Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Better Times

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Photo by Vivian Maier

“Sure, there have been better times, I’ll give you that. But this life is manageable enough for me.”

She stubbed out her menthol cigarette in the hotel ashtray and looked out the window with interest, like something compelled her to study the brick building across the alley. In truth she was avoiding his eyes. It was like a tick. If he looked at her more than five seconds without blinking she would dodge his gaze. Her own son’s eyes could make her skittish and indrawn at once. He ought to be used to it. The view next door was safer. Maybe a curtain fluttering with a tabby cat peeking out, or a pigeon perched on a windowsill staring over at it. Or a fat man with a fedora in his hand as he looked back at her. She’d said on the phone she’d seen such a man. Maybe by now they were friendly in that wordless way city neighborhood people can become.

Her son made a face at the sooty ashtray. She’d carried that thing from place to place for so long. Starlight Inn, it said. Once it had a navy blue background with three stars stamped white against it and the name of the place. Now the design was obscured by relentless heat and toxins from cigarettes smashed onto it for four decades. It was stolen from the place where she and her new husband–not his father, who had died when he was five– took their honeymoon on Cross Island. Up north, the Great Lakes and those inky green forests. He’d been there once, years later, on his own, just to see. It looked like a dump by then, or maybe it always was.

“They could be much better now, is what I’m saying, Ma.”

She tore herself away from the view, eyes flickering over him. Grunted. “By joining you and Marcy at the new place? The latest three bedroom suburban delight?”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant. The extra room at the back, it could be yours. A bathroom next to it. The second bedroom is now our office, you know.”

“I’m featuring it: almond or dove grey paint on every wall, floors so clean you could lunch off them, grass blades all one length. Neighbors who draw open their drapes on week-ends, maybe. I’d sure blend right in that decor and neighborhood.” She laughed a tight laugh. “I’d be a timekeeper while you two were working, counting down minutes in Dullsville ’til the front door slid open. We’d say our hellos and chat about…well, what? I’d season the beef, cut up carrots, onions and potatoes alongside your sweet wife, then you’d watch your big TV and I’d soon after disappear to a big bed. Then we’d start all over again.” She lit another cigarette. “Thanks, but I mostly think not.”

“It’s not safe here, not even in reliable shape. Did the mice come back or are they rats? I’m calling that bum landlord of yours again if one more is spotted. What about Apartment 19 down the hall, is the ex-con still hunkered down? And don’t forget how Murray died right at your feet last February when you were taking the garbage down.”

She swept grey strands from delicately lined cheeks, then bore into him with a narrowed look. She could peer into him yet he could not do the same. He was ready for a calculated zinger. But then she only shrugged, the tension leaving.

“Murray lived a good life. That was exactly how he wanted to go, boom. A gift, that dying was, and I’m happy for it and him.” She took a long drag, blew it out slowly, and it ended in a coughing spasm. “I miss him, yes. But Bernie, he’s too old to act all criminal anymore–he minds his business, I don’t care what. I’ve got better things to do. And nicer neighbors, we stay busy.”

Here we go, he thought, the litany of days and nights rich with entertainments and fulfillment.  He pushed his window sash up higher so the smoke wouldn’t choke him and waited. When she only shook her head, got up and set the kettle on the flame, he looked out her window and saw the tall fat man, sans hat, his beefy arm resting on the ledge with a can of something in his hand, a paperback book held open by the other hand. He also saw a woman two windows up take off her dark coat and raise arms over her head, stretching with all her might. Her yellow sweater came off her waist a couple inches; she suddenly tugged it down as if she knew someone saw. It was live theater here every day, apparently. he remembered how that was, the amazing density of all kinds of people, the great palpable energy, and guessed that was why his mother still loved the inner city life. Plus she couldn’t smoke if she came to stay with him. She maybe could smoke far from his new house. She’d only quit once when she was pregnant, she had told him. Then gave in to the urge again, never thought of stopping since.

The good tea cups were taken from the shelf, the ones that held barely enough to wet your whistle. They had pale blue flowers around the rim, a touch of gold trim. They were left over from a past wherein she had a full set of china, there was a decent dining room and friends shared meals and stories. He was the one who carefully fit the candles in heavy glass candlesticks for company. When he was nine she let him also light them. They cast a honeyed light across the oft-bleached, off-white tablecloth and shadows danced about as invisible drafts pushed the lithe flames this way and that. He loved that moment before he was given the next chore, maybe running his toys to his room or fetching a vase for her roses just cut from the little yard. It became a heavenly place, he thought, food cooking and his mother’s strong voice calling out to his stepfather Teddy to remember folding chairs in the closet if many were coming, and then soon the door chimes ringing out. Everyone treated him like an important person, or teased him for the “plucky cowlick” on back of his head, squeezed his shoulder, patted his back and smiled when he answered all questions.

And yet, their life was not easy, and it got worse. Teddy was a man of many moods, as his mother told him over and over, but if anyone had asked him, Teddy was a man of two moods: good and bad. But he was excused; he’d lost his own parents and a sister in a fire. That was sad. And it was the reason he was not altogether well–not counting the beers. Still, he worked hard at the foundry. He loved his mother as he could. He managed to help raise him.

“Still,” his mother was saying, “I see what you’re getting at. I’m not young and I have my deficits and the place is falling down bit by bit. I just never was the suburban sort ,you know. I’ve lived down here most of my life, one place after another. Come on over here, now.”

He got the sugar bowl, sat down at the little round table in the middle of the kitchen as she poured hot water over mesh bags of black tea. So, where was the usual listing of daily fun events? Had she edited this part of their discussion today?

“I remember, Ma. I was around, too. A life that was good, overall…”

She sat, too, back straight, and buttoned up two more buttons of her burgundy cardigan. It was bulky on her thin frame, nubbier each time she wore it. The color always lit up her cheeks and he sometimes thought that if he came and she no longer had it he’d have to buy a replacement, as it was her favorite. And his. They blew on their tea and he mused over what to say next. There was a relaxed expectancy in her now that he wasn’t pushing the topic of her moving soon.

“Okay, well, I remember sitting by the stoop on Marsh Avenue many afternoons, counting different colored cars as they went by. I kept a little notebook over the years, I guess you knew that.”

“Sure, you told me how many of each. Showed me the columns of marks. Then the makes and models when you got older. You had a memory like a fine sieve, you caught all the interesting stuff. No wonder you ended up a lawyer. Saw variations in a pattern. Had a mind for puzzles. Give you a maze and you made a new way out if the ready-made one boring. My little smart aleck.”

He snorted. “Sounds like you, the mystery maven, and a smarty, too…But you find intrigue where there may not be any at all, am I right? is it entertainment?”

