Sal and the Phases of Sanity



Sometimes Sal didn’t know whether she was losing her mind or imagining it, but they both held weight enough to make the insides of her eyelids feel prickly, almost unbearable after looking at reality too long.

Well, it was the heat, she thought, which was bad already. Or maybe those brown speckled eggs delivered by Horace Tate to her mother every other morning. He had enough regret to poison anything, her mother said and all because he was jealous Sal’s dad married her first. Ma had a passion for those eggs in ten different ways; she cooked more egg-based meals than anyone else. Sal ate them out of duty but her dad with relish; it must have galled Horace to know it. She thought she knew what the man felt, because she was run by something unreasonable, too. If only she could figure it out.

Her different take on things might be due to the fact that she was born too early and her twin brother didn’t follow along, not of his own volition. Sal did feel something was remiss despite not knowing him beyond the dark waters of the cramped womb. But she rarely thought of him; she didn’t actually know him. It was her mother who sometimes blamed him, and even her, for Sal’s dreamy, ponderous views.

“Maybe he was crowding you out, poor thing. Or maybe if you had taken more time, you might have finished up in there better. There might have been a son, and a friend for you. But what it is, just is.”

“I don’t see how that’s any comfort, Ma. Or nice to say about us.”

“It’s not meant to be. It’s a possible explanation of your ways. Either that or you only got your father’s blood, which means it’s about hopeless.”

She laughed and gave Sal a swat with the tea towel as if this was a joke between them. Dad was a mechanic but also writer with only three poems in print so far, one in Poet’s Corner of the newspaper and one used for Lane’s Chapel and Mortuary ad. That one was more like a jingle, he admitted. The third, though, was accepted by a small literary journal and he displayed it atop the fireplace mantle. Sal didn’t know if she was proud enough of him but she liked his poem. And he liked her attempts.

Sal had read that losing one’s everyday, normal mind could be stimulated by a sudden turn of events. A shock could do it. Her friend, Marly, had told her that even a sudden shift of wind or barometric pressure could change brain function. In that case the mind might go off its usual rhythms but then get back in line, she’d added, by better weather. Sal scoffed at such a thought but who knew for sure?

This morning, like most, she had sat through classes like a puppet of her better working mind, doing what she needed to do, saying what made enough sense that teachers always called on her first. She had smiled her best which made two boys spin around and chat with her, one even saying she was too dazzling for daylight. Well, in different words, per Marly: “your sunny hair blinds me.” Sal thought him an idiot even though Marly assured her he was quite popular.

“Well, there you go,” Sal affirmed. “Idiocy, part and parcel.”

“You need to wake up.”

“Half-asleep is better. It’s a bit like a dream state and therefore easier to abide high school.”

“Creative types all go bonkers eventually–watch out.”

“Let me be full-on nuts, then. It’s preferred to full consciousness in this slight town.”

“‘Slight town’! Honestly, Sal! Where do you get this stuff?”

But Marly was right, her flights of fancy were getting out of hand. Like the time she was walking along the edge of the road and imagined she could leap over all the cars and land unscathed on the other side. Or the time she was swinging on the river rope swing and started to climb to the top of it, then onto the huge oak branches. Marly and a couple of passing guys yelled up at her.

“Hey! What are you doing? That’s too high!”

“I want to see all the way to heaven or the Arctic Circle, whichever comes into view first.”

“If you fall, you’ll see something a lot worse–please come down!”

Sal considered staying there–she liked the speculation that she might reach the ends of the world–until they left, then heard Marly’s voice shift into hysteria. She slid down on the rope, swung away from the trunk and jumped off. She was, at least, ahtletic.

More than once in the middle of the night she’d awakened sticky with sweat, the darkness claustrophobic, the night rattling about her room and making their outbuildings and trees and fields disappear under its sweeping force. She was sure she heard something or someone howling or moaning. She felt so alone.

It might have something to do with the number of losses in the past couple of years: four. Her aunt from asthma, her neighbor Jill in a car accident, her drama teacher, Mr. Johns, from cancer. And Millie, her beautiful tawny cat, a coyote’s prey. It was the easiest answer. Too much dying, not enough creation happening.

