Wednesday’s Fiction: Trial by Henry

Corbin never once felt a simple passing desire to have or even hold a cat. His aunt had had cats, numbering past a half-dozen, she didn’t really keep close track of them. He certainly didn’t bother. His visits were all about his cousins each summer. He enjoyed the boisterous company of two boys and one girl who lived the country life on a small farm. Corbin lived in a tidy cottage in a small city three hours away with his school teacher mother, and a month’s visit was an exotic vacation. He began to wait late winter for the thaw and then forsythia and crocus and finally the first intoxicating waves of late spring heat that heralded school’s imminent closing.

At Miller’s Farm there were three kids, a father who was his uncle– who actually talked to them straight up– and an industrious, sturdy mother, his aunt. He loved his aunt but he sometimes loathed the cats she adored. Mostly he was avoidant though tried to be neutral, which wasn’t so hard since they roamed outdoors and made themselves useful. But they were known to creep inside to wreak havoc now and again. Every now and then, though, he met up with one under sudden circumstances, as when he daydreamed in the hayloft. His body half-lift righted right off his cozy spot as the crazed animal jumped on him. The large black and white mouser swiped him on the nose, leaving it sore, oddly itchy and bloody for hours. That took a few days to heal and left a deep, small scar. had he resembled a mouse or bug as he’d enjoyed his rest? Did the cat lack the common sense required to avoid a boy’s enraged smack at its vanishing tail and behind? Corbin from then on was fully alert when he saw a whisker or a tail or heard the barest echo of a meow. He usually got at least three scratches a summer, anyway, and a nip or two at bare ankles. He washed and washed them. Aunt Lou covered them with snug bandages as he was convinced he’d die or go delirious from cat fever. She only shrugged and patted his back.

“You’d run if you even saw a cat shadow,” Marty teased, holding one of the creatures out to him.

Marty was heading toward burly at twelve; Corbin ran sometimes from him. But the cat scrambled out of his cousin’s arms to seek whatever it was he sought.

“Naw, not true, I just avoid their claws and teeth, which means keeping my distance.”

“I bet when kittens come again you won’t even want to pet one, you never do, not even the fluffy sweet ones,” Fran sniffed as she passed by.

Ott laughed, gave him a raised eyebrow. “Cat hater, huh?”

“They don’t like me!” It was as if he was committing a crime to not like–much less adore–felines. “I like your pigs fine. I like the chickens, mostly, and Clarence the horse–and goats the best. Lots of stuff.”

“Goat Man!” Marty shouted and grabbed his arm to give it a shake, which was a good sign as they were all headed to a field and he was never left behind. Corbin was a good pitcher.  They played ball awhile and climbed trees and the topic was forgotten for the time being.

But when the next batch of kittens did come, Aunt Lou tried and tried to get him to cuddle a tabby and gave up only when he shrank way back, stifling embarrassing tears. Later she apologized but shook her head at him, as if he harbored some strange streak in him. But he was her only nephew, her only sister’s son; he was a good one, she and her husband, Ronnie, agreed. Good for him to be out of that city.

But that was the thing he did not look forward to when he visited his relatives. Everything else was so different and fun it was hard to say farewell after July 4th. His mother came to spend the holiday, which included a delicious pig roast, more bonfires and a spectacle of fireworks for starters. After three days or so, they drove back home.

And the cats did not mar his memories, they were no longer an issue. He was satiated again, full of the warmth and simple happiness that a kind aunt and uncle offer, and the bond that is built when cousins sleep, giggle and freak out in small tents all night, gather eggs for sunrise breakfasts, see night decorated with a gazillion stars and trees loom and shimmer with firelight, and also when hunting squirrel and rabbit (not his favorite but still) and suffering a lick of skunk spray (they had unbelievably lived to tell of it–afterwards it was a small legend around those parts). The sizzling thunderstorms were something that resonated in his mind forever, too, taking over the landscape, the house vibrating with it differently. It all marked him in secret ways.

Out there spectacular forces reigned. The cats were a footnote. Growing up changed some things. But not the essence.

******

“Fran, you’re really doing it!” He held the phone between cheek and jowl as he finished wiping down the counter top after dinner.

“I am, it’s taken me four years to save enough for this trip and to take the time off. Two weeks of heaven along the Seine and exploring Parisian haunts and wonders I’ve read about so long.” She sighed with delight. “But I’ve an issue I need you to help me resolve.”

“Ah.” He often got these calls from people, mostly family, sometimes friends. It was as if he was their helpmate in a pinch–being single, childless, pet-less and living a quiet life teaching at the university. As if he had not only spare answers but spare time or cash or whatever else was needed. “I can’t water your plants from this far but I would take you to the airport, I guess. Depending on day and time.”

Silence. He could hearing an intake of a long breath, and a brittle tapping as her long fingernails got restless atop the coffee table. Fran had grown up to be a successful business owner, cupcakes and specialty cakes, and he often wondered how long it took to get frosting from beneath those pretty nails. But that was Frannie, full of contradictions he always liked. She lived an hour away but they got together every two or three months and there were the calls.

“Out with it,” he said, rinsing the sponge, tossing it into its holder.

“Okay, then, take Henry for me.”

His laughter was fast and rich. Of course she was kidding. “Okay, what do you actually want?”

Silence again. He imagined her frowning, eyes narrowed. “Take Henry. That’s it and please don’t reject the idea out of hand. He is not one of those bad cats, you know he is a prince, and you and he get along. Overall.”

“Henry– here? You have to be joking, Frannie. I would no more have a cat here than I would–well, invite a crocodile in! You know I distrust cats, I do not have the nature to sympathize with their ways, nor inclination to change my view. I can bear them now, but only just. I–“

“Yes, yes, Corbin, I know they scared and aggravated you as a kid. You’re now an adult, and I’m your cousin and I have a critical need. Corbin, this one time! Mom would rather not as her gout is really acting up and Dad, also not great, said he’d just turn him into the fields to fend for himself–“

“Henry can make his way out there fine.”

“No, he’s an indoor cat only, you know this.”

“Fran, I have enough going on with my classes and I am dating a little and I still wear a blasted two-inch scar on my forearm after all these years.”

“But not your nose or chin or ankles. I am asking you because I can’t really spend extra money or incur the risk of germs at a pricey cat hotel, and I really have run out of options. No one else is able to help me. I leave in three weeks. Paris, Corbin.”

He knew there was no way out of this one. He truly wanted her to go on her trip, she deserved this beautiful vacation. But what did he do to deserve Henry? How could a cat-loather welcome a cat? She was foolish to imagine he could do this.

He felt the heat of her desperation, too.

“Alright, I’ll give in this once for the sake of family– but you owe me, big time.”

She screeched, they made arrangements, said goodbye.

Corbin stared out the window, hands in pants pockets, full of regret. The cat was not his family. Why couldn’t she take ole Henry to Paris? Henri might have found love, just stayed on and on.

******

Henry was becoming gargantuan at just nine months–even as he sat (in that detached way of his sort) snug in a corner of the sun room. This Corbin had forgotten, the weight and bulk of him. And he looked similar at a glance to another type of cat, with ginger-colored tail about nearly a foot long, a torso lengthening to a couple of feet, and that Sphinx-like head perched atop bright chest of white. His back was mottled white and ginger, his paws mostly white and huge. Corbin thought those paws could climb mountains, and held an image of him stalking all that passed within ten miles of nose and ears. It was wild, that’s why; it had to be. Frannie admitted it had been feral the first weeks of life, than climbed under her car and camped out, even took a ride underneath the frame once to her horror. And that all made him hers.

She had worked to socialize him and had been moderately successful, she said. Henry no longer felt compelled to attack in a savage manner as it had the first four months. Corbin had met the beast a few times, greeted it with a wave that betrayed a flicker of trepidation–he didn’t turn his back on him. In response, the fledgling cat had regarded him with snobby disdain, barely sliding against an ankle their last short visit; Corbin had been prepared, so didn’t jump. But he only dared let his open hand run over his sleek back as he went out the door. Fran told him this give and take indicated they had acknowledged and even welcomed each other and so all was well.

Well, she was the amateur cat whisperer while he was a bystander with self-interest as primary.

