Forget the rest, all hurtful things
and any false efforts, the energies
discharged when every look and
multiple words meant more or less
than what was needed or imagined,
and still the train of youth barreled
into midnights and mornings
when what mutely drew you was an
enthrallment, a peace planted and
blooming in the heart of chaos.
Which is here, now, and reverberates
up and down canyons and trees
with arms raised as you carry on
one heartbeat at a time, rocks sharp
though they give way and mossy places
still nestled, tender after all this time.
And the water flows, falls to earth
generous with riches, and long before you.
The wind carries secrets to all creatures
yes, and kindly, and always to you who are
made of starshine, angelica, pine sap and love,
brought into this slice of time, a drop of dew,
a tiger soul resonant with ancient life.
I’d lived on the same street as Gene’s barbershop for years and the one thing I knew for sure about Gene Wilsey was that he couldn’t much abide animals. He might be polite but that was customer service.
“They’re usually dirty and smelly, crave attention, spontaneously bite you and cost too much.” His lips turned down in distaste.
“But still, how can you not at least feel for animals a little? Like this creature. Give the guy a break.”
I’d bumped into Gene, arms full of groceries. He was shooing away a stray dog with his ever-present broom. The Labrador mix would have loved a treat and long drink of cool water.
“Not all animals, per se,” he said as the mutt slunk off. “I’m okay with cows, chickens and pigs and so on. I like horses better than pigs, but they all do what they’re supposed to do and they stay where they belong.”
He leaned on the broom handle as I clumsily unlocked the back door of my sedan. Gene knew I could use help and, typical for him, he’d likely keep leaning on the handle until I said something. I wasn’t going to ask. I set one bag on the roof and yanked the door open. Then I stashed the groceries, closed it, and leaned against the warm blue metal.
“We picked up Chigger yesterday from the vet. Has an eye infection.”
“Nice. Let me guess. Cat cost you a couple hundred bucks.”
I just smiled. “She’s a lot better and ready to take up her duties as mouser again. I look forward to her antics and purrs.”
“You should move from that building. Probably can’t because you spent your extra on the cat. That townhouse, fancy or not, seems to be a rodent magnet. Your real estate agent was a crook. You need me to come over and set up more traps?”
“Thanks, but now that Chigger’s home, things will settle back down.”
He swept some litter from the sidewalk into the street in front of my car, then stopped. “Okay, the offer is open. Anything you need, you know. How come the cat’s named Chigger, anyway?”
“Danny named her when he was little. Had something to do with her liking to stalk things in the empty lot grass and weeds, I forget. I’ll ask him sometime when I see him.”
The late afternoon sunlight glazed everything with a golden cast as it began its descent. Gene looked a little yellowish which made me worry, even if it was just the light. He had had skin cancer three years ago. Was he hanging out in the sunshine again? I could hear mom fussing at him, informing him of the right vitamins and minerals, that he should wear a wide-brimmed hat in all weather and heavy duty SPF. She had affection for him even though they had a history rife with arguing, too. Now she was in a nursing home, too early but too ill, and Gene was in his late sixties and still working.
“How’s Estella? I have to get up there this Sunday.”
“She’s complaining about the tomato juice, says it’s watery. I have to get her some V8. And she said her bed has a sag in it–that’s true, it does.”
“We need to get her something good–a chocolate muffin or a piece of that fancy lemon pie. Even if she just nibbles at it.”
He was done sweeping. The skinny black dog emerged from between a couple of cars and barked at Gene, then threw me a pitiful look as if he knew I’d be moved to do something for him. I checked my purse for cellophane-wrapped crackers I’d filched from a restaurant, but Gene swept the dog off his piece of sidewalk again. He barked back at the mutt and guffawed.
I got into my car, disconcerted. He waved me off ith a grin, then went into his barbershop.
I thought how Gene had visited my mother every single day as she was dogged by cancer and rallied with her when she got better. I had been eight when she first got ill, twenty-six years ago, but his presence had been a steady comfort in the evenings. There had never been anything formal about their relationship, no real indication they were a couple with a “C”. Mom was widowed when I was four and she remained a widow, while Gene had never married. Mary, mom’s oldest friend, called them “frenemies” since their arguing was as standard as their laughter. But I saw more.
