Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Mulligan’s Resplendent Holiday Feast

Each year the building looked forward to it–that is, if they had no other pressing or thrilling plans. They checked their lobby mailboxes a week ahead, anticipating the handwritten and simply illustrated (with perhaps a snow covered pine, a blue jay atop it) invitation to a Resplendent Holiday Feast. At the bottom, under the signature of PJ Mulligan, Sr.: You are all what makes it resplendent.

Mulligan had been a banker for many years and was happily all about retirement when his wife got ill. And did not recover. This changed things in every way. He sold his lovely Colonial and hightailed it to the nearby more moderate-sized town of Goosehollow where he took the first decent apartment he could find. Everyone who knew him well expected he would buy another house, a cottage, perhaps, but no he said he was not close to ready for one last permanent dwelling. His home had been Jean and their son. Now, five years had passed and he’d started to grow moss on his heels, he said, so that was that; he dug in and made it work.

He appreciated his neighbors, most of whom had lived in Mistral Manor for a good number of years. They were a varied bunch, not at all offish as some had been in the city. If people didn’t stay they likely had no business being there in the first place. The rent was good. The upper story views, especially, were great–tidy courtyard with a fountain in the center, bustling nearby streets and a sprawling park not far. The community had become close knit without becoming suffocating. For the most part. Obviously, if you were a loner, this might not sit well. Mulligan was at first on the verge but rallied the second year and all went well after his first Resplendent Holiday Feast as cooked and shared with whomever would like to come. And about 14 came then, and finally it became a more usual 8 or so.

Marty was the first one to notice the invite hadn’t appeared in a timely fashion.

“I suspect he’s tired after his Banff vacation to see his son, Phil,” he suggested.

Carrie from across the hall nodded in agreement. “I did see the cab drop him off two nights ago. He looked the same, just fine, but that was a big trip. He’s no spring chicken.”

“Two weeks he was gone. I missed his cheery waves in the hallway. He said he wanted to ski–a bunny hill, it was too long since he last raced his way downhill. Maybe he strained something.”

Carrie noticed Marty had shaved his beard and couldn’t decide whether or not it did his roundish face any justice, so she unlocked her door and hoisted her grocery bags again. “Patience. He always has the feast.”

“But what if he doesn’t this year?”

“Then… it is what it is.” She noted his look of consternation. “No worries, Marty, all will be well.”

Marty thought Carrie was too Zen, she might show more concern, at times, but he liked chatting with her and petting her half-feral orange cat, Spicer. Maybe he was just too worried about things; his mother always said so. Marty wish he felt more secure about life. Himself.

Carrie leaned against her door after she closed it. “What if Mulligan has no feast?” she said to Spicer, who flicked his tail and ran off. The thought made her uneasy. Mulligan was a favorite of hers, not the least because he was a fine cook. He also always tipped his hat at her, whether or not he actually had one on, and asked after her and Spicer. And she also liked his vinyl collection.

Marty had nowhere to go for holidays. His parents now lived in Amsterdam, of all places, a move that had disturbed him–they’d just retired! They’d been close, hadn’t they?–and his sister, Ellie, then moved to New York City. His beloved Cecily had broken up with him the first of September. The apartment now seemed nearly unsuitable or entirely sad; it needed her arts and crafts, her laughter. But Mulligan always cheered him up, he had a knack.

“Hey Marty! No invites yet, huh?” Lance bounded up the first inside steps. He raised bushy reddish eyebrows and shifted a backpack bulging with all the unknowns he crowded into it.

“Nope. Patience, I guess, right?”

“That feast is the event of winter–other than fantastic parties for New Year’s Eve!”

“Yes, it sure is.” Marty knew Lance had lots of invites to lots of things. He didn’t care, he hung out with Gerry and Pete on New Year’s Eve at Rasputin’s Bar and Grill. But he wondered about those parties.

Lance whizzed by him, then spun around. “You find a nice new girl, yet?”

Marty stepped back, pushed a hand though his hair. “No, no–of course not.”

“Well, let me now how it goes. I’d be glad to set you up on a blind date–“

“I’m good, thanks, Lance. More or less.”

“Alrighty, chat later!” And he bounded off to his place up the next three flights of stairs. He never took the elevator.

Lance slowed down on the third floor. Pressed hand to chest. He’d been a bit out of breath lately. He wondered if his heart was going to act up again. But he felt alright. He ascended the next set of steps and thought again of Mulligan, if he was feeling alright. Good man, congenial. And a skier for decades, he just went to Banff. Maybe he should check in on the guy this week-end. That man could cook, he might have missed his calling!

Meanwhile, Harold and Tina in number 14 were busy thinking over Christmas funds and lack of money in general when their daughter, Nance, came in and slumped on the couch, coat still on, boots kicked off.

“No invitation. Doesn’t Mulligan send them out by now?”

“Well, yeah,” Tina said, “but he was just at Banff. Give him a break–he has stuff to do.”

“Like us, kiddo.” Harold punched a few keys on his old school calculator as his wife looked over her gift list, chewing her lower lip. “You okay, glad to be off school awhile?”

“Sure.”

She had had a regular boring day at school, she was so glad it was out for the holidays. She thought about the boy who always ignored her when she really wanted him to just look her way. Was that bad or good?

And Nance wished her parents would quite calling her “kiddo.” She was fourteen. She was taller by the minute, would surpass her parents. Anyway, she had a good gift for each one. In art class she’d hand built a rectangular tray, then fired it with a fancy glaze streaked gold and teal, her mother’s favorite color combo. For her dad she had made a coffee mug, earth tones.

Harold gazed at Tina with sorrow. He showed her the final numbers when she lifted her head. She shrugged one shoulder, looked down, blinked lest a tear wet her cheek. His job had been a perfect fit and for forever, until it wasn’t. It ended the night before; Nance didn’t know yet.

Tina cleared her throat, blinked. “I have to work overtime– just have Christmas Day off this year, kiddo.”

Nance frowned; her mom worked way too much, she was hardly ever home. “Yeah, okay, Ma. Dad and I can manage, and we have the Feast on Christmas Eve.”

“Hey, Nance, I wanted to talk to you. Got a minute?”

She knowingly smiled at him–it was, of course, about his gift for Ma–but he was leaning forward in his chair, hands gripping knees, glasses perched on his head giving him a serious look.

“I’ll start dinner,” Tina said and left the living room thinking about the feast, how she’d have to miss it. Thinking about her husband, knowing he’d find another job, he just would, maybe even soon.

Between fourth and fifth floor, LaDonna sat with knees pulled up to chin on the staircase landing. She moved over as Luke came by, raised a hand in greeting.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Oh, LaDonna–Owen again?…You okay?”

She waved off his concern. “Never mind. He’s sleeping it off. He has ten days off, right? So he got an early start after work today.”

He sat down, shrugging free his jacket. “I imagine he’ll be at it the whole time.”

“I never know for sure but I won’t be here all that time. I work at the salon until Monday night, so he’ll mostly have the place to himself and Mugsy. Maybe he’ll go to his brother’s and drink–they do that every chance they get.”

“How is that big lump, Mugsy? Haven’t seen him awhile– for a fat ole bulldog, he’s pretty spry. Makes me think about getting one.”

LaDonna laughed. “You’ve said that three years. You’ll never have a pet. You’re too busy entertaining audiences here and there, everywhere. Next stop, big bad city for good, you wait.’

“I’d rather have more human company.” He glanced at her, expressive eyes saying all he could not but she turned her head.

“As if you don’t have any.” Her stomach flip-flopped. “We don’t always get what we want, Luke, you know that by age 33.”

“Huh. You know my real age. Not even my agent knows that.”

She swatted his arm. “You had your thirtieth birthday bash here and I showed up for the heck of it, remember?”

“How could I forget?” Luke sighed as she moved a tiny bit from him. “Anyway, we have the feast to go to, right?” She always went, sans Owen.

“I wonder. No invitations.”

“I know, I thought it was due.”

“We should check on Mulligan, see he’s okay.”

“You always put others first, you know that?” Luke stood up, slung his jacket over his shoulder. “Come on, I’ll walk you up. I’ll check to make sure he’s actually passed out.”

“No thanks. I have a book to read. I like it fine out here.” She picked up the paperback and began to read aloud using her storybook voice. “‘It was at last snowing heavily, and tracks left by the horses were deep and sparkling on the snow-covered road. She pulled the blanket closer about her shoulders and peered into the forest and saw a flash of red wings. It was a sign.’ See?” She smiled, a weary one, he thought, but generous all the same.

“I see, catch you later, but you could charm any audience, yourself, ” Luke said and hurried up to his apartment. If only she was not staying with that lout. If only she would give him a chance. If only!

******

If he had any sense, Mulligan might have remained at Ben’s longer. It was a winter wonderland in Banff, he’d successfully skied a little, and Ben was excellent company as was Sara, his wife. They’d wanted him to stay on until after Christmas but Ben ran an inn and Sara ran a boutique; they were so jammed up this time of year. Mulligan needed to get out of their way, let them have time alone as they could.

He wished they’d have a baby, he thought dreamily as he ladled the peppery-herbed chicken noodle soup into an antique porcelain bowl. Good thing he’d frozen some of it before he’d left. Yes, a little one would do all good. They’d have to slow down. And he’d be full of so very much more.

Because lately he felt emptier than he should. The travel was not bad, the vistas breathtaking, the visit lively. The snow pack, great. But he’d watched them scurry about, so successful and energized–and he’d felt powerless somehow rather than relaxed. What did he have to do when he got home, either? Not much. Volunteer twice a month at the Red Cross. Shelve a few books at the tiny corner library as hour twice a week. Meet with chess club once a month. Have brunch with Jack and Antonia from church on occasional Sundays. But what did they talk about? He didn’t like to mention aches and pains–they did and it took up easily twenty minutes– and they read supernatural thrillers, fine, but not poetry or nonfiction on science or biographies. But they liked a game of rummy, liked good food–that was good enough.

