Ward’s Mailbox

026

At the end of tree-canopied, winding Renwick Street, Ward Hughes waited for mail. He dearly wanted mail. Not the sort of mail your eyes gloss over because you can see by the envelope it’s meant to be useless. He didn’t understand why mailboxes had to accommodate dull circulars or advertisements with two pages of fake cheery notes about a bobble head prize for your dashboard if you just ordered a subscription to Monster Truck Enthusiasts magazine. He had a sedan that he didn’t drive often (he took the bus), so why was he getting this?

The grocery and hardware store coupons were helpful. He held a low-level appreciation for the seasonal clothing catalog where he’d order T-shirts or chinos on sale. But overall, except for seed catalogs and a gourmet cooking magazine Ella used to get, he got very little of interest in the mailbox. And he ought to toss Ella’s magazine–it was a two year subscription that had another four months of life. Ward found himself studying each issue as if it held secret ingredients that might bring her back, like magic  spell recipes. Which was ridiculous. For one thing (and two), she was teaching English in China with her new husband, the entrepreneur. That’s what he got for marrying someone younger and better all ’round, and he accepted it most of the time. But then her magazine came again and he was at it again, though he certainly didn’t intend on trying fancy recipes.

Of course, as far as communication was concerned, there was the option of virtual mail. The email alternative and texting, both of which he found mildly aggrieving. But you could pick and choose who and what you wanted to write or read. There was a place for junk to be sorted. Everyone else seemed to think this was good enough, so why not Ward? Because there was still too much junk, that was the problem, and precious little in the preferred inbox.

He’d  been thinking about it and come to a conclusion. He wished to re-institute paper letters that arrived via snail mail, as many called it with a heckling tone. He wished for the hand of his mailman, Tom, to reach into his vast leather pouch and slip a tidy bundle right into his mailbox, some of which were addressed to Ward Hughes by someone who cared. It would liven up the evening when he returned home from his job at the state employment office. The job that threw at him much of the woe of the world some days.

Ward would finger the mail in the box, then tuck it under his arm as he worked a key in the front door lock, then entered the living room. He kept a lamp on; it always cast a honeyed shaft of light across the entryway. He’d put his hat on a hook and coat on another and set down his briefcase, all the while wondering what was in that pile. He’d put it on the breakfast nook table and sort it into yes and no, happy to see an envelope addressed to him in blue inky penmanship. He might know at once who the letter was from, or he would scrutinize it with anticipation.

It seemed a small thing, he knew. He’d mentioned it to a couple of neighbors after the mailman left one Saturday and they engaged in a brief foray into the business of mail. They’d responded with very different views.

Frank the tax man said, “I’d rather abolish the postal service, it is a limping relic, an unwieldy system. Who really needs it unless there is a package? And there are more efficient ways to manage those–they have special stores for things like that and now, I hear, lockers for pick up. I miss my parcels most of the time, and how can it be helped? I’m not even home in the daytime, don’t they get that?”

Then Aaron the lawyer, considerably older than both of them, piped in. He seemed genuinely distraught by the state of postal affairs.

“It’s a sad and sorry day, that so few want to bother with real correspondence, isn’t that just how things are anymore! People take the easy way instead of the interesting way. It’s all about me me me and how fast can I become gratified? I do miss the birthday cards I used to get when I was a kid and even not all that many years ago. On the other hand, I’m gone so much as we seek out our soon-to-be retirement home in Mexico, it seems foolish to keep the service going here. We are set to leave again soon. By the way, might either of you pick up packages that may come in my absence? I do worry about theft. I’d be much obliged, Ward, if you might check on things when I’m not here.”

Ward considered a second, then agreed. “Yes, that’d be fine. I seldom travel. I don’t myself order much online. Maybe I should start doing that–it would be like getting presents left on my doorstep!”

Jenny, Ward’s neighbor on the left of Ward happened to be walking by with her little girl, Adrianna, and heard their talk. “Well, Ward, you can have some of my mail stash. It just piles up on the side table all week long, maybe longer, until I get the courage to attack it on week-ends after a stiff espresso and a danish.”