I was about twelve. I had finished homework early and went downstairs for lemonade and a snack. I heard the creak of the porch swing and the low murmur of voices as I filled my glass and peeld apart slices of American cheese. It was late spring, and a breeze that swept through the screened door was laced with lilacs and something else, something with a tart edge that made my nose wrinkle up a bit. I went to the door and peered out.
Gene was sitting by my mom, his arm stretched out around her shoulders, hand hanging off the back of the swing. They were pointing at something in the yard, probably talking about her prized irises and he chortled, then leaned closer to her. She turned her head so that they were almost nose to nose. I held my breath. Bees were buzzing away around their feet. Traffic had stilled and nothing moved but the bees and that swing, a slow, easy movement as their feet pushed off and then lifted, pushed and lifted. Mom slowly turned her head back and looked across the lawn but Gene still focused on her, as if dazed. In a sudden shift, she looked as if she might put her head on his shoulder.
I felt everything tighten, my forehead wrinkle. That weird smell was cologne, men’s cologne, and Gene was tidier than usual, a nice blue shirt with tie and black pants, polished shoes. I wondered where he was going, why he had stopped by. I slurped the cold lemonade but it didn’t get all the way down. I coughed.
They turned my way just as I stepped back, then ran up to my room, lemonade spilling with each step, the cheese slices sliding off and sticking to the wall. When I got to my bedroom, I put everything on the floor and grabbed my pillow, my face squashed into it. I laughed and laughed but before I knew it I was sniffling with a few tears. I didn’t know why. I just felt scared and happy and uncomfortable all at once. Gene had been a neighbor (two blocks away) and a hair cutter when I was little, a handyman when we needed it. Definitely a good friend to my mom and like an uncle to me. But it didn’t make sense that he’d be sitting so close to her, arm around her back. Or maybe it did. I couldn’t get it straight in my head. It was like he belonged with us but apart, need to be there in a way that wasn’t quite as close as that.
Plus, they didn’t get along half the time. They had different politics, mom had said, as if that explained everything. Mary said he was “a Catholic plus too damned conservative” but mom shushed her. We were Methodists and mom voted independent, she’d said, and that was the end of any more questions. But they played canasta every weekend and he mowed the lawn sometimes, things like that. He took her to doctor apointments when he could. He was just around.
I still smelled the acrid but sweet cologne; it made me want to wash my face. If I pushed against the screen window in my room, I could see the edge of the porch so I took another peek.
Gene was in the yard and mom was walking him toward the little weathered gate in our fence. He reached for her hand and she let him take it. Then they laughed and it was dropped like a hot stone and he left. I saw him look back as he walked but mom was already on the porch, then I heard the screen door slam. I thought she might come up to talk to me but she didn’t. I got a towel and cleaned up the spills, took the cheese off the wall and carpet, and deposited it in the garbage in the kitchen. She was whistling, something she often did, and smiled at me, making me feel right and warm again. But she didn’t say a word about his cologne or anything else.
Later I learned from eavesdropping on Mary’s conversation with mom that he’d had a wedding to attend in a neighboring town, a second cousin’s. And he had asked mom to accompany him.
“There’s little more I can’t stand than going to an event, especially a wedding, where I know not one soul!”
“You would have known Gene, Estella. And it was a chance to dress up pretty.”
“That would have been a little odd, don’t you think, going like we were a couple?”
Mary raised her eyebrows at mom. “Well…”
“Well, nothing. Don’t start. I’m done with all that.”
I was on the couch reading. Right then my chest expanded with a huge intake of air, like there was more room inside again. But all afternoon I wondered what their talk had meant. Finally I decided it was grown up talk riddled with secrets I wouldn’t get even if they was spelled out. It did make me think of her differently, as if I saw she was a person beyond being a mother. Someone I didn’t know as well as I’d thought. Gene, too, which was almost more strange. Life went forward, mom got sick and better off many times, Gene was here and there.
