In the interest of retrieving lives, obscure or otherwise, a refresher on the following procedures:
we will row the boats down a rough river hitch up our pants and hike high ridges climb ancient oaks to puzzle out plans gather fruits and celebrate succulence crouch in wild grasses, praise redwinged blackbirds hunt for stones and lost beads for our adornment lug water to forgotten snap peas and tiger lilies place a child’s palm in ours with kisses on cheeks conjur equations that design new music hang out in coffee shops and close our eyes sink bare toes into sea-carved sand note all tears slipping from heart to eyes whisper in ears one mantra or nonsense welcome midnight and the owl’s shadow flight hang onto each other and lean back in a circle shout praise and pleas to unperturbed mountains find more endings that give birth to beginnings pick random shards to make a thousand bowls to swamp with life-light, then pour into the dark
and may our blood run salt-sweet-steady, and minds crackle with the power of discovery and souls be seeded with courage and patience
to salvage crushing times and deep, daring tales we inhabit and even one who wanders misunderstood or failing just below an exquisite horizon where nobody thought to look: Call out. Listen. Answer. Go forth.
Ellis was not a neighbor watcher but, nonetheless, she stared out her windows more times than she could count. Her mind was on a netherworld-like pause, somewhere between cottony oblivion and sleepwalking auto-pilot. Why not set her body down, more rag doll than efficient biological organism, right on the desk chair in her back bedroom, or frayed floral wing back in the living room, or schoolhouse wooden chair at the kitchen table? She rotated: morning at the kitchen chair; afternoon at wing back; and desk chair in evening before flopping into bed.
Five weeks with no work. The seconds had ticked loudly in her head at first, small clicks that grew louder, then minutes and hours began to beat away, giving her a headache, until they ebbed and flowed with a swish, a flow without direction that still refused to let her go. Ellis was on a sailboat with no wind and no recourse. This thought made her perk up a second. Sam Towne had taken her sailing last August and she’d imagined it a beginning of something. It was–a friendship that was loosely woven across two hundred miles. He had called every other Thursday. Week-ends he’d been out and about. Not so now with the virus snaring their lives. Sam already had worked remotely and felt guilty he had paying work and she did not. He called less now, though he was at home like she was.
Only a few called at all–a couple old friends, her father, a cousin across town. Her ex-co-workers, never. They were work partners, never lunched or gossiped together. She was the boss then. Now they all were without a job.
She hadn’t loved her manager’s position at a large jewelry store. Ellis appreciated the product yet daily tasks were monotonous, customers’ relentless demands were taxing. Her paychecks eventually afforded her the 975 square foot frame house. It helped her even now feel better. She’d fallen in love with it at first sight four years ago. She could still wrap herself in its natural good ambiance despite a lurking depression.
Now she stayed in bed awhile, let her eyes take in first light as it spilled through sheer ivory curtains. The old maple’s branches gave up two or three robins that trilled, hopped about, flew off with stealth and returned to resume their singing. Ellis watched the leaves unfurl–the tree was that close, close enough to scrape the window in a thunderstorm, to offer shade in summer heat, and to cast a pale green sheen over her compact room as the sun took the sky into its arms. Sometimes this made her cry, all that brilliant new sunshine, but she couldn’t think why…it just all felt tender.
This morning after two slices of toast with cream cheese and a coffee, she had checked her neighbors’ yards. It was becoming the usual routine. The one to her left was quiet at first, then Heidi came out and whacked away at a rectangle of grassy dirt with a hoe. It had been decades since she had seen anyone with a hoe–her father had used one to break up, turn over earth to plant flower bulbs for her mother–and saw that Heidi was making a garden.
At the edge of her own trim back yard was a low stone wall, and then an alley, and beyond that lilac bushes primarily lined the perimeter of Genevieve’s wide, deep lawn. Except that there was an open space and a low gate set between two oaks. A pathway wound through Genevieve’s yard, and Ellis could see quite well much of what went on if she stood close to the wall or sat on it, looking past the gate. Which she did when she walked around. Genevieve didn’t care, it seemed, though she never beckoned exactly but nodded at Ellis, her pale face a smile of an aging goddess. She and Alf lived in a smallish mansion (albeit crumbling after 100 years). But the older woman didn’t get out much even before the pandemic. Another man came and went. Ellis thought he was someone who helped them out, and then a nurse, too, for the husband, she was sure of that.
Lately in daytime Genevieve sat at her patio table with a book, her wide brimmed straw hat shielding her face. And also her cat, Tucker, who stalked a bug or other invisible prey in the lush grass.
Ellis took the plate and cup and set them in the sink, then considered more cleaning. She held up her hands, spread her fingers apart. The ring on her right hand turned so the glittering sapphire was face down. She took it off and put it in a pocket. Her skin was cracked from constant disinfecting, the scrubbing, the attempts to hold every germ at bay. It was becoming a war. She felt battle fatigue already, to her dismay. Sapphires and platinum meant nothing.
She wished Sam Towne would call again, then almost spontaneously called him. Instead, she played an album of old standards and browsed through a home and garden magazine until she fell blissfully asleep.
Heidi had never gardened before. Well, she had helped her mother with an herb garden, so she did know a bit about those plants. But she wasn’t a great cook–not like her mother–and the thought of failure hit her in the knees, making them tremble. She gripped square-palmed hands about the hoe tighter and scraped and dug into the topsoil. Surely she could manage to plant a few seeds. That was the main goal now: make sure they had enough food. Her daughter must not be deprived of fresh vegetables and she was not going to the store every week, exposing them to the terrible virus. It had taken four weeks for five seed packets to arrive. When Heidi had checked on the order status, a notice appeared that no more orders would be taken. They were so backlogged that the company couldn’t keep up with demand and deliveries.
It was tiring. Not just the surprisingly sweaty dirt digging, but the way life had left them in this spot. She had been hopeful about that teaching post in Indiana but in these times that was no longer an option. She would stay where she was, then, and make the best of it at the private school, teaching online classes. Who knew how much longer the term would last? They hoped until June. Then she had summer off, as usual, then hopefully when fall returned….but it was too much to think on. Whether or not the country would be safe and healthy enough. Whether her ten year old, Marie, who stuttered when anxiety increased, would stay strong with her. Well, it was up to Heidi, of course, to make things secure. And a garden would be a good way to shore them up in all ways. You fed people and they knew you loved them well, her mother had said. It worked, Heidi knew that.
Yet her mother had loved her brother better. And look where Mason had ended up: Nova Scotia, as far away as he could get from them all. Far from most of the havoc that was wreaked on everyone else’s lives, it seemed. When did they last talk or email?
Marie had taken to sleeping in on week-ends. Heidi did not. She believed if she kept to her routines, starting laundry at 8 o’clock sharp, making coffee while soapy water swirled in the washer tub, making eggs for them both after she finally awakened her daughter, and so on–if she was diligent, nothing could come apart at the seams. It was ritualized living, a spell said against a negative outcome, and she hoped beyond hope that it’d work. Because she was starting to feel soft at the center, as if her abdominal muscles were going lame despite a half hour or more of yoga each afternoon.
Marie opened the screen door and let it crash behind her. She had a fashion catalog in her hand. She liked to browse even though she knew she could ask for nothing new. Maybe not until next fall.
“You find anything good in there?”
“Naw, it’s the usual dumb stuff, leggings, ankle jeans. I have all that. Maybe a jacket.”
“You have two spring jackets.”
Marie shrugged and folded herself into the hanging egg chair suspended from the ceiling of their rectangular covered patio.
“What are you doing with that tool thing?”
“I told you I wanted a garden.”
“But do you know how?”
Heidi stopped her labor and stood with hoe handle cupped in both hands , her chin resting there.
“That never stopped me from doing anything. You can learn things as you go.”
“True, I guess…maybe call Grandma Jean? She has the green thumb, ya know.” She held the catalog close to squinting eyes. She might need glasses, she wasn’t sure, but was saying nothing about it. She flipped the pages. “We could Zoom her tonight.”