Wasn’t it? Life was what you made of it; he knew how to do that. He generally had liked his fine, had little to complain about. Well, until Jean left him hanging here. But he’d managed. He appreciated Goosehollow, his sunny apartment, the balcony where he could see everyone coming and going. The picturesque town that looked even better over tops of trees. He’d tried his hand at poetry writing, secretly. It was an experiment and was yet to be seen if it panned out as anything other than wisps of letters and imaginings set upon paper. Sometimes he liked to fantasize: A Banker’s Treasury of Verse. Silly, he knew.

But that time had come again: Christmas. And Mulligan knew he had to get invitations sent pronto for his yearly Resplendent Holiday Feast. Yet this feeling persisted, like he was scaling a mountain some mornings as soon as his crusty eyelids slid up. He’d seen the doc and nothing was more wrong than before, which meant only that he was older and not having as much fun. He took St. John’s Wort, called it good; it maybe helped a little.

He’d loved cooking the feast, having the garrulous bunch over around sevenish, a more civilized hour to share his offerings, then they’d play cards or charades or dance to his records or just sip wine, be peaceful. Luke usually read something to them since he was an actor. His voice was resonant, his words so infused with feeling they were spellbound. Marty might sing a little. People usually moseyed out by eleven after they helped clean up.

Every other year he’d anticipated it but clearly this year not so much. He wasn’t even inspired about a menu and that was serious. If Jean was here, she’d laugh, tell him to…well, no matter, she wasn’t. He didn’t have anything to say to her, either. Not right yet. She ought to have stayed with him, oughtn’t she? The years were not kinder without her. It wasn’t her fault, nothing was anyone’s fault, he knew that. Mulligan was only feeling sour; he had to shake it off.

But how was he going to tell them to make their own big deal meal for once? Just let him be, sulk a little in solitude, doze by a fire. Forget.

******

They hunched over chipped white mugs of coffee and whined companionably. Mulligan was skipping this year’s feast, terribly sorry, he was going to stick with soup and a sandwich Christmas Eve, and please don’t worry. He liked a little time to himself, too, so everybody have a good holiday!

That little note on green paper was tacked on the community bulletin board just beyond double lobby doors.

“It sounds like a crock.”

“It scares me for some weird reason.”

“It’s just that he’s getting up there, you think? He’s way over seventy.”

“Naw, trip just tired him, maybe it wasn’t a good visit. His son is a fancy inn owner. Met him once. Nice– but you know…important.”

“Well, Mulligan isn’t so regular a person in some ways. He’s kinder. But I suggest we consider reaching out to him.” Carrie reapplied lipstick, no mirror, a dash of mauve gloss. “Well?” she said when they stared at her.

They thought her comments worthwhile. Especially when she usually was more circumspect–and cool.

“I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? I haven’t even seen him since he returned. Not that I should, but it’s been nearly three days already. He usually is out and about!” Marty said.

“True,” Lance agreed. “We should stop by, offer some help.”

“We need to consider him,” Luke agreed. “Not just us, right, LaDonna? I mean, he’s the one who’s really alone, we all have something or someone to consume time and attention. Maybe we’ve been selfish.”

LaDonna dropped two cubes of sugar into her coffee and sloshed the mug back and forth. “Yes, we need to do something for him this time.” She sat up tall, grey eyes widening and lit up, which was something considering the deepening bruise near one of them. “Potluck!”

Luke reached for her hand without thinking. Others noticed, their eyes sliding over his finely featured face and warm eyes, at her beautiful black hair, blushing cheeks. LaDonna put her hand in her lap and Luke leaned back.

“I agree. I can barely cook but I do know how to make hash and baked beans,” Marty offered.

Harold laughed. “And I can make cinnamon tea–or mocha java from an instant packet.”

Lance signaled the waitress. “Another round of the coffee pot, Jill!” He took out a little notebook and stubby pencil. “Let’s figure this out.”

******

Mulligan opened his door to a group of babbling residents. Friends, alright, they were that. He couldn’t make out a word of what hey were saying so he ushered them in. What choice was there? Probably thought he was no longer breathing. But he was; he’d eventually get over whatever this mental virus was.

He stood with arms crossed over his broad chest, feet apart but he managed to look neutral. “I have a small case of woes. I’m pooped out. You’ll have to live without the feast for just this once. Now, is that what you wanted to know before I kindly ask you to move along?”

“You’re not contagious!” Lance grinned at him. “A relief, Mulligan, I’m in training for February marathon.”

“We wondered what’s up, that’s all,” Marty said.

Carrie shook her head at Mulligan, a little frown forming. “But everyone gets a bit blue at holidays if they’re honest, some just more than others. We came to see if you need anything.”

Mulligan sat down as they stood waiting and shifting one foot to another.

“I guess I’m out of commission for once. I’m not used to giving up on anything, but seeing my son and trying to ski, then coming home to an empty apartment–well, it is sometimes enough to stall a person. I just need a break from all the gung-ho festivities.”

“You might need a dog,” Luke said. “I might. Despite the applause I have my times, too. Look, you’re our friend, we want to cheer you up.”

LaDonna went to Mulligan, sat on the arm of the chair, put an arm about him.

“What’s with your eye being bruised?” Mulligan asked as if they were alone.

“Mugsy got in the way of my face. More important, I think you deserve a batch of my usual anise shortbread cookies. That’s the least I can do. Will you be home Christmas Eve? I’ll bring them by.”

“Well, I suppose so,” he said.

“I can help, too,” Harold said. “Well, maybe Nance can pull together a mac and cheese dish. “

Mulligan gave them the wannest smile, wrinkles deepening a touch. “I won’t lock the door, if that’s what you mean. Very nice of you folks to offer and to just come by.” He stood again but he felt uncertain, not sure if he might rush them out or if he should offer them a quick drink, which he did not really want to do.

“Let’s go, guys,” Carrie said. “I’ll come by with a couple treats next week, okay?”

Marty nodded and waved at Mulligan just as Mulligan had always done at him.

When they were gone and their voices had vanished down hallways, he sank back down into his easy chair. He should light the fire. He should put out the ceramic Christmas tree, he supposed, light a candle in the window as he always did for Jean. He should go to bed and read and doze, yes, that was the best action to take. So he did.

******

He’d forgotten what day it was. Time had slunk by. Oh, he had gone to the town square to gawk at the gaudy, huge tree that was going to waste after it was taken down. He had bought himself a small slab of ham for Christmas Day, fresh broccoli and carrots. So when there was a sharp and insistent rap on his door, he startled. He had knelt by the fireplace–he’d finally given in and lit a fire and was poking at one of those wax and sawdust logs. He hadn’t bothered to get the seasoned and fragrant logs yet. He struggled to get up, felt impatient and a little foolish about it even though he was alone.

Until now.

“Who is it?” he called out as he turned the doorknob.

“Mistral Manor calling!” someone called back, likely Luke.

Mulligan shook his head, swung open the door.

“Surprise, Mulligan!” they called out.

He stood back, mouth agape as they paraded in with their fragrant hot dishes and platters of redolent cheeses and meats, the tins of enticing cookies.

“What on earth?” he said.

“We have brought the Resplendent Holiday Feast to you,” Nance said, showing him the mac and cheese.

“From us to you,” Carrie and Marty said nearly at once and laughed.

Everyone turned to him after they set their dishes on his table–waited to see what he’d do or say.

And he didn’t know what to do. He’d let them down. What was it about? Should he rush to them, throw his arms around them? Should he let himself bawl like a baby, for the most ordinary reasons in the world? Should he caution them to please not scorch his teak tabletop? Or should he just thank them for their surprise of consideration, time and effort? Honestly, they had such generous spirits, he was stupefied. Not usual for him.

He stuttered a moment, then: “A real portable feast?” His voice came out in a regrettable mouse-y squeak.

He got himself together. “Well, for goodness’ sake, you sure did show up–and you have shown me up! Guess I will rise to the occasion and put on the coffee pot and get the good plates down. Carrie, find the Christmas tablecloth in the buffet drawer, and will you all please remove the hot dishes a moment. Luke, did you bring something to read? Oh, good man! Lance, grab those cookies, they belong in the kitchen, out of temptation’s way for now. And LaDonna…”

He stopped as she turned to him, the bruise discoloring a spot of tawny skin but her face was tinged with happiness.

“He’s gone to his brother’s, don’t worry!” And she got the silverware from the silver chest, smoothing the lustrous pieces, so relieved to be there. To be on her own a bit, but with friends.

Harold and Nance moved the table away from the bay window to make more room for everyone. She’d taken his layoff okay; she’d been glad to make the casserole and he was proud of her.

“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you…” Marty took a full breath and began once more.

He gleefully sang out as he and Carrie got chairs situated. The rest stopped to listen. Such a voice! He ought to be on the stage, not at a computer desk all day. But Mulligan felt a spark of happiness, and thought how his neighbor would always have an appreciative audience in Mistral Manor. And that counted for something.

PJ Mulligan, Sr. couldn’t help himself and he nibbled a corner of a perfect anise cookie. Then he joined in with clanking notes, loudly belted it out with the others, every word bright and clear–and with higher hopes crowding out that useless emptiness.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Out of Sight

Courtesy Pexels, photo by Nicole Avagliano

If there’s a hard rain after her swing shift, Macy sits by her living room window, a candle burning, with her quilt bunched around her shoulders and stares at nothing. If it’s agreeable outside, she sets a three-legged red stool on her minuscule balcony, sets a smaller candle on the the iron railing and stares at nothing. I can see her from across the alley as I slouch in bed beside my dark window. We watch each other now and then, wave a tired wave we can barely make out, but mostly I keep an eye out for her. I have extra time.

