The Case for a Little Madness

All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

 

“In the interest of my sanity, I must come to the conclusion that my household is in the grips of something I can no longer control. I surrender.”

“Yes, do.”

“Enough is enough.”

“Yes, well then, he should be banished,” Father said, trying to downplay his amusement. “But it was only a water gun fight. They dripped mostly outdoors. They’re just big kids, themselves, I’m afraid. Soon they’ll be grown ups entirely with daunting or boring careers and flocks of their own.”

I could hear her slam the sun room door–not too hard–in response and wondered what he would do next. Likely nothing but continue reading his book and magazines. Mother would fume a bit longer then get out the china for dessert.

She was Mrs. Judith Lightness, wife of Charles Lightness, esteemed judge. Chic, civilized manager of house and garden. Our mother. Her words had floated outdoors. Their timbre rumbled like the engine of a tugboat, smallish yet still mighty. We heard them from the porch table. We had drinks after dinner, as usual, enjoying the way the garden brought us a sweltering sweetness of florals. My brother, Teddy. said nothing; he knew she was slow to expand her views when it came to impulsive activities. It was as if she had only tolerance for order, proscribed behaviors, despite the fact that she had only a moderate talent for the first and reportedly deviated from the second when she was younger.

Paul sipped a brandy and licked his lips, eyes on the giant trees that surrounded the garden. He was used to ignoring mother’s distress.

“Is that a black walnut?” He pointed. “I’ve always wanted to gather the nuts and make ink from them. I read how that can be done. I’d enjoy writing a smart letter to Meredith in walnut ink.”

Teddy laughed and requested more information. My ear was inclined toward the french doors despite a tiny upsurge of pleasure at his comment.

“Pssst!”

I looked up. Lillian poked her head through her upstairs window. She had her ratty stuffed elephant in hand and waved it at me. Then she pointed down below and made a face meant for mother. I thought she would drop the creature on Teddy but he was ignoring her, his head bent toward Paul’s. She had a habit of making it dive when someone was passing, tossing it down the staircase as company arrived. Leaving it in a pathetic heap so when I left my room I stumbled. It–Hildy, she called it–seemed to do things for her, a daredevil by proxy. Lillian was seven and a half years old. When could I slip it into the trash without igniting her fury?

“Meredith? What do you think?”

I looked back at the boys. They smiled as if something marvelous would be happening if I just gave them the go-ahead so I nodded.

“The ink? Why not? Or did I miss something? Whatever you say.”

“Splendid!” Paul swallowed the last of his drink and stood. “It’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll get supplies and begin immediately.”

“Wait! What am I being recruited to do?”

“Too late,” Teddy said with shrug, palms turned up. “We have a plan and you will help.”

Well, that was the problem. My twin and our adopted cousin developed schemes and often I was a part of them without quite knowing how it occurred. A few times I had spearheaded them, but generally I was more cautious, nicknamed “Merry Mouse” by Paul long ago. But their plans were like rumbas clothed as minuettes, and every time Paul arrived the music played on and on. I sometimes felt like a whirling dervish within days of his yearly arrival. Mother would have said we were struck by lightning, only to survive for yet another strike.

He was an adopted cousin because he was, in fact, adopted by my Uncle Joseph Dane in Newport (as opposed to Uncle Joey in Charleston or Uncle Joseph III in St. Louis). Joseph Dane, or J.D., and my Aunt Genisse tried to organically summon children but things didn’t take. They found an adoption agency operating out of New York while on vacation. They eventually found Paul at age five and the rest is history.

Ours, as well, I must say. Teddy and I were two years younger so Paul took the lead. In another couple of years the gap started to close. He was a curiosity with his foster home tales, long gaunt face and wide dark eyes that appeared surprised or befuddled. Neither of which was the case. Paul knew more about a room and its occupants when he walked into it than those who studied it at length. But the expressions, along with his horsey good looks, served him well. We adored him. He came for up to a month each summer. The habit stuck, except for the year he was at Harvard year around.

He had done well. We all had. I studied anthropology, uncertain of what direction was needed. Mother said anything with marriage as a secondary descriptor might be best. But despite being a female of twenty-two in nineteen sixty-four and typecast as a mouse, I had a secret hunger for adventure.

Lillian was dangling Hildy by one ear from the window she’d opened in her room. Teddy and Paul stood up. As soon as Paul headed toward the garage he passed beneath her window and bombs away, Hildy smashed Paul’s coiffed black hair. Teddy grabbed it as it bounced off and tossed Hildy to me, whereupon we were engaged in a rousing game of catch that elicited shrieks of protest from Lillian.

Mother came to the dining room’s double doors at the other end of the house, popped her head out and called out in a calmer manner. But she still meant business.

“Please return Hildy to her owner before the neighbors call 911.”

Paul had Hildy in his hands when Lillian buzzed him with her balsam wood glider. He ran inside to harass her, which she required.

It never ended. At this point one might think so. We were adults by objective criteria but Paul continued to find ways to subvert that reality. Teddy and I followed him at a leisurely pace. Mother’s head disappeared. I yelled back in passing.

“We’re coming, mother. I’ll have a small Dutch apple slice.”

Upstairs, Lillian’s pallid face was scrunched into her persimmon expression. Paul had squirted her once more with his water gun and dampened her bed. Teddy intervened, whereupon Paul hugged her and she squeezed back.

After they left she patted the bed for me to sit down. “Are you all going to do anything good this summer?”

“You mean, with you or in general?”

She shrugged but I felt the longing in that action.

“We usually do, with and without you. Expect nothing less this year.”

“Cousin Paul will be here awhile? Remember? I’m going to New York tomorrow. I hate seeing the doctor. The pokes and stuff.” She thrust out her lower lip but didn’t sniffle.

“Yes, unless mother marches him out the door, he’ll be here when you return. We have to be ready to defend him tonight when she fusses.”