Heidi picked up the hoe and worked harder, sweat accumulating under her faded denim shirt collar. Her mother. The woman of many careers. Now there was a person whose luck just got better. What a surprising business, her herb sales soaring as if customers thought little green things might redeem and save them. Heidi’s grip held firm and she put her back right into it and the soil gave way. At the damp end of an hour she saw things were progressing, after all. She imagined food coming from warm dewy air and then serving it up to Marie with a whistle, a jig and a hug. Musicals, she thought, her lost destiny, and laughed aloud.
Heidi heard her neighbor’s door swing closed and looked over at Ellis’ house. The yard was empty; she must have come out and gone back in. Why didn’t they talk more? Now that Ellis was home for good. For now, anyway. The woman was quite pleasant, a cheery greeting at yard’s boundary when she was home–she used to fly off to various trainings and gem trade shows. Must be hard staying home. But Ellis was not that approachable. Even Marie said so, and she could get anybody engaged in a good chat.
She took a seat beside Marie and peered at the bright leggings on a page. “We could get one pair,” she said.
Marie put her hand atop her mother’s dirty one and stared at the freshly turned soil. “Naw, I can wait. Before we know it, we can wear shorts.”
Within a lemony warmth spread over walls and floor of the solarium, Alf stirred in his wheelchair and looked at Genevieve longingly. Not that she could see him. He’d join her, but first he just wanted to look.
Genevieve was the most beautiful woman he had ever met when he was twenty-one, and that had never changed. Tall–taller than his five ft. ten inches–and willowy, graceful to the point of seeming less human than most, and her straight blond hair cropped at chin length, her ivory skin forever smoothed in sunscreen…she shimmered. Her words still came to him as they had from the start: liquid, warm, rich with deeper meanings as her alto voice slipped into ordinary air and jazzed it up. He was in love just like that and he never fell out or away. Even when he suspected she was smarter than he was–it added to her allure.
Genevieve was less enthralled with him at start. His potential, she said, was amazing, and hopefully he would follow his great instincts and dream beyond the usual–his dream then was to become the best something in the city. So he made lots of money as a stockbroker and wasn’t happy. Neither was she; her tastes and material wants were not terribly elevated, though her heart and mind reached higher. She kept painting large canvasses from seven to noon each day; it helped her discontent with her narrowed vision, his disappointments. So he tried out a pubic relations firm, became VP, and that was barely closer to what he longed to do. But what was to come next? What was his calling?
After a heart attack at forty-nine, he left the PR work and began to dictate into a machine some story lines for mysteries. To pass the tedium of halting days and a burden of too-long nights. To distract from his severe failure to remain a specimen of health.
Soon those jottings became stories. He asked Genevieve’s opinion as she was far better read than was he. He trusted her. She found the weak spots and magnetic aspects, suggested character strengths, weaknesses or quirks he might add. She smiled more. She became his happy shadow in his study, plying him with herbal tea and lemon poppy seed scones as she gradually worked alongside him in the afternoons. Those stories turned into books–he simply had a knack for it. And he was finally content. And Genevieve found her way to selling paintings, a show here and there.
Then came the stroke at 73, and it swept him off his feet and landed him in a cave of grief. He wrote nothing–for that matter, he spoke almost nothing of any kind of value– for seven, eight months as he worked to make his various appendages move in a less tentative or spastic way, to create strength out of little, and mental and spiritual plenty out of such paucity as he had never known. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, shuddered at the heap he had become. His legs never got as well as he wanted. he sat more in the wheelchair than he though he’d allow of himself. But surrender sometimes is best when you are clearly on a losing streak.
Yet there was Genevieve, talking with him, helping him. reading to him, painting and humming beside him as he adjusted to the wheelchair. She was not a sentimental woman despite pale beauty or considerable other assets. Every time Alf thought to give up–what good was he to anyone? how could she even bear his presence now? what stories were left in the wide world to share?– she told him no such thoughts were allowed to park in his brain cells, only the knowledge that he would go forward, and find the good in each day, in every hour. It sounded nuts. But they would grow old together, and now the process was well underway, and only a few complaints.
So, he’d learned how to write again and he had another book coming out. It was about them, their love and smarts more or less, with a crime or two tossed in.
She turned then in her chair on the patio, one hand holding her hat in place. Her hair was kept golden, cropped close about a lined face; her figure was still narrow and tensile, at ease in the world. Basic good health clothed her though she was slower than last year in gait and sparser of hearing. She didn’t care; she was still pleased with their life. Even though his books sold a bit less well and the house was not quite up to standards for a place that took up half a block, lawn included. They were entirely at home with each other and generous surroundings.
They could care less that they had to remain in place due to the pandemic, though the terrible loss of life and the mess of politics were points of head-shaking woe every day they spoke of it. They might stay well, or they might not, and meanwhile they lived.
Alf raised a shaky hand, half-waved. She waved back, her hand moving like that of a beauty queen–though she’d scoff at such a foolish picture. He wheeled himself close as she poured two glasses of iced tea. April might seem early, but it was iced tea as soon as it was sweater weather.
Alf took a long draft and then held her pale blue eyes. Tucker lept off her lap with a meow, lept onto his then left very fast to chase a bee.
“I think we might entertain more,” he said.
She cocked her head. “Entertain? How might we manage that, darling Alf?”
“You know, invite people closer, serve tea and food, maybe something good Clive can cook; he cooks four days a week, anyway.”
Her right eyebrow rose in a gentle arch and she murmured, ‘That’s true. He’d not complain of a few more now and then. But we have to remain apart, you know, socially distanced. Quite a lot of distance, Alf, remember? Hard to hold a group conversation that is not around a table. Or the fire pit.”
“Still.” He wheeled himself farther out to the patio’s tiled edge, almost halfway to the large fire pit where they used to gather people every week-end. Long ago. He gestured across the alleyway. “Those two. Three, I guess. They watch us, and we watch them. What are they called?”
Genevieve got up and went to him. Hands then rested on the wheelchair handlebars, readied to push is needed.”You mean Ellis and Heidi and her daughter….Mary or Marissa…no, Marie, I think. You’re suggesting we have them over here?”
“We might certainly do that. We can stay in our chairs on the patio to eat, while they can come in the yard, enjoy a small spring table well laid. We can still chat at the requisite number of feet–six is it now? Or they can stay at the edges, back here by the fire pit, enjoy its glow.” He looked up at her. “I miss other people sometimes, don’t you? We had such fun.”
She patted his shoulder then walked toward the lilac bushes and the gate at the alley; looked over the stone wall of Ellis’ and at the child with Heidi, her mother, then walked slowly back again.
“Extraordinary idea,” Genevieve said. She tapped her upper lip twice with a long finger, a bent elbow cradled in her other hand, a habit of hers. “I like it.” She leaned down, planted a kiss on a bristly cheek. “Let me think it over more. Come up with a plan. What a surprising person you turned out to be, Alf!”
Alf had heard that many times and it always filled him up with a warm humming. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath– the perfume of nearby cherry blossoms came to him, and cinnamon from the iced tea he had propped in his lap with his better hand, and her signature scent of lilies of the valley. And Genevieve smelled these, too, and the faint tang of sweat from her husband, and she laughed softly, thinking how fortunate they had been. And she felt it like a miraculous thing, a blessing amid the worst of times.
They all met there once a week thereafter. Ellis brought masks that they sometimes used, other times tucked into their pockets. They were never too close, always counting mentally the feet between them– yet never that far away, just placed so they could hear to share ideas and swap vignettes, even dumb jokes. Marie instituted a “show and tell”: they had to bring something quirky, interesting, or of real personal value. They felt safe standing like that in the evening, sitting apart around the fire, Alf and Genevieve seated ehind them but pitching in thoughts often enough. The savory and sweet foods they took turns making were satisfying, and the night air at once invigorating and calming. If it rained, they missed the time with each other but stored up more talk and searched for odd things to bring, items that told of their lives and wove more stories.
It was the best they could do, considering, even much more than Heidi and Ellis imagined possible a few weeks before. Or Genevieve and Alf. Marie wondered what took them so long, but she never said that to any of them, not even her mom. She knew adults had to take their time to figure things out right. But somehow she knew the oldest of them, Alf, as welcoming as her old teddy bear, had been the one who got it all going. Genevieve, too, but she was like a worn silk scarf; it took a little time to get comfortable with her, and then you were glad you did.
