A Way Back Home

“Life hurts more in this city, it shakes its fat fist in my face every day. I can’t take it,” he said, glasses reflecting the phantasmagoria of the giant tree’s lights. They beamed onto the brick and cement urban park, “the Square”, but he was blind to that.

TC knew what he meant, but she couldn’t entirely agree. It was pretty there. They could view the 75 ft. tall Christmas tree decked out in its glory, gather with others in the Square each morning with their maximized paper cups of coffee and a warm  croissant with butter or a cranberry scone. They could watch the shoppers mill about with brightly bulging shopping bags, study folks on lunch break as they lined up at food carts–oh, those savory aromas of hot food drove them nuts. Maybe they’d manage to get a bite to eat later. If she sold enough of her leather jewelry to tourists trying to be tolerant, or city dwellers trying to show good will, they’d get by another day. Harley didn’t think the way she did, though; he needed a drink by noon and then he went from bleakest to medium bleak.

“It’s too pretty, unlike reality, a total sham,” he insisted and took off his glasses, put them in his pocket. Something he did when his eyes hurt or he was just weary of seeing things. He frowned at her, deep brown eyes going darker. “What do you see in it all? It’s just another city where we half-starve and are too cold and wet–or too hot and dry. I’ll take too much heat over this. Let’s go back to California, baby.”

“It’s better here. I like Portland. I feel some real good energy here; just let yourself feel it, too, Harley.” She tamped down the  irritation in her words but it was like a bubble, it sneaked up to the surface.

He got up and winced, then bent over to grab fifteen bucks from her little box before she could stop him and ambled down to the Plaid Pantry. A beer, smokes, a small package of beef jerky.

There went their decent lunch. TC sighed and smiled at the same time at passersby who glanced her way. Her hip bones and rear hurt; her big jacket was barely long enough nonetheless and the sidewalk got harder by the hour.

The light drizzle had been wetting scenery along with people in fits and starts all morning. No one was much bothered. TC had pulled her burlap scrap laden with jewelry under the corner awning of Lil’s All Natural Bake Shop. They had been overlooked by the owner for two days and they hoped for a few more. But there were countless stores and offices, about as many awnings, so they’d just move on. It had been this way for about seven months, ever since she had lost the baby and he had lost his job due to being drunk too many mornings. Harley had argued he was just hung over but if anyone had taken his blood alcohol level he’d have had to cave and admit he was rarely sober. He had things on his mind and his fiancée had had a bad time of it. Two miscarriages in a year. Well, he was sick and tired, too, and out of decent luck. Maybe she was the luck killer, he wasn’t sure.

Fiancée. TC had said that word a few times in her mind. It had first felt luxurious in her mouth, like caramel and dark chocolate or salmon with creamy potatoes. It had shaken her up, given her a small thrill that he’d asked her to marry him a year ago. That was when he was still working at the factory and she’d had a part-time job waitressing. But she’d had her doubts back then, too. Harley wasn’t easy to be with; he wasn’t pleased with anything for long. He reminded her of her father, really, who’d been miserable enough about his circumstances that he’d exited her and her mother’s life early on, then later turned up dead behind an Alaska cannery. Her mother and she hadn’t gone up to his funeral even after his current girlfriend called, hysterical. It had been three years since he’d skipped out by then. They’d not missed him much; it was sad but understandable her mother reassured her.

TC was eleven then and she already had the notion that men tended to be thin-skinned, slow to change, hard to coax love from; she found real life matched those ideas that over the eight years. After the miscarriages, she ought to have struck out for better parts but she was determined to not do as her father had done.  Look where it got him. Her mother just swore and threw up her hands the last time TC had met with her, told her to lose that boy.

Now here they were. Lacking a home and broke and Harley going from bad to worse. She worried about his alcohol problem every minute. She wasn’t able to make one whit of difference.

“Those are cool,” a teenager said as she touched a pair of earrings with their fine leather leaves. “You make these designs yourself?”

“I do,” she said and held them up to the potential buyer. “Thanks!”  But she knew better. This was a teen with little cash, less real interest. The girl fingered the earrings, put them back, made a peace sign and left.