Sorrow could make people crazy enough so you’d want to step around them on tiptoe. She had seen that with Uncle Lonnie when Aunt Char died. He mowed his yard twice, then proceeded to mow everyone’s, like it or not, the riding lawn mower whacking off flower blossoms and chewing up weeds and fallen branches, spitting out stones and dirt clods out, a terrorizing, regurgitating beast. Her dad had suggested he work on farm fields, that could be beneficial to all. No luck. It went on like that for two days, a couple of neighbors yelling at him, one threatening to call the police, an old widow offering food as if that could halt his grief-fueled madness. Everyone watched him and felt more sad.

Then he just stopped mowing and also talking to people. Just Rusty, his one-eared dog. Good thing for that dog, he said later when he came back to himself six months later, or he might have stayed right on that mower, never come back. And Sal understood what he meant.

Another answer came as Sal was walking alongside the river one spring afternoon, distracted by dragonflies dancing their airborne tango, bees swiping her head before zooming into flowers. It was as if someone shouted it: maybe you was just growing up. The thought attacked her like a nettle’s sting. She sat on the hill above the riverbank in new skirt and white flats, and put her head in her hands.

This was not considered before for good reasons. She had long ago planned on keeping intelligent, determined thoughts at the forefront of her brain, staying aligned enough with ninety-five percent of the world. Staying happy. She did not intend on being swept up in emotions she didn’t understand. They got people in tough spots from what she had seen. A measured five percent of unhappiness she would commit to such things as mean snakes, bullying kids at school, tornado weather, her mother’s terrible goulash and worse Eggs Benedict, bad headaches when she wanted to keep reading or writing, and her parents’ infrequent but loud, pointless arguments which could only be worse if they got swords out. And unexpected deaths. Things she could not control no matter what. There were lesser misfortunes and some worse even then death, she suspected, but in general, these were the things that had bothered her before she turned fifteen.

Now everything bothered her. It seemed like there was something new each day. Her English teacher had a slight lisp that took center stage it was so irritating. Their house needed a new paint job and she suddenly felt embarrassed by its blistered, peeling bits. Marly said things that were obvious and irrelevant and sometimes Sal had the overwhelming urge to walk away, just leave her behind. And her hair, the sunny hair that boy liked so much, was about to be cut off, as its waves snarled and its color seemed frivolous, and who wanted to wear a long, sweaty ponytail all summer?

The world, though, was the worst, the rotten state of affairs everywhere, the news that brought it down on her like a load of twisted junk. Sal tried to not worry about all the kids being hurt, the countries battling drought, wars and environmental hazards and…it was only adding to the daily loss of her mind.

Her peace of mind, at least. The sort that is a deep and steady comfort until you’re old enough to no longer escape such outside influences with a simple adventure novel or a British romantic movie. A fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie. Her father’s wink and flash of smile after her mother told her to wash the dishes for the third time when all Sal wanted was to sit on the porch with him and watch for Venus. Please, she now yelled inside her head, the stars and planets are all I can deal with right now!

She rubbed her itchy nose and sat up as a movement on the edge of bushes nearby snagged her attention. She leaned away from the tree and narrowed her eyes. If it was a snake, she was out of there. But a quick swish through the greenery revealed what looked like pale fur. A rabbit? A chipmunk or vole? She got on her hands and knees, then lowered her head to better glimpse the creature. A tip of a nose edged out. Sal flattened her length on the grass, peered across the expanse and tried to see under the bushes. The dark nose pulled back. She lay still, breathing slowed. Moments passed. She was about to get up and return home but sunshine radiated across her back and bare legs, a butterfly paused on her forearm.

A paw reached into the overgrown grassy space, then two. She got up on hands and knees. Then froze.

Coyote. The cat eater. Sal looked around frantically for a stick or rock to throw. It wasn’t as though she had never seen them before, they were common but noted in passing. Her grandfather had shot them a few times. She had never been this close.

“Get out of here!”

Coyote lowered his head, stared up at her with his legs set apart tensed, ready to spring into a run from or toward her. Did he really think this was his territory when the land had been in her family for three generations? Sal wanted to tackle and throttle it. Was this the one that took down Mildred when she was an innocent, chasing moths or rabbits along the treeline? Did Coyote think he could intrude on others’ lives, put an end to a life, one Sal had loved–all without consequence? It seemed so. Even the natural world could not be trusted to be fair. She knew this was foolish thinking; nature was the one reliable comforter she had found. Yet her distress made her blood rush, heart flutter.