“Sure, intrigue is what life is about–pay attention, you’ll see it all.”She placed a finger alongside her pert nose. “But I can still remember you on that curb, clear as day. I’d have to yell to get you off the damned street curb and go sit on the stoop, what if someone mowed you down? Playing with Pete Callaghan’s cat, what was her name? Sonsie, friendly thing. Remember how you always wore that cowboy holster and gun? Begged me for a hat, then you lost it or a kind stole it, you never said for sure. I hated children playing with guns and still do. But it was the one thing your dad got you when you turned three and you wouldn’t let it go.”

Of course he knew all this and she knew he knew it but she always said it. It was a cap gun and he loved it, shot it off all the time. He and his buddies thought nothing of it as they made a ruckus, chased each other all over the sidewalks. No one got seriously hurt back then, not there.

“It was quieter then, overall, and fewer cars.”

“Who could think to afford a car? Not like today, you with your silver machine –what is it? A Lexie?”

“Lexus, Ma. And it’s taupe. And you’re thinking of an Alexa…”

“What’s that? And taupe! A color to put you to sleep. Well, we walked, it was good for body and soul as well as necessary. Took a bus if it was far and we had too little time. Though it seemed to take longer.”

“I counted a lot of cars on that street. And trucks, buses, motorcycles and bicycles….”

“Things have changed, the way of the world.” She sighed. “But here I am–it’s important to be rooted.  I know what’s what, who’s who, that the store on the corner is still a place I can get fresh kosher dills from the jar and a small bag of freshly popped popcorn for free and a gallon of milk cheaper than the new grocery two miles out. Plus a swanky, bitter coffee,  if I’m so moved. Though that seems expensive to me for what you get, two bucks for a 12 oz. and it’s just in paper.”

“That’s kind of cheap, Ma, but then you’re cheap. Otherwise you’d at least upgrade your walk up. Or at last buy a small condo.”

She pulled her sweater closer to her chest and frowned at him.

“Buy air, you mean! See? Your values have changed. You were frugal right from the start, then you grew up and got professional, married up, bought two different houses already. Now you want me to move in the same circles with you, I suppose. Well.” She sipped as he played with her silver lighter, flipping the top open and closed, then made the flame flare. “Stop, it’s repetitive and annoying. Anyway, I’m not saying it’s bad for you and Marcy to move on–I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished, you know that–but just not so good for me. I guess.”

He put down the lighter, held up his hands in surrender. “I’m not going to keep at you. You know you’re welcome. Marcy and I like the idea of you with us but since you keep telling me to back off and let it be…well, you win.” He gulped down his tea and checked his phone for the time. “Anything you need me to get or do before I head out?”

His mother paused, looked him over with hooded eyes still so blue– then beyond him as if trying to conjure an idea. She picked up the teacups on their delicate saucers, the got up and set to work at the counter. “Can’t think of one thing. Go on home. I have business to take care of, people to call. I happen to have a picture to finish painting tonight, a watercolor of my violets.”

“Good, you’re painting again.”

It was usually flowers she couldn’t plant there; she had a keen sense of aesthetics. He put on his jacket and waited as she puttered in the kitchen, rinsing off this, wiping that. She had energy, good sight and hearing; she was sharp and strong minded. But she was lonely ever since Teddy left her nine years ago, even if she finally admitted he was a beast at times. “But he was the common beast I knew, and not always mad,” she’d said and then looked away.

He’d sent her a postcard of a turquoise ocean, palm trees on glinting sand all the way from Mexico and with an apology. He’d always said he’d do it; she’d always said she would not so he had to go. She wasn’t sorry she stuck to it. And so that was that.

It was a relief when it was finally over. The yelling, his terrible insults, the darkly sad times and in-between times after which the man would be happy-go-lucky for awhile. It had been exhausting and hard work for his mother and him to manage it all. He had wished for her something so much better, no, something miraculous when he reluctantly went off to college and then, happily, law school. Now he could help her at last, and she refused. She would not budge. Like someone who had made a nest where there were few spots left (at least on her small income), she was set.

“I’m off, Ma. Sunday for dinner with us, right?”

“If I am not otherwise engaged, I’ll call you Saturday to RSVP.” She put her arms about him lightly and he gave her a soft squeeze. She hoped it might be veal Parmesan.

Once downstairs and outdoors he stood at his car and found her smiling, hand in the air. She always waved, she had been waving at him from windows all his life. Except when she worked at the neighborhood paper several years. He was a sassy teenager then but he’d discovered she wrote an informative city gardening column. She always made something beautiful of the pinched spaces behind their flats. Now she didn’t have a garden, she had two African violets and a few potted plants brightening up those shabby four rooms. He longed to see her help Marcy work up a boisterous jungle of beauty at their new place. To place fresh flowers on their table between glimmering candles.

She held herself with cold hands and long arms as he disappeared, then took her seat by the middle window. Squinting into the duskiness across the way, she picked up the cordless phone and punched in numbers, then watched until she saw a lumbering figure arrive at the opposing window. The big man picked up his receiver and turned to look at her, settling into his easy chair. She was so tiny over there she almost faded into shadow. He saw the glowing tip of her cigarette so lit one for himself.

“Well, did he convince you to leave yet?”

“No, but it is getting harder for me to refuse and easier for him to persuade me. Though tonight he gave up rather fast.”

“Well, I know, you’d have all the amenities, right? People to look after things.”

“I don’t know if it’s all that. Maybe great home-cooked meals? The possibilities of a garden? Though what I could do I’m not even certain–my knees aren’t what they used to be, Floyd. I deny reality, at times, pretending I’m nowhere close to the end.”

This required no comment; they both had left behind more years than they would gain.

“The odd thing is, today I half-wanted to give in.”

“Let that thought cool a bit, please.” He took a drag and exhaled and she did, too. “I’d miss you like all get out.”

“I’m not that much company over here. But we do have good chats. We need more of interest in our lives than a daily phone call.”

“You’re my one true friend these days, even if I can’t visit you in the flesh.”

She pictured an actual meeting and felt they were better off this way, sweet as he was. “We’re dying off, for one thing. And then it’s hard to meet people that you actually like and that will stay put.”

“You mean, like us.”

“Guess so, Floyd. We are two stuck people.”

But as they talked, she imagined being at her son’s, not conversing with someone across an alley, and it didn’t seem so terrible a thing to leave decades long grime and cranky appliances, the snuffling, scratching creatures of the night and sketchy characters even if fascinating that inhabited her crumbling downtown world. That chill she sometimes felt even when it was heating up fine outdoors. Nights like long circlets of licorice no longer even palatable. Floyd was sweet, a practiced conversationalist who was once a cartoonist. He was quirky, a plus, but he was so fat and severely diabetic it scared her to think he’d soon go next.

