The Meeting

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It was later than she planned on waiting, but still she walked the grounds and watched the periphery of the garden. Lena was in the thick of it, both the grounds themselves and history. She languished in the former more easily. This place was her solace, being out-of-doors and finding small beauties, even a homely leaf resting on the surface of a pond. The great oaks were vibrant beings, their branches entreating sky and earth.

The estate had been left to her a year ago, but she only came on week-ends when the flat began to pinch her with its abominable smallness. The city preferred she stay there and since she was newly rooted here, it was best. She was welcomed just as a writer at an arts publication. They did not know the rest, who her family was yet. How she dreaded those “yets”.

The light unspooled over the lawn in a wide arc. Shadows drew her with a waft of coolness. She leaned against a tree, rough bark hard against her backbone like a warning. Where was Thaddeus, her brother, generally an opposing force of nature? It was like him to keep her waiting, chose this day when the sun was full of power, nowhere to hide. Of course Lena could go inside but that required three keys and discussion with Randall II, the stooped but demanding caretaker. He would have questions, he always had questions and needs, as well he ought. He had watched over Great-aunt Lidia’s home for forty-two years. Randall knew the manse and gardens better than any one else, anymore. It was up to Lena to learn more, she agreed. It was all the sorting and tending that had deterred her from a full commitment. Yet if it used up her time and stripped her peace what was the point of this ecstasy she felt with one sweeping gaze? Paradise is what it was. Safety. She wished Lidia had stayed a little longer, told her more about the family’s legacy and lies.

It was not good that Thad had called, demanding she meet him. He would find her on the lawn, near the great tree, where the bench awaited, as was their usual spot. When had Lena last spoken with him? Four months ago, six? He was always abroad, meeting with someone or other from the diamond industry, talking business and making deals, checking interests. Basking on boats with lanky bronzed women who knew little of the value of a coin or the charity they reaped so carelessly from her brother. Thad had a lukewarm interest in Lena’s work. He had once berated her for asserting her need to make her mark. That had been done for her by the family, he informed her levelly; all she had to do was get involved in the business, do her duty. She had left her place on the board two years ago. Instead she strove to become a freelance journalist though making, as he pointed out, an uneven income. What did that matter, she laughed. It wasn’t ever money; it was curiosity and even a small promise of love that drove her.

Thaddeus never knew what to make of her, nor she, him. Well, he was their father’s son in most regards and that was not bad, only righteously bound to work and inaccessible. She was her mother’s daughter…well, one said so even when one suspected otherwise. And Lena was fearful that Thad might state his suspicions now that she had inherited this place. Proof that she was the daughter of opera singer Helvetia Simonson of San Francisco. Yes, that was the woman she knew about; Great-aunt Lidia had made it a point of pride to clarify details others disregarded or denied.

IMG_2273The shadows lengthened quickly. She checked her timepiece. It was soon dinner hour and she supposed Randall would need to be seen. She saw him enter the back door, impatient with her as she awaited Thad. A good man, a paragon of efficiency, dear Randall II was so-called because Lidia’s parents had employed his father. Lena recalled when she came each summer. He’d welcomed her with a smart bow, a pat on her head, then let her go as he gathered her things. The river shone past the grounds like a teal ribbon; she would run there first. Then the pathways that wound around the acreage, the ponds and stream, flowers swaying toward her. She was happy here. It had saved her, this freedom protected by orderliness.

Lena saw Thad round the corner of the house. He was striding toward her, and in his hands was a flat leather envelope that she knew carried more information than she wanted to know. She backed into the trees and hid. The lawn was striped with shadows; it separated them still. A sharp intake of breath as Thad stopped not fifty feet from her and turned a slow circle.

“I know you are there as Randall told me. You need to show yourself. I don’t have time to play games.”

Lena stepped forward as he turned his back. She ran to the path that led down to the riverfront and kept running, her bare feet stung by stones, her legs hindered by her skirts. He was not going to stop her. He must not threaten to take Elderberry House from her. His thirty-seven years seemed ancient to her twenty-four and she felt his power as she had her father’s: worldly, driven, final.

