason to get out and roam.”

“That’s what actual friends are for. Pets can’t converse to any significant degree. They expect things–treats and regular meals, scratches around the ears, play time outside. They make a mess that they don’t even have to clean up! I may as well have a human child–which I do not yet have, as you noticed right off, and may never… and, anyway, four-legged animals deserve a life outdoors, not holed up with us.”

Alice gave him a look of mild disgust. “So, you never even had a dog to call your own?”

“No. Wait, yes. In my fraternity we had a mascot, called Barker for obvious reasons, and we all took turns dealing with him. I did like him. He was a shaggy rescue dog and did well by us. I enjoyed tossing him things. When we graduated, Barker was adopted by a dog-crazy guy–so it ended well for all.”

“What about cats?”

Tate shrank back, stared at her, eyes full of horror.

“You aren’t a cat person? Are you allergic?”

“No, not allergic. Who is really and truly ‘a cat person’? I don’t know many, maybe one or two. Cats are not intrinsically wired to appreciate humans. Tolerate is even a rather strong word in my opinion. They don’t even like each other that much after infancy. They do like hunting rodents and birds. Barn cats would be a good example of a useful type of cat.”

“Well, I adore cats.” Alice threw her hands up in defeat and headed to the kitchen. “For someone so easy to get along with, you sure are a surprise. Who on earth doesn’t like pets? That’s a first for me!” The refrigerator door opened, then shut hard. “Where are last week’s cookies? Oh, there they are.”

Tate got up, hands pressed deep into pants pockets. Stood rocking a little on the balls of his bare feet in front of the bay window. He liked creatures just fine. He stared at a distant tree line near a pond. Early Saturday mornings he sometimes walked there to meditate on herons and ducks and such. He’d not yet gone with Alice; it was his private routine. He thought of his brother, Alan, how they’d go to the lake after their parents passed and fished without talking, yet understood enough. How they’d weathered the hardest things and managed to remain as brothers should be, available–from a distance–trustworthy. Comfortable with an intimacy nothing could sever. He should call him again soon. Try to get the whole family out. There’d be no pets, as Alan had none, either.

“Cats,” he muttered under his breath, then forced a congenial smile as Alice brought out a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He could smell coffee percolating and was suddenly grateful.

“Let’s listen to that Chet Atkins album,” she suggested. She set her head at an angle and narrowed her eyes as if trying get a better read on him, then her features lit up with good humor. “Maybe light a fire later?”

Cats, he thought again as got the album out, put it on, and turned up the stereo. Maybe Alice and I will get closer, maybe not.

“Yes, a fire. November is upon us.”

The cat topic never came up again. Until today. She’d gotten a cat and wanted to show it to him.

He could hear the gravel crunching under the SUV’s tires and panicked, then told himself to just remain at ease, she would go away when he didn’t answer the door. He’d said something to her about picking up dinner supplies so might not be home. His Jeep was in the garage. She wouldn’t bother to look in dusty garage windows. Still, he put the book down and slipped into shadows alongside the house where the juniper bushes were. Flattened inside shadow. He felt his chest tighten, heart jump.

“Pepper, you’d better stay put. Stop wiggling and behave. How will you ever audition? Wait a minute!”

Pepper, really? Tate was starting to perspire heavily but he pressed himself against the house, tried to slow respiration. He deeply wished he had a dog for the first time since that ole frat brother, Barker. It’d be one sorry cat, a cat held hostage on a tree branch. Why ever did Alice have to bring it over here?

And there it was, at his feet, sniffing about, then mewing. The whiskers of a cat on a man’s exposed shins is about the last straw when feeling contrary about the entire situation. It took considerable will power to not let his foot strike out. A midnight-black cat sat confidently, demurely, and appraised Tate. Unimpressed, it then began to clean a paw with delicate care.  It was enough to take his heart rate up a notch. He noticed a tiny rhinestone collar at its neck as he stepped around it and took off for the gate in a parody of power walking.

“Alice, aren’t you missing something? Why are you back here?”