Lillian tossed wispy blond hair from her eyes. “It’s all in or all out!”

I grabbed her hand and we went down for pie. That heralding cry had come from Paul–either do something full-on or don’t bother joining in.

The next day parents and Lillian had already left for New York when I awakened. Another check up. Lillian had energy-sapping anemia that curtailed her activities. They had tried a new medicine; every three months she had tests and an exam.

**********

“What? Up way before noon? Did you have an attack of industriousness?” Teddy inquired of my presence.

Paul chortled and poured himself a cup of coffee. They were dressed in shorts, faded polo shirts and sneakers.

“How could I help myself? I have to see what you two are scheming.”

“Include yourself, Merry Mouse, in the undercover work. After breakfast meet us in the driveway. Tell no one you may see on the way.”

They left. I soon followed with my own cup of cream and sugar with strong coffee added to it. Breakfast could wait.

There was a small stack of lumber in front of the three car garage. Nearby sat four bags that looked heavy. A paint can and brushes waited in the shade. A large bench wrapped in plastic stood apart. They walked around the supplies as if they were as puzzled as I, then disappeared into the garage. It dawned on me what it might be when I found them searching through tools on the workbench and wall.

“I know you can hammer so grab one and come along,” Paul said and linked his arm through mine.

We worked well together. Over the years we had created forts, games and toys, sometimes poorly, other times with great success.

It took us longer than planned, nearly until dinnertime, and after showering off sweat and grime we re-convened for a meal.

“I hope it gets the right response,” Teddy said to me when Paul had left for a walk. “Otherwise it will have to be donated somewhere. We could have done better, I think.”

“How can it not? It turned out beautifully.”

“It’s reasonable to us but you know Mother might forbid it.”

“Please! Mother will have little to say when she sees how much fun it is.” I punched Teddy. “And don’t put it all on Paul. Anyway, Father will help. I hope.”

Paul suggested we go out for dinner to celebrate. When he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around my waist I thought he must be anxious. The night was balmy so we ate at an outdoor cafe, pleased in every way. Sloppy and a little rowdy, we walked arm in arm. It gave me pause to think how long we had been together, and scared me to think it might one day end.

When they returned our parents and sister were in improved spirits–the anemia seemed to be abating little by little. Her doctor was cautious but optimistic that Lillian would become more robust in time.

“But what’s going on in the back yard? Has someone constructed something? I saw several nails, which I narrowly missed and returned to the nail jar. Who to blame for that near-miss?”

That was Father. I thought we had placed our project far enough behind bushes and flowers groupings that it wouldn’t readily show, way in a back corner. There was no street view of the yard, so it was hidden from public probing–Mother would be relieved of that. Teddy and I stepped forward in concert. I made a sweeping gesture with my arm, pointing to porch and yard.

“I think we should go out and see the new addition to our yard.”

Mother made a clucking sound as she withheld questions. Paul led the way in the end but seemed slow-footed.

“Oh, you really did it! You made my wish come true!”

Lillian clapped her hands, then ran to the cheery orange sand box and nearly sat right down in it, floral dress be hanged, white shoes tossed onto the grass. But Paul hadn’t yet taken off the plastic from the bench or sand box in order to p[protect both. He did so, then suggested the parents sit down and relax. Lillian sat down with a sound plop. I had found a drapey coverlet to use as a canopy and Teddy and Paul had painted it. We had hung a string of colorful plastic flags on the bushes behind the bench.

“A sand box? Lillian, out of there at once. You have the wrong clothes on, in fact the whole thing is in unreservedly poor taste, the bugs, the mess, the possibilities of animals creeping into it and–”

“My darling Judith, hush for once! Let it be. They have done a very good thing here. A tiny play area right in our back yard. Her little friends will enjoy this, too.”

Mother turned to her husband, mouth agape, and then did as suggested. They watched their late-in-life child, their great surprise whom they adored piling up sand on her lap, digging with a toy spade and filling up plastic glasses and bucket we’d placed there, her toes seeking coolness below the surface.

“It was Paul’s idea,” Teddy started.

“Yes,” Lillian concurred, “he has the best ideas. Every time you guys do things, it’s good.”

Mother moaned. “Ridiculous, unnecessary things. My lovely yard…! Of course it has to be Paul. Why, dear nephew, must you always shake the boat? Visit every summer and give us such a time of it?”

He went to her side and took her hand. “It’s rock the boat, Auntie Judith, and it’s because I love you all so much,” he said, then kissed her cheek.

And that was that. Mother patted his arm and sat back. Lillian demanded I get Hildy and a few others to join her. Teddy brought out a tray of iced teas. Mother and father sat back on the attractive wood and wrought iron bench to watch Lillian play with Hildy and new sand tools.

Paul stretched his legs out and tapped my sandal with his shoe under the table. His eyes traced my face. “Well, gang, what next?”

“More fine madness, I expect,” Teddy answered. “Maybe we should build a swing set? Add another fountain? I saw a big one at the hardware yesterday.”

I was so pleased our Lillian could be given such simple fun; she had a challenging time of it. But I knew what Paul meant. I gazed at the summer sky as if nothing at all had occurred to me. But as a budding anthropologist I clearly had more real life research to do.

 

 

Big Money Pond

Roses, Salmon Creek, Irv 054

Though the rain began to splatter hard not just spit, her mom and aunt didn’t hurry up and follow her to their car. Frankie was a little tired, ready to go, and leaned against the Oldsmobile’s back door, waiting. A shiver rippled up her trunk, making goose flesh on both arms from gusts of wet wind. They had walked three miles around the greenway. It had been awhile since they’d visited so even though dark towering rain clouds had gathered, they’d taken their time. Frankie liked harvesting blackberries from their heavy bushes in summer or wading in the creek for starters, but in spring there were other treats like deep pink salmon berry flowers, rocks along Salmon Creek’s steep banks. Ducks and turtles over at the grassy pond, the one her mom called the Good Old Pond (there was another pond at the other end of the park). They had seen a blue heron last year; it was so close to her it spooked her and then she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She looked for it today but it wasn’t there. Probably off looking for its friends or more food.