As they talked to one another more it felt as if they were becoming friends. The best things could come out of weird, scary times, Marie thought, and she couldn’t wait to wheel Alf around the block when the world got better.
Each year the building looked forward to it–that is, if they had no other pressing or thrilling plans. They checked their lobby mailboxes a week ahead, anticipating the handwritten and simply illustrated (with perhaps a snow covered pine, a blue jay atop it) invitation to a Resplendent Holiday Feast. At the bottom, under the signature of PJ Mulligan, Sr.: You are all what makes it resplendent.
Mulligan had been a banker for many years and was happily all about retirement when his wife got ill. And did not recover. This changed things in every way. He sold his lovely Colonial and hightailed it to the nearby more moderate-sized town of Goosehollow where he took the first decent apartment he could find. Everyone who knew him well expected he would buy another house, a cottage, perhaps, but no he said he was not close to ready for one last permanent dwelling. His home had been Jean and their son. Now, five years had passed and he’d started to grow moss on his heels, he said, so that was that; he dug in and made it work.
He appreciated his neighbors, most of whom had lived in Mistral Manor for a good number of years. They were a varied bunch, not at all offish as some had been in the city. If people didn’t stay they likely had no business being there in the first place. The rent was good. The upper story views, especially, were great–tidy courtyard with a fountain in the center, bustling nearby streets and a sprawling park not far. The community had become close knit without becoming suffocating. For the most part. Obviously, if you were a loner, this might not sit well. Mulligan was at first on the verge but rallied the second year and all went well after his first Resplendent Holiday Feast as cooked and shared with whomever would like to come. And about 14 came then, and finally it became a more usual 8 or so.
Marty was the first one to notice the invite hadn’t appeared in a timely fashion.
“I suspect he’s tired after his Banff vacation to see his son, Phil,” he suggested.
Carrie from across the hall nodded in agreement. “I did see the cab drop him off two nights ago. He looked the same, just fine, but that was a big trip. He’s no spring chicken.”
“Two weeks he was gone. I missed his cheery waves in the hallway. He said he wanted to ski–a bunny hill, it was too long since he last raced his way downhill. Maybe he strained something.”
Carrie noticed Marty had shaved his beard and couldn’t decide whether or not it did his roundish face any justice, so she unlocked her door and hoisted her grocery bags again. “Patience. He always has the feast.”
“But what if he doesn’t this year?”
“Then… it is what it is.” She noted his look of consternation. “No worries, Marty, all will be well.”
Marty thought Carrie was too Zen, she might show more concern, at times, but he liked chatting with her and petting her half-feral orange cat, Spicer. Maybe he was just too worried about things; his mother always said so. Marty wish he felt more secure about life. Himself.
Carrie leaned against her door after she closed it. “What if Mulligan has no feast?” she said to Spicer, who flicked his tail and ran off. The thought made her uneasy. Mulligan was a favorite of hers, not the least because he was a fine cook. He also always tipped his hat at her, whether or not he actually had one on, and asked after her and Spicer. And she also liked his vinyl collection.
Marty had nowhere to go for holidays. His parents now lived in Amsterdam, of all places, a move that had disturbed him–they’d just retired! They’d been close, hadn’t they?–and his sister, Ellie, then moved to New York City. His beloved Cecily had broken up with him the first of September. The apartment now seemed nearly unsuitable or entirely sad; it needed her arts and crafts, her laughter. But Mulligan always cheered him up, he had a knack.
“Hey Marty! No invites yet, huh?” Lance bounded up the first inside steps. He raised bushy reddish eyebrows and shifted a backpack bulging with all the unknowns he crowded into it.
“Nope. Patience, I guess, right?”
“That feast is the event of winter–other than fantastic parties for New Year’s Eve!”
“Yes, it sure is.” Marty knew Lance had lots of invites to lots of things. He didn’t care, he hung out with Gerry and Pete on New Year’s Eve at Rasputin’s Bar and Grill. But he wondered about those parties.
Lance whizzed by him, then spun around. “You find a nice new girl, yet?”
Marty stepped back, pushed a hand though his hair. “No, no–of course not.”
“Well, let me now how it goes. I’d be glad to set you up on a blind date–“
“I’m good, thanks, Lance. More or less.”
“Alrighty, chat later!” And he bounded off to his place up the next three flights of stairs. He never took the elevator.
Lance slowed down on the third floor. Pressed hand to chest. He’d been a bit out of breath lately. He wondered if his heart was going to act up again. But he felt alright. He ascended the next set of steps and thought again of Mulligan, if he was feeling alright. Good man, congenial. And a skier for decades, he just went to Banff. Maybe he should check in on the guy this week-end. That man could cook, he might have missed his calling!
Meanwhile, Harold and Tina in number 14 were busy thinking over Christmas funds and lack of money in general when their daughter, Nance, came in and slumped on the couch, coat still on, boots kicked off.
“No invitation. Doesn’t Mulligan send them out by now?”
“Well, yeah,” Tina said, “but he was just at Banff. Give him a break–he has stuff to do.”
“Like us, kiddo.” Harold punched a few keys on his old school calculator as his wife looked over her gift list, chewing her lower lip. “You okay, glad to be off school awhile?”
She had had a regular boring day at school, she was so glad it was out for the holidays. She thought about the boy who always ignored her when she really wanted him to just look her way. Was that bad or good?
And Nance wished her parents would quite calling her “kiddo.” She was fourteen. She was taller by the minute, would surpass her parents. Anyway, she had a good gift for each one. In art class she’d hand built a rectangular tray, then fired it with a fancy glaze streaked gold and teal, her mother’s favorite color combo. For her dad she had made a coffee mug, earth tones.
Harold gazed at Tina with sorrow. He showed her the final numbers when she lifted her head. She shrugged one shoulder, looked down, blinked lest a tear wet her cheek. His job had been a perfect fit and for forever, until it wasn’t. It ended the night before; Nance didn’t know yet.
Tina cleared her throat, blinked. “I have to work overtime– just have Christmas Day off this year, kiddo.”
Nance frowned; her mom worked way too much, she was hardly ever home. “Yeah, okay, Ma. Dad and I can manage, and we have the Feast on Christmas Eve.”
“Hey, Nance, I wanted to talk to you. Got a minute?”
She knowingly smiled at him–it was, of course, about his gift for Ma–but he was leaning forward in his chair, hands gripping knees, glasses perched on his head giving him a serious look.
“I’ll start dinner,” Tina said and left the living room thinking about the feast, how she’d have to miss it. Thinking about her husband, knowing he’d find another job, he just would, maybe even soon.
Between fourth and fifth floor, LaDonna sat with knees pulled up to chin on the staircase landing. She moved over as Luke came by, raised a hand in greeting.
“What’s up?” he asked. “Oh, LaDonna–Owen again?…You okay?”
She waved off his concern. “Never mind. He’s sleeping it off. He has ten days off, right? So he got an early start after work today.”
He sat down, shrugging free his jacket. “I imagine he’ll be at it the whole time.”
“I never know for sure but I won’t be here all that time. I work at the salon until Monday night, so he’ll mostly have the place to himself and Mugsy. Maybe he’ll go to his brother’s and drink–they do that every chance they get.”
“How is that big lump, Mugsy? Haven’t seen him awhile– for a fat ole bulldog, he’s pretty spry. Makes me think about getting one.”
LaDonna laughed. “You’ve said that three years. You’ll never have a pet. You’re too busy entertaining audiences here and there, everywhere. Next stop, big bad city for good, you wait.’
“I’d rather have more human company.” He glanced at her, expressive eyes saying all he could not but she turned her head.
“As if you don’t have any.” Her stomach flip-flopped. “We don’t always get what we want, Luke, you know that by age 33.”
“Huh. You know my real age. Not even my agent knows that.”
She swatted his arm. “You had your thirtieth birthday bash here and I showed up for the heck of it, remember?”