She is thinking as I used to think: how different–better–things might have been, how he chose the wrong fork in the road, but how can she make anything of her life until she moves past the so ordinary (she tells herself) heartbreak of it. But where is the necessary will to do so? It flags, it pauses, it stalls. He should have married her and he did not. What does one do with an excess of desire, as if he was still in the room, or that voice of hope inside her head, followed by a downward spiral of despair?

I sit propped up on three pillows, at least two books splayed face down beside me and shake my head as she sits by her own self and ponders. She’s lovesick, that’s what I conclude. After a year, this needs to be done and buried. Macy needs to join a spa, attend a positive single-hood seminar, take a leave and go to the Bahamas two weeks, perhaps trek Mt. Rainier since she is athletic. A breakthrough or at least a soothing mantra is required before she fades more.

I told her this too early, then only two months after her heart cracked apart. It was after she’d cried at the farmers market while examining strawberry plants (I meanwhile was taste testing a cherry tomato), explaining they were going to buy a house, they had spotted two they loved, and she was going to plant a bountiful garden but then he had to fall for that woman, the one they’d met on a cruise to Alaska, could I believe that? And she could barely face anything that grew despite yearning for all things green and beautiful.

I patted her arm and said, “I know. You have to work at moving on. It’s hard but he did get married and you can’t waste precious time and energy wallowing in self-pity. Pot some plants for your balcony, at least.”

“How can you just brush off my feelings? How would you know? You aren’t even with anybody at, say, 50 years old, right?”

I took a step back. I was just offering decent advice but tend toward frank and practical rather than fluffy or diplomatic. But I thought it was a bit overwrought when Macy burst into a tidal wave of weeping and turned away after her face constricted into a scowl of huge dislike of me, then wandered off to baked goods. We weren’t close, not even before he left her. But we often went to market together or took our dogs to the park when we both had one. (Macy gave hers away; the labra-doodle had been their dog. My scruffy mongrel got run over; he was not well, perhaps it was best.)

Since then, she avoids me at all cost. That is, avoids running into me, engaging in conversations with me if we accidentally come face-to-face. We make out our outlines across the alleyway and occasionally but barely acknowledge each other. I can’t say it hurts me, but it does disappoint me. We might have been better friends with more interaction, despite the ten years age difference and the fact that I no longer work full time but at home as needed as a nicely paid web designer. Macy and I like to read, for one thing; she has interesting tastes, we had good discussions. And then there were the dogs. I now have a cat, Razz. I don’t know if Macy has anything around to pet and chat with, but somehow I doubt it–so much effort involved. I feel for her, but don;t think of it until night falls again. I have my own life to shape and reshape until I get it more right than it is.

I’ve held a post by my window a lot longer than she has even lived in this neighborhood. I will continue to do so until insomnia abates. We’re older friends, the night and me, than anyone I know here excepting Travis on the tenth floor, who is now blind and nearly deaf. I take groceries and Razz to him and the cat sits on his lap, even purrs and nibbles his pale twisted fingers. We listen to too-loud big band selections on his stereo. The old man was there for me when I needed him and vice versa. We have a good habit going now, twelve years later. His wife, Selma, passed, heart attack right in their teak four poster bed, with him snoring away, he said, until he felt something, as if her ghost swept across his chest and arms before exiting. I liked her even more than I knew until she was gone. And I had my own issue, the strange matter of my partner, Ward, going on photo assignment in Mongolia and never returning. No good answers from the news agency, no acceptable reason for his silence. Everyone has presumed he is dead or imprisoned somewhere on that vast continent. I am not at first so sure but as time passes I am inclined to agree. There has been a holding place that will never be occupied in my life. Even Macy knows a few pieces of the puzzle. But she doesn’t know the sort of love he and I shared, the sort that I know beyond a doubt never comes around again.

After all that happened, Travis and I sat side by side in his nicely ratty armchairs– mine was Selma’s for decades, the cushions deeply indented bottom and back– by his living room window day after day, drinking fragrant spicy chai and eating too many sweets. Sighing. He lay a hand on mine now and again, said, “This, too, shall pass” until I was sick of it but he was quite right. He could walk better then. I’d weave my arm though his and off we’d go to the park with the fountain and feed the birds. It was a good thing to do.

Now we just sit an hour once a week and it’s enough for him, he smiles and looks at me with cloudy once-blue eyes and nods. I get up and go, until the next week, next grocery list.

Tonight I haven’t seen Macy at her spot outdoors yet. My night doesn’t settle right without her there; it’s like being accustomed to seeing the moon, or at least its light–out of reach but in place. I admit to sometimes worrying about her. Younger, more sheltered, less independent in most ways-what does she do with her time now? I see her here and there with some woman, some man, but there is something in the way she holds her shoulders, sharp and hunched with underground tension, as if pushing against an adversary, but what? Inevitable losses? Her own bridled anger? The tenderness of vulnerability that comes with human contact? Her mouth smiles but her eyes look far away, as if searching for him, still.

I understand. But before it got out of hand, I began to see what was in front of me and it meant more. Vaporous presences mean so little when your blood runs warm in your body and your mind lights up with a need to embrace and discover. For this is real living right now, not so the past which is nebulous despite our wanting it otherwise.

There she is now, good, her stool set down. She raises her head to see Venus, I think–so unmistakable in its regal claim to space. I see the gleaming body, too, and swing my feet over to stand in the narrow place between my big bed and the wall with two tall windows. One is half-open. The traffic, though sparser, never comes to a full stop in city center and I like to hear its metallic shifting and trumpeting of busy work. The alley is empty except for a heavily attired woman rearranging blankets on the back steps of another building, and a young man–he walks very fast–cringing into himself as he passes. He stumbles and I wonder if it is a rat underfoot, if he is drunk or naturally clumsy. And he is on his phone now and then gone.

Macy looks down, too, as if I wondered aloud what that young man was up to, then she gazes toward me. I think–how can I be sure. I press my fingers against the glass, then bend down to peer through the screen to see better. She is looking at me, she is raising a bottle in my direction, and a glass. Then she beckons me over to her spot with a nod and sweep of her hand, the glass spilling its contents a little.

Do I get dressed and go over? I am about to turn back to my books when something catches my eye, and a tall, reed thin figure pauses in the shadows, leans against the brick of Macy’s building, and lights a cigarette, face flaring bright a second but not discernible, then all is mostly dark again except for lights that burst forth and vanish down the alley. It is 1 a.m. I wait five minutes. The glowing cigarette is snuffed out and nothing stirs. But Macy is still at the balcony railing, holding the bottle, drinking from her glass. It seems a white flag from Macy, so I pull on my shirt, shorts, slip on flip-flops, ride the elevator down and step into the darkness through the side door.

I take that convenient exit as it is faster but feeling the unseen presence I about regret it. It is as if the stranger is waiting, resting– or maybe sleeping–but I almost call out to warn him off me. Still, my gut says this is more benign than dangerous, I can breathe alright. I go the opposite way, not trying to run–I’d fail in flip-flops–but not dawdling, either. My ears are pricked but there is nothing but the usual suspects, skittish creatures and whizzes of vehicles and muffled talking above, a shout down the street. Entering Macy’s building when she buzzes me up seems a comfort. When she opens her door, I note sweat has accumulated between my breasts and down my back, and realize her building has no air conditioning. She is across the alley but our life circumstances are different. I think we both felt that yet she is now welcoming.

“Hi! Wine? Rose.”

She pours me a full glass; maybe she recalls that is a preference. We clink our glasses and settle on the tiny balcony–she offers the other, yellow, stool. The dark seems heavier than usual, heat rising to swaddle us.

“So I just wanted to tell you. They separated already.”

“Really.”

“It turns out she was already engaged to another guy and he found her and visited them… not a pretty scene, I guess, and Hank lost out. A mutual friend knows the story, he’s an old friend of Hank’s so called me.” She looks at me and I blink. “You remember Hank’s name, right?” She takes a good sip. “It has been awhile since we talked.”

“Right, Hank. And yeah, it has been that. Well, that is good news…?”

“Not sure. I might be finally over him.”

“Ah, good work.”

“You know, it wasn’t that much work, just a decision.” She lights up with a toothy smile. “I got a promotion and since then things have gotten better all around. I am moving soon, across the river.”

“Congratulations, that is great news.” We clinked again.

“Last week he called to say he missed me… but you know, it didn’t feel right. I think I’m done, as you suggested would happen.”

“I can imagine…it’s been so long.”

We talk another twenty minutes about our work and being single and she is considering a cat, too, for when she moves. I start toward the door, thanking her for having me over and wishing her well. It seems a well- intentioned ending to our acquaintanceship.

“Oh, I forgot–one more thing. You know how we both watch from our places? Have you seen some guy lurking about the last three nights?”

Something in me dives straight down into a chilly bottomless pool and I nearly gasp. “Not really, but I may have seen someone tonight.”

“He looks up at your building, I think. Just a heads up. I carry pepper spray and take a cab home each night so I’m good. But I wonder what he’s up to.”

“Thanks, Macy; I’ll watch out.”

On impulse I give her a light hug and she returns it. I think, though, how she never asked about Ward. Just as well.

On the way back–a mere two minutes with a rapid walk–I go around her building, then around mine and look down the alley from the opposite end from which I left. I will enter the complex from the front door but first I squint to try to delve into the shadows.