Someone will come along and buy five pairs, TC told herself in a sing-song way. It was like a spell she said often. It could mean at least fifty dollars, maybe seventy-five if they got the fancier ones. She got scraps at the leather supply store and she had had the tools for years, so her profit could be decent.

If only they hadn’t lost the apartment in Sacramento, but when Harley got going all the money was poured down his gullet or wasted elsewhere, she was never sure how. And she had been unwell with the pregnancies, then miscarriages. It got too hard to get up each day and try to hold things together while Harley was out there ripping and roaring with buddies. TC hated being a loser, being unable to pay her way, giving up when she had a very strong will. her will didn’t do her much good when she made bad decisions. Yeah, she had weak-willed herself right onto the streets along with dealing with Harley past the expiration date of their relationship.

So much for being a fiancée. And how to will herself off these streets, nice as they seemed? She knew she might be kidding herself when she filled up with hope but it mattered to her to believe, anyway.

Before the sun had peaked and then started its way back down, TC had made three sales, enough that she could eat even in the morning–maybe share with Harley if he hadn’t gotten food. She stood more often, shifting from foot to foot, rubbing her gloved hands together, blowing her nose on extra toilet paper she had taken and stuffed in her pocket earlier. She had to go to the bathroom now, but she’d learned how to wait and wait and wait, if necessary. When Harley came back, they’d go into a store for a while to warm up, use restrooms. Meanwhile, the towering Christmas tree was so beautiful TC stared at it again, then counted the bills and felt much better.

But Harley didn’t come back. TC decided to not run the streets looking for him; it was getting late and unsafe. He might show up later, he might not. That was, finally, how she felt.

******

It was dark  by 5:00 so time to head out. After she used the restroom, washed up a little and ate a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (and saved the turkey jerky, a fair protein source), she warmed up as she sipped fragrant hot coffee. Harley was nowhere near from what she could tell. She got up and checked out nearby shelters, but they were already full since December was spewing icy darts of wet. She walked to a nearby residential area. Her feet were starting to ache with damp and cold, the old leather seams of her boots letting in water; she tried to avoid puddles. She knew of a small apartment building; its second floor cement balconies were big enough that she could stay mostly dry beneath one. There was a spot by a casement window where she curled up with a fleece throw kept stuffed in the backpack. The spot  was still available; she hunched down, knees to chin, blanket about her, thick navy cap pulled down to her eyes. The trick was to become invisible–not the tenants as much as roaming street people. So far it seemed she was alone.

It took a long time to doze off to the dull rhythm of rain on cars, trees, gutters and roofs, that balcony but when sleep came it gave her five or six hours, to her surprise. She’d been dreaming of Christmas  as a kid, and she was about to open a box she shook it but it sounded and felt empty. TC straightened up, the aching stiffness making her feel old and half-sick, Her legs were cramped up so she stretched them, only to get a direct hit from raindrops. TC yanked her soiled blanket tightly about shoulders and chest. Her cheap cell phone indicated it was almost midnight. She should move, find a doorway even more protected.

“Hey,” a husky but feminine voice called out. It came from above. “What’re you doing there? It’s freaking pouring ice chips and it’s about my bedtime so I step out for a smoke and there you are, shivering underneath my feet!”

TC stood up fast, crammed her blanket in her pack, started across the muddy spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, girl–I’ve seen you here before. I was going to offer some help this time.”

TC hesitated, looked back, rain flooding her face. She then pulled the cap down to her eyes and struck out.

“Hey kid, I’ve been there!” The woman lit a cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the weak light of her balcony. “I’ve done the street thing, suffered the price and now have a place.” She coughed. “This weather, what can you do? I have a couch you can use tonight, no deals needed, no ulterior motives. Just a chintzy dry spot.”

TC hunched her shoulders. The rain was biting at her skin now, it was closer to sleet, and she was shivering in spite of her strong will to be okay, to deal with it. She’d heard the stories of street people dying of hypothermia, getting vicious lung infections, being killed. This woman of about fifty with reddish hair stood on the covered balcony in sweatshirt and sweat pants. Waiting as if she was willing to be patient. What was there to lose? Maybe she would attack her, maybe she would do worse, her nightmares come true but she carried a knife, everyone did.

With Harley she had felt safer even when she wasn’t, really. Why did he disappear again? But it was freeze or hopefully get warm.

“So you know, I’m Eve Marker and I live with my terrier, Pearl. I’m a singer but she is not. She doesn’t bother to bite unless I am scared. I’m not a bit scared, and neither should you be, dear. I’m cold and I’m going in, are you coming?” She tossed her cigarette into the sheet of rain. “And you are, if I might ask?”

“I’m TC.” Her skin was starting to get goose bumps from the temperature. “Okay, yeah.” Did she know the name Eve Marker or was she just wishing she did? A club, maybe, near where they hung out. Not that it made her feel very reassured.

“Smart kid. Go to the front door.”

Animal comfort just won out. She ran to the heavy door but it was locked so she, stood under the eaves until the older woman came. She followed her upstairs. Eve wasn’t as old as she had first thought; the woman gave her a lopsided smile and her face softened.

“Hello there,” Eve Marker said.

“Hi.” She wondered if this was the biggest mistake of her life but no alarms went off in her. She knew how to sense danger and avoid it if at all possible. This was just different, even if peculiar.

When they entered the apartment, and Pearl the terrier lifted her head from her bed and then put it back down on front paws, TC was filled with a small relief. It was a small, cramped place–Eve said it was one bedroom, that was all she needed–but no matter, it was dry and there was small fake, decorated Christmas tree; a candle burning that smelled of cinnamon; and a tiny kitchen revealed a late night snack of half eaten toast and peanut butter nd a mug on the counter. TC dropped her backpack, took off her shoes by the door, then lay her wet jacket on top of the rest.

“Nice manners, TC, you were raised good. Want some tea?”

TC looked about her. She felt calmer, now she was inside the pleasant rooms, soon to dry out. “Sounds nice, thanks.”

Eve leaned against the kitchen counter, hands on thin hips. “I don’t know why I let you in. You could be a madwoman! But I just thought, I’ve seen you a few times down there–I’m an insomniac, everything gets me up and going–and tonight the spirit moved me.” She smiled that sloppy smile at TC. “And like I said, I’ve been on the street. Once, long ago, for nearly a year. I got behind on all my bills and one things led to another. Those were the bad ole days when I was below thirty thinking life owed me and I drank to silence the whiny wail of self-pity.”

She laughed a throaty laugh, eyes half-closed, and waved her hand as if to dispel the past, faded red hair fluffing about her delicately lined face. She filled a mug with hot water, dunked a peppermint tea bag into it–Eve thought she’d like chamomile but no matter, any hot tea was a gift as she dried out. “What happened, TC?–and what’s that short for?”

“It’s just TC.” She pulled her hat off and shook matted chin-length brown hair. Put her nose close to the bright scent of mint.

“Alright, then, you from around here or what?”

“Are you?” She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t about personal questions yet. “You said you sing?”

“Yes, born and bred. I’m at L’Heure Bleue Club four nights a week, you know it? Jazz club at Twelfth and Main. Tonight is a night off.”

“I’ve heard of it.” She had passed it many times; it was in a more ritzy part of city center.

“Well, it doesn’t pay like I used to be paid but it’s a gig and I’m glad of it. Music is my only love these days!”

TC sipped and when she bent her head she could also smell sweat and the dirt and despair and anger of the streets on her. “I make jewelry, that’s how I try to get by. Harley, he– oh, never mind.”

“I know, he’s here and there, huh? I like the sound of handmade jewelry. Maybe tomorrow you’ll show me.”

“I don’t know if it’s any good. Just made a few bucks. But Harley’s gone, maybe. Just has less patience and sees the worst in everything. I guess I should find him.” She looked back at the door, as if thinking this was a mistake and there was time to get out fast.

Eve watched her face close off emotion, saw her mind drift and so she yawned dramatically without apology. “Listen, TC, I am going to try to get some shut-eye. The more we talk, the more wide awake we’ll both be.” She rose and pointed down the hall. “Bathroom is there, feel free to shower, warm up. I’ll get some pajamas if you want. If you need anything else, holler.”

TC’s eyes flickered with anxiety despite a deep desire to be calm. The lady came closer and TC could not avoid her eyes without being rude.

“Hey,” Eve said gently. “You’re safe here. I get it. Still, we may as well be as nice to one another as we can. I know you’ll hightail it out of here early morning. It’s okay. Eat something. Take food to go, I don’t care. I can give you a few bucks, I’ll shove it under my door to the hallway, you can just get it, no worries. ”

TC shook her head. “No, I won’t take anything–maybe I should leave, I shouldn’t be bothering you and I’m not sure– I mean, why?”

Eve ignored the question. “And let me know if I can help otherwise. You can look me up at the club anytime. Tonight, though, I’ll put clean flannel pjs and undies in the bathroom if you want to use them. Toss your clothes in the washer, dry them tonight –there are stackables in the closet by the kitchen to use.” She gave a quick but sad smile, eyes quiet as her voice. “Night, kid. Take care.”

She turned and went to her room. Pearl trotted after her mistress with the slightest glance at TC then gave a small yelp as she disappeared after Eve.

TC sank into the lumpy couch, smoothed the worn wooly blanket on it and gazed at the blazing Christmas tree. Sleet slid onto, then pummeled roof, street, trees. She thought of Harley squeezed in between the dozens of other dirty, tired, hungry, angry and tough and longing men at a shelter. Or drunk under one of the many bridges, too cold for living long. New fear and hurt threatened her fragile hold on her oddly improved night. She looked toward the hallway. What luck she had found under that balcony,  being told she could come up just like that.

But a stranger, she was in a stranger’s home and no one knew where she was; no one really cared. Even her mother had gone off the radar the past month or two, caught up in her own dramas (husband number three) and pressing needs. His house was overrun with two bratty kids and three crazy cats, she’d said. No room for TC.

TC entered the clean oh-so-private bathroom, not a mildewy group shower, and stripped off soiled damp clothing. Held a sweet-smelling, soft green towel to her face. Her feet had raw blisters, more cracked and itchy spots. When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror she shuddered. How had she gotten this miserable and worn out? Where was her basic good nature, the hope? Was it all an act for Harley, and to kid herself so she could go on?

The shower was turned on; she stepped into a generous spray and let it run over chilled flesh a long while, relishing the moments, the fresh smell of the soap. Heavenly. This woman must be a genuine angel–was that possible in these times? She giggled at that and let out a deep sigh. She’d have leave in the morning, of course, but at least she would have another good memory.

Eve heard the shower and lay with eyes wide open. The girl would leave at dawn and keep on running, no doubt. She knew how it was. No good place to claim as one’s own, no one to care for you, no reason to keep trying after a while. Or was she like herself, more stubborn, and willing to get out of her own way, let the man go and start to better grow up? Get a life together again?

The water flowed a long time. Eve imagined how good that steamy air felt to TC and recalled how it had been for her when she had been drifting in a haze of boozey illusions and days without food or good hygiene. But she drifted off, anyway, and began to dream of her little sister when she was still alive, of the music she adored and sang by heart every set, of other rains sweet on her lean body in a faraway time, a different country.

A triple knock at her door brought her right back so that she sat bolt upright, her quilt pulled to her chest.

“Who…?” Oh, the girl again.

“Eve?”

Her whispery voice didn’t sound right. She must have been crying, that was it.

“Yeah, what is it, TC?”

“Can we…talk a little more? I’m sorry to bother you.”

So Eve got up in the fine veil of darkness and sat on the couch. The Christmas tree threw a multicolored prism of light across the humble room, on a bunch of white and yellow mums in a second hand blue vase set upon the coffee table and the art prints on walls The leaf print overstuffed pillow on the floor was taken by TC, where she slouched, looking at her hands.

“Shoot,” Eve said. “We all have stuff we need to tell.”

“My name is Teresa Christine…Keenan.” Her voice almost disappeared but she began again. “I grew up in L.A after my father left my mother and me and then we got by on her hairstylist’s earnings–she’s good– but it was not a piece of cake. Though back then I thought it was all good, I was glad to wake up in my peach bedroom with its narrow bed and a handmade Raggedy Ann doll and my library books, hearing my mother yelling for me to get up, come down already, it was late, and she made me frozen waffles. I believed if I tried hard enough, things could be better… but things got worse off and on. My mother says all this is just more life, take it for what it is and don’t complain. But now I have to change things. I just can’t accept my life like this.”

Eve heard her voice as if it was the sea rolling in and out and she sensed this lost young woman might be ready to find her own balance for the first time. She might even stick around a bit. Pearl jumped up to listen on Eve’s lap, ears cocked, and they sat that way even after the heedlessness of winter rain failed to wreak greater damage and just gave up. Even after TC fell into the relief of  good sleep.

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: A City of Roses Kind of Night

Irv., misc., downtown at night 024
All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Night, canvass for city’s dashes, strokes;
lights, sharp or soft gestures in dark like
greetings tacked onto daylight farewells
as I explore alleys that curl and strike
through each block traversed.
These were scarred caverns, warehouses
where now entrepreneurs set up shop,
and housing, the sips ‘n eats and chic ice cream
along shiny parkways: like a giant bullhorn
it shouts new new new. I regret and accept this.

Every corner hawks its lore, ferments ideas.
Emptied lots host food cart delights,
a window is a doorway to other doors,
old industry is broken into new lines
that frame present and future,
each a step removed from the past.
Rubble can be made cutting edge,
even if not buried under thirty floors.
This big brightness of prosperity
hums in the night like a forgotten
tune reworked; it catches my ear.
I want to hum, too, though progress
may spurn a romance like mine.

But this is my rose; I’ve come to adore it.
My city has brought me to its embrace
through rains (and pain) that shatter air,
heat (and longing) that leaches greenness,
dirt and smog (and anger) that get into my house
like a pestilence. And then those winds–
they play every chime as if made of silver
and gold, spells of joy by day and an
alarm in odd, fang-studded nights.
Some voices that cry out are human flares.
I need this familiar and strange beauty,
even weeping, snarling. Prayer and love in shadows.

I carry my heart on and off the streets
to find people, a glory of sights,
twisty tales with more to come.
We all have our hands out, minds ajar.
No one gets away without something
to tuck into, to take back somewhere.
We slide by one another, eyes sweet

or lost in the kindness of lamp light.
We are who we wish under veil of night
in the deep wells of our city,
inside this Northwestern flower, its
perfumes that wreathe steel and glass,
wonders which will make way for others
beneath the vast presidio of mountains.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Friday’s Pick/Poem: Walk from Silence to Sound

after-snow-melt-009

After the shocking snows melt, all
that virtuous stillness weakens.
So much living and dying,
need and want are magnified.

City jumbles of sound interrupt
before I am released of dreams,
and the hint of darkness taints
soft light seen through blinds
as I wake, swim through morning.

I take to the street as if
walking into any January day
and search for the sweep of relief.
The voice of my country clamors
before I can understand all its words.

Where will changes take us
while edging through winter,
pulled by yearning for spring?
Will we get lost in blind spots
that scatter among us or can
we mend our wavering shadows,
unfurl dusty or untested wings?

The watchful ones on the wire
manage as before, wait to burst into heat
of a beautiful day. I nod their way.
I fill with my own waiting and warmer air
when greetings of strangers cluster
about me like bright confetti of hope.

But there is no silence like the earth
faithfully turning within perilous times
and no sound like cries for liberation.

after-snow-melt-010after-snow-melt-018

after-snow-melt-020

after-snow-melt-019

after-snow-melt-025

after-snow-melt-007

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Invisible

165

I live around here, too, unknown to you,
beneath my own flag of greens and blues,
amid dirt, broken glass, rock and trees,
watched over by wild animals, madmen
and the odd angel or two.
My world view is from a sidewalk,
behind a fence, through rain or spider’s webs.

The lives of many peoples like me
hide in musty corners, mingle by rivers,
traverse the paths that you avoid,
and our blood has colored much of
what was ruined, traded or stolen.
We may fight but soon give it all up.
We have so little to bargain with.

You don’t see us, don’t hear me.
I am an invisible, a tattered one
most often omitted in roll call,
overlooked in life’s endless lines,
or one who wandered too far from the crowd.
My bed is terra firma or a slice of space
between fifty others. Like a shadow
erased by cover of night,
I come forward with light’s breaking,
am weightless, transient as cottonwood fluff.

You think you know me and I, you.
We cross paths, share time, but fail
to recognize humanity in one another.
I may ask you for a dollar or small mercies;
you mostly turn aside. Fate is cast that easily.
But if you could look, take a chance even once

we might lock hands, see they’re both
etched with hopes, hurts and affections.
We could try to salvage one another
a little before it is too late–
brother and sister, it’s later every day.
We might set free one dazed and dingy dove,
then open the way to life’s simplest gifts
each ordinary person is meant
to embrace, to give and be given.

shadows-006

Graffiti

 

Photo by Rennie Ellis
Photo by Rennie Ellis

Sure, it bothered him but he wasn’t sure what to do. Pops Haverson could repaint it, of course, but how long would it stay fresh and clean? It wasn’t like it had dirty words or racist drivel or threats, was it? That’s what his wife reminded him as he left their house and also: “It’s not the Ritz, not the best we own, you know.” No, but the painted words spoiled the half-wall, behind which were stairs to a locksmith. The small business owner on the west end of the building hadn’t said a thing. Pops decided to find out who’d made the art work. It’d probably take him weeks or he could call the police–fat chance of anything coming of that–but he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want retaliation. He had fair relationships overall. And Pops wasn’t a fighting man. For the most part his tenants were decent, hard-working folks; they reminded Pops of himself before he invested in real estate. That is, they were a bit worn thin but full of grit.

His twelve tenants liked him enough. No one went out of their way to be real friendly and he didn’t encourage it. Pops believed that you get chummy and before you know it, trouble rolls in. They might want an extra week to pay rent or skip out of their lease, try to get more for their money and then take it personally when you deny them.

No, vandalism wasn’t a problem for him before. But inoffensive or not, why that? Why paint “No standing, only dancing”? A weird thing to say. What did they mean by that? He’d rarely seen anyone dance in front of his apartments. There were a dozen kids around there (four teens in the building) but they liked to smoke, gossip, watch other kids go by. They sat on that wall a lot. He found busted beer bottles sometimes, end bits of joints, and sometimes a dirty sock or a tennis shoe, a trashed motorcycle magazine. Someone had a thing for Harleys, as the magazines got left behind every few months. So he repeated, Keep the doorway clear, stay off the wall, move on down the street. He even put a hefty trash receptacle by the entrance.

He came by once a month to collect rents. Sometimes he’d yell at the group to stop hanging around the door. They’d refused to quit congregating   and he’d had enough, so posted a No Loitering sign. That lasted a week. When he came by last week-end the graffiti was there. Some nerve these kids had, he thought as he mounted each step slowly.

The tenents had the option of putting their rent check in the mail or waiting until he came first of the month. Usually they didn’t answer their door bells, just slid their envelopes under the door or handed it through a half-inch crack. A few chatted, at times complained more than he wanted.

He rapped hard when nobody answered the doorbell of apartment one, floor one.

“Della. Come on, I don’t have all day. Here for the rent in case you don’t have your calendar open.”

He could hear shuffling, then silence as Della peered out the peephole, as usual. He could almost feel her significant body weight from the other side as she leaned in. It finally opened three inches and one rheumy eye stared at him. Her hand clutched the envelope and he grabbed hold. She held fast. It was her way of resisting, of telling him she was boss. She used to be a high school principal. At eighty-four, she still could have been.

“Della, please. And I have a question, so could you open up a little more?”

She put her white cap of curls against the opening and her raspy voice asked, “What is it now?”

“The writing on the outside wall. Who did that, you know?”

Della pulled back, raised her eyebrows and smiled a tight little smile at him, then let go of the rent. He tried to wedge his foot in but she was too fast and slammed it shut.

“Sorry, Pops, you’re on your own,” she called through the door. “And my bathroom faucet still drips, keeps me up at night. Fix that and we might talk.”

Pops took out his notebook and made a note of it, then rapidly walked to number two. He saw the rent envelope from Jarrod Tuttle held fast in a clothes pin he’d affixed to the door. This was usual. Pops saw all sorts of things dangling from that clothes pin–poetry (if that was what Jarrod wrote), ribbons glued to prayers for ailing strangers he’d read of, seasonal decorations, notes to others in the building. Pops had met with Jarrod twice, when he applied for the place and then paid and moved in. He was up front about having a severe anxiety disorder, couldn’t leave his place much at all. He was on disability. The man was in his forties and hadn’t worked for over ten years. But he kept his place up from what he heard from Della and repair people, and paid on time.

Pops took the envelope down, unsealed it, pocketed the check and then wrote in his notebook: Jarrod, if you know who vandalized the building, please get in touch. Much appreciated, Pops.  He  tore the page out, put it in the envelope and clipped it with the clothes pin.

Number three. He rapped on the door hard four times because Thomas Johns never answered door bells. He’d told Pops that he didn’t need to feel like a trained dog. Besides, he knew who was at the door by the knock, usually, and that was interesting to him. That is, if he wasn’t working on web design with his headphones on. Thomas loved classical music, primarily Bach but sometimes Dvorak. Pops liked classic country but why would he care? He never had complaints about Thomas.

The door opened. Thomas still had ear phones on and held a bowl of salad in one hand. The other held out the rent check. He was very tall, pale-faced, long-haired. Pops was a rotund five foot six. It sometimes felt as if Pops was reaching up to the lowest branch of a birch tree to snag the check. Thomas laughed, lowered the check, then slid the headphones to his neck.

“How are things? Collecting all that is your due and then some?”

Thomas could be sarcastic but Pops didn’t always know when. He was in his late twenties, he guessed, and was trying to make headway in his field. Self-employed. Della had mentioned that Thomas was about to launch himself “into the stratosphere” as he was getting good offers from companies now.

Pops looked behind Thomas. “I see Anton hasn’t moved.” The tabby cat sat on the window ledge in front of Thomas’ desk.

“Right, Anton likes me and sunshine. Plus he catches the mice twice a day.”

Pops laughed. “I need to get a few more cats in here.” But there weren’t mice in this building as far as he knew; he saw to all that.

“Say, Thomas, could you tell me who painted the graffiti on the front?”

Thomas looked amused, then shrugged. “Not a clue. I’m too busy to pay attention to people here, really. Pretty soon I’ll be moving on. But you might try the second floor. Wally and Darcy always seem to know things no one else does, even if you aren’t interested. Or get Della some brandy.”

He put his headphones back on and turned away. Pops stepped out and closed the door.

“Hey, you’re looking fine today!”

That voice zinged him like a shreik. He stumbled up the steps. He was hoping he’d miss Darcy. She was happily tripping down the stairs, a dark red lacy shawl lifting from her shoulders, a rather too-short blue skirt impeding her progress, coppery red hair flying out of a loose bun. She had bright earrings that swung back and forth. Pops instantly thought of the chandelier in his office building downtown.

She stopped him with her hand, rings winking in the stairwell light.

“I finally got a call from my agent. I may have a decent part, Pops! Of course, it’s not the lead but it is a widow who is accused of murdering her husband, very black comedy. I have to go, dearest, but the check is stuck in the door jamb. If it rips, call me and I’ll mail one.”

With a flourish of her shawl– she looked a little like a toreador, he thought–she waved and ran off. He watched her high-heeled boots as they clicked on the tile. Saved, he thought, by an audition. He wondered how much longer she was going to pursue this dream when he knew for a fact that her father gave her the money for rent half the time. Darcy was forty-five if she was a day, funny at times, and excelled at talking his ears off when she wasn’t auditioning or rehearsing.

When he reached number five, he saw the door open very slowly, the hinges squeaking and making his neck shiver. He had some WD40 in his car so would get it later. Pops hesitated, then looked in.  Mrs. Lansing worked and her door was always locked; she mailed her rent.

“Mrs. Lansing?” He called out in a loud voice, alerting whoever it might be.

“No, she’s gone but just a minute.”

The voice was not known to him. A cleaning person? It was light and soft. He tried to think if Mrs. Lansing had anyone who she was close to but couldn’t recall; it was likely she never said anything about her life beyond her job. She was an RN, and she was often working extra shifts at the hospital so she could buy a condo, she informed him, before she hit retirement age. Ten more years to go before the deadline was up.

Pops waited a minute and when there was nothing more forthcoming, he put his head into the living room. A woman had her back turned. She looked like she was getting ready to go somewhere. She had a dark skirt on with a white blouse and somehow Pops thought she looked professional. But different. He cleared his throat.

When she turned round, he caught his breath. He recovered as she nodded at him, a warm smile wreathing her face.

“Mother just left for work. You must be Pops? I have it if you want it now.” She held a check in her left hand and a leather satchel in her right. “Oh, excuse me, I’m Francine Nording.” She dropped the satchel and shook his hand. “I decided to visit mother for a week after my tour in Europe.”

“Yes? That right?” he asked stupidly. “Uh, hello, Francine. I didn’t know she had children. Not that I should. But nice, thank you for the check. She’s always good about getting it in the mail.”

The truth was, Francine Nording was breathtaking. Not Hollywood pretty, not beautiful like his wife admitted she’d wanted to be as a kid. This woman deeply glowed. Her skin was ivory, her hair a white-gold and she was tallish and slender and held herself as if she was royalty. Maybe she was, he thought with a stab of panic and then felt foolish for everything he felt. Get a grip, he told himself. She held out the rent.

“Mother is so organized. Not like me. I get by well enough, though. As a member of a company that travels all the time I just follow someone else’s directives!” She laughed lightly and picked up keys from the entrance table. “Was that all you needed? Good. I have plans.”

They stepped into the hallway and she locked the door. He had the urge to take her elbow, guide her gently.

“No, just the rent. Good to meet you. Tell your mother hello.” He flushed. He barely knew Mrs. Lansing after three years.

He stifled the urge to watch her go down the stairs, then moved to the next door.

He rang the bell but it didn’t make a sound. He knocked four times and it swung open.

“Pops, my man, good to see you and here’s your cash.”

Waldo Zuma handed him a wad of bills which Pops shoved into his pocket.

“Thanks, Wally. Electrical in kitchen working now, right?”

“Fine, man, no problem. Now the bell doesn’t work but I don’t mind.” He looked past Pop’s head. “You talk to that gal, daughter of Mrs. Lansing? A beauty! She’s a professional dancer, travels the world, amazing stories. Very classy, like her mom. Out of my reach, but she’s moving on soon, anyway. To Sweden, she said.” He rubbed his bald head, mouth agape. “Scandanavia, man!”

Pops frowned. “Yeah, I just met her but I didn’t get she was a dancer. Like ballet stuff or…?”

“I don’t know, she said something about it but I didn’t really understand, didn’t ask. It was just a hallway conversation with her mother there. Early this week. Haven’t seen her since.”

“You didn’t talk to her or see her again? How about the others? You know if they met her? Really, now.”

Wally shook his head, mouth a tight line.

“Come on, Wally, what’s she up to here?”

Wally held up his hands. “What you worrying over? Nothing. She’s visiting her mama, then travelling more. Ask Mrs. Lansing. Now I gotta go.” He started to shut the door, then added, “Pops, nice to have a door bell that works, right?”

Pops ran down the stairs, passed Thomas in the front hall, then was out the entrance. He looked up and down the street. He studied the words painted on the cement half-wall. In the distance he could hear music and people calling out. He felt pulled to the park, wanted to see what the commotion was about. All the while he scanned passersby to see if she was among them. Yes, that Francine.

When he got there, he was winded, sweaty, so he sat on a bench and mopped his face. The music was something spacey-jazzy, maybe it was all the rage, and a radio was turned up loud as could be. There was a circle of people near the fountain.

Pops made his way to the edge of the crowd, then wormed his way through.

It was Francine Nording. And she was dancing in that slim skirt and white shirt, her arms and legs moving in ways he had never seen before. She was lithe and elegant, lively and joyful and sparks were coming off her. She was like liquid energy as people watched and clapped. A clot of teenagers were dancing near her, free-form he guessed, whatever that fancy stuff was but even though they did amazing contortions they didn’t hold a candle to Francine. Not one bit. Everyone was mesmerized. It was one of the most moving things he had ever seen. Like seeing someone share being in love. A woman in street clothes, moving to sweetly crazy music, her body a ribbon of light, hands speaking, feet mixing up patterns in soft shadows on the sidewalk, the fountain rising into sunshine that was cheering her on.

Did Francine paint those words on his property? Did the kids tell her  what he said and then ask to meet them because she was a conduit of the dance, all wonderful with lively ways and an exotic existence? Pops didn’t care how it all came to be. He just let himself surrender to her wiles, felt himself lift off to another world, another way of being and called it all very, very good.

Image from Frances Ha
Image from Frances Ha