Henry turned away from Corbin’s stare. Instead, he watched a fly buzz at the window, suddenly leaping three feet high to deftly smash it with a paw. Then he watched it writhe on the wood floor before batting it about and giving it a cursory sniff.

Corbin grimaced and left the room. Time to make his own dinner. The cat might get his can opened in a while but he must not disturb the brazen hunter.

******

It was 5:45 in the morning and there was an annoying scratching at his bedroom door. Not that cat already. His “Intro to Medieval Life” class didn’t begin until ten. He’d been up late reading Owen Sheers and his head felt clogged with cotton after barely four hours out in. He turned over and pulled a pillow atop his head. A thump commenced at the door, one-two-three thumps. What was he doing, throwing his body against the door? For what? Pancakes and sausage? That was what Corbin liked on Thursdays, it was a happy habit. He turned over again, threw the pillow at the door where it slid down into a yielding heap.

“Not yet!”

He watched as a big cat paw reached out and snagged the edge of the pillowcase, pulled it closer through the crack. Not that the pillow could squeeze under there but the sheer gall of that! The case would be sliced by those killer claws. He got up, composed a fierce face, opened the door fast and Henry ran downstairs. He smiled to himself , returned to bed.

At 7:00 the thumping  commenced once more. He stifled an urge to yell. No sense giving in to an animal that was no taller than his shins. It was only a cat, hungry is all. He threw on his sweat pants and descended the stairs.

Henry sat on the dining table, tail swinging off the edge, and the thought of cat germs was too disheartening. He grabbed a bright pink emergency spray bottle and lightly squirted the leonine body with cool water. Though Corbin backed up in anticipation of a frontal attack, it worked. Henry leapt like an acrobat, up, up and out and landing on his feet, then sprawled in repose, looking at his host without blinking. Corbin started on the pancake mix, heated up a small skillet for sausage and brewed coffee and smiled. Sunshine poured through the window above the sink and the cat was lying on the floor by the door. Score a first point. Maybe he would let him out later into the back yard. Just for a feline look-see, a taste of the real world.

 

One third of a sausage was added to cat food. A tasty bribe worked wonders with creatures. Henry liked it so got a tiny bit of pancake which he ignored.

Corbin left for class early. Best to let cats inhabit their cat solitude. He had the relief of people awhile.

******

“Corbin? How’s my Henry?”

“He’s asleep by the fireplace though there is no fire. It is nearly spring.”

“He’s probably bored. Do you talk to him? Is he acting depressed?”

“Good grief no, he is fine, he’s napping. How is Paris?”

“Divine!”

Henry yawned, stood, sidled over to him and the phone. Corbin did not offer him a chance to hear his owner or to speak, so he appeared to eavesdrop. The cousins chatted a few more moments. Before she could tell him to give Henry a hug, Corbin hung up with a cheery goodbye.

“Your mistress misses you. Now go lay back down, tiger.” It half-scared him to hear himself talk to a cat. He tightened his lips into a line line and got busy doing chores.

Henry tilted his head; his ears twitched before he briefly leaned against the human leg, then streaked across rooms, hunting something Corbin could not identify as anything at all.

******

Henry was missing. This occurred to Corbin around bedtime. It had been three hours since he was last seen. Did the cat sneak out when he took out the garbage? Cats cry out when they want to be let in, don’t they? Like dogs. Let him hunt insects–he seemed good at that–and root around for grubs and such. He continued to read students’ papers, engrossed for once. At 11:00 he headed for bed,  remembered the cat. Shrugged. He sank onto the mattress, turned on the reading lamp, reached for his pillow to fluff. And got sliced by a swift sharp knife.

He held the left hand with the right, close to his chest, blood streaming. Henry lay back and groomed himself. The blood was more a very fine trickle, but the small gash was open and red as he raced to the bathroom to get a clear look. He swabbed it with alcohol and found an old Band-aid, all the while cursing softly at the mad animal who had usurped his pillow, And supported his belief that he and cats were essentially enemies. As before-not capable of being friends.

Despite his cooling anger, he had a quiet talk with Henry.

“You cannot sleep here. It is my sanctuary, not yours. I own this house, you are a guest. Not even a paying guest. And you cannot scratch me. If you must be here, you absolutely must get way, way over there. Or on the floor, yes. I prefer you to get out but don’t want more violent confrontations.”

He picked up the cat with both hands–he was so heavy it felt an effort– and clumsily tossed him on the other side of the bed before another wound was incurred. Henry gave a protest, jumped off the bed and padded to the armchair which he occupied instantly but not for long. He looked about, found no more victims, and slipped out the door. Corbin got up to shut the door tight, leaning against it.

“Little monster!” he said to the darkness.

The light was turned off. He did not sleep a long time; even his face covered with quilt, just in case. He dreamed of hot dirt and hay, of cats’ tails like shadowy snakes on walls and mice scampering for their lives, his feet following them.

******

In the morning, they greeted each other with the barest nod. Henry’s was more a twitch of whiskers as food was offered. Corbin dashed off to class and was glad of it. Only for Fran. Never again.

******

On Sunday they sat outside as it had begun to feel like spring. Corbin held a tall glass of iced tea despite a chill and hint of rain on the breeze. But nature was fast transforming, clusters of daffodils a bloom, two robins zipping about with songs to spread. He had a world history magazine on his lap, unread.

Henry was  dazzled by all that lawn; he chased whatever had wings or tiny legs, chewed on grass and flowers and gagged a bit. He scampered about the edges of grass as if he was playing tag with another of his kind. For an hour he ran about and showed off that lean long body and shiny fur, then cleaned himself thoroughly, more like preened. He had to be fixed, didn’t he? He drowsed under the oak tree.

All this Corbin viewed behind sunglasses. He was delighted to wear his favorite warm weather attire, sip chilled tea and he wished he’d invited Cecelia over. But not with that cat here. At least not unless he behaved better.

Henry scampered up a tree in search of feathers but no luck, the bird had other plans, flew off. He navigated a half-slide down.

Corbin shook his head. What a predator, an alpha cat. He drank to the beast– but ho hum, what a lazy day.

******

Corbin was sick. Not a hangover, not the flu, sick with something big enough to make him want to lie down and die for two days. Might have been the lettuce, where did that come from? Did the FDA forget to test that field? Farmers, he thought, ought to be paid more but be more careful. What would Uncle think? Or was it a common student plague? He hung his head over the toilet bowl.

Henry lay on the bed, dozing. He was getting hungry. He was also waiting for Corbin to come back around, things to be normal. He got up, sauntered to the bathroom, lay flat upon the cool tile floor and watched, listened, waited. He returned to that spot after running downstairs to get water from his bowl and lay his head on two paws until Corbin glanced over at him.

They stayed put awhile.

******

Time passed and they were both in bed, Corbin with his arm flung over his eyes, Henry with his body curled up on the pillow next to Corbin’s. They slept–Henry took breaks elsewhere–and said nothing for another 24 hours.

Finally he resumed teaching. The cat sat in his beautiful way on a window ledge and saw the man leave, and liked everything else after that; it entertained him an hour or so.

******

“Corbin, I am on my way to the airport, darn it. Mom isn’t handling things well since Dad’s bleeding ulcer sent him to hospital so I’ve cut two days off. Home tomorrow. My brothers are so far away!… isn’t Paris far enough? We’ll get some dinner when you collect me at the airport. How is that Henry?”

“He’s fine. Sorry you have to return now, and to hear about more health issues. I need to see them more. I’ll be at the arrivals curb.”

She gave him details and he hung up. 

He felt a slight spring in his step as he prepared a dinner serving for Henry. Soon: once more alone. Then he ate his turkey burger and salad, even offered a bite of meat to the cat, but Henry was so picky. They finished, cleaned up and the less-wild feline sat calmly until Corbin took a seat in the sun room to sip a coffee. Corbin reached to pat the furry head and Henry began to purr very softly as he trotted along, tail swishing.

Corbin whistled quietly, a thing he enjoyed. The cat kept sliding a glance at him. It occurred to Corbin that he might like to sing, too, but was too circumspect to do that. He soon was distracted by a tidy line of ants that made their way across the white painted wood floor. 