He steps out, about one hundred feet away. And then I run, flip flops torn from my feet by the length and speed of my stride, lungs pushing air in and out then I must pause one second to slide my electronic apartment key to unlock the main door. And just like that he is there, grabs my arm.

I try to scream but sound curdles in my throat.

“Gina? Oh my god, it’s really you, Gina!”

I freeze into stone. And then I am turned to face him.

It is him. It is Ward, I think, I want to think, but he looks much older, his beard so long and his once-wide eyes half sunken in deeply tanned, lined skin. His wavy salt and pepper hair is pulled into an unruly ponytail. I check his throat. Around his neck, circling a long scar left from war story, is a silver infinity symbol on a darkened leather cord that I gave him over twenty years ago.

My knees weaken and a hand braces against the opening door and we fall into the foyer.

“Yes, it’s really me, it’s Ward… don’t run off, please! Listen. My motorcycle broke down. I got lost. I was captured–yes, true– by a nomadic man after I stole a prized horse and had to work to pay off my debt–and I had to adapt and I–“

“What? What did you say?” I cover my eyes with both hands, then my buzzing ears. This cannot be Ward, this cannot be reality. What is he saying, captured after a horse theft? My head swims and I will faint if I don’t sit down, so sink to the ceramic tiled floor, its hardness a relief.

“Please, hang on with me, Gina, wait! I’ve lived in Mongolia all this time. It has been amazing and hard. With nomadic tribes. I tell you the truth.”

“Wait–you smoke now?”

“Yeah, rotten habit, I’ll quit now I’m back to some quasi-normalcy. Or, I think it is, hard to say after adapting to a whole other life.”

My chest is heaving, my eyes sting. Of course he’s telling me the truth, he has lived the craziest things, he has always brought back such stories. “And now you’re just…are you really in the flesh? And you felt I’d still be here.”

His arms wrap around me, pull me tight. We rock side to side, back and forth, entwined arms clinging.

“Yes, I have waited but barely let myself believe…Ward. Alive, here, now.”

“It’s a story unlike any other I’ve chased or lived, my love. I can’t believe my good fortune to find you– still here in our old home,” he says into my long graying hair, into my being.

“Yes, you’re finally home, thank the powers that be,” I whisper as we stand shakily. “Come with me.”

I breathe him in, smokiness with all the rest that I recall, and we get in the elevator. His eyes never leave mine, I fall into his, what else can be done? And in our bed we hold each other past dawn, our eyes searching one another’s for all the missing pieces, our hands welcoming each other as if anew, and though Razz raises his head once, he stays curled on the couch, the only one that cares to sleep.

Simone’s Summer of Unknown Wonders

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The sun shrugged toward the horizon and the courtyard was coming alive again. Young men were circled up playing cards at a picnic table under a sole showy palm tree. Two middle-aged women were sipping iced tea on a bench, mopping brows and necks with tea towels. A toddler ran laughing and screeching from his father, who was barbecuing on his patio. The pleasant odors of roasting chicken with piquant sauce wafted across the grass. They mingled with other meals; grills were busy all over. Traffic beyond the wrought iron gates of Mistral Manor Apartments had changed from the busy commuters’ stop-and-go to revved up engines punctuated with sudden starts, then slurry stops. It was glorious June. The evening would stay warm and dusty, shimmer with summertime living.

Simone propped head on hand as she sat at the tiny round table. She traced the bright blue and coral tile mosaic tabletop she’d recently completed as she observed from her balcony perch. Just high enough to see beyond stands of trees, she could spot the customers going in and out from Cole’s Coffee Hut on the opposite side of the street. Tina and Harry Miles had left ten minutes ago, to be replaced on the deck by Carter and Gloria, Simone’s neighbors across the hall. They were bringing back an iced mocha for her and a caramel bar.

They were good to her. Everyone was good to her, and at times it felt something hiding pity and it soured in her.

But it was a decent start to an otherwise slow summer. Simone hadn’t really gone anywhere yet. The optimistic plan had been to get up and moving by the end of June, sign up for a harpsichord class, re-start easy exercise. Get in touch with Higgins and Hughes, the law firm she had worked for until the end of April. Creep back into the industrious lifestyle, those long hours of labor that paid off with week-ends of recreation. Well, no one and nothing was cooperating  with her wishes. April and May rained itself right into June and finally June was sauntering toward mid-summer with sunshine.

But here she still sat, immobilized by much. It wasn’t just a resistance of bone and sinew. How much time did it take to insert herself into a life worthy of living well?

Beneath her on a bench between the lavender, peonies and pots of red geraniums, Kari waved.

“Want me to come up there later?” she called. “I’m meeting Trey for dinner, then we’re off to salsa dancing.” Her hand flew to her mouth, eyes flicked to Simone’s legs. “I know you miss dancing… We’re just getting out of that oven of an apartment awhile. It’s been an age since we had a good meal, too.”

Simone smiled wanly at her old roommate, Kari, who had moved in with Trey last October. “Well, of course you want to get out. It’s a perfect night for it. And I’m not sure I miss the press of sweaty bodies in the clubs.  If my light is on when you get home, give me a call if you want. And dance happy!”

Trey emerged from the doorway of the apartment building and took Kari’s hand. She pointed up at Simone; he waved and they left. They were good dancers, Simone recalled, and a pang struck her.

She shifted in her chair and opened the book she’d tried to read for a week. It was something light, Gloria had said when she loaned it. Something beachy to lessen disappointment that there was no nearby beach. It might keep her mind off things, give her a laugh. But the fact was she  surprisingly still could laugh; she just kept thinking about things. About how it could have been different if she had made other choices. Just walked away that night of April instead of having continued a failing conversation that hooked her with a debate, then snared her in the argument and finally was trapped by the same old story: demands, pleadings, tears. Yes, that man could weep to beat all. And just as fast be transformed into someone unrecognizable, cold as steel, hot with rage.

Simone shook her head to clear it. The last thing she needed was Bart’s face looming at her all night. She flipped the page, read a paragraph, then read it again, a third time. No use. She pushed it aside on the table.

Four floors below there was a panoramic scene to sample, to absorb and wonder over. There was a small group circling up and she knew it would evolve into a long night of music. Two guitars, three hand drums, a rain stick, a flute or two, even a violin. It was Friday night. Whoever was around came down in hospitable weather and started up a song. Simone heard a penny whistle weave in and out and of a melody, light, clear and captivating. She caught her breath at the lilting sound.

“He’s back,” Simone said aloud and slid lower in her chair.

Sean McAllister had been touring the British Isles and Europe with his band for the last five months. He surely knew the whole sorry story by now unless he had just gotten in. Kari may have called him. He might be disgusted with the whole thing, with her, so was avoiding her. That’s what some people did, pass you by, treat you like a shadow if they were done knowing you. But then she also wasn’t partying, anymore. She had given up a great deal the past three months.

She fervently hoped he wouldn’t look up. Her face still looked less than what she’d been told to expect; progress seemed so slow. Bright pink scars zigzagged across left cheekbone and rebuilt chin, nose still was not what it ought to be, teeth still healing. But what she most wanted him to not see was her humiliation. The shame.

He, along with so many others, had warned her. He had come to her after the first weeks she’d been with Bart and he agreed that yes, Bart was charming, high-octane-ambitious, a raconteur. And also impossible, a man who couldn’t have it any way but his own–a man who could flip some hidden switch if you looked at him wrong. Sean had told her: “I know him, he was with a band I was in a few years ago, remember? As your old friend, as someone who cares about you for who you truly are–not only your outstanding good looks and intellect–tell him to shove off!”

At which point she had given him a swat across the head with her sweater and sent him back home with leftover spaghetti and salad from their long dinner.  Before he left on tour he’d run down from his place to again lecture her at her door.

“Simone, please break it off or you’ll regret it. I want to come back to find you happy again.”

Simone had saluted him. Sean enveloped her with a hug that threw her off it was so intense and she’d batted at him playfully. But she had finally, when he was in France somewhere, broken it off with Bart. Or tried to. And paid the price.

The Irish jig morphed into something eastern in flavor, became a melancholic tune. It dove into the rich, warm air, wafted through tree branches and it seemed to hold an undertow of longing. Simone shut her eyes. Let her mind wander to better times when all was less complicated. When she was not yet even twenty-five and a whole fine future awaited her. Peace came out from its hidey-hole and she was lost in daydreams.

Until she laid her hands upon both thighs and then felt the right leg cast clenching her flesh all the way to her hip while the left leg remained bandaged from half-raw wounds. It had been an accident. She had heard it and said it over and over. Had wanted to believe it even after she’d left the hospital. But it hadn’t been, not really.

No, not at all.

Bart had roughly ushered her into the car after they left the elegant restaurant, after he’d embarrassed her at the table when he’d argued with her and the waiter over the “incompetent service”. He had driven out to the Pointe like a madman and she’d protested so he slapped her as he drove, yelling things she had never heard before. She’d yelled back to let her out, she was done for good this time. And when they had reached the Pointe, the place where only last summer she had climbed the small jagged bluffs with friends, he had yanked her out and shaken her until her mind went to jelly. And then the tumbling, her helpless body bouncing off rocks and the rushing earth, the pain explosive and endless. Simone was filled with profound blackness punctuated with garish bursts of light. Then there was nothing and she entered nowhere.

Until a week later, when she awakened immobilized and ruined, astonished at what her ordinary life had come to. Everyone else was amazed she wasn’t paralyzed or dead. For Simone, it was nearly the same as that, a horror that she would end up there at all. She could not believe she had felt love for such a person. He would be end up incarcerated a long while, they told her. Another vehicle had arrived as she had tumbled over the ledge of rock, Bart like a statue as he watched her fall.

