Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Spoken, Unspoken

teenager-72-2 photo by Jeurgen Teller

What would she tell him and what would she keep to herself, she wondered as she trotted along the well-beaten path. Low branches snagged her sweater and bright flying hair. Wild blackberry bushes grabbed at her ankles. She made note of where they were so she could gather the last ripe offerings. How many Lil had harvested in late summer and still there were more. They hung on until the very end, fat with life, earthy and sweet. Stubbornly hanging on, those last berries. Stubborn like she was. And Quinn.

Lil was looking for him, zigzagging through the woods, up and down gentle hills but she was running from Ray and his words. Their father, more or less. He had it in for Quinn now and that meant likely Lil, too, in the end because they stuck together. The last of his words still rang in her ears.

“If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be a futile tug of war!”

It wasn’t a new threat, that his dominant role would insure authority. Yet the way it was said and when could mean little or much, and this time it was a warning she knew to heed. Quinn had shrugged off confrontations since he’d gotten a lot taller than Ray. If not as big otherwise. In fact, that was another thing Ray said a lot—Quinn had better grow up more if he planned on talking back all the time. And cut “that damned hair” or Ray would do something about it for him.

Lil pressed a palm to her forehead, swiped away sweat and stray hairs and something with wings that got away in time. She slowed her pace, calling out his name now and then. It was a lot of acreage, twenty acres and wooded for the most part, especially when you had to search. Quinn was fifteen, twelve months ahead of her, but he acted older, went his way as he pleased. To be honest both went their own way since their mother had died three years ago, but he’d be gone for a couple days or more, camping alone or staying with friends. She had bitterly argued against his taking off many times. Said he should take her with him, anyway.

“Why do you have to leave me here with him? He gets riled up and his mood turns sour. And he acts like I’m the only one who can make a bed or chop wood or simmer a pot of stew when you aren’t there to help us. I’m suddenly indispensable. Right in his line of vision like I’m some quarry. Well, maybe not quite that bad but still…”

Quinn always said, “If he ever hits you or anything else I’ll have to kill him.” He gave her that dramatic look beneath the fall of his hair, deep blue eyes going black.

How much he had changed, she thought, and yet not at all. Just tougher beneath his creative, pensive ways.

“Come on, you know it’s his words. They’re like rocks from a pile he hordes until he wants to throw his weight around. Ray can act mean, then he isn’t, anymore. You know, hot and cool.”

Quinn would lower his eyes, give her a quick hug, shake the hair from his face and say, “Yeah, but sometimes I have to leave before I lose my mind. Before I remind him again that Mom would never talk that way. He’s just privately a fool with a fat public job, he’s the one who needs to grow up–”

“Try to come home at night, though? I hate being in my room by yours and I can’t tap out a message on the wall because you aren’t there like before, any time I want. Lying there half-blind, listening to Ray snoring across the hall, muttering away. It’s worse when I’m alone. It makes me so want Mom back…”

Quinn calmed. “I can’t always have you with me, Lil, you know that. We just do guy stuff, we’re up too late and you have school.” He glanced at her. “I know I do, too, but it’s different for me. You were born with so much more potential.” A wry smile.

“Don’t be impossible!” She threw him a playful punch, he fended her off and they headed outdoors to Eagle River to forget the way things were. To take in unspoiled air, watch for beautiful, stealthy deer and name birds on the wing. Hope for a glimpse of the rare Sierra Nevada red fox, more silver than red one time they saw it. A lucky break, or a wilder magic.

Their talk was such a tired talk, anyway, repeated often. And she tried harder to hide her hurt from him so he wouldn’t feel guiltier, because it was true he had it worse with Ray. He took the brunt of all the grief and anger their mother’s death had poured into the man. Never mind that they had their own.

Ray was not their biological father, turning up two years after she—Surprise! Here’s Lillian Grace!–was born and their real father left with some stranger for parts unknown. Their mother was mostly okay with that, she’d said, in the end for the best, and then she met Ray in town one summer. Things rebalanced some, though he was more impatient than their own father if a steady man, a good provider, as she  let slip from her thoughts behind his back. Then she got sick  doing her own job, and left him on his own. Ray never expected to have to raise kids this way. Without the woman he adored with a doting if faulty love. And there they all were, three alone together. Except Quinn and Lil were a team, after that much more so.

It stung Lil deeply that her brother could ever leave her behind, though she understood he felt harassed, and he was older and a boy. As if that gave him extra rights.

The loamy river scent filled her nostrils as she ran. She thought of what Quinn always implied–that she’d finish school and have a chance at college. That he would not. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. Their mother had had high hopes for them both and Quinn was just as smart. Just not as motivated to learn from school books. Not these days. And Lil wasn’t that clear what she wanted to do. But she did know she didn’t want to be a nurse like their mother, catch a terrible sickness from patients, end up dying too young.

She felt a wave of relief as she lightly panted, feet slowing. There were glimmerings of reflected light on Eagle River, just beyond a scrim of leaves starting to slip off  their greenery and put on gold and rust. Surely he had to be on this stretch of the bank, another favorite area. He hadn’t been at the dock or the stony ridge at the inlet. By then Ray had stopped yelling at her to come back; she’d known he wouldn’t try to follow her. A week ago he’d hurt his knee during a fall from his truck bed. He’d unloaded a half cord of wood for their wood stove and somehow toppled. It had been one more reason why he’d steamed at Quinn, who had of course taken off in the middle of it, having heard more about his hair and friends.

It had started as usual.

“That hair will blind or strangle you one of these days, it’s always in your eyes or hanging around your neck. You need to clean up, Quinn. Get a job after school. And also leave that Wilson girl alone, she’s not in your league.”

“My hair is none of your business and it’s ridiculous you make a big deal of it. And what would you know about who’s in my ‘league’, as you put it? It’s clear you don’t think I’m good enough, just say it!”

Quinn had stomped off, gotten his bike, stirred up the dirt and dust. Lil helped with the wood. It was no big deal, not really hard, she just wished Quinn was helping her stack it so they could exchange a look, get the work done faster while Ray moaned on the couch, frozen bag of peas clamped on his knee. In two days it was better but he still limped about.

This time, though, Quinn had just wanted to go fishing. He was anxious to take off and was waiting for her to get home. As usual, Ray had things to say first.

“Your brother got caught with the Wilson girl today, I heard.”

He said this as soon as she was dropped off by her friend Carol and her mother and entered the house. Like he’d wanted to drop this bombshell for her ears despite Quinn standing there, too. She nodded at Quinn, eating cold macaroni and cheese from a plastic container; he tossed it on the counter and it slid, fell into the sink.

“Don’t talk about Anne.” The fork in his hand was pointed toward Ray, emphasizing each word. “And don’t imply I did something wrong.” He turned to Lil, who stood in the kitchen doorway, eyebrows raised, half-smiling. “I talk with her before and after school–you’ve seen us, right?” He tossed the fork into the sink, put the leftovers away.

Lil shrugged. “And? So?”

“Nothing, he just likes to yak at us.” He lowered his voice. “But I did get a crappy grade on that world history test. That sucks, have to do a re-take.  But now I’m going fishing. Want to come?”

“Sorry about the test.. No, not yet, I have homework. Maybe in a half hour, but then there’s dinner…”

“Let him start it, he knows how.”

Ray looked around the living room corner where he sat at a small desk paying bills. “What’s that?”

Quinn grabbed his fishing gear and left by the side door, urging her to join him. And she should have right then–didn’t she want to hang with him more? But the door banged shut and she went to her room to work on Algebra. In fifteen minutes, there was a knock on her door.

She said, “”I’m busy, Ray, homework.”

“Sorry, but we should talk.”

She ignored him, kept working.

“It’s about Anne Wilson and Quinn.”

Her pencil hovered above the paper as she considered. Was he going to just complain to her, gossip as ever, then go on his way? Or was it serious?

Ray Leger managed the historic, expensive hotel on the edge of nearby “wine country heaven” and he had long, sometimes variable hours. It must be a day off or he’d go in later, be back in the wee hours. Ray got to hear a lot of stories being the big manager there. Everyone had info to swap about residents as well as upscale visitors. The Wilsons were a family that recently moved there after vacationing in wine country for some years. She didn’t know what the parents did but Anne was popular in school now– smart enough, chatty and sporty. Lil liked her alright but from a distance. She’d been surprised her brother found her that interesting.

Lil got up to open the door. At least Ray never just walked right in, he gave them that.

“Thanks, Lillian.” He looked around for her blue antiqued wood chair, pushed off her robe and sat. “I’m hoping you can persuade your brother to stop seeing this girl before there’s more trouble. Mr. Wilson came to see me today at the hotel and he’s worried about his daughter’s reputation.”

“Really? Doesn’t he know we’re a family with a good rep? Didn’t he know and accept you before when they came down as tourists? Didn’t Quinn and I get introduced to Anne by her own mom? In fact, Mom helped out when Mrs. Wilson was ill with–”

“He saw them smoke together today, Lillian, before school.” Ray leaned toward her, his hands splayed on his thighs, feet planted on the floor. “Pot, you know. That’s not good.”

Lil inclined her head, frowning. “What? Pot? You mean Quinn doesn’t even drink, but he smokes pot from time to time and that’s the whole nasty situation?”

“Well, Jud Wilson is a chemist or something–he knows about drugs, all the affects. And he feels pot is super bad for teens and doesn’t want his daughter mixed up with it. Plus, there’s the hair issue.”

“Almost all of Oregon smokes pot, Ray. It’s legal. Where has he been?”

“They’re from Utah, originally. I think they lived in Arizona awhile.”

“Oh, they’re religious, maybe… might be Mormon? No,  that can’t be it, he and his wife love the wine here.”

“I don’t know about all that. They’re not liberal, no, and not everyone is here, you know.”

“Well, Anne should make her own decision and that should be that, right? She needs to discuss it with Quinn and her dad. We don’t have to deal with it all.”

“Wrong, he said he doesn’t want her to see him again. And he was very put off by his hair down his back, said it’s not what he’d expect from my kids…and Anne has other friends and Quinn should back off.” He spread his hands wide. “Made it clear. And I will not disappoint long-time associates….”

“How rude!” But Lil bit her lower lip hard, blinked a few times. Where was her mother when she needed her? They were her kids, not his, really–weren’t they, still? She would know what to do. Really, his associates?

“But worse, he’s bound to tell the law. You have to be 21 to buy marijuana, you know, just like for alcohol.” He shuddered ever so slightly. “And my hotel cannot afford any bad press, not of my kids not doing the right thing. It reflects on me, after all, then it gets out and it’s bad for business. It has to stop now. But he won’t listen to me!”

“Quinn already knows about being seen smoking with her?”

“No. I didn’t get that far. But they–parents and Anne– are coming over tomorrow night. Luckily, they were busy tonight. Gives us time to talk, think things out.”

Lil got up and paced. “Actually, you want me to break it to him so you won’t have to face off, right?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Thought you’d be concerned, too.”

“Or were you concerned about your job? You know he smokes. I have a couple times and you have, too, I’m sure! And you like your wine wine, drink at the hotel bar sometimes after work. I mean….both are common here, so isn’t it that this might somehow ruin appearances, us teenagers who can’t seem to toe the line?”

She felt disgusted, done with the conversation. Let him fight his own social battles and deal with Quinn himself. It was not her problem.

“No, not entirely. Maybe that’s why he isn’t doing as well in school the past year or two, have you thought of that, Lillian? Maybe he’s too stoned to care.”

Well, maybe our mother died and we still want her here, have you thought of that, Ray? she wanted to shout back. But she just sat on the edge of her bed. Saw the late day sunlight seep through blinds and paint thin bright stripes on the hardwood floor. Her feet were cold. Her hands were almost cold. It was going to start raining every day and she’d be outdoors less as temperatures dropped. Quinn and she would be trapped here with this man who didn’t even know them…well, a man who watched over them but lacked the skills and love their mother had.

Had his own worries and frustrations, sure. Hard to hate him for any of it. His own loss. Like hers, but different.

Still. She let out a long sigh.

“I do care, Lil, I really do– for both of you but he sure won’t hear that. Maybe he’ll think things over if it’s your voice saying it.”

Lil got up and went to the door. “You could be nicer to him. And you should go now. I’ll think it over.”

He looked at her without wavering long enough for her to feel pinpricks of tears. Who were they for this time? Him? Or as usual, for herself? And for her almost twin, Quinn?

But she left the room first. Ray followed a few steps, the felt the familiar sad emptiness as she bounded toward the front door to go warn her brother of impending complications.

He couldn’t stop himself so he yelled: “If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be one futile tug of war!”

******

Lil parted the heavy branches and there he was.

“Quinn!”

He was not fishing. He was in the river, clothes still on from what she could see. Eyes were closed tight against the world. Looked like he’d churned up the river bed. His long hair streamed over his shoulders. He must have heard her but didn’t speak. It scared her, his being so still, and she slipped into the water, too. Stood near him, unwilling to disturb his reverie further.

And for a perfect moment, she saw their mother. In his features, in the way he stood so quiet with calm face tilted toward the muddied, swirling surface. How she loved it there, fishing or swimming in it, playing “catch” with her dog, Jersey Girl, or teaching them how to snorkel and ride rubber tubes downstream after it rained and the water ran faster.

People often remarked that they looked like twins, Quinn and Lil. That they took after their  graceful mother rather than their disappeared father who was tall, mammoth-shouldered and walked heavily and confidently like the lumberman he’d been.

They both had some of her for always.

“I know,” Quinn said, “I know.”

Lil waited.

“All of it, Anne told me. Don’t ask why I jumped in, just wanted to. It feels good.”

His eyes were still shut. His body was moved a little by current that ran swifter there. They both held their ground and she shut her eyes, too, just to feel it all with him. Chilly and warm as currents altered their courses; soft and strong; familiar and strange with its power.

“Okay, ” she said.

“It’ll be alright, Lil. Anyway, I know a couple other girls– Anne isn’t the only fish in the river. And I don’t like to smoke that much so stop worrying.”

She looked at him then as his eyes flashed open. He grinned at her, grabbed her arms and dunked her; she dunked him right back. Soon they were in full skirmish, laughing and gasping, swimming out of each other’s grasp. They finally gave up, fell into each other as they scrambled and slid on the muddy, stone-embedded river bank, water streaming from every limb and their dirty faces. When they reached the flatter grassy part, Lil and Quinn collapsed under a tree, more happy.

A few yards away Ray stood watching, recalling the past. Ache filled him. How he wished he had some of what they had, was welcomed into that circle as he had been when they were small. He wanted to remember her with them now. He took a step forward. But it felt too hard and he turned back to the house as the two teenagers got on their feet. And saw him thread through thickets of blackberries, then limp through cottonwood, alder, maple and fir that stood tall in a dusky autumn haze–this place that was now shared by three.

 

Last Chance Cottage

snowy-meanders-018
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

I answered the ad out of desperation. It had been over ten months since we’d had more income than outgo and our savings was seeping its final sludge. Sheila wrote in a frenzy, her supernatural romance stories (Can the two concepts even pass on the same road? I’d asked once) ignored more than acknowledged much less accepted for publication in women’s magazines in those grubby piles in healthcare offices. She’d criticize me for saying that but I’m not feeling generous in my support lately. Not that she is feeling more thrilled about my situation. I was a junior banker who made some very wrong investments of my own money and then flat-out lost my temper with the branch manager. Got fired. Those are the worst two words in my adult vocabulary. I swore I’d never have to hear them like my father did too many times, that sly master of reinvention. Turns out I have a judgment problem much like he did and a patience problem that I can claim all on my own. But I do know better than to behave like an ingrate and tiresome crank. It’s just… that’s been where we’ve been.

So when I answered the ad looking for “caretakers of a moderately sized estate in northwest Portland; housing provided with monthly salary for up to one year”, I jumped on it. Nothing was nothing; this was something.

“Caretakers? Like grounds maintenance, a kind of security or even taking care of a pack of fussy dogs and bringing in mail? Or more?” Sheila looked up from her PC, her salt and pepper hair swinging away from her chin.

“That sounds about right,” I agreed.

She’d let it grow–good haircuts were too costly now–and I had to suppress an urge to tuck it behind her ear to better see her face. Just to touch her without thinking it through. But the moment passed.

She scrutinized the computer screen. “Well, why not? Maybe we can keep watch over someone else’s material goods better than our own. You can cobble things together that need fixing. You can mow the heck out of yards and like smelly dogs. What does it pay?”

I named a figure which was vastly less than what I once brought home but more than we could possibly hope for in upcoming months if my job hunt trend held.

“Okay,” she said and then began typing once more rapt deep attention, her dismissal made clear.

Shelia has what my mother had called “stick-tuitive-ness”. I always wondered where that came from–was that a combination of perseverance and intuition? Because that’s what Sheila demonstrated. She kept at something even if it appeared unworthy of such effort. And her intuition was embarrassingly on key, so that when our investments failed she didn’t have to say a word since she’d already forecast as much. She should have been the banker. But she hadn’t predicted I ‘d get fired. She was busy getting over a terrible thing while I failed her.

I was not sure it wasn’t a hoax when I got a call from the ad placers. Didn’t they have a grounds keeper and security guards already? But no, this was different, they wanted someone to keep an eye on things; they’d check in electronically on much but they needed a presence. And they weren’t ordinary rich people. They were verging on famous, at least in our part of the country, equally political and creative, a double leg-up. Self-made man and woman who had already  reached a pinnacle or two in their thirties. They liked to travel and turned humanitarian trips into long term stints of living abroad, this time in Turkey, Mr. H. said, after touring parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

I say “Mr. H.” because we were not allowed to disclose just for whom we were house caretaking–if we even got hired. I supposed that meant we might have to cut off usual contact for awhile with all our friends. The two or three we had left.

“Turkey?” I said without thinking. It wasn’t my business.

Mr. H. laughed. “I know, surprising, isn’t it? Beautiful coastline. We’re house hunting among other things.” He changed tack, was all business again. “I appreciate your resume. Bankers speak my language and writers appeal to us both. Good combo for any partnership, am I right?”

“Sure is, opposites spark great things.” I felt like an idiot for that remark. When would he ask about my last position, why I was out of a job?

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll have your references checked and get back to you in forty eight hours. If all pans out we’ll meet for coffee for a brief interview. We’re running out of time–no one else looks this good on paper. Plus I like how you converse. The main thing is to have someone to watch over the property and I trust very few to do that simple task. Last one didn’t work out, he was a partier.”

“Not us, we’re more quiet types…creative wife and all.”

The fact that he was, among other things, part owner of a Northwest music recording studio might have helped. Sheila always said she had been hooked by my voice, insisting I could have been a radio announcer instead of a boring (if better off) banker. Or, more likely, Mr. H. just wanted to tick off this chore from an impressive task list and get out of the country.

We passed muster and met. They were rushed, gracious, very confident of themselves and liked us, and Shelia thought far better looking than news’ photos allowed. We later began to radically sort and toss all we didn’t put into storage or give or lend to others for the time being, then moved fast. Our house was rented to Shelia’s relocating cousins a week later for far too little.

We eyed the H. manse in silence as we drove around the corner and pulled into a side road to our new residence. Our modestly sized structure was built for Mrs. H.’s parents visits or others invited for more than a night or two. It had been empty for two months and was spotless, smelled woodsy. Each ivory- walled room glowed beneath pallid stripes of sun; there were two large bedrooms and an attic-shaped study, two full baths, a proper kitchen and smallish lodge-like living area.

“We hit the jackpot,” Sheila said as she unpacked and put away books in her room with a lot of soft muttering.

“Are you being sarcastic? Because it’s a really decent cottage for the hired hand’s place. Not like our suburban colonial but I never liked it that much, anyway, if you want to know the truth.”

“Not the time for truth telling. I already I miss our back yard. My study.”

“It’s winter, no one misses back yards in rain–and now we have all this weird snow. Besides, their back yard looks like wild acreage. I think he said it was an acre at least. There are probably lots of birds. We like birds. And hey, there are no animals to tend.”

“I’ll miss our yard, anyway,” she said under her breath, as if trying to still the urge to raise her voice. “It was our yard, our patio, our flowers and birds, our…new swing set…”

“No, don’t, not now, please,” I cautioned and slipped out of her room and into mine.

We’ve both had our own rooms since the miscarriage. That was well over ten months ago, right before I was fired. We’ve been on a downhill roll ever since, as if two giant boulders–job loss and miscarriage–are pursuing us and will crush us if we keep looking behind so I try not to look hard. That’s what I think. I don’t know just what she thinks, anymore. She’s still curled inside a thick cocoon of grief and I’m outside of it, trying to rally, prepping for what life has to throw at us next. I hope and pray I can keep standing up.

The fact is, though, our nice house was no longer the home we needed it to be. It was a reminder of all that was out of our hands, destroyed. The cottage was perfect, even if only for a pause.

******

She used to call me “Lover” and “Cap”, short for “Captain” since I am nuts about boats, especially handmade boats. Like the one we had as a kid, handed down from my grandfather who designed and built it. But that was then, no fancy boat now, I sold it. I will surely rue that day.

But Sheila, she used to sneak up behind me, plant a kiss on nape of my neck or scratchy jaw when I was sitting to remove my bank shoes, which had to not be the best places after working all day. She used to do a lot of things. But the same goes for me. The difference is that she can still create in her stories how she wishes things might be, and I am stuck with a lack of imagination. I didn’t used to think I was short on that reasonable and crucial daydreamer quotient, but I’ve run out of ideas to comfort her. To make up for disappointing her. No, it was more like my creating mayhem when we had already taken a hard punch. It didn’t matter that that was why I lost it at the bank that day. A very few people knew what had happened to the brand new life we’d made, but that didn’t excuse how I swiped papers and files off my desk and told my boss he was an “overrated money changer who knew far less than most of us working our asses off, even if I am about broke now” and stormed out into the rain, leaving my SUV in the parking lot for two days. I was lucky that wasn’t hauled away. Or maybe not; I still owe on it.

I wasn’t raised to shirk responsibility, for all the fluky moves my father made he taught us the basic decent ways to think. I know I did the most wrong thing and added immeasurably to her pain. I took away all we had worked for in such a short time, it was a landslide of trouble. But it’s like I inherited that gene, the screw up gene, and no matter how well I dress him up the man I still am is finally someone who misses the beat when he has so long waited for his cue to play that one right, beautiful note at exactly the right time.

I looked out the window at the shimmering snowdrifts. I’ve shoveled and powered up the snow blower a few times, try to keep it pristine. I’d passed Sheila as I came in to warm up and eat a snack. She was reading, looking into more submission possibilities. She hasn’t done so badly; she published three stories last year. But that was last year, the “Before” time; this is “After.” The fact that she’s even writing a couple hours most days is a good sign, even if she does trash most of what she does. She always types as if in hyper drive, and then afterwards slumps about and scowls at nothing until falling into bed. Depression is exhausting. I feel it, too, but it often rolls away as if it wants a different host. I’m too cold to be attractive to such a malady, she told me last month.

“How’s it going today?” I asked, my hand just brushing her back. She didn’t flinch.

“It’s all gone for today. I’d had Marcella meeting up with Roarke at a side street cafe after hours but then he didn’t even show.”

I’ve always had to think about those statements. I know it’s fiction she’s talking of and they are characters and she is telling me something that matters. But it rarely makes sense to me.

“He didn’t show up?”

“No, he had something better to do, I guess. Or another woman, but that’s such old news, not worth a paragraph.”

“You’re the writer but don’t yet know why he didn’t bother to show up?”  I kept it light. I suspected she wondered if I’d strayed. I couldn’t even bear the thought.

She turned sharply to me and glared, then smoothed her face with tapered fingertips as if very tired of having to explain things to me. “No, Garrett, that’s why I’m not writing right now. I just have to wait and see, like it or not.” She pulled her shoulders up high and let them fall down again, then pulled them back and sat up straighter. “Life, itself, is just a wait and see thing, don’t you agree?”

I contemplated my response; it felt like a trap, as things often did when we talked. “I guess that’s about right,” I said, padded up the stairs to my room.

“We agree for once, thank you for that.”

But her voice held no malice, more like tentative acceptance of one immeasurably small step forward. I almost returned to her but she was up and into the kitchen. I could have been wrong, so kept on.

It tended to feel better, perhaps safer, on the second floor. In my own room. I could see everything, the contemporary grandeur of the H. manse glowing and extending far beyond scattered evergreens, birds flitting from one oak branch to another, the giant magnolia waiting for any signals from an impending spring, far off yet. Street noise was minimal out there in the west hills. Sometimes it felt like we were hunkered down, very far from the world. We were on our second month and it was becoming more comfortable for me. I could see the benefits in Sheila, too. How she liked to lounge before the fieldstone fireplace redolent with wood that I split, fire snapping and sizzling, her favorite poetry book or magazine in hand. How she sought the right birdseed at the garden store and fed the birds carefully, as if their lives depended on her help.

I wondered if she knew how much I waited for her, too. How the bitter anger at God and myself had started to wane and a worn hollow was left in its place. Wanting something else there. But she had more and more not encouraged lengthy conversation much less my embrace. I understood, too.

There careened through the pane of glass in a window an odd swoosh sound and then a long scraping  noise and muffled voices, a shriek of pleasure. I peeked out the window over my dresser. There were kids sledding down a swell of snowy earth near one end of our cottage. They were flattening and displacing snow from yard to sidewalk and street as their blue saucers and orange toboggans rushed perilously past occasional cars inching along, their horns honking. One kid was throwing snowballs with murderous zeal at someone just out of sight. They looked to be about ten or eleven.

Downstairs I grabbed my jacket and gloves. “Going to see what some kids are up to,” I tossed at Shelia and she followed me to the door to take a look.

“Up to no good, likely,” she said. “Trespassers.”

I came upon them from behind the evergreens.

“Boys! Stop all this!”

They were in the thick of a snowball fight and ignored me or didn’t register I was yelling at them.

I strode up closer. “Stop this now, kids, you’re trespassing on private property!”

Then one ceased fire and looked around as if to ask where did I mean.

“This belongs to a well known family, as you must surely know,” I half-bellowed, “and they wouldn’t like to hear about such disrespect!”

A fast snowball was stopped by my not inconsiderable chest. I took another step forward.

One of the boys, not biggest but bravest, stepped up as the other two stepped back. “Can I ask who you might be, mister? Not one of our neighbors. Are you supposed to be here…?”

He talked bigger than he felt, I could tell. I relaxed my stance.

“Well, I’m Garrett, the current caretaker of the estate here,” I gestured behind me. “And who are you three?”

They then sloppily lined up, called out their names.

“I’m Chuck Dyson, Mr. Garrett.”

I nodded at them after deciding to not correct the use of my first name as my last.

“Terry here, sir. Hartner.”

“Matt Engels, I live across the street.” The bravest had spoken and pointed at a large grey house. “We all do, we know the owners, sorta. Terry lives down the street that way.” He swiped his runny nose with the back of his snow-encrusted mitten and pushed his dark hair from bright eyes. “We thought nobody was home. They go off for a long time. This part isn’t fenced off so sometimes we like to sled and stuff if they’re gone. No harm, right?”

“Well, we saw lights there a few times–at the guesthouse,” Chuck said. “We thought it might be last visitors, is all.”

“And that makes it okay for you boys to potentially wreck their yard? Make a bunch of noise? We live here now and for a long while.”

Terry, the one with the freckled face, finally spoke up. “Well, no, sir, wouldn’t want to cause any problems. We’re just having fun. No school the last three days!”

I started to laugh despite myself. The boys slapped and pushed at each other, slipping and sliding in the slick snow.

“Well, I see, alright, then. Next time come to the cottage door and ask my wife and me first. We might be sleeping . But I just don’t want the yard to get damaged. It’s my job now. Maybe enough for one day, okay guys?”

“Yes sir,” Terry said, smiling a gap-toothed grin, “we’ll check next time.”

“Thanks, Mr. Garrett!” Chuck punched the air with fisted mitten and headed off, sled under arm.

But Matt stood there and considered a moment. “I guess you’re not too into sledding, anymore?”

“I don’t really know, Matt, haven’t done it in many years.”

“Well, want to now?”

Matt Engels’ eyes were vivid with high jinks and just life, and blue as the icicles melting against a winter bright sky. And I thought for a moment that my own son’s eyes might have been that blue if he’d kept growing, if he had gotten to be born. Like Shelia’s, a fine silvery blue like a summer’s high alpine lake that ran deep and clear. If he’d stayed alive and blinked at us. And the man I was and wanted to be stood there weakened by the thought, assailed by sensations I couldn’t name, when Matt determined he had an assent from the old guy and thrust the saucer at me. I took it with a nod, sat down and pushed off, went flying down the small hill and across the sidewalk, over the curb, into the street where no cars were coming. Just three boys witnessed a grown man brought to a sudden halt on the other side by a snow laden bush. Then I sprawled face down into a drift. Mouth was full of the freezing sweet stuff, laughing so hard my sides hurt and eyes watered. Maybe I was verging on hysteria but it felt so good.

“Sir, you alright?” Terry called out as he ran back to him. “That was a good one.”

Chuck and Matt were close behind, tried to help him to his feet.

“I’m fine,” I said as I caught his breath, righted myself. ” Come on, let’s go again!”

We all jumped on the sleds and headed down. Time evaporated, I felt an easing away from pain, the sun spilling over my face and almost rendering me young again.

******

Sheila watched. She was not far from the hilly spot and felt herself  pulled closer. She snugged up her wool jacket to her too-bony frame. Saw her husband playing , saw him chatting and carrying on with three boys. Boys like she wanted. Saw him leave behind devastation for a few moments as he whooped and hollered all the way down the  rise of land, their new back yard. She yearned for him. She felt him in her bones much like she had felt the baby, with her whole being, in her spirit and her blood. She longed for him, her good husband, her dearest friend. So she walked between the towering, attentive trees and stood above him when he returned with the bouncing sled. She jostled his elbow. His thoughtful eyes and chapped lips softened as if she’d kissed him.

“Take me with you, Cap,” she said, lower lip caught between front teeth.

Garrett set her safe between bent knees on the small toboggan and they bumped and sailed down without once dumping as the boys let loose a cheer.

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Breaking the Night

Moon Over Columbia River

It was that hulking bridge, the one I had crossed over innumerable times, one more major structure that arced from east to west, from my side of the land mass to the other where the city center is at work long hours, beckons and dazzles, then makes night turn over and into itself like a magic jacket that’s never worn out. It must sometime lay itself down to rest, surely. But there are many people who do not, at least not for long. Or they may. Forever.

That particular December night it was sometime in very early morning and though city lights glowed here and there, it must been more darkness than light, the sky hiding its mysteries. The bridge must have felt more real than all else for a few moments. Rain abundant and chilled, starry maps obscured, the inky depths of the behemoth river a bitter cold yet a living thing and moving fast.

No one else was there–or near enough to notice. Just one man.

On the way home from work I got the call from my sister. I knew it had at last happened after many failed tries. I sobbed in the traffic and hit the steering wheel. There was nothing left between me– all of us–and the slash of truth.

He was here. Then gone.

It took me a year to even dare cross that bridge again. I was forbidden by fear and pain. And when I finally did, I screamed. I was in the car with two grown daughters in the back seat and as we crossed over my scream spiraled up, out, away. Screamed and drove too fast, yelling I’m sorry I’m sorry! I’m so sorry but I can feel him jumping!

I did not drive over it again for another year. I still do not if there is another way. I know I will always see that sign, the one that boldly, often too late lists an emergency number for suicidal persons who have scaled that highest of our many city bridges.

I’ve never written of it for the same reason I screamed: no words can define that kind of wretched void. But it has been ten years since my nephew committed suicide and now I can say it, how his leaving yet draws sorrow to my chest, mind, spirit.

His mental illness was not something most wanted to think of often if we were honest. It was difficult to witness. The depression was dragged about like it was another despised and invisible body, and sporadic bursts of mania obscured his thinking, hounded his rest. It was breathtakingly hard; we, too, hurt–for him, for our family. There were good times when we felt relief and cheered him on. The bad ones came more often; I didn’t know what to say except I was his aunt and there for him. He’d had therapy for a couple of decades. There were many hospital stays; medications tried, tossed and revisited. He sought relief, a modicum of more normal life while on a merry-go-round of places, people, addictions, jobs.

Those of us who could shared our homes with him for periods of time. I picked him up from the psychiatric ward after he had attempted suicide again. He stayed in an extra room in the house for awhile. I was determined to get him to as many twelve step meetings as I could; he wanted to stay sober and clean again. He was safer with my sobriety as a guard against temptations. But it was a partial help at best. By then I was a counselor but felt my help small. I just cared; encouraged and aided him in practical ways. We talked. I listened, gave him food, drove him places, acknowledged his struggles. Then he got his own place again, then found a new love, was feeling much better.

There were many times he felt better. But not well enough for long enough.

He loved music of many sorts and hung out with his father, admired his being a jazz musician. His graceful, strong mother was his bulwark. He was a natural athlete like other family members, a daredevil since childhood. Movies were fascinating to him; he had an avid interest in classics, independent film and new offerings. His conversations revealed a probing intelligence that could be hidden beneath the facade of watchful onlooker. Pensive but changed with a generous smile, showing us more to offer.

I knew him only a few years, really, as he grew up far from cities I lived for decades with  husband and children. When I moved to the Northwest, he was often not present at family gatherings or only for a brief stopover. When he was more hopeful if never optimistic, and the lashings of anxiety subsided enough that he gleaned bits of peace and joy–then he met us face-to-face. The exchanges were easier, with laughter an infusion of life-giving energy. For him, for us. It was understood challenges persisted and when it was roughest, he kept to himself. We were updated by his parents and sister but the truth is, his life was deeply lived and fought for, rescued and shaped primarily beyond my own tentative grasp. Beyond all our reaching, perhaps.

But I did know him a little, I mean that I got to share ranging conversations, walk a ways with him, sit with him at AA meetings and hang out at relatives’ with him, share a meal and a smoke. I have recurring memories of the two of us standing in yards, on sidewalks or porches, smoking and talking, silence measuring our speech. This may seem minor. It is not. It was much of our time together. But mostly I had him only those last 13 years. We hugged each other close many times in that span. And I felt his suffering as it tattooed a deep calligraphy on his being, was hoisted onto his shoulders, cupped in his capable hands like a torn creature mended then torn once more and rendered into what only what he knew.

It was so little time to love a nephew, a whole person made of cares, of passionate insights and talents, nightmares waking to stony bleakness. Of rich vision and stymied efforts.

And then he stepped into the air, breaking night into falling shards, vanishing into the cold and so much farther yet.

It stops my breath to write this even now. I grieve his going, still. There is no blaming or rage to this. No more even smallest of self-recriminations. He left because it was what he finally could do. I understand nothing more.

Today is the date. I thought it was two days ago but as I wrote I  re-checked the calendar and no, it’s been ten years ago now. Tears haunt me. We do not know what we know until thrust into confoundment such as this and then know less. But it transforms those remaining behind, strikes us dumb. Takes remnants of pain and that becomes a whispering thing that speaks all the more.

Reid, you do yet move me. I feel your spirit this quiet night. My brother’s eyes are reflective of yours and his music echoes both living and dying; your sister’s and your mother’s hearts carry your being like a pulsing jewel. I burn three candles for you in the gentle warmth of my home. My nephew, they glow long and well for you.

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People die of suicide more than we can believe. It may be that for some the holidays play a part, or maybe not. Life is breakable, it can be terrifying and it is not for us to fully know what anyone’s path will bring, even our own. So I am asking of you as you go your own way: step into the power of your empathy. When you see someone distraught and fearful, floundering alone, when you hear their cries and feel the leaden weight of their despair, find mercy; be kind. Hold out a hand in some way, even knowing it may not be quite enough. For one moment, it might. We owe this much to other humans; we owe it to ourselves.