******

“Henry, this is it, you’re now going back to where you belong.”

They were in the dining room where Corbin had paid a few bills and Henry had chased a fly until it gave up and then ate the whole thing. At least Corbin thought so– he looked away at the last moment.

Henry meowed a little, something he did at times if Corbin spoke, more often if he was hungry, wanted to be outside, or was bored or heard a weird noise or for no discernible reason. He raced to Corbin and,with an elegant slice through air, landed in his lap. Corbin’s arms flew out and he leaned back so that their weight was just balanced on two legs of the old oak chair. The cat rubbed his head on his chest and forearms, purring.

The other chair legs it the floor with a thud. “My gosh, stop leaving fur on me, not dignified behavior,” he said, arms still hovering, hands flapping.

But Henry settled on his lap. They paused like that until Corbin picked up the silky body and held him close just a second. Released him. No damage done but this was the end of it.

“Okay, let’s get that Frannie.”

******

Breathless and waving, she rushed to her cousin’s sports car, face rimmed with weariness and wide with happiness. She looked livelier than ever despite the long flight. He got the luggage. She grabbed Henry’s cage from her seat and sat with it on her lap.

“Hi, you two! How is my Henry? I so missed you–you would have loved Paris!”

“Take him next time. He was pining away, bored, irritating and needy. Back to the cupcake shop with you both! But we got by.”

She laughed in relief and murmured to her cat.

He looked over at Henry who gave him a good stare with a slow blink. Corbin slipped the car into first and took off with immediate speed. Henry gave a sharp meow then purred as he ran his rough tongue over Fran’s pearly fingernails.

Garage Living

As Clark opened the double doors to air things out, in rushed a gust of damp, dead leaf odor. He couldn’t win. He thought if he got busy with something his newly inflated misery would be deflated some. It had been six months since they had moved to this broad street with friendly looking houses but now all he could ever see was the rain. It had let up some in the last hour but it was still ever-present and irksome, like the projects he never got around to finishing. Like fixing the second-hand cabinet Mina wanted in their master bathroom. The door needed new hinges and a fresh coat of ivory paint–Milkweed White, she called it. Nothing taxing, so this chore was his goal for the day. But how can you be successful in such dampness? It’d take days to dry.

He reached a hand to the top of a door and stood there, the other in his left worn khaki pocket; a corner of his upper lip betrayed mild disgust. Anyone passing might think he was a well-bred fellow, a man who knew how to take charge–he was taller than many, for one thing, and moved or stood still as if he meant it–a man who had a decent job and was just taking a day off because he’d earned it and why not?

Instead, he was a man without a job, having been let go before they moved. They sold their house in California as soon as Mina got a far better job in Oregon. Life was supposed to be cheaper, more relaxed here, but he wasn’t so sure. The expectation, of course, was that he would get employment as soon as possible. But the insurance industry market seemed different here, though he frankly didn’t care about that line of work much. Yet he definitely was a resistant handyman/house husband. Mina went off to work as Nurse Midwife each morning, nearly whistling. But that was not different from before.

“Where is the stupid damned Phillips screwdriver?” He rifled through things on his creaky workbench; it was hiding under the previous owner’s old washer warranty and a handful of bent nails. He tossed it all into the wastebasket.

Clark could hear Mina tsk tsk over his language as he unscrewed four rusting hinges, cleaned the wood beneath them, then loaded the paintbrush from a newly opened can. She was quite proper in her speaking while he was tried to recall mannerly rules. But, then, they were so different in every way, it was a wonder that they had made it fifteen years.

Mina grew tired of the sunny palette of California while he had found himself utterly adapted after a month. She liked more variety while he liked the constancy so it followed that for him routine was appreciated and for her, spontaneity was enjoyed. Clark liked essential orderliness and she liked a little mess in every room “to make the scene more interesting.” People were not his thing, other than for the sake of business but give Mina a chance to greet a stranger and she would have them gabbing up a storm with her in no time.

They had one main thing in common: they loved each other. So they tolerated things, supported each other, had plenty of laughs, survived the spats trying to figure out how to manage life together. It just worked.

Until he lost his job, they moved and he could not find another good job and she was adapting without him. He wondered when she’d get sick and tired of his moping but so far she had just stayed her usual positive self and let him be.

He slapped more paint on the cupboard but wiped up drips before they made a worse mess. he did want her to be happy. Didn’t he? She always said that no matter what difficulty they were facing, she got to help new humans enter the world and that was enough happiness to tide her over. She took care of people and loved life because she had a gift for it. Clark cautioned himself to not puncture that happiness but why was it so great being born into this place, anyway? But Mina was smart and she’d had a hardscrabble childhood in India. She well knew the costs of life daily lived, the value of the smallest, random joy.

The rain drummed harder on the roof of the garage. He ignored it and stepped back from the cupboard to examine his work. Looked acceptable, much better than before sans hinges, which he’d add when the Milkweed White dried. he checked his irrelevant watch. He had hours to go.

“Hey, Clark, how’s it going?”

Neal the mailman didn’t expect a reply as he dashed through puddles to hand off the mail but Clark wanted to talk.

“No change, still a handyman. Painted a cupboard,” he said, pointing at it with a small flourish.

“Looks good, enjoy the free time–you’ll find work soon!” and Neal was gone, splashing his way to the Hudson’s’, a retired couple he never saw.

This rain, it’s like a curse that’s never-ending, Clark thought as he noted his sneakers were damp from the puddle Neal agitated. And that’s when the cat raced in, sniffed the newly painted piece and sat himself down. Clark frowned at it, sat across from it on his three legged stool and wished it would disappear.

******

By the time Mina arrived home he’s gotten acquainted with it. There was no collar or bell, ad nothing interesting about the cat other than it looked more like an oversized sleeked down rat with all that wet grey fur. In other words, ugly. Clark didn’t recall it being in the neighborhood and wondered if it would go its own way as cats do. It looked cold as it curled up on the cracked cement floor. He felt it, too, under his rain jacket, that icy damp that spread as cloud coverage got thicker and rain pummeled the earth like a beastly thing. No wonder the cat took a chance with him.

“Clark, you out there?”

Mina always parked at front of the house around the corner. She came through the kitchen door and found them sitting quietly. He had closed the doors to warm the space up some and was contemplating how to make it even cozier.

“What happened to the poor creature and why is it here?”

She squatted before it, still dressed in her blue nursing clothes, ebony hair swept up in a fat bun with tendrils escaping, her eyes lit with interest.

“It dashed in, it can’t take this winter deluge, either. He’s been drying out some, along with your cupboard.”

She stood up, studied the piece, then clasped her hands. “Wonderful! That will look so good when it’s up, thank you, honey!” and she turned and planted a kiss on his lips. She was not a cheek kisser with her husband; that was one thing he loved.

“Well, he?–yes, it’s a he–deserves a safe place to dry out. Maybe we should give it some milk or tuna fish–he looks famished. As am I.”

She bustled out and the quiet two gents sat a moment longer before Clark got up and left the cat a few moments.

“Were are you going with that?” Mina called after him as he returned with his idea in hand.

“Right out here, we need it here.”

And he plugged in the portable electric fireplace unit into the extension cord and then turned it on. It emitted a nice hum as the phony flames leapt up and heat was dispelled.

When Mina came to call him in for reheated beef and bean casserole and to feed the cat, she found them both dozing before the pleasant representation of a fireplace. Clark’s head was leaning against his work bench; she noted how much his sandy beard had grown in. Was it a bit sexy or was it becoming concerning? She knew he would get another job; if only he believed it, too. She opted for sexy, placed her hand on his shoulder and shook it so his eyes flew open.

The cat became fully alert and dove right into the tuna.

******

That’s how it started. The rain, being out of work, the painting of a cupboard and a drenched stray cat.

Clark set about fixing up his small garage with a vengeance, letting his vintage Fiat remain sitting under the maple tree. He sorted and tossed bits and pieces left behind by previous folks and swept the floor well, then covered it with sealant and waterproof paint of blue to mimic the ocean’s color. He put up pegboard and hung his tools, then purchased a better utility lamp. Their bicycles were hung on the walls until spring. There was even a painting on the vacant wall between rakes and lawnmower. He had found it at a second hand store, a tropical landscape he still sorely missed, and there was a beach shack on the shore. He thought about hanging fish netting from the rafters but Mina frowned at that.