“How could I forget?” Luke sighed as she moved a tiny bit from him. “Anyway, we have the feast to go to, right?” She always went, sans Owen.
“I wonder. No invitations.”
“I know, I thought it was due.”
“We should check on Mulligan, see he’s okay.”
“You always put others first, you know that?” Luke stood up, slung his jacket over his shoulder. “Come on, I’ll walk you up. I’ll check to make sure he’s actually passed out.”
“No thanks. I have a book to read. I like it fine out here.” She picked up the paperback and began to read aloud using her storybook voice. “‘It was at last snowing heavily, and tracks left by the horses were deep and sparkling on the snow-covered road. She pulled the blanket closer about her shoulders and peered into the forest and saw a flash of red wings. It was a sign.’ See?” She smiled, a weary one, he thought, but generous all the same.
“I see, catch you later, but you could charm any audience, yourself, ” Luke said and hurried up to his apartment. If only she was not staying with that lout. If only she would give him a chance. If only!
If he had any sense, Mulligan might have remained at Ben’s longer. It was a winter wonderland in Banff, he’d successfully skied a little, and Ben was excellent company as was Sara, his wife. They’d wanted him to stay on until after Christmas but Ben ran an inn and Sara ran a boutique; they were so jammed up this time of year. Mulligan needed to get out of their way, let them have time alone as they could.
He wished they’d have a baby, he thought dreamily as he ladled the peppery-herbed chicken noodle soup into an antique porcelain bowl. Good thing he’d frozen some of it before he’d left. Yes, a little one would do all good. They’d have to slow down. And he’d be full of so very much more.
Because lately he felt emptier than he should. The travel was not bad, the vistas breathtaking, the visit lively. The snow pack, great. But he’d watched them scurry about, so successful and energized–and he’d felt powerless somehow rather than relaxed. What did he have to do when he got home, either? Not much. Volunteer twice a month at the Red Cross. Shelve a few books at the tiny corner library as hour twice a week. Meet with chess club once a month. Have brunch with Jack and Antonia from church on occasional Sundays. But what did they talk about? He didn’t like to mention aches and pains–they did and it took up easily twenty minutes– and they read supernatural thrillers, fine, but not poetry or nonfiction on science or biographies. But they liked a game of rummy, liked good food–that was good enough.
Wasn’t it? Life was what you made of it; he knew how to do that. He generally had liked his fine, had little to complain about. Well, until Jean left him hanging here. But he’d managed. He appreciated Goosehollow, his sunny apartment, the balcony where he could see everyone coming and going. The picturesque town that looked even better over tops of trees. He’d tried his hand at poetry writing, secretly. It was an experiment and was yet to be seen if it panned out as anything other than wisps of letters and imaginings set upon paper. Sometimes he liked to fantasize: A Banker’s Treasury of Verse. Silly, he knew.
But that time had come again: Christmas. And Mulligan knew he had to get invitations sent pronto for his yearly Resplendent Holiday Feast. Yet this feeling persisted, like he was scaling a mountain some mornings as soon as his crusty eyelids slid up. He’d seen the doc and nothing was more wrong than before, which meant only that he was older and not having as much fun. He took St. John’s Wort, called it good; it maybe helped a little.
He’d loved cooking the feast, having the garrulous bunch over around sevenish, a more civilized hour to share his offerings, then they’d play cards or charades or dance to his records or just sip wine, be peaceful. Luke usually read something to them since he was an actor. His voice was resonant, his words so infused with feeling they were spellbound. Marty might sing a little. People usually moseyed out by eleven after they helped clean up.
Every other year he’d anticipated it but clearly this year not so much. He wasn’t even inspired about a menu and that was serious. If Jean was here, she’d laugh, tell him to…well, no matter, she wasn’t. He didn’t have anything to say to her, either. Not right yet. She ought to have stayed with him, oughtn’t she? The years were not kinder without her. It wasn’t her fault, nothing was anyone’s fault, he knew that. Mulligan was only feeling sour; he had to shake it off.
But how was he going to tell them to make their own big deal meal for once? Just let him be, sulk a little in solitude, doze by a fire. Forget.
They hunched over chipped white mugs of coffee and whined companionably. Mulligan was skipping this year’s feast, terribly sorry, he was going to stick with soup and a sandwich Christmas Eve, and please don’t worry. He liked a little time to himself, too, so everybody have a good holiday!
That little note on green paper was tacked on the community bulletin board just beyond double lobby doors.
“It sounds like a crock.”
“It scares me for some weird reason.”
“It’s just that he’s getting up there, you think? He’s way over seventy.”
“Naw, trip just tired him, maybe it wasn’t a good visit. His son is a fancy inn owner. Met him once. Nice– but you know…important.”
“Well, Mulligan isn’t so regular a person in some ways. He’s kinder. But I suggest we consider reaching out to him.” Carrie reapplied lipstick, no mirror, a dash of mauve gloss. “Well?” she said when they stared at her.
They thought her comments worthwhile. Especially when she usually was more circumspect–and cool.
“I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? I haven’t even seen him since he returned. Not that I should, but it’s been nearly three days already. He usually is out and about!” Marty said.
“True,” Lance agreed. “We should stop by, offer some help.”
“We need to consider him,” Luke agreed. “Not just us, right, LaDonna? I mean, he’s the one who’s really alone, we all have something or someone to consume time and attention. Maybe we’ve been selfish.”
LaDonna dropped two cubes of sugar into her coffee and sloshed the mug back and forth. “Yes, we need to do something for him this time.” She sat up tall, grey eyes widening and lit up, which was something considering the deepening bruise near one of them. “Potluck!”
Luke reached for her hand without thinking. Others noticed, their eyes sliding over his finely featured face and warm eyes, at her beautiful black hair, blushing cheeks. LaDonna put her hand in her lap and Luke leaned back.
“I agree. I can barely cook but I do know how to make hash and baked beans,” Marty offered.
Harold laughed. “And I can make cinnamon tea–or mocha java from an instant packet.”
Lance signaled the waitress. “Another round of the coffee pot, Jill!” He took out a little notebook and stubby pencil. “Let’s figure this out.”
Mulligan opened his door to a group of babbling residents. Friends, alright, they were that. He couldn’t make out a word of what hey were saying so he ushered them in. What choice was there? Probably thought he was no longer breathing. But he was; he’d eventually get over whatever this mental virus was.
He stood with arms crossed over his broad chest, feet apart but he managed to look neutral. “I have a small case of woes. I’m pooped out. You’ll have to live without the feast for just this once. Now, is that what you wanted to know before I kindly ask you to move along?”
“You’re not contagious!” Lance grinned at him. “A relief, Mulligan, I’m in training for February marathon.”
“We wondered what’s up, that’s all,” Marty said.
Carrie shook her head at Mulligan, a little frown forming. “But everyone gets a bit blue at holidays if they’re honest, some just more than others. We came to see if you need anything.”
Mulligan sat down as they stood waiting and shifting one foot to another.
“I guess I’m out of commission for once. I’m not used to giving up on anything, but seeing my son and trying to ski, then coming home to an empty apartment–well, it is sometimes enough to stall a person. I just need a break from all the gung-ho festivities.”
“You might need a dog,” Luke said. “I might. Despite the applause I have my times, too. Look, you’re our friend, we want to cheer you up.”
LaDonna went to Mulligan, sat on the arm of the chair, put an arm about him.
“What’s with your eye being bruised?” Mulligan asked as if they were alone.
“Mugsy got in the way of my face. More important, I think you deserve a batch of my usual anise shortbread cookies. That’s the least I can do. Will you be home Christmas Eve? I’ll bring them by.”
“Well, I suppose so,” he said.
“I can help, too,” Harold said. “Well, maybe Nance can pull together a mac and cheese dish. “
Mulligan gave them the wannest smile, wrinkles deepening a touch. “I won’t lock the door, if that’s what you mean. Very nice of you folks to offer and to just come by.” He stood again but he felt uncertain, not sure if he might rush them out or if he should offer them a quick drink, which he did not really want to do.
“Let’s go, guys,” Carrie said. “I’ll come by with a couple treats next week, okay?”
Marty nodded and waved at Mulligan just as Mulligan had always done at him.
When they were gone and their voices had vanished down hallways, he sank back down into his easy chair. He should light the fire. He should put out the ceramic Christmas tree, he supposed, light a candle in the window as he always did for Jean. He should go to bed and read and doze, yes, that was the best action to take. So he did.
He’d forgotten what day it was. Time had slunk by. Oh, he had gone to the town square to gawk at the gaudy, huge tree that was going to waste after it was taken down. He had bought himself a small slab of ham for Christmas Day, fresh broccoli and carrots. So when there was a sharp and insistent rap on his door, he startled. He had knelt by the fireplace–he’d finally given in and lit a fire and was poking at one of those wax and sawdust logs. He hadn’t bothered to get the seasoned and fragrant logs yet. He struggled to get up, felt impatient and a little foolish about it even though he was alone.
“Who is it?” he called out as he turned the doorknob.
“Mistral Manor calling!” someone called back, likely Luke.
Mulligan shook his head, swung open the door.
“Surprise, Mulligan!” they called out.
He stood back, mouth agape as they paraded in with their fragrant hot dishes and platters of redolent cheeses and meats, the tins of enticing cookies.
“What on earth?” he said.
“We have brought the Resplendent Holiday Feast to you,” Nance said, showing him the mac and cheese.
“From us to you,” Carrie and Marty said nearly at once and laughed.
Everyone turned to him after they set their dishes on his table–waited to see what he’d do or say.
And he didn’t know what to do. He’d let them down. What was it about? Should he rush to them, throw his arms around them? Should he let himself bawl like a baby, for the most ordinary reasons in the world? Should he caution them to please not scorch his teak tabletop? Or should he just thank them for their surprise of consideration, time and effort? Honestly, they had such generous spirits, he was stupefied. Not usual for him.
He stuttered a moment, then: “A real portable feast?” His voice came out in a regrettable mouse-y squeak.
He got himself together. “Well, for goodness’ sake, you sure did show up–and you have shown me up! Guess I will rise to the occasion and put on the coffee pot and get the good plates down. Carrie, find the Christmas tablecloth in the buffet drawer, and will you all please remove the hot dishes a moment. Luke, did you bring something to read? Oh, good man! Lance, grab those cookies, they belong in the kitchen, out of temptation’s way for now. And LaDonna…”
He stopped as she turned to him, the bruise discoloring a spot of tawny skin but her face was tinged with happiness.
“He’s gone to his brother’s, don’t worry!” And she got the silverware from the silver chest, smoothing the lustrous pieces, so relieved to be there. To be on her own a bit, but with friends.
Harold and Nance moved the table away from the bay window to make more room for everyone. She’d taken his layoff okay; she’d been glad to make the casserole and he was proud of her.
“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you…” Marty took a full breath and began once more.
He gleefully sang out as he and Carrie got chairs situated. The rest stopped to listen. Such a voice! He ought to be on the stage, not at a computer desk all day. But Mulligan felt a spark of happiness, and thought how his neighbor would always have an appreciative audience in Mistral Manor. And that counted for something.
PJ Mulligan, Sr. couldn’t help himself and he nibbled a corner of a perfect anise cookie. Then he joined in with clanking notes, loudly belted it out with the others, every word bright and clear–and with higher hopes crowding out that useless emptiness.
When Tessa thought back to the day she first saw Cliffside Court, she couldn’t for the life of her recall seeing that thing standing like a relic amid sea salt-licked, sun-burnt grass. She’d only been drawn to the bluff’s edge, and the ocean’s roaring like a wild thing it was yet which from up there sounded like a comfort born of the neutrality of indifference. Acceptance, that was what she felt as she peered at cottages and stepped across the dry lawn which offered a shared area. She observed the kids squinting at her then scattering, an old man hunched over his walking stuck with cap pulled to his eyes. If one was inclined to share an area, that is, which she felt was unlikely overall. It suited her. She was here to do nothing, for as long as it took to feel at ease with that. Doctor’s orders, finally.
“I’m not yet a basket case; you can’t just order me to some obscure asylum where I must lunch on a manicured lawn with the crazy ladies,” she’d protested when forced to see Dr. Matthews. “I have scads of excellent miles left on this mind and body.”
This was the day after her meltdown during a useless, contentious staff meeting wherein she threw her favorite Waterford pen across the room. It then bounced off the window and hit Jarrod’s cheekbone, her comrade but also boss. Then worse yet she began to weep as she mumbled another something regrettable and fumed out.
“The operant word there is ‘yet’, Tessa. You’ve given much and are paying for the 16 hour days and sleepless nights. You know I can more or less order you to take a leave since I work for this company–part of your perks, our wellness team. Your blood pressure is sky-high. You aren’t eating right. You have no one at home to corral you or advise you so I am sending you off. Six weeks, then do a check-in. Take the tranquilizer as needed, it can help. But go far away, and don’t answer emails or that phone.”
She hung her head like a chastised puppy and slunk out of the room, face burning with embarrassment and anger. No one dared look at her as she tidied her desk, watered her creamy white orchid with shaking hands, turned out the light in her office then walked very fast in her spike heels with head high to escape one more second of humiliation. No one was going to see her fall down, certainly not into any terrifying emotional rabbit hole. Jarrod observed Tessa with two fingers gingerly touching a tiny bruise on his cheek. He shook his head, turned away. He sure hoped she’d get a grip.
There certainly was no dependable internet connection at Cliffside Court or surrounds. Anyone would think this was not the place for her, such a step down in the world according to friends and family–why didn’t she take a month’s cruise to the south of France, for example? Find her way to a spa resort on St. Lucia? It was a getaway she needed, a break from a job that had begun to take her apart, her composure and authority disturbed like silky threads torn free of a fine embroidered work. She was VP of a well-tuned interior design business, after all; anyone would need a serious time out after ten years running. But at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot on the road?
Tessa wanted nothing of chic or exclusive or trendy. She wanted unreachable, ordinary, earthy and weathered Cliffside Court fit the bill. After only a week, she had begun to sleep again. She’d found a Saturday farmer’s market in the hamlet four miles away and had begun to eat more than once a day, like a surprisingly hungry person. Off coffee bit by bit, she drank soothing medicinal teas the local coffee shop kept in a green glass jars beside homemade lemon peel and poppy seed scones.
She’d taken to sitting n the deck, careful to step around split or missing boards, settling into her plastic chair with mug in hand. When a thought from the rat race world wriggled into her mind she banished it with a choppy wave of a hand. Tessa primarily focused on the horizon when she could see through fog; she loved how things disappeared and reappeared as a brew of sweet-tangy mist burned off or fell upon all. She watched fishing boats make careful progress, and the rolling, cresting waves were a like spell for healing. When her aching back yelled at her, she walked down a treacherous stairway that led to the miles-long beach and spent an hour loping up and down a blinking sandy stretch. She walked until her leg muscles and brain felt liquid, just another part of the sea. Blessed sea. Sea that scared her in the right way, like God was talking to her. She soon listened to the wordless poetry of it all and breathed in thick or shimmering damp air.
On the week-ends, it got busy; she kept to herself, inside. Or perhaps chatted with the old man who repeated much of what she said to make sure he got it, and had lived there four years since his wife passed. She liked the mischievous sister, Mae and brother, Ty, who soon approached her, and Elle, their mother with a close cap of silvered hair–it could be dyed but Tessa thought no, it belonged on her, framing olive skin and moody eyes. She admired it and Elle’s patience with those entertaining but madcap kids. A family of five from Canada stayed for ten days, friendly from afar at best which was fine with her. A single man came and went after three days; an older woman stayed for two, on to California next, she said as if relieved. People came and went as she stayed on.
The couple who owned the place was always busy. Mo hummed as she worked, sometimes chatted awhile; you’d have thought it the radio as her songs were tuneful and her voice sonorous. Henry tended to silence in a satisfied way. They’d been married on the bluff long ago, bought the cottages six years after their first son was born. Tessa believed the place and lifestyle were their dream come true.