After I’d chastised him about the dog that day I ruminated about his life. If he was lonely. If he had a good retirement saved. If his skin cancer was really gone and if he planned on working until he’d drop over. He loved his barber shop. Despite all the salons that had sprung up over the years, he’d seen barely a dip in revenue. The old men wouldn’t abandon him. They loved gabbing about sports and yard care, cars and women and grandkids. There were newer customers, though, even up and coming businessmen. The shop had a clubby air to it, a little dark with leather chairs, smokey. Coffee on tap, cold beers for later in the day. I had seen a few young women come and go but Gene’s spot meant old-fashioned shaves and haircuts. I had liked visiting him when I was young.
Since then I had become a lawyer, been married briefly and divorced and Danny was in college. I saw Gene maybe every month or so, usually running into him on my days off. Things were different between us, sure, but also the same, I thought. I hoped.
One Saturday morning I paused on the sidewalk, checking the To Do list on my phone. I stood across the street from the barbershop and was drawn to the sound of Gene’s boisterous laugh. I ran between cars stopped for a light, the stood still at the edge of the sidewalk. Gene was bent over, gingerly reaching out to a cat on a leash.
“That’s the way to do it, keep this pretty critter leashed!” he said. The owner smiled down at her orange tabby. “I was attacked by one, you know. Just a runt of a boy when I visited my aunt in Louisiana and her cat, who didn’t like anyone but her if even that, just up and jumped me when I was sleeping! Scared the crap out of me! Had scratch marks all over my face and shoulders. I was allergic, I guess, because those things itched and hurt, all at once. My aunt aorried I’d fgfet cat feveer but nothing more happened. I was just traumatized for life.”
The woman on the other end of the leash was looking impatient now rather than sympathetic. Who stopped a cat owner and told them he was traumatized by cats? She didn’t know Gene or she would have come back at him with something.
“Well, here’s my girl, what’re you up to?”
The cat led the woman away.
“Never thought I’d see you so near a cat.”
He gave me a hug. “Lots of things you haven’t seen and that isn’t even the most interesting, I’m sure. Come on in, have a beer and a chat.”
We entered the shop. There was a little boy waiting to get his hair cut, his father sitting with a magazine.
And that’s when I saw the stray dog lying on the floor, chewing on a toy. His coat shone.
Gene picked up a comb. “Ready for a fresh look, buddy?” he asked the boy, and the child hopped into the chair.
“Gene, you have the dog now. I mean, he’s really yours?”
“More like he got me by default. He wouldn’t leave me alone and no one else would bother with him.”
“Oh, I fed him a little then more and more. Beggar! But I had to. Rocky was so skinny and pathetic.” He ruffled the boy’s damp hair and the two grinned at each other in the mirror. “He cleaned up nice, though, right?
“Rocky. Like the old movie?”
The dog got up and came forward for a sniff of my hand.
“Yeah, it suits him, a survivor. We look out for each other. I’m getting old, can’t hurt to have more friends!”
I got a beer and watched Gene work with the boy, chatting about video games and comic books, Rocky wagging his tail at me until I petted him at great length. The dog was spoiled from all the attention. More customers arrived and joked with Gene, ruffed up Rocky’s handsome head. I finally stood up and tossed the half-empty beer can in the trash. Rocky grabbed it, started to lick it.
“Rocky, no.” Gene came to the dog and stood, hand on hips. Rocky looked at him from under a scruffy brow, teeth locked on the can. Gene stared hard at him, and he then released it and sat, panting lightly. “Good dog. No beers before eight o’clock.”
Everyone chortled as I slipped out.
Gene called after me.”Let’s go see Estella tomorrow, okay?”
I nodded in agreement. But when the tears prickled my eyelids I wasn’t ready for them. The bright blue-sky day, the hum of his barbershop, Gene’s new dog friend, Rocky–it felt golden and righteous good. It was a moment I’d keep with me, like when he and my mom swung on the porch swing during a good, healthy spell, when life for me was transparent and mysterious all at once. It still was. Here was Gene and his small kingdom, his surprising kindnesses, his gift for welcoming other underneath the gruffness. How could I forget?