“It falls off the table onto the floor and then Tally gets into it and has lots of fun,” Adrianna offered with a smile, brown eyes wide with glee.

“Yes, he turns it into confetti sometimes….Oh, Tally, our new Lab puppy,” Jenny explained.

“Ah, right. Tally the mad little barker,” Frank tossed in as he waved goodbye and jogged across the street.

“Does she keep you up, Ward?” Jenny hoped this wasn’t so; they loved that dog already and had been happy neighbors with Ward for eight years.

“Oh, no, I wear earplugs and a mask–no light or sound disturbs me.” He liked Jenny and her family; he wasn’t going to tell her Tally sometimes provided a ghostly howl right past his custom silicone plugs.

Harriet studied Ward with an index fingernail caught between her tiny teeth though her mother tugged at her. “What mask? Like a bunny or fox or a skeleton head?”

Ward smiled at her indulgently. Harriet was thoughtful six-year-old and interested in everything. He imagined she was thinking how he’d look as a rabbit, his balding head adorned with long floppy ears, stiff whiskers sprouting from his cheeks. He suddenly wondered, too.

“No, just a regular mask, like Zorro–oh, well, wait, you wouldn’t know about him. Like Batman’s friend–that Robin’s mask? But no eye holes in it.”

“Ohhh, that’s funny! Well, eyes are closed at night. Except Tally’s can be a little bit open, I noticed that once!”

“Smart cookie,”Aaron noted, then said good-bye.

“Adrianna, time to make dinner, don’t keep bothering Mr. Hughes.”

They headed down the sidewalk when Adrianna called out, “I’ll put some things on your porch when Mommy throws stuff out.”

Jenny yanked on her sweater and waved at him with a twist of her hand without turning around.

So Ward resolved to not think about the mail issue anymore. Adrianna’s offer of their (even more useless) mail was a kindness harboring a vaguely pathetic streak though the child, of course, couldn’t know that.

Two weeks later Ward shared lunch with a co-worker on the corner park outside their massive grey work place. Spring was showing off, and they sat sunning their faces, blinded by brilliance after too many months of rain-soaked clouds. Titus, an office mate who preferred his last name to first, always brought a peanut butter and jam sandwich and a piece of fruit. He now wadded up his paper lunch bag to toss into the trash can, a signal it was time to return. They hoisted their bored, tired selves off the bench when Ward noted a new grey and lavender striped awning above a shop across the street. The space had been deserted for months.

“Curious,” Ward said and hesitated.

“I think it’s an art, no, someone said it’s  a stationary store, how weird is that? I can’t think why someone would gamble their money away on that venture,” Titus said.

Ward felt a rush of pleasure. “Really? That’s quite unique, isn’t it?”

The rest of the afternoon flew by. He checked the store’s progress each day after lunch, taking Titus’ ribbing. There was something enchanting about a stationer, he always thought so, even as a kid when his parents needed some nice cards. His days proved much swifter now that he knew the store would open soon and he could go in it.

The day came when he could spare fifteen minutes after a quick bite. He examined leather-bound journals with smooth, empty pages and turned over artistic greeting cards to see who had designed them. He ogled substantial pens and pencils in fancy cases. Memos pads that were decorated with flora and fauna or abstract shapes. But the real treat was along the back where many shelves held colored papers, several weights and sizes, with matching envelopes. They were a consortium of watercolors, some delicate, others rich as gemstones. Those delicious colors dressing fine papers were waiting for his hand to take a pen to them, that was all there was to it. As Ward left, he vowed to return after work on Friday and buy several colors to mix and match. To use for…something. Someone. He didn’t quite know the why of it other than it was mail in the making for others. He certainly wasn’t going to mention it to Titus, nor anyone else.

The next Sunday afternoon, after he had mowed the lawn and washed breakfast dishes, he sat at his desk with his acquired array of stationary papers with corresponding envelopes. He tried different pairings of the six sheets and envelopes: aqua and coral, grey and rose, creamy white and sage green and then he changed it up. It was a puzzle, which papers and for whom they were meant. He had the idea to send birthday notes to a couple of family members, a letter to an old college buddy, Grant, who had recently contacted him via social media (they had exchanged  addresses for a future visits), and then maybe a couple very short notes to neighbors for some reason or other. Like invitations for dinner, perhaps.

The task gave him a charge of gusto, a sense of purpose that was also fun, a good way to while away an empty hour or two. He snickered at the thought of Ella seeing him do such a thing, something almost refined, even careful–she would not believe it of this man who preferred garden work, had a neutral and polite response more often than not to a gourmet meal she’d labored over. A man who frankly could wear a favorite sweatshirt for a long while before noting any untoward aroma. But he did like to write, she would have given him that, and enjoyed some art. Ward wrote little pieces, a few paragraphs of insights with doodle along the edges. A short poem that he kept to himself.

He began with an ordinary ballpoint in hand, and kept them brief. After a good hour, letters and notes were finished. They were stacked on his desk, stamps affixed, ready to mail.

He went to his job each day feeling as if he kept an funny secret, or had done something good without any prompting. But he also now knew he had expectations. If only there was a response, if one piece of mail came back to him from a sender of good cheer, he would be pleased. The week passed, and then another began. The mailbox was full of the usual detritus, nothing of note. Ward did, however, get two emails from a nephew and a cousin thanking him for the well wishes for their respective birthdays. And those included checks, most appreciated.

Then, near the end of the second week when he wondered if he was a complete idiot to undertake such an endeavor, he found tucked among the neighborhood newspaper, advertisements and a bill from the dentist: two white, standard envelopes. One was written by someone who scrawled Ward’s name and address (how did the post office decipher that?) and then didn’t bother with a return address. Well, it had no stamp, either, so Ward saw it had to have been put into his mailbox. The other had poorly formed yet carefully placed letters due to age, he determined. He hurried indoors and sat down at his desk.

He opened the messy one with no return address.

Ward,

Good of you to think of Mary and me for your spring dinner get together in two weeks but we’re off to Los Cabos–might have found a great house at last! I think we’ll be back after midnight the evening after, if all goes well. I’ll stop by then.

I have to say I liked getting your handwritten invitation in the mail! The green and ivory were good to look at and the paper high quality. I was surprised by your neat handwriting–you can see mine is a mess. I rely on typing, of course, or other people to do the job.

But now you have gotten some actual mail of a sort–smart thinking! I will send you some postcards from Mexico now and then and you can update us on nice stationary stock. So, a win-win!

Best,

Aaron

He found this a relief and also humorous, that Aaron would finally send him postcards after all these years of being such good neighbors. But he was happy with it.

The next mail was carefully opened and he unfolded a picture of a rabbit that looked suspiciously like a man. With no hair but funny long ears.

Dear Mister Hughes.

Mommy says you like art and lettres. Here’s 2 for yer pile. Of mail. I hope oyu like yer rabit!

Adri

His hand rested on his heart as he sat a few minutes re-reading them both. He propped them up on the counter, under the calendar. His first personal mail in a long while. It felt humanizing somehow.

The next week he got a long letter from his old college friend. Ward learned more about Grant than he’d thought to ask. He wrote about his work as a wildlife photographer and his family, about his tennis passion, how he created handmade canoes and loved being at his cottage with his gang more than anything else in the world. And he had traveled the world and found it little compared to his cottage spot with his four kids and wife of twenty-two years.

And by the way, I was so glad to get your letter, an actual letter! What a novel idea and how good of you to take the time to write a page. You’ve started a conversation I hope we can continue. It will be good to catch up, so write back soon.

Regards,

Grant

And that did it. Ward was so happy, he got out his typewriter and started on a poem. It wasn’t grand; it was about connecting with others, how good it was to have many voices in his life. He thought about his earplugs, how they blocked out everything so well that a puppy having a good howl in the night caught him off guard. It needn’t be like that. He could try to be friendly even with Tally. He might ask Jenny and her family over for a simple meal when it got warmer. That Adrianna was a kid to reckon with, a fledgling letter writer.

It was time to be more of whom he’d hoped to become, not just a middle-aged man yearning for a letter in the mail. Ella was long gone and that was that. He had a career that wrenched more from him than he’d realized but it was a good position; he’d stay with it. Still, Ward wanted a variety of people-filled experiences, poetry now and then, wildflowers strewn around the hearty veggies. A few honest and eloquent letter exchanges. He felt writing thoughts on paper brought people to the truth faster and he was off to a decent start. Now he just needed an attractive new mailbox. The old one sported residue from a label emblazoned with Ella’s and his names. It needed only a house number. He did want to repaint it canary yellow or maybe fire engine red. Surely it–and he–deserved that modest upgrade in dignity.

 

Assumed Identity

Country Fair 089

In this world of billions, do you know exactly who you are? Or are you defined by what others imagine to be you?

You might answer: an overseer of systems; a happy but beleaguered parent of triplets under age two; a college grad who ditched the job hunt to camp across the USA, or a gardener who battles multiple sclerosis. The first person may be seen as a “techie” or “geek”. The second may be viewed as unlucky or saintly. The third could be called bold, aimless, or impulsive. And the gardener, brave– or comprimised.

But at the end of each day, who do these folks really think they are? Do they go home and ponder what it is they honestly want/need/love/loathe, then end up feeling lost? Or do are they better attuned to what matters most, the inner intersecting the outer, continuing to confirm their actual identities?

How we define ourselves may be getting more complicated as the world’s technologies advance. We are given many opportunities to obscure or reinterpret who we are. No longer confined to front porches, to known neighborhoods or even one country’s cultural climates, we can broaden our world without end. With social media and technological advances, fancy phones and tablets and all the dazzling apps and options, people can and do create new identities online, for example. The televsion show “Catfish” exposes that curious phenonomen.

If I want to  be “Brad”, age 32–okay, easy. If I want to tell you I reside on an island off Italy’s coast, how can you determine otherwise if I do my homework (online)? I might, in fact, be a woman over fifty who lives in a row house in Detroit. Or maybe I’ll just say I’m a woman over 40 who has a career as a young adult book illustrator, loves Siamese cats, and has no kids. Meanwhile, this hypothetical “I” is, in fact, wondering how much longer things can be managed with an alcoholic husband, an autistic son and a part-time job. But who is to ever know?

I am not, of course, dismissing playing, trying on different styles and ways of expression, stepping into another role from time to time, exploring fresh avenues of becoming. I doubt we ever stop experimenting entirely with how we inhabit ourselves and manifest personality. As human beings, we evolve richly over time, using our own basic building blocks, our own boxes of colors.

But technology can obscure things for me rather than clarify. I often wonder what a person texting messages is actually thinking, feeling and doing. Where are the vocal inflections, the minute facial changes that reveal so much? Can a simple “emoticon” even mimic the correct emotion? How quick to pick a smiley face and send that on. How lazy, I suspect. How little it takes to throw one liners and truncated symbols out there. Who really cares what we feel in the daily mad dash for success or sheer survival? Still, I wonder how it is that we got so busy we can’t spare fifteen minutes to make a call or a half hour to stop by to say “hello.” To look at each other, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Now that takes some vulnerability. Intention and determination. Trust.

But even when we have the time to visit one another, it can be hard to drop a persona that is well-known, habitual. Hard to be frank about what’s really going on in our lives–good, not good or boring. I have skimmed over more meetings with friends and family than I to admit. It may be a minor at the time, but later it can sure bother me.

I recently had lunch with a close friend whom I met twenty years ago. We’ve both worked in the mental health/addictions treatment field for decades. While I am now retired, she has been employed ten years in a prison setting. Her work is so integral to who she is that she talks about clients (no names) almost as if they were her family. There are characteristics I recognize from way back–sudden laughter, garrulousness, an easy yet tough demeanor that demonstrates she will accept everyone if possible but not without immovable boundaries. I know some of her most private stories; she knows some of mine. She is one of the most generous people I have ever known. I know she loves blues but also opera and Bonnie Raitt. And that she is ill, that her life will come to a close far sooner than either of us can admit.

I know all this because we have gotten together a long time. She does not do email, Facebook, or texting. She doesn’t even like to phone that much.

“If we’re friends, we’ll make time for each other,” she insists.”I don’t have patience for the tiny keyboard and fancy stuff. Let’s cut to the chase. If we want to hang out, let’s not pretend to just write what we feel or tell news we can finish fast. I’ll meet you at 10:30 this Saturday.”

I know her history and that who she was in her twenties still exists minus the heavy existential angst or cumbersome baggage. She has had to contend with many labels over time. But she is who she truly seems to be. She has gotten older, sure. A little heavier, fine lines on her strong face. And she has mellowed by her own accord. But her values and beliefs have been central to her character as long as I have known her. Her boldness and big heart. Her realness. My unfabricated friend. She doesn’t have an urge to cover up who she is, nor to evade harder truths. She offers up her personhood with a dash of humility and often laughs at herself: Here I am, nothing more, nothing less.

Time changes us in subtle ways, but not the intrinsic essence of who we are. Our values and habits are carried with us into stormy or sunny weather, from highs to lows. If they work well, we keep them; if not, we can exchange them for something that better fits who we are as we mature. But we are likely known by them wherever we go, even years later. Any parent can tell you this: we know our children’s strengths and quirks in babyhood and they intensify or jell as each year passes. A core personality was present from the start. Even if behaviors can be learned and unlearned, then recreated, that central personhood somehow remains faithful to infant beginnings. Of course, big events–natural and otherwise– can remake people to some degree. Cataclysmic change like something miraculous or monstrous shakes the personal core. Transformation of a profound sort may reorder the whole person, even appear unrecognizable to others. But it is just as possible that the essence that was original comes forward, even more pronounced. That kernel of personality revives and triumphs.

Many, even most, people have a work persona and a private life persona. Like my friend noted above, I have heard I don’t show such distinctions. You might not have known many personal details when at work (boundaries), but I was not effecting some other incarnation of myself–I’d share what felt right. When I demonstrated public speaking skills in my job, you can be assured I also like to talk at home, hopefully with precision, always with my hands dancing and with feeling. Conviction. If I was a persistent, hard worker at the office, you can expect I am at home. And if I was quick to stand up for others in my work, I will do the same for you and for my family. But, too, if I disliked making errors at work, that perfectionist tendency also invades the rest of my life. When I was engrossed in work I sometimes forgot the passage of time; I commit the same faux pas in my non-work life, sometimes not aware of what’s going on. My irritation can spring up no matter where I am, but I work to tame it so it might idle with a purr more than roar. If I am having issues at home, feel sad or overtired when I go to work or events, you will note it if not always mention it. My eyes will tell you the truth. It’s how and who I am. I will do my job here or there, but I’m not a good faker and don’t want to waste time pretending. Living is much better when I am just myself being present.

We take ourselves with us wherever we go, right? (See A.A. Milne’s “Us Two”, a poem both fun and wise about Pooh being wherever Pooh goes.). I’d rather take along someone–me or you– I know well.

And who wants to be simply labelled, misread, lost in translation? Do we ever benefit from presenting ourselves as individuals we are not? What will an employer think (and do) when he/she discovers that resume and interviewee are not what was expected? How will true intimacy develop when, after many hours spent together, a couple still play hide-and-seek, give confusing clues, leave out the important stuff? More interested in subterfuge? That’s a sort of entertainment, not meaningful engagement. It can be risky. Come to a bad end. Unless you are a sociopath, this is not what most people want.

The ability to pair emotion with thought, keeping them parallel at times and merging them at others, may be distinctly human. They help inform us of our experiences for our understanding but also others’. When I visit social media, I’m not sure either gets across too well. I am confused at times what people choose to share. Amused…at times horrified. And what does “liking” something mean, anyway? That one is okay with it, i.e., that it is not offensive? That it resonates or pleases or impresses? I have a sister who has conversations on Facebook and it delights me–this is typically not the place to indulge in lengthy sharing but she is not educated in the accepted ways and means. She may never care, either. So she talks to people– tells little stories, responds in some detail, as if you are sitting across from her. Is it annoying to others? Maybe, but seemingly not much. People do answer her and “like” her offerings. She makes me chuckle and I know she is being just who she is–interested in many topics and others and intelligent, fun, open.

My son, Josh, has been spending more time with me and the stepfather who raised him since his natural dad died. It is amazing. I used to leave him voice mail, text him to get back to me, wondering how he was, what was going on. He would call back at some point and be glad to see me as he could but there was a sense of a pressure, the time crunch. I was guilty at times, as well, when I had more “absolutely must do” lists. Now I feel like I am getting to know him even more and he feels the same. He’ll call me (before I get around to it now) at least once a week. We gab for an hour or two. Josh lives fifteen minutes away but, hey, we have things we want to note and wonder over, tales to tell right then.

He’s asked to do more with us. Not only bring over his adored children for a day. We all go places together again like we did when he was a youth. Museums, parks, hikes, movies, out for a fine meal. He comes to our home and invites us to his more often. He shares his art and music, experiences at work and home. And he talks from his heart and soul. I know this adult child; he care to tell me his truths. He hears me, too. Sure, we do text, but much less. He recently turned on his Facebook account again after having it off a long time. (If you want to reach me, you know where I live or have my number, he noted.) I like many of his posts and he likes mine. The bigger picture is more interesting.

It may seem easier to be semi-anonymous, to keep one’s identity separate and protected. What is there to lose in a superficial, brief update with those we don’t know well? There is a time and place, of course, for everything. I’m not advocating for greater loss of privacy, or that people fling innermost struggles and epiphanies into the social stratosphere. (You can blog like I do and take a chance with others who may empathize and have their thoughts to add.) Or you can stay on the surface. Share something invalid or extraneous. I get it. I just not what works well for some of us in the final analysis. I also want to note your expression. Take a reading on mood. I want to be a part of your happiness or consternation or wonder, in person whenever I can.

Loss can jar us and bring us back to who we truly are and alter priorities. But we can learn to slog through the morass to see dawn blossom, our sky’s vibrant palette revealed in increments. It will remind you time here is too short. We have daily chances to be who we want and need to be as well as love and be loved. Right now. If you are thinking of someone, why not call, make a date to visit, stop by spontaneously if possible? Bring them your best if you can. Make opportunity happen.

I hope you will make embrace the life you alone do own. Create it bit by bit. Turn the inside outward, see what happens. If you have forgotten what you feel deeply, what your passions are, take a moment; remember. That you love brilliant, fragrant blossoms in your rooms or that antique browsing provides stimulation and peace–that you want to sink your toes in the sand and ocean more or read for fun, not just knowledge. Rediscover; take someone else on the journey. Give yourself due respect, just as you do your dearest friends. Don’t just “like” something out there–get inside the moment as it deserves. Live as you know you are meant to and take time to celebrate others face-to-face along the way. Assume your own identity and find it good.

(Note: The photo is mine, of a daughter–she seems to know how to claim her identity with verve! We accompanied her and her husband to the Oregon Country Fair, an event that is peculiar to our state–quite a interesting, zany experience for her parents. Blessings, A.)

Garnetta Looks Backward and Forward

DSCF5174 When Garnetta finally left her high school counselor position it was an unceremonious affair, handshakes at a small but respectable luncheon, a voluptuous, rainbow bouquet of roses (her least favorite flower after lilies) and an oversized card with blue birds and butterflies on it. A touch of glitter, she noted with a raised eyebrow. She was grateful there wasn’t a drawing of a sign on a shack saying “Gone Fishin’.” But it managed to move her.

Everyone signed it: “Best wishes” and “Miss you already”.  Her favorite was from Rafe Kellogg, the science teacher: “I wish I had known you better, but look forward to your life!” As if he was looking forward to her life being carried out elsewhere.  The blue greeting card script trumpeted joy and delight: “May Your Retirement Bring Renewed Rewards!” The phrase stumped her: did that mean she should look backwards to old rewards so they might be revamped? Reclaimed?

How was it that after nineteen years at the same place no one knew her? Yet they were oddly intimates, by virtue of years they had rallied for their students’ well being. Resources. Political skirmishes. She patted their backs when they offered sudden hugs. Being in such close proximity was a surprise to them all.

It ended on her thirty-fifth year of soothing, encouraging, advising and intervening. So many teenagers! It had been a trying last year, the sort that one does not prefer to add to a trove of good memories. There are events everyone fears and loses sleep over, and the loss of one young man hit her hard. Not that Reese died–that had also happened, other students and years– but that he had chosen to drop out. To follow the footprints of his father. Which meant sawdust filling up his lungs at their (admittedly good) wood shop, maybe developing a penchant for petty criminality as father had and, God forbid, countless drunken debacles. It was known the boy tied one on more often than he ought.

He could have become a designer, an architect, a preserver of old historic houses. He might finally flip houses rather than make benches and tables. Time would tell. But the last time they had met Reese was on his way out.

“I wanted to tell you how much you helped me,” he said, smiling crookedly as always. “I mean, I wouldn’t have made it even this far without your talks. Just being here. I feel better about things. But I have to move on.”

He leaned forward. For a moment his hand hovered over the stapler as if he was going to emphasize his point with a sharp stapling of air. He picked up one of the pens and twiddled it between his fingers like it was a twig. Reese was big and always moving.

“You’ve still chosen to quit despite all my talk and all your listening. I feel somehow less than satisfied, Reese.”

“I did hear your advice!” He squinted at her. “Miss Harlinger, that time you told me to do what I knew was best, not what was easiest, hit me hard. It’s best I work with my dad, then take over one day. And we both know that ain’t gonna be easy to do.” His gaze swept over her cubicle divider. “Hey, you got a new poster? It’s nice.”

“Not ‘ain’t’, Reese, isn’t, it isn’t going to be easy but that is beside the essential point. I hoped you’d stretch yourself into something bigger than this town can contain. You once kept up your grades because all other indicators said you are more than a good athlete and great woodworker. And then it was to be scholarship applications with my help, and then I might have put a one way ticket to somewhere fantastic right in your palm. To your destiny as a more successful creative person. An innovator.” She sighed. “The poster was a gift from a student who is going to college. It stays for the next one of my ilk.”

Reese stuck the pen behind his ear and laughed. “See? That’s what I mean. You cheer me up just by saying that stuff! Okay, seriously, I know what you meant. Being creative and all that. I agree. I have to make all kinds of things. But my mom, you know this, she counts on me now. Dad has to get help with the booze and maybe a new liver and how will the shop run then? And if he doesn’t, who then?” He put the pen into its plastic holder, opened his hands and studied the broad, dry palms. “Not by itself, it won’t run. I can do it. I will.”

“I’ve asked more of you because you have it in you to make great things happen.” Garnetta picked up another pen, underscored the school’s logo on her desk calendar as if it was an important reminder of something, then laid it gently back down. She had to let go.

“College, I don’t know, but I’d love making cool houses, skyscrapers, even.” He stretched out his considerable length, arms held high, then pulled it all back in. “I disappointed you.”

It was true, but Garnetta wasn’t saying it. Worse, the boy felt let down by life, itself. “You gave it deep thought or you wouldn’t be here telling me your junior year is your last. For now…”

For a long moment Reese was still, staring at her desk. Then he picked up her mascot, a stuffed spotted owl. “I always liked birds. I hate thinking about trees being cut down so we can make big houses for humans. Desks for paper calendars to doodle on. Magazines and junk mail that Dad burns. I watch the ashes float away above our pine trees and feel sad.” He patted the owl on its soft head and set it upright before her again. “I keep an eye open for owls. They’re good omens.”

Garnetta caught her breath. This was the Reese that often hid and who she was able to find. He felt things between the known world and other worlds. She had seen his sketches, how they captured the rich tension between the functional and imaginative, each frail pencil mark defining space with his vision. The houses he drew caught one’s eye and mind, such was his grasp of spare, soaring beauty.

He stood up and she looked all the way up to unkempt brown hair, at hazel eyes that shimmered with energy even though subdued.

“Yeah, well, I have to go now…” He held out his hand. “Thanks for everything. I hope you have a real good retirement.”

He held out his hand and she took it into her smallish hand and gave it a firm shake. “I think we’ll hear more from you, still.” She hoped it was true. She willed it to be true. “Yes, a good retirement is the least I can ask for! A nice long life on a park bench. You can feed the pigeons with me when I don’t know you anymore.”

He laughed again, shoulders bunched up, and then he did a small thing with all that teen-age muscle and bone and restlessness, with that crowning brain. He bowed. Then turned and left.

Garnetta put her head down and wept.

It was the last Sunday of June when Garnetta ended up at a favorite park with a duck pond. It was near an Italian restaurant where she planned on having a late lunch or early dinner. She had her book, one that she had put off reading so she could savor it, a biography of a woman explorer in the nineteenth century. She was hoping it spurred a sudden hunger for adventure, made her intrepid enough to vacate the country for a couple of weeks. 

Garnetta had lately felt going to the store and back was enough of an outing. It scared her. She was just sixty-eight, in good health, so why the sluggishness? Her friend Jane told her it took far more than two weeks to adjust to the thought of summer stretching into fall and so on–all without a desk calendar to direct her and a yellow Big Ben alarm clock to wrench her from sleep.

The second chapter had failed to snag her attention. Not a good sign. She watched the ducks swim in seemingly aimless circles, ducklings blithely following moms. The air smelled blue and green, all bright water and shadow-laden trees. It was sweet to sit and enjoy the moment for no good reason.

“Is this seat taken?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, it is!” She put her book beside her and turned to look at the man who spoke. He was taking the spot, anyway.

“Nonsense,” Rafe Kellogg said, and sat down. “I need a rest.”

“How did you happen along?”

“I came by the same path as you. I, in fact, often do. I live down the street. And yourself? Enjoying your altered life? Smart hat you have there.”

He let out a thin stream of cigar smoke in the direction of the pond. Garnetta imagined the ducks holding their breath, then decided it wasn’t all that terrible a smell. Just foreign. It was curious, his desire to stop by.

“I tend to go with the wind these days.” She flapped her hand over and up in the breeze. “But I haven’t found a fine unfettered life yet.”

Rafe puffed on his stogie. “No, I imagine none of us quite do though we delude ourselves pretty well. We just have to sort it all out, I guess.”

Garnetta stole a glance.  He looked different out here, away from the brick walls. Cigar smoker! More substantial but less stuffy in dark blue jeans and smart tennis shoes. He didn’t have his glasses on; they poked up from his jacket pocket.

“I plan on following the clues,” she said, closing her book. She ought not to bother him–but why not? He had insisted on sitting. “Any thought of a late lunch?”

Rafe looked away as if seeking the answer in watery reflections or the little island of stubby earth at pond’s center. “I’d like to go over there at night, that bit of land, flashlight in hand. Just a notion I have but I wonder how it might be managed? Without being caught or drowned? And, yes, lunch is something I’d like soon.”

She smirked at the thought of him wading through murk in the dead of night. It had an appeal. He grinned at her, large yellowed teeth resultant of cigars from years passed. But when he held out a piece of dark chocolate, Garnetta took it, then pointed out a flicker that landed nearby. Black bib and red dots under its eyes, a dash of yellow. She dearly hoped Reese would see one, too, wherever he was, whatever he was creating.