“I am–but what are you doing outside? It’s too hot for man or beast and now Pepper has run off…”

“The beast part is debatable. Your very own, a large black cat is–” he pointed–“over there. In the cool of the shadows doing fine. Please don’t bring it any closer to me.”

Alice crept up on Pepper and deftly attached the leash to its collar. “There we go, all set now. I just wanted to introduce you to her, Tate. To show you my prize, to prove there’s not one thing unpleasant about this cat. I’d like you to be on good terms because she’s sticking around.”

Alice cautiously advanced, Pepper following behind her but with eyes on tree branches wherein perched robins. A cat is never a tame thing, Tate thought, and fought an impulse to grab the leash from his girlfriend’s hand, fling the cat out of the fenced yard in a graceful arc of farewell. But he did know this was irrational. Very wrong. Also impossible. She had a tight grasp on its leash and that cat had a clear intention of standing guard by the tree.

Tate took a step back. “Oh, no, that isn’t in the plan, sorry. I’m happy for you and so on but she will not be visiting further. I one hundred percent don’t like cats, Alice. I love many things, many sorts of people and do rather enjoy most animals–especially wild ones. But I just don’t appreciate cats. That is not going to change.”

He opened the gate and exited and she followed. Pepper came along; the birds had flown far off. The cat ran closer to him, stretched her neck out as if to rub her fuzzy head against Tate’s legs. He stepped aside and rushed on, Alice trotting after him.

“Alright, then, I give up for now! I’ll put her in the car, but it’s warm so I can’t stay. Hot cars are so dangerous for pets. It’s the A/C on or it’s a no go, lately.”

She picked up Pepper and placed her in a cushiony pet lounge on the back seat. The bed-lounge had built-in feed and water bowls attached. She rolled down car windows and closed the doors again. Then Alice joined Tate on the front porch steps.

“It’s like this, Tate, I have a cat who is trained for show business and I sure hope she makes me money.”

“What?Show business?’ He half-laugh came out in a  sputtering spray. “You can train a cat?”

“Well, not in the same way as dogs, of course, not exactly. Anyway, the training part is done. She’s my aunt’s project. She was diagnosed with skin cancer so can’t handle dealing with another need right now. Since I know Pepper and her talents, I stepped in. I learned with Aunt Lavonne.”

“You never mentioned this.”

“No, it seemed safer not to before. But now she’s in my life.”

“I thought I was, too.” He rubbed his bony shin. There was a phantom sensation there, a replay of those stiff whiskers sliding across his skin. It made his head feel like a vibrating high wire. “I’m starting to wonder.”

Alice grasped his forearm. “But Tate, you should see how she can act! Pepper looks so fine on film. She’s been in six commercials in three years and many magazine ads and has won some contests. She still has good years left, Aunt Lavonne says, and she’s made good money, too.” She released his arm; he’d tried to free himself of her emphatic grip. “Besides, I can’t let down my aunt. I’m the only one she trusts with Pepper. And there’s a movie audition next week. I have to get her in it. It’d make Aunt Lavonne so happy.”

She sighed. It was so delicate and tremulous that Tate put his arms about her. He felt something release his bunched up core, leaving it supine again. Pepper meowed loudly and poked her pink nose out the window but he chose to ignore her.

“I get the idea. I’m sorry about your aunt–a tough situation. You’re kind to help. I’m not going to ask you what the, uh, cat role is, though.”

“Yeah, well.” She fiddled with a straggling lock of hair. “I have to get Pepper into air conditioning. Also need to look at the script again–it’s a mystery story–and see what I have to make her do.” She smoothed Tate’s lined cheek., Kissed it. “I don’t get you about cats, it seems a phobia, even. But it’s okay for now. I’m doing what I need to do and I’ll call you after the audition.”

He went to the car, hugged her briefly, and as she got in he gave the cat a good sizing up. Pepper huddled down into the lounging bed again. She was as attractive as a cat might be, he supposed, glossy, well fed yet lithe in that dancerly cat way. Eyes so green the creature belonged to another place, not in a little bed in a car. He couldn’t imagine an acting cat, a real credit line in a movie, getting paid. Not a movie he’d go see without a major bribe.