Once they’d lived three blocks away but that was before things got fancy, she was told. Before the woods, creek and marshland were made a regional park. Her parents were offered a decent price to move so a bunch of men and huge machines could smash the ramshackle house and cart shingles, cement and splinters away. That was when her parents were fully together. Frankie barely remembered it. She remembered crying and being given an ice cream cone. Now it was just Frankie, her mom and Aunt Jean.

She looked around and saw them heading for the other pond, the one her mom and aunt called Big Money Pond, sniggling like it was was a bad joke. She wasn’t sure what they meant and when she asked, her mom said, “Oh, just taxes and all. Crying shame but that’s government, taking what you care about or need, charging you for it.”

They’d brought an umbrella because of the storm forecast. Aunt Jean had said, “Nothing like a handy lightning rod for our walk.” But they rarely wore water repellent jackets, just hooded sweatshirts. Frankie scurried after them as rain pelted her with fat drops. They’d get drenched but you just didn’t argue with them, especially Aunt Jean. She ran things most places, even in their house, never mind that it didn’t belong to her. She was a supervisor at the paper mill; her mom worked there, too, but in a different area, thank god.

“If I had her as a boss I’d walk out every hour,” she’s told Frankie one times after the sisters argued about kitchen duty and Aunt Jean had won out.

Frankie had taken the tea towel and slapped it at the counter top a couple times. “Well, when I grow up I’ll get a maid or robot.”

“When you grow up you won’t have two nickels to rub together unless you get better grades and go to college.”

“Maybe dad should send more child support so we can get our dishwasher fixed.”

“Don’t you bring that up again, Francine, or you’ll do the whole sink full , scrub the stove top and dry them dishes, too.”

“You can’t make me!”

Her mom yanked the tea towel from her hands and snapped her rear with it once. That was enough.

That’s how it went a lot at their house. But her aunt and mom could be fun, too, playing video games with her or board games. Taking her places like the movies or a park. And Aunt Jean helped with bills, yard work and knew how to fix some things–like motorcycles; she rode hers even in downpours–and played rummy with Frankie. She filled in a lot of gaps after her mom and dad split up for the last time. Frankie couldn’t remember anymore what it was like without her in the house or making a mess in the garage, raking leaves or fussing over veggies in tubs along the narrow back yard. If her mom was gone, Aunt Jean was there. If her mom and Aunt Jean were both there it was like having the same person times two but with different voices and somewhat different ways. They looked much alike, rounded and tall, dark brown hair, light brown eyes. But her mom loved her more. She said she would eat octopus tentacles for her, certainly die for her if necessary. Whereas Aunt Jean cackled and said she’d give up a tooth or two in a fight for her, but not her whole gorgeous person. She would definitely not eat octopus.

Frankie found them sitting on a slope by the pond. “What’re you doin’? It’s raining now.”

Her aunt held the umbrella, checked her cell phone. Her mom was standing with arms crossed, watching a handful of people on the other side fishing. The rain ran off her like she was made of duck feathers. She didn’t even blink.

“Fish are biting good, the rain you know,” her mom said. “Should’ve thought of that. Still got a couple poles in the garage.”

“What are they fishing for? I forget,” Frankie asked, grabbing a small lap blanket (her aunt had used it for a sit by the creek, funny about getting too messy that way) and putting it over her skinny back.

“Steelhead. They stock it. No more natural-born fish hangin’ out here. Mac and I used to fish once a week for dinner, pulled out as many as four or five–”

“Don’t start that now.” Aunt Jean looked up at her sister and stared hard.”It don’t ever change nothin’.”

“Well, it all fell apart after we sold our first house to move to the city and that’s solid fact.”

“Stop, it don’t help to keep sayin’ it.”

“We loved it out here when it was just the outdoors and a few of us…”

Aunt Jean turned to her, said something Frankie couldn’t quite hear, gave her a dark stare that even Frankie could feel, almost like a finger snap on the head. She withdrew a heavy oblong stone from her sweatshirt pocket, tossed it with all her might over her aunt’s umbrella. She watched it splash into the bright green surface, then went to her mom. Put her arms around her waist and hugged. After a couple seconds, her mom pulled her off and sat down by her sister half-under the umbrella. Frankie tossed a few more stones after she saw the two of them whispering more. Sometimes Aunt Jean stirred it up instead of helping.

The older woman didn’t like her dad’s name brought up; he had hurt her sister. Plus, one of her sayings was “the less news of the past, the better.” But Frankie loved her dad so much, even if he was in jail for a “B and E” and attempted theft or something like that. Her mom didn’t know she knew, but she had ways. Frankie’s older friend Joe whose dad knew Mac, told her what it was. Then he said he’d heard Mac had broken into a pole barn, he knew the guy and was trying to steal back a lawn mower and some expensive tools he said had been borrowed but never returned but the guy said he’d traded for them fair and square. He pulled his BB gun on her dad and told him to get off his property but her dad hadn’t left, just laughed at him. But the guy had already called the cops. It was a mess. Frankie felt sure about that much. It made her feel a little sick.

Aunt Jean was pointing across the lake. “See that, over there? That new construction? That used to be Ted Burkett’s land.”

“No talking about the past, right? I know their story, anyway. There’s lots like it.”

“This is different, sis, this is an old couple who passed last year, whose ten acres got sold by greedy sons. Sold it for what–a million or two?–and now look what they’ve done. A park boundary line must be on that side of the pond so looks like monster houses are going up around the water.” She shuddered.