It made her wonder: was her life the one she chose or one that chose her? It seemed a trite thought and dissolved as she relaxed into the pace of coastal life. It made her nervous that she was adapting so quickly to doing so little. Where was the adrenaline rush she loved of the looming deadline? That memory fell over the bluff and headlong into the sea.
So mostly it was good, better than she had imagined. The summer breezes left a kiss of salt on her lips, her hair frizzed and billowed off her loosening shoulders, her bare feet carried sand and dirt inside the cottage and she left it all as it was as long as she wanted. No one cared; not even she cared.
By the end of the second week, however, Tessa found herself unable to see past that odd thing, the two sturdy grey poles with a lateral top pole, and it rose in the middle of her sight line. Useless old beams cutting up the grand view. It struck her as a sort of gallows. She played with tat thought and found it morbid but fascinating. It was as if her vision sharpened, her mind refocused in a fresh way so landscape and surroundings were perceived as more dramatic than soothing. But she began to feel that someone or more than one had hung from or hung onto those frayed rope ends. It scared her. Re-positioning her chair didn’t help; the thing was just there, a reminder of something that made her squirm. It was worrisome, that structure. And her wondering about it, so she’d get get busy with something pleasant, like quickly sketching the morning glories or the ocean, kids at its edge. To draw like that seemed like freedom, like play.
Days passed uneventfully, just sunning and walking and reading two good books she had put off for too long. The nights sweetly whispered to her, the push, lift and fall of endless water shushing her mind, the deep darkness gentle about her body.
One afternoon Old Man–he didn’t offer a name, saying his real one was ridiculous, no one could pronounce it–sat on the bench longer than usual, face to the glinting expanse of water and sand below.
“May I join you?”
“Eh? Join me? So you are.”
They sat a moment quietly. He liked to chew on an unlit pipe as he stroked his white beard, now scraggly but reasonably short.
“I have a feeling your beard has longer than this,” she said, pointing with her chin, her hands grasping the bench. There was a strong, chilling wind this time.
“My beard? You’d be right. Down to middle of my chest a long while.”
“Why’d you cut it?”
“Cut it? Well, my wife didn’t like it that long. But I didn’t whack it down until she died.”
“You waited until then?”
“Ah, yes, I waited…and then it seemed the right thing to do. Respect for her memory. And I didn’t enjoy it long, anymore. She used to brush it out, oil it up for me.” He puffed on his smokeless pipe a bit. “That’s the sort she was.” He glanced at her, heavy-lidded eyes keen and clear. “You married?”
“Oh, no. I mean, once. Not anymore.”
“Once, eh? Enough for some, that’s it. You look like one of them fancy lawyers, too busy for such.”
Tessa laughed. “No, not one of those. I work at an interior design company.” She wondered what it was that made him think that.
Old man shrugged as if he heard her. “I guess it’s how you talk.”
She started again. “We create interiors of houses and commercial buildings, make things functional but attractive.”
“You create, huh? Make house stuff? Well, that’s fine. I loved woodworking, myself. Made some money in handmade furniture.” He then held up a hand and showed her a pale scar running along his gnarled thumb all the way to the tip. “About cut it in half, but they got ‘er fixed.”
She shook her head, pulled her jacket about her. “Well, good thing. Going to storm?”
“Naw, not tonight. Just bluster, a little wet. Might even get a good sunset.”
She glanced at the moldy looking clouds, unable to see how that could happen.
“Just wait,” Old man said, “that sky will likely shine.” He pushed his stick into the ground and helped himself up. “I saw you looking at the thing out there. We all have, too much.” He pointed at the poles behind them. “Don’t ask Mo and Henry. Not a good story.” He lumbered off, all six feet of him, a long crackling branch bent over by time and wind.
Tessa waited for the sun to set, arms crossed tightly, hood pulled up over her head. She heard the children run inside as Elle called twice and almost wished they’d come sit with her. Her cottage could feel too ancient and quiet. Empty of much, not such a bad thing but sometimes a tad lonely. As she stared out to leaping and cresting waves, a yellowish-coral light seeped through heavy banks of clouds and there was a small thin line that grew, a spot amid the dimming distance that shone, just like he said.
It was beginning to feel right, being there, and she still had three more weeks of wonders. And then she did not know what next. She did not miss the power of her title, the problem solving to create a heftier profit. She missed making art.
In the morning she was possessed of an immense desire to find out why the thing was left to rot over the years. Though it still stood tall and straight it was a blight. And clearly someone wanted it to remain. She had awakened knowing it was just meant to be long swings, two by the looks of the ratty rope ends flapping away. Even if Mo and Henry weren’t going to tell her, she could explore it more. Set a chair by it and step up higher to look it over. So she perpared to do that after pancakes for breakfast and strong black tea she gave into and bought at the coffee shop.
Mae’s small face greeted her, nose pressed flat against the screen of the door.
“Miss Tessa, what’ve you been cooking?”
“Pancakes, want some?”
“Blueberries or raspeberries or what?”
“Gluten-free flour, no berries, but walnuts.”
“No thanks.” She shrugged, picked up a ladybug.
They sat on the deck and surveyed the bright blue sky when Elle sauntered around the corner with mail in her hand.
“Look at that, something from a Mr. Lance Forman.” She smacked it twice on her palm.
“Oh…a nice surprise, huh?”
Elle looked down, smiled widely.
“It’s Daddy! Read to me!” She tackled her mother’s waist.
“I guess he’ll get around to coming back one of these days, the kids are powerful magnets. Maybe I still can persuade him, too. Well, well.” She smoothed back the long bangs from her daughter’s forehead. “Not now. Wait for Ty to get back with Henry. Then we’ll see what’s what.” She unlatched her child. “So how’s it going, Tessa? Pretty out here today.”
“Yes, all except this thing, the weird blight on the bluff,” she said, pointing at it. It’s all I can see, anymore, until I get to the beach. And then I still see it as I look up. What is it, Elle?”
She studied Mae’s surprised eyes, then sighed, opened her mouth to speak.
“Mama-you said not to talk about it.”
“Yeah. And Ty’ll be back soon. Why not go find Mo, see if you can help her.”
Mae jumped down from the deck and ran off.
Tessa thought better of her inquiry. “Maybe… just forget it?”
“It’s just, it was tragic, that’s all.”
“I see. I felt maybe that was it. An accident?”
Elle nodded, ruffled glimmering hair. “I guess I can tell you. Just say nothing to anyone else.” She glanced around her. “Their other son. He fell from the top piece, way the heck from up there. He climbed all the way up to show off to his little brother, I guess, who was swinging down below him. Those swings could really fly, I guess, fun if a little dangerous if you pumped too hard and flew up too high. But it was the climbing that got him, not the swinging.”
Tessa’s right hand pressed hard against her chest. “Oh, no. Then why keep it there? Why not take it down so it isn’t a reminder every single day?”
Elle narrowed her eyes at the sea. “A kind of memorial, I guess, to Wally. The little brother, Rusty, didn’t talk for months but he finally turned out okay, he has a welding business over the mountains. Doesn’t come by much. I’ve met him, he was nice-looking and polite but oh, those eyes.” She shivered. “Like two deep wells of sorrow, you just want to fill them with happy times until he can smile without hurt fighting its way out… After one visit Mo came over, explained to me. She wanted to finally cut it down but Henry said no, not yet.” She let out a long sigh again, then got up to start dinner. “Best to try to overlook it, go on and enjoy your stay here. You’re a good sort, Tessa, say a prayer for them, huh?”
Tessa held herself very still as she looked up at the weathered wood and tattered ropes. The ghosts of two perfect swings, made for children and grownups alike, and the remnants aged in the salty wind, rains that swept in from foreign places, the swift sunlight that cut through all the fog and burnished sturdy grasses and morning glories that grew wild. The people who withstood such a place of mysteries, and miseries. Like people everyhwere, she guessed. But Wally seemed only half-gone, lingering upon the vehicle of his ending. It suddenly angered her to think that they would always see him just lying broken on the ground, or falling and falling, or cheerily waving so high up before that fall…that this was the last they would recall of him.
Tessa got out her camera from its soft case in the bedroom. She held it in her hands and thought about what she was doing. She needed a picture of this ghost thing and then she needed to think a lot more.
Outside she quickly snapped a dozen pictures from all angles, hoping no one would see her and ask questions. She then looked more closely, zoomed in right on the cross board. And her breath rushed out of her, eyes stung.
She flew back inside, shut the door and leaned against it, felt the universe swell and open as Wally or something more than she understood held a hand out to her. She closed her eyes, willed her heart to stop its rampage at her ribs. Did Rusty really climb up there a furtive hour to carve those words for his brother, take the same risk that ended Wally’s life? No one but he, surely, needed so badly do it.
Old Man sat on his deck, puffing invisible tobacco, watching her figure things out and then hiding behind her door. A thing of the past, the smoking business although his pipe fit just right there and so it stayed. So much was a thing of the past. Like that Wally. A good boy. A kid who’d have grown up handsome and smart like his sweet little brother though a lonely man he now had become, bless him. A hard knowledge to carry. But some things are not to be, others are, and what lies waiting between one or the other you just never can guess.
He wondered a lot about Tessa. A woman who instinctively knew a way to better things but couldn’t quite grasp onto it. Maybe soon she would. He tapped his pipe lightly against the chair leg, went inside and turned on the radio to the oldies. He and his lady used to dance to these tunes. Sometimes he still did.
It was barely dawn but she had to get it done and then–vanish. Tessa propped the tall, rickety ladder (taken from the shed with Elle’s help after midnight) against one pole, climbed slowly. At the top, she steadied herself. In the soft bag at her shoulder she fumbled for fabric. She had brought it along for her “work time out”, a few pieces she was considering for a project that had everyone else stumped. It was odd lengths of fabric she, herself, had hand dyed with muted, mostly primary colors. Something for an airy white gazebo that overlooked multiple fancy water features for one of their bigger design contracts. No one had deemed it appropriate, but she remained engaged by her larger plan and had begun to re-imagine it the past month. To present it again, brilliantly. Though it gave her less and less pleasure to picture her suited silhouette against a window which framed the city’s mad bustle.
The night before she had torn them into narrow strips, leaving the edges raw. She had seen just what she needed to do, how to embrace but change the abandoned swing set. She enlisted Elle, who now steadied the ladder below her.
“Hurry!” she hissed. “They all get up early!”
“Patience…hold on tight,” Tessa cautioned.
She had tied each varied length of fabric, some a foot long, others several inches, on a sturdy cord and now secured one end of the cord on one pole, then climbed back down to re-position the ladder. Then up she went to tie off the other end to the opposing pole.
“Is it straight enough? Look quite taut?”
Elle gave two thumbs up.
She climbed back down and studied what Elle was seeing.
A dozen strips of colorful fabric fluttered in a light wind, flapping, twisting, spinning–sunny yellow, rich turquoise, fern green, soft rose, tender lavender, the bonus of a wider mango-bright strip in the center. Flags of fancy, signals of life, in remembrance of all the lovely, lively children. A beacon for others, a sign of hope despite harm that can happen to all. A reminder of Mo’s and Henry’s devotion, a gentle greeting for Rusty should he dare look up again at his carved words of love.
It was what Tessa could leave as a portion of her gratitude. For kindnesses. For a taste of freedom. For a glimpse of better living.
She was enveloped in a brisk hug from Elle, then loaded up her suitcase and then, “Give Old Man a farewell for me, hug the kids. I hope Mo and Henry don’t get distressed by it…”
“It’ll be a good change, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone along.”
Waving, Tessa drove away. Elle patted the address and phone number Tessa had shared, safe in her jeans pocket. Such an odd thing, a city friend. The kids would miss her a little, too. She saw Mo come to the office door; Elle hurried away to Old Man. He sat on his deck gumming his pipe. He’d seen it all now. Elle nodded at his faint smile, his feathery eyebrows rising, falling, a clue to his feeling. Yet, too, he was steady as the tides. She leaned into his aged bony warmth.
“Going to be a good day,” he said, pointing past Elle’s boy Ty on the bench–or another Wally vision, he never knew which. Swaths of bright fog skimmed the horizon, glowing pink, the eye seeking the blues beyond, a bit of heaven.
Every morning they are already on the train and if I haven’t had my two cups of black coffee to wake me up, I find myself sitting across the aisle from them by default. I try to avoid them because I don’t think much of the dog.
It’s a couple in their sixties or more plus their dog. The woman wears those glasses that change with light conditions, big black frames. I like her purple bag. The man wears glasses, too, and somehow he looks like he has had good jobs. He always has that brown hat and leather jacket on. Their yipping, scrappy mongrel dog acts energized and whiney if I look at it very long. I want to say it’s a boy, I don’t know why, females can be scrappy, too–I’m one of them. The four-legged is maybe a terrier mix. My Great-uncle Ken had one once. I never liked it; it’s fur got knotted and it smelled bad like he did. It was too friendly, if you know what I mean, I had to give him a push, kick him away. Uncle Ken would laugh then pick him up then like he was the most adorable kid who did a cute trick.
So maybe that’s why I took an instant if minor dislike at the start. The couple is okay, chats to themselves very little; the woman hugs the little beast. I wonder when it will get kicked off the train. When has it been okay to bring animals onto public transit? No one looks blind, no one seems out of it. But she dotes on it more than necessary so I guess it’s her dog, a creature who helps people who’ve got trouble out in the world. A mental health dog. She mumbles to it at times, poor old gal.
I suppose you can say I was one of those people, though. That is, I got into trouble for years, used to make wrong decisions, not the reasonable ones. Like stealing stuff I could sell and hanging out with older criminal types and driving without a license and getting into a fight here and there. But after a long vacation in “juvie”, that was enough. Now I’m twenty-two, go to work every day cleaning an old, once-fancy apartment building with thirty large units, thanks to my cousin’s friend who manages it. I don’t mind being paid to clean as I’m an orderly and clean-cut person now, you couldn’t spot me as anything else unless you were savvy. Anyway, I like to leave things better than when I arrive. One week-ends there are a few offices to clean. I make ends meet, barely, and live in a studio apartment twenty blocks from work.
One morning this dog lady and her husband or boyfriend, they’re directly across from me. I have a headache and don’t want that dog near me. But there’s nowhere else to sit so I plop down with a canvas bag full of my own special cleaning aids. The lady looks up, big eyes startled, as if I look weird or she recalled something serious or had sudden pain. And she hangs on tight to the dog who has gotten an interest in the bag I just dropped. I have a bologna sandwich in a paper bag in there, too, so pull it onto my lap.
The hungry pooch settles down a bit. The man glances my way, stares through me as if he is thinking hard and the woman follows his gaze. I look away, turn my body a bit, but when I look back she is still gazing at me. I tend to get a little paranoid. Do I know them from the past? Did I steal something of theirs? I doubt that’s the reason she’s looking at me, that was five years ago, but ignore her as usual without much luck.
“You a cleaner?” she asks, eying the bag which has a spray bottle or two sticking out.
Her voice sounds rusty and quiet; her eyes stay with my bag, her dog squirmy. I nod, look out a window.
“We got a place you could clean. We pay decent. See you here all the time, you seem okay.”
Her husband looks at me then, checking me out. I stare back, give a hint of smile, an acknowledgment.
“I’m pretty busy, thanks, though.”
The lady shakes her head, that bleached blond hair bouncing a bit. “Shame. We need somebody.” She hugs the dog.
But the man sits forward, leans forearms on his bony thighs. “I have a store. Pawn shop. Too dusty these days but the old help I had to fire, stole things.” His language sounds distinctive, like he was raised elsewhere and can’t shake the accent.
My head involuntarily turns to him and I try to be nicer “I’m sorry.”
He nods, slumps back, puts an arm around his lady. I’m surprised to see him act fond of her as she gives more attention to that half-cute, half-annoying dog than to him. It yaps at me but not meanly. I get off the next stop.