Coyote stood opposite her, relaxing some, watching her tremble in the unfamiliar four-legged stance. She wondered if he knew she was a perplexed and aching girl who came to the river to ponder her destiny. How simple it must be to hunt and eat, sleep and mate, hunt and eat and sleep and have babies. Or was it? How could she know except by imagining?

There they were, eye-to-eye, face-to-face. She was bigger, but not that much, nor was she as fleet on the ground or as wily in the ways of sheer survival. If not prey, then what was she to him? Nothing?

His amber eyes held fast, gauging who she was, what she felt, and there was such clarity of focus she feared she might cry. It was scary to be found without armour, without being prepared. It was even more unnerving that Coyote was so confident. What was it like to know exactly what you were, the true intention of your life? To know who was prey and who was not? To have the keenest senses to discern when disaster was to strike or when all was safe? She was less afraid of him than amazed, undone by being held captive in the gaze of a feral creature. Handsome, lithe and capable. Dauntless and persevering. He had a life to manage, used instinct and skills to thrive. Coyote had a purpose within the scheme of all things. Even if it was staring down a teen-aged human being.

Sal felt Coyote reaching deep inside to take stock of her. Was she a strong girl? Could she defend herself if necessary? Was she brave and cunning, too? Was she quite smart enough to appreciate this moment suspended in time? To let things be as they were? Was she paying close attention to this world? Coyote identified her in those moments, then was satisfied as tail fell and ears righted. He turned his face from hers and trotted, then ran away.

He had come and gone–as easily as wind snaring green reeds in its thrall, then releasing them to the earth again. The air shone.

Sal collapsed on the hard ground and wept. The sun descended along the horizon and still she cried, her face melding with the rich, dampened earth, hands clutching bright grass, her arms and legs tattooed by tiny yellow wildflowers that grew beneath her. The breezes which found her sighed and fell away. Her hot tears warmed stones and softened twigs. Sal’s heart emptied itself. Everything listened. If she had had her twin he would have breathed and sobbed with her rather than let her grow up so alone. She knew that now.

From the underbrush Coyote watched her, sniffing the air. A thunderstorm was due sometime in the coming night. He knew the human would take cover before it was upon them. So would he, next to his little ones and mate. Just to be sure she moved on, he ran past her so that she looked up, wiped her eyes and stood, brushed off her skirt. She was sobered by the swiftness of so much change and the strangeness of living through it. Letting go what wanted and needed to be left and then going on. Sal looked around for Coyote but he was long gone. She was ready to go back home. Let her life unfold. It was what she had to do, be both dreamer and doer.



Verushka’s Friday Salon

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They never knew who would turn up next. Some Friday Salons would attract the upbeat, scintillating energy that only the fashionable women of Layton Quarter could bring, their mannequin-like men peering into the dimly lit rooms to locate others of their ilk, women linking arms and chattering as they showed their best sides. Eloise and Oz thought they wasted the lovely spaces of the house on the river but Verushka didn’t ask their opinions. It was her house; they just rented two of the four bedrooms. But at times they were enlightened by good minds and talents–Oz said distracted, albeit by decent entertainment. Eloise said it was like group therapy only better, as she got to study others while having a little fun with those they might not otherwise have met.

It had come down to Eloise’s Great-uncle on Fournier Street or the two rooms with shared bath fashioned out of Verushka’s generous attic space. While Elie, as she preferred to be called, was fond of her uncle and his drafty old Victorian, he was nearing eighty. She knew he wouldn’t have patience with their friends traipsing in and out, their burning midnight oil with music as they studied. It was only for a year while they finished grad school but a year could feel very long in the wrong place. When they saw the ad for Verushka’s place, they nabbed it.

Their home owner/landlord was several years older than they were. She had inherited the house and seemed responsible. She appeared to work little, however, to support her well-heeled lifestyle. It was offered up that she designed paper goods for various stationers, one on Forte Boulevard that was so exclusive Elie didn’t even look in the windows. The woman had to have talent. They sometimes caught sight of her as they passed her study. She would be hunched over the drawing table sketching, then gazing out the window before asking them what they needed, her head never turning in their direction. What they would have liked was to see what she drew but that was private; she always locked the door behind her as she left.

Verushka had told them she was named after a famous model in the sixties. Elie looked up the model in question. Their looks were quite different but the point was made. Verushka of the current time was quite tall, yes, and thin but her face was much softer, even dimpled when she smiled. Her cheekbones were enviable. Her black hair was cut short and her large eyes were framed by severe bangs. Elie wondered what it was like to have such a strong effect on others. Her own life had been mostly devoid of drama. She did not have unusual influence. Elie found herself trying to keep up her unobtrusive appearance a little better since moving there. She had almost turned into a mole, holing up to study all hours. Her thesis was all-consuming.

“I think you fuss too much at the mirror now that we’re living with a beauty,” Oz noted, “and it’s strange and unbecoming. For Verushka it makes sense.”

“Is she that beautiful to you? You sound like my mother scolding me, using that tone. You might revamp your own image: you slouch around in those baggy corduroys and a moth-eaten grey cashmere as if you were a poor little rich boy who doesn’t need to bother combing your hair.”

“That’s no different than it’s always been. It’s reflective of reality, El. And the ladies like it, present company excluded. You are so pure, an intellectual in the making.” He snickered as he bowed to her, knowing she despised such talk.

“You’re a bore, Ozzie, when you criticize others. Since when has it mattered to you? Just because you’re like a brother, don’t think you have the right to offer comments on everything I do. I suspect you’re infatuated with Verushka. Even though she is an older woman. Or because. Now that would make for a juicy little drama.”

He threw Elie a look that indicated she was speaking nonsense. “The only way I’d find her interesting is if she actually said something interesting. She’s not one to let her guard down. I find her presence can leave me chilly. I think she has people over just to warm up the place!”

“You find her fascinating like everyone. So many come to her get-togethers. Oh, I mean salons. Gads.”

“The use of the word ‘fascinating’ is not even reasonable. Or our standards differ. Think of things in context: We have some universities, yes, but we do not have a gaggle of gifted individuals like, say, in Chicago or New York.” He sighed and picked up The New York Times as if to emphasize the point. “I think she has longings to be something more than can happen here. That we have in common!”

“Who doesn’t, Ozzie? One more year…”

He couldn’t disagree with that so fell silent. He longed for New York stages but first he had to finish his dramatic arts degree or he’d not be backed by his father. Elie reclined on the window seat and stared out the bay window. It hadn’t stopped raining in days, and the gutters were awash in swirling leaves and two disposable coffee lids as the rivulet rushed downhill.

The attractive city subtly glittered before her but she thought how, in another year, she could leave it all behind. It wouldn’t be hard. Her Masters in Linguistics might garner her a decent job or it might not. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure she cared. She was getting sick of language all day and night. Part of it was living with Oz, her best friend and the one man she could bear to be around without longing to be a part of a couple. But there were times he talked too much, his words like confetti tossed into the air, light and frothy, a pretty mess that she preferred to avoid.

Elie wanted to travel after graduation, to, say, the outer reaches of Mongolia. Study their complex linguistics. Live among honest working people and learn what connected them to each other, how they tolerated and supported one another in such a harsh land, what was said and left unsaid that made things better. Here it all seemed rather hollow to her, all frills and no content.

The Friday Salon exemplified this. People came armed with intellects all shined up, their flashy words clattering about the rooms, drinks barely taking the edge off strained pauses while someone else tried to come up with a smarter insight or better-turned phrase. Elie attended because it was an unspoken expectation, as if it was part of their lease agreement. They had to be conversational if possible but at least present and accounted for–or perhaps Verushka would not allow them to stay. She couldn’t be certain.

“That’s ridiculous,” Oz said. “It’s a simple courtesy to include us.”

“No. Remember that time I didn’t attend? She came to my room to ask why I wasn’t down there with you. She seemed surprised I might have something else on my agenda. I had a paper due so she ‘excused’ me.” She shook her head.

“Well, she wants me to help keep conversation fresh, moving forward, and I don’t mind! You are…safe, ordinary. And I adore you–you soothe me, Elie darling.”

That was Oz, always thinking he was essential to the success of any gathering. But, then, he was, in a way. Easy on the eyes and comfortable to be around like a well-trained, congenial Labrador, he was a magnet for men and women alike as he regaled them with tales of worldwide travels (unlike Elie, who had just once crossed Illinois’ state line before coming here). How could anyone not like him? Whereas Elie had to work at the social game.

This Friday Salon was going to be more of the same, she thought grumpily as she tried to tame her frizzy, voluminous waves and applied pale lipstick. She would allot one hour, then excuse herself, perhaps with a headache. Which might be real by then.

They could hear the piano music as they descended two flights of stairs. Verushka played randomly, but her repertoire was confined to basic classical pieces she had learned in her youth. She played nicely but the hands on these keys were certainly not hers. Elie paused and closed her eyes. This was jazz, languid, full of changes that surprised. She hadn’t heard such music played here. Maybe nowhere–only on the radio. Verushka saw them and waved and Oz immediately went to her, kissed her cheek. They headed to the kitchen arm-in-arm. Elie sat on the bottom step and listened with ears and heart.

She imagined lying in a meadow on a hilltop, sunlight sliding over bare arms and legs, a breeze ruffling her hair, birds crisscrossing fragrant air. Every worry left and in their places were strands of music that wove a complicated web of glistening mystery. It cradled her, rocked her to and fro. This music spoke to her in a way that she recognized in her soul. It was different. Lively but tender, innovative, lush.

“Elie, are you alright? Need a drink?”

Elie’s eyes snapped open to find Verushka looking down at her, one eyebrow raised, a tiny smile playing on her vermillion lips.

“Are you faint or just tired out? Oz is mingling about. Of course. You do put up with a lot, I know, but he’s a good fellow, isn’t he.”

She looked over her shoulder and Elie followed her gaze. He was in the middle of a group, busy working the floor at that end of the room already. No one would wonder why he was an actor, hopeful of Broadway one day. Elie would tell him what Verushka said; that would please him.

“I’m just fine. I’m…quite taken with this music.”

“Oh! Well, dear, that’s Carter Mills. I happened to meet him at a dinner party last night. He was agreeable so I invited him. Quite the rising star, I hear.”

A couple came up to Verushka but she bent down–“If you want to meet him let me know…”–then drifted off with them.

The piano was on the far side of the large living room. A new, up-tempo song careened through the babbling and warm bodies and wedged itself in Elie’s mind as she moved closer. She could see only a chic brass lamp to the side of the pianist. A small crowd was gathered about, ice clinking in glasses as they sipped, voices raised to be heard above the piano, smoke curling around and then lingering above their heads. Elie cracked open two windows; it was getting hot with the blustering added to humidity from the rain. She didn’t want to push her way through, though a couple of acquaintances waved at her to come forward. Instead, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes once more.

A cool glass was pressed under her nose.

“Oz! I don’t need a drink. I’m listening.”

“As well you might; this is the new Bill Evans, or so I’m told. I know that name, of course, though I have a tin ear as you like to remind me. He does sound good. Take a sip, Elie, join the jolly fun, it’s Friday night!”

She gave him her polite “back off” look. Oz clinked his glass to hers and took off.

The wine was good but she wasn’t much of a drinker. Though her natural reticence was eased with a glass or two, she liked being conscious, fully present. Especially when it came to music. She set the goblet down on a window ledge and moved slowly through the group, smiled hello, greeted another linguistics student, turned back to hug her old roommate. Then she turned and stepped forward again.

And stopped in her tracks.

The pianist was shirtless and looked a bit disheveled, sweaty. It didn’t shock but startled her. The man’s eyes were closed and a cigarette dangled from his lips. He was wiry, on the thin side despite a muscled abdomen. A heavy necklace lay on his bare chest. On his shoulder Elie spotted a tatoo that said “Indio”. He leaned into the keyboard, fingers running over ivory and ebony as though they were an extension of his being, essential, beloved. His face was suffused with peace, inklings of joy. Perhaps longing or wonder moved across his appealing features. Elie wasn’t sure at first glance what his face told her except it belonged to this incredible music.

And it was then she knew who he was. The recognition sent a flush to her cheeks, tears to her eyes–struck her in such a way that she felt weakened and charged with power all at once.

It wasn’t possible. Was it? Two thousand miles away from Chicago and the old, grimy neighborhood? Lifetimes away from her youth. Yet here seemed to be the very boy she had fallen in love with at fourteen. He had the same dark features, the same intense set of jaw and shoulders as he played. He was just a somewhat worn, older version of himself. Only then his name was Charlie Millsinger. Elie watched him play and knew they had to be the same hands that had made a creaky upright sing on stage in eighth grade as she sat in a dank auditorium, wishing he knew she was there. It wasn’t long before he did. And then, even with their naiveté and differences, they told each other they were soul mates. They instantly understood each other. And what a gift for music ran through Charlie’s veins, even then. Elie wrote and he made music and they were happy for a long time.

Until Charlie moved to Syracuse, New York with his stern father and little sister after his mother suddenly died. They tried to stay in touch for a few months. He wasn’t much of a letter writer. Elie was not one to chase what seemed so beyond her reach. It hadn’t been destiny after all, she decided, but she hadn’t forgotten, either. Not by a long shot.

He opened his eyes as he brought the song to a cascading culmination. Elie felt it had to be Charlie, those were his deep brown eyes with a few crinkles at the edges, his expressive lips, his way of commanding the keys, his head inclined at a slight angle. But why was he Carter Mills now? Was this what he needed to do to leave behind his past, forge another path? Was he making music full-time, making it happen? It certainly sounded as if he had taken his talent and worked it and worked it until it did his bidding. She knew he was exceptional. Still.

Carter stubbed out the cigarette and lay his hands in his lap. Looked around. Elie lowered her head, started to back up as Carter stood, put on his rumpled shirt, left the piano. He circled the edge of the group, smiling as he looked around and shook hands. How tall he had gotten, how broad of shoulder and so confident! She hadn’t imagined he would be so much himself. Yet, much more. He had transformed from shy prodigy to someone who emanated a calm, magnetic energy. Elie felt foolish watching his every move. She found a chair in the corner and sat. If she had any courage at all she would go right up to him and speak his real name, remind him who she was. It could be so easy. Yet she waited, uncertain. What would they say now? She was not the girl she had been, either.

Before she could make a decision, he walked right by her with a beaded glass of ice water in hand, then placed it on a napkin on the piano. And began to play once more.

Elie got up from her chair and followed the music to him. She stood at the edge of the group that began to disperse, then stepped closer. She leaned against the piano and looked at him as his eyes closed and he put his body and soul into the song, let it carry him, them, to a place of circuitous delights. She began to sway with the rhythm, to hum along. And when he opened his eyes, they met hers.

Carter, her Charlie, kept right on playing but his gaze never left her face. She smiled at him and he smiled back with warmth. She watched his awareness awaken. The realization of who she was. Who they had been to one another. His hands stilled, then fell from the keys.

He stood up. “Eloise? Is it you? No…really?”

“Charlie, yes.”

He took her hands in his, then embraced her, saying her name again, an unrestrained cry enveloped his words. They felt exactly like they used to, perfect together, better than she had imagined it being. It was challenging to think of him as Carter as they exclaimed over the time and distances and now this meeting, but she was no longer little Eloise, either. They’d learn the changes, or they would not. Time would reveal more.

The crowd had quieted when he stopped playing and now they stood still, listening like a good audience to their exclamations. Verushka and Oz came up, baffled. Then Oz figured out it was all good so he began to clap. Verushka and others joined in, no one understanding what they were celebrating but raising their glasses, whistling, glad to be there on that rainy Friday night. To witness a romance illuminating the drear of winter.

“It’s the magic of my Friday Salon, you know. People get together all the time here. I’m thinking of renaming it Verushka’s Love Connection.” She glanced at Oz, then laughed. “Not really, of course. How dreadful!”

They started toward the kitchen in search of more finger foods. He liked helping her out.

“I think,” he said, wiping off the counter with a flourish, “we should call it a victory for our Elie. I’m stunned by her story. Who would have thought? I wondered if she’d find the right man and it turns out she just had to follow the music. Amazing–to find each other again. All because of your work and good intentions, you rare creature.”

Verushka put her arm around his waist in an uncharacteristic act of impulsivity, then leaned her head on his shoulder. She gave him the slightest squeeze, just enough that he knew he could squeeze back. They seemed to fit well, he thought, and said so. To her surprise, she had to quite agree.