Frankie took a seat by her mother, squeezed in close. She took in the spot they were studying. Remembered that last summer there had been nothing but massive trees right there. An earth mover was parked by the end of the pond.Her mom shook her head. Frankie’s eyes swept over the area again. It was still mostly green, really, only with that new building tucked in. It looked out of place, but it could be worse.

Roses, Salmon Creek, Irv 057

They’d lived in their own newer house for four years now. She didn’t recall what the old one was like as she was barely five when they’d moved. But she knew her mom missed it badly sometimes despite liking the nice brick ranch style with three bedrooms, a fireplace and fenced yard. Even if it was on a noisy street. Well, maybe not that.

This park was one of her favorites to visit. They had just one tiny corner park by a train stop in the city neighborhood. So Frankie could get worked up about coming here to play on colorful playground equipment, all new along with other developments the last couple years. The Big Money Pond was also a swimming pond in summer, it even had life jackets for row boaters and people who couldn’t swim well and kids. But she could manage. She swam like crazy at the community pool. Her mom told her she was a real water baby–she should make it her sport in middle school. That made Frankie happy.

It was perfect here, she thought.

Oh. It was perfect. She got it now. It must have been even more perfect back then, with the mammoth ole swimming hole and natural fishes that belonged there forever, woods humming with only animal goings-on. Less people. More spring peepers, her fave along with turtles and snakes and herons. For a moment she wondered what it’d been like–did she remember it?–to take a silent canoe down the creek when it ran high and faster as her dad had told her, Frankie bundled between parents as they guided it without any trouble. It must have been something else, like heaven with all the birds singing to them, lots of bald eagles swooping over. She had just seen one of those today, wondered if there was a nest nearby.

“Well, kids, I’m moving out,” Aunt Jean said, her free fist hammering twice on her thigh.

Frankie’s and her mom’s heads to her, mouths dropped open.

“Yeah, I’m coming back here, ladies. There’s some condos being built the west end of the park. I already seen a model of one I want to buy.”

She didn’t look at her niece or sister. Kept staring at that house going up, the sound of a band saw out there somewhere whirring so loud the fish probably gathered to hide a long the bottom of the pond.

“Wait a minute!” her mom screeched. “You just gave me all that crap about the land over there and the poor family and you’re joining the enemy, buying a condo at the edge of this park? Have you lost your friggin’ mind?”

Frankie covered her ears, then bent over to see Aunt Jean’s face. She was kinda smiling, the sort of curled lips that warned you to watch your step.

“Well, hold on, we all gotta grow up sometime. I’ve been hanging out with you way too long! Time to move on, do my own thing, free up a bit. No offense.”

“You can’t be serious?” Frankie said, leaning across her mother.”You are really leaving us? What’d I do?”

“She’s serious, Frankie, she wouldn’t a said it. I do not get it, Jean, Really!”

“Of course you get it if you think it over more. Frankie, don’t be ridiculous, nothing you done. I’ve saved a lot staying with you two. I can afford my own cubby hole now, thanks to you, sis. Aren’t you a little happy for me?”

“Hell, no,” Frankie said and slumped over face to lap, ready to get slapped on the noggin for swearing. But they all were saying bad stuff and no stinging smack came.

“Watch your mouth!” they both said at once, then laughed when she peeked up at them.

Then fell silent again. The rain lessened, the water’s surface calmed, then the wind gave a little hiccup and sighed.

“Mom, listen. We’ll just have to sell our house and move here, too. I like it over here more–you do–and I want to learn to fish and swim more and catch turtles just like you and Dad did. We could just move, so why in heck not?”

Both inclined their heads to Frankie. She held fast their gazes, sat up tall and said louder: “Why not?”

The sisters looked at each other with eyebrows raised halfway to their hairlines, then stared out at more beauty, lost in thought. The pond was a sweet green, dimpled with raindrops, ruffled by another breeze. The group of fishing folks was packing up gear and heading home. Giant clumps of clouds had thinned, flattened like cotton batting Frankie had felt through frail edges of a quilt her dead grandmother had made for her mom. Frankie believed in guardian angels so even though her grandmother died when she was six, she could still help out with this. Maybe if her dad didn’t have to be in jail for long and they moved back here, he’d come around more and get smarter. And her mom and she could swim together in summer and have picnics with Aunt Jean anytime they wanted.

Couldn’t things be somewhat the same even if they changed? Or better?

Her mom cupped Frankie’s chin in her hand. “I don’t know what you’re cooking up, Frankie, you think too much.” She smoothed back the rain-wet hair from her daughter’s forehead. “You’ve got good ideas, too. This might be one of them. You can’t keep any turtles, though, not from a protected area like this now. But you can still swim and canoe…we would do that. It seems more what we want. The city isn’t all that great.”

Aunt Jean stood up with effort. She’d only turned forty-two but often complained of her back.”I know I’m sick and tired of doing lawn work for you. I’ll have no yard to speak of, at the new condo. It’s all done for us, anyway.”

“You’re getting too rich for my blood.” Frankie’s mom got up without a hitch and put her hand on Jean’s shoulder.

“Always had it going on, you know I’m a social climber!”

“That’s just wrong! But how come you didn’t tell us?” Frankie asked.

Aunt Jean held the umbrella over the other two as the girl got up, her jeans’ seat damp from muddy ground, a foot slipping. Heart squeezed up with fear and excitement.

“Didn’t want to worry you about things, lovey.”

Her use of that silly name was too much. Her sudden tenderness landed inside Frankie, started to shake loose a pile of things.

“She mentioned it a few months ago,” her mom said. “I just didn’t think it would happen. Or not this fast.”

“Oh well, no one told me, I need to know things, too!”

Her mom nodded. “You’re right. But don’t get excited, she isn’t just disappearing. And we’ll study on this. Talk.”

“I’ll never get away from you two, why bother trying? It’s a terrible fate!” Aunt Jean let out that signature boom of a laugh, causing passersby to glance over.