The cat–whose picture he had posted all over the neighborhood–mostly settled in before five days had gone by. He ventured once or twice inside the house but preferred the garage or the outdoors, much to Mina’s relief and Clark’s acceptance.

“Is there to be a name or do we simply cat him ‘Cat’?” Mina asked.

Clark thought it over, giving a stroke to the skittish creature. He’d dried and fluffed surprisingly well; the thick grey coat was handsome beneath green eyes.

“Captain,” he said quietly to the cat who looked up at him, blinked once and looked away, then back at him, whiskers seeming to twitch. They held each other’s gaze a couple of seconds and thus, it was decided.

“Well, Captain, you’ve managed a miraculous thing for Clark and his garage, so welcome.” She worried that someone would come looking for him, but for now she’d take it as it came as long as he stayed outdoors. She wasn’t such a cat person, and who even knew he liked cats? They’d had cocker spaniels until the last was hit crossing their busy street in California.

“Let’s see if the weather surprises us this morning,” he said to Captain as he opened his garage doors.

“See you two tonight!” Mina called as she closed the garage door.

******

Bernie Hudson liked to keep an eye on things from his living room window. When he saw there were colorful lights being strung on Clark’s garage, he decided to get out and watch more closely. He moved slowly among slippery leaves, using his cane for better purchase.

“Hello, Bernie.” Clark, startled since he had spoken with the older man maybe a half dozen times, greeted him from the ladder. He was about done with the lights and they draped about the doors like small exclamation marks, brightly welcoming. The cat was curled up on a big flat rock now that the rain had stopped. Weal sunlight eked through the clouds and rested on its green eyes and Clark’s congenial face.

“That looks real good, I have to say. Some people make such a show of wasting electricity but this will be tasteful.”

Clark chuckled –he didn’t think of holiday lights as being fine decor–and climbed down, then entered the garage and plugged them in. The brilliant colors glowed under the mostly bare black limbs of trees, seemed to spruce up the homely garage. They admired it together, noted the other houses people had lit up over the week-end.

“You got a new cat, eh? Fine looking animal.”

“Oh, he found us, a stray I guess. I advertised that he was here but no one has claimed him this week. I decided he could stay–well, he comes and goes but  likes to hang out in my garage.”

Bernie followed him inside the warm space, leaning on the cane as he gazed about. It looked almost like a makeshift den, he thought, with two old ladder back chairs and a humming electric fireplace and a painting on the wall. A well used oval rag rug was aid across the floor, to his surprise. Hardly a regular garage. But pleasant.

“Mind if I have a sit? This leg gives me grief.”

“Not at all. I’m about to put on new hinges on a repainted cupboard for our bathroom.”

“Nice job,” he said, and took out his pipe. “Mind if I smoke?”

Clark hesitated before answering. he disliked cigarette smoke and cigars were overwhelming but maybe a pipe would be okay. He didn’t mind the old guy visiting, so why not?

“I like best my Paladin Black Cherry, do you know it?”

“No sire, can’t say I do, not a smoker, but go ahead.”

Clark worked in silence after that while Bernie smoked and grunted a little at the cat or over his sore leg and captain took his spot on the big braded rug by the fireplace. The aromatic scent wafted about the room  and since the excess escaped through the open doors, it lent a peaceful atmosphere. As time went by, Clark shared some about his past work and how he wanted something different, he was a very good numbers man. Bernie talked about his wife’s weak heart and their seven grandchildren and how he could get tired of the dark, wet weather, too, but this was home until they were too old and then who knew? Best to enjoy the days as they came.

“Clark, what have you rigged up here? How enchanting.”

It was the neighborhood’s community mediation specialist, Julie, with daughter Carrie in a stroller. The three year old reached for the cat but he got up stretched and sauntered off.

“Oh, just a project while I keep applying for more jobs… the house can feel small all closed up in winter and well, I like garages.”

“Yes, Troy would admit to the same. He’ll want to come and see this!” She waved and kept on.

He hadn’t recalled her ever talking to him. Julie lived kitty-corner from them; Mina had run into her once in the store, she’d said.

As darkness began to fall and the little lights quietly blazed, Bernie waved to someone getting out of a BMW. It was Terry Hansen and his wife, Melba. Clark gritted his teeth; they were both younger and lawyers; they likely would sneer privately at his little project. They’d ask whether he was working or not. Clark got busy fiddling at the workbench but on they came and looked things over as they chatted with Bernie and then his wife, who had hobbled over to find her spouse.

Mina opened the garage door, then carefully backed out onto a landing atop three steps. As she turned, two mugs of coffee in her hands, she stopped. She was amazed to see Clark chatting with neighbors they barely had been able to recognize. Everyone was so busy with their lives. But the visitors greeted her warmly so she offered them coffee.

“Sure, why not?” Terry said. “It’s been a grueling day. Mind if we sit and chat?”

Melba helped with coffee and then the women joined in, opening two camp stools on which to sit. The rain had started up again and darkness was thickening about the streets and houses but the glow of the Christmas lights sparked up the homely scene. Clark looked on from his three legged stool and made a mental note to bring out their set of folding chairs, and to buy a tall stool for himself. But he was a little baffled by all these people, how much they liked his funky garage. Maybe no one here had thought of such a thing before but its wasn’t entirely unheard of, he was sure. On the other hand, garages not renovated for, say, an extra bedroom, were meant for cars and tools, not people.

Once more, rain started up, sweeping across the street, yards, bushes, into the garage. Clark pulled the doors to a little, enough to see the curtain of water and let out the pipe smoke. They grew quieter, each in his or her own thoughts. Dinner time was also past due.

Terry drank the last gulp of his coffee, stood up and stretched his compact frame. “You play cards at all, Clark? Poker or a hot game of rummy? I’m thinking this would be a great place to play on an occasional week-end night, open the doors some for fresh air, fire up the fireplace unit and have at it. What do you think?”

“Oh no, another ‘man cave’ plan being hatched!”  Melba said in mock horror but she seemed to not find it so appealing.

“Keeps him occupied for now,” Mina said, smiling tolerantly at the chic woman. “I kind of like what he’s done, and so does the cat.”

“Here, here,” Bernie said with a lift of his pipe. “Cards are sorely missing from my life.”

Clark thought it over and found it full of possibilities. “I might like that idea…”

“Good, we’ll figure out a couple more players. Quite a nice set-up you’ve created. Unique, I have to say. Just what the neighborhood needed.”

Melba moaned good-naturedly and reached for Mina; they swapped phone numbers. “We need to get our own thing started,” she suggested.

After all had left and Mina ordered Italian take out, Clark puttered around until Captain came back. When the cat yawned and he figured it was time to pick up their food, he closed the garage doors and turned off the electric fireplace. He petted him twice and went into the house, leaving one garage door ajar. He figured if Captain wanted to leave he’d come back sooner or later; he sure knew his way around places and people. This could be a decent life for them both, at least for the time being.

 

Luce Carmichael, Mistress of Missives

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The vestibule flooded with silken light and illumined dust but I saw her hesitate on the porch. The sheer curtain that blurred the outside world revealed red pants and a yellow shirt, a delicate arrangement of features. She was looking at my name plate, wondering if she wanted to ring the bell. Then she excited the chimes with one button press.

I– the Lucille (Luce for short) Carmichael, Handwriting Analyst noted at my door–answered, the sweetness of cherry blossoms entering with the young woman. She was perhaps twenty, not so small but bent by a burden, whatever that turned out to be.

“Helen Meyer. Two o-clock appointment–am I late?”

“Not at all,” I said, ushering her into the solarium. “It’s warm in here, I have cracked one of the windows. Don’t mind Sibelius.”

My copper-colored tabby, a lover of classical music, took that moment to wind himself around Helen’s legs, then sauntered out the French doors. Her eyes followed him longingly. Was she a feline afficionado or a tad lonely?

“Tha plants are amazing,” she noted, settling into the cushioned wicker armchair. “Towering,” she added and pointed at my ancient umbrella plant.