Her son and Marcy–who ran a small import business on Fifth and Tallwood–were healthy, of course, kinder and smarter. At least in the way she understood. They just cared about her best. She had to let that sink in, face all of it as fact. They were family of a commendable sort, she admitted it. And her stubborn loneliness fell under a specific category: true home, gone missing. She guessed that meant love.

Maybe when he came by next she’d have boxes and bags packed, the forbearing violets and his cap gun and all. Much would need to be let go but how much did she care about the material world? Little to none. She stubbed out her cigarette and  shooed away the noxious curls of smoke.

She finally said goodnight to Floyd who stated he’d see her in his dreams, unlikely if she was honest and she was sorry he was more alone than she, and wondered if it might be her job to be there for him. But no, not actually so and it was like a smear of sadness to think it. Then she picked up her almost full pack of menthols, opened the trash can and emptied the pack, crumpled the package to toss in. She watched it all mingle with teabags, burned fried egg, stained junk mail and several stale macaroons she had shared with no one, so had forgotten to entirely enjoy each one. The lid banged down. Sunday she’d be as ready as any day to go forth into unknown territory, so time to get on with it.

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Projects

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What Ellen Tate ever intended to do with all that unruly front yard was anyone’s guess. And she had recently been hauling more bits and pieces from her station wagon after she backed it into her driveway, each item disappearing into the back yard. They couldn’t imagine what she was up to and strained to see just what it was she had in her arms this time–was that a peculiar table or another hunk of driftwood? Ellen liked beachy things, or at least she and Alec did some time ago.

The view from their porch was imperfect and Ellen was not just across from them but a house down to the left. And this ivy that crawled up one side of their brick bungalow and sometimes dangled over the roof edge needed a thorough whacking before the wisteria got strangled. A yearly dilemma and task.

“I suspect she’s only adding more stuff here and there, decorative touches or whatever it is that she calls it. The last time we saw that back yard was in 2011 when she had the block over for Annabelle’s graduation party. Pity.”

Clare blew her nose loudly. Simon looked away. He’d never gotten used to that alarming honking sound. Her spring allergies were kicking up already so this was just the start.

“Well, things have changed. Alec passed away way too soon. Annabelle got successful fast and hightailed it out of the country. Ellen still works too hard and you said she seems out a lot, just not around here.”

Simon stared at Ellen and Alec’s house, suddenly stirred, remembering things. Alec and he had swapped information about stocks, watched many a car race on TV and in the flesh, tried to out-do each other on their high performance grills several times a year. Even went fly fishing a few times, though Simon had little talent for it and needed repeated instruction. But Alec was naturally a man of patience, something Simon had come into far too late in life, not without considerable resistance. How had he really helped his friend? Maybe he’d been a good listener; Alec had things to get off his chest from time to time. Ellen’s love of knick-knacks, for one. He wondered if she still had that group of trolls from all over the world atop the fireplace mantle or the miniature dogs and cats on a bookshelf. He rather liked those but Alex disliked them greatly–though he never complained to her, only to friends.

Clare smoothed the heavy grey braid hanging over a shoulder. Before too long she’d have to wear her long hair up; the increased heat could fester the air and her neck. “I never knew anyone wanting to be a nurse so long. She could have retired five years ago. What if she can’t read the small print on medications and makes a fatal mistake? What is she gets tired out and doesn’t answer a call bell fast enough? She can’t need the money. Don’t her bunions hurt like heck by now?”

“Who doesn’t need more cash flow? Plus she likes it, keeps her engaged with life.” And death, he supposed, but she was aware of that probability when she took up the career. He didn’t know about any bunions, did she have such achy lumps like Clare? He’d admired her bright pink toenails in summer, he did recall that.

“I disengaged from that sort of hard work without a backward glance.” Clare stood up from her creaky rattan chair and peered at Ellen as she once more pulled something from the back of the station wagon. “Maybe Annabelle is moving back home? No, surely not, she’s in Lisbon…”

Simon swatted away the first fuzzy, noisy bee he’d seen in their yard thus far and that meant there were lots more moving in the neighborhood. Good for them; they had important work to get done. He admired their industrious, proscribed motions. How little he found to do some days. His last office responsibilities ended one year and eighteen days ago. He’d had all sorts of projects lined up and managed to get quite a few completed the first twelve months. This year he’d found himself spending more time being more still than not. Lazing around with an outdoors magazine or a crossword puzzle. A Ulysses S. Grant biography opened on his lap, trying to not doze off. Watching Clare neatly fold colorful laundry–he liked to watch her do this, he couldn’t say why–waiting until she told him for the third time that pots and pans needed drying and putting away. He fixed things, they took circuitous walks, he still met Herb and Morris once a month for breakfast, he was adept at keeping their property attractive. Some days, though, he didn’t feel like moving from the gentle warmth of their bed even after Clare had long been up and prattling about.

For her, retirement had been a breeze, transitioning from full time craft store manager to part time and now to on-call help which could amount to a couple days a week even. And she had plenty of artsy projects in the room next to the garage. Clare would have bought that crafts store if he felt they could swing it. “Clare’s Craft Haven,” that was what she’d dreamed of calling it (rather than “A to Z Craft Supply”). A place to shop but also meet others of the same ilk and a space for creating objects of useful attractiveness. Or rather, useless nonsense as Simon privately thought of it when she yet again had paste and felt and sequins and pins strewn about. But harmless enough; he had his own interests, after all.

She sank back into the chair. “Why not let her be? Either that or go on over and ask her what she’s up to?”

“Oh, I’d never intrude, you know she’s not open to idle chat, anymore, much less sharing private activities with others. I wish she was. I miss her. I’d like to figure out how to break through, make it like old times again.”

Simon knew what she meant, but he’d determined that old times were just that–done and gone. Everyone had to move on. But it was proving a challenge for himself like it was for Ellen, if for different reasons. Clare often had a pep talk about hobbies since she had more than enough but he thought the very word was indicative of their triviality. He wanted something meaty to dig into again.

“Well, we can walk by sometime when she’d out in front, start a conversation about any ole thing.”

Clare put a hand on his forearm. “Like now…she’s out there now. We can offer to help her with whatever she’d doing.”

So they got up and crossed the street when Ellen reappeared at the station wagon. Her head jerked up when she heard them call her name. The expression was neither welcoming or discouraging. She nodded at them and paused, one hand on the car as if her arm was a polite barrier to further progress toward her.

“How’s it going, Ellen? Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

She smiled, friendly enough if a bit tight around the edges. “That’s true, I’m still working and have plenty to do.” She ticked things off on her fingers. “Church meetings, book club, a capella choir, hospice training, fitness club.”