Frankie ran ahead, feeling a little raw with irritation about a few things, the inside of her head jostling with new worries. But she also felt ticklish bubbles. Anticipation, hope. Maybe they would move here and make things fresh, and she would grow bigger and happier being outdoors more. Aunt Jean might have even wondered if they’d think of it. They might still be together, just more separate. It seemed strange but not so bad.

She got to the car, turned around to see if they were hurrying up. Their arms were linked together; that made her forget her worries some. The two women walked awkwardly until they readjusted themselves: her mom taking longer strides that got reined in, her aunt gallumping along with her barest limp, smaller steps that began to lengthen. They still looked cut from the same good rough-and-ready cloth, all three of them were or that’s what her dad had told her once. And he’d beamed down at Frankie like she was made of the best part.

Roses, Salmon Creek, Irv 045

Hope’s Last Stand

Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths
Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths

“Isn’t that what they called it, Pruett? Last Hope Street?”

He was reading the weekly activist paper sold by the homeless and didn’t want to be bothered by another conversation with Zelda. Even if she was his second cousin and his quasi-rescuer. She always had such an arch in her voice, as if she was studying something from her privledged distance, nose pinched between thumb and index finger. She had to comment on everything. Even the picture on the back page as he read. The photo op page. It was aggravating enough that she always inquired why he bothered to read the paper, put out by people who could barely spell and a staff who was just a bunch of do-gooders.

Well, so what?

“They’re playing at being journalists, Pruett. They might seek education, get jobs for which they’re suited not just emotionally inclined. People should act less from selfish wants. More from practicality.”

“Could be,” he mumbled and read the last paragraph of the article.

“Could be that it was called ‘Last Hope Street’?”

He nodded, turned the page. Zelda sat up in the rocking chair and fiddled with the wisps of hair unravelling from her bun. (“Chignon, a far cry from a bun!” she’d corrected him once.)

“It was such a different place, then, wasn’t it? Nothing green growing, children playing half-dressed on the sidewalks with their grubby hands grasping at you as you walked  by.” She yawned tidily. “It was a place you tried to avoid. Now, well, who could imagine? What strange ways time has with real estate.”

He didn’t want to acknowledge her thoughts. He wanted to be left alone with his own. But this was the way of things now. The house she owned, the room he rented, the other two boarders were here long before he had had to “downsize”, as they said. Whoever “they” were. Whatever that even meant. As if he chose to lock the door of his rapidly sold two story Tudor and drive off without a backward glance. As if he willingly shared a structure with someone who served chilled prunes in a cut glass bowl with a sprig of mint atop, presenting them as if they were delicacies. And shared an opinion on everything.

He turned to the back page. “I suspect the picture is to remind us of a perfectly ordinary street where people once raised families and had fun. That’s what I see.” He held the page with the photograph closer. “Copyright 1958, it says. Well, I somewhat recall it was a decent street if a bit scrubby. Now it’s about to become cleaner and chic. Money gallops right along, setting people to the curb. You do understand the poor and homeless don’t want us to forget what happens to such neighborhoods, Zelda?”

Zelda sniffed, a habit due to a chronically drippy nose that was straight as an arrow and as sharp. She usually had a tissue hidden in a pocket, at the ready. “My point, Pruett. How can some of us forget? It was part of our old territory. And why shouldn’t change be encouraged?”

Tiresome. That’s what he thought of her. It was like entering a maze and struggling to get out again some days. But once started, he couldn’t help himself. Maybe it was part competitive, part entertainment. But this was a topic that mattered.

“If you haven’t been homeless or poor, how could you know what it is to lose your block to bulldozers and condominiums? People all need a place to lay their heads and nurture their babies. Surely you see that.”

Sniff, sniff. “Well, of course. I’m not an idiot, dear.” She dabbed her nose with a folded tissue. “But you are an authority? You taught at university for forty years. Even if it was anthropology. Hardly living on the dole…”

Pruett felt his stomach tighten and rumble. He reached into the fruit bowl on the coffee table and chose a lovely orb of apple. Polished it on his sweater and took a maximum bite. Eating was a good way to render one’s self speechless. Let her think about what she just said.

She resumed. “Running out of money is one thing. Having none to start with seems another. How can one miss what one never had…? Yet it happens. Both ways.”

He stopped chewing and swallowed hard. Was it possible this woman was an absolute boor? No, just so narrow in viewpoint her mind became myopic. She was unschooled. Unable to imagine lack of good fortune since her inheritance was substantial. Zelda had lived frugally, had boarders for years to augment what?–a few million?–and wanted for nothing. Likely never would know destitution, not even close to it.

Nor would he, though sometimes it felt like it as he made his way to the corner room where he had a desk, a single bed, a nightstand and lamp. The taupe brocade wingback chair. A trunk, once belonging to his grandfather, now at the foot of his bed, keeping safe his paper memories. A bookshelf that held less than one tenth of what used to keep him company late at night. It was only a rented room, not a nursing home–good Lord, please, not that for at least another twenty years. If ever. He hadn’t wanted his Marie to live and die there, either, so she had stayed home, battling until the end, ten years of dismantling a vibrant, then weakened, then an unspooled and ashen life. Letting go of their safety nets precipitated a steep descent. Spiritually, emotionally. Financially. Well, she had gone on to a good place if Pruett really saw that soft smile she left him. And he did.

And he remained. With time on his hands and Zelda.  The other two, young boarders, came and went. Their feet clomped up the stairs when he was dozing in his room, then shuffled to their own refuges. As if they were older than the hills when they had years yet to work and save and complain and get old. They shared pleasantries, a dinner here and there, waved in the hallways. They’d move on, be replaced by others. But he was stuck here.

“What do you do there each Monday?”