Was she going to be another client with a hidden fear of plants that might overtake her? I had met such a one once who had to be ushered quickly into the formal living room, my least favorite spot.

But no, she only turned to me, anticipating something.

“I had little to do with them. My son had a knack.”

She was about to ask: was he no longer tending them? I could see Helen had natural curiosity, her eyes running over every inch of the space. Anxiety, as well. Her fingers clutched her purse with a delicate tremble. She had called me a month ago, inquiring about my work and then called back two weeks later, seeking a consultation. Love matters. It usually was, not matter who or what or why.

“I brought his letters, only two. He sends them to me on special occasions as he knows I like that.” She unzipped her battered leather bag and pulled out two envelopes, then removed the letters and handed them to me.

I took them. “Before we begin, what is it you are looking for? I can tell you all sorts of information, little quirks and odd hiccups of personality, tendencies and proclivities, but it would save time if you would describe for me your concerns.”

Her smooth brow bunched up, her brown eyes clouded. I was afraid I would have to restate the paragraph but waited.

“I’m not sure. I mean, we have been together almost a year and I know him well. Maybe. And he’s talking about a permanent relationship.”

“Too soon? You could give me a sample of your writing. I might clear away a few of those cobwebs.”

She laughed. “I’d thought of that. But I need more insight into him. Toby, our writer in question.” She leaned forward, hands grasping her knees. “It’s just that, you see, my grandmother hasn’t been so welcoming of him. She finds him lacking.”

I held close the letters to my eyes as if to see inside the envelopes, like a mentalist, then stood. “First things first. Let me study these a moment. But would you like an iced tea? I have just made some fresh.”

“No, thank you, well, on second thought, yes.  Please. No sugar.”

“Never sugar. I like things to be unaltered and undiminished. It’s a mint mixture.”

Helen nodded then closed her eyes against the brightness that filled the solarium. I could have lowered the rice paper blinds but the spring light and warmth were soothing to all living things. Sibelius trotted after me but seeing I offered no conversation, disappeared around a corner. The teas were fixed, tall blue glasses set upon a wooden tray and carried in. Helen’s eyelids flicked open.

Her grandmother was the heaviness, I thought, and set our drinks on the table between us. I thought Toby a secondary issue, but wasn’t sure why.

The letters were nicely written, words conveying a tendency toward romantic reassurances, his budding devotion clear in both. The handwriting was firm, rounded, each “o” and “a” full of space, slightly open at top–he might not seek all secrets but was easy-going. The “ls” were inflated as well as other upper loops–a man more often than not impelled by his feelings. The lower loop lines were longer but tidier; the mid-zone a bit uneven but in proportion to the two other zones. The slant tended forward more as he wrote, his emotions driving the words. The personal pronoun “I” was standard copybook, modest. His statements were heartfelt. He was vibrant–you could see that in the longer dashes of the “ts” and verve of the hand. An athlete (the lower zone reflected a very active person), yet someone who appreciated talk, just not as much as action. An uncomplicated person in a good sense. Not ambitious, more relaxed than that. He might be prone to outbursts–those upper loops nearly ballooned here and there–but not violently. The rhythm was steady but unremarkable–not a fast thinker but not slow, either.

I had begun to delve deeper when I realized Helen was watching intently. I tended to get lost in my work. For that reason I preferred people mail me their samples at least a week before arriving at my door. And no emails with attachments. I had to have pages in hand. See the marks, feel the pressure of the pen’s or pencil’s tip on paper, examine it closely, even utilize a magnifying glass to discern the telltale trail from head to hand to pen to paper. Observe neurological manifestation of who they were in motion, in fact, not fancy. Or at least that is what I believed and practiced. And that was my bread and butter.

But Helen had limited time, she said. I fit her in between a wearisome relative and a fan of my column from Great Britain. What was wrong with this fellow? Little that I could see. Perhaps too intense for Helen. A bit prone to sentimentality–that wasn’t a crime, was it? Loose lipped at times, as he would want to garner any allies if needed but he also he liked people. Given to surprising excessive emotion when one considered the rest of the traits. A personality that spoke of a solid young adult who had room to grow.

I made it my business to pronounce no judgements, to put any personal preferences aside. I had to report only how data added up. Every mark could make a difference, even a flick or slide of a line that slipped past the controlled hand, a truncated or jagged start or finish to a word or letter that might promise something untoward and could not restrain itself for long. This is what a police department would expect me to discern and note. But Toby, this writer of love letters, was not the slightest bit dangerous. An unremarkable sort. Dependable. And not exactly inspiring great things.

I took a long quaff of my iced tea.

“Tell me about your grandmother.”

“Pardon?”

“You stated she has her doubts. She has influence in your life, that is clear or you wouldn’t place such importance on her opinion. You’re close, is that right?”

“She helped raise me for years. My mother has MS,” she said, reaching for Sibelius as he sat nearby, tail flicking. He barely sniffed her hand, then leaped atop his favorite book on the table, a history of American architecture. “Grandmother Dee has strong opinions about everything. She and I have had some times.”

I noted the wry expression, a small downturn of her lips. “Good ones, too?”

“Oh I hope when all is said and done the good will outweigh the bad. As for her feelings about us…I don’t know. But I am still affected by her disapproval despite having left home–her and mom still live together–five years ago.”

“Ah. She disapproves of only Toby? Or of you?”

Helen jerked her head towards me. “Me. Why should I care? Well, she’s smart and educated and has the advantage of decades of experiences. Three husbands, every one of them unable to outlive her. She’ll be eighty-one this fall. She’s not very well and her mind is like…”

I waited. A sieve? An iron fist? A file cabinet of every right and even more wrongs?

“It’s like….a crazy garden. An incredibly flourishing garden with grand flowers and very few weeds,” Helen said, voice dampened with a hint of tears. “She doesn’t tolerate weeds. She’s a careful and tidy person even now.”

“Weeds? Is that how she sees Toby?”

I calculated whether or not I should also add and you? but did not. Even though it seemed so, as she brushed her cheek of a tear and tried to recapture a sense of dignity.

It happened here. The solarium, a refuge. My careful investigation of private places. Even Sibelius with his lovely and gentle demeanor. It’s said a handwriting expert is not unlike being a detective combined with therapist except I don’t diagnose so anyone could officially  hold me to it. I have intuitions and ideas. The written word to reveal the truth. And sometimes people became too tender or have to deal with an upwelling of anger or are disoriented by the findings or talk of them, uncertain which way their world is meant to be turning.

Helen had gotten hold of herself and was petting Sibelius, who then deigned to lick a finger.

“I think she finds Toby less than, you know, he isn’t quite good enough for me, she thinks. For our family. It’s not money so much. He’s going to be a plumber–they do alright. I think it’s that she was forever telling me I would marry a lawyer, maybe a surgeon or at least an eye doctor or vet, for crying out loud! I was her project all those years as mom faltered. I failed to stay on the honor roll in school. I got into trouble if you want to know, drank too early to escape, barely made it to graduation. But I pulled it together, went to community college. I work as a medical assistant but that is a far cry from what everyone hoped.”

She looked at me full in the face, then fell back against the seat cushion. “I’m not the daughter my mother needed or the granddaughter Grandmother Dee hoped for. And now Toby is standing in their way somehow–of what? What they think I should do? But the ridiculous thing is, Grandma Dee believes I have the same requirements she does and I just don’t know it yet.”

I found that more than disheartening: the poor young man was made a scapegoat of sorts. An impediment to a needy grandmother’s precarious sense of well-being–her flourishing mental garden notwithstanding. Her mother I could understand–she wanted so much more than she could give her daughter. But Dee? Why would she impute this child with her own greed for more? Yes, it was likely the old woman wanted security for her family before she left this world. But I would have no further concern with any of it.

“That is difficult. Such a complicated unit, the family. But would you like to know what I have found?”

“Of course, I’m so sorry, please tell me.”

