It wasn’t that she couldn’t stop, she just wouldn’t, and if she did everyone would be much happier. That’s what Michael told her about once a day, more if he could manage it. But the words had begun to morph into a string of syllables that were almost lulling, waves revisiting a shoreline along the back of her brain.
Maybe what he said was true, she wasn’t yet certain.
Lizbeth was dead-heading a group of violently orange marigolds even though she knew she didn’t need to, such was her sudden desire to scatter seeds to far lands. She watched them drift in an sweep of breeze, satisfied and a little wistful. Sweat bathed her forehead to neck and a number of bees kept close quarters. Her floppy straw hat was a comfort, shielding her from fiery sun rays. She liked the hat most of all her gardening accouterments; it had served her best, right after the dirt-stained cloth gloves. Lizbeth sat on her haunches and gazed about the back yard. Most of the flowers bloomed as if they would never get to bloom again; other parts were struggling. Rapacious weeds thrived in that hot weather.
She, however, needed a drink. It was after noon judging by sun’s angle. This was a record wait for her the past few months. Mostly she managed until eleven–an early pre-lunchtime snack of cheese and wine, a picker upper. Or more like late morning tonic to move her right along the slowly following hours. A glass or two of pinot noir, that was all, it wasn’t like she lugged a bottle around with her, room to room. Alright, she may have thought of it but she had never actually done it. Or not often.
Lizbeth struggled to her feet, removed the hat and wiped her forehead with back of her wrist. Her knees had been more crunchy; she’d found even with a cushy mat it wasn’t easy to kneel and garden as long as last year. Well, one more thing. Add that to the list, along with Daisy their loyal and lovely Dalmatian getting sick and dying; their Martha’s oldest son Gene smoking pot like it was a full time job; her husband going in earlier and staying later at his office; and her good friend and neighbor Jill moving to Rhode Island of all places. Who moved from a good Oregonian home to the Northeast when you were almost sixty? Jill did. She’d found a coastal village with a very small cottage she liked better. Found it online, no less.
The past six months had been one surprise after another. Lizbeth wasn’t so good with surprises. Her youth had been punctuated with a few doozies but things weren’t necessarily easier due to experience. She found she needed a tranquility boost to manage and re-balance things.
Lizbeth entered the kitchen, took out the chilled bottle of wine and poured a glass full. Michael enjoyed his wine in a good goblet but a plain water glass did her just fine. A first sip was savored and then a good gulp followed, then another. She was done with gardening for the day. She must at last plan their usual family Fourth of July gathering since it was tomorrow.
She waited for a moving van to pull up any time now next door and dreaded it. She had seen a caramel skinned, younger–maybe under forty– woman in jeans and tank top disembark her SUV yesterday, enter the house and leave a few hours later. Jill had told her about the new owner, Myra somebody, a new Executive Director at Biller -Koin Gallery. That was enough to know. Lizbeth didn’t put much on her walls–she liked all those blank spaces–and hired someone to help minimally decorate their home long ago. Not much had been changed and that was how she liked it. The last thing she needed was a snooty neighbor critiquing her home and offering advice. Lizbeth did not want advice of any sort.
She wanted a second drink. The first glass had barely whetted her appetite. She had promised Michael to go easy this week. Last week they’d had a fight before dinner; she had left a chicken casserole burning on the stove and tottered off with drink to the garden. As she saw it, she could never time her meals according to his arrival, he’d gotten so sporadic–he said he was seeking perhaps a last advancement so was much busier. She didn’t care, she was done with making full meals, they’d have to get by on sandwiches and soup or she’d order out. Finally, drinks had kicked in, gotten hold of her and she’d lost her temper and he lost his, too. They were quite the loud duo and she was glad Jill had already moved so she didn’t pester her with later phone calls. But then she had cried herself to sleep in a spare bedroom. The next day they were civil, but there was the variation of his usual remark.
“See if you can’t wait until after I get home to have a glass. Then we might sit in the garden and enjoy ourselves for once. Even talk.”
“I’ll do that, sure,” she’d nodded blearily and he’d given her a peck on the cheek.
But of course she hadn’t. They’d eaten Thai take out and went their separate ways, he to the study and she to the sun room, as usual.
Lizbeth poured the second drink up to the top, took a slurp then padded to the sun room, put her feet up. Jotting down a list of needed groceries on her memo pad and sipping her wine, the low growl of the moving van almost escaped her attention until she saw the furniture being hauled out and then into the house. She moved to the front windows. A long, curved, orange sofa; two vine patterned–green, brown and white– chairs; matching brass lamps that were in the shape of some kind of bird; well wrapped paintings that Lizbeth didn’t want to imagine; a vanity that looked like it had could have been used by Marilyn Monroe. Or a flea market aficionado.
Hardly bearable, having a new person move in.
She sat back down and finished her list. Most of the food was coming from the deli this year. She had not returned to cooking since the smoking chicken. She thought of a third glass, decided to wait awhile, do a load of laundry instead, then tidy up the patio. Then she could have a third if she sipped it slowly, ate a little something. She wanted to be able to sit in the garden with Michael when he got home. They could share thoughts about the family BBQ as they enjoyed a cool, gentling breeze and beautiful flowers. The Family, there was a rich topic! That thought gave her pep as she trotted upstairs to get the laundry sorted–they were bound first and last by family, that was right and good.
“This is more like it.”
Michael leaned back in the rattan patio chair, arms up, hands interlocked behind his head. He gave a quick smile. “I am so glad to have a day off. Well, there’s our usual family thing. But, still.” He looked at her closely. “You doing alright today?”
Lizbeth yawned; she was a little sleepy and wanted to pour a glass but he hadn’t seemed interested in getting his goblet yet.
“I’m good. I do have the potato salad made and am getting the rest from the store. You just have meat duty. I’ll go shopping in the morning.”
“I’ll go tonight. Is their turkey for sandwiches for our dinner?”
“Yeah… I’ll resume cooking sometime, I suppose.”
Michael unlocked his hands and leaned forward to study the crow that had flown in. Michael was fond of crows unless they hung around too long or were too loud, kind of how he felt about extended family at times. “Right, that’s fine. But I do want to figure out what to do about Gene.”
“Nothing is to be done, he’ll be high when he comes, eat everything and leave and Tess won’t make a scene, either. They’re well behaved young adults, overall.”
“She’s not bringing that so-called male friend, is she?”
“I think there’s a new one.”
“At fourteen? Is she dating?”
Lizbeth rolled her eyes. Michael could be oblivious of the times. “Anyway, I think Leslie is bringing that Barry Geniston–she was truly trying to think of him as her fiancé but there was white hair creeping in there–and his son, what’s his name? Neal. He’s six feet tall at fifteen, she says, of course he plays basketball. Maybe the three or four kids can team up for fun.”
“Another teen-ager, gads, careful what you wish for! You know I won’t abide Gene smoking pot in or around my home, legal or not. And Tess could leave her friends to their own families not always drag them here. Can’t we have a regular cozy family barbeque? With nothing obnoxious going on, no one to keep an eye on. Nothing too long, 5-7 right? I mean, a whole extra day off…I have waited so long for one day.”
“You need a real vacation, not a national holiday. Like we are planning.”
Michael observed a crow pecking hard at something on the patio flagstones, then looked at her sideways. “How are you doing, anyway? You seem good, no glass in hand.”
“Are you waiting for me to quit drinking before we go on a vacation, is that it?” Her voice was quiet but irritation charged her words. “That week-end we had at the coast was different. We’d lost Daisy, had just found out about Gene’s school performance. And oh right, Leslie getting engaged to someone who owns membership-only billiards clubs with cigar smoking rooms! Who ever heard of such a thing? Not small things. And then Jill leaving! Michael, it’s been a real challenge, that’s all.”
The crow started to caw and Michael shooed it away.
“Yes, you said all this many times, far too many. But you about got swept out to sea, you were so drunk you didn’t pay attention–that’s what you fail to include. To deal with. If I hadn’t been nearby, watching…” He turned to her. “There’s always something, Lizbeth, life does as it does and we adapt or gain more skills. Yes! I’m waiting for you to stop drinking before we for sure embark on that trip to the Caribbean. That is exactly right.”
“Well, go alone. I can guarantee nothing, certainly not if I will have a couple glasses of wine or not while we languish in a resort spa in a tropical paradise.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. She studied his profile, that proud nose, a jaw to be envied, eyes a flinty grey that lit up blue when light was right. A man women admired and men seemed to enjoy. What was wrong with her after thirty-six years? To Michael, it was the alcohol. To her, it was life’s gritty little losses and cumulative failures, lack of excitement, decreasing purpose. A surfeit of loneliness. Life cracking around the edges when it had seemed whole and strong.
She hoped they’d get back to the larger family issues, much safer to talk about, even when it was tough issues. This was what any good marriage was for–or did they just turned this way and the other after kids came and that was that?
A whistled tune rose over their fence, abated then came again. They turned to look for its source. There Myra stood with voluminous black hair caught up messily with a clip, soft blue tank top soaked with sweat, big grin on her unadorned yet lovely face. Lizbeth noted dangly earrings with brown and white feathers and wondered if they got stuck to her damp shoulders as she worked on the house. Jill rarely wore jewelry, something they had in common.
“Hi there, I’m Myra Minthorn. Would you happen to have any extra coffee? I neglected to pack some. And maybe a little milk I could borrow until I shop tomorrow? I’m sorry to bother…it’d be wonderful if you had at least coffee! I need it iced, though, dying of heat, would sure like central air in there.”
Michael stood and walked to the fence, held out a hand and introduced them both. Lizbeth smiled wide, put up one finger and ran into the kitchen. Put coffee into a baggie and filled a small pitcher with milk and returned. Michael and Myra chatted away with animation. Michael’s father was an amateur but fine potter and his family liked art a great deal.
“Oh, thanks so much!” Myra said, hands forming a bowl shape to accept the goods.
“Any time,” Lizbeth said. “I hope your move has been a good one.”
“It is so far, I know it’s the right job.”
“She’ll oversee Bixler-Koin,” Michael said excitedly. “New directions to take, no doubt!”
“I plan on it. Well, see you two later–have a good Fourth!” Myra flashed blinding teeth, then bounded into Jill’s old house, now her house. Only who would ever recognize it after all those colors and designer impulses got a hold of it?
“See you later,” Lizbeth called out and wandered back into the kitchen. New directions, he’d said, as if he had something at stake in the gallery. No doubt there would be with this Myra Minthorn. Michael did patronize all the openings and did go to fundraisers for it. Maybe Lizbeth would start attending again to follow its future trajectory in the city scene. And how Myra worked the arty masses. Wasn’t she Native American? Lizbeth wondered.
Time for her homely glass to be filled with rosy red pinot noir. Michael could get his own. No, Michael was going to the store. She could drink alone for an hour or more. He’d leave her to herself, she guessed, if he was bothered. No need to argue the night before Fourth of July.
The barbecue was in full swing, everyone was tucking into sizzling burgers or impatient for steak. There was Lizbeth’s famous potato salad, thank goodness. Michael pulled her aside. She had noticed their daughters were already looking her over for signs of impending sloppiness but they would be disappointed. She resisted his tug on her elbow at first.
“We should ask Myra over, don’t you think?”
“You mean, as goodwill gesture? What happened to keeping things simpler?”
She honestly was eyeing the beer but she disliked beer when all was said and done. She would hold off on her third drink a bit longer.
“Sure, she’s alone over there and her first holiday in Portland…”
“Where’s she from?”
Tess ran up and hugged her before she set off for the corner coffee shop to get an iced latte with friend Kyle. Plus the new almost-family addition, Neal. They’d just gotten there but right off they had to go. And those coffee treats for kids, that was another thing but it was true, they tasted so sweet and good.
Turning back to Michael she said, “Why do the grandkids come if it’s so hard to stay?”
“Oh, she’s fine, just has to have time with her, uh, buddy. And now there’s Neal to fit in somehow. And Myra last hailed from Cincinnati. I gather her career has kept her moving a bit.”
He felt more expansive today for some reason. He turned over fragrant sizzling steaks. Then studied her more closely. Lizbeth had had two glasses of her pinot noir, that was all. Not even quite full ones and it was going on five o’clock, a holiday. What was she up to?
“Sure, I’ll go knock on her door.”
“She’s in the back yard, I can see her from here.”
Martha stole up behind her mother, then Leslie joined up and they met at the fence. Martha put her arms around them both and squeezed.
“Dad seems pretty okay, more rested than before, but when are you two going on that lavish vacation? Isn’t it end of August?” She checked to see how much wine had taken hold of their mother. Not too bad so far, a relief, but then she was on her third beer, was that too much? She had to drive home. With kids. Better stop there, she thought.
“Supposedly. Right now I’m checking in on the new owner of Jill’s place.” She waved cheerily. “Hey there, Myra, how’s it going? Want to come over for some steak and salads? Light some sparklers or firecrackers?”
Myra was swinging in a hammock with eyes closed, Lizbeth saw too late.
“Oh, hello–no thanks.” Myra sat up, blinked in the harsh sunlight. “I think I’m good. I’m not much of a steak eater. Pretty tired after moving.”
“I have my daughters here, Leslie and Martha, and this is Myra, our new neighbor.”
Myra waved and lay back down, a forearm shielding her eyes.
Leslie and Martha whispered something to each other, Lizbeth thought it was “better looking than Jill” and was about to say something sharp but dropped it.
“She says no thanks, she’s fine,” Lizbeth told her husband as she slipped past, got a beer, joined the group at the picnic table.
“Where are the grandkids?”
“Gene is likely off in bushes smoking funny stuff, ” Leslie said. “No, wait, here come they come.” She took Barry’s arm and they wandered toward the fragrant Peace roses.
“You can keep criticism to yourself,” Martha warned too loudly.
“Hey, are those steaks done?” Gene rounded the corner on cue. “I’m starving.”
“Everything looks delicious, and the yard is superb, ” Barry the billiards man offered.
Lizbeth popped a beer can open and sipped a little.
“Not a beer,” Michael moaned as he arrived with the meat platter.
“Can’t have a Fourth of July without a few cold ones with our steaks!” Leslie stated and they all agreed, beers in hand. Even the grandkids cheered and gave a sly look at each other, their coffee drinks raised but barely drunk. Neal eyed his father who ever so slightly frowned at Leslie’s mother, then raised eyebrows at him. Neal would not risk another few swigs of beer that night.
“I know it’s after eight but I thought well, we have so much extra and I wondered if you’d unpacked kitchen wares or eaten a thing.” Lizbeth thought she had never seen so much lustrous hair. Once her hair had been long. Twenty years ago.
Myra chuckled, took the plastic wrapped plate from Lizbeth and opened the door to her. “Come on in, how nice.”
It was confusing to look around. First thing that caught her eye was something intricately beaded hanging from the one lit bird-like lamp. There was bright sleek furniture in place of a pale leather sofa and a Bentwood rocker, large vivid paintings leaning against the wall where there had been a pleasant medium-sized photograph of Tuscany. Jill had bought that while on a trip. Lizbeth had secretly wanted it but of course never asked. Instead, Jill gave her a goodbye memento of treasured gold rimmed with red roses tea cups. Lizbeth had wondered how well they’d known each other, after all.
Myra sat, then patted an orange couch cushion as invitation to sit down.
“I don’t want to bother you. Moving is so taxing.”
“It’s good you came. I was just reading and trying to drink lukewarm so-called iced tea I made from a mix. I’d offer you some but it’s no good.”
Lizbeth nearly asked if she had unpacked any wine but held back. “I just wanted to drop off some food. Can I help in any other way?”
Myra sucked in her generous lower lip, narrowed her eyes in thought. “I might need a suggestion for a good primary care doctor and dentist at some point. You’ve lived here awhile, right?”
“Over two decades. I can right off recommend Dr. Lilian Ruh for a doctor and I like Dr. Gupta for our dentist, he’s so kind and experienced.”
Myra took a memo pad and pen from a free form teak and glass coffee table and wrote them down.
“Excellent, I knew you’d be a help. I’ve lived in apartments for a long time. Everyone said I needed a real house for this job and I agreed. But in my old communities I was in close quarters with others, never entirely alone. My family and friends worried I’d have a hard time fitting in here, you know, in this single family neighborhood, big yards, wide streets. A different kind of neighborhood.”
Lizbeth sensed much more under the words. Was she afraid to be alone? Had she had a house but it hadn’t worked out, maybe a divorce? Or did she feel she might stick out here in West coast culture somehow? Or perhaps she didn’t like kids running about? Or was it that she wasn’t, well, white? If only she knew how little Lizbeth cared. Maybe she should, more.
“You’ll find your way, I can tell already. You have that natural flair, a creative way of doing things–look at all this. I might not always get art but I can recognize others have talent.” She swept the room with her hand. “And people are friendly here.”
“I will? Can you tell all this?” She tilted her head playfully. “Do I seem confident, raring to go?”
Confused, Lizbeth struggled to find words to respond correctly. “I just meant, you’re a smart young woman and you clearly have a deep love of art…”
“It’s okay, Lizbeth. I’m sorry, I’ve been hard at work all day, I’m overwhelmed with a major sense of dislocation and frankly I’m just fiending for one long drink…”
Lizbeth laughed. “Oh well, I have pinot noir and beer if you like!”
Myra clenched her hands together. “But I don’t drink, anymore, that’s the thing. Which is why I didn’t come over earlier, all the beer.” She looked at Lizbeth with intense, lively eyes. “And I had a stroke three years ago which makes it even more imperative I take care of my health from now on. Just so you know a couple of basics up front. You stopped by and here I am.”
“Oh, I see….I won’t offer you any drinks, for sure. But an actual stroke? You’re young!”
“Yeah, that’s right, while riding my bike. Went blurry in one eye, weak in my arm then leg, fell right over roadside. Age 37. It happens. I won’t burden you with gruesome things. But I’d been drinking that day, too much, and I thought it was alcohol that did it. No, just a common small stroke. It felt big. But alcohol wasn’t good to me, either, before or after. So no more of it in my life. I want to stay fit and well, work at what I love, enjoy the rest of my Creator-given life.” She barely touched Lizbeth’s hand. “I’m pleased you brought me food, it’s thoughtful. I’m looking forward to knowing you and Michael better.”
Lizbeth looked down. “I drink a bit too much, myself, just so you know. But I aim to change things. I’m glad you told me.” She wanted to give the woman a sound hug but refrained, best to not scare her off. “I’ll let you rest. Call anytime, even for a cup of sugar.” She wrote down her number on the pad of paper.
Myra put it in her pocket. “Say, I’m going to develop new art classes, programming for older adults. Good stuff, I promise. Might you be interested?”
“Well…Michael is nuts about art.”
“I somehow feel you would be, too, if you just explored more things, played with your creativity. I’ll keep you in the loop.”
“Thanks, Myra. And welcome to our neighborhood.”
“Glad to have found this place. And my dream job!”
Michael called to her from the second floor landing.
“Changing my clothes already. I’m wiped out. You coming up?”
“Soon. I want to sit in the garden awhile.”
He stood there, then crept down several steps to catch her at the kitchen sink. Lizbeth stood before the bottle of wine on the counter as she cradled her empty glass in her hand. Gazed out the window at her garden glowing under the power of an ordinary, breathtaking sunset. She set her glass in the sink, turned the bottle upside down –he could hear it empty into the drain. She went outside, quiet as can be. Michael covered his face with both hands for one intense moment, then joined her.
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