Pruett startled, saw Zelda’s face in high relief as late afternoon shadows draped her features. Those cheek bones looked faintly dangerous. She was still a beauty but a sadly neglected one.

“At This Planet, Our Home offices? Answer questions that come via phone about the homeless. Edit articles. Work with an aspiring street poet or two. Listen a lot.”

“Educate me, then.”

The apple was crisp, sweet on his tongue. He took another bite and studied the street through the bay window. The rain was splashing everything, cooling things down enough that he wondered where his slippers were. He thought of the historical novel begun earlier, and the wingback with its neatly folded, worn and wooley blanket.

“Well, the numbers. Last year there were over six hundred thousand homeless in the United States. Most were sheltered but about thirty-five percent were not. Unsheltered means they stayed under bridges, in cars, in parks, in abandoned buildings. Even to sleep. In winter. People twenty-five and older were the majority of homeless folks, but one quarter are children under eighteen. New York and California had the highest increase in homeless persons.”

He noted she was listening, though her hands were restless, picking at a stray thread on her nubby skirt.

“In Portland it’s estimated four thousand sleep in shelters or on the streets. Fastest growing subgroup everywhere? Women with children.”

Zelda yanked the thread, frowned as it held fast. He wondered if she intended on yanking until it unravelled, pulling until it required emergency repair. She needed to exercise authority, he thought, in all things. She looked up, eyebrows raised.

“That many? Miserable. Why do you suppose so many end up that way? Do you give them money? One expects they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol, isn’t that right?”

“Of course some are addicts. Too many. Some have just lost jobs and couldn’t make ends meet after a couple months. Families are homeless at an alarmingly increased rate. And mental illness fells large numbers, or physical disability. Veterans can be prone to homelessness.”

“There.” She said this with satisfaction as she captured and broke the offending thread, shook it off. “Certainly, it is clear they need much more than housing. It seems an untenable situation, Pruett, but nothing is impossible to alter. What lasting good can you accomplish by just listening and editing? Maybe it would be better for you to invest time in something more…” She scanned the dusky room for inspiration. “…I can’t know for certain, but perhaps real estate that pays off in a big way. That’s what I’m doing.”

He sat forward, his hands gripping the arms of the chair. “Zelda, you have callouses lining your heart. You’ve been good to me, but really.”

She flashed her eyes at him, as if to say he was being absurd.

“I”m talking about my investment in Hope Street.”

“So that’s why it got your attention.” Pruett ran his hand over his forehead. He felt defeated by her dearth of social empathy. “Zelda, I would love you to come down to the paper’s office with me next week. Will you do that or are you fearful of catching a few bugs?”

He presed a finger to his lips. That could have been left unsaid. Zelda wasn’t that sort of woman, not really. Not fearful, at least! He was impatient when he might be more charitable. His own blood.

“You are self-righteous at times, Pruett. I realize we haven’t been close for some time. I suggest you open your mind a little. As I am trying to do. We are here for the duration in all likelihood, in this house, life closing in on the last years. We should be quite kinder allies, is that not wise? Much more effective.”

Such an emotional appeal seemed extravangant as well as a small embarrassment to Pruett. Quite kinder allies. Where did she get that? Her father no doubt, old military establishment, then esteemed judge, whose fortune she had at her disposal. Yet, she was right. They were here together because of his fate, her good graces, a shared history. He ought to be more friendly, not rubbed raw by petty fractiousness. His, mostly, he admitted.

“Yes, you’re right. I do apologize. Would you like to come with me next week?”

“Well, yes, if is there is some way I might be helpful.”

“I’d think you’d proofread after teaching English for so long. Or just observe the newspaper process. Yes, please join me.”

“Ah, good then.”

They listened to the rain. It had started in the morning, a slow release, a descent of moisture from grey skies after so long a summer. They both liked rain, that was one thing. They tended to read more in rainy season, even paragraphs aloud to each other. Other things that worked: she cooked, he cleaned up often. He went shopping for her as he didn’t mind crowds, even rather liked them. He paid her little but enough that he didn’t have to feel like he was taking advantage. There was no need of that; he could carry his weight even if it was a little. She accepted this with quiet, due appreciation. Every communal group has its hierarchy, its common needs and shared labors. The house ran well because this was understood.

Zelda had a talent for running things but the respect she afforded her boarders was a bonus, despite her patrician bent. She had a moral compass and it worked well even when he failed to see it. The chignon and a few jewels worn daily and the way she spoke blinded him at times.

He turned to her and appraised her straight back, her silvery hair, the creases around still-full lips. She had been a single person most of her life. He was just learning how to do it, a man fumbling in a darkened room for another hand.

“I’m thinking there is another reason you want to come with me to This Planet, Our Home.”

“That’s so.”

“Real estate involved?”

“Yes, Pruett. How quick today!” One eyebrow raised this time.

“Hope Street?”

She then smiled at him and he glimpsed his mother’s smile, or was it his great-aunt’s, but it was familiar in a way he had forgotten.

“Yes, I’m taking one big last stand, Pruett. Against this hellbent world. How much longer can I be of good use? I thought I’d buy the building on Hope and Fifty-third. That red brick, ratty hotel, remember? Terrible inside. I got it for a song and it will cost to renovate but it has good bones. I thought it would make lovely transitional housing.”

“Housing? For homeless people, you mean?”

“Don’t look so  surprised. I do a few things. Not all of us are called to climb into the trenches but we can still use our talents.”

“Well, I’m the fool here.” Pruett pounded the arm of the chair three times with his opened palm. “Excellent idea! The hotel on Hope Street!”

Zelda laughed and rose to get their tea. He watched the rain slap the bushes, slip down the window glass. His brain percolated. A hotel of hope. Maybe thirty studios or twenty one bedrooms. Maybe a community club space on the first floor? He’d love to start something up.

Zelda handed him a Royal Dover fine bone china teacup on its tiny saucer. “Here, Paulie. Time to really talk.”