“As you think, I suspect: reliable, good-hearted, healthy of body. Toby is given to experiencing and expression of intense emotions. He is not unstable but has fierce feelings that can run him. He likes people, is not suspicious and is sincere in his caring for you. I see no criminality or significant instability, no malice, no secret proclivity for behaviors that could distress either of you in a serious manner. Your boyfriend is of sound enough mind, reasonable intelligence and accountable. I would say”–and here I swept open my arms and hands to conclude the findings– “that he is well-adjusted, a little young perhaps but on his way to becoming a kind and solid man. He is likely to stick by you no matter what comes.”

She didn’t respond at first. She took it all in, registering my findings and counter checking against her own list, waiting to determine if hearing his several attributes were going to make her more certain of her choice.

Would Helen stick by him? I felt it more likely than not.

Sibelius roused himself and jumped down, left the room as if his own work was done as guardian of books and plants, assistant to the handwriting analyst. Or he was bored and hungry.

“Is that enough at this time?” I wondered if she expected something more. She hadn’t paid for a Level II consult; she had just brought in the samples, after all, but I wanted my clients to be satisfied. “Is there something else?”

She stood up and walked around the room, paused at the umbrella plant. It was something to behold, it was true, thirty years old and a lovely survivor.

“I don’t know what I want, to be honest. I do know Toby. I learned some new things. I do feel reassured by your evaluation to some extent. But it’s me, after all.” She spun around and pointed at her chest, at the heart where the finger always wants to point. “I should move back home, that’s what worries me. I should stay with my grandmother who’s not going to be around forever and help out my mother who needs me. I ought to give up Toby and just concentrate on being there for them.”

I sipped my tea. Here it was, the hurt and guilt. The real dilemma. I kept thinking about grandmother’s weeds, Helen seeing herself and Toby as something un welcome, even noxious in that vast garden. How would she reconcile that with a sense of duty? Give up love that would be steadfast? Sadness found me.

“But I do want to stay with Toby. I see he is a genuine person, not extraordinary maybe but the kind of guy I need. Someone I can count on in unpredictable life. I just hope I can offer him as much. I want everyone to be satisfied, but that’s not really possible. Grandmother Dee and mom will have to make do with me as I am. Not fabulous but still a part of the family. As Toby and I are going to be together. But we live in the same city, so we can help them out. I won’t turn away now or tomorrow.”

She never did seek any important answers from me. Helen needed someone to hear her. I was a captive listener, removed from her personal realm. Someone to confirm what she already felt she knew. She was like many of my clients, ready to know as much as they could handle, able to see truth as it suited them. Did she hear my notation about his intense emotions? Did she know this might cause her some grief one day? But she was willing to take the chance. For now.

We finished our tea. Sibelius trotted up to her as she prepared to leave.

“Thank you for your help. I think I have a better idea what is best for me, for Toby and for my two mothers.” She gave a short laugh. “I might bring you a sample of my own writing sometime. I’m not sure I’m in the right career.”

I looked at her and saw her helping, taking care with details, encouraging, keeping things in balance when patients were too afraid to look to the doctors. Her mind was an inquisitive tool. Fair above all. I didn’t need her sample.

“Have you thought of being a nurse? Or even a doctor?”

Helen’s finely arched brows shot up. “I’ve daydreamed of being a doctor or even RN… I never said it out loud!”

“Well, you have now. Give it real thought. There is still time to explore options.”

“Thank you, this was more than worth it.”

I watched her stride down the pathway. Grandmother Dee was wrong about the weeds in her garden and never told her granddaughter the whole truth. Helen had a flair about her, a touch of pizzazz in her bold willingness to question, then learn. It was like the errant gift of a bright-blooming weed or an orphan plant that provides spots of unusual form or color, a good surprise. And she possessed courage that got to the essence of things. These would offset all that sturdy everyday-ness that Toby so easily offered her. They would fit together just fine. The dowager (could I think that? was it true?) Dee might even see it all come to pass.

I leaned against the door. Helen hadn’t asked me about my son but that wasn’t her business, not her place. I glanced at his picture on the wall. Jack: in a boat, in Nova Scotia. One who couldn’t stay put. Off to more adventures, some foolish, some not. I wondered what he was growing there? Was there a lasting partner I might one day know? Sibelius never knew him nor did he care that I was reminiscing. He made his impatient sound and rubbed against my bare foot.

I entered the white and blue kitchen to set out lunch for us both. My next client wasn’t due til three o’clock, a man seeking clues to his ex-wife’s disappearance. Yes, always love matters. It’s what we are about, beginning to end.

 

Whims of Fortune

Photo by Leysis Quesado Vera. Source themkphotographyblog.net
Photo by Leysis Quesado Vera. Source themkphotographyblog.net

The light is failing or it is my eyes. Treetops and meadows blur. I am staring at something I cannot quite pinpoint, far off. Maybe it is only the changing of seasons, dark months torn open by sun, a shock that threatens to blind me. I blink a few times and scenery disappears even when my eyelids stay open. But another second or two and eyes refocus; I identify all I know so well. I am tired despite being up only four hours, since six o’clock.

I sit here after I scour the third of five bathrooms as always on Monday mornings for Idina. Sometimes for her husband, Richard. The room needs airing. This house is ancient, walls have absorbed everything that has been here, which is not to say the place smells badly most of the time–I wouldn’t tolerate that–just full of markers from past and present. It has all been updated, more or less. But still, it bears history heavily. Every room is the same. Vast, crumbling more than not yet exquisite to us all. Damp, yes, marred even when I am done. It’s what you would expect after over almost two hundred-fifty years.

The weather is dry today so I will open every window I can manage unless Idina snaps her fingers at me, gesturing at the shutters. Some days she feels ill with dyspepsia and cannot bear breezes carrying varieties of earthy scents. Some days she is just irritated with life. Then all is haunted by shadows and all the old things here and her family. But usually she smiles or nods in passing, hair swaying. She knows I am excellent at housekeeping, better than she could ever be if fortune turned and she had to take up my duties. But that won’t happen. Richard keeps her secure and can still make her laugh when he isn’t travelling. I help this aging place survive.

I see the cat, Tip, sharpening his claws on a fig tree. There is a bird not far away but Tip is lazy. He watches me all day long as I scurry from one task to another, his long black tail curled about his rotund body. He yawns at me when I try to get him to move so I can sweep. He is like many men I have known, comfortable and arrogant enough to ignore his duties and often me. But Tip’s small white-edged ears turn this way and that, tuning in to my whereabouts. He follows me from room to room, often. Unless he is captivated by mice, only as he pleases.

The grazing cows in the upper pasture send out their throaty moo,moo into warming air, their very simpleness making me glad the sun is shining and that I have ten minutes to sit. I close my eyes and listen to them. Bees (or is it those mud wasps) working hard. The creek tossing and turning its silvery sounds.

We were friends once. Idina and I. My parents farmed down the road and her parents travelled. They left her and brother, Anton, with Carolina, the nanny. There was a good-sized staff that ran the house and until Idina was eight she believed (or acted as if she did) they were extended family members, there to help out. I had to tell her the truth. She looked up at me–I was and still am taller–and frowned as if I had given her a sour candy that she had believed sweet. She asked Carolina to explain it.

“Right, as usual,” she said the next day. “I don’t know how you know things, Celia.”

“It’s because I get to live with the animals and climb trees. Living in a big house keeps you from real life.” I tossed a rock. “Ma says, anyway.”

“Your ma is sort of funny and smart but don’t tell my mama.”

“Why not?”

“Because your ma milks cows. She’s a farmer’s wife.”

I didn’t like to think what she meant but she took my hand and pulled me along to a small pond where we watched salamanders appear and disappear under water. Then we had tea all our own on the side terrace. Never once did she act as if I didn’t belong there despite my ma being a farmer’s wife. Her parents tolerated it as long as they didn’t have to witness much, I thought later. I kept her occupied, whereas the older Anton, the heir, had a friend from private school he brought home during vacations.

We played together into our early youth, usually when her parents were gone. Caroline was like a big sister and let us roam, one eye on us and one on either her books or the gardener. Idina had her studies in the library and I went to village school half-days because my father liked that I could read so well and do maths. But it ended when mother bore her sixth squalling, soft-skinned infant and they needed help with him. I was fourteen and lucky I had managed classes that long.

