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 Better Part of Love

Family by Wiliam Eggleston
Family by William Eggleston

That year I had buried my parakeet, Blue; our lame dog, Lucy; a kitten that never had a chance; and my own mother, so I wasn’t about to lose my brothers. I told the social services lady I could manage but she was doubtful. At sixteen, I knew more than they realized. I didn’t talk so much, not to strangers, which was the majority of people. And not about things that were irrelevant, like what meals I could cook, if our tiny, dingy bathroom was disinfected with regularity, how I managed to do laundry. If I could really manage the boys and even pay bills. Like all that was of primary importance to them. The boys, yeah, I got that one. The bills? We had a few of those. I worked after school. And mom had saved some. That was a shock.

Who do they think did all the work? My mother was sick for years, right after Willy was born. No father, ever, okay? In fifteen minutes I wanted to usher that social services woman straight out to the road. But, you know, the game. I nodded, gave her a grin that seemed grateful. Gave her descriptions of three cheese and beef goulash, our favorite, and how I scrubbed walls and toilet with vinegar and water. How I hung wet clothes on the line all year long after using Aunt Sally’s ancient washer. She lived across the road. Not my blood aunt and not the best humored woman but I’d fight for her if she was cornered by a badger or even a bad person. She sat with my mother near the end, then made us all stay in school.

Willy was nine then, Luke twelve. I had turned sixteen the week before Mom passed. There wasn’t anything to that but a cake Aunt Sally baked and ice cream Vern brought from his trailer and his daughter, my closest friend that spring. Mom sat propped in bed though she kept slumping over. Luke would set her upright, fix the pillows again. We all gathered around her, licking chocolate ice cream and icing off our chins, talking about a thunderstorm the night before, and Sally, to my embarrassment, said how much I looked like mom. I had never seen that; I avoided the mirror most days.

“You do, Jessie, more and more,” Sally said. “I wasn’t sure how you’d turn out when you was born but finally you got good-looking.”

Vern grunted. “She had a much better chance than you.”

“Hush. They must have got some hill genes, that’s why, although those ones usually go bad in the end. Not tough enough or honest enough to hold up under much pressure. Poor things.”

I thought, Oh, no, not this again, sorry old whiner that she is. She meant the folks who lived up the hill, the ones with education or money or both. We lived in the valley, where land and housing were cheap. Aunt Sally hated money, what it meant to the world. How she couldn’t keep it long enough to get out of her little brown house with moss eating up the roof and mice aggravating her all night as they scrambled inside the walls. Mildred, her fat cat, couldn’t even keep up with them.

Mom opened her eyes. “Hill people, good and bad like anywhere. My kids got the better part of love, that’s all. Good kids. ”

Vern and Sally were silenced. I wasn’t sure what she meant. We got her care and attention as she could give it, yes. But did she mean something else? I put that aside. She reached for us. I was overcome and looked away when her eyelids shuttered. I knew that was how she saw us–her excellent offspring–but she never quite said it. Just encouraged us, made us study hard and taught us manners, washed our faces with a worn wash cloth. Said we were good, not bad like some parents told their kids. We just made mistakes, she said. Stuck our drawings and report cards and a few class awards on the frig. The usual hopefulness of a mother who never had much more than two sticks to rub together but got by. Who imagined a far finer future for each of us.

She wasn’t a saint. She had three kids and never told anyone who the father or fathers were when pressed for paternity information. I got the idea she was real pretty as a girl, as well as smart–not that much had changed–and had a great liking for men. Unlike some women, like Aunt Sally who thought they were poison. Such traits in my mother weren’t bad things, like criminal leanings or something. No one said terrible things about her that I heard. She worked at the mill, long hours, and most often came right home.

But I understood by my teens that her choices could have been better. Life might have been easier for her and us. Once I overheard her tell Aunt Sally she didn’t want to marry, anyway, after her only husband left. I wasn’t around when she knew that one. He was born lazy, Vern agreed said; the guy skipped out a year later. Mom was way too young, Aunt Sally informed me, as if I couldn’t figure that out. I was born when she was twenty.

“Maybe she does. Hill genes.” Mom whispered as if in a dream. As she did more and more.

Aunt Sally leaned over her bed, bright eyes fixed on her face. “Who’s got ’em? Jessie, then? ”

Our mother managed only a frown as her head slipped off the pillow. I helped her lie down and tucked in the sheets and blanket. Tried to not dwell on why she groaned so, biting her lower lip hard when she had to move.

Still, I thought she’d stay with us until summer, at least. I wanted so much more than was left to have.

After mom passed, the social services woman came and went with documents and her one hundred questions. After the mess of court, it was determined I could continue caring for Willy and Luke. People stuck up for me, teachers and Pastor Dave and family friends. But I had to keep my part-time job at Miller’s Drug and “seek secondary support” from Aunt Sally, plus deal with random visits from the social services lady. Which was ridiculous when you considered that she said she’d never had kids. And Sally swore too much, was sarcastic and a collector of random animal figurines and ancient magazines. But she cared about us. A lifelong worker at the mill lkke mom; volunteered every Saturday at the thrift shop. (This was good for us; she snagged us clothes for next to nothing.) Plus, she didn’t drink except a couple of beers Friday night when she played canasta.

I was surprised I didn’t have to fight harder to keep Willy and Luke and stay in our house. Our roof threatened to cave in near the back porch. I had to grow up even faster and make sure they made it through their teens okay. That meant I’d be like a mother day after day for another ten years, they reminded me. I said nothing to that but “Right, got it.” The authorities were probably relieved to not have to find us new places to land. Or mom fixed it somehow.

Life went on. That’s what people say when things settle down after hard times happen. The boys were subdued a few months. I woke up dazed, was never in the mood for anything to rock the boat. I liked my job as a cashier and was liked back. My grades remained good enough. Willy was a wild child who had turned sullen the least couple years as mom got sicker.

Now he helped out more often. He’d clean up behind me in the kitchen as I cooked, no chatter, just us two getting things done. Sometimes I’d quiz him on vocabulary or math. Luke was out more and more biking with friends or practicing on his homemade skateboard. I felt those two things saved him from trouble. He had to check in with me every day after school at the drug store and be in by dark. Willy went to Pastor Dave’s or a friend’s house until I got off.

It didn’t seem like anything more bad could happen for a long while.

One night Willy plunked his tennis shoes down and told me he had to have new–or at least newer–ones. I agreed. There were holes in the fabric. They were worn down at heels and toes. He had an old jacket on that mom said had been left by a friend way back, no more explanation than that. I thought it looked military. It had moth-chewed holes. I had nearly tossed it recently but Willy liked it and sometimes had to do things differently. I let it be.

I studied the frig contents for inspiration.

“I think we’d be better off if there weren’t so many of us,” he said.

“What? We’re not a big family, never were.” I counted the eggs to see if there were enough and got out the last of the mozzarella cheese. Egg sandwiches would do.

“I meant if you didn’t have to worry so much about how to take care of us. I know you do, don’t lie!”

I turned around and looked at him. He glowered back.

“What else is new, Willy? Worry is a way of life in the valley. Everyone has to stretch their energy and dollars.”

“But you’re sixteen and now you have to start working every week-end and I have to stay at other places. Luke is gone a lot and you have too much to do. And mom isn’t here, remember?”

I heard his voice break into tears before I saw them so put down the iron frying pan beside the bowl of eggs.

“Come here.”

“No, Jessie. I’m telling you it stinks….” his voice shattered, then was muffled by more tears.

“We’re okay. We’ll be okay at some point, anyway. Just have to be patient. Sure it’s hard, what’s easy about much of anything? But you have to stop fearing the worst. That won’t help. Mom’s gone, that’s already the worst of it… the rest I can handle fine! We don’t have too many in this family, you hear me?” But my voice had edged into a register that wound up to a small shriek and it scared us both.

He looked up, red nose streaming, and yelled back, “When will that lady come and tell us we can’t stay together? When will she take me away? That’s what Henry said today, that this is stupid because everyone knows it can’t work for long!”

I placed each hand on the table either side of him, leaned close, face-to-face.

“Henry O’Toole is an idiot. He knows nothing of what I can and will do to take care of you and Luke. He doesn’t know I have been doing it for years. He says wrong things because he’s totally ignorant of the truth, he lives on the hill and hasn’t suffered through much at all–not yet! Henry is just wrong, okay?”

Willy stopped crying and wiped his nose on a sleeve. I grabbed a tea towel and he rubbed his face with it.

“His darned iguana died last year, he said.”

I threw up my hands. “Well, then! A dang crying shame!”

Willy started to laugh.

I thought that was the end of it. He went out on the porch as I got the eggs ready. I called Luke at his friend’s house and told him to get home. The table was set so I called to Willy to help with the apple juice or milk. No answer. I leaned my head out the screen door.

“Willy? Egg sandwiches coming up. Come in now.”

But he wasn’t there. I walked around back calling his name, then crossed the road to Aunt Sally’s.

She was making coffee and a savory pot of soup. “Not seen anybody–got home late. All okay?”

“I think so. I’ll let you know.”

“Good.”

Luke skidded to a stop in front of the porch as I returned.

“Willy took off. He was very upset earlier, said he worried I might not be able to take care of us. You hear that from him?”

He looked away, then back at the house. “He gets…you know…low, sad. We miss mom. But you’re here for us. I don’t worry much.”

“Much?”

Luke took off his baseball cap, scratched his sweaty head. “Yeah, well, we owe for bills and you can’t drop out of school. I was thinking maybe I could do something on week-ends. Yard work or walk dogs. On the hill. But Willy’s too young.”

His eyes held mine a moment–his clear and blue and fearless, mine, grey and anxious and squinty in the waning light. “Grey like the color of pearly twilight,” mom used to say. I felt a wave of longing.

“But he’s gone, you said?”

Luke and I took off down the road.

Spring peepers, crickets and birds sang us into the first veil of darkness. Soon more layers would settle over earth and leave us blind with night. The creatures barely reassured me as we walked, calling out Willy’s name. After few minutes my heart rapped against my ribs and my breath came faster. The woods beckoned but I knew we wouldn’t get too far without a flashlight, which I hadn’t bought new batteries for yet. There were so many things I should have done, and one was paying more attention to how Willy felt.

“He’s got to be nearby, it wasn’t that long before I called him for dinner.”

“He’s hiding out, that’s all.”

The night sky turned from coral and pink to a luminous dusky purple. The trees were already dark and dense.

“Willy Van Buren come out!” I yelled as loud as I could. “It’s too scary out here without both you boys! Come out now!”

Then a car was coming fast, its headlights thrown about like searchlights into the blurry countryside. Luke and I waved our arms so the driver wouldn’t plow us down. It came to a soft stop across from us. I grabbed Luke’s hand and we stepped back.

“You kids alright?”

A man with a shirt and tie poked his head out the open window. He looked familiar but Luke tightened his grip. We turned away and kept walking with purpose.

“Hey, I know you two–you’re the Van Buren children. Lillian’s kids!”

The car door opened and shut. Luke and I sped up more. We were a few hundred yards from Vern’s.

“Who is that?” I hissed as we half-ran.

“I think he works at that big law office downtown, Parks and Taylor. Why would he be here? Maybe we’re in trouble!”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him around.”

The stranger called into dark that obscured landscape and each other even more. “Wait, please! I knew your mom! I’m so sorry she passed….too young.”

I stopped then and turned to face the man, Luke pulling at my hand.

“Well, who are you to care about our mother? You need to move on. We’re going to our friend’s right there.” I indicated with my head where it was and stilled my voice as best I could and planted my feet on the road. “I don’t know you, mister.”

“I’m sorry; this must seem odd. Of course you don’t. I’m Phillip Parks, an attorney in town.”

He strode toward us as we backed up, then held out his hand. It remained suspended there. His face looked softer and older in the headlights. Mr. Parks did look concerned.

“I was driving around after meeting with a client, just thinking, rememembering things. Because I knew Lillian pretty well. She and I went to school together long ago. I was…quite fond of her. I actually wanted to stop by and see you kids sometime, offer help. I know things are rough. It’s serendipity that I found you right now.”

“That right?” Luke’s voice held an edge. “Why would you want to  see us, Mr. Parks? Are you going to inspect our house and take notes on what my sister isn’t doing perfectly? Or worse?”

He yanked my hand so the ligaments in my wrist burned.

“We have business of our own so nice to meet you but good-bye.” I stated to run with Luke. We could see the yellow lights of Vern’s place. But then the car seemed to be following us.

Willy stepped out of the shrubbery and threw his arms around me.

“Where on earth–?”

“I took off for Vern’s, I’m sorry!”

“Don’t do that again!”

“Willy, don’t be stupid–making a fuss for Jessie!” Luke gave his head a soft smack.

We watched Vern wave at us and close his door. I almost ran and banged on his door so he would walk us home. But Phillip Parks’ car had stopped, lights flooding the road and our faces. The driver’s door opened. H strode to us.

“Here.” He handed me an envelope, the sort that has a store-bought card in it. “You can open it now or later. I was going to mail it. I wanted to express my sympathy. I had to offer my help but thought it better to see you in person. That’s all.”

I turned it over in my hands and looked at the front. He, in fcat, had to be Mr. Phillip Parks. There it was, addressed to me with a “Miss” in front of my name.

I ripped it open, wanting the whole thing to be done with. I scanned the flowery scene, read the inside without registering the canned words. Because into my hands fell his business card and two crisp one hundred-dollar bills.

I held it all out to him. “Why this? We don’t know you at all.”

He put his head in his hands. I was scared he was going to start crying and the world was going to stop turning and nothing would ever be righted again. I tried to call mom close to help us.

But he was okay when he looked up. “I hope you all can come to my office tomorrow. The main thing is, I told Lillian I’d help you if anything happened to her. And I’m good for my word. But I can explain more then.”

Luke swore, out of disbelief or amazement, but I almost took him to task right there for rudeness. Willy just stared, having missed the earlier encounter with the stranger. But I offered my hand and shook his, just like mom had taught me to do.

I didn’t want to know more. I did want to consider so much cash in hand and tomorrow I’d decide what was best to do. Likely meet Mr. Parks at his office and clear things up. I had an idea what he’d say to us and thought it might fill me with both relief and more heartache. He turned and started to walk.

I had dinner to reheat or remake. I had homework to complete. I was tired out and it had just been one more day. Still, I saw his shoulders sag worse.

“Mr. Parks, we haven’t met in good circumstances. But I want to say thanks for the money and I appreciate your remembrance of our mother. I’ll call your office tomorrow.”

He hesitated, then put his hand in the air and waved.

I wove my fingers through Luke’s and Willy’s as they chattered. We took our time getting home. Crickets sounded like choristers and an owl said something good. Willy whistled in response. Luke shook off my grip to pick up a stick, help lead the way. Whatever came, I already knew I had the better parts of love on either side of me and in heaven above.

 

Acquisitions

DSCF3895Sela rushed into the office kitchen, excited to have a few minutes to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Heidi had saved her a portion of birthday dessert and hidden it behind drinks in the frig so no one would filch it. Sela parted bottles but it was gone. She searched the second shelf but found it empty save for an orange and an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. Disappointment squelched anticipation.

She turned to appraise Patrick who lounged at the small table. He raised an eyebrow and his black and silver mug in greeting.

“There’s superb coffee,” he said in a jovial voice. “I made it after lunch.”

“Did it go well with the cake?”

He cocked his head. “Why do you always think I swipe the treats when there are several others who enjoy them? Such as yourself.”

“Heidi made a point to save a slice for me. She even hid it. It’s gone. You ate it. You’re a laser that locates the best sweets and savories.”

Patrick rubbed a spot off a silver square–the better to see himself, she thought– took a swig, then stood. “Yes, it is a talent worthy of respect. But I doubt I can beat your skillful nose. Sorry you lost out.” Then he pivoted, smiled at her and left.

The quick smile lingered like fragrance, changing the space. He, in fact, never wore cologne but Sela had a nose for fragrances and could identify most. She found he smelled oddly of mint with a hint of basil when they sat next to each other at meetings or consults. Perhaps a natural shampoo. It was unusual; it startled. That smile, though–it was pleasant as a pipe tobacco’s smoke yet obscured the face behind it.

Patrick Windsor generally took more than he gave from what Sela could figure. One would think he’d be more generous and transparent. He was a mental health therapist as was she. A good one. Everyone said so, especially his clients. Sela had arrived only in the summer. She was not yet persuaded, and found his charm a veneer under which rumbled more; perhaps deep flaws. Not that she wanted to know. He was too good-looking, for one thing. She’d never held physical beauty in high regard. Patrick’s was so off-hand she was sure he cultivated the image of ruffled suaveness with utmost precision. An aristocrat lurked beneath the working man.
Sela had ignored his banter at first. Being professional was her priority. Heidi had given her the head’s up: Patrick was a man of many excesses, the usual plus more since he came from old money. Everyone felt that that made it worse for the guy, so were tolerant of his reputation. Well, so could she be, and determined to like him more.

He had once informed Sela once that he had “acquisitive tendencies”. They alternately amused and burdened him. She was surprised by his openness but he laughed, thereby dismissing the topic. They’d been sitting outside on a break. Her car troubles had been the initial topic.

bank-mit-pflanzen-44421287528590gV7W“Well, my habit of acquiring things has left me with too many, like cars, two of which I drive to work. One every other week as you may have noticed. Another one is in my father’s garage, useless except for my sister’s borrowing it for coastal drives. It’s an sweet old MG convertible.” He tossed the weed he’d knotted while talking. “Tough about your car, though.”

“But the MG is the one to drive. If I were you.”

He gave her a look that indicated he wasn’t so sure but impressed she had an opinion. Sela liked cars, but the mention of his “extras” gathering dust felt egregious. She’d gone back inside. He’d remained on the bench, sun worshipping. It was soon often like that, the two of them gabbing, then she became uncomfortable. There was a small divide despite his efforts.

Sela sighed now and rubbed the knots in her neck. How she would have enjoyed that cake, and it was time to work.

The next day Patrick knocked and cracked open her office door. “I have a great client for you. She’s a plane crash survivor, is alcoholic, a cocaine addict and doesn’t want to stay in treatment but her family insists. Much better match for you.”

“Have her make an appointment. I have a couple slots left this week.”

“No, I meant for her to see you now if you have a few.” He pressed his hands together, pleading for help, and pulled a face.

Sela checked her clock. She had a cancellation earlier and now had forty-five minutes before her group.

“Patrick, I hate it when you do this. And of course I’m a sucker.”

“I know but it’s for the best. Ethics issue. Name is Marty.”

As Marty slouched in the chair she wound her fingers in honeyed waves and peered from behind them with forlorn eyes. A gash above her right eyebrow was stitched up. A garish green and yellow bruise covered her cheek and eye and her left arm was in a cast.

“I need a new boyfriend. It was his error piloting it. He’s not yet divorced. Mother disapproves–too close to her age. But he’s the only one who cares, he needs me.” She glanced at a diamond and ruby ring on her right hand, then thrust it into her leather jacket pocket. “I am not going to stop drinking. Cocaine, alright. I used to be party girl. Now forty looms. But alcohol is my water.”

“And he handles his alcohol and cocaine, also?”

Her eyes turned hard and assessed Sela, then looked down. “The crash was a horror, a nightmare… and what if I’d died, been done with this whole mess?”

Later when Sela entered the common area, she found Patrick getting his coat.

“She’s suffering. A good fit for me. Are you leaving?”

His strong face had gone pallid. “Good, I dated her once–turned out badly…Look, I have to go. My father is very ill.”

Sela watched him from a window overlooking the parking lot. He folded himself into the red Porsche and sped off. Marty and Patrick? It felt too intimate a fact, and sad.

Heidi heard on the news that Mr. Allard K. Windsor of Windsor Manufacturing had barely survived a heart attack. Patrick was gone for ten days. She found herself looking for his coat or going into the kitchen, scanning the air for mint and basil or dark roast coffee. She wondered if he would return. His clients had inquired of him and were told he was on medical leave. She had seen several on his caseload and facilitated one of his groups.

Tryon-Public Lands Day 9-25-10 061One Tuesday morning she entered her office and found him sitting in the dark. She turned on the light, wondering how he’d gotten in. He looked gaunt and his eyes were glazed with sleeplessness. He didn’t smell of herbs but of sorrow and ghostly dreams and a woodsy scent that clung to him from muddy forest trails.

“He thinks he’ll manage a comeback. Jane is taking over even more work. He asked me what I’m going to do. Well, for years I had another agenda: be a carouser, a blowhard, the fool. He understood–notches on the belt and all in his mind–but he hasn’t forgiven me for not sticking with him and the company. I prefer people. I understand how emotions and addictions pair up; he has no patience.”

Sela heard the puzzle of his grief and wanted to place her hand on his, which rested on her desk inches away. She couldn’t do more than murmur. He was talking to her, letting truths out into the bald light of reality. They each were like flags raised on a mast; they had to flutter and fold in the wind as he drifted. This was only a small part of all he had kept at bay. Sela’s breath caught in her throat.

“If my father leaves us I’ll have to live with too much…not things, regrets. I need to make some choices.”

He jerked his head up and his eyes were lake blue, clean of pretense, empty of illusion. For now.

“It seems so,” she said and was shaken when tears slipped from a secret place, then receded.

He held out his hand. “I’m here for a reason. Not to work. Come with me.”

Sela stirred but did not get up.

“Please.” He dropped his hand and she rose. “And thank you for being here.”

They ran down the stairs and into thin light. Sela lifted her face to the chill air; it smelled of ice and earth, the breath of winter rain. The cold brought her a warning of stark loneliness and a promise of comforting solitude.

“Here,” he said, pointing to a happy blue MG MGB Roadster convertible. “A 1973. Not that expensive, but it’s yours for nothing.”

“What? I couldn’t possibly…you’re my teammate! Why on earth are you doing this?”

“Lightening my burdens, my friend. It’s just transportation to you, another irrelevant object for me. I’m taking a leave of absence, Sela. I don’t know what’s ahead. Enjoy it; we’ll take care of the transfer later.”

Rain erupted from the sky and pelted them. His face blurred and she gasped for air. Patrick opened her palm, placing the keys there. He brushed wet hair from her eyes. Backed away slowly.

“Wait! Where are you going–don’t you need a ride?”

But he only waved, then was engulfed by a veil of rain.

200236712-001