Hearing his childhood name spoken ignited warmth in his cranky bones. He set the teacup on a side table and leaned closer.

“Maybe call it Hope at Riverside, as that is where it sits. Wait-how about Hope Street Lofts? And we could utilize some of the first floor for a common gathering place. I see ping pong tables, a coffee bar. Let’s make it a place everyone can enjoy.”

Zelda nodded. “Now you’re thinking, cousin. Let’s.”

 

***********

Note: Please see The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Case for a Little Madness

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“In the interest of my sanity, I must come to the conclusion that my household is in the grips of something I can no longer control. I surrender.”

“Yes, do.”

“Enough is enough.”

“Yes, well then, he should be banished,” Father said, trying to downplay his amusement. “But it was only a water gun fight. They dripped mostly outdoors. They’re just big kids, themselves, I’m afraid. Soon they’ll be grown ups entirely with daunting or boring careers and flocks of their own.”

I could hear her slam the sun room door–not too hard–in response and wondered what he would do next. Likely nothing but continue reading his book and magazines. Mother would fume a bit longer then get out the china for dessert.

She was Mrs. Judith Lightness, wife of Charles Lightness, esteemed judge. Chic, civilized manager of house and garden. Our mother. Her words had floated outdoors. Their timbre rumbled like the engine of a tugboat, smallish yet still mighty. We heard them from the porch table. We had drinks after dinner, as usual, enjoying the way the garden brought us a sweltering sweetness of florals. My brother, Teddy. said nothing; he knew she was slow to expand her views when it came to impulsive activities. It was as if she had only tolerance for order, proscribed behaviors, despite the fact that she had only a moderate talent for the first and reportedly deviated from the second when she was younger.

Paul sipped a brandy and licked his lips, eyes on the giant trees that surrounded the garden. He was used to ignoring mother’s distress.

“Is that a black walnut?” He pointed. “I’ve always wanted to gather the nuts and make ink from them. I read how that can be done. I’d enjoy writing a smart letter to Meredith in walnut ink.”

Teddy laughed and requested more information. My ear was inclined toward the french doors despite a tiny upsurge of pleasure at his comment.

“Pssst!”

I looked up. Lillian poked her head through her upstairs window. She had her ratty stuffed elephant in hand and waved it at me. Then she pointed down below and made a face meant for mother. I thought she would drop the creature on Teddy but he was ignoring her, his head bent toward Paul’s. She had a habit of making it dive when someone was passing, tossing it down the staircase as company arrived. Leaving it in a pathetic heap so when I left my room I stumbled. It–Hildy, she called it–seemed to do things for her, a daredevil by proxy. Lillian was seven and a half years old. When could I slip it into the trash without igniting her fury?

“Meredith? What do you think?”

I looked back at the boys. They smiled as if something marvelous would be happening if I just gave them the go-ahead so I nodded.

“The ink? Why not? Or did I miss something? Whatever you say.”

“Splendid!” Paul swallowed the last of his drink and stood. “It’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll get supplies and begin immediately.”

“Wait! What am I being recruited to do?”

“Too late,” Teddy said with shrug, palms turned up. “We have a plan and you will help.”

Well, that was the problem. My twin and our adopted cousin developed schemes and often I was a part of them without quite knowing how it occurred. A few times I had spearheaded them, but generally I was more cautious, nicknamed “Merry Mouse” by Paul long ago. But their plans were like rumbas clothed as minuettes, and every time Paul arrived the music played on and on. I sometimes felt like a whirling dervish within days of his yearly arrival. Mother would have said we were struck by lightning, only to survive for yet another strike.

He was an adopted cousin because he was, in fact, adopted by my Uncle Joseph Dane in Newport (as opposed to Uncle Joey in Charleston or Uncle Joseph III in St. Louis). Joseph Dane, or J.D., and my Aunt Genisse tried to organically summon children but things didn’t take. They found an adoption agency operating out of New York while on vacation. They eventually found Paul at age five and the rest is history.

Ours, as well, I must say. Teddy and I were two years younger so Paul took the lead. In another couple of years the gap started to close. He was a curiosity with his foster home tales, long gaunt face and wide dark eyes that appeared surprised or befuddled. Neither of which was the case. Paul knew more about a room and its occupants when he walked into it than those who studied it at length. But the expressions, along with his horsey good looks, served him well. We adored him. He came for up to a month each summer. The habit stuck, except for the year he was at Harvard year around.

He had done well. We all had. I studied anthropology, uncertain of what direction was needed. Mother said anything with marriage as a secondary descriptor might be best. But despite being a female of twenty-two in nineteen sixty-four and typecast as a mouse, I had a secret hunger for adventure.

Lillian was dangling Hildy by one ear from the window she’d opened in her room. Teddy and Paul stood up. As soon as Paul headed toward the garage he passed beneath her window and bombs away, Hildy smashed Paul’s coiffed black hair. Teddy grabbed it as it bounced off and tossed Hildy to me, whereupon we were engaged in a rousing game of catch that elicited shrieks of protest from Lillian.

Mother came to the dining room’s double doors at the other end of the house, popped her head out and called out in a calmer manner. But she still meant business.

“Please return Hildy to her owner before the neighbors call 911.”

Paul had Hildy in his hands when Lillian buzzed him with her balsam wood glider. He ran inside to harass her, which she required.

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It never ended. At this point one might think so. We were adults by objective criteria but Paul continued to find ways to subvert that reality. Teddy and I followed him at a leisurely pace. Mother’s head disappeared. I yelled back in passing.

“We’re coming, mother. I’ll have a small Dutch apple slice.”

Upstairs, Lillian’s pallid face was scrunched into her persimmon expression. Paul had squirted her once more with his water gun and dampened her bed. Teddy intervened, whereupon Paul hugged her and she squeezed back.