I resolved to spend more time with him, invite him over for dinner, go for walks on days off, whatever he’d like to do, even fish. Not just for mom or him, but for me, the kid who was given love by a good man who was just always around, when I didn’t even yet know it was love. It was high time to let Gene Wilsey know I saw him but also wanted to know him better. I was a grown up now, had changed some. But he still mattered to me. He was such a humble and worthy man it shook me up to think I might have taken him for granted. I figured Rocky might feel a bit more loyal to him and I wasn’t going to let a dog–even a good street dog– outdo me. I had more to share with Gene, more to appreciate in him. I suspected he had been waiting for me to just remember.
Slim thought she frankly wasn’t fit for an ordinary world. Not that she put it that way, exactly; that would have been her mother’s paraphrase. She tended to like things most kids didn’t. At eight years old, for example, Slim wanted to be an illustrator of books for children or an elocutionist “because I love that word, it sounds like electrocute but peaceful and pretty”. It was one of her mother’s words; she spoke in public often. Slim kept a notebook about differences in people, observing their manners (she had been instructed to do this), the sorts of things they talked about and those wordy pauses between thoughts (“uh” or “um” meant there was no more coming, whereas “you know” or “you see” meant there was lots more), or, sometimes, their choice in clothing. Especially odd prints and bright colors. Slim liked to draw, and preferred exotic or messy over commonplace. More fun to sketch.
The house was set above the beach. It was large, she supposed, although it was so full of visitors beginning spring that it felt as though it shrank. There were rooms left over so why not fill them, her mother said, and her father raised his eyebrows as though he disapproved but he didn’t, much. He liked five course dinners and fishing on his boat and casting about for the right book of poems to share with them by the fireplace or on the veranda swing, glass of whiskey in hand. Slim liked the smart, heavy glass but found the smell revolting. She always exited after one poem, to the beach or the third floor which was essentially one long playroom for kids and adults alike. It made for a great sleepover room, but that only happened once or twice a year. Mother felt it excessive for Slim to be that involved with the town girls. Going to the school was well and good now but that would change.
Slim didn’t ever want to leave Brimley Cove, at least not on good days. The bad days could go on and on during winter and then she told her mother to take her away, off to the boarding school back east but she could say that because it wasn’t to happen for at least three years. The other times she felt sea salt and horsetail waves and sunsets that spread like a ribbon of colors along the rim of the world were signs of something more. Slim felt everything held signs and she tried to read them in the tides, the foamy lather left behind, upturned seashells, jellyfish innards, snakey plants. The seagulls cleaned up much of what she wanted to see. She wondered what she missed, what sign would point her in what direction.
“You’re possibly meant to be a fisherwoman,” her father said as they strolled down the beach one day. “Or a diviner of some sort.”
“What’s a diviner?”
“Someone who can read the future in ordinary things. Tea leaves are traditional but I don’t put any stock in that business. But romantic enough.”
“Tea leaves! Irish Breakfast and Oolong have something to say? I’ll have a look next time.”
He laughed and patted her shoulder.
“If you don’t believe it why say that to me?”
“Because you’re a dreamer, a flibberdigibbit, and an angel all thrown together. I think it’s your departed Gran’s blood. You will either soar to great heights or fall terribly hard, my dear Slim.”
She took off galloping. “I was born to fly!” She jumped about until her legs got all wet in the waves she saw too late, then walked into the water, clothes streaming wet.
“Keep your face to the sea and your eyes open!” Her father called out the reminder. “You are not yet a mermaid but a mortal!”
“But look what I just found!” She held up a sand dollar, no chips or cracks.
He gave her a thumbs up.
So, there were advantages to being in that place with those parents. She was happy often, but she knew that in school others thought her odd. They hated reading, doing math, making projects. She liked all that but especially art class (only weekly) and gym (twice a week), particularly when they climbed ropes or ran races. She was good enough in gym, to everyone’s surprise, and also art and they told her so sometimes. They ate lunch with her but said only the basic nice things, she noticed. And some rude things. She suspected it was because her family was from the city, had some money and had lived here only three years.
The twins, Herbie and his sister, Shelly, were her two good friends. They lived three houses down. Their parents were good friends of Slim’s. She thought Herbie and Shelly were interesting–they liked to make up plays with her–but bratty. She often had to stay as far away as possible from Shelly’s long, pink-glossed fingernails. Shelly had little fits, her mother said with a head shake and smile, trying to coax Slim’s sympathy. But Slim had left in a dead run more times than she had told her parents. She had to keep peace with the twins or she would be hopelessly alone, especially in summers.