“Hospice training?” Clare tried to keep her tone ordinary but the words came out too loud. Alec had died of pancreatic cancer, and rather fast.

Clare touched her prominent chin with a forefinger, was quiet a second. “I know, seems a bit late for that but they helped us so much, so it’s now my turn.” She smiled again, took her hand from the vehicle and reached in and grabbed a box.

“That’s quite wonderful of you,” Clare murmured.

“Can we be of any help with the stuff you’re getting out?” Simon asked. he had to admit she looked strong enough to handle it all on her own. She’d changed shape– from more of an apple shape to a pleasant pear, arms and legs quite strong. He wondered if he had changed, not for the better.

“No, I’m good. Well, on second thought, this is quite heavy, thanks.”

Simon took the box, awkwardly moved around her. The three of them entered the back yard, Clare filling with anticipation. At last, maybe the spell made of grief and loss was broken and she and Ellen could be real friends again, not just neighbors who waved at each other. They rounded the corner of the house and she stopped. The grassy expanse was nearly covered with what appeared to be household goods. Blue painted chairs, a table made of driftwood and perhaps an oak plank, lamps tall and small, a box of linens, another of dishes, a big rug with an ocean motif and things that could not be fully discerned due to be wrapped or bagged.

“What if it rains? Can we get this stuff inside for you?” Simon put down the box.

“Oh, I’m not worried, I’ve been covering it up at night with tarps and the sunny season is upon us. Besides, the plumber is coming tomorrow  to finish and when the bathroom is done soon, I’ll move it all in.”

“Wait, you have a new bathroom? And all this is being added to ….?”

“Well, Clare, that’s her business, not ours.”

Ellen put hands on hips and laughed as if Clare had made her day.

“Yes, that’s right, a new bathroom! In Alec’s old study. Remember?” She turned toward the small outbuilding several feet away to the right of the driveway. “Come on, you two, have a look.”

“What on earth can you mean?”

“I know–it’s an ADU.” Simon crossed in front of his wife to follow Ellen inside.

“What’s that?” Clare said, close behind.

“Accessory Dwelling Unit.”

The door opened and Ellen led them in, arms opening wide. The old space was looking new. Not completely altered but emptied of Alec’s things, freshly painted a warm blush color. The four small windows finally had repaired screens; the sashes were pushed up so fresh air wafted about, the floral ivory with coral curtains fluttering. Signs of progress on the new bathroom were apparent and they peeked inside. It was spare but tasteful with a sleek glassed shower stall in the far corner.

Ellen beamed at them. “I’m going to make additional money so I can retire and be comfortable, see?”

“Fantastic,”  Simon murmured as he walked about the living area. He imagined Alec at his desk, scribbling away and thought he’d like it.

“Oh gosh, you’re going to rent this out?”

“That’s the idea. Like an efficiency apartment, maybe just for travelers. They’ll have to use a microwave, eat with me or go out. I don’t want to spend more money yet for a kitchenette. Besides, it’d take up quite a bit of room.”

“Fantastic idea,” Simon said, arms folded across his broad chest, eyes gleaming.”Alec’s place for others to enjoy.”

“I never thought of it until I cleaned it all out. Took me forever. You know how he loved to write and read out here, enjoy alone time. And then I had to consider if I wanted anyone else in his  special place, you know? But he’d like this. Me being more secure and self sufficient, while having more company of sorts.”

“Well, I’m impressed. You really did all this?” Clare grabbed Ellen’s forearm without thinking of it–they’d been close friends once– and Ellen didn’t step away.

“Except the bathroom, that was Gerard and Sons’s responsibility.” She ushered them out and locked the door. “I have more to get done tonight, then a shift to work tomorrow, early.” She shook out her tired arms and hands. “I can’t tell you how relieved I’ll be when I leave that hospital. Two more months.”

“What good news, at last you’ll be free! Well, now this…but far freer.”

They lingered by the station wagon a moment.

“You know, I think it’s high time for another backyard party –to celebrate my retirement. Are you interested in helping me some with that, Clare?”

“You know I am, I’ll wait for details and direction.”

Simon smiled warmly at Ellen. “And if we can help you with anything before that, let us know. I’d like to pick your brain some, too.”

Clare frowned at him ever so slightly.

“Well, I likely do need to clean up my front yard, and then my collections ought to be sorted. One thing just leads to another…never ending, really. Yes, we have to chat more, you guys. And nice that you stopped by.”

She looked comforted by it all. The brooding sorrow over Alec’s death was now a residual feeling peeking from the far edge of her deep brown eyes.

******

When the two of them climbed into bed, Clare eased toward her husband and admired his scratchy square in the soft light of the bedside lamp.

“I wonder about you sometimes, Simon, even at this time of our lives.”

“How’s that?” He looked at her narrowed eyes, admired how the deep blue sparked through the slits.

“I saw how you became engaged by her.” She poked his belly.

His unruly eyebrows shot up and he grunted. “I was engaged by her ADU, that’s what you saw.” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly, then cleared his throat. “Clare, I have found a new goal again, a worthy task! A kind of calling, even, in a humble form.”

“What now?”

“It’s a great idea and we need to steal it, make our own ADU. Maybe build on top of the garage. Or build a tiny house behind the apple tree. In the southwest corner, isn’t that a good spot? And think of it, we’ll get to meet new people, won’t that be interesting?”

Clare turned her head and stared at the tiny crack snaking into the ceiling from a far corner. Imagined being always at a stranger’s beck and call. More housework. Meals at certain times. It was one thing to admire Ellen’s initiative; she lived alone, she had no one else to tend to and share time with day in and out. But for them it would mean a third person about, in the way.

“I have so been needing this, a good project! Think of it, Clare, the money, yes, but the opportunity to learn about other people, stretch ourselves.”

She felt stretched plenty between her on-call work and hobbies and him. She wondered if he’d just crank that enthusiasm down a bit. And learn to automatically wash and dry the pots and pans. Maybe do some of his laundry, at last. Would he be making breakfast with her if they took on a, well, what did they call this person, a renter, a guest? Or was it going to be her load to carry, as ever? She was not the least bit fond of housework. She’d rather make nifty–even nonfunctional–things, create for the pleasure of it. And she recently sold some at an arts and crafts fair, to her surprise.

He pulled her into his still firm arms, fingers woven in her unbraided hair. “This is something we can plan and do on our own time frame, Clare. It will be great to have extra cash and we can choose who we want here and when. It could be a good time shared, my sweet darling, don’t you think? A whole new adventure!”

Maybe this could be his own project. She’d approach that later. She let herself fold into him, closer and closer. How could she refuse a man who called her “my sweet darling” after forty-six years? She realized how much they had–their storied past, the limited years ahead–and she would not spoil them with doubt or hesitation. He might go any time. Alec did, after all.