I think about the pawn shop all week. I like to collect things. Legitimately now. A powerful draw to a store full of odds and ends, of old stuff and junk. It must be good if they are still running it at their ages. But I’m busy already, tired of cleaning by Saturday.
One night I wake up and lie there in pitch black. I have been dreaming of a dog trotting and prancing about, and then I’m trying to catch him, rushing past aisles of towering shelves that teeter and fall about us as we start to run toward the exit, his tail disappearing out the bright door. He barks with joy; he does not attack my legs.
It is a sign of something.
This time I look for them. It takes me a couple of minutes to spot them down the way and find a small space to sit. They glance my way, say nothing. I don’t want to jumpstart a conversation when they got the message I wasn’t interested, but I’d like info, anyway.
The lady looks disinterested but politely. The dog is snoozing or pretending on her big lap.
“Do I have to apply for it? I might get a day free now and again.”
The man turns; the lady smiles down at her dog.
He says, “You could stop by tonight at five and fill out an application if you want. But we need someone soon and more than now and then…There’s a guy, he might take it.”
“Oh.” I think that over. “Okay, give me the address.”
It’s not so far from the apartment building I clean, two stops after mine. I try to recall if I have seen it but don’t think so.
The lady pipes up. “Nice you’re thinking it over. You never know.” She let the dog down. It was on a leash but manages to sniff my boots all over then sits up tall, looking me over. “That’s Kristoff. He’s five.”
“Okay, so I’m Jamie Marsh,” I say.
“Cheslav and Mel Krakov. ”
We relax a little as if relieved for that much to be over.
“Our store is Cheslav’s Castoffs.”
How corny, I think, but my stop is coming up and I stand. “Later, then.”
From the outside it looks sort of haunted, mysterious, a set for a Hitchcock movie, all that heavy grey stone so darkly wet now it is raining. A small gargoyle above the door. There are offices in the stories above, and at least their rooms look brighter. The store front windows are a jumble of objects arrayed on too-dark flowing cloth. Dusty looking. Immediately I think how it can be more eye-catching and I am unbalanced by eagerness. I’m just a cleaning woman and a good one.
I pull open the black metal door and a jangling bell rings. Kristoff runs forward, tail wagging, then sits with tongue out and waits. His face looks happy, like he’s had a good day. I feel like talking to him, not his humans, but of course say nothing. The low lighting casts a somber sheen on the tables and shelves full of shadowy items, and a display of shined up musical instruments and a pieces of furniture that look worth something.
“So, you came,” Cheslav strides forward, hand extended.
I shake it. I hadn’t suspected he had such energy, while Mel takes halting steps behind him. She has a paper in her hand that I am to fill out, which I do while sitting on a stool at a black metal cafe table in one corner. Afterwards, they take me on a quick tour. I am shocked that it looks a lot like it did in my dream, but aging pawn or junk shops just look this way, I realize: groaning with tools to watches and clocks to inlaid or otherwise exotic boxes to fancy lamps to roll top desks to a couple old-fashioned phones to brass candlesticks to glass bowls to…. I feel dizzy looking up, it’s not organized in any way that makes sense to me. Lots of hidden corners behind shelving, high ceilings rather cobwebby and making me sneeze several times. Mel hands me a tissue and also blows her own nose.
“What do you think?” she asks, wiping her nose dry. “Do you find it interesting, Jamie? Like odd stuff?”
I feel myself starting to shrug but that’s my old way so I offer, “I think I do.”
“Good, then we’ll check out the application,” Cheslav chimes in.
“Why bother?” Mel picks up Kristoff, who has been following us everywhere. “That other guy never came, after all,” she says glancing at me. “When would you start, say, once or twice a week at first?”
“What do you pay?”
Cheslav walks over to the front counter as I look at the sparkly earrings in the glass case between us. “What do you need?”
“Eighteen an hour, at least six hours a day, Saturday and Sunday. Your place needs a lot of help and I work hard.”
Cheslav rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll get back to you.”
Mel walks me to the door, fuzzy dog in her arms but reaching to lick my hand as I grab a door handle. “It’ll work out. Kristoff likes you.”
When Mel truly smiles her whole face changes, beams. I like how that happens, though clearly she doesn’t feel all that well with bum legs.
So, my adult work record and personal recommendations (a cousin and a friend of his) satisfies them and soon I work there every week-end. My friend Louise says I’m nuts, the offices are less taxing and more money if I work overtime. But they’re boring and Cheslav’s Castoffs is not, I tell her. Which is better, a good environment or just money? She doesn’t argue; she cleans bathrooms and more at two big gyms and a massage joint.
When I get done with the cleaning which is never-ending, really, taxing and requires me to wear a respirator, I start to order things a bit. Front windows are first. I find and shake out some bright red and yellow fabrics to replace the dirty velveteen cloths. I clean up and better situate fine tea sets and a violin, trumpets and two kinds of flutes and elegant vases with fake flowers and plants (need to talk to them about trying out real flowers now and then) and so on. I worry that I am too aggressive in my desire to fix up the appearance but after they tentatively agree, Cheslav and Mel take turns strolling by, checking things out yet say little after two weeks. I keep at it.
Kristoff finds me a few times a day though Mel calls after him. I don’t want to get too friendly, he’s her prized possession, I get it so I just acknowledge him with a short pat on his little head, let him look over my work, too. He likes the giant feather duster I use so I have to watch that but avoids the cleaners so it is okay, overall. I like his pep.
I begin to feel at home there, with the customers who notice me as they leave with their money or something they like. All sorts of strange things come in–embellished saddle for a small pony, a drum kit that has been bashed half to bits, a groups of so-called Native American rings that Cheslav insists are fake turquoise and what is the woman trying to pull? I steal looks at them, some from sketchy places and some from uptown, some desperate and others just passing time. But most often I’m cleaning, polishing, rearranging. And I find that although I admire most of the objects, I am not the least bit interested in pilfering them. I oddly like my work more, just being there.
After six weeks, Mel and Cheslav corner me by the five grandfather clocks.
“How is it going for you now? You’re pretty good.” Cheslav says this as if moderately interested and being nice.
“Do you like it enough to work here full-time?” Mel gets straight to the point, one hand holding the small of her sore back, lined face excited. Kindly.
“Going good. And yes.” I’m as surprised as they by my easy response. But I’d far rather be here than cleaning apartments. “Can you afford me, though? I have bills, you know, and my studio isn’t so cheap.”
“We have a house with much room–” She clutches Kristoff tightly and he yelps.
Cheslav takes the dog from her carefully, sets him down so he could explore. “We pay you well enough, Jamie, and if things work out well, we’ll talk more.”
“Give me two weeks to hand in notices.”
At closing time about three weeks later, Cheslav finds me in the kitchenette where we took breaks and ate lunch.
“I want to tell you something. So you understand things.”
I respect him and I like to hear his accent–faintly Russian– but I feel a frisson of fear. He is going to get personal about things. I hate personal in general. Can’t we just be a good employee and two good employers and call it good?
“Mel has slowly changed since you came. She had two hip surgeries and didn’t much want to get back to the store. But I won’t yet retire. And when our son was killed last year…”
“A war correspondent. Afghanistan.” His right fingers and thumb press closed his eyes.
“He was so good in every way. But he paid the price of such work. Our Kristoff…blasted away at forty-five.”
A chill runs through me; I feel a little sick. I don’t know what to say, how to comfort an old man, a father. The dog creeps up to my ankles, panting as if he’s made a last round of the store and is reporting in.
“Kristoff…” I pick up the dog. He licks me on nose and cheek before I can fend him off.
Cheslav gets a hold of himself. “Glad we found each other, Jamie, hope you can stick around.” He gave her a rare gap-toothed grin, then waved at his wife. “Here she comes. Don’t say anything, eh? Things take their time.”
“There you are, Kristoff! Found a new buddy, have you? Such a fine dog you are.” She takes him gently, pulls him close. “Another day comes, another goes, Jamie. Time to get home and rest.”
I turn away. I’m not ready to feel all this, I’m only a grown up delinquent who became a good cleaning woman to survive, and I’m grateful for this curious job. And they find me more than acceptable. That simple realization settling in my head is priceless.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson