Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Walking the Rocks

Columbia Gorge, Cascade Locks, misc 231
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

He recalls his brother used to walk the rocks
in bare feet, leg muscles bunched and
hair long and loose, head tilted up to sky.
Heavens were unbearably far, earth a burden.
They made a fifteen year journey from
childhood to adult but it seemed beyond time,
was their time, separate from the slow footed pack.

No one dared deny the larger stories,
how his brother could fish with his hands,
call fox from its den and elk from the
shadows, conjured from perfection into fields,
alert yet perplexed. And girls in his dreams
whispered apologies for not finding him sooner.
Many people followed him into morning, past dusk.

Or this is what was believed and some say
imagined, but they didn’t know all. How he
investigated variables, lived outer limits,
puzzled out planetary maps and knew the arc
of a symphony of stars. It was trying to
be the younger, to desire a man’s wisdom,
be radiant as moonlight and tough as hide.

Stop desiring, big brother showed and said,
just live it, meaning do a thing, don’t pine
for it so now this is what second brother does.
Those days are half-erased when they both
would sling rocks and drop secrets
into undertow of the aged, roiling river.
He, the one left, walks rocks, runs fishing boats.

But his brother went up mountain to build a
hideaway between salmon bones and bear claws,
has turned contemptuous of gravity’s ties.
But he is no longer innocent of loss, for
he has abandoned his only brother, left the scene,
gone so far that smoke signals no longer rise and speak.

Balancing Act

Sari was a good, if dizzy, mother. Distracted by another brief swell of disorientation, she realigned her position on the rattan love seat. The breeze that swept through the screened porch lifted her hair from her forehead and neck as she eyed the length of emerald yard. She felt like she could capture butterflies today, for her trajectory across the grass would likely be as zigzagged as theirs. Still, being outside–she was not fully inside, at least–helped. She thought of the maxim that if seasick the remedy was stepping onto the deck and fixing on the distant but immutable horizon. She could see a glowing line of deep blue sky meet the tips of wild grasses that edged the yard and boundary. She did not move her head now that her inner ear had re-calibrated.

The roar and squeals of Andy and his best friend careened toward her as they zapped each other with streams propelled from their water pistols. A big squirt splashed onto her feet and she turned to see the boys takeoff. They were like uncaged and semi-ferocious animals frolicking in the summer heat, oblivious to cares of the world. She would never voice that. Andy had just turned eleven and was about over being a child, he informed everyone at his birthday dinner. Kelly, seventeen and ready to leave “Teendom”, had snickered then laughed until he punched her–without rancor. It had been a good celebration, replete with both sets of grandparents and his favorite Key Lime pies for desert.

Sari had teetered upstairs as soon as they’d all left and the kids had become engaged in other activities. Raff had clamored down to his basement workshop to work on another project, a miniature ship, a walking stick, or repairing the two-seater bench for the front porch. She had stood at the vanity mirror, her head listing inside though her body still. Lines wriggled out from edges of her eyes and along indentations that had once passed for dimples. Her hair, still dark, was sleeked back tightly in a short ponytail.  Eyes were bleary despite sleeping well enough. She was always weary, give or take a little. Vertigo should be renamed “dizzy-and-tired-to-the-bone disorder”.

The window was open. The infernal crows were at it with their nattering. When she looked out at the branch the three sat upon, they ceased. Behind darkening trees the sun was edging its way to another place and leaving a wash of crimson and tangerine. Sari wanted to follow that sun, hopefully to a tropical paradise. Lie in a hammock and swing, swing, swing until she dreamed of something good.

******

Up and ready again to schmooze or tackle the drones of industry, the gears of progress, the pinnacles of success, Sari kissed Andy good-bye and she and Raff exited, got into their separate vehicles and started up the engines. Ready, set, race!

Few knew how exhausting low-level vertigo was but Sari was nothing if not a gracious, attentive, tolerant wife and mother, a creative brain-powered employee. Or that’s what everyone saw, even her mother-in-law who praised her cooking as well, parenting and work advancements in Railing & Sundstrom Architecture. Sari usually got a kiss on both cheeks from their parents for such competency, help with the children as needed. Raff beamed at her, arm about her waist as if he was attentive by nature and was sharing his deep appreciation of her. She smiled widely.

The greater truth was starting to leak out at work. She found herself staring at her computer screen and new blueprints, slouching and slow to answer when spoken to.

“Are you depressed?” Martine asked her at lunch.

“Why would you say that?”

“You’re a few beats behind the rest of us when usually you’re even a few ahead. You do not seem yourself.”

“That noticeable? Dreadful. I must perk up and act smarter.”

“I’m serious, Sari, what’s going on besides being a little dizzy at times?”

Sari sucked the last of the icy lemon seltzer water through her straw. Being a little dizzy, why did no one understand how hard this was?

“I don’t know. It seems to be hanging on longer. Damned virus. I lost nearly a month at work from the virus and resultant vertigo and still feel like the room is swishing about me half the time. Hard to explain. Maybe a little like being inebriated, if that helps but all the time.”

“Well, I can relate to that. Miserable. But I thought medicine helped.”

“It does but not enough.”

Tony sauntered up, arms flung out as if shocked to find them there. “Hey there, you ladies have a spare chair for me?”

They looked at him blankly, then Martine waved him away.

“Oh, sorry if I’m interrupting. Just thought we might informally run over the Thompson project.” He smiled at Sari a beat too long and she looked away. Too fast. The familiar swish inside her head. She closed her eyes a split second then focused vision on her coffee.

“Sure, Tony, have a seat,” Sari said and Martine kicked her shoe under the table.”Martine and I were talking but we can get together later.”

But they wouldn’t. There was dinner and the kids; Martine had her miniature greyhound and her partner.

“Good,” Tony said leaning into the table, sizing her up, then nodding as if everything was settled. “We have to nail this one, Sari, sooner than later. What’s your take on it?”

Must they really, at lunch? But she knew her work wasn’t as good as it should be. She only desperately wanted to lay her head down on the table and take a long, happy nap.

“I have, if not the ultimate answer, then a runner-up–but let me unveil it for you at the office. Right now I have to finish this seltzer and a salad of weedy goodness. You brainstorm, Tony, while I eat.”

Martine gave her a cautionary look, shouldered her purse, got up to go. “Call me sometime, Sari.”

******

It was a quiet house.

The children had learned to make it so. To mute their energies, to speak in whispers, to take their rowdy impulses into the basement rec room, down the block, to the far corner of the yard where a swing hanging from the towering sycamore tree and a trampoline were set up for summer.

Raff made his way to one of the porches or garage, to the basement or the den. He carried a book or magazine with him, as usual, but now he was gone a couple of hours not a half hour or hour. But he also labored over more woodwork. Watched classic movies or something with the kids while Sari moved from kitchen to couch, from porch to bedroom seating. She wanted to stop moving. She wanted everyone to stop moving so much and some days they seemed to slow down like she did. Life was now reconfigured in slow motion–or was it all in her head?

She hadn’t asked for such quietness. She hadn’t been aware of needing more pf it–only her physical balance reinstated, please–but she did realize she acted half-ill at home where she could let down. They were waiting for her to return to robust form.

Raff was barely waiting.

“It’s become a malaise, what you’ve got, not just garden variety dizziness. It’s like you’ve settled into this half awake state and gotten comfortable with it, have sunk into it like a fat floor pillow and don’t want to get up.”

Sari looked up from her architecture magazine. Right to the point, that was Raff. What was he saying? That she wanted to be sick, that she had given over to it?

“Wait. I’m taking care of the household and children plus working again and you’re accusing me of being lazy? Or feigning sickness?”

“No, listless, not lazy. You aren’t faking it exactly, no,” He put his hands in his pants pockets and looked over his glasses. “Maybe you’ve given in to it, that’s all. Are you doing your eye exercises? Are you making sure you keep stretch and shake out knots during breaks at work, take your anti-vertigo medicine at night at least? Are you…” he paused, hand going to his short steel-gray beard and the stroking that betrayed nervousness. “Are you doing okay, that is,  mentally… or losing it, hon?”

She frowned from beneath cover of her long bangs.  “Hon” grated on her with that accusatory tone. “Why do people think I want to be compromised by a chronic, negative state of health? The doctor said it would take time, a few weeks to months. Is it because you can’t see it like a rash and I don’t have a temperature anymore? I missed work for four weeks, that’s all, I had the time coming. I’ve been back for several, yes, but I’m not perfect yet. I know it seems like I do fine what I’m supposed to do, but it’s a struggle every single day, some much worse than others!”

“Mom? Can I go to Lena’s?” Kelly stood in the doorway, eyes darting from one parent to another. This was not their usual intense conversation, it sounded like the start of a fight. She stepped back and waited.

Her mother’s illness had been hard to get used to but it would be over soon, any day now. She did not want to hear them arguing about something that was just a body glitch, something only medium important. No one was dying. It was an inconvenience. Her mom couldn’t drive some days, for example, so Kelly or her dad had to take Andy places. She helped make a very basic dinner a couple of times a week, which was okay since she needed to learn how to cook better to be on her own one day. She and Andy were doing their own laundry. Andy whined but she told him to zip it, give their mom a break. He took his loud mouth outdoors more, that was nice of him. But they both forgot sometimes. And Kelly got sick of being on duty so much more. Her mother overall seemed so normal, good at everything as ever. It was often hard to think of her as short of fantastic. Even if she did get on Kelly’s nerves, as usual. Sometimes a lot.

Sari glanced at her daughter. Continued. “It’s not something I can just take control of, not something that can be entirely remedied with a pill or a few exercises, Raff. I don’t wield power like that. I have to wait until my body recovers its healthy state of homeostasis. And furthermore, working is not a breeze even on the best days, it’s a terrific battle to get to top of the heap and then not slip and slide my way back down to middle ground– unlike your job where you inherited a vintage jewelry business, so no one is expecting you to prove yourself! Because you’re the boss! And you never get sick so how could you possibly understand?”

“Mom! Can I spend the night at Lena’s? It’s Friday, it’s almost eight o’clock, I want to leave soon!”

Enough already, Kelly wasn’t going to listen to the ole silver spoon in her father’s mouth rant, she wanted out. Andy was at Jamal’s already, shooting hoops, and was staying overnight. Let their so-called grown-ups sort things out, give Kelly and Andy a decent break. Honestly, parents could be so blind to real life. They should just finish up, make up and move on to something more interesting.

Sari slowly turned her head and ran fingers through her dark mane, exposing a face more wan than it usually was.

“What, Kelly?”

“She said she wants to go to Lena’s for the night. Yes, Kelly, you have permission to go to Lena’s. Back by 11 or 12 to help with the lawn. Your brother has weed duty with your mom, you mow.”

Kelly moaned. She wanted to ask him what he was going to do, wash his car, trim his beard? Love him as she did, he could be too much the King of their tiny kingdom. She held her tongue and her shadow melted from the doorway.

Raff’s impatience made him stormy. He hated feeling powerless, he just wanted her to get well. He also wanted to tell her about his plans.

He turned back to Sari. “I am trying to get it.” He sat down opposite her, watched her face go empty, slack as if shuttered. His plans; this was not the best time but it was the only time. “Let’s drop it, we both know I get impatient.”

“You’re a person who wants things down right, right this minute, but it isn’t happening here.”

“I know.” He took her hand, kissed it, let it drop back into her lap. “I wanted to talk to you about something else.” He waited for her to look up but she was studying her pale nail polish.”Ted and Harrison asked me to go fishing tomorrow. Well, for the week-end, stay at Ted’s place. I know it’s last-minute, but another guy cancelled. I haven’t fished in so long, this would be a chance to get back to it with excellent fishermen–”

“I think that’s a fine idea.”

“You really do?”

“I do.”

“They have extra gear but I need to find some old stuff in the garage or basement. I have to get up at five to drive up north with them.”

Sari studied her husband a moment, the shrewd questioning eyes, a full lower lip hidden by the well-groomed beard, chin a little weak but overshadowed by his sturdy build and bearing. He was authoritative. And he was asking her with a plaintive air for a rare week-end off. They both needed this.

“Go on, Raff, have fun.”

******

The night felt made of glass at first, clear and brilliant and empty as she sat within it on the screened back porch. Her ears were ringing loudly and she wondered if that was a part of the vertigo. The week-end splitwide open in her thinking, a sudden tear in her life’s whole fabric that she had to make do with, somehow, and it was not the worst thing, but a foreign thing. It felt as if the time was solitary with no Raff, even with the kids in and out.

She relaxed into the darkness. Wondered what the stars meant by blinking high up in succh timeless designs? They had been there longer than men and women. An evolving but ever present universe. That certainty, that was what she wanted, that was missing. Ever since the morning she’d awakened unable to stand and walk across the floor–she had just been able to crawl across to her phone on the trunk at the end of their bed…since then, nothing had been certain.

Had it ever really been, even with all their plans, their security? Why did she feel such doubt? Is this what chronic illness did, then, take  a person’s existence and make it into a stranger’s life?

She let her head fall back against the love seat , her legs sprawl before her and savored the stillness. The absence of answers. The possibility of renewal, coming to her as loss.

******

He had left without disturbing her. As she awakened, she felt fair to moderately good, and then felt better about that. And then she thought this malady begged to be outwitted and she might be up for that if she could stay alert and get up some steam.

But she remained in bed, donning reading glasses, book propped up. She did not smell any coffee drifting up the stairs. Did not have a hunger for bacon and eggs or pancakes and sausage. There were no thudding feet on steps, no shouts over who got the comics in the paper first or the television remote. No heads popping into the room and asking what was up, it was nine o’clock. No Raff pestering her with his list of things to do or relentless kisses, depending on his mood. Cushy quiet filled the space except for the neighbors working on their fence for the second week-end and the birds chirping and dogs barking at the cats evading them all down the street.

She read a next page and smiled, her mind a fresh page, too, if she wanted for at lest a day or so, and the July sunlight fell across the coverlet like nectar on a field of flowers.

******

By afternoon things were busier, then curiously tranquil again. She and Andy had weeded and Kelly had mowed the grass and then the two of them were off to the subdivision pool. Sari considered giving Martine a call for a chat but the impulse passed.

She wandered about the house, picking up things here and there, getting a laundry load started, even sweeping the front porch. There was a twinge or two in her head that unsteadied her but briefly. She needed music as she worked so put on a jazz singer she liked and hummed along. Her indoor pants needed attention; she took the blue watering can, dancing while moving to and from the kitchen to get water. Just as she was about to try a gentle spin across the wooden floor, she stopped– best not to encourage the vertigo. But what was the worst that could happen, falling down? Deciding being a bit off kilter was worth the pleasure of an empty house, music and a dance, she  determined to let loose.

Sari set down the watering can, twirled around the rooms carefully in slow motion, hair flung off shoulders, bare feet turning deftly on the floor. And stopped. Arms falling to her sides, breathing easy.

Where was the delayed whirling in her head that gathered power as she tried at first in vain to recover balance? Surely it would come now; it lived inside her, it had been absorbed into the core of her body’s daily existence.

She waited. It was the barest dash of dizziness, not enough to regret a thing. She felt cogent, engaged in the moment. Satisfied with the simplicity of it all. She warbled along with the music. Retrieved her watering can for the remaining plants, walking past the rich wood of an upright piano in a living room corner near the porch. Stopped moving, singing.

It was as if she hadn’t seen it before or not in eons though of course she had, it had been there ten years, since Kelly was 7 and wanted to take lessons. Or they had wanted her to take lessons. She did well enough for six years and then was done, busier playing with her school volleyball team, hanging out with friends. Andy had given it a try for a almost a year but quit out of boredom and a sorry lack of talent.

Sari liked the musical instrument kept right there, despite Raff wanting to sell it, and it had become part of the decor, attractive but impotent among the groupings of furniture. When the children had practiced early on she’d sat on the piano bench close to them, helping place their hands and fingers, interpret foreign script that was the notation and musical language. She had told them she had played as a young girl and that was all. Raff wondered abut her knowing so much but had little interest in music and so could not see more. Sometimes she had played the piece all the way through for them first so they could hear it to recall it. It made them happy to have their mother play sop easily, be involved in their learning at the stat. Then they found her involvement off putting, as if her presence was a harsh correction, a reminder of what they did not know.

Now Sari was pulled to that piano as if someone tugged a cord tied to her middle. She sat down, opened keyboard cover, placed her fingers over the keys for a C major chord but did not depress the keys and so made no sound. She formed another ghost chord and another, fingers flying above ebony and ivory and she began to hum a piano concerto that was resurrected from memory’s depths.

She had not told her children nor even Raff the rest of the story, and had asked her family to not refer to that part of the past; it was meant to be past. The piano came so naturally to her, the music so easily that she had been promised help with tuition to a private fine arts high school. But her father had fallen ill with cancer. Soon the bills piled up, they spoke of selling the house. The family’s focal point was him, as was needed. Her wonderful piano and many other good things were sold. Lessons ended at fourteen, her teacher aghast.

Sari simply had to put away music. That was that. It was necessary for the good of the family, she understood, though every day she felt bereft, lost, confused. Who would she be without her piano? How had it come to mean everything so that now she had nothing? Sari started to have headaches, felt enervated, wouldn’t get up for school. This was not tolerated by her mother or father (who fortunately survived and was able to work two years later) and so her grief came to an untimely end. She was an only child, was going to get top grades, enter college on scholarship and graduate with honors. And she did.

But the spirit of the piano, its storied music never left her. She fell asleep playing it in her head,  daily yearned for its return. Then she grew up, she became an architect, and found renewed passion to create. Married well.

What was not good about her life? It all held together so well.

Until she had become ill with a virulent illness, then ended up with severe vertigo which had unmoored things bit by bit even as she slowly improved. Feeling that helpless had been a nightmare that somehow echoed her father’s demise though she was not critically ill. She felt resistant to tackling each day’s needs for fear of not being able to perform well. She faltered more. Even her marriage became suspect; and she had mounting anxiety about losing Raff. He did not like sick people, she’d discovered. She was less and less trusting her work. Even her mothering skills.

She had nothing to lose from this secret experience. Sari’s hands fell upon the piano keys. She played gently at first then forcefully but stumbling, pausing, starting measures over, finding the theme again, false starts on chords. Then they arrived richly; the notes ran pure and lucid and free. She played another piece and another in parts, then began making phrases up, hands embracing keys as if they were loved ones given to her care and her mind was afire. No hint of vertigo crept up on her as she bent over the piano and let the music enter her blood like powerful medicine.

That house swelled with music it had never before heard, flung to the yard, the street, the sky. When she was worn out, she sat with back erect, body still. Nothing was spinning inside that skull now, only music and a resounding adoration of it. Nothing was off-balance within her but herself. Her life was her very own, not her family’s, not her profession’s. What would she do or give to make it more whole once more? Joy and surprise and peace filled marrow and sinew, every cell.

She was not alone; she could feel it so turned around. There stood a handful of neighbors and her children assembled in her living room, silent, stunned. Her face grew hot. She was afraid the room would spin and leave her defeated once more.

But they began to clap, one after the other, louder and louder.

“Wonderful! We didn’t even know you played! Encore!” they shouted as they came up to her.

“Mom, why didn’t you play before? Why was this a secret?” Kelly asked.

“Make more music!” Andy demanded.

Sari rose to give a little bow and even if she did wobble some, her children were there at each elbow. Her neighbors surrounded her. All she needed was Raff. She hoped he understood. She hoped he appreciated what music she had to offer but there was no turning back.

 

Fool’s Errand

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2016

“William, I need you to go to Morton’s Cafe and Country Store and meet with Sarah Demple for me. She was due at ten but she’s late–can she think this is a good start to things?–and now I have a meeting with city council.”

She waited in his doorway and filled part of it with her well dressed and compact girth.

Willie looked up from his desk. The long, narrow window before him was filled with a blooming magnolia tree; he appreciated that it blocked out all the rest below. He acknowledged her with a sigh. It wasn’t that he hadn’t managed such tasks for her before. They’d had housekeepers come and go–his aunt had high expectations. Still he frowned a  bit. “I have this project. Couldn’t she come here and just wait a couple of hours for you? I’ll serve her tea and cookies and be nice.”

“Absolutely not. Meet with her, determine if she is reasonably appropriate, smart and pleasant enough for the housekeeping opening and if so, bring her back then for a more incisive interview when I return. If not, buy her lunch if she requires it, then send her on her way.”

It wasn’t the first time he had dropped everything to do something for his aunt; it would not be the last. She directed him to do her bidding with a tone of voice and a look that could only be described as executive-insistent but short of dictatorial. She didn’t look the part. She was short, wider than she had intended as a young woman, her wavy hair pressed into a neat cap above light brown eyes. Eyes partly obscured by wire framed glasses. They rode down her long nose as the day progressed. It may have been the heat that took them to the precipitous tip but more likely because she didn’t bother to get them fixed after their dog, Big Cat, sat on them. Yes, Big Cat, their lumbering, overly furred creature, that small-eared, big-footed gentle canine who had kept them company twelve years. She had longed for a real feline but was seriously allergic. He couldn’t bear his aunt’s eccentric naming, so called the dog “BC.”

Willie was not very willing to be anyone’s errand boy but he often felt like one living with Aunt Fran–even as he exited boyhood for a rather abridged–so far–manhood. He should have moved on long ago, left the town, even. And yet he stayed, immobilized  more with the passage of each year. He’d finished college in a city four hours away, felt like he’d accidentally returned and now was held captive by inertia, a leaning toward shyness and a quite decent living situation.

He was only seven when his parents boarded a train to Tallahassee about a new job prospect for his father. Maybe that was why he was loathe to leave. That trip ended in a disastrous crash and Aunt Fran (his father’s sister) was the one best equipped to care for him, he was told at the funeral. He’d even then wondered what that meant. The fact that she was early widowed, left with money? That she was childless? That she was employed by the bank’s loan department and had a solid reputation in town? What Willie longed for then was a good night story and someone with whom to toss a baseball around plus random warm hugs. The trusted providers of those had been taken from him on the way to Florida, of all places. Aunt Fran had later sat across from him in her empty kitchen, poured him a cup of strong black tea, and placed her hands on her knees. She stared at him with sad eyes and he stared back, eyes dried out from too much crying in private.

“Well, William,” she said.  The grandfather clock chimed six times. “Here we are, left to our own devices. Let’s do the best we can. Just get on with it, shall we? You know your Aunt Fran cares about you.”

He’d looked at the sodden napkin in his hands and twisted it so that it started to shred and a few sweet cookie crumbs fell into his lap. Willie nodded slowly. He heard the last after-funeral visitors leaving, footsteps resounding as they departed via the wide front steps leading from his aunt’s grand porch. His, too, he then realized. And she softly patted his back and got him settled upstairs in his airy blue and white room at one end of a long hallway. As he lay down on his bed, pillow clutched to his skinny body, a slow-building moan of a train whistle unstopped a fresh spillage of tears.

He still resented, at times deeply loathed, train whistles. Even after twenty years. But Aunt Fran’s house was built on a hill above a historical train station. Each opening of day and closing of night was pierced by its sudden voice, its weary sighs. He had to endure it like the constant threat of illness so he protected himself by ignoring the auditory intrusions as much as possible. By listening to other things. He never knew when it might send him into a frenzy of pacing, hands pressed against his ears, BC circling and barking like a lunatic. Yet most of the time Willie failed to overtly respond. It was, after all, just one annoying sound among many, another signal of time passing like the gentile slide tick slide tick of the old grandfather clock’s pendulum down in the foyer. He could hear that finely gauged sound, too, from his room if the door was open. He thought perhaps even when shut.

Willie was unusually sound sensitive, always had been, a person who heard things others did not until it was audible at last to them but almost blaring to him. At times the auditory messages blew up enough that it drove him to packed-tight ear plugs. It might be psychological, the doctor had said when he was still a green stick of a boy, but Willie and his aunt thought not. He could hear things like the resident mouse sneaking down s tiny tunnel under the stairs. And that was when the kettle was boiling, his aunt talking a mile a minute on the phone. Sometimes even Big Cat seemed a beat behind which scared Willie though he never suggested it aloud. It was possible BC was being lazy–like when he scratched at the door to be let out to do his duty a little late, as if he found it a bother.

Sounds could hurt Willie’s ears and they often diverted his attention. They informed him of everything from slow-moving storms to an unknown car visiting down the street, each year, make and model of which he learned to identify by thirteen. He heard what others blissfully could not. Sometimes the knowledge meant more to him than it should, as if surrounding himself with sound was akin to a comforter. It was his secret world but it made him feel childish, too.

He knew things about people that he would rather not; he could hear them trading confidences down the block as if they were speaking right at him. So Willie finally adopted a demeanor when around others that was mistaken as disinterested or fully self-absorbed, his pleasing, chiseled face often going blank. People didn’t quite know what to think, so beyond niceties that came from respect for his family name–Blalocks had owned many acres and properties (and once a canning business) for three generations; his aunt was on the council and various committees–they skirted around him more often than not. Willie finally could work from home as a computer programmer alone, rarely complaining of it.

Despite all this, Aunt Fran insisted he run errands for her and interact with even strangers as if it was nothing much to ask in exchange for room and board. He supposed he did need to offer something in return for her generosity, the awkward shows of genuine–he admitted he felt it in return–affection. Willie found her steady and trustworthy if also unnecessarily directive, even intimidating. But after all the years her attitude was annoying at worst, with her voice grating on his ears when it could be at its best even calming. But the rest of the time he knew her to be a sterling human being, generous to have taken him in so long ago.

Willie closed his laptop and left his desk. He could walk to the cafe but preferred to ride his bike so hopped on and sped away. In the distance he could see heat lightning slice through the hazy sky, hear its faint sizzling of dense moist air, the breeze signing. If it rained, it rained, but he felt it would not or not seriously.

“You here on business or pleasure, son?”

Willie saw Harry at the counter and greeted him with a small salute. “Meeting someone for Aunt Fran, Harry.”

“Ah, as I heard from her own lips last week. I think you’ll find the person near the stairs. That’s a newcomer by the window.”

Willie hesitated. Her back was to the room as she peered out the tall window. Her hair was burnished gold in the light and hung loose about her shoulders. She was tall, as tall as he was, and thin. He couldn’t imagine her slogging from one room to another with a mop and bucket or scrubbing the insides of a refrigerator much less carrying laundry to the basement and hoisting a basket of fresh, folded clothing to their rooms. It seemed a ruse. She might be doing research on something?

He came toward her from the side so she could see him approach.

“Sarah Demple?”

She turned in a movement both efficient and graceful, pleated skirt rustling, hair swishing. She held out her hand with a question in her eyes which were wide and unruffled as a summer horizon.

“You are…? Where’s Miss Traynor?”

They were close to melodic, those five small words, notes to a measure opening to a larger piece that would be revealed, light and sure, tinged with sweetness yet edged with humor that caught Willie off guard. He took her hand briefly, offered his name.

“William Blalock, Frances Traynor’s nephew.”

He led the way toward a corner table but she looked up the stairs to the landing so he changed course. It was out of the way, perhaps better for an interview.

Before sitting down, Sarah Demple glanced at a sign on the wall. “You are a stranger here but once!” she read aloud. “Quaint. Is that a good thing, I wonder?” And she smiled at Willie with a mixture of devilish humor and serious inquiry. “Such good light here. We can watch the street as we talk.”

“Yes, it will do,” he agreed, noting her lilting, self-assured voice and wondering if she ever did reader’s theatre. Or if she sang. Wouldn’t that be something?

Once they had settled in and sweet iced tea was brought to the table, their young waitress studying the young woman closely, he began.

“My aunt sends her apologies but since you were late she had to attend another meeting. She’s a busy woman, as I assume you are, too.”

He tried to focus on her but looked out at the traffic. It announced its rushing and pausing with a rumble and a hush, punctuated by muted honks that struck his eardrums like stones thrown upon taut leather. Willie wondered if they both could be easily seen by passersby and resisted squirming. He’d thought of the spot as a kind of decoration. People sat up there only if the place was packed, a lunchtime occurrence. It was like being on stage. Few were in the cafe. He was terribly conscious of their reflection in the wall sized mirror so turned his head away.

He didn’t see her study him. Sarah liked the way his eyes opened wider to acutely observe, as if he was taking copious mental notes with the tiny cameras of his eyes.

She offered a smile bounded by pale lips. “Not so busy. There was no problem, my train was just late from Hampstead. I called but got her voice mail. I expected to have to wait. Are you my interviewer, then, William?”

Her voice was a series of bright swoops and gentle sweeps in the air and he found himself chuckling. “I’m the first set of doors to get through, I suppose, and possibly your employer’s right hand. ” He blushed. It was a stupid thing to say but it was done so he settled himself, sat up tall and began again. “Why not tell me about your experience. I know you submitted a resume but what positions have you had and what brings you here?”

She spoke of working with a well-known cleaning service a year before college and then two years part-time during school and how she’d had a family crisis with an ill mother and had to drop out of classes last year. Now she needed to return to work.

“I loved English Lit. I like to write. But I don’t know what I’ll study when I return, if I return… I need a career that carries me forward, I suppose. And my mother is better but not fully healed. She has a nurse twice a week and, of course, my father. But I need at least one good year of employment to save money.”

“I see. Sorry to hear of your mother’s illness. It seems you do have experience. You have ambitions, too, so I guess you’d be moving on again.”

But Willie was lingering over her sentences–the depth of vowels, clean endings of consonants, an emphatic delivery as she described most ordinary things–long after she had stopped speaking. Sarah waited calmly. His gaze wasn’t intrusive, just calmly appraising. Sarah found this oddly moving, as well as the tilt of his dark-haired head as he looked at her, then beyond her. When he said nothing and drank the rest of his tea, she noted how sunshine of late morning brightened a swirl of dust. She saw that in a distant bank of clouds there was a squiggle of lightning, a wild scrawl of energy. She found nature beguiling and wished more than anything she could find a job outdoors but this would have to do. When she looked back at William, he appeared ready to leave, one leg and foot cast out from the table.

“I think you should meet my aunt; she’ll be home shortly. I only have my bike but we could walk. It’s just three blocks away, up that hill.” He pointed at the house. “The white one at the top.

“I pass the first round then?” she asked with a hopeful laugh and studied the house where she might be living and working soon. Her breath caught in her chest a moment, then let go with relief.

They got up to go and he paid the small bill. Harry waved them out the door.

“Yes, it’s a very small town, but one made of decent people. You just have to accept the good with the bad as you do anywhere. I have lived here a long time.” He cast her a glance.”I live with my Aunt Fran.”

Sarah stopped and was about to ask him something, anything–did he like living with her and why did he? Did he work, was he gone to work every day? Who was he, really?– as he took up his bike, then they along walked together without more talk.

The darkening sky gathered its clouds like drifting skeins of wool, making a large mound or two, and the afternoon’s sultriness rose and wrapped about them. First raindrops fell as if tossed from above, lazy in summer’s heat. Sarah seemed unperturbed and so was he, their steps a little faster. But their silence split open with laughter as drops fell to earth as tiny crystalline tears through shards of sunlight. By the time they got up the hill, he could see that the valley was slicked with rain. It was going to catch them but it didn’t matter. He felt ready for a proper August storm.

“I have a good feeling about this,” Sarah said, and ran ahead of Willie as the sky let loose a drenching.

“I’m sorry you’re getting all wet but I think we’ll make it between  lightning strikes!”

“Who cares–I’ll race you to the door!”

He scrambled after her, exhilarated by what he thought was just another electric storm.

******

The fire is snapping and sizzling in the hearth, keeping winter’s chill at bay. Willie has brought a book of Pablo Neruda’s poems for Sarah and he is filled with anticipation. The one he has chosen tonight and hopes she will agree to read is “Keeping Quiet.” It is somber but it asks for hope and strength; it is something he understands from  a lifetime of trying to make peace with melancholy. He wants to talk about it with her, see what she thinks. He reads the opening lines to himself as she pauses at the library’s doorway, feels his intelligence and his heart.

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still

for once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language,

let’s stop for a second, and not move our arms too much.”

He closes his eyes as Sarah sits in the easy chair beside him. She has wanted to tell him something since she marked her six months of employment. Since they admitted to more than simple mutual appreciation. It has been a time of transition for them, threaded with all the color and sound and feeling of a different life explored. There has been such complexity evolving from the interactions and intentions. Even perhaps for old BC all has changed, she thinks wryly, as he shares all the attention with her now and seems gumpy. Even for Aunt Fran, who is more at ease. And what will come next?

She reads the poem aloud, and marvels over Neruda’s words, the  language with meanings that reach deep, far beyond their lives, the poem’s intensity and grace as vivid as strewn stars. Perhaps they will be guided tonight by this. Willie leans toward her now although he looks into firelight and finds renewal even as wood is burned to ash.

“Willie, I’ve wanted to tell you something. Something I think you should know.”

He looks up, one thick eyebrow rising. There is the halo of her hair as it shimmers in light-and-shadowed room. He wants to reach out and touch it but restrains himself as he often does. Happiness runs up his spine, skids into his brain. He aches to touch her more than the occasional brush of hand on upper back or forearm against arm. But she is employed by his aunt. He waits and waits.

“Yes? What is it?”

“Do you remember when your aunt sent you to meet me? How you thought you were interviewing me for the housekeeper job?”

Willie pauses, trying to see where this is going. Her voice has gotten tighter, higher. “Of course, how can I forget that?”

But fear sneaks in, charges his innards with anxiety. He holds his breath.

“Aunt Fran knows my mother.”

He releases the air, looks at her blankly.

“They were friends during their youth when Mom lived here for ten years….and Aunt Fran knew she had cancer, that I had left school and went home to help her. I didn’t know she realized I desperately needed work then. So she already knew I could do the job as Mom promised I was qualified.”

His eyes widen and narrow, hand goes to chin and he rubs whiskered skin. “So I was sent on a fool’s errand–she already was going to hire you? What a scammer my aunt can be!”

Sarah reaches for him, fingers lightly splayed against the top of his hand and they both feel desire stir. Her fingers tremble, so unlike her.

“There’s more, though… She wanted to know if you found me, well, of any interest or I, you. She told my mother she felt we might be, uh, a good match, you know, and they were both wondering…”

Willie involuntarily presses hard into the oak rocking chair and it begins to rock. He stops the motion, turns to Sarah with mouth agape.

“Wait–what? She engineered this for her own personal reasons? How like her–she can’t help herself, can she? My very life! Well, I can certainly move out if that is the problem.”

“I swear I didn’t know this until I talked to Mom. But apparently your Aunt Fran was worried about you.” She pulls her hand away. “She worried, I guess, that you were stuck in a rut. Lonely. Like I was, Willie, alone and tired and drifting.” Her eyes trace his fine head and tense shoulders, hands gripping the rocker’s arms. “Oh, I should never have told you. Not yet, not now! How stupid to think it might amuse you as it does me…that you’d appreciate the romance of it but no, I was wrong.”

“Amuse you? Are you amused by me, then? Find this charade a pleasant little diversion?”

Willie gets up and paces before the fire, hands covering then rubbing his eyes.

“I can’t believe my own family, what does she think I am, a mere child, a virtual idiot? Well, maybe she was right.”

He stands before the fire, back turned against the woman he thought he might be falling in love with, the one who is tickled by the planned arrangement, who surely will be gone soon. William Blalock, certified numskull, the last laugh is on him again.

But she stands up behind him, places her arms nearly around his chest. He is pulled to her muscle and bone and softness, to her dazzling heartbeat.

“Listen, I was surprised, too, and angry. But I need to say it was such good fortune we’ve met. What happiness it’s brought me!” She lays her head against his still back. “All due to our families suggesting we might be good for one another. Because you came to meet me at the funny old cafe. And then we ran through summer rain, up a lush green hill. William Blalock, turn around…please!”

Willie turns and they are face to face. He kisses her and she tastes of winter’s silvery cool and the smoke of fire and a hint of bright rain. The room thrums with a musical mix of BC’s lackadaisical howling, the slow burning wood and a circuitous farewell of the train as it leaves town. Willie doesn’t hear that ghost-filled metallic wail. He hears Sarah’s feathery breath meeting his.

Fine Art and Benny Boy

Photo by Garry Winogrand
Photo by Garry Winogrand

Dear Henry James Harner,

I’m at the Everson Art Museum an hour earlier than we’d planned on meeting. I thought of leaving after a peek at the new exhibit which was baffling and wonderful. I hate to admit it, but it intimidates me being here without you. You’re the expert, right? I’m the neophyte artist; you’re the professor. The one who has guided me the past years, taught me the nuanced secrets of each skill I desperately needed to develop. Given me just barely enough encouragement, and thoughtful and expert if damaging criticism. I need to wait for you, should listen to your erudite exposition on Rothko, Haring, Rauschenberg, Johns, O’Keefe, Nevelson, and–well, you know.

You know it all. Or so it has seemed at moments.

Karin covered the page with her palm and sucked in her lower lip. She looked up as a lanky woman and dressy child walked by briskly, the little girl straining to free herself of the gripping adult hand. How she would have loved to be taken to art museums as a child. She had been to so many the past three years they were beginning to blur in her memory, along with the paintings, drawings and etchings she had completed and tossed.

But her parents had been consumed with working two jobs each, then critical sleep. Karin had cooked and tended to her younger brother. She had managed the household, in fact, from age eleven. The laundry, cleaning, cooking, tending to the mail and picking out bills due to give to her father at breakfast if she could catch him before he disappeared through the door. He’d give her a kiss on top of her auburn crown of hair and tell her to take care of it. She learned to forge her mother’s signature in time for all sorts of things, including the school days she had to stay home to take care of Benny with his chronic bronchitis. It was cold there, off the northern coast. The scattered homes huddled on a small island. In the winter, rain battered them as hard as wild winds and waves. As hard as their lives.

Benny moaned often those days. He was feverish and barked up gobs of phlegm and hobbled about for days on his skinny, bowed legs after each crisis. He liked to sit with her by the fire as he recuperated.

“You want to go to school every day, don’t ya? I don’t get it. Being sick is awful, but missing math and spelling is okay.”

Karin tucked nubby blankets closer around Benny and got up to tend the wood stove. “I can do my homework here. But I do like Mrs. Hilversum. The classroom. Just being there, the smell of the books and the fresh chalk and pencils nice and sharp. Talking about ideas.”

“Yeah, you like all that artsy stuff. Mom says you’re a born mainlander so will be leaving us.” He raised a sharp shoulder, let it fall again. “Easy come, easy go! You’ll be back.”

But he stared hard at her profile, then coughed enough that Karin refilled the kettle and put it atop the wood stove for more herbal tea with lemon and honey. She took the rocking chair and stared out the window at the sideways rain and wondered how her mother was doing at the alterations shop, her second job. The main on was the cannery where she worked with her dad, who was lucky to be a supervisor now.

“I can’t imagine living elsewhere, Benny. Where would I go?”

Karin closed her eyes and imagined everywhere else, China with its surging throngs and Norway with pristine fjords and even New York with Broadway shows and cabbies driving like maniacs and people rushing to fascinating places. She pulled her wool sweater close and crossed her arms.

“Who would take care of you?” she said then, voice going soft. She got a tea bag and clean mug, filled it, then sat beside him.

Benny sat up and turned to her. “I’m growing up, then I’m hightailin’ it for Seattle. Teddy said his uncle lives there and there’s a market so big you get lost in it, fish flying everywhere and gobs of flowers and all kinds of weird stuff for sale!”

Karin laughed and high-fived him. He settled down, legs and feet stretched close to the rotund iron-clad hearth that warmed the whole cabin.

“You should just draw, be famous,” he muttered and fell into a gentler sleep.

A sudden lump clogged her throat but she swallowed it, got up to finish the dishes and see if leftover pork roast could make a casserole. In two more years she would graduate. Mrs. Hilversum had talked of colleges and scholarships. It might happen, or it might not. Benny was twelve that winter and he got sicker before the spring. Karin missed school six weeks altogether and almost didn’t pull off needed As and two high Bs. Her mother was sorry it was like that, that they had to keep working to get just a little ahead but maybe next year the alterations job could be let go. Karin needed to keep at things the best she could and all would work out eventually. Her dad said little.

“Show me what you drew this week,” he said every Saturday morning.

And she showed him a sketch of Rudy, their bushy dog on the bed, and one of Benny asleep by the wood stove, blanket around him like a heavy robe, mouth hanging open. The final one was of their living room window with the radiance of a clear-skied sunset seen through lingering raindrops. It shone, Karin thought. It was made with colored pencils; she loved all those colors. She longed for paints but knew they were too expensive to use at home. And her time was limited, anyway.

He put on his wire-rimmed glasses and held the window drawing close, smiled and gave one nod, then handed them all back. Karin flushed with pleasure. He liked that one best, too. For one moment she thought how wonderful it would be to be this happy every day, making pictures and sharing them. Mrs. Hilversum thought it could happen if she would just get off that island.

If only. There was Kyle, her boyfriend, too. He didn’t want her to ever leave. He wanted her to work at his parents’ booming hotel with him and have their three children. Or four, he had amended with a wink when she looked at him dumbfounded. He said even numbers were better luck. Karin never thought in terms of luck. She thought about working like a dog toward a goal and making art and kept intact her long-guarded, though hard-to-keep hope of eventual success, whatever that might be. For her.

******

Karin looked at her watch. Henry would arrive in thirty-five minutes. She stood up, feet pinched in her one pair of high heels, and stretched discreetly, walked across the corridor for a drink of cold water, then sat again, notebook in hand as always. She wanted a coffee but didn’t want to leave. She needed to wait; they were to have lunch after the art museum.  She had put on her suit for the fine restaurant, wanting to look more than decent.

The art museum was chock full of fine work, of genius. Henry had informed her of so much, was a fine teacher, and his students gained appreciation for mediums and movements, even radical thinking over time. They learned how to discriminate, to re-tune their impulses into ones that unearthed different art than they’d believed possible. Karin was slower to latch on to things than some, he’d allowed, but when she let the Muse nudge her, she produced pieces that could astonish. She never liked what he liked quite as much. She missed a simpler format, the drawings that came from a meditative state, loose lines divining a kind of essence as her hand worked, transferring to the page energies that confounded but filled her as she went. Smaller paintings that whispered rather than shouted yet told more. Being away from home had released things. Being among a diversity of people helped her reimagine life. She came to even live differently. And Henry taught her requisite skill sets in class. Karin latched on to them, then carried them into another realm when alone in her dorm room.

Oh, she gave him what he asked for in class. She wanted to please him, he would brighten like the sun when she did. She wanted to do much more than commendably well, to graduate with honors. One day Karin would also teach well to pay bills. But her art would always win out in the end, at least in her innermost self.

They had met more times than she thought they would. Karin knew it was because he saw in her someone who should be loved by someone like him. Someone to shape her destiny and mold her ways. He was more like Kyle than Henry might think possible, a man with wants and needs and a deep determination to fulfill them. But so, too, did Karin have wants and needs and another vision that had begun to form and natter in sleep, then flutter in and out of her waking hours. She saw herself more alone than not. But he had eyes that gathered her to him with the force of an uneasy gravity, as if she had stepped into a place gone askew with enchantment. She had been warned by her roommate who knew someone courted by him. Had an affair and then was ruined.

She opened a clean page in her notebook.

Dear Henry James Harner,

I sit here and think of the times you held my hands and said, “Create something divine” as if it was your will that moved me to attempt something worthy. I would believe, feel your confidence in my abilities rush like new blood in my veins. You would buoy me when I faltered and then I would be certain you held the key somehow. It made things seem easier at first.

But you don’t hold any keys, not really. I do. I am the one who must and will do what I do, under my own steam. I see now that you feel powerful with me, not the other way around. I always feel just like myself, pretty comfortable, full of passion for a creative life, directed by an internal arrow of intention that must find its own mark. I may not be utterly fantastic but I’m alright with that. I’m working on it.

Your beautiful mind and body are distracting! I feel the brush of your lips on my cheek and it is like a heat that then freezes; I can’t think, can’t move, captive by your fascination and desire. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy for me to resist. I am young and have my dreams of love, the real sort–but I’m older than many students. My life kept me home five years longer but that doesn’t mean I was protected. I just never had time for fairy tale longings or endings.

I had to face that life comes with abrupt changes and at times demands a high price–and we’d better be equipped to withstand it all or just figure it out fast. An artist like me has had to puzzle it out more often than not.

There is so much you don’t know because it doesn’t fit your idea of who I should be. And that is sad to me. Because I’ve had some experiences that matter, too.

She took off her hat and scratched her head. She studied the words, then rejected them with a giant “X.” There was too much yet so little to say.

 ******

Will it stop this time?”

His hand clutched hers as he lay on the narrow bed. She smoothed his forehead and wondered when on earth her mother or dad would finally get home. He had been breathing like his ribs could barely support his chest or the very air that entered and exited with short miserable wheezes. She had given him the medications, gotten a wet washcloth to cool him. She had called her mother twice, dad, too, and the doctor. The doc was coming.

“What, Benny, tell me?”

“…scraping inside, lung sickness…”

He squeezed her hand tighter but it still was a soft leaf of a hand even though he was eighteen, a smaller and bonier eighteen than his friends. They had gone kayaking as they often did. The storm swept up with a vengeance. He had come home soaked and shivering, gone bluish of lip with a shadowy red circling his eyes. Benny had collapsed and not gotten out of bed for four days, then was up and about for two days, then that morning had suddenly failed to breathe right again and was so weak she helped him into bed again. She shuddered to think what might have happened if she had gone off to work at the hotel but they knew by now how it was; Kyle had given up long ago.

His weary gaze clung to hers. She thought of all the times they  only looked at each other, no speaking–because he couldn’t talk without coughing or she could think of nothing to say, or they knew what the other was thinking, anyway. So they glanced into each other as long as necessary. Now his eyelids closed hard, locked shut as if they couldn’t bear to stay open. She felt their heaviness; it claimed her shoulders, then heart and mind. Nothing had worked well enough the past week. Now his breath seemed to be slipping away, she could feel it not wanting to stay.

“Draw.”

Karin looked up but his eyes were still sealed shut.

“Draw, draw,” he whispered.

“What should I draw, buggery ole Benny boy?”

“Karin, aw…” He seemed to grimace at her babying him. “Boat, sea, sunrise.”

So she got her pencils and sketchbook and began the drawing, talking to him as she drew. He’d nod or his face would twitch but he couldn’t really talk, he had to breathe. It hurt her to hear the rasping, each intake one more cut felt on her own chest, a tattoo of pain that made her love him more, beyond the looming fear.

“I’m shading the sea, pulling out all my blues, I should name every one for you, huh? But soon the perfect sunrise will change all that big expanse. What will the boat be or do out there? I’m making it a sailboat, Benny, a Lightning–you, me, Teddy on crew, you can see the glint of light on your ole big blond head…I’m not drawing me or Teddy, this is your sailing adventure, okay?”

Her hand worked faster, forming lines; she felt she was compelled to infuse it with a sense of the island way of life they knew, that landscape so loved and loathed, charging the the picture with humility yet a palpable glory, their island peeking from the foreground. The sunrise was starting to spill over the far horizon and it felt warm even to her hand and she wanted Benny to feel this pleasure, the life that was unfolding when she heard the front door open. She kept drawing, fervency overtaking her, her created sun releasing its vivid sheen on the bland paper.

“And here is that sunrise, Benny boy, it rises for you,” she said, laying down gradations of orange, red, yellow. Transparent, lush. “That boat is sailing, it sails with you, Benny! Oh, I do so want to come along as it finally rides those magnificent crests to–.”

“Karin.”

But she was busy drawing, the page awake with life’s colors and forms as Benny’s eyes stayed closed–she knew that without looking, he had gone silent inside and out–and her mother took her hand and stopped the pencil and her dad knelt beside the bed and the doc came in and moved them aside.

Karin felt her mother’s hand, then her dad’s, parents and daughter a tight trio of family as the doc pressed a stethoscope on Benny’s chest, withdrew it, placed his ear close to Benny’s lips. Looked up and shook his head.

“Oh my ole Benny boy!” she called out, eyes squeezed shut, too, against the day’s terribleness. Her sketchbook hit the floor with a thud.

******

Fifteen more minutes. If Henry James Harner was even on time–he often kept Karin waiting, kept everyone waiting. Perhaps this was to cause an effect, perhaps it gave more attention to his entrance, or it made women more anxious to see him or told other men he was important and they owed him respect. But Karin lately found it sloppy of him, a lapse of manners. Especially since he had indicated he hoped to take her with him to the luxe hotel he had rented for the week-end. From the start it had intrigued her, this whole charade. It was so indirect and yet aggressive and she found it thrilling and disappointing at once. She was of an age when she could make any choice and own it. But he was not, finally, that appealing. As she waited in the museum, she had concluded he was even lacking in creativity. How much more attractive if Henry had been careful, approached her with genuine ethics, acknowledged the premise that she would never accept such a proposal from her art professor. That would have impressed her.

As she quickly left the building, her high heels clicking on the tile floor, she thought of the year to come and all that was yet to be accomplished. There was independent work to do, and one thing was a showing of selected art work. Karin had begun to choose ten drawings and etchings. Benny, she thought, likely knew the ones. She took off heels and jacket, entered the sweet, aromatic heat of a California spring, joy surfacing from many deep-sea places.

 

My Mother’s Closet

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

“Don’t blame it on me, blame Grandma Ginny,” she said as she let the luxe dress fall to the soft green bedroom carpet. “Your grandmother never could abide a lack of good taste or elegance and from the start it was impressed upon me that all girls need a good dash of both as well as civility.”

I glanced at a silver framed photo on her dresser, the one showing Mother walking down the street between Grandma Ginny and her Aunt Tess. It had made the “Lifestyles” page of the Kansas City Star back in 1950. Even then my mother held the hint of a person who knew her mind.

“A little, sure–not so much that it enters the room before you even say a word. I think you must have been born with a dash of ostentatiousness.” I hoped she would take the hint for tonight’s dinner.

She made a sharp turn, hand set at her waist. “Now, don’t be smart.” Then she snickered. “Well, maybe there’s truth to that– but your father likes it and I like it, so…” She held her hands palms up. End of discussion. “Let’s keep that one.”

I picked up her crumpled ice blue brocade dress from the floor, hung it neatly on a satin padded hanger and put it in the closet in the blue section. It was one she wore to the opera sometimes. I loved its texture, its weight in my hand. By seventeen I had sometimes wished I wore the same size, but she was taller, bustier, smaller-waisted and broader shouldered. Somehow I ended up with my aunt’s slight frame. Mother was shopping in her own closet, trying on a number of items that she had forgotten or found too… something the past seasons. Now the year was inching toward a surprisingly early spring from the tedium of winter. She was at it full steam.

She stood in an ivory lace-trimmed slip before the mirror, her palms slipping over her rounded hips, her lips pursed. She refused to do without such fine lingerie items. It didn’t matter how many times I told her it wasn’t necessary. Her slips, like nylons, were so outdated she had to special order the antiquarian brands. She wore a substantial garter belt, a garter belt even though there were pantyhose to be had if one insisted on covering legs with such things in cool weather. I preferred tights or leggings. Everyone did who was under forty and even then, but not my mother. She still wore high heels every day, despite going fewer places that required them. Mother was sixty-nine in two weeks.

“I want the plum silk and then the black sheath, the one with a tiny ruffle at the armholes, Marianna. Oh, and bring out the silver heels and the black ones with the rosette on each toe.”

She stood on tiptoe, then lowered to the floor, up and down a few times. I knew this without looking. She always did that when trying things on, as if exercising her slim calves. Perhaps priming them for the strain of supporting feet in high heels when she should be wearing more sensible shoes. Stalwart clogs might be a good idea, or a walking shoe. I was here partly to encourage her to get rid of her vast collection of more formal clothing, the ones she and my father had long worn to concerts and fund-raisers and luncheons and conferences. He was a lauded professor of forensic science and an expert witness. She had been a lawyer for three decades, newly retired.

As for me, I was only a teacher, sixth grade. I wore chinos and skirts with leggings and shirts and sweaters to school, with strong leather shoes or boots. I’d wear jeans if I could but it was a school that didn’t encourage that degree of relaxation.

“Ah, this one stays,” she said.

“I do agree with that one. The plum suits you even better than before, now that you’re a little paler…I mean, it contrasts well with your more salt than pepper hair.”

In the full length mirror I saw her right eyebrow raise, her lips form an “o” with a sudden thought. “Does it bother you?”

“What? That you’re getting older? Of course not. You will be a terrific old lady.”

“No, that the plum still suits me, still fits!” She caught my gaze in our reflected images and held it with steel-blue eyes. “I keep feeling you wish I would morph into someone different, sink under the weight of age and broaden and shorten–as if it’s indecent to stay in good shape pushing seventy. But if I changed shape I might start wearing things that would pass unnoticed on the street, shoes that made that awful heavy contact with sidewalks and oak floors. It’s as if you feel I’m managing to look pretty good just to irritate you, Marianna.”

“Oh, Mother, really.”

I disappeared into her closet again, irritation flicking at my chest. She was such a prima donna, concerned with presentation and place in society. Well, that wasn’t quite fair. She, in fact, was less self-conscious than I was about many things. She was given a certain status after so many years braving a path in the legal profession when women were much more sparse in the ranks. And my father had his own well-earned honors. They were rather formidable together, regal with height and heads of excellent hair, their congenial, well-bred ways and so on. I knew that at dinner they would mark their spots at either end of the dining room table with a pride of place that came from proving themselves.

I, on the other hand, was a mere teacher of children because that had seemed the easiest thing when the alternatives bored me more. Law and medicine, though pressed upon me as being the best routes to take, held little appeal. I’d have rather taken coursework in botany and then landscaping but the university to which I embarked–my mother’s alma mater– didn’t offer such an agrarian program. Education held an attraction: security and comfort for someone like me, an underachiever who loved kids and appreciated sharing knowledge with them. I had been a fine baby sitter, after all. I now worked hard and long at a job I enjoyed more each year.

Those beautiful shoes, though, I thought as I picked them up and handed them to my mother. They might fit now that my arches had fallen a tad or whatever happened with over two decades of hiking and backpacking. But I wouldn’t manage to walk serenely across hallways and down many stairs in them for the big dinner without falling over at my boyfriend’s feet–if I made it that far. I sighed loudly.

“Are you feeling nervous about Dennis coming for dinner?” she asked from over my shoulder.

“Not at all,” I lied. “He met you at the art museum already so he knows what to prepare himself for, he knows who you both are in this city.”

“Well, it’s about time he got to know us better and vice versa. Now that you say you are serious! I do like that he likes art. Hand me the black dress, will you?”

I watched her pull it on and then helped her with the back zipper. It stopped three-quarters of the way up.

“Take it slowly, dear, it will get there.”

I tugged but it refused to slide up. “It’s resisting. I don’t want to pull harder.”

Mother ran her hand over the top of her wavy pouf of hair, squared her smooth shoulders, gathered in a deep breath. “Now try it.”

With some effort, the dress was zipped but both of us could see it was too snug, how it creased at her waist and flattened her ample bust. She held her breath until I started to laugh, then she let it out.

“Alright, quick, off with this, before the seams pull apart. What happened since last year?”

I wanted to say: You’ve changed, you just don’t want to accept it but you are compressing, the muscle is becoming flab at last, despite tennis and daily swims and eating fresh figs and greens and handfuls of almonds. You are not what you once were, not so gorgeous and proportioned and enviably thin. Even aging royalty has to put aside the princess gowns.

“I suppose things are shifting,” I said.”Don’t they for us all after twenty-five at least?”

As Mother shook her head a wavy hank of hair fell over her eyes and it softened her. I remembered when it was long and thick about her shoulders, how it’s ebony luster was streaked with silver for so long. It was one thing I inherited. Now I saw her hair was less full and shiny, that chin length was more suitable. I felt a pang, wished it was long enough to be pulled into a voluminous chignon as it always had been when I was growing up.

Mother peeled off the dress and disappeared into her walk-in closet. I followed. She was elbow-deep in the greens to blue-greens section, fingering a pale sage linen tunic, then sateen turquoise pants. I liked those pants and told her so. She agreed and moved to a royal blue flyaway sweater, which she wore often. She put it against charcoal grey slacks and an oyster grey blouse. She took all three and put them on a dressing stand.

“For dinner, I think. Gads, what to do with all these white shirts I’ve accumulated? I don’t even like white unless paired with black. Or red.” She ran her hand over the sleeves and dismissed them until later.

“Mother, did you even get a good impression of Dennis? You never said anything last month after meeting him. Of course, we hadn’t planned on bumping into you, we had come from the trails.”

She looked at me a moment, then grabbed black jeans and a black cashmere sweater, went to the mirror and stripped off the slip, then put on the dark ensemble. She turned this way and that. The jeans looked tight in the seat and thighs.

“How could I get a correct impression when scads of other people were milling about on a Saturday afternoon opening of Rothko’s work? He seemed perfectly fine. A little hairy. Friendly look. You said he was in building trades?”

The irritation prickled again. She knew what he did for a loving and more. “He has a good beard, that’s all. He’s a builder, yes, Mother. Remember? Houses of finest repute.” I paused. “Those jeans do need to go, along with the black dress.”

“Perhaps, dear. Into the ‘maybe’ pile. Well, if you find him so interesting, I’m sure we will manage the same.”

“No, they go in the ‘toss’ pile, they’re too tight and you are too old to wear tight things. It’s not becoming, anymore. In fact, one third of your clothes should have been tossed a few years ago. You have the tastes of someone who is forty or fifty, not late sixties!”

Mother frowned at me and pressed her hands together, bit her pink, thin lip. She was getting ready to defend her position with that tongue of fire–so useful in court–so I disappeared into the closet and blinked back tears.

Why was she getting on my nerves? I knew well all her expectations. I knew what she had wanted for me. I’d endured therapy for three years to get beyond my underachieving, the self-worth issues. Our afternoon started out fine with a delicious lunch I paid for, then the seasonal clothes sorting. We used to do that together when I was home. It was fun, a time when she put all else aside and I joined in and then she’d help me with my things. “Our gabby girl time”, she called it. Even though I had found it more a chore except for the chance to have her all to myself. We used to swim together each week, yes, but we each swam in our own lane, gliding through the water like two mute, very fast fish. Now even that had gone by the wayside.

The woolen items hung in a small section near the end of the row. I pulled up the protective plastic bags to finger them, then pressed my face against the fabric. I loved the smell of wool, its animal heartiness, how it was rough and smooth at once on my skin, how it was pure, somehow, clean and rich. Substantial while refined, to my liking. Mother in trim work suits and then over those, her shawl collared, camel woolen coat.

She came up behind me as my face was buried in the folds of the very same coat.

“What’s wrong?”

I pulled away from the woolens. “Oh! I just love this coat… anyway, nothing is wrong that won’t be gone after dinner.” I turned to her. “Keep the jeans if you want. I was just–”

“No, you’re right. I need more stretch than I used to. I need more room, I guess!” She patted my back as we left the odd safety of the closet. “You go to the solarium with a good book and relax. Dinner will be ready at seven. Your father is cooking tonight. And I do like that tweedy skirt and caramel colored sweater on you–I used to wear that sort of thing when I was younger. Fine Pendleton standbys.”

I smiled at her and left. So that’s why I bought and rarely wore the skirt.

*******

When she entered the room even my father stopped what he was doing, which was lighting his pipe. Dennis and I were sitting in the living room, having just enjoyed a chat with him about the quality and types of area soils and how this impacted building houses. Father had been into the discussion, seemed like he was looking forward to the evening. Then we heard her voice as she called out to him.

“Thad?” Her strong voice had moved around a few corners before she arrived. “Ah, there you all are!”

Father smiled and it simply telegraphed how much he still adored her. She paused in an archway and surveyed our trio. Dressed in a fiery red silk tunic with a long keyhole opening at the chest and black, loose pants, she floated toward us. Her hair was swept back and her long bangs were held aside with a gleaming silvery barrette. Long black and silver oval earrings dangled from each lobe. Her feet were clad in the heels with leather rosettes at each toe.

As usual, a statement had to be made, her identity established, no mistake who was ruling the roost: Ms. Helena Halbrecht.

She put forward her hand to Dennis as he rose. “Welcome to our place, Dennis. Lovely to see you again.”

“Thank you for having me.” He took the hand and nearly bowed, but just stopped himself.

I rose, too. “Mother, aren’t you amazing tonight,” I murmured through half-closed teeth. “I should have had my fairy godmother whip up a gown to wear.”

She lifted a perfect eyebrow at me and Dennis took my elbow. Father chuckled at the scene, then lit his pipe before getting us cocktails.

******

“I, too, find my work exacting, Mrs. Halbrecht,” Dennis countered. “Timing is often the key no matter what we do, don’t you think? I have to make sure the essentials of a house are well in hand before making complex decisions. The foundation must be entirely sound before all other actions proceed, right? I have to coordinate many laborers’ efforts as well as work closely with architect and owners. Everything has its own time and method. Each material has its strengths and even a corresponding weakness if not placed in a manner that coheres with the others. I also am the one to bear bad news–I have to finesse my way through! If I am not a good communicator, that I may as well take down my business shingle.”

They had been talking about the importance of logistics in the field of law, how you have to know when to make this move or that, how to execute it without doing damage to the whole scheme while putting pressure one place and alleviating it another. How to command, manipulate, execute the power of language. My mother was finishing her salad and she now put down the fork slowly, took her napkin and pressed it against faded scarlet lips.

“I see. That is a lot to consider. And I somehow imagined good houses were just a matter of perfect schematics and able-bodied workers.” She laughed lightly as if to say she was certainly not that dim, then quaffed her iced water.

“I think he’s made an excellent point!” My father’s eyes swept over our plates and found that we all had enjoyed the salmon. “All decent work requires detailed plans that leave a margin for unforeseen variations in data–or error as it happens–and just as valuable, strong teamwork.”

His sharp eyes crinkled as he beamed at Dennis and then nodded at Mother. She shifted in her seat. She had no choice but to admit that the man I had brought to dinner was a good conversationalist as well as a successful businessman. But I had hoped she would discern more than that.

“And what do you think of our daughter’s teaching career? Do you have an interest in education? Or children’s welfare, for that matter?” Mother asked.

Her cheeks were flushed, or it was the red of the shirt radiating upward. She looked beautiful despite being demanding of our guest, my boyfriend. I knew she was sincere, but it had begun to seem she was interrogating him a bit. It was her habit after years of prosecuting, of cross-examining and rooting out the loose thread in the fabric of things.

“I know children ought to have someone like Marianna teaching them. They need people who are not only smart but compassionate. Someone who shares her enthusiasm about life with children who become jaded too soon. I know she”–he covered my hand with his before I could grab my goblet to wet my ticklish throat–“thinks she might have done something splashier with her life but she’s very trustworthy as well as persevering. Those qualities matter in teaching, I’m sure, as in other parts of life. Marianna is the sort of human being who gets respect from others because of her character first, not because of achievements. Although I suspect she will be rewarded well for all she does for sixth graders and her school. I am in awe of her dedication and patience, really.”

And he gave my hand a squeeze, then reached for the pitcher and poured me fresh water. Mother had both eyebrows raised and she wet her lips then bit the lower one to stave off more questions–I knew that “tell”. But Father leaned back and studied Dennis with a level look.

“I guess he truly likes and loves me,” I said somewhat defiantly and everyone laughed.

“As we also do, Marianna,” Father said.

Mother gave me her doe look which unnerved me, it was so warm and soft.

It was extraordinary that Dennis had spoken this way to my parents. All my growing up years friends were more intimidated by them, especially Mother, and I seldom brought home a boyfriend to hang out. Not even during or after college. She was so much to take in. It usually required a willingness to get past her ultra confidence, the intense questions. And my father, well, he was devoted to forensic science and how did one casually converse about that over a well-set dinner table? Did one query how the dead were maintained for, uh, further review?

*******

After Dennis left due to a big job starting early the next day, I found myself lingering before heading back to my place. My parents were in the kitchen; the low rumble voices passed through the swinging door. I went upstairs to refresh my face and then walked around, peering into bedrooms. My childhood room, with its window seat for daydreaming or reading and the skylight over the bed that gave me a star-pierced sky, a wash of morning light. I wandered back to my parents’ room where their luxurious, quilted king bed belied insomnia I knew they both had. Then I found my way to Mother’s closet again.

I turned on the track lighting, stood in the middle of the deep space, turned slowly so neatly separated clothing ran together. Became a kaleidoscope of hues, like a child’s toy turned slowly to illuminate patterns of jewel colors. I stopped. The extravagant room held a surplus of design, and the rigid order felt oppressive as well as sumptuous. But it was my mother’s place. It held her choices and desires. The area was imbued with her unique mixture of scents. As I touched the fabrics they felt as if they had just been worn by her; they held her energy somehow. This was her place of safekeeping for parts of an identity– what it had been, maybe still was. An inner sanctum for preparation for the days or nights. Later she’d shed clothing along with her roles. It held some of her tools for work and play. Beauty to make the ordinary world more palatable, vibrancy to grant the day a warmer tinge of hope. It was her realm and her pleasure.

I loved her for devising this quirky oasis from the cruelties of the world she had stared in the face over and over as a prosecuting attorney. And now she was finding these props and valued pieces did not fit in the same way. Elegant and vital, she was nonetheless a woman reconfigured by time. That, she could not negotiate. But she would find something to her liking and benefit. I turned out the lights, exited their private domain.

It came to me that I should resign from the job of assisting my mother with clothes sorting. It was up to her, after all, whether or not she would keep on with the old or make way for different goods and her changing life. No matter what, she would still reign over her small kingdom and be happy. And I had my piles to sort as well as my own romantic life to manage. I looked forward to it, thanks in part to her expert, even loving tutelage. But whether or not her style would ever mix well with mine still remained to be seen.