After they left she patted the bed for me to sit down. “Are you all going to do anything good this summer?”

“You mean, with you or in general?”

She shrugged but I felt the longing in that action.

“We usually do, with and without you. Expect nothing less this year.”

“Cousin Paul will be here awhile? Remember? I’m going to New York tomorrow. I hate seeing the doctor. The pokes and stuff.” She thrust out her lower lip but didn’t sniffle.

“Yes, unless mother marches him out the door, he’ll be here when you return. We have to be ready to defend him tonight when she fusses.”

Lillian tossed wispy blond hair from her eyes. “It’s all in or all out!”

I grabbed her hand and we went down for pie. That heralding cry had come from Paul–either do something full-on or don’t bother joining in.

The next day parents and Lillian had already left for New York when I awakened. Another check up. Lillian had energy-sapping anemia that curtailed her activities. They had tried a new medicine; every three months she had tests and an exam.

**********

“What? Up way before noon? Did you have an attack of industriousness?” Teddy inquired of my presence.

Paul chortled and poured himself a cup of coffee. They were dressed in shorts, faded polo shirts and sneakers.

“How could I help myself? I have to see what you two are scheming.”

“Include yourself, Merry Mouse, in the undercover work. After breakfast meet us in the driveway. Tell no one you may see on the way.”

They left. I soon followed with my own cup of cream and sugar with strong coffee added to it. Breakfast could wait.

There was a small stack of lumber in front of the three car garage. Nearby sat four bags that looked heavy. A paint can and brushes waited in the shade. A large bench wrapped in plastic stood apart. They walked around the supplies as if they were as puzzled as I, then disappeared into the garage. It dawned on me what it might be when I found them searching through tools on the workbench and wall.

“I know you can hammer so grab one and come along,” Paul said and linked his arm through mine.

We worked well together. Over the years we had created forts, games and toys, sometimes poorly, other times with great success.

It took us longer than planned, nearly until dinnertime, and after showering off sweat and grime we re-convened for a meal.

“I hope it gets the right response,” Teddy said to me when Paul had left for a walk. “Otherwise it will have to be donated somewhere. We could have done better, I think.”

“How can it not? It turned out beautifully.”

“It’s reasonable to us but you know Mother might forbid it.”

“Please! Mother will have little to say when she sees how much fun it is.” I punched Teddy. “And don’t put it all on Paul. Anyway, Father will help. I hope.”

Paul suggested we go out for dinner to celebrate. When he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around my waist I thought he must be anxious. The night was balmy so we ate at an outdoor cafe, pleased in every way. Sloppy and a little rowdy, we walked arm in arm. It gave me pause to think how long we had been together, and scared me to think it might one day end.

When they returned our parents and sister were in improved spirits–the anemia seemed to be abating little by little. Her doctor was cautious but optimistic that Lillian would become more robust in time.

“But what’s going on in the back yard? Has someone constructed something? I saw several nails, which I narrowly missed and returned to the nail jar. Who to blame for that near-miss?”

That was Father. I thought we had placed our project far enough behind bushes and flowers groupings that it wouldn’t readily show, way in a back corner. There was no street view of the yard, so it was hidden from public probing–Mother would be relieved of that. Teddy and I stepped forward in concert. I made a sweeping gesture with my arm, pointing to porch and yard.

“I think we should go out and see the new addition to our yard.”

Mother made a clucking sound as she withheld questions. Paul led the way in the end but seemed slow-footed.

“Oh, you really did it! You made my wish come true!”

Lillian clapped her hands, then ran to the cheery orange sand box and nearly sat right down in it, floral dress be hanged, white shoes tossed onto the grass. But Paul hadn’t yet taken off the plastic from the bench or sand box in order to p[protect both. He did so, then suggested the parents sit down and relax. Lillian sat down with a sound plop. I had found a drapey coverlet to use as a canopy and Teddy and Paul had painted it. We had hung a string of colorful plastic flags on the bushes behind the bench.

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“A sand box? Lillian, out of there at once. You have the wrong clothes on, in fact the whole thing is in unreservedly poor taste, the bugs, the mess, the possibilities of animals creeping into it and–”

“My darling Judith, hush for once! Let it be. They have done a very good thing here. A tiny play area right in our back yard. Her little friends will enjoy this, too.”

Mother turned to her husband, mouth agape, and then did as suggested. They watched their late-in-life child, their great surprise whom they adored piling up sand on her lap, digging with a toy spade and filling up plastic glasses and bucket we’d placed there, her toes seeking coolness below the surface.

“It was Paul’s idea,” Teddy started.

“Yes,” Lillian concurred, “he has the best ideas. Every time you guys do things, it’s good.”

Mother moaned. “Ridiculous, unnecessary things. My lovely yard…! Of course it has to be Paul. Why, dear nephew, must you always shake the boat? Visit every summer and give us such a time of it?”

He went to her side and took her hand. “It’s rock the boat, Auntie Judith, and it’s because I love you all so much,” he said, then kissed her cheek.

And that was that. Mother patted his arm and sat back. Lillian demanded I get Hildy and a few others to join her. Teddy brought out a tray of iced teas. Mother and father sat back on the attractive wood and wrought iron bench to watch Lillian play with Hildy and new sand tools.

Paul stretched his legs out and tapped my sandal with his shoe under the table. His eyes traced my face. “Well, gang, what next?”

“More fine madness, I expect,” Teddy answered. “Maybe we should build a swing set? Add another fountain? I saw a big one at the hardware yesterday.”

I was so pleased our Lillian could be given such simple fun; she had a challenging time of it. But I knew what Paul meant. I gazed at the summer sky as if nothing at all had occurred to me. But as a budding anthropologist I clearly had more real life research to do.

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(My photographs are of a Greek Revival mansion built in 1911. The White House is a beautiful historic bed and breakfast inn, located in Portland, OR.)