May he suffer dearly, they said at her hospital bed when they came to check on her, but in far more brutal words than that. She couldn’t know about his suffering. She hoped he was facing himself and feeling at least regret but expected otherwise. He was probably still angry at her, blaming her for his misery. If nothing else, he’d find it all a severe inconvenience. For Simone, there were court dates ahead and she dreaded them. Just laying eyes on him. But she had to speak up for herself even though it was too little, too late. Then she might begin to move on, forgive.

Simone’s eyes snapped open and focused on the scene. She stopped chewing on her lower lip and sat up taller. This was a peaceable place, this simple home. Her musician friends and neighbors played a lively song, improvising well. The two women who had rested and chatted were now gone and a group of children jumped rope, chanting rhymes she recognized from her own childhood as well as new ones. The sunlight was silkier as heat retreated, the sky a more tender blue. Everywhere she looked were people just living life on an early summer evening. They were spread out beneath her like a colorful safety net. She pulled balmy air deep inside and felt the knotty diaphragm release. She was grateful to be home at all the last two weeks, resting on her balcony, washed in a sheer golden light, courtyard noise a familiar welcome.

A broad hand, then long arm suddenly crossed her peripheral vision and also in it was her tall iced mocha in a clear plastic glass. Simone turned to see her sneaky server, then looked away, covered her face. How hideous she must look but Sean knelt and took her hands into his, placed his lips on the smooth center of the back of each. He lay his head in her lap a moment, arms loosely about her legs. She knew it killed him, that his warning had been insufficient, that all had unfolded even worse than expected. She felt a threat of tears, blinked them away. She would not cave to her own self-pity that could rain down like arrows, leaving points of entry more hurtful than flesh wounds. She would somehow be more than who she was before. Not less. She would not keep turning back and become frozen in time, in fear.

Sean’s head lifted and his eyes skimmed her face, then held her eyes. With the certainty of caring and an uncommon grace. Not one shred of blame. Not one word to bring her to more grief. He sat in the chair beside her as they watched the tableau brighten in deepening rose and tangerine of the enfolding sunset. As he put penny whistle to his lips and piped out a new tune, Simone felt her summer shift and turn and lift. Begin again.

The Fates of Noses

Public domain, archive.org

It’s not always true that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, not in the strictest sense. Vita sees no fire at all as she looks down from her balcony. It is the acrid odor that draws her, like someone has wantonly put down, then set afire an old wet buffalo. It’s not something she’s smelled much all winter–meat–and it seems almost terrible and foreign. There is a general wafting of grey smoke rising to the fifth floor–the top– where she lives. She leans over as much as she dares without plunging to her death. She wants to see where it’s coming from. Hard to say. She stifles an urge to yell out, “Stop all that meat charring!” because, of course, she can’t say that. Not unless she wants the majority of tenants to come racing down her hallway with spatulas and forks clutched in raised, angry hands.

She determines she’ll have to scout out the nuisance from another vantage point, from the ground where she can see all. Vita slips on her clogs and clatters down the stairs, thinking a repaired elevator would be reasonable to demand. Mistral Manor Apartments, indeed. Every week it’s something, leaky faucets, stove threatening to roast nothing, windows sticking.

Once on the ground she peers up, hand creating shade for her eyes. She counts a dozen people lounging on their balconies. Just stop the rain and everyone crawls out of burrows like moles blinking in the garrulous sun, gathering up energy and courage to re-enter a dazzling world. Or maybe not. Residents instead look like they’re are drinking, leading up to carousing or barbecuing who knows what on their balconies and patios. No roaring fires that she can see from here but smokey, meaty cooking smells could come from anywhere. A couple people wave and Vita ignores them.

Then she sees it. A plate balanced on the balcony railing of Mr. Carpenter, third floor. The foolish old guy has put his food out to–what? Bask in the sun? Age for a fortnight? Send waves of meat stinkiness to her place? Birds seem to swoop closer to his plate and a squirrel is trying to decide if it can jump from tree limb to Mr. Carpenter’s open air cafe. Are they actually omnivores? What a thought. The man now sticks his head out of his French doors and sees her eyeing his set-up.

“What is it?” He yells down at her, voice so gravelly it could scrape the air. “You don’t like the menu again?”

“You know full well that things come right up to my place. Heat rises, so what you cook, I get to taste and smell.” Her hand went to thin hips and she glared at him. “Can’t you cook indoors and leave doors closed?”

“I’m the only one who cooks and opens a window or door? My foods’ ghastly smells pick on you, that right? Oh my goodness, hop on up so you can have that conversation with the cooling culprit.”

There is a spattering of laughter from other balconies. He now puts hands on his own hips and they both look to courtyard onlookers as if they’re going to have a real face-off. Except Mr. Carpenter is by far the least likely to mean harm, is just teasing Vita and as usual she is slow to get it and fast to react.

“I already am,” she says. “Really, it can be disgusting.”

“No, really, come on up, Vita. That offending buffalo burger–to me it stinks, too–was lethally burned. I’ll get rid of it, the grill is just smoldering. I’m throwing in the towel.”

“Oh no, you mean it is a buffalo?” She covers her nose and mouth with her hands.

“Oh for crying out loud, forget it, I have something to ask you.”

His demeanor projects a cordial nature more now that he smiles at her. He may as well smile for their attentive audience. Everyone likes Mr. Carpenter, it seems, except her. He aggravates her with his penchant for teasing her about being vegan, for one. She doesn’t like how he always insist on speaking to her and everyone else as they pass each other, as if people yearn to be stalled by his inane and cheery banter. He’s like a balloon that bobs in your face. He doesn’t know how to mind his own business, ignore others, and stick to his own kind. Like those in the retirement home four blocks east–why isn’t he living his last regrettable years there?

“I have things to do, cover up that animal carcass. Not everyone eats badly like you.”

Vita waves off Mr. Carpenter, then tries to hop up the steps two at a time to get exercise. She turns an ankle but rights herself and resumes. She ate a huge breakfast of oatmeal stuffed with currents and walnuts plus gluten-free toast plus an orange and it feels like it’s gone to belly fat already. This is what happens when your girl buddy and your boyfriend are too busy to bother with you.

This odorous incident is all she needs today to pummel her fragile mood. She did have plans. She was going out to dinner with Charles, but he has a last minute business trip or so he says. And reliable Terry hasn’t been such a fine best friend lately, ever since she got that promotion. Also since getting married. As if being wedded and climbing the ladder to success has power to dismantle an eight year friendship. How fair is it that two women of about forty end up like this, one now married and promoted and the other, herself, uncoupling (she fears) from Charles and finding her job as accountant at Sparling Paperworks so easy she cannot budge herself from its hypnotic lull to find another?

On the third floor landing she nearly runs right into Mr. Carpenter who steps aside in time, thus sending Vita bouncing onto the wall as she tries to avoid a crash.

“Sorry,” he says, “thought it better to not break my bones from a fall.”

“Really, Mr. Carpenter, can you only aggravate people?”

He makes a long face as if terribly hurt, then shrugs. “Do I? Well, why not come in? Only for a minute? I’ve been working on something. And I locked out beastly remains.”

Vita stares at his crooked black rimmed glasses which tend to slip down his distinctive narrow nose. What if it smells frightening in there? She doesn’t want to be entirely rude, has never been inside his place, not in over a year. Why on earth should she enter now, though? It’s likely piled up with detritus from his bumbling life, overcome with relics he sees as decorative and that he must tell her about in detail. Maybe he paints things, like green ware vases or velvet pictures. She suppresses a shudder, sets her head at an angle and looks him hard in the eyes.

“Oh, we won’t be much alone, don’t worry. I have Tobias and Ethel, Lucille and Gideon and so on.”

Mr. Carpenter opens his door. Curious despite his manner, she obliges more from being tired of it all. The conversation. The whole day.

It is not close to what she expects. For one thing, he introduces the inhabitants of his aquarium right off, those which he has already named and a slew of others. It takes up half a living room wall and is impressively lovely, making the warm blue room feel like a seascape, each fish gracefully making its way from one end to the other as if entirely pleased to do so. And no dirty clumps of disorder. No relics unless you want to consider paintings and a scattering of photographs as too aged and boring. But no, they are interesting to look at even as she is trying not to gawk. The furniture is mid-century modern and cleanly gleaming; there are lush potted plants placed at choice spots; a china cabinet filled with beautiful glass objects. It is almost elegant, if that’s possible in a less than stellar vintage apartment. It all does justice to the high ceilings and spacious rooms unlike her more pedestrian, haphazard interiors, she thinks, and finds herself following him through the rooms to the… kitchen.

Vita stops in the doorway, puts up her hands in protest. She can still smell some of his ruined dinner but not too badly; he likely cooked outside on that little hibachi she’s seen him use. Plus, there is a light room spray essence hanging in the air. She can deal with a quasi-tangerine scent since it masks the other.

“I salvaged some but it’s put away, no worries. What I have to show you is right over here…”

Mr. Carpenter moves to the farthest cupboard, turns and grins at her in anticipation before pulling out two small bluish glass bottles with stoppers. Vita crosses her arms against her chest and frowns.

He walks past her and takes a seat in the wallpapered–swans on a pond and willows overhanging, no less–breakfast nook. He sets the bottles on the round table.

“Come, have a seat there and help me decide.”

Vita sits down, suddenly worries he might be asking her to taste something. Perhaps he thinks he’s a gourmet cook and has developed fermenting sauces or worse. The rectangular bottles are about three inches tall. As sunlight falls across the space the contents look clear and harmless. She looks from the bottles to the hands that hold them, all spotty and edging toward wrinkly and fragile. Vita sighs audibly.

“What I have here are two of my newest creations. I have worked a long while, months, in fact. It has been dependent on my nose, rather my olfactory nerve functioning, and it was damaged by chemotherapy. I ended up with anosmia, no smell, then it became hyposmia, reduced sense of smell…Yes,” he squints at her over top of his glasses making their slow way downward,”I had cancer–throat–but now I don’t. And in the past year my it is coming back, slowly but surely! So I have begun again.”

Vita feels quite uncomfortable hearing this, yet she also feels a little nudge somewhere inside, something that asks her to be patient and fair. She wants to toss the nudge aside and just open the bottles but she sits still.

“I see. Well, what have you been whipping up here in your tidy kitchen? That I might want to know about?” Surely she could be nicer than this but no, she is not feeling it and she would rather get this over with and go back home. And bury herself in an eighties television series with a cold beer.

Mr. Carpenter twists open one bottle and pushes it across the table, right in front of Vita.

“Smell it.”

She can already smell it, however, cinnamon, perhaps citrus with a dab of vanilla and oddly, a bit of peppery something…or maybe something woodsy, a sharpness to it with flowery softness in there. It confounds her, and she can’t really find names for this amalgamation of fragrances unleashed.

She lifts it to her nose, holds it an inch away, sniffs very lightly. “It’s… perfume?”

“That’s the best you can do? What did you think, soy sauce? It’s a mixture of perfume essences, yes.” He slaps a palm against his forehead.

“Well, maybe…”

“I realize you’re unschooled. But you have a fine acute sense of smell. So I wondered what you could smell and what you think.”

Vita lists the disparate things she is able to sniff out and then shakes her head. She sniffs again, more generously.

“It’s like you let out a genie, it is taking over my brain! I can’t describe it exactly.”

“Yes, that might be part of the problem…part of solution…which top notes, which middle or base should be strengthened?”

“Wait a minute. How is it that you’re making perfume? Is it a late in life hobby? Is it a hidden quirkiness–you have this desire to inhale such scents? I mean, you have to admit, not very many…well, older men are making perfumes out there. And what do you mean by me having a good sense of smell? How do you even know that?”

Mr. Carpenter sat back and grinned at her. “It’s my profession, it was my life, my perfumery. But then it ended, I don’t make my living making perfume anymore. But once–and quite successfully.” He leans forward on his elbows, then holds hands out to her. “You think I moved here because I loved the place? It’s alright, more than okay. But I lived  much differently before the cancer. Before my wife died.” He lifts his bony shoulders high and lets them fall, hands rising and falling with them, an exaggerated nonchalance. “It’s what happens in life, you work, you get ahead if you can, you lose some and win some and then you get old. But I still love perfume making. So I start again. Who knows?”

Vita closes her mouth, which has hung open as he spoke frankly. “My gosh, that’s something,” she says then opens the second bottle. She is immediately enveloped by a thickly musky fragrance that is odd but warm, then there comes to her an underlying amber and something more. She closes her eyes.

“I know you have a nose because of all the smells you complain about. And some that you like are noted clearly, as well. Look at you.”

She opens her eyes and takes a fresh breath. “But you’re not around me very much, how do you know things like that.”

“I have friends here, “he says and laughs.”I have not lost my hearing, either. What do you think?”

“I like them, I have to admit. I mean, they seem a little unrefined, but–I don’t know anything about this. I just know what my nose takes in and they’re pretty good so far.” She sniffs one, then the other. “Ahhh. But they need work.”

“You should clear the nose first–coffee beans, one way, surely you’ve been to perfume counters. The synthetic perfumes are a different breed of thing altogether, don’t get me started…Anyway, it’s a start and I thank you for stopping by. I think they may have promise.”

He leans back and folds his hands in his lap, content.

“Yes, perhaps they do. But you tricked me, lured me in somehow.” She smiles despite herself. He looks so benign but she knows he’s sharp and crafty and that makes her like him a bit more.

“It is what it is, you’re here. It was my ruined meat dinner smell, remember, that started it all?”

“Please, no food talk. But you’re right. Mom used to say I could smell things from miles away or smell what no one else could. I smelled a gas leak way before anyone else when I was seven, so saved us, I guess. I have a sense of smell that can cause me issues at times, unfortunately…some people’s body odors that they don’t seem to realize emitting. A few food or cooking odors. Noxious plants or just too strong flowers–gardenias and lilies are way too much …I could go on. And I really don’t like most perfumes, either. Sorry.”

“You don’t like them because your nose is extremely discriminating and so many perfumes are not naturally derived. Ah, well. Much to learn but you might manage it, and help out. As I thought.”

Vita sits up. “What? Oh, no. I’m certainly not going to be some old guy’s accomplice in–in, well, an illegally run perfume manufacturing operation right in Mistral Manor! I have my standards, too!”

He laughs a little, then laughed harder, until his eyes watered and he took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “Vita, honestly!”

Vita is embarrassed by her outburst, knows it is foolish and perhaps mean, and is ready to leave. But those little bottles on the table pull her like a magnet pulls snug to metal. She fingers one and wonders over what he has said and how he is offering to teach her something different. Maybe fascinating. How she finds her job a mind-numbing bore. And how Charles is leaving her, she knows it as she sits here discussing perfume. He always wears one that she’s never liked but has been afraid to mention.

She forces herself to not run out. Instead, she clears her constricting throat, asks, “Do you have any tea?”

Mr. Carpenter pushes himself away from the table and gets up. Chooses a delicately aromatic rooibos and honeybush tea that he feels she will enjoy, and turns on the kettle. He feels a quiver of hope.

Vita props chin in hand and looks out the window at the tableau of balcony and beyond, sunshine intensifying the light turquoise dome of spring sky.

“Want to get rid of that buffalo out there so we can sit on your balcony?”

He does so, then opens wide the doors and ushers her through. There’s the offending hibachi, a few coals glowing, crusted with meat. They stand there watching the courtyard activities, children romping, dogs playing tag with each other, neighbors chortling and chatting, drinking cheap wine. Leisurely dinner hours. It hurts her, all this pleasure.

“I’ve got leftover spaghetti from last night. I can toss a salad. Want to eat with me? I warn you–I subject food to the microwave for reheating.”

She offered a sidelong glance of relief and defeat all mixed up. Then a smirk. “Sure, why not? My birthday celebratory dinner. Tonight I’m turning forty-one. And my boyfriend ditched me. Whoopee!”

“Whoopee!” he shouts after her. “You’re still alive and able to live a good life. You’re a bit over half my age and here we are making dinner together. And perfume. Imagine that. I may have found another feisty, goodhearted daughterly sidekick, mine’s long gone to Louisiana… Anyway, there are better critters in the pond to catch.”

“Now don’t go saying things that are foolish, you’re  annoying just when we were getting along okay. ‘Feisty’ sounds like one of those damned scrappy little dogs that are always fighting over someone else’s good bone…Oh… Well, then, what’s with the bit about being ‘goodhearted’? Watch out for misguided words and ideas. And further, I’m sure not looking for any frogs to kiss.”

She looks behind her but he’s shuffled into the kitchen. The kettle is whistling. There arise on both her arms sudden goose bumps despite the warm, sweet air. She can smell lilies of the valley, they’re down there beyond the grove of trees, under the bushes. Heaven. She goes inside.

“I’ll make the salad, I’m quite good with veggies. I might possibly be good with perfume. We’ll see.”

Mr. Carpenter pours the water for tea. He hums as he gives the casserole a preparatory stir, shoves it in the microwave and sets the timer. He then tears off a chunk of buffalo burger from a delicious patty he earlier stuck in a plastic baggie. Savors the taste, thanks in large part to having a gifted nose that delivers more and more flavors and aromas to his brain again. And now there are two: one with raw talent and one who may regain it. Life, he muses (as Vita gathers and sniffs tomatoes, onion, peppers and lettuce) is surprising and sweet far more often than he’d expected as a scrawny, tossed about, lonely kid. How fortunate to have been saved by his nose. As she could be, too.

 

Three Lives for Evangeline

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“I sure don’t know how I ended up like this…oh, never mind, I’m just in a mood today. It will pass.”

Evangeline pushed the stroller along without a hitch despite her girth and tired feet. They moved arm-in-arm at a good pace through the green lit spaceship of the park. Rita always felt they were walking into a fantasy world after leaving her grey office made uglier with its fluorescent lights, odd odors snaking in the doorway, phones jangling her brain. Here it was shimmery with color, shaped by sunlight, shadows and reflections. Sweetness.

Rita checked her companion, someone she trusted with her infant son, Riley. She wasn’t sure if the older woman meant how she ended up as a caretaker of Riley twice a week or something else. It was usually something  other than what she imagined. Rita didn’t always get her, felt there was much more than she’d ever know about her white-haired friend.

“And maybe I’ll tell you how, but for now we’ll enjoy the walk with the little one. You catch me up on work. How was fussy Mr. Reynolds today?”

Rita  tucked the light blanket about Riley’s baby fists, two pale flower buds that one day would open and grab and never let go of her. Evangeline pushed an arm through the crook of hers and Rita felt her weight shift, wondered if her feet hurt. She’d never say so.

“Mr. Reynolds is on vacation for a week. All of us women in billing are celebrating with wine at lunch. We sit on our desks, share our food and what we really think and drink until we get goofy.”

Evangeline kept pushing the stroller as she studied her from under thick silver eyebrows. “No, you don’t.”

“Yeah, but we should. We do share lunches from our desks sometimes. Then some of us go to the courtyard and share leftovers with birds. You should come sometime; we could have a little picnic on my lunch hour, you, me and Riley.”

“No thanks. Hospitals are like giant vacuums; they pull you in and you might not ever get back out. Let me waste away at home.”

“Evangeline, you have a dark viewpoint, a real deficit of faith in modern medicine among other things. Healing happens, too.”

“So you say. Best to stay well and alive.”

Riley opened his round eyes and let out a squawk that seemed like surprise inside distress, clenched hands flailing.

“See, Riley knows.” She slowed. “There’s a bench. Let’s get out of the sun.”

They sat above the pond where there was good view of turtles on a log, ducks floating in tandem with their partners, and a handful of people on the other side. Rita took out Riley and let him sniff the piney, flowery breeze, eye the treetops and water. He looked startled, his sweet mouth dripping drool, soft brown eyes wide.

“So has Neal been by this week?”

Rita shrugged as if to say it was no big deal. Evangeline knew better. Neal was a chef on his way to somewhere–this city seemed a stopping off spot. He had paused at Rita’s way too long, she thought–and now seemed to have a lackadaisical interest in son and beleaguered mother. He was one of those handsome talented rats but she didn’t dare say it. Rita thought of her as a good-natured, grandmotherly type when in fact she had a heart like a pinball more and more lately. It hit all the right points some days but others it jammed up and stalled out. Literally and figuratively. Well, it was getting close to the anniversary date she wanted to ignore.

“He called twice, is coming by Thursday morning. Maybe Wednesday night and then, well, I don’t know. He helps out financially. Neal adores Riley, he finds him perfectly lovable. He’s just busy a lot.” She saw the scowl of disapproval on Evangeline’s face.”You just aren’t around him much.”

Evangeline placed her knobby hands upon ample thighs, leaned forward. Held her tongue. The water was shot through with streaks of turquoise. She liked the turtles and blue heron best, they sat still and that rested her mind.

She had become fond of Riley and liked being there with Rita. The hours felt longer when she didn’t have baby duty. Rita had her sister across town take care of him, mostly. Certainly not Neal. Their apartment building, Mistral Manor Apartments, emptied out early in the day except for the new tenant in his wheelchair on the first floor. Evangeline hadn’t met him yet. He was not likely her type of person, she could tell by the way he often dressed in a shiny burgundy sport coat from nineteen fifty–the man had to be around sixty–and how he sang to himself often, as if everyone in the world wanted to be entertained by that nasally voice. He never removed his tweedy grey hat. He would leave at night and no one would see him til two in the afternoon. Rita said he was a musician, which confirmed Evangeline’s worst suspicions. She didn’t ask what he played; she didn’t want to know. She said he couldn’t possibly sing on stage, too, could he? And Rita laughed as if she was kidding, it was very likely he did.

“I’m thinking of having some people in the building over for dinner. Want to come?” She turned and smiled, as if to ensure her sincerity.

Evangeline patted Riley’s back although he was snuggled in Rita’s arms. He got hiccups a lot, she noticed, too much air gulped down when he ate, maybe, and she resolved to pay better attention when she gave him his bottles.

“If that so-called musician isn’t coming.”

“Well, he might. And maybe four or five others. Neal, too–he’ll cook, actually.”

“I might help you get ready, but don’t know if I’ll stay. Though it’d be interesting to sample your son’s father’s cuisine. Maybe.”

Rita almost told her to not bother then, but suspected the old lady–was she 69? 75?–she’d never asked and it was hard to tell– would come, even arrive early to set the table and bounce Riley on her lap. There was a good person inside that dour countenance. Maybe she’d actually enjoy herself if she got to know the neighbors better. Riley burrowed his face into her shoulder and burped.

******

“Must you?” she called down from her balcony overhanging the courtyard.

He was down there, that man in the wheelchair, with the rusty vocal chords, and he was singing as if the birds were his privileged audience. “Spring is Here” was the name of the old tune; she recognized it. She preferred the robins with their repetitious eruptions. He’d fallen down a ravine when hiking, she’d heard. She ought to be kinder; she’d try harder but it would take more than practice.

He lifted his hat to her. It made her think of her ex-husband’s–well, he was dead, also–though his was always straw, elegant. Panama hat. Evangeline could see the neighbor was bald, head round and speckled like a giant egg.

“Yeah, I must, I admit it! I wake up singing even if it is midday, don’t you know? I have tunes running where thoughts line up in other people’s heads.” He rapidly turned the wheelchair wheels and came to a halt beneath her third floor balcony. “You don’t ever sing, my dear?”

Evangeline put down the cup of tea she had been nursing. It was cold now. Did he say dear? “No, the thought doesn’t occur to me, thankfully.”

“See, that’s the problem–people need to think less, sing more.”

“Imbecile,” she muttered to herself but grinned down at him.”Well, have a pleasant day, off with you and your songs. Please.”

He had to shout above the sudden rattle and roar of a truck on their street. “Now this is problematic! But I know we can come to an amicable resolution. I make music a lot. I come outside here to exercise a bit and get fresh air.” The truck moved on but his volume remained. “It’s one reason why I rented this place! Okay, I’ll bring it down a notch.” He paused to readjust his volume. “But I think the outdoor space galore is great not to mention vintage interiors. And I have a patio, too.”

“Vintage? Is that what you call it? Cheap, that’s how I call it, but it suits me. Well, then, Mr.–”

“Van. Van Garner. I’m ‘that blasted musician’–a trumpeter by the way– I’ve heard you try to avoid.”

“–Mr. Garner, I will certainly try to respect your needs if you will try to respect mine. A softer sound might do the trick.”

“Alright, I’ll try for your sake…” He spun away from her, then spun back. “Coming to Rita’s and Neal’s dinner Saturday? I hear he’s quite the master of his trade.’

She sniffed, put finger to nose, then sneezed hard, twice. The creeping roses had burst into bloom last night. Or it was Van’s presence. People could make her feel allergic. “I may.”

“Guess I’ll see you there. Rita says you’re great with Riley. A mighty fine boy!” And he wheeled through the courtyard, out the gate, was gone in search of a decent newspaper and magazine stand.

Evangeline closed the book she had been reading. Stared into the trees until the fine new leaves blurred. Wasn’t it enough that she had been reduced to staying at this place? Three years it was, now. But she had to be friendly with people she often preferred to avoid. She might have to reconsider the senior housing as her daughter in New York had urged. She hadn’t wanted that, not yet. She was only 71. Had good health or rather her ticker got a bit tricky but otherwise she was strong–she still took a walk an hour each day–she was apparently lucid, she had decent sleep and appetite. She could lose a few inches and pounds but ach, it was too late, too much work.

Her old house, too, had far more than required for her own good. Dusty things and memories and unused rooms. She had retired, finally, from the county library system. She’d made the reasonable decision and found smaller was better, cheaper was best, and as long as she could climb stairs–there was an antiquated elevator she rarely took, it was creaky and cranky and threatened to drop them all–this place was it.

She returned to the conversation with that wheel-chaired musician with a blasted musician’s kind of name to boot: “Van Garner.” That Van had said Rita thought she did a good job with Riley. No, ‘great,” he’d said. A rare happiness spread through her body and moved among a number of synapses in her brain. She recalled raising Natalie-in-New-York–now so successful, very out of reach. It had been fun for a long time, mothering. Now there was Riley and he was even better; she could return him but she could anticipate seeing him regularly. She knew he didn’t have a thought for or against her, she was a squashy, toasty hug, she was an expert with a milk bottle, a way to while the day away and inhabit safe haven for until his mother rejoined him once more. Riley was so curious and cheerful and untainted that his beauty could remediate the world. Slay dragons with a guileless gurgle. Babies were powerful, she was sure of it. Evangeline must tell him the next time he blew a bubble with his spit.

And Rita said it out loud, that she did a great job? Well. She took out her tissue and pressed it to her nose so as not to sneeze again, not to sniffle. That was a little something, wasn’t it? It was some comfort to count, a feeling of being worthwhile that she’d recall in a stretch of unremarkable days and gently emptied nights.

She wondered what she might find in her closet to wear to dinner. Did folks still dress up for dinner parties? She wondered if Van would keep his hat on at the dinner table like her once-husband used to until she pinched his thigh under the table. Would he sing and if he did, could she just leave? And maybe chef Neal would prove he deserved Rita’s loyalty and caring with a demonstration of cooking prowess, then give them all one fool-proof sign of his love.

******

“He really shouldn’t do that,” Mike stated as the expert he was, a therapist whose practice was small but growing and included families. His wife, Ellie, another expert, shook her head. They had no children of their own yet.

They were observing Riley gnawing and sucking on a chicken drumstick bone Neal had offered him. The meaty well-seasoned main course was being arranged with the rest for serving. Rita was fine with it. Evangeline was, too. She had given her own Natalie interesting things to mush or nibble, even play with. They were having an Indian dish called Tandoori Chicken and Evangeline had missed the preparation since she was helping out with Rile. It smelled delectable, she had to admit. She didn’t often explore cuisine nowadays, but Indian was a favorite. She watched Riley in his automated swing and babbled back at him without restraint when Van arrived.

He had taken the elevator. Perhaps never again.

“It sputtered and took a time out for something twice. I thought it was stuck and I’d have to shake the iron grating to get it moving or holler for help. I whistled a little. Then it roused itself from its sloth and got us back on track. An adventure to the fifth floor of Mistral Manor! With a name like that what do I expect? It felt like some old ‘Twilight Zone’ outtake and was worth the trouble. Ah, smells heavenly.” He tipped his hat at everyone. “And a hello to you, Evangeline. You got all gussied up, I see.”

She blushed in spite of her irritation. She had put on a long navy linen skirt, a warm weather favorite plus a white voile blouse with a ruffle along the V-neck. She had put on pearl earrings, discreet ones. Her long hair had been carefully washed, air-dried half the day, then reassembled into its heavy chignon. After all that her arms nearly ached. A hint of perfume, something Natalie had sent her for Christmas. It had an amber note to it, exotic, she thought. She seldom used more than an herbal blend talcum.

“And you smell good,” whispered Rita. “You look pretty.”

“Oh,” she replied, a bit overcome by such nonsense.

“Shall we gather at table?” Neal called out.

There were seven of them altogether, eight if you counted Riley, and they filled the long modern glass and steel table. The place settings were white and blue ceramic. Fran, the seventh guest and Rita’s youngest sister, had set it and it sparkled with a bouquet of pink and red peonies. The sisters each in their 30s, and the older woman in her 70s, had chatted at their leisure. Evangeline marveled at the young women’s poise and eloquence. Confidence. She wondered for a split second if Natalie was thought of that way, and hoped so, and felt a sharp pang for her.

Dinner was enchanting and lingered over. The offerings were delicious with seasonings both correct and just enough, not so strong as to drag you into an uncomfortable night. And there was Pino Gris, a wine she had drunk rarely. In fact, she didn’t really drink but this was an exception. Everyone talked about politics, abut upcoming city festivals and concerts, the building repairs needed and the cost of real estate, a real crime these days. Their needs and wants and aspirations. Evangeline chimed in on some topics but it was books that hooked her–and them. Her knowledge was diverse and well honed since she was a librarian her entire working life.

“Poets?” She responded to Van’s question about naming favorites. “Well, no one can disagree that Rilke is one of the finest of all time! And Blake, Merton, Whitman. Neruda. And I rather love Denise Levertov and there is Theodore Roethke… There’s a whole slew of interesting poets. Have you read Joy Harjo, a Native American poet? Mislosz. Mary Oliver. Well, I could bore you all night, and I have yet to catch up on the newest, not since my library days…”

They were enrapt but confessed ignorance of most, how was it that she could read so much? She felt a little foolish after the gush of enthusiasm so she started on her third glass of wine. Then invited them to peruse her personal bookshelves any time.

Evangeline gave it one last shot, leaning into the animated group. “Give poetry a good try. It seems to me it’s necessary to the development of incisive thought, health of the soul. Even young Riley should hear poetry, at least as soon as he can speak a little. Try Shel Silverstein, for one.”

Mike and Ellie agreed with this statement. They had heard from friends that he was a beloved children’s author, so placed a couple of books in their waiting room along nature and sports magazines. They played classical music, too, for their patients–was that going a bit too far, did anyone think?

Neal looked exasperated. “Do whatever you want, they’re captive–yours for an hour!”

“I still have my favorites from when I was a kid,” Rita said, rocking her tired and cranky son to sleep in the  kitchen.

Neal gave the boy a kiss on the forehead. “I don’t read poetry, didn’t as a kid, but give me a book of recipes, and I’m in heaven. ‘Ode to Mangoes’ or  ‘Salad Days of the Young and Hungry’ might get and keep my attention. I may well have to write a volume of food poems for our son– for a proper introduction to literature and food, a primer of good taste pairings.”

They all laughed and raised their glasses to him. Evangeline was heartened that this man had turned out to be smarter and kinder than she had imagined.

Van had listened without much commentary on the poetry topic, studying Evangeline as she spoke. He removed his hat now that he was anticipating a small cup of tea and a French macaroon. He ran his hands over his bare, freckled pate. Then he set the hat on a side table behind him, gave it a pat.

“And then there’s music,” he said.”Everyone loves music, there’s something for all, and it’s as essential as any other creative form. More so, it runs way deep into our most primitive being. What about your musical tastes, Evangeline? Shall I sing to encourage your response”

“Heavens, no! And I suspect story runs deeper still–it is entwined with song,” she demurred, “but alright, I suppose there may be some truth in it. There are certain sorts of music I like. But I don’t listen much. I like silence more often than not–unless I’m with superior company.”

Again they laughed, agreed, raised their glasses, and then more wine was poured. She had the vague sensation that she had come close to her limit, that three glasses was quite enough for a quite occasional drinker. She had become loquacious and far too open already. It was fortunate she had only to descend two floors to collapse into bed after farewells. Yet her own hand-blown, sapphire-colored glass was held aloft, too. She liked that they used such glasses, not the fancy cut-crystal goblets she had noted in a rustic china cabinet. They had a unique way of doing things, dear Rita and that Neal, and somehow their gracious dinner had become a portal into a more fortuitous future. A happier passage that had space and time for her aging as well as their eager youth.

“And that would be what music choices?” Van pressed. He sipped from his sea green glass with a careful pleasure, as if it was the elixir of the wise. His eyes telegraphed his new lady friend–was she going to be that? was he really getting that old, too? or was he just drunk?–a firm encouragement for her to continue.

Evangeline raised her shoulders, then squared them above her considerable chest. But everyone took notice of her beautiful hair in the candlelight. She pursed her lips. Once full-mouthed, a feature men’s eyes used to linger over, her lips were now visible only due to a ghostly outline of a raspberry lipstick she had slicked on hours ago. It had been fun yet she didn’t want to speak of music. But it seemed to want to be spoken of since she had intuited in Van a person who might understand some things, without too much fuss. She could be wrong, though.

“Well, I used to like, no adore might be the better word,  my husband’s music. He was.. a musician, you see, played bossa nova in a band from South America. We took risks, were crazy in love as they say. His band was called –you likely haven’t heard of it–Laguna Azul, translation being Blue Lagoon. He was a–”

“Laguna Azul? Are you kidding me? You mean with band leader Eladio Barella? Then there was Fredric Gavion on sweet guitar, and Carter Templeton, the great vibraphonist! He was in that Brazilian band?”

Her heart dropped as if it had been on their faulty elevator. It hadn’t occurred to her that Van might know of them, it was twenty years now. A lifetime. But there it was, her past brought up in Technicolor, as if it all took place last week.

“Yes, Carter. That was my husband. For thirty years. We loved to dance, you see, tango, samba and the bossa nova, all that. I met him in a club on a random side street while on vacation. It was Rio and I was only 21. I traveled courtesy of my wealthy, tres chic aunt who chaperoned me, in her way. Carter was older. I heard him play and then there was a second band and for some reason I got up and marched right to him and said brazenly, ‘That was the most perfect music I have ever heard’ and he asked me to dance. That was it. We got married six months later on a ship headed to Greece. The honeymoon lasted for years…”

“Evangeline, that’s awesome!” Rita said, sitting on Neal’s lap, her arms wrapped about him. Even Mike and Ellie were sitting hand in hand while Fran looked on from the kitchen after putting Riley to bed. She sighed loudly, filled her glass, threw back the wine.

“Carter Templeton, that is amazing,” Van breathed. “I can’t wait to hear the stories you have about him.”

And then it all hit her, the spices and herbs and wine, the strange and voluminous openness she was offering  to all. The truth of what had happened to her all that time ago. The anniversary of his death was tonight. Her eyelids lowered until she could just see a soft luminescence from the candles’ light; her voice lowered.

“He’s dead. You know that, surely, Van. It happened this very date. He went down, down, down into the sea in a chartered plane, an accident while on tour…the whole band and pilots drowned in the Caribbean. Terrible–and their band’s name, and then that…” She slid a glance toward him. His sudden unease was as sad as her own. “We had divorced two months earlier. And then he had to die, can you imagine?”

The room emptied of movement, of talk and a silence came that was so deep, a sensation so dizzying, Evangeline thought she had perhaps fallen asleep, was leaving that convivial room, leaving the earth  or she had been dreaming, and it was a dream she wanted to wake up from and then forget once and for all. Carter’s being there, and their taking leave of one another after too much time apart and distance and then came misplaced longings with terrible errors made. His dying as if to further spite her, to avoid what he might have had to face, their love tossed aside, as did she. But it was Evangeline who had carried the wonder and burden of his musical legacy, along with memories of their happiness finally ruined by a failure to start anew.

She fell forward, then sideways, that soft, lined face meeting up with metal. A thud with cries that shook the room.

******

Evangeline sat on the hill at the park, Riley slumbering beside her. He had just turned ten months old. It was late afternoon, and soon she would take him back to his mother–and his father. They were already packing, would be heading to Seattle to further Neal’s career as a rising chef. It would be hard to say farewell. Always there were farewells to be made, more than ever this decade, she imagined. But they had told Evangeline that she could visit any time. She’d have a spot even if it meant sharing it with Riley at first. That thought was a pleasant one.

The heron was perched on top of a tree that was dead. He often was there. From that vantage point he could see things coming. She thought that was not so desirable when all was said and done.

The whistling came to her on the breeze. She recognized the song–“Stairway to the Stars”–and when Van plopped down beside her she didn’t turn to look at him but continued to watch the heron.

“I brought lunch. Did you bring the wine? ” He handed her a container of noodles and chopsticks.

“Ha! You know better than that. I brought carrot cake slices. Baked it yesterday.”

“It’ll still be tasty.” He looked her over. “You look good in red. And your nose looks fine again. It took awhile, huh?”

“Well, that night was a shock to all my systems. A broken nose was the least of it, I had hidden our lives–his fame and tragedy– so long after he passed. Now stay tuned for part three.”

“All of us felt it. Thank goodness you hit my wheelchair and my knees before you broke anything more.”

Evangeline’s laugh made her jiggle and she dropped noodles on her lap. “Yes, you sort of saved me. And I never thought I’d even talk to another musician.”

“Never thought I’d be hanging out with an older woman. Sharing some tunes and stories.”

He touched her arm lightly and she turned her head and smiled at him. They ate noodles and watched the heron until he slipped off the branch, swooped down, around and then floated on an updraft into brighter sky.