At seventeen, I was asked if I would be interested in assisting the estate’s two older housekeepers. It was easy, so I stayed. I didn’t like farming very much and was not about to marry anyone I knew. This despite my father’s obligatory lectures on advantages of a reasonably friendly wedded life–he knew someone who had a nephew or a grandson or there was a visitor at the neighbor’s, why not be introduced? But he did like the added money I gave them. My mother said nothing, knowing as I did that, either way, I would not be free. At least at the estate I could have my own neat, tiny room overlooking the wild wooded acreage. I saw the sun spread its vivid palette along the tree line in morning. My few tattered books were stacked close by, my trusty companions. Peace at the end of the day rather than the chaos of half-raising my mother’s children. I promised to visit the farm every month or two and have managed that overall. I do love them.

Idina left a few months after I began my work. She married and spent the better part of a year in Italy with her husband, Richard, a businessman and vineyard owner. Soon, it was just like her parents, as if she couldn’t find a true spot to roost. We chatted less easily and frequently; that was natural. Our childhood days were far behind us.

I am the same, strong-bodied, curious-minded but she has become someone else. An even richer man’s wife than her own mother (who then was more often staying in Paris with her husband while he invested in a resurrected perfume business. Perfume!). Idina has lived twenty miles away at Richard’s manse sometimes, and then at the family home for reasons about which I speculated. Richard is still not as attentive as I know she needs. I watch her face when with him and it ripples with longing and disappointment. After her father passed away last year, her mother stayed in Paris. The house was to be sold. Idina refused to go along with that, arguing with an officious, portly Anton and their mother, now white-haired and distracted. After that she returned here for months at a time.

Of course I knew why but I never give away anything. They were never that well suited, Richard with his minions holding forth at their place all hours of day and night from what I’ve gathered from others; Idina with her rebelliously empty womb and passion for art, music and need for order. She seems more frail each passing year. It makes me uneasy but I can’t help her now. And would not be asked.

I know my work beckons, but Tip is playing with a grasshopper, I think, and the light has turned caramel, the air balmy. It seems as if I would rather neglect things. Idina won’t fuss, as long as I get tasks completed by the time I turn in.

Perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up. The thirtieth. It had long ago seemed a fairy tale age, a time when one would have settled in once and for all. Children gathered as they did around my mother, soon to be replaced by grandchildren. But beyond that, a purpose that offered tangible and other rewards of some kind. A more incandescent quality to living, does that sound ridiculous? It might have unfolded like that but the possibilities shrink. I embraced the position of housekeeper at eighteen and in three months knew the work so well I could do it without thinking. So I thought of what I had read before breakfast or what I wanted to jot down later, poetry coming in quick groupings of imagery. Wondered over the insects and birds that claimed plants and trees as I hung the wash. The nature of God as I surveyed the workings of our celestial realm yet had few names for all I did not understand and needed to know intimately.

Now I feel empty-headed too often. As if no one resides there, only a shadow of who I was. It terrifies me.

The latest thoughts have been of finding a way out. But how? To what? I haven’t met one suitor in well over four years. The ones that came and went were dull-witted, irresponsible, even unattractive. The one man on staff who is single and closest to my age is turning silver-haired. He is prone to jokes that grow longer and worse with each telling. He would be overjoyed by my company if I had any small part to give. I cannot bear the idea.

I am not content, anymore. If I ever was. How do I know what I want when I have never been given the chance to seek more than what I have? Yet I dream that I am educated, perhaps a teacher and also writing and if there is love it comes with interchange that uplifts mind as well as heart. How many other women feel the pull like a sea tide must feel? I worry it will drag me away and leave me with no good fortune at all.

Tip rolls over in the grass and gazes up at me, sinuous tail dancing, then is up on all fours and gone. I hear someone calling for another, a cook’s helper perhaps, for luncheon. The breeze skims my arms. I close the shutter in time to bar an interested wasp from entry, then  move on.

The hallway is still. At the end and to the right are Idina’s rooms. I hesitate, then straighten my shoulders and set out to see if she is up yet, will tell her I am ready to clean her washroom. As I round the corner, she opens the bedroom door, hand to chest as if deep in thought, then looks up and stops in her tracks.

“I was just thinking of you.”

She held out her hand and I went to her.

“Did you need something?”

Her face is pale and her slender hand is at her throat. “Come in my room.”

The drapes are drawn as usual and her bed is a mess, twisted sheets revealing her night of sleeplessness, pillows on the floor.

“Sit down, Celia. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

She’s always had a thin face with sallow skin that made her deep brown eyes seem larger, irises warmed with a cast of gold. But now her skin is more antique ivory, her lips pale as well and quivering. I look down at my folded hands. She is not well.

“We never talk anymore.” She leans toward me a little.

I give her a small smile.

“Well, I don’t like it. We were best friends for so long, then we were not even allowed to see each other, anymore. Foolish of our parents. The older generation always thinks it knows the best thing. When it’s all just what they are comfortable with, what is correct in their eyes.”

I don’t disagree as that would be rude but she was much less interested in being a friend, too. My mother thought it sad I had lost Idina’s friendship and vice versa. But this is a first in some years, her being personal. I sit still.

“I want us to be friends again, Celia. Can we find a way to do that in this house, these times?”

I start, sit up straight and stare at her so hard she lowers her long eyelashes.

“Maybe I’ve made a mistake.”

“You’ve made a mistake? No, not at all. It’s just. Well, it’s been twelve years since I came to work for your family. You. I’m not sure what you’re needing from me.”

Idina gets up from the chair, walks to the window, parts the sumptuous blue curtains, a swirl of dust entering a stripe of sunlight that appears. I feel a twinge of embarrassment, my cleaning not being up to standard. She doesn’t notice. She opens the curtains and her face is flooded with that rich light I love this time of year.

“I’m pregnant. And I’m afraid.”

“Oh!” I feel a surge of giddiness and then unease.

She stays at the window, but turns back to me. “I don’t know how I can do this. I’m quite alone. Richard doesn’t seem that desirous of children or of me, anymore. He doesn’t know yet. He’s travelling again.”

“Ah. I see.” Energy traverses spine and neck, turning into a shiver.

“Do you? Because I’m not sure I even can! It’s a mess, really. He’s gone all the time, he may have other….interests…I can’t bear to think how I will manage.”

Idina sits down again and reaches for my hands. I cover hers in both of mine and feel her deflate, her body crumple against the chair.

“Is he…?”

What do I want to ask?  Do you still love this man? Are you having other health issues? Are you going to be alright? Of course not, she is a wreck as well she should be. After all the years and here we are again, our childhoods so gone we can barely see them. Yet she needs me.

I try again. “What is it you want?”

Idina’s head lowers to her hands. “I just need a true friend.”

Now, you might think that after all these years I would have heard these words and felt once more welcomed, been relieved, look forward to her company. Instead, I release her hands and pull myself up tall. I am filled with sadness and anger.

“Now? You now want me close, Idina? When trouble strikes you feel I should come running as when we were ten? These are adult complications that intimate friends share… I don’t know you, really, not at all. I have been a housemaid passing, soundless, while you have come and gone, lived your rightful and separate life. I agreed to this, the money has made a difference; I have had some good times here. But it has worked because we set a boundary long ago. We have kept to our separate stations. It is too late to be such close friends as you desire, way too late.”

She begins to cry, hiding her face in her hands. How small she looks in her periwinkle dress, her finely woven grey shawl. I have to root my feet to the floor to not reach out to her. I am not the carefree child who has boundless love. I am a pinched and aching and restless woman, given to flights of fantasy, given to dreams that may never come true for me. She has had choices, not so many, but more. She has had love, not the best perhaps but years of companionship. She now has a baby coming. To nurture and cope with day and night. I know all about that after years of being my mother’s hands and feet.

All I want is out.

“I’m sorry, truly I am. I can’t be a nursemaid, caring for your surprise child. I can’t hold you up through thick and thin now. And I don’t want to clean toilets and dust libraries whose books I cannot even take the time to read even if they were available to me. I have to take my own life into my hands. I must do just that when you find my replacement. You were a good friend, once. We were there for each other, once. But now we live lives so far apart that they do not intersect in a way that has meaning for me. I’m not a friend for hire, Idina. You do need care and help. But that help is not me.”