But it was too late. Thad cut her off and she stumbled into his outstretched arms, fell upon his tweedy jacket. The angry tears escaped before she could stop them but as she began to protest he held her close.

“It’s alright, Lena! I know! You can stop hiding now. Your mother wrote us and she is coming to visit us. Helvetia Simonson, who would have thought her? Amazing voice! I suspected for years, then father let something slip when we met in Switzerland, the miserable….well, he is our father despite his failings….We must simply move on.”

Lena sat on the ground, pushing from her face the mass of unruly yellow hair, so unlike Thad’s dark brown. He reclined beside her. She could not speak. It had been like a breath held in for her entire life and now all she could do was let it out in jagged, soft sighs. Thad twisted a stem of lady’s slippers and placed it in her hair and she lay her hand on his shoulder. It was a start, perhaps a kinder one. Something she might write about one day.

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Girls Who Wear Roses

Night was falling over the rooftops and a chill brushed her neck and spread a web of cold under her thin cotton shirt. It had been a long walk to the park but it was a longer way back. She had to skirt the edge of the neighborhood either way but now she had to keep any eye out for Dell, her boyfriend. Or that’s what he called himself. He’d be looking for her; he wanted money. He was like a bloodhound; he always found her. But she needed to give the money to Granny Ella for the telephone. Grandpa Les needed orthotics. She could only work so many hours at the nail salon. It had been tough for a year since her grandfather had lost his job. But Jenna’s other work–the men, the dark, the sudden fear–that wasn’t so new. It had been like that one way or another a long time, and she had just turned twenty-three at 8:07 this morning.

Granny reminded her with a steaming mug of coffee and a giant cinnamon roll brought right to her bedroom on a wooden inlaid tray. Jenna was getting dressed for work, but she stopped to take a few bites,  some sips.

“What do you think, Jenna? Getting your mother up in the middle of the night?And you coming so fast we barely had time to get dressed and say a prayer for smooth passage.” Granny laughed deep and long; it sounded like it came from all the way back to Jenna’s first day. “And then we waited and waited. You looked a little like a mewing kitten, all squinty eyes and little paws, so much hair on your pretty–well, we knew it would be!–head. Yes, and the rainstorm made everything look so good as we drove you home a couple days later, and the flowers started blossoming just for you. Decorated the whole neighborhood!”

Granny put her arms around Jenna. The soft bulk of her grandmother made her think of warm pillows. Jenna wanted to stay there and breathe her dusky rose scent. She didn’t know where it came from. Granny rarely wore perfume. But she smelled sweet, as though she wore a cape of warm red roses. Grandpa Les said it was because she had diabetes, that the sugar in her blood made her exhale sweetness. Jenna thought it was her heart breathing out into the world. She was that kind of person: sturdy and sweet.

Jenna would do anything for them. They had kept her with them since she was twelve.  So she worked thirty-two hours at the salon and added to her income any way she could. She had worked two, three jobs at a time since sixteen until work got scarce.

Another way to make cash was to sell a few drugs, something she knew how to do by the time her mother disappeared. That ended when a detective came to her grandparents’ door. He took Jenna to the jail downtown where she was kept for seven hours despite the fact that she had nothing on her and he had not really seen anything. But they both knew what was going on and the whole ordeal cured her–she’d wondered if that had been the point. He had known her mother once, before she had taken a wrong turn, he’d said with a sneer.

But a third way was just selling herself, which was something one of the girls at the salon told her about, eyes averted. Then Dell showed up and Jenna thought, well, he had money and he had a good car and he knew what he wanted. What did she have? Would she ever have? A lousy story and barely enough to get by. But then it was too late to think about again. Every time Dell shoved her out the car door she turned her mind into a blank, a wall, a place where nothing happened and no one lived. Just like when she was a kid and the parties shook the house and her mother’s boyfriends smelled like whiskey and danger. It had all disappeared if she closed her eyes and thought about the starry sky outside her window. When she got a little older,  she learned about the planets and thought of them, how beautiful they were and how far away. How she might live on one someday.

By now she had learned to make time stop. Nothing that mattered dared come near the corners of her mind. She had no name. She had no past or future until she took the money. And gave it to her grandparents when they needed it. They knew only that she worked too much, too many hours and Jenna agreed, but didn’t complain. They needed to know nothing. They had lived through enough.

The moon was shining. It’s light sliced across her path as she darted between cars, disappeared behind Carmen’s  Coffee and the A and P, ran across the darker side streets. Jenna checked her watch: eight fifty-nine. Her grandparents would be looking out the window, worrying a little. They liked to know how she was at the end of a day when they didn’t see her, a quick check in. Tonight there would be no presents to open but they’d be waiting to share German chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. And rainbow- colored candles. It was odd, how they still thought of her as a kid when she hadn’t felt one for longer than she could remember.

Jenna turned down the alley where all the garages were lined up behind the small, shabby houses. She could see Grandpa Les’ Chevy half-in, the red paint looking purple in the night. Her feet slowed down; she was almost there.

“Hey!”

Dell’s hand grabbed her shoulder and it shook a scream out of her. The weight of his body  dragged her down. She kicked until all the kick was gone and her back hit gravel. She saw the sky turn itself inside out and fall down around her. There was Dell’s grinning face right above her as he lifted his hand again. He smelled like good wine gone rotten. Jenna tried to push herself up from the ground but fell back. There were people barely visible behind Dell and he turned away from Jenna and stood up. They all got loud and the words split her head open, made her think of echoing canyons and each syllable felt like rocks falling on her head with alarming speed.

“Jenna, lay still!” Grandpa Les ordered. “I’m talking to Dell!”

Grandma Ella shuffled over and reached down to smooth her forehead. “There’s a girl, lie still, the police are coming, be good for grandma now, that’s my girl,” and her voice was water over wounds, strong but soft, clean and clear yet blurring the edges of everything. Jenna started to speak but the taste of roses stopped her. She put her hand to her mouth and pulled away a satiny petal.

“I’m so sorry, girl, the roses were for you, I had them in my hand when we heard  you cry out. I hit him with the roses…stupid…they’re not much good now.”

Grandpa Les’ voice was the loudest Jenna had ever heard it. “If you put one foot on this property again you’re gonna make me use this rifle, boy!”

Dell let out a low cackle. “We’re in a public alley. You don’t know who you’re trying to save, anyway. You don’t know her at all! Have you ever wondered where she gets her extra money, old man? Do you think she can pay for your bills with nothing? She’s lucky to have me!”

Grandpa Les took a step forward and slowly raised his ancient hunting rifle level with Dell’s eyes. He spoke so quietly Jenna had to listen hard and it hurt.

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll save your breath for the cops and judge. The whole neighborhood knows what you are and you took her where she never should’ve gone. You’re the sort that people cross the street to avoid, you know that? You think being poor is the worst thing? You need some powerful help. But your time with Jenna is done, you hear me? Finished.”

The neighbors had gathered one by one to see what Ella, Les and Jenna had going on and saw that they had their hands full, so they circled around Dell, arms looped and locked. Ella wiped a smear of blood off Jenna’s face and put the girl’s head on her wide lap. The police arrived, then the ambulance, flashing lights slipping over rapt faces. They put her on a gurney and Ella and Les gazed down at her. A dozen red, white, and yellow roses were laid on her chest and one unopened bud was placed in a pale curl at her ear. The EMT frowned.

“It’s her birthday,” Grandma Ella grumbled, and he shrugged.

Grandpa Les put his arm around his wife and pulled her close. “Girls who wear roses are the best ones, you know. We thought you were something wonderful long before you liked them.” He half-smiled sadly. “We’ll make up for things somehow. I was waiting to tell you I got a part-time job at the A and P. Yeah, your ole granddad’s not out of commission yet. That was the birthday present.” He pulled out his handkerchief and turned away.

Jenna tried to say that they’d had bad times before and gotten by. That she had made mistakes that would take a long time to get over. But before she could get it all out, Grandma Ella kissed her cheek. Jenna felt the roses warm up. Their scent filled the ambulance and made her dizzy but calm. She knew tomorrow would be terrible, a day of reckoning, with likely many more tough ones to come, but for now all the fear and regret flew away to the perfect beauty of the moon.

Copyright 2012 Cynthia Guenther Richardson