Alice gave him a doleful look, eyes half-closed a moment, then tossed him a last kiss. He was surprised she still felt affection after his display of hostility, even when she’d explained such an important matter as illness and family. He felt a stab of shame. He ought to have better sympathized. He guessed Pepper would manage a better job of it, in her view.

But she’d stumbled upon his secret. Maybe he should have told her. Maybe it was time he let her know more of who he was. He shivered in the high noon sun.

******

Tate cast his line and looked out over the placid lake. Sunrise spread about tree limbs like a tangerine scarf opened wide. The boat rocked gently as he adjusted his position. He didn’t expect to catch much of anything. It was a good time of day but the summer saw less walleye activity. Trolling was one of his favorite things, the boat moving at a little over one mile per hour across the water, the line calm until it wasn’t. There were other ways to do this, other seasons–better waters, even–but when he awakened in the last of the dark he was relieved to be here, fish or no fish. He had to be in his boat.

He had called his brother but they had said the same old things, how the weather was getting weirder, how work was something that should be less bloodletting and more fun, how he should should catch a flight and share more time. Maybe August? Alan was 1800 miles away, his two kids were about to be teens, his wife was working more, not less. The brothers were rarely together, anymore, though they were never apart as kids.

He and Alan…and Rae. The triumphant trio that ruled the waterfront on Foxtail Lake. Or so it was for years, until more places sprang up and with them came kids to play with or avoid. They were wild and dirty and reckless with the happiness that comes from living close to the marrow and soul of nature. Their parents never argued there; the food tasted better; the water called them morning ’til night with its depth and shine.

Until the summer it all got torn apart.

Tate shook his head, blinked twice to better see the quiet sky lighting up a pale translucent blue. He loved this place more than anything. He owned it with his brother but it was more his than Alan’s due to the distance apart, the years he’d spent without his brother. Alan deserved to be here, too, and lately they had talked of growing old together at the cottage, then snickering at the thought. Just as they had grown up together, why not? But there would come that moment when they could talk no more of any of it. As a flashing red light dictated they had to stop, turn around, go elsewhere.

Tate was oldest, then Alan came three years after, then Rae the next year. Somehow they fit together like a handmade wood puzzle, seamless. Rae was the one most in trouble, not the boys, so that they felt compelled to try to outdo her at times. She emptied the tall change jar for dozens of packets of sweets, brought home worms to sneak into salad and sometimes scared the fish when their dad took them out, rocking the boat just to see wavelets gather and spread. She tried things that were dangerous, like try to swing by her hands from a tree branch over the lake. She would land in shallow water there so their dad grabbed her as she fell. Grounded her from the outdoors a whole day. Alan and Tate reeled her in a little, kept an eye out, as Rae was always laughing, her ideas were nutty and they were older and bigger.

And she was just theirs. The third voice in their trio.

Tate cast his line again, watching the lure sink. The birds were more talkative and he heard, then spotted other boats. He looked over his shoulder at the cottage light burning at the door, safe among the pines. He heard rumbling of a truck in the distance and turned back to the water, replaced that brash noise with a soliloquy of waves, more bright birdsong. If Alan was there they’d grill out later, enjoy a couple of beers at the fire pit later. Talk or not, remembrance a thing without language.

It had been just this sort of day. Clear as crystal but later in summer and an amber afternoon. Rae had been swimming with them–she could reach the far floating raft without tiring at age nine as she was wiry strong–but then went next door to her best friend’s, Jenny Molson’s. The boys weren’t ready to come in. They ignored their dad’s call to help him clean up some dead and downed wood and knew they’d have to make up for it the next day. Their mother had left for the market. Alan was determined to make more and fancier dives than Tate and so they kept at it as if they were training for the Olympics. Eventually they dragged themselves to shore, dried off inside the screened porch. Tate located Rae by her boisterous command.

“You dummy, come here!”

Jenny piped in. “Oh come on Rae, Red isn’t going to listen to you and, anyway, let’s get that broken tire swing by the shed so Dad will fix it for us.”

“I have to get Red into this carryall, then I’ll put him into the house!”

“It’s okay! Red likes being outdoors, that’s why we bring him.”

“He could get lost. I lost a gerbil once when I let it out.”

Tate grabbed a towel. He dried his hair and walked to the back of the house, which faced the road.

“Rae, what are you up to now? Leave that Red alone; he’s fine.”

Alan ran up behind him. “My gosh, is she really going to try to put him into that bag? That kid is goofy.” He guffawed at the sight of Rae with a grimy Army issue bag held wide open.

“Yeah, nothing like a mad cat in a bag!” Tate thought it hilarious right along with him.

“Come here, Red, come away from the road, here kitty, I’ve got something good for you, a big old smelly fish! We’ll swing in the tire swing, great fun!”

“Awww, geez,” Alan said, shaking his head.

“Rae come here, leave ole Red alone!” Tate called.

But Rae wanted to grab hold of that orange tabby cat. She had really taken to it. She stalked him as he sat by the side of the road. The boys watched to see who would win out and bet on Rae.

They could hear a vehicle coming down the road and thought it must be their mother. Rae glanced that way, too, then crept up to Red on tiptoe, the wide-mouthed bag held close. And Red jumped straight up when he saw it, eluded her as he dashed across the road like he was five years younger.

“No, you don’t!” she yelled and dashed after as the cat disappeared in weedy underbrush.

Tate saw the truck close in. A rusty, rattling truck that braked fast and hard full force. The driver’s face went slack, a kid not much older than they, racing down a country road on a perfect summer day, music blaring. But he saw her late.

Too late. Too late. She flew up a little, thin arms raised in surprise like a tossed rag doll’s, head thrown back with that sun bleached hair flying off her narrow, tanned back. Then she fell out of sight.

“Rae!” the brothers screamed in one terrible voice and ran.

The driver jumped from his truck. They pushed him aside, bent over her crumpled body. Blood came from somewhere they couldn’t identify and it spread into dirt and weeds as if it was only spilled juice, some bottle she’d held in her hand and dropped. It couldn’t be Rae’s. It couldn’t be her head cracked, her legs twisted. It had to be a nightmare. But she lay with her face to the side and her flesh was all so harmed. Emptied, even. Tate took the sunflower beach towel and lay it over her legs and touched her bleeding forehead, cried out without human sound and Alan got up and screamed for their father to come. But he was already there, he was falling into the road and as he scooped her up in his shaking arms, Rae was already leaving them.

******

The lake speaks to him like a wise one. It tells him to give himself up to the beauty, stay entirely alive. But the shore is lined with ghosts, not just Rae’s and their parents but Jenny Molson’s–she died at twenty-nine, haunted by that first death, while serving in the Army–and another playmate who had a heart attack at forty. This place holds things in the guts of the earth that he cannot name much less share. He thinks of the hearts of lake stones, how strong they must be to live on at the bottom, to endure the seasons and the errors of humans. He thinks of the ancient reeds that wave as his boat passes, how they know to lure fish and keep much more hidden. He thinks of the loons who infuse the waters and woods with a magic that cannot be stolen. All this is powerful balm every time he  comes, despite the stubborn ache.

Tate watches the cottage to make sure it is still there, that place they loved, played, were a family. The seam that held it all together came undone when Rae left them. The boys felt the emptiness like a sentence the rest of their growing up, and they had trouble carrying it even as they could not refuse its weight. But he thought Rae still ran along that shore, slipped in and out of the summer gilded water, flew with the passage of the sun. He can see her there sometimes, when afternoon light glints and beguiles, when other children are laughing as if nothing will ever be as good as that moment. And often this will be true in some way they cannot yet discern.

It may be time to tell Alice, if she is that much to him that her black cat could make him hurt again, want to flee in fear. But it was something he never could get over: that damned cat got away to safety, while their Rae died with her arms open–for nothing at all.

Her spirit lingered in their cottage, on the lake, among the trees and they told him to be still, wait. For her happy amazement to shake loose, be free. To unmoor himself (and Alan) from the long gone.

Maybe that was it, he thought, as he looked at his vibrating cell phone. Maybe joyous wonder was what she had to give–even to the last, even trying to catch a cat for a ride in a swing–and that’s what he had to remember. And let her be now. Release all cats of his insane blame. Forgive himself for not saving her. Somehow.

“Hello? Alice?…”

“Tate, Pepper got a part! Not the lead cat part but a fair part, at least.”

He laughed so softly she could barely hear him.

“I know, it’s minor in the real world of events, I get that, but–”

“No, no, good for you. Pepper…”

“It was something else, at least a hundred cats, can you imagine? It sort of creeped me out, too, but then we went in and–”

“Alice? Can you come up to the cottage? Right now. For the week-end?”

“Oh, I, well, I have Pepper, I’d love that but…”

“No, I mean with your movie star cat. We can get better acquainted, maybe, and she might like the country.”

The line was silent. Tate thought she’d hung up.

“Alright, we will! I’ll pack some things, get Pepper car-ready and we’ll be up in an hour. I’ll bring the cake I made yesterday. German Chocolate. Anything else?”

“Perfect. No, I’m good now.”

Tate hung up, reeled in nothing and headed back to the dock. June’s warm illumination slid across rippling water, over his face and body until he was giddy with it.

“Later, Rae,” he whispered and set a course for shore.

 

His River Nights and Days

Image from Breathless
Image from Breathless

There are times when she knows why they’re together and it’s alright, even excellent, and times when she wished she didn’t. This morning is one of the times it all makes sense.

The room is foggy with cigarette smoke. She has opened the windows in the main room so actual oxygen can better circulate. He complains that he can smell the buses, wishes for flowers in their room. Lisa’s shoulders roll up and back; she is not offering sympathy although he thinks he needs it.

“It’s only eight o’clock. Do you have to storm the bedroom? Any coffee?”

“I know, I know, you didn’t sleep much. Neither did I. Yes, the lamp table with the clear space on it. Other side.”

“Right, the tidy side, good.” He reaches for the mug and exhales a thin stream of grey smoke before taking a long drink.

“I left some oatmeal in the double boiler on low heat. Juice is in the frig.”

“I kept living the same old haunt. All night, over and over. Or that’s what it felt like.” He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands, cigarette dangling between two fingers. “Can’t it morph into something else?”

“I’m sure it has, some …” She rests a hand on his shoulder, then gives it a squeeze. She wants to kiss the spot, but restrains herself. She’s already going to be late to the law office.”I’ll be home around six. You could call Marty and see if he needs you to come in.”

She feels July heat creep along her neck, down her spine. Another day of drought. The air is too dry. The land almost sizzles. Her skin has new wrinkles, hair crackles under a brush, but the past month she’s been sweating like a stuck pig.

This cubicle of a room and the conversation make her sweat, too.

He leans back onto a firm, fat pillow, one she just bought him. “That’s what you think about, another paycheck. Well, so do I, that’s part of the problem. Maybe we could ease up a little?” A crooked, limpid smile moves across his lips. “Okay, listen, Marty called last week but I said I was busy. His little hideaway gallery can run itself. He just likes to humor me, play the good Samaritan. But don’t worry, I’ll be working. My River #5 painting has to be finished for the Plaza Gallery show in a month, you know that. Then I’ll sell the whole shebang.”

Lisa smooths her skirt. That painting has taken four months so far. The other six in his water series are done. When he still worked at the county building, he left at five and walked right to his studio to paint. At first she waited until midnight for his return but he has a cot there; he can stay overnight, come home to shower if he needs to. Now he might retreat a couple days and she knows he’s okay or he’d come back home. Sleep is often better when he’s gone, a whole bed just for her to stretch and breathe. She does miss him in the morning, when she turns over, smoths the empty, cool sheet beside her.

He lights another cigarette using a match torn out of the cheap booklet he took from the steak house. Indulging himself was a reward for getting good painting done last night. The matchbook cover is white, grey and red. He likes the tiny face with cheerful chef in white hat; he has begun to collect matchbooks, a pleasant distraction. A pinch of guilt makes him squint–for not bringing home good leftovers, at least, for Lisa. He’ll grill fish tonight, surprise her.

“It’s the Black River one, us kids, Jason and I are following it downstream, swimming and floating and being stupid and he disappears and I have to drag him out gagging and choking…and then he goes blue, then grey… the rest I don’t want to remember.”

She looks out the window. The heat is already making things wavy. Or it’s the mid-twentieth century glass or her eyes are tricking her. She recalls she has lunch today with Mona and wishes she didn’t. Lisa has been reading on her lunch hour. Eating her perky little salad alone. Happily. Mona gets too personal with questions. She doesn’t need to know about her husband, how he still struggles after all this time. How once he was taller and stronger and unafraid of anything.

“Except he doesn’t. You saved him. You were there, as usual, for him.” She glances at him. The “as usual” could have been foregone.

“I know–then…”

She knows he knows. She has heard this story and more so many years she doesn’t have to listen well or ask about his feelings. But then Jason, his favorite brother, died fourteen years after that on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. This man she cares for so much wasn’t there, then. He was with her.

He stares to her left out the window, at the building next door. He finds the building alluring, he once told her, a view that’s dense with possibilities, all unseen. He prefers to guess who lives where and why and ow he or she or they make sense of life. When darkness falls he closes the curtains. “I don’t want to know what they’re really up to, it would only ruin things,” he said defensively after she laughed at his simultaneous attraction and repulsion. She knows his imagination does better for them than they can do for themselves.

Lisa swipes at the dampness along her upper lip. “I’m off. The boss wants me to do more on that Halprin account so that’s why I’ll be later, unless I work through lunch.”

“Don’t do that. Read your book. I love that you read when you eat, taking care of two appetites at once.”

She laughs as he squashes the noxious cigarette in his glass souvenir ashtray, the one that was stashed in Jason’s suitcase before he drowned. His dad thought he should have it. There is a touristy picture of azure waters with yellow and red sailboats on it, now blurred by ashes and filters, but they glide into the horizon forever.

With effort, he gets to his feet. He rights himself with the immediate help of her hand on his arm, then he pulls her to him. It’s not easy for him to stand there holding her. She does more of the holding. Because he stands crooked, one shoulder lower than the other, his back weakened, his painful, pieced-together hip jutting further left, ever since he charged his car into a V-shaped ditch the month after Jason died. His breath is tender on her neck, a petal-softness. He knows how that alone can make her relent after eight years of marriage. Four years following the ditch–what that has brought them–moves her, too, and sometimes he is ashamed that he needs that.

Lisa steps away and he pulls himself upright a moment, then sags. She refrains from reaching this time. He unhooks his cane from the bedpost.

“Oatmeal. Couldn’t it have been eggs Benedict with tabasco?” He playfully taps her on the ankle with his cane and she spins around, teases him with a mock glare, then moves aside.

“I have to go.” Lisa picks up her lunch bag, her purse, the car keys. “I want you to do what’s best, but I also worry about the bills.”

“I’ll sell the series, Marty says. Kenneth at Plaza agrees! I can’t fail, Lisa, not this time.”

Anxiety rises, hovers in her chest like hummingbird wings, gives her pause despite needing to leave. “No, that’s right, you can’t.”

“I will not fail. Because you’re there. At the river, standing on a distant raft, in a blue sundress, waiting for me. I painted you there. Not many will know it, but I will.”

Her breath catches. Oh, not this throb of tears. A rush of relief changes her fear into that unassailable love again. She drops everything at their feet.

“Jacob, you’re always getting me into trouble or something…”

She slips her arms around his neck; he cradles her. They are silenced by the lustrous morning light, by the oatmeal steaming and coffee simmering. Skin and hearts make contact. Lisa kisses Jacob as if it’s a new adventure, then pulls away, shimmies out the door singing “River Deep, Mountain High” like she’s Tina Turner’s back up girl.