Then one week before Slim’s ninth birthday, her parents threw a party. She thought it was for their anniversary which was also coming up.
“Not really. It’s more like a social, a good old fashioned social, but one that is also a welcome wagon of good will for our new neighbors.”
Her mother laughed and she lifted her lipstick away from her mouth so as not to spoil the curve of coral. She was getting ready at her dressing table and Slim was sitting on her bed, fingering the pretty spring dress that lay beside her. She had already dressed in cropped turqouise pants and a white blouse. She had added a string of multicolored sea glass beads that she had made.
“And old term, dear, when people brought a basket of useful items to new arrivals in a community.”
“Oh, like housewarming gifts?”
Her mother finished application of the lipstick and then ran a brush through her long golden waves and smiled at Slim in the mirror.
“Yes, like that, Felicity Thompson-Harrier.” Her eyes caught Slim’s in the reflection. “When are you going to put some weight on? You’re eating lunch at school, right?”
Slim screwed up her face and slipped off the bed. “Yes, but I like when you make my lunches. I would rather eat rabbitty lettuce and radishes than those greasy hamburgers like Herbie, who eats mine, too.”
She sidled up to her mother and the mirror and posed this way and that, seeing what everyone else saw. She was long on bony limbs and shallow of chest and even her face was narrow. It meant she could run faster, hide places others could not, make herself scarce. But her hair, like her mother’s, fell over her shoulders in luxurious folds when she brushed it well at night. It was worth a few good ounces.
“You look fine, Slim. My little elf. My girl.” She hugged her close. “Now, off. I have things to do and people to meet soon.”
Her mother’s touch radiated through her blouse, warming her skin. How she wished her mother was home more but she was famous now, a motivational speaker and author. Only her father was around, but just after long hours in his home office where he was not to be disturbed. He wrote about scientific things, but was trying his hand at a novel, he sheepishly admitted. Her mother had said two writers were more than one family deserved, then kissed the top of his balding head. Slim thought that over but she also felt proud.
It was at top of the stairway where she liked to wait as people brought laughter and the swish and shine of colorful clothes. In a few minutes she would help place trays of tiny sandwiches on the table and make sure there was fresh ice in the punch, not because she had to but because there was little else to do but listen and watch. She leaned her chin on the railing.
The door swung open and two people entered who appeared to be giants, with two tallish children in tow. Slim had never seen them before. Maybe these were the welcome wagon people. There was a boy much older, perhaps fourteen, who was on his phone the minute after he shook hands with her parents. The girl, though…more her age. Slim came down a few steps.
“Slim!” her mother called. “Come meet Desiree!”
With a name like that Slim expected the girl to be wearing a long sweeping skirt and a jeweled barette in her fussy hair but instead she wore grey leggings and a loose violet and white t-shirt with shiny rivets on the shoulders. Hair was chin-length, straight, brown.
She held out her hand as taught. “Slim.”
Desiree gave a crooked smiled, showing big teeth that gleamed in the peachy light of setting sun. “Des. Can we get out of here or do we have to make small talk around the hors d’oeuvres as usual?”
Slim and Des took off for the beach at a good pace, Des moving faster due to those long legs. They scavenged the litter a high tide had left and talked about living in a beach town, Slim giving her tips, Des adamant it was only for week-ends if her mother could help it but her dad was sold on a “simpler, slower lifestyle.”
“Adults get weird ideas, you know? They say something like it’s a fact. Like how much I am going to love it here blah blah.”
Slim walked over to an unbroken, perfectly round, white sand dollar. It shone a little in the amber of dusk. She picked it up and felt how it filled her hand, light with a little grit, then took Des’ hand and put it in her palm.
“That’s so beautiful,” Des said tracing the delicate flowery design, then searched Slim’s face. “Can I keep it?”
“Second one this week. It’s yours, a welcome gift. It’s destiny, I think. It waited for you. You will love it here–we’ll see to that.”
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson