Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

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                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archaeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for any creative types, thus our tolerance of perceived “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it slightly scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a “dirt buster” handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with unrelated objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Five fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, a very old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new white votives. A box of long matches was in a coffee can along with two overripe bananas. Books on every available spot. Dead plant–or perhaps it was just exceedingly wan, soaking up any thin rays that fell upon a wooden shelf, and next to two more that seemed much more willing to survive. Bones propped up on the next shelf between books: not quite menacing and of different sizes. Don’t ask me what, my imagination could run rampant; perhaps mementos from a student dig.

I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire or other health hazards but for some reason–intelligence, wit?–I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen a flickering glow from the sidewalk. That was always welcome to see as I trudged up the walkway.

I just backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

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Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a woolly bear caterpillar between us.

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I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

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Being Amalia

Photo by Henri Cartier Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Those words of hers–and they did seem exclusive to her. At times daily, certainly each moment something crossed Amalia’s mind or entered her experience to trigger the familiar proclamation. She would flash her enveloping smile and state “Everything is beautiful! Everything is outrageously, inexplicably beautiful!”

It got so the gang could utter in unison the phrases as soon as we heard her start with “everything”. Not one to ever take offense–“Whoever is the one truly offended?” she’d say, “They’ve been poisoned by vitriol themselves, poor things, to behave so rudely”–she’d just laugh at how we teased her. But how could anyone avoid noting the extent of vivacity ruling this person’s life? It seemed to naturally circulate in her mind and body, a secret ingredient that woke up with her, infusing her being. At night, after she crawled under the covers and turned out the lights, I couldn’t say. She was alone when I first met her. Later, I was not the one who stayed with her. Sam had those moments. But I assumed her sleep at least was just as empty of rancor and carelessness.

The four of us–Yvette, Amalia, Sam and me, Julian–had made a friendship pact at the international school that last year, a sort of “one for all and all for one”, then afterward taken jobs nearby, vowing to never part. It wasn’t so hard to stick together at first. Amalia saw to that with regular phone calls if more than five days had passed with no contact. She penned brief, expressive letters on creamy paper in rich blue script if it had been longer than that, then copied it for all. No one was going to refuse an opportunity to hang out, even when tired or errands and chores had to be put on pause. Not even if there was an appealing something else on the horizon. If at times the other two found her naive and a bit tiresome with her effervescent manner, she remained the pulsating center, the axis of the wheel in our connected lives then. I did not find it hard to be with her but, rather, a relief somehow.

We knew what to expect when we got together at the swan fountain in the center of the city, our meeting place. Amalia was always waiting, as if she didn’t have anything else to do although she probably had the most daunting schedule, helping care for a grandmother who seemed sturdy but losing cognitive skills. Or so the doctor and her parents had said. In any case, we took turns choosing where we’d go and what we’d do. Democratic yet flexible.

“Your Grandmother Poppy may really be going senile,” Sam said.

“I think she’s only choosing her memories with care,” Amalia considered as we walked along the river, “sorting and tossing things out. Who wouldn’t at ninety-one? It’s absurd that society finds old people less appealing as they streamline their thinking and doing. Everyone else is running around gathering information that is thoroughly useless and storing things on vast computers and dying to say everything on their busy minds. Where’s the mystery, my Poppy says? Right here, don’t fool with it! Poppy is not interested in keeping everything, every moment is new. She has thought and said enough, probably. She is entitled to make her own nest without interference. So she must stay home with us.”

“Oh, Amalia, you’re always advocating for her–how she must adore you!” Yvette swung her bulky purse over a shoulder and gave her friend a side hug. “As well she might. You parents would send her away, otherwise. I couldn’t do what you do for them all. I mean, I have my own life.”

“No, father would only keep her in the tiny corner room where she couldn’t say or do anything to complicate their own important matters. But she’s far too wonderful to set aside.”

“I know she’s terrific at word games. She trounced me at Scrabble last month. She’s a good soul, you are correct.” I admitted long ago that Poppy was one of my favorites over the age of sixty. I’d often wished she had met my grandfather before he’d passed and made him smile more.

“Well, she still can speak French better than any of us,” Sam conceded, “and she has a gorgeous granddaughter named Amalia so all else is overlooked!”

Amalia laughed and slipped her arm through his, then mine. Yvette attached herself to my remaining arm. We kept on toward the zoo. Once there, it was as if Amalia had never seen such creatures before though it had been only a few months since the last visit. For me, it was both distressing and fascinating to view them. But for Amalia?

“Those sharks look like sleek race cars, but they’re equally elegant. Dazzling and fast!” she’d say. Or “Can you imagine how tiny yet vast the world is in the eyes of a giraffe? Like a giant playground if only it could take off. I’d like to jump on and see what it is all about.”

We stood in some awe before the leopard cages, most of which hid behind rocks or had gone inside tunneled caves. I found the pretty big cats less intriguing than the elephants.

Amalia crouched to peer into a fake ravine at one languishing. “If I was a leopard I should consider changing coats now and then. Such a marvelous pattern, isn’t it, but it must inspire envy in the lions and wishful women. It might fade to black or white occasionally.”

“What?” Sam asked in mock exasperation, pulling her into an affectionate clinch. “I hope that doesn’t reflect a secret desire for animal skins to cover your body!”

“Gosh, no, I would set it free so no one could gawk or comment on its attire before I’d let it be slaughtered! It’s too marvelous to behold.”

She thereupon hatched a plan to sneak into the zoo and let it out, all the while we noted this would come to no good in the end for the leopard or domestic prey. I slumped on the ground beside her as Sam and Yvette got cold drinks.

“But how beautiful it is! Everything is outrageously, inexplicably beautiful!” she announced and turned to blow a kiss to the leopard, which raised it head to consider.

She and Same had been friends before I came along, but it was clear they were leaning toward more, a look here, a whisper there. By nineteen or so they had become intimate. When she implicated this, we were walking after meeting by chance. I had gotten out of my junior bank teller job and she was going in for a late afternoon shift at a messenger business and had waved at me from a corner. She walked her bike as we cut through a small greenway.

“Sam and I…we crossed the line, did you know? We might be in love…Surprising, yes?”

I did but winced, then affectionately bumped her shoulder with mine.

“I can’t imagine that lug being more than, say, like carry on luggage, someone useful to have around as needed, to toss about and store later. But you already figured that out and went forward, anyway!”

She cocked her head and looked up at me, eyes mischievous, then giggled. “Yes, well, useful is one word. He’s a pretty good one and you know it. Now we’re like you and Yvette. You two are a team so…we might as well remain a frolicking foursome!”

I was irritated with the words, thought it sounded foolish, how she said it–she sounded like a nineteenth century book at times–but it was also something I liked about her. She didn’t care how she sounded to others. She was only herself.

“Yvette… but you must know she’s off to the States, to Boston University next year. We’re comfortable together. But she’s pretty ambitious and not about to wait for me to catch up.” I shuddered dramatically as if this was a frightening insight though it was nothing much to me.

“And you are doing what then?”

I opened my mouth to answer but she was examing a pigeon hopping about. It flew up to drink from a water fountain as a small girl of perhaps five awaited a turn. The summer afternoon found Amalia’s face in an outpouring of sunlight, her hazel eyes lit so amber glowed at green-brown iris edges, her full pink lips embellished with gold. I could hear her breathing in a gentle way, see her chest slowly rise and fall. I followed her eyes and we watched the child reach up to the bird to touch its tail feathers. They ruffled, it turned its eye on her and resumed drinking. The girl was dressed up in frilly white, a dress for a special day. Her light curly hair was tied back in a purple ribbon. That child’s face was cream and roses, and–if you think me absurd I am sorry for you–heaven dwelt there. The whole scene glimmered with it. Sound vanished. Amalia and I reached for each other and when we did nothing was vivified but the bird, the child, the light. And us.

“Everything’s beautiful…outrageously, inexplicably beautiful…” she whispered and I mouthed the words with her.

Amalia turned to me. We stood one step apart. Her eyes reflected feelings I already knew but that she now recognized in me and in herself. I thought I might stop breathing, my  smart leather bag now heavy in hand, my tie unknotted but still too tight, my body leaning toward hers like a ship to a harbor.

“Katrina! Come!” Hands clapping twice.

The child ran back to her mother and the pigeon was long gone, though the fountain flowed with a sweet tinkling sound. More children and adults and birds came and went as we stepped back. Sunlight slanted trhough branches and left wavy stripes across our feet. I shifted my weight and started to walk again, Amalia getting back up on her bike.

“I have to go,” I said.

“Yes, me, too. Later, Julian!”

As her powder blue bike gained speed she glanced over her shoulder a last time, face creased with consternation that chaged to happiness and she thrust her hand in the air as she turned away. I waved back and stood still until she crossed another street and was gone.

I didn’t see her again for few weeks, to my surprise; a good lunch at a favorite outdoor cafe. By then, Yvette and I were not the same together. Neither of us was sure why, but we remained friendly if less aligned–as well as less anxious to meet up with Sam and Amalia. We all forgot to make a date for next time.

******

A year and a half later I was at the small airport where my father and I kept our Cessna 140. I loved the two-seat, single-engine aircraft, and how it shone like polished silver with its flashy red stripes and lifted into the limitless blue. Every spare hour I perfected my flying skills. Though I was finally in university studying zoology, my whole being had become enamored of flight. I hadn’t shared it much with the old gang but, then, we had spent increasingly less time together. Yvette had left for the States, Amalia had been working at a bookstore and taking nursing courses while still watching over her Poppy. I missed them, yes. I felt the lack of a regular dose of Amalia’s spritely ways. The stilted, dramatic speech. The half-ridiculous optimism. Her gratitude for life and devotion to family. I missed her but she was going one way, and I, another. We were twenty, twenty-one. We had real lives to develop and were full of more hard-driven intentions.

So it never occurred to me that I would see anyone at the airport other than hard-core devotees of aeronautics. When I saw Sam’s head near the gleaming wing of a Piper PA 16 I was taken aback.

“What are you doing skulking around here?” I sauntered up to him as if I had a real interest in talking. I was ready to fly.

He gave me his thin-lipped smile and heartily punched my shoulder. “Thinking about lessons, my friend! You always look lovestruck when you talk about flying, it has to be incredible.”

“Seriously?” I couldn’t imagine it. He had not once agreed to go up with  me. Sam walked with his eyes glued to the ground. Or on sports events or women.

“Aw, I’m just looking around. I’m with Conrad Novak over there, he’s the guy with the interest and the cash to fund it.”

I knew the name, a newcomer. I stuck my hands in my pockets. “Haven’t seen you and Amalia for a few weeks again. Things okay?”

He shrugged. “You know. We fight, make up. She’s too good for me and I think she’s finding it out.”

“I know,” I said and tried to not let it sound like what it was, the truth with much more under it. I punched him back.

“But she’s not well.”

“What do you mean? She got a bug?” I felt a wash of coldness rush over my back.

“Something more, I’d guess, but she won’t say. We don’t see each other as much but she’s here today.”

“Is it–is Poppy okay? Maybe things at home? I haven’t seen the ole gal in a while.”

“Not many have. She’s in an old age home now, been two months now.”

Sam turned to answer Conrad’s call and I moved on after we agreed to meet up soon. He said go ahead and call Amalia and see if I could find more than he had. I scanned the hangar and the field, thinking maybe she was out there. No women anywhere. But she had to be waiting in Sam’s car, if so. Not feeling well, she wouldn’t be standing long, waiting for him.

I gave my head a shake to clear it of thoughts, got into the Cessna, settled in and prepared to take off, then eased onto the taxiway.

“Julian! Hey, over here, wait up!”

I slowed a little and craned my neck out the window. Amalia was peddling for all she was worth, trying to catch up with me.

“Get off, Amalia!” I called out, gesturing with my hand. “You can’t be out here! You have to leave–I’ll call you!”

She either didn’t hear me or didn’t care, as she kept peddling faster and harder until we were almost parallel to each other.

“I’ll call! I’ll see you soon!” I yelled as loud as I could.

But Amalia put her feet up on the handlebars of a bike I had never seen before, something she’d probably found by the hangars and stole for a sly ride out to my plane. What a foolish girl and what a deep relief to see her gliding along, her hair blonder and longer, her smile as generous as ever, her tweedy coat flapping in the cool wind.

“Julian!” she nearly screamed. “Everything is beautiful, outrageously and inexplicably beautiful, yes?”

At least, I was fairly sure that was what she said. I was trying to pilot a plane but kept looking over as I gathered speed. Her eyes were crackling with the usual verve so she had to be okay. I increased my velocity, headed on down the runway and before long I was in the air, heart pinging and mind clear as the brilliant dome of sky above opened and let me enter  bit by bit. I looked down at Amalia. She grew smaller and started to disappear. I gleefully waved, despite her not seeing my hand. Then I was all clockwork precision. Then engulfed in wonder. The powerful magic of leaving earth behind. Ah, flight! I dreamed of flying over mountains and oceans and herds of wild animals as I skillfully guided my shining plane heavenward.

******

It was not to happen again, her sneaking up on me, stunning me with her capacity for joy, challenging me with her funny, odd comments. No more sunlight vibrating within random parks. No more meet-ups in cafes, even without Sam who had left her not too long after I saw him at the hangar. No more us making stupid faces when we ran out of intelligent things to say. No more shouted or whispered words about this mad and beautiful life we are given.

For Amalia was not well. She had cancer, and left when I was flying six months later.

It looked like it might be a stormy morning and I almost didn’t go out. I had spent the day before with her, only a half hour since her breathing was nearing nothing and her family was hunched over her bed. There was no room for me there, anymore. There was no room for an “us”, only her dying. Her eyelids didn’t flutter when I leaned close to brush her slack cheek with my lips. To thank her for being Amalia. Leaving that room was like stepping off a cliff.

I one hundred percent needed to fly. To not think about her shrinking in that hospital bed, her hands emptied, eyes darkened, pale mouth silenced by a surrender to dying. As I ascended, I saw lightning in the far distance, a pewter sky of rain like a screen between earth and heaven. I flew the other way toward a remnant of light where, out of nowhere, emerged a partial rainbow, faint, transparent colors that then arched across a strangely lit and towering cloud. I felt I could fly right through it and be saved from any terrible, selfish sadness. I knew it was absurd. I had to descend fast, before the storm snared me. It was then I heard her. I heard her as if she was sitting beside me at last.

“How beautiful everything is, isn’t it? Outrageously, inexplicably beautiful, my dear Jules!”

The Mime and the Houseboat

Photo by Rennie Ellis
Photo by Rennie Ellis

The story was that she came up from the south by way of the river on Octavio’s ramshackle houseboat in 1995. He’d been on one of his trips, fishing and trading and so on. I was gone then, working in Leeds, but two years later I came back and eventually met her. She was barely forty, I guessed (to his fifty). She was winsome and lively; Octavio would have it no other way. But she didn’t keep him in her sights. He soon went missing, she said, but seemed less worried than irritated and not much of that. The neighborhood knew he was on another jaunt, maybe gambling or fishing, this time took off on motorcycle, an old Indian Arrow he kept at Artie’s garage.

The women felt sorry for the Lady from France–her real name wasn’t known. She had remnants of a musical French accent and didn’t deny it. Soon it was just Lady, as she had a sterling if lightly tarnished manner. Anyway, they offered her plenty of unsolicited advice and she’d look sad for a day. Other times, their words were met with a delicate shrug. But the men, well, we thought she must have known what she was getting into or had other reasons for floating around with him. Octavio had his good points but sticking around wasn’t one of them. He’d never lived with anyone as far as we knew. Not that we thought it was okay to leave this woman alone, being new to the docks. So we all kept a look-out for her. Or him, however you saw it.

Whenever he was gone, which was as frequently as ever, Lady kept up appearances. She fixed up his well-weathered houseboat. She planted pansies and daisies in rough hewn flower boxes that she hammered together herself. Painted the window trim yellow and the door blue with leftovers from two paint cans. She was often seen sweeping and airing things out, and I’m sure they needed it as Octavio was not a tidy man at heart except if he chose to clean himself up. Then he excelled; the rest of us couldn’t help wonder how he did it, that transformation from river rat to debonair man.

When Octavio came back, he rode right past the houseboat at first, then circled back, sat on his rattling motorcycle. Just stared as Lady peeked out of a window. Finally, he gave it rave reviews, threw a small party on board so we could all appreciate her work. You could see he thought Lady was something good, even special. In fact, who could miss it? Everyone watched out for her, though she didn’t seem fragile. Or lacking in street smarts. She just had a peculiar decorum that invited protection, even from many of the women.

She wasn’t a talker but her face spoke volumes. I thought she could have been a silent film actress if we could go back in time. Turned out she was a legitimate dancer, then a street mime once upon a time. She didn’t make much of it, just agreed it was an interesting way to make a living and she did well for many years. Off and on.

She laughed when someone asked her to mime something, then just stepped up on the houseboat’s porch hand rail on bare feet. Just leaned against a post with her shoulder and made like a ship’s figurehead, one leg raised high, arms reaching upward. She sure looked like one of those formidable wooden sculptures that seem as if they could quell or do battle with any storm. And she was petite and lithe, not tall or husky. We gasped at what a bold figure she made. I almost grabbed her to keep her from toppling into the river. But she didn’t fall. She was rock steady, didn’t bat an eyelash or wriggle a toe. She hopped down as we clapped.

Lady was easy to be around, seeing to people’s needs, comfortable with men or women, her clear sea-blue eyes focused on the speaker with the encouraging gaze of someone who learned long ago the way to someone’s heart was simply to listen well. I wondered if she understood everything we said; she’d sometimes frown and ask for a definition of a word. I asked her once how long she had been in our country.

“I was born here, in North London, then my mother took me to France in search of her fortune. Many years gone, now back awhile.”

“Did she find it, her fortune?”

“No. She married a mad Frenchman with a small venue. A theatre. She worked for him tirelessly as a designer and seamstress, making costumes. I had talent, too, danced early on. Then at intermissions. Later, starred in many things. And finally, a street mime.”

She was doodling on a scrap as she spoke, as if to avoid looking at me or maybe to focus better. She crumpled it, tossed it aside. I wanted her to keep talking. We were on her covered deck eating oranges as a light rain fell around us. Octavio was at the pub, a newly favored haunt when in town; she never enjoyed it for long, I’d heard, so let him be.

A breeze ruffled her long half-grey hair. When she turned to me, her eyes were like hard glass stones. I started to speak when a smile flashed across her pale face. She shrugged. That seemed her punctuation at the end of everything, just like that old saying, ces’t la vie.

“Octavio is a decent man at heart, Lady. You’re good for him.”

“Eh, he’s good to me. It’s okay, a man who is nice looking and usually kind enough. But it’s this houseboat–I have fallen in love with it.”

And she swept open her hands to include all of it, the structure, the river with its changing traffic and signs of life, the street where many of us lived and worked. I felt her happiness. I thought, she’s no different than anyone, afterall, needs a feeling of security. But it wasn’t likely to last forever, not with Octavio.

Lady jumped up. “I have work, Hugh. Bring bread and cheese sometime. We’ll have lunch.”

We became friends of a sort. She remained guarded. Maybe she liked my face, too, or maybe it was just timing. You know how sometimes things just fall in place–synchronicity, they call it. Was I smitten? Only a quarter true if so, and I’d have denied it if anyone said it. I had been long-married, was in my second year of a lackluster, sometimes miserable, freedom. I was drawn in by her differentness, had an irresitible urge to get to the truth of who she was. I was also bored with my life. I was particular about keeping things in perspective. I was a machinist and knew all about being careful. Exacting, if needed.

On a sunny day, that rare event, she’d say, “The sky is a perfect backdrop to lunch with burgundy wine. See it change from blue to bluer? It’s the lighting, Hugh.”

Or if Octavio was around she’d call out to him: “Octavio, mon amour, come, put your arms around my waist, dance us right out of this bleak world, into the heart of dawn.”

Octavio shook his head, then held her close, breathed into her voluminous hair. He looked good when he was with her and acted better. Very few of us understood why he would ever leave her.

The women sometimes repeated her poetic phrases, mimiced how she spoke, half joking. A couple decided to take dance lessons, as her grace was such that anyone would want to copy it. They invited her out, as she had no children to keep her busy, no tirades offered against Octavio. She spoke a little of her exotic life on stage and street corners but always with reservation. They all said there was a sadness behind her facade of ease. They didn’t believe she loved Octavio but she sincerely cared enough; he gentled a smidgen. We gradually enfolded Lady into the community, pleased with her presence.

The years continued, repetitions of sorrows and joys, wearing on our face and softening our bellies, our fortunes ebbing and flowing. The river rose and churned and stilled, full of its own drama; we watched it as one of our own, with affection and worry. Respect.

I had less time to visit Lady and Octavio over the next five and then long ten years. My health declined with diabetes. She stopped by to see if I needed anything but left after a brief chat. I was kept abreast of things by the street, heard how he was gone farther and more and she had turned inward, less sociable again. Every few months they might float off and return a week later but mostly he took off on his often-repaired Indian Arrow. Some said Octavio had just expected she would tire of him and leave. Hoped so, then he’d be footloose again. But she burrowed, stayed and stayed. Made herself an integral part of his life, our lives. A part of the houseboat, even. Perhaps too much a fixture, they’d heard him grumble at the pub.

The day came that we’d worried over, a couple years after Octavio started to drink too much and created havoc here and there. Much longer a wait than we had expected but he did find her alluring, afterall.

It was late afternoon and I was napping. My cat, Henry, startled and then I was fully awakened by a hard rap at my door. Annoyed, I got up scratching my beard and shuffled over to open it. It was Lady.

She didn’t speak, just placed her hands at her throat and squeezed, thrusting her tongue out, her face turning pink in the dusky light. I reached up to wrench her hands away. She smelled odd, acrid. Smoky. In the distance I could hear a siren.

“Lady, stop! What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

“Octavio! House! Come!”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me, then pointed toward street’s end where the houseboat was anchored. We raced down. Saw fire engine and ambulance pull to a stop. And then she screamed. It was not a sound I’d want to hear again from her. I was certain what it meant. What lay ahead. He was dead. The houseboat was spewing flames like fireworks gone bad.

But Octavio did not die. He had had a heart attack in his boozy panic over his combustible floating house. He got better, collected insurance money due to irreparable damage caused by faulty wiring, and had the remains hauled away. Then left Lady on his Arrow.

She did not recover. Her houseboat was gone, her man had disappeared for good. Her hair went fully white soon after, five years before she turned sixty. She took to the street even though some offered her a bed or couch, usually sleeping on benches, under bushes, wandering the streets. And practicing her rusty art of mime (I never saw her, couldn’t bear it) for a little cash each day, getting hand-outs at restaurant back doors. When we came face-to-face by the river park three months later, she kept staring at my left eye. It’s eyelid was sagging, another sure sign of old age. She looked terrible, her face streaked with grime, her clothing raggedy, filthy. That hair, ruined. She’d taken up smoking, inexplicably. It all made her look forlorn, wrung out.

“You’re getting old,” she stated.

“Yes,” I said. “Inevitable.” I cleared my throat and looked her up and down pointedly. “You’re…well, getting dirty and smelly.”

“Yes,” she said. “Also inevitable.”

“Come home and take a bath.”

She put her hand in mine and we walked slowly to my little place, people staring at us as if we were two demented souls bound for the twilight zone. I smiled down at her, glad to have her close again, and she shrugged. I got her fresh togs from the next door neighbor, who came to help Lady in the bathroom. It took a long time.

Later, Lady and I sat by the fireplace and she warmed her sore feet and legs. Henry jumped into her lap, checked with me by way of a glance, meowed, then made a spot on her lap. She stroked him, murmured something. Her hair broke against the narrow cliff of her shoulders. Tired like all of her. How would she recover? I felt hurt by life’s fickleness, her lostness.

But then she spoke.

“I’ve been often abandoned. But now, bereft. I am not so wonderful! But never have I been so mad and also in utter tatters with you. I vow I will stay clean. Maybe wander at times but not too far… Henry needs my care, see? Ah, Hugh, mon ami, how long trouble can seem, how short our patience with it. But so it is.”

She closed her eyes and reached for my hand.

“Got to cut this gauche hair.”

I said nothing, content. She cleared her throat.

“Hugh?”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s Selene. But really Trudy. Morris. Birth, ugly name.”

“Hmm.”

Lady is often about the streets. I’m not sure what all she does. I do know she takes food to other cats she sees scrounging about. She hasn’t found my place quite as amenable as her doomed houseboat but she returns. People talk, say she’s lost her mind but maybe she’s found it in some essential way. She tries to be pleasant but they’re afraid of her, I suspect.

I am afraid of very little, that’s my strength, and now my broken, beautiful friend is here to keep us–Henry and me–company. Sometimes she’ll mime something for us, odd as that seems but it is a rare and beautiful form of communication, making words seem like noisy foolishness. She is in by dark. She takes her bath before climbing into the pull-out bed, but will sometimes keep me company if I have insomnia. Henry alternates between her feet or head and mine. We have our tea in the morning as we remark on the color of the sky and life of the river. Lady and Hugh, we’re the story now but we’re just getting older, getting by.