“Yes,” she said to it all and kissed him firmly, turned out the light.

 

Rooney’s Best Plans and Outcomes

It was the crackling of leaves underfoot that got him, heralding summer’s imminent shredding by wind, by graduations of darkness and a brisk tenor of air. He hadn’t thought of it in years, that particular fall, yet here it was upon him as if someone had sat him down and fed him a story. His story, long-buried.

Rooney was alone as usual at the coffee shop. He couldn’t reserve a table outside looking over the west bank of the river, of course, but he usually snagged one. For starters, he came early, a few minutes after it opened. And he’d be there right on the dot except that he couldn’t stand being the solitary figure with just a fancy mug. Additionally, he was a regular, one might say too regular– and regulars got their pick, it was somehow sensed by those who straggled in. Others were in, out, off to somewhere.

He could be somewhere else, a gym or park or claustrophobic senior center. The last barely surfaced at edge of mind and when it did, he threatened it with silent curses which he imagined as bullets aimed at the bright red number like a warning of doom: “sixty-six.” He kept this to himself; he did not want anyone to suspect slippage into dementia or criminality. Not that they should. He was smart, upright enough, clear-headed. And he was, after all, a kid when that other thing happened. Well, over nineteen, under twenty-one, half a kid still.

The coffee was supposed to be excellent, every sign announced this. The place roasted its own beans, ground and brewed it fresh. Rooney sipped, tongue seeking signs that this was true. He always came to the same conclusion: it was strong, hot and vastly overpriced. Back in the old days (there it was, the age thing) it was twenty-five cents. He’d have to get another job to keep his current ill-advised habit.

Leaves swirled in a gust, crunched by more trampling. A woman in tall leather boots walked by with leashed terrier. She smiled indulgently at him; he touched the brim of his fedora. She thought he was a sweet old guy with nothing better to do than sit by the river on a brisk morning, watching others live their lives. Maybe so. He could hang out at the office; it still bore his name though Rooney’s Metal Fabrication was now run by his son. But Rooney wanted nothing more of it despite fussing at times. He liked this scenario of onlooker with coffee in hand, a walk along the river path. Then hours of reading, working on his collection of old clocks, tinkering with his 1968 Bonneville, checking investments, daily work on his half-acre, meeting with a friend now and again for lunch or dinner, gin rummy or chess.

The smell of leaves, too, an acrid-sweet scent a perfume he never tired of smelling but then it was erased by bone-chilling rains. He dreaded taking his coffee at the indoor, polished wood tables or getting it “to go” in a crummy paper cup with fancy print on it. Or just staying home alone; his wife had passed four years ago. It would take time to enjoy the whole new process but it rankled that he couldn’t take things as they came to well; he was used to planning and executing. Taking charge.

But not those days, or not that particular one, he thought as he placed mug into bus pan. Those days in general he was a follower, more than he’d have admitted. Well, it was what it was. Rooney walked to river’s edge, leaned his tall bulky body against the railing, lungs taking in air imbued with eau de crumpled leaves with notes of rock, rich earth, rushing water.

This was why he’d relinquished his business, these singular moments as sunny shafts parted pewter clouds and the river rumbled along and leaves danced then clustered about his ankles. He ambled toward a certain meeting spot, but that long ago day settled upon hunched shoulders.

******

Rooney had been trying hard to keep up with Fergus that fall, the guy who’d moved to Rattlesboro two years previous and become a cohort unlike any other. Fergie was fast on his feet and a mercurial thinker but also “brash and rash”, as he boasted, “that’s what the ole man says–got it from him!” No one doubted it.

Rooney’s easy-going, sedate father thought it a terrible alliance. Sure enough, Rooney engaged in shenanigans with Fergie, a little vandalism and drunk Saturday nights that resulted in Rooney having his car keys withheld. But the boys played neck and neck, racing Fergie’s souped up truck against competitors on back roads, chasing the few girls who looked their way, spicing up rural bonfire parties with “dashes of hash and smatterings of mushrooms” as Rooney put it, flying high. He didn’t much think about what he was doing. Or what was coming next or he’d have foreseen it, and likely come to his senses sooner.

It was the week-end after Labor Day–they were both going on twenty at long last, working, both soon to embark on other things–but many took extended vacations due to the last brilliant weather.

“You know I was seeing Jan Townsend a minute, right? Until her mother caught wind of what was up, just as things were getting interesting. And her house is something, there’s a whole half of a yard devoted to food prep and entertaining–she explained it like that– the rest is just flowers , a tiny fish pond. It’s like a special Shangri-La for the Townsends. Man, I sorta miss it.”

“Sure, I was there a few times before you came to town. Birthday parties when we were younger. Pretty spot. Jan was nicer then, though.”

Fergie put his work boots atop the table–his overworked mother didn’t have the energy to keep three sons plus husband in hand and the surface was scarred and stained. Rooney shoved them off, shook his head but Fergie put them back, guzzled his cola then handed it to Rooney.

“I’m thinking of nosing around there tonight, something to do.”

Rooney choked on his big gulp. “What?”

Fergie grinned, eyes widening, slightly protuberant ears pinking up with enthusiasm but freckles darkening. That was the moment Rooney should have left. He knew that was a look that presaged all manner of sketchy activities. And yet he wanted to hear more; there was always something percolating in his buddy’s brain, things he hardly dared consider. Adrenalin let loose in his veins.

Fergie stretched. “I figure, why not? No one there, dogs boarded, there are few streetlights out that way. We could have a look, see what there is to see. There might be other places we could check out…” He shrugged as if this was not a novel or bad idea. “Before we go our separate ways, a last hurrah.”

“It’s trespassing! A dumb idea. But I kind of like it though I’ve got a dozen reasons to refuse.” He considered a moment more. “We can say ‘so long’ in better ways. How about we get a T-bone or two, cook out, then take your truck out for a last race? Is that cool?”

“Sure, but nosing around Jan’s place is better yet.” He gave Rooney an imploring gaze. “I’m moving to frickin’ Columbus, Ohio to work with my Uncle Joe, man, come on! Let’s go a little bigger a last time before I blow this dump!”

Rooney thought about the uncle’s towing and snow removal business, the deep winters there, how Fergie could barely deal with his cousins but needed to earn good money at almost twenty. And Rooney was about to enter junior college; time he forged a grown up life. So one last night whooping it up? It sounded good.

By the time they got steak, grilled it, ate with Rooney’s parents and finally slipped out the back yard and into the truck, it was fully dark. Fergie started the engine but kept the lights off a half block.

“Turn on the lights!”  Rooney said.

When they stayed off, he reached for the knob to do so but Fergie slapped his hand away.

“I know what I’m doing attract no attention.” Fergie was quiet in the way he got when strategizing. “You gotta trust me like you mostly do. I got this whole escapade figured out, man, follow me?”

“‘Mostly’ is a key word…I’ve got to know what’s up.”

“You’ll see.” He turned on the headlights.

Fifteen minutes later they were entering territory they’d visited but could not claim as their own, the land of starched white collars, two or three car garages, the land of platinum blond upsweeps and real leather jackets that were not motorcycle styles or vintage fringed. The land where no hippie, no greaser was well abided. Rooney and Fergie were respectively, loosely, one of each.

The headlights went off again and Fergie slowed down, parked two blocks from the Townsend’s in a vacant lot behind trees.

“Okay, follow me, do as I say.” He studied his pal’s skeptical face, index finger up. “‘Okay? ‘Cuz if not, this thing is off and that’s that for us.”

Rooney balked. “But we’re just checking it out, then going out Sweeney Road, right? We’ll find guys to race, for sure.”

“Wrong, dude, we’re treasure hunting first, then the real race is on. Come on!” he hissed, then darted off.

And Rooney followed.

The place was cloaked in shadows except for the strange glow a mercury lamp threw at a far edge of the yard. There were neighbors next door, house also dark, but a few past that were lit up. The moon’s light was sufficient to brighten edges of the Townsend lawn, make easy the way around the place. Rooney recalled times he had roamed there with young friends and smiled. Even better in sheer moonlight. He felt a twinge of discomfort.

Fergie peered into, then checked both windows of the garage.

“What are you doing?” Rooney stepped back. “That’s their property, not cool– no breaking in!”

“Rooney, get over it, we’re sniffing things out, I want to see what they have in there–why not?”

It was always a “why not?”, that was the trouble.

Rooney looked about, senses alert. He backed into bushes, panicked, just as Fergie advanced. It turned out he had more skills, could crack a glass window with barely a well placed, sweatshirted elbow punch. He knocked out more glass shards then hoisted his skinny self in and unlocked the side door.

“No!” Rooney whispered loudly, “this is not what I imagined doing…I thought we were window peeping since it’s empty, admiring the yard–creepy enough…”

“That’s the thing, Rooney, you lack imagination. Take some of mine, get in here!” He yanked him in and shut the door.

There was a red Mustang on the far side. Jan had used her mother’s car at times before she got her own, then left for Bennington College. A workbench was littered with various tools, as if Mr. Townsend had been working on something and left it for clean up when he returned. Cardboard boxes were stacked in one corner, maybe things to be donated or old files of whatever–Rooney didn’t care, he wanted to get out. Would Mr. Townsend sense an intruder had been there?

He noted firewood cut and stacked by the entrance into the house. The door led to the small mud room and then a large den, he recalled. He had carried wood inside, himself, during one holiday party. He’d known Jan better than he’d let on, had in fact liked her a lot at thirteen.

“Okay, Ferg, let’s take our look about outside, then leave. This was not smart.”

But Fergie was methodically examining tools, turning each over, putting them into a large cloth bag. Where had he gotten a bag? Had he hidden it in his clothing?

“Put those back!”

“Check out all you want, bud. Ten minutes, we’re out of here.” He turned to the Mustang.

“Not the Mustang!”

Fergie shot a look that silenced him. His behavior was not that of a novice, Rooney saw, but practiced, calm, fast.

“Those break-ins this past year…no one was caught…” Rooney whispered.

Fergie filled up the bag, shouldered it, paced before the car. “We can do it. I’ll hot-wire it in a few seconds and you open the big garage door and when I pull out you jump in–we’ll take the ride of our lives, right, buddy? I mean, look at it.  Then I’ll dump you unless you want to come ‘cuz I’m heading to the state line and beyond!”

Rooney stared at him, unable to move. He flashed his small flashlight at him to make sure it was his friend spouting that nonsense.

“See how this id done, buddy?” Fergie was grinning, eyes bright and big with the thrill of it, then he opened the car door, slid behind the steering wheel. He leaned out the door a moment, head bopping to some silent beat in his crazy head.

“I’ll get this done and you get ready when I lift my hand and open that garage door, got it?”

“Not doing it, Fergie.” Rooney felt caught between fear and overwhelming clarity. “You’re on your own. Sorry it came to this.”

Fergie got out and stood before his friend, body tensed, face ugly. “What an idiot you are. This is what makes my life interesting, how could you not know all this time? What keeps me going! But you could never be a part of the fun because you’re just common chicken liver–such a nice guy, a real sweetheart. You know nothing, are nothing! Get out! Then shut the hell up, hear me? At least do that one last thing.”

“No, man, please don’t do this.”

Fergie’s fist flew up and grazed his friend’s jaw, a warning, but Rooney raised both of his and pressed into the slim space between them. They stood stock-still and then Fergie shook his head sadly, got into the car, started to work on wires.

Rooney filled with rage and sadness. For a moment he almost tackled him then, torn, started to the big garage door to aid and abet. That fine car, the charge of the illicit rose up like a punch of energy. Then he was seized with a more powerful sense of wrong. A deep betrayal. He was spurred out the side door and across the yard and down the street, stifling a terrible urge to roar out the anger. But no sound escaped other than labored breathing, a heavy hiss from between clenched teeth. His tongue went to a metallic taste of blood on the soft inside of mouth as feet pounded asphalt, crunching early autumn leaves frail and fallen.

******

By the time they caught Fergie not ten miles from the house with that candy apple red mustang, Rooney had gotten home and on his bed, sprawled sleepless across the handmade quilt, listening to any stray sound and his heart beat. The next morning he answered questions from his parents and then police but there was so little to say, he had left Fergie sooner than later, walked home after a disagreement when his parents, early-to-bed as usual, were asleep. But his mother, unbeknownst to father or son, had cracked the door, noted the time his arrival: ten-eighteen. Earlier that she had expected.

She’d decided he was innocent, believed it.

No one had seen him on Marley Street or elsewhere. Fergie said he’d worked alone.

Later that day Rooney drove to a meadow at edge of town where he’d enjoyed picnics with his family as a child, the one where a creek rose and fell according to the seasons, where creatures played out their blameless stories. He shed tears of relief and a disgust with all of it. Himself, too. But not for long. He waded the creek, its music and coolness assuaging the ache of it. Thoughts came about college, making a real life far from there.

******

Rooney watched a leaf spin on the river’s current and he wondered how far it could go, to the next city, to the next body of water? He might like to travel like that, he mused, and turned when squeaky wheels signalled a walker rolling up.

“Hey, there,” the man said, khaki overcoat flipping out from the rake of his body with each stumbling step.

“Hey yourself, how’s it going?”

“It’s herky-jerky but I get where I need to go, as you know. I’m great, I’m on my feet, you are, too!”

“Best news all morning.”

Frank Tillton had been employed at Rooney’s business for thirty-two years as accounts manager, when he had a stroke. Rooney had kept him on to help the new employee, a woman with a fine talent for numbers. But she had to accept Frank’s place or she wouldn’t have the job. It’d worked out, more or less.

The two men had been close friends for most of those years; they knew much of the other’s life. Like, how Frank was a “high functioning alcoholic”, later in and out of recovery until the stroke put him smack into it for good five years ago. Now they were both unemployed for the first time in their lives.

“You look like you’ve been thinking already this morning,” Frank said, laughing as he came to a stop beside him. “Is it that serious?”

“Naw, just a memory.”

“Oh, those are like smoke, here and gone, no sense worrying over them.”

“Right as ever but I was thinking I hadn’t yet told you the story about almost becoming a thief.”

“That so? This I gotta hear, you’re holding out on me. Let’s get walking. Then I might tell you how Lucy Masters and I nearly tied the knot. True–before Eileen came along. Lucy is famous now as a newscaster, I didn’t want to spill those beans… ”

“I’m ready for that one! Mine has a half-famous person in it, too, but not in a commendable way, I’m afraid.”

“We might have to find a bench if it’s long.”

“Yep, it’s a park bench sort of story, old friend.” He glanced at the crinkling of a smile about Frank’s eyes. How different a face than was Fergie’s–open, sunny and generous. And how fortunate a life Frank lived in comparison, a difficult life reclaimed while Fergie’s was lost to long stretches in prison. And his own? It had been made different by a hair’s breadth, perhaps, though he knew he would not have made it as a burglar or con man. Not enough cold-edged boldness, reckless confidence or even greed. But he had made a good businessman, had another idea if Frank was game: one mug of just everyday coffee for one buck (he’d call it “One for One”) in an airy, festive, colored-lights-lit tent at river’s bend. A reasonable place where customers could relax when it poured all winter or got too sweaty in summer.

Or maybe an internet business. They’d talk.

“Most good stories are worth a sit-down, boss man.” He lifted an eyebrow at Rooney. “Bald ole bestie, heh heh.”

They chortled and took off, Rooney with tweed coat flapping about long legs, fedora clapped onto his bald head and Frank yakking, step-sliding with the walker, each advancement feeling like a victory for them both.

The Watchman

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Heaven had hung the windsock she’d whipped up from remnants at the back of her house, near the fence enclosing her courtyard. Right where Jasper Dye could see it. It flapped and spun in gusting, humid breezes. The placement had been his idea. She’d walked up the hill and offered it to him last month. Thought it would liven up his house a bit. She preferred the numerous handmade wind chimes that called out from her eaves and elsewhere. Most of those hung in the front with the exception of a large chime back of the driveway by her business sign: “Heaven Steele’s Glass Chimes and Art”.

Jasper generally liked the mix of brittle and soft notes that lifted in the air, wound their way up and over the road to his place. Kept him company. The visit was a surprise despite being neighbors. He was third generation Marionville and she was new. He suggested he’d see the windsock better from his porch. It was a cheery decoration but sure not his style. He wondered if she was trying to tell him his place had gone to seed; that was old news, he’d been out of the genuine farming business awhile now. But the other thing was, he didn’t want to feel indebted.

He had grown used to the woman’s strangeness. She wasn’t like most people in Marionville, around Potts County. She was younger than she appeared with that silvery, cropped hair. She had one nearly violet eye and one brown, some defect that marked her more. It was true she was a hard worker (she had that in common with other folks), but was operating an art studio. He guessed she made hundreds of glass chimes year-round and other useless, pretty things. But her other business was all about desperate folks showing up at her door, day and night. Some sort of counseling, he’d heard, but he knew better. Maybe a money making hoax or some witchy thing going on. That made her somebody way outside of the box but he didn’t know quite what. He cared very little; he waved at her when she waved, shared a few words.

He could see a few goings-on from his porch up the hill, as his ratty–he admitted it–farm overlooked the back of Heaven’s nice house. Jasper hadn’t crossed her threshold yet, saw no need. It had to have things in there he couldn’t decipher. The fall one evening last week was a warning, anyway. He had inched down Heaven’s steep lot to get a better look at a girl–he thought he knew her; her father could be a violent man–pounding on Heaven’s window. But he’d slipped in mud and tripped over a root or rock and that was the end of that. He’d paid for his nosiness, drat the ole curiosity. The girl took off. Now he had a cast on his right arm and nasty bruises up and down his side. Felt nearly helpless though it could have been far worse.

“Jasper Dye’s Downfall!” His son Shawn laughed at the foolishness when he came by to help out. “Let people be, ole man. Don’t go where you’re not invited. Stay the hermit you usually are.”

Shawn got on his last stretched nerve some days. Acting like his own father was getting dumber rather than wiser. That was not the case, not yet. But he was a good son to help out so he just grunted, let it go.

So now Jasper truly had little better to do than watch plumes of dust stirred by infrequent trucks and cars that rumbled by or Heaven’s comings and goings. He wondered if she knew he could see her pretty well in one part of the spacious courtyard. Tree branches overhung more than half of it. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to have a water feature; the sound of water falling slipped in and out of his hearing range. That’s where she met with people if the weather was good. All he could make out was someone’s head or a flash of one of her bright outfits between thick leafy branches. When the wind was settled and the road empty, a murmur of voices might drift up to him. It was like having the TV on low, a barest semblance of company.

He felt a peculiar contentment knowing she was there. Had been for about ten years. Before that the place had been a vacation home, people in and out and noisy. This was better. Yet all Jasper truly knew about her were the rumors of unusual talents (Shawn said she was “just plain psychic; she advises people on stuff” and Jasper just laughed at the idea), her beautiful chimes and quiet ways. She had been friendly enough the few times they’d crossed paths. He wasn’t a big talker; she let him be.

One Thursday–he usually came on Thursdays–Shawn had done an errand for him and then barbecued burgers for dinner, cleaned up and left. Jasper sat on the creaky porch drinking coffee, rolling the same lumpy cigarette three times before he got it right. He needed one of those simple machines since his stiff fingers made a mess of things too often. It was about dusk, the light rich but sweet in the trees, tipping the swaying wild grasses. The air had a glossy sheerness that early summer lent it. Everything sparked with color. Jasper lit the cigarette as his gaze ran over the scene before him, resting briefly on Heaven’s darkening house. The windsock settled down as if done dancing for the day. He noted a silver car still parked in her long driveway. It wasn’t familiar but then lots of cars at her house weren’t, especially with high season getting into full swing. Heaven got people from all over wanting to see how she made those chimes and they always carried out bags bulging with purchases.

He rubbed his thigh and hip, smoked, thought about his wife, Jane, long gone. How she’d sit with him without a peep and it was like a whole conversation happened.  Jasper talked to her more now than before.

“I know it was stupid, but you wouldn’t say so. Just our son’s got that sort of mouth on him…Made burgers with his special sauce, my so tasty, he should be a chef not some greasy spoon cook…”

He leaned forward, squinted. Heaven walked into the courtyard and back again, talking to someone, hands wildly gesturing. There was a guy there, much taller than she was, which was saying something. Jasper strained to catch the tone of voice.

The man stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. She stood still, as if rooted to the spot. Jasper re-lit the last half of another cigarette. Well, this wasn’t his business. She’d made quite a life in Marionville and some excitement was part of it, whereas he got bored with things so paid too much attention to her place. Heaven, despite her soft name, could handle herself.

The glowing stub faded; he crushed it in a ceramic pot full of stones. Rubbing his eyes, winced at the deep ache in his left hip. Stood up. He looked out over the valley towards town and the water. Lake Minnatchee gave off a deep blue sheen. He imagined the young ones had gone home and teenagers were soon taking their places as darkness snuffed out coral and rose streaks of sunset. They’d be up to no good or romance, maybe the same thing. Jasper felt something like peace but a melancholy undertow yanked at him, as usual.

Jasper turned to go inside and threw a last glance at Heaven’s house. The silver car was still there. There were no sounds coming from the courtyard other than faintest tinkling of water. He frowned at the emptiness he felt there. Something had changed in the last few minutes. Well, they’d left the courtyard, no big deal, she likely was showing her art. Still, unease coursed through his legs. He rubbed his hip and rocked forward to redistribute his weight, then scanned lot and house again. It was the windsock; it wasn’t there. The air was dense with moist heat; no blasts of wind had swept over the hillside to shake it free. Windows in her house were grayed out; the courtyard’s bright lights, usually lit up at dusk, were off. He swallowed hard, then trudged down his bumpy footpath to the road and Heaven’s place, his hand carved cane aiding his decent.

It was slow going, half because Jasper didn’t want o feel he had to hurry for anything and half because he didn’t want to tumble into the soon-to-be twilit road. As he inched his way down, then crossed the road he noted the car was a Porsche and had an urge to lick a tire. He walked around to the courtyard fence. There was the pretty windsock, crumpled on the ground. He couldn’t quite reach the hook from which it had hung so stuffed it into his pocket.

“Jasper,”  Heaven whispered at him, more a hiss than his name.

“Yeah,” he whispered back but couldn’t find where she was.

“The window.”

Jasper moved three feet to his left, saw her face behind a screen. He felt a little embarrassed to be right at her private rooms and backed up.

“Don’t go. I need a little help.”

“Yeah?”

“There’s a man, a guy who came hoping to talk to his dead wife…I don’t do that kind of junk….but he’s drunk. I can’t get him off my rocking chair in the courtyard. I need to call a cop or a cab or something but earlier my phone was at the edge of the pillow on the chair–it has to be right under him. I stood on the garden bench just barely yanked off the windsock hoping you’d see. Well, that you’d understand. Which, of course, you did.”

Jasper studied her imploring eyes through a scrim of falling darkness. Those eyes were two beautiful magnets; he couldn’t stop himself from staring.

“Jasper!” She pressed her nose and lips against the screen, face flattened comically. “Can you come in and help me with him or just call a cab? Or the police?”

Jasper started, nodded, then hobbled around to the front of the house, past the glinting chimes, up to her door. Walked right in. He knew to turn left to find the courtyard and passed though part of the living room and a big kitchen first. Heaven met up with him. The man was sopping blitzed, slumped over in the rocking chair, reeking of something expensive. Jasper raised an unruly white eyebrow and pointed to his cast. Poor guy, hurting and stinking; he knew about wives dying too early. Needing to hear a word from them. But he just talked to his own Jane as before. That felt like something but she had a strong personality even after death.

Jasper did the easy thing, used his cell phone and called a cab, then waited at the door as Heaven sat in the courtyard keeping tabs on the guy. When he roused some from his stupor, he yelled at Heaven.

“Liar! Imposss-ter!”

“Okay, that’s right, you gave me nothing but a headache so we’re all good,” she reassured him as Jasper came forward.

“Thaz right, mista, real fake! Don’t give cash, I’ll tell who you are, lady! Or hey man, you part of this scheme…?”

Jasper reached to steady him with his good arm as well as his cast-hindered arm so the drunk wouldn’t come crashing down on the rocker. Or, worse, his bum leg. The man swung at him with sudden vigor and just as fast Jasper lifted his cane, whacked him good on a meaty but weakened fist. He yowled and stumbled back as the cab driver stuck his head into the front door and yelled out.

“Okay here or need a hand?”

“Hey Billy K! We’re all good, come get the fool!” Jasper yelled back.

Billy K, a big man but an affable one, had little trouble encouraging his new customer to take a break, sleep it off in the hotel, get his car the next day.

“He came all the way from Georgia…” Heaven stood there in a floaty turquoise dress, her big bare feet planted firmly and a calm look on her face.

As the cab disappeared in a swatch of darkness, he and Heaven stood in the middle of the empty road as if waiting for something, he didn’t know what.

“He was just perturbed, poor guy… That about it, then? You okay?” he said.

She smiled at him. There was a warm gleam, as ever, to her weirdly colored eyes. She took his good arm and the cane, steered him to her house. She smelled like lilies of the valley that grew back of his house and her hand was strong.

“Let’s have some good tea with a couple slices of mixed berry pie.”

He hadn’t seen an invite coming so was surprised. Nothing too crazy had happened yet. He went along as she guided him down softly lit steps and onto her walkway.

“How’d you know I’d see the windsock was gone and wonder about things?”

“I’ve got my eye on you, Jasper Dye.” She squeezed his arm and it wasn’t unpleasant.

“Is that right?”

“I see you walking about, see your cigarettes lit and smoke rising in the sunlight. You spend a lot of time with your good thoughts. And I know you watch me, too.”

“I do, that’s so,” he said and it was frankly strange that it didn’t bother him a bit to admit it. He crossed her threshold for the second time in one night out of those many years since Heaven Steele came to live in Marionville. He’d never felt he’d wanted or needed to. He supposed since he’d helped her out it was like being a real guest. Maybe, he suspected, even a friend.

 

(Note: This story about Heaven and Jasper is one of a series about various residents of the fictitious northern Michigan town of Marionville. First posted in 2013, this one has been revised for today’s offering. I’m in process of editing/rewriting the stories for possible submission for publication so may continue to share a few here. Feedback is welcome!)