I touch her shoulder–I want to put my arms around her and cry with her even as I want to go–but she bats my hand away. Uncertain and fearful of what I have done, I hesitate. Then Tip scratches at the door. I let him in. He trots in with a small brown mouse in mouth and carefully lays it at my feet. I am glad to see his efforts have paid off and more so that he has brought his victory to share with us. With me, in fact. I turn to Idina but she is still weeping as if she will never stop. But she will.

Tip is at attention, looking satisfied and neat as a pin. He purrs as I smooth that fine old head.

“Good job, old fellow. Quite the catch. But I have my own work to do. You’ll have to show your mistress.”

Tip picks up his mouse and walks out the door with me, then runs down the winding stairs. I pull it shut and hurry to the next room, chin up, chest opening as I catch the heady scent of spring from somewhere beautiful.

 

The Waiting Room

Photo by Lee Friedlander
Photo by Lee Friedlander

We had decided to go to a marriage counselor before we got married. Before we even got engaged. It was Lynn’s idea after I brought up legalizing things. It made sense after two years sharing my apartment. I was not someone who had to think about things three times over and then dissect them with someone else at considerable expense. I generally knew what was good for me. Or what was not, like drinking, which I had given up right before I met Lynn. Lynn didn’t seem so certain about personal issues, had expressed concern about what we’d require if we became a couple on record.

“K. stands for Katarina–it said on Yelp–but I guess that sounds more professional. Or unique. Classier. Or she wants it to look like a man’s name; maybe no gender. Or no one can pronounce her name right–she might be German?”

That’s Lynn. She is compelled to figure all things out in detail, maybe will even ask the therapist at some point even though it isn’t our business. Whereas I think the “K.” is irrelevant. I don’t have any opinion about small things that don’t impact well-being, mine or others’. The office was close and in a turn of the century building, a house, really. The reviews were fine and here we were despite my dragging my feet initially. Lynn picked me up after work. I had been studying for a final in “Ecologically Sound Housing Trends”. I had just read about the concept of “tiny houses”, single habitats as small as three hundred square feet but attractive and livable. I tried to engage her in discussion about it–I thought it was excellent–but she waved it away.

“Weird. Don’t even think about it for us!”

When we arrived, we found a good-looking cat on the burgundy sofa. It stretched front paws to back, then in reverse, then hopped off. It suggested that K. wanted the place to seem more homey, which was fine by me. The therapy session already felt less arduous. I never liked places with glass tables and reflective metal tree planters, fake palm leaves defined by dust, magazines from last year fanned out like a cheap decorative touch. The old cherry wood table was adorned with daisies. No clock, likely on purpose.

“Why would she have a cat?” Lynn’s brow furrowed above her deep-set hazel eyes. “People could be allergic. Or have had bad experiences with them. I hate cat hair on my clothes.” She got up, brushed off her short knit skirt, and sat in a chair adjacent to the sofa. “I hope she doesn’t let it in. I don’t want to be distracted.”

“Well, abandoned already,” I commented. “But I have the cat.”

It–he–had jumped back up but sat calmly on the other side of the sofa, following an invisible speck above his head. I checked his tag.

“Berlin? Huh. Do you think that refers to the city or Irving Berlin? My vote is for the composer. ”

Lynn shrugged and smiled, touched my leg with the toe of her shoe (“mule” she informed me once). She checked her watch, pulled a paperback from her cavernous yellow purse–it’s a big lemony boat with brassy hardware. She began to read, then took a sucker out and stuck it in the side of her mouth and commenced to chew. It made me wince. All that sugar invading well-maintained and polished enamel.

She has purses like you wouldn’t believe. I asked her to count them last fall and she came up with fifteen but said she wanted a new one come spring. Hence, big yellow, which cost way too much. I can’t imagine what she needs to carry in there, a box of tissues for her snuffly nose? She complains about my beat up canvas backpack, ripped by a clasp, permanently dingy after years of carrying books, thermos and lunch, serving at times as a pillow between architecture classes. It has been durable; it blends in with my khaki jacket.

Things don’t matter so much to me. Lynn says I have a lack of respect for them but that’s not true. I just covet different stuff than she does. Lynn grew up with more than most people can imagine. I grew up with enough and some extra. But it’s ideas I hunger for. Ideas that form designs, transforming them into something that can change a landscape, people’s lives, the way in which a city or piece of country can better embrace commerce and community. I’ve wanted to be an architect ever since I was a kid and my father took me downtown Detroit to see where he worked. There were buildings being torn down, blocks of sad, neglected houses, junk piling up in empty lots. But there were also impressive skyscrapers and heavy, ornate buildings made of stone and brick. I’d never seen so many kinds of places; I lived in a suburb. I looked up at my father’s building until I reached the top, sunlight glinting off a thousand windows, blue sky pierced by metal and concrete. I wanted to know how that was made, if people really could do that with their bare hands. The possibilities thrilled me.

Berlin jumped onto Lynn’s lap and she erupted, pushed the cat off. “Bad cat! You need better manners!”

I laughed. She was alarmed by so little.

“Not funny, he pulled a thread in my skirt. Really, Justin, you can be insensitive. Get him away from me, please, put him out.”

I almost explained to her that Berlin pulled a thread because he grabbed the fabric out of panic when she jumped; it was fight or flight but both happened at once. But that was obvious.

“Justin!”

Berlin was batting her swinging foot. I looked at her, the face I had come to love, her lips puckering when she was not amused, her eyes gaining a mysterious depth when she was unhappy or passionate. Her look told me this was serious and I ought to understand. I grabbed Berlin then sent him down a hallway, where he meandered until he rounded a corner and disappeared.

“Thank goodness.” She checked her watch. “Aren’t we waiting a long time?”

“Not too bad,” I reassured her. “No rush, right?”

I didn’t know she disliked cats so much. We had talked about dogs only because the neighbor across our street had a sign out advertising two beagle puppies. I imagined beagles were smart, friendly dogs. Lynn adored dachshunds and terriers. I agreed a beagle wouldn’t do well in our city place. But neither did I want a dachshund or terrier. So the topic was dropped.

The carpet at our feet intrigued my eyes, reds and blues and gold in big interlocking patterns, sort of Persian.It looked familiar and after staring a bit longer I realized it reminded me of my father’s study carpet. His rug was much bigger, covering most of the room so that when you walked in, despite the space being filled with dark woods, books and his desk, it offered a bold cheeriness as light splashed across it. I used to bring in my own books to read while he attended to briefs or tallied numbers.

Once my mother came in with a tray holding a teapot and two cups. I had crept into a corner with my sketch pad and pencil. I must have been nine, the year before they divorced. I heard her habitual sharp words and my father’s replies in a French-accented cadence. He had lived in the U.S. since age twenty-five but the sentences rolled out like silk. He said one thing often: “I can only be who I am.” It was the one thing he advised me years later: “You can only be who you are. Don’t let anyone try to make you into someone else.” I knew he was referring to my mother, or maybe, too, happenings from his youth that formed such a view. Even after she left us he held fast to that credo. I held fast with him.

I felt my throat close up a bit, my eyes prickle. My father hadn’t met Lynn. I had put it off, had told him we might fly to Michigan in the summer. The first year passed, then we moved into the second. I visited him alone because Lynn was too busy at the non-profit organization she ran. All he said was I should think about marriage a long time before I committed. I wanted to keep building a happy, fascinating life. Something sturdy with Lynn.

Berlin walked back in. He looked around as though surprised we were still there, then rubbed against my leg and purred loudly enough to bring Lynn’s head up from the book.

“Again?” she asked.

I picked up Berlin and scrubbed his ears; he butted my hand.

The office door opened. K. Garrett was tall and lean and had an open, friendly face but her eyes were intense, cast their powers over the room and us. Stopped on me a second.

“Lynn? And Justin?”

I stood up. Berlin lept to the floor. Lynn put her book away and smiled, holding out her hand for a vigorous handshake.

I turned to Lynn and then K. Garrett. “You know, I think I’m going home. Sorry, Lynn, but this isn’t for me. I have my answers already. See you at the apartment.”

“Justin?”

I walked away, Berlin trotting after me until I got safely beyond the door.