Wednesday Words/Fiction: The Messy Heart of the Matter

It wasn’t like they were meeting royalty. Teddy told Lola to stop fussing in front of the bathroom mirror and “let’s get on with it, you’re clean and combed” and he was barely 9 years old, too smart for his own good. He had little patience with his sister’s (15 years old last week) rituals and wished fervently for a brother before another year passed. Fat chance, the odds seemed against it. If anyone else got born, it’d more likely be a she; there were more girls than guys in their line up.

Mother got as done up as she’d ever get and was waiting downstairs. Dad was likely checking his bristly mustache a last time in the round flower etched mirror, standing too close to their mom. Lola could hear her from the bathroom: “Hands to self, now, Art”, when likely all he did was put arms around her for a quick squeeze. Lola once thought she and Teddy must have been adopted; Mother was not the cushy sweetie type. She was a supervisor at a huge shoe factory. Dad was a freelance cartoonist for various periodicals and a singing waiter on week-ends at Cutter’s Steak and Seafood. What did they expect when they met? Everything was a joke waiting to happen for Dad; she obviously went along with it for the long haul.

“She’s going to give me the ole one-two boot one of these days, kids,” he’d say with a mock sad face. “Those big ugly ones right out of Brown’s Shoe factory.” He nudged them toward a hardee har har and they’d exit the room.

Luckily, his cartoons were much better–few words, great drawings. Mother admired him for his talents, as he did hers. And he was a good father.

Lola pressed down her springy waves and surmised her reflection. Her best navy sweater and the ugly gray polyester ankle pants and flats that pinched her left big toe–for what?

This day came about because Dad had been claimed and called upon by Madeleine Taylor Froheimer, apparently his lost great-aunt. There had been stories abut her, how she’d run away from home at 17 to marry some bigwig she’d met at the cafe where she’d worked. It was a scandal; the guy was 28, already a successful businessman. They married, to everyone’s surprise, and moved to Chicago, which was a long away away from Missouri in everyone’s small minds. Madeleine did not keep in touch after she was disowned. She lived one life and the rest of the family lived another–everyone was poor to improving yearly to modestly secure. (Lola guessed they fit in the last category though they still rented–a nice enough–duplex on Gorman Street.)

Three years ago Madeleine’s husband died, likely due to complicated, long nights and rich dinners out and the stress of being so important. Then she came back to the hometown to see if anyone was still around and maybe considered her family. Not many were around, and those that were, were unimpressed now, or plain put off–did she offer them money all those years they were sweating the bills, did she send them holiday goodies or fruit baskets when in the hospital? No. Did they care if she was home again? Please.

But she located Art Taylor, her great nephew. Or, rather, she was in line behind him at the old corner pharmacy, a nostalgic gesture since she didn’t live in that area, anymore. When his name was called, she fluttered inside and out with astonishment, relief and a surge of nerves. Arthur Taylor. Her brother’s son’s son….was that right?…Yes. Her brother who stopped speaking to her, so disgusted was he that she eloped with an older man, a total stranger. She’d heard he got a job in Fort Worth and was nearing retirement. Not much chance of seeing him in Missouri or elsewhere.

But Arthur, maybe.

She tugged at his sleeve gently. He half-turned, a quizzical look on his craggy face.

She ventured forth, sonorous voice floating to him. “Arthur Taylor…that was my great nephew’s name…!”

A few customers looked her over well, then him. She wore a dark fur of some sort, nylons, a deep pink dress, black heels. He smiled, stood taller, then held up a finger. Frowning slightly–was she for real?– he got his medicine. Heart stuff, she recognized it, the Taylor family curse. She was next in line–antacid pills– so he took a seat in a plastic chair along the wall. Looked up at her dumbfounded. 

As they walked down an aisle together, she updated him. briefly.

“Well, I already heard,” he said amiably, mustache twitching in agreement. “Sorry for your loss. Mom mentioned it.”

“Did she snarl about it? Or refuse to say my name?”

He laughed. She had, in fact, snarled about it. She wasn’t interested in meeting “low-down, snooty Maddie”–but, then, his mom wasn’t interested in much but crocheting, eating, and gossiping about her senior housing cohorts. He wasn’t close to her. But Art was excited to meet up with this great aunt. His whole family then was invited to her condo on the river the following week-end. “Like a pre-holiday ice-breaker,” she had said which he didn’t get, but why not go?

“Oh, I was going to ask about your father, my nephew… he’s still around, I presume–how can I reach him?” she inquired as they parted.

“He’s about three hours from here now. Good luck, he’s been drinking lately.”

She softly grunted; it was clearly not news.

The next Saturday afternoon Lola, and her brother and parents spruced up and piled into the van just as a cold rain was dumped. Art knew Alison, his wife, was agreeing to go out of respect for family ties; she wasn’t a social person, really. Teddy and Lila were more than curious. Great-Aunt Maddie was almost famous in the family. And rich, maybe.

The condo was a contemporary behemoth that seemed more like a penthouse snug upside a few others overlooking the river, near the aging, status-soaked marina. Art recalled when several creaking houseboats and docks had been relocated and ostentatious condos were erected; there was public outcry but no matter, they were built. And here he was setting foot in them.

“Fifteen stories up and a rooftop garden,” Teddy whispered as they rode a partly glass elevator. “I read up on it. Only one other condo other side of the building up here. And she has the views! Might be a penthouse?”

Lola was also fully taken by them as they ascended. How far the gaze could penetrate the misty treeline and beyond. It made her feel like she was in a different country. She wondered if they could see to Illinois from the top. She wondered if she could take off her flats upon entry, and planned a decent selfie from the topmost floor. She shook off the rain before her dad rang the doorbell which sounded like deep chimes, a European church chiming, maybe.

“Welcome!”

Great-Aunt Maddie, elegant in a silky persimmon and lemon paisley caftan (Lola described it thus to her best friend) and her silver hair in a tidy chignon, opened the door immediately to shake everyone’s hand. Hers were surprisingly warm and strong. Her small feet wore gold slippers and she slid over the wood floors after taking their coats and hanging them on a brass coat stand. They were led to the long, open and bright living room. The rain did nothing to take away from the flooding of light. The ceilings went on forever. The rooms could hold hundreds, she imagined. Teddy elbowed her and they smiled.

Their dad had been stopped by the art work hanging in the grey ceramic tiled foyer, but caught up. He would rather just wander about looking at her art pieces than chat but sat himself beside Alison, his kids at either end. Teddy, though, required stern coaxing to peel himself from the west wall of windows.

“Sunsets must be incredible,” Teddy mumbled.

Maddie laughed. “They are! You must come back for a viewing if you are so inclined. Now tell me who you are and and something about yourselves. I have coffee brewing and will bring out cakes in a bit.”

The air smelled sumptuous Lola thought, and then, pleased with her pick of adjective, thought of waves of satin that smelled of coffee. It was that kind of air in there.

Who says if you are so inclined, Alison wondered as she smiled at her son’s observation. Who asks for personal information when you first meet?

“Well, you met me,” Art offered. “I do cartoons that help me make a pretty decent living. And I sing.”

“I’ve seen a few. Amusing and canny, and you’re very skilled at drawing!” She beamed at him. “I like to draw but only for myself. And you sing? What sort of singing?”

His family looked at him and back at Maddie. She had classical music turned low on stereo system.

“Popular music,” he said, “old big band standards, some lighter, more recent fare…well, eighties and nineties. I like some opera but am not good at even at pretending I can sing that. I tried it at home once and everyone banged on the bathroom door until I gave it up. My audience prefers the standards.”

“He sings at a restaurant, he’s a waiter on week-ends, and sings as he delivers orders,” Teddy offered, a hand gesturing dismissively. “A steak and seafood joint.”

“But it’s a nice place,” Alison said, throwing Teddy a warning look. “He has a good solid baritone, so they say. I know I like it.” She patted Art’s knee.

“I think that’s lovely–an artist and musician in the family. I’ll come hear you at–“

“Cutter’s, it’s called,” Lola said. “The songs get boring but no one asks him to stop, a good sign.”

Maddie gave up a light laugh. “And so–you are…?”

“Lola Lee Taylor, 15, tenth grade, and I like creating collages out of odds and ends and playing basketball. I can cook, I guess, if you like Italian food and certain cookies. And this is my brother.” She pointed at him and thought too late, never polite to point.

“Sounds promising. Fun. I do like Italian. And cookies.” Maddie leaned forward, hands clasped and in her lap. Her caftan rustled softly. Lola noticed that her earrings were gold, hung with tiny bells that swished and jingled.

“I can speak for myself. Teddy Taylor here.” He raised his hand as if being counted as present. “I think Theo sounds better–at least when I’m older. That’s short for Theodore. I am into bugs and chemical reactions. I prefer spring, summer and fall to winter because I’m all about being in the field.”

“He means literally,” Lola interjected. “He takes his insect collecting stuff out every spare hour and brings back exotic, odd stuff. Dissects bug wings and things. A bit strange, I guess, but generally alright for a little brother.” Was that an unsolicited defense of him? Lola blinked.

Art said proudly, “An aspiring scientist. And an athlete and collage artist. We have good kids.”

Alison was studying Maddie’s feet as slyly as possible. She’d secretly wished for gold shoes when she was a kid: utterly impractical, beautiful, just made for leisure or parties.

Maddie got up. “The coffee must be done. Water or pop or iced tea for you kids?”

“Sweet tea with ice, please,” Teddy answered.

“I’d love coffee with cream and sugar,” Lola said.

Her mother was about to deny her but her dad stopped that with a hand on her forearm and winked. Alison could not resist his winks.

“Can I help?” Alison said, but Lola got up first even though the answer from the kitchen around a corner was a negative.

It was all white, spotless, sparkling. Even cupboards, with brass pulls. Copper pans hung above the stove top. The deep counter tops were white with a golden flecks. Pendulous lights dangled from the high ceiling, shedding a warm glow–were there any other sorts of ceilings and light in this place? There was a skylight, even, and rain drummed on it, rhythmical and silvery and sheer.

Maddie held out an oval shiny tray of perfect, one-bite cakes, colorful in a muted way.

“Petit fours–do you know of them?” Maddie said.

“Only what I’ve seen in magazines. I always wondered how you made these!”

“Me, too!” She grinned. “These are from a bakery downtown. I don’t cook much or well. I might need lessons.”

“I’ll teach you…well, I could that is if you– I mean…” This woman probably had chefs come in, that’s why she didn’t now how to cook.

Maddie looked at her with a friendly, appraising gaze. “I bet you could. I just might take you up on that, Lola. Especially cookie baking–haven’t done that since I was a teenager. How I miss making cut-out sugar cookies for Christmas…I’ll get coffee cups filled, then you can come back to help me, okay?”

Lola did as told, came back and retrieved a black lacquered tray with three cups and a tall blue glass of iced tea. Maddie had the tray with cream and sugar and spoons. She set it down and they both served each person.

Alison watched all this with chin hanging. Since when did Lola offer to do anything much serve people? But it was good, it was polite and well done. She was impressed. But Maddie was a definitely too high brow for them. And Alison’s pantyhose were tight and itchy, her feet tired out by the heels.

After they’d sipped and enjoyed the rich tasty cakes, and oohed and aahed over more views, Maddie resumed the intros.

“Alison, could you share some of what you do or like? You have to be a patient, fun-loving person to be with Art–he is a bit, well arty, I gather?”

They got a kick out of that. Alison let out a long breath and jumped in.

“Not sure about being a fun person, but I supervise at Brown Shoe Company. Have been there eighteen years now. I hope to make manager soon; I like being a leader, working with a team.”

“That’s interesting, a long career there. What do you enjoy outside of work?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked over at her family members. “I like to read. Thrillers and mysteries. I like suspense movies. I try to take good care of my family.”

“You like to go on long bike rides, Mom, you have endurance,” Teddy said.

“You love gardening our little plot, too,” Art noted.

Lola thought about it a moment. “You make pretty Christmas ornaments–I know Dad helps with design–each year.” She smiled at her mother, then Maddie. “She started on some last week after Thanksgiving, the best yet.” And she realized it was true and that she loved seeing them on the tree.

Alison’s cheeks grew warm; she looked down with a smile.

Maddie sat across from them in her favorite velvet wing-back chair and felt something she hadn’t felt in awhile: delight. She liked these people. She liked them much more than she even dared hope.

“All admirable.” She put her coffee cup on a side lamp table. “My turn, right? You know I left home young, ran away with a business man who was over ten years my senior. I had an adventurous streak. My family and friends said I was wild but I wasn’t all that. I just needed something other than what they did. Marty and I shared an instant passion and I thought it was love, would have followed him anywhere. Chicago seemed far away and he had money, enough to show me a different life than the hard one I’d had with an alcoholic father and withdrawn mother. Martin Froheimer was a stern, very smart man who let me see his gentler, romantic side. We had quite the social life, lovely homes, traveled. But he was gone often on business. It got lonely, I can tell you. And as time went on he got more stern–ornery, to be honest, and then a bit mean…Anyway. That’s how things went.”

She paused to collect her thoughts, smoothed back lustrous hair, rested her thin hands on the arms of the chair and sank back. The family waited, surprised at her frankness. Alison looked away, a little embarrassed at Maddie’s self-disclosure but Art sat up, attuned to undercurrents of sadness. Pain not openly admitted before and there it was, popping out now.

“We talked of divorce, but decided to put it off for our daughter’s sake. Then he got sick. Pancreatic cancer. And he died shortly after.” She sat up again and stared out the wide windows, lifted her head. “That was two years ago. I needed a change. So here I am–for now, anyway. Lizzie, our daughter, lives in Amsterdam. We will see.”

“Wow,” Lola said. “That’s a lot. Maybe you can rest up here.”

Teddy squinted at the aging woman. “Yeah. Good you moved.”

“Well, Great-Aunt Maddie…I–“

“Please, just Maddie will be fine. I feel less aged than that.”

“Well, I sure am glad you ran into me. I wondered if maybe you’d like to come by our place for dinner soon.”

Alison shifted. “Or we could take you out.”

“I’d like that–dinner at your home. I was hoping we’d get on alright. And I feel that we really will. All this–“she opened her arms to indicate the finely appointed rooms–“is just this, but I’m only Maddie, you great-aunt, you’ll see.” Her amused smile warmed them.

They paused at that thought. She was different but, then, so were they.

“I think we should all go to the Christmas Village, it’s so pretty there, especially if it snows well enough to cover buildings and pathways, ” Lola said, cheered at the memory of years prior.

“She might not like the smelly animals and paths that get muddy,” Teddy muttered.

“Of course she will,” Art enthused. What was not to like about the corny, lovely Christmas Village?

Maddie felt the steamy heat of tears behind each eye threaten her composure and she blinked them away. They barely knew one another, even if it was off to a good start. She was certainly not going to ruin it with any bawling. “I’d love to go. Really. I can’t recall when I last tromped in the dirt and was around smelly animals. And a simulated village–it sounds wonderful.”

“The decorations and lighting are excellent,” Art said, encouraged.

“Festive is the word,” Teddy added as he got up to gaze at the soon-to-set sun. “A festival of Christmas!”

“We could make a day of it, have dinner after,” Lola said and went to stand by her brother, taking in the expansive view of the city and river.

Alison relaxed and gave a welcoming smile to her husband’s great-aunt. Now hers, she supposed. “Would you join us next week-end, then?”

Maddie nodded and rose. They got up and got their coats.

“Good to have you here, Maddie.” Art gave her a quick hug; she held on a moment longer, her thin arms strong about him.

On the way back down, seeing the lit up city landscape rolling, open and beautiful from their vantage point they fell silent. Teddy felt annoyed he hadn’t asked to see the rooftop garden but believed he would get to see it yet; he wondered over the insects that lived outside a luxurious condo. Lola imagined the gleaming kitchen steaming up from pasta and sausages bubbling away in savory sauce. But she didn’t get that selfie shot–yet. Alison thought how funny it was that a woman who manufactured sturdy, ordinary shoes knew someone who owned golden ones for such delicate feet–and that Maddie was likely a decent human being.

Art felt gratified that he knew the truth or at least more of it, and that he liked her a lot. It was mutual, too. They’d share this Christmas together–she wouldn’t have to be alone up there in the clouds. Then he started planning his next cartoon. It’d be about family ties. It’d be funny, of course, only more so. He might frame and give the original to her. He wouldn’t care if she put it in her bathroom or hung it outside among bushes on the rooftop–it wouldn’t be an investment like the expensive art. It was all the same to him, and a good inside joke; he’d be quite pleased that it was hung there for her.

 

Perils and Pleasures of This Kind Devotion

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Kayla’s life was upended when Great-Aunt Bertie fractured her second hip and stayed at the nursing home, then rehabilitation services. But that was nothing compared to the current state of matters. Fractures and rehab are manageable for stubborn old women, it turned out. After Bertie decided to move in with her often absent nephew an entire state away, Kayla felt adrift in two time zones, the past and present all at once. She could not find her bearings. She kept hearing Bertie call out for her and simultaneously had to answer a student whose voice bot more insistent.

“Why?” She had implored one more time the last week Bertie was there. “I only teach twice a week this term and we’ve always managed. We can get someone to come in when I’m not here if needed.”

Bertie sniffed, more due to great colonies of dust that refused to stop rebuilding in her home than the present topic. “Nelson has a sprawling but one-story house, as we’ve discussed, Kayla. My house is an impediment for me at this time. I ought to sell but I don’t always do what my financial adviser advises. A few months, a year at most with Nelson and I’ll be back. Likely.”

“You’re not the least convincing. It sounds as if you’re absconding and worse, maybe giving up.”

Bertie stomped her cane hard on the worn pine floorboards.

“Have you ever known me to give up a fight? You’re a fine one to make such pronouncements, taking care of me for five years now when it was supposed to be one or two at most. The left hip was almost nothing, this one a trial. But even a medium heart attack did not take me down long and when you willingly arrived, there was plenty to do as well as the completion of your degree. You stayed after your Bachelors, then got your Masters, good for you. And then remained well after I needed you, I might add. But we both know it was an auspicious arrangement.” She eased forward in her seat just a little and winced, masking discomfort with another impatient thunk with her cane’s rubberized tip.

“Yes, a perfect arrangement until now.” Kayla’s voice caught in her throat and a lightly freckled hand went to her chest, then fingered bronze-colored beads she had worn to work over an old ivory cotton sweater.

Her hands always did something, wound and unwound a strand of hair, drummed lightly on any hard surface, twiddled a pen or pencil. The rest of her was just as still as a watchful cat whose tail nonetheless twitched. But for her there was an underlying anxiety never quite quelled. Others said that, although she was reserved and to herself, she was in quiet command of students, at meetings, under pressure.  She often seemed much older than twenty-seven. They also entertained an alternative judgment: rather cold. Kayla sensed rather than heard what they said at Crane Community College as she elbowed her way around student hoards and faculty groups chattering away, making her way out and back home.

Bertie’s home, of course. Which her Great-Aunt was now abandoning. And her.

Bertie had more she might say to her Great-Niece but she knew better than to utter a tiresome homily–at any time. She was not a giver of wisdom, a corrector of wrongs, a font of inspiration. That didn’t mean she didn’t know a few worthwhile things.

Kayla had remained sheltered a bit too long, that’s what Bertie had surmised. The girl had now hidden long enough in Bertie’s comfortable home. So much education to acquire, such a varied amount of duties and care needed for the Great-Aunt and who else would do the job she did impeccably, with longstanding love? All that was true. But who cared for whom in the end? Bertie, a long retired mathematician, had been a widow for twenty-odd years before Kayla had come to live there. She’d been a boon, aided in more speedy healing of this or that health matter. But Kayla rarely if ever went out with a co-worker or  anyone else, did not attend concerts or see a movie or go on even a short day trip by herself.  They took long, dawdling drives like two  tired oldsters. When she got the college position to teach sociology, she worked and came right home. Cared for that big groaning house and Bertie, a mere (but sturdy) twig in comparison yet also admittedly creakier than desired.

Bertie, at least, had begun to yearn for a change of scenery as well as another floor plan. Enough was enough. She was entertained by the company of her mildly flamboyant nephew and his artsy wife. There weren’t such stairs there to take her down. They’d be glad to have her since they’d become the antsy retired, already weary of so-called fun travels to exotic places.

Bertie was definitely leaving, then finally gone. Who knew what the future brought? Kayla could stay as long as she liked, the bills would be dealt with, but she’d be fending for herself.

That young woman was never going to see life’s shining and confounding facets without getting out there and discovering them.

******

The first week was so terrifying Kayla thought she’d have to call in sick, but staying alone there for more than a day would only make things worse. She was used to getting up and making them a tasty breakfast, sometimes taking a tray to Bertie’s room, or setting the dining room table with a third-best, flower-strewn tablecloth. It started the day off so well. Now it started with a halt and a slump.

And then she had errands or class, then was back for lunch to check on Bertie who might be dozing over a book by a living room window or out in the garden yanking at various green or brown stems with great enthusiasm, despite weakened hips. One thing came after another, everything orderly, reliable. At night they would sit by the fireplace and read classics, poetry and sociological studies (Kayla) or natural sciences and history (Bertie) or watch a public television series.  Occasionally a movie they could agree on. Bertie would crochet badly but happily. She always said the same thing at end of day; “Sleep well, the sun rises too soon for young and old alike.”

Kayla should be exalting in this new freedom, nonetheless. Let loose of an old lady who could be cantankerous if in pain, even just slowed down, more opinionated than Kayla ever thought to be or lost in her own interesting thoughts. But Kayla forced herself out of bed and got dressed, made an ordinary if semi-palatable breakfast and went to her work and faked it the best she could.

It was true, her adult life had been Bertie, college and then teaching and that was it. It hadn’t been her intention but the longer she stayed, the better it felt and her Great-Aunt had been amenable. It puzzled and hurt her that her elder had determined to stay with the long missing Nelson. But it must make sense at age eighty-three.

People at work did ask her who she was dating or what were her plans, and she smiled enigmatically (she hoped), changed topic or said something obscure and acceptable. So when it appeared she was not in such a rush to leave her desk at end of her day two weeks in a row, she got a few looks. She had no intention to no become chatty, though Tom Heinz cast a sharp eye her way, mouth opening then shutting as he hurried on.

“So what do you have going on that you’re here late again? You and Bertie on the outs or what?” Wanda asked as she paused between coffee runs. She drank more coffee than was advisable despite living “clean”, as she put it, both utter mysteries to Kayla.

“No, just have things to catch up on, all the grading we have to get done.”

“The bane of teachers! But you usually get right out and come in early, if needed.” Wanda gulped a draft of rancid coffee from her stained mug, frimaced. “She’s okay, isn’t she? I meant, she’s all mended, right?”

“Of course! She’s just visiting for a few months, a nephew, that’s all.” It just slipped right out, such personal information! But she smiled, a no-teeth exposed sort of smile.

“Ah, I see,” Wanda said and smiled back. “Left you to your own devices, did she?” Then she wandered back to her desk humming, sipping from her bargain store mug.

Kayla shook her head–what a character she was  while also aggressively smart–and wondered what the woman could possibly know about her life. Yet it struck a chord. Wanda could be strident, quick to make inferences and blunt. They went back to work. Later, Wanda sidled by and a hand grazed Kayla’s shoulder which startled her so that she swiveled in her chair and stared at the woman in muted horror.

Wanda pulled her hand back, crossed her arms before her chest then asked, “Want to go for a drink sometime or dinner?”

“I can’t possibly, you know that, I have to get back to Bert–oh, well…” She looked up at Wanda, whose right eyebrow was raised in a starkly drawn arch. “No thanks, not tonight.” Not any night, Kayla thought as she went back to work.

On the way home she noticed streetlights were already on. Autumn had arrived in all its burning glory and faded now, and soon would come winter’s onslaught. She pictured a fire flaring and crackling in the massive fireplace, how comforting it would be again, and then sadness rose up on the crest of a ghastly wave. She had to pull over and let tears fall, but only a moment. Bertie was only visiting, she’d get tired of their fun and games soon and be back. Wouldn’t she?

She drove home and parked in the driveway. How monstrous that house was, how excessive a home for even two or three or more! How could this have escaped her so long? The many dark windows closed her out with their blank stares. She must leave on a few lights each day. She must get take-out food tomorrow. She must get a dog. No–dogs were forbidden in Bertie’s house if not professionally obedience-trained or left unattended for longer than ten minutes.

Kayla started to shake though it wasn’t yet unbearably cold. She was shaking in her heavy grey socks and worn black leather boots because her life felt like quicksand so many moments without Bertie.

And no one was there to save her. No one. Only herself. And she was trying and it was not quite enough.

******

The third time Wanda asked her out to dinner, Kayla agreed because she was so sick of eating take-out Thai and frozen chicken tenders. She just didn’t feel like making a tasty meal. But she might like eating at a restaurant. She might not fully like Wanda, but it was better than no one sitting across from you day after day, night after night.

It was a contemporary eatery where hip younger adults went to dine and drink. It had a generous vegetarian menu which Wanda liked, and meat enough for Kayla to order something. After they did so, Kayla looked around at the boisterous crowd. Most were drinking as they ate, something that seemed unnecessary. Wanda had ordered a beer and one for Kayla although she said she wasn’t much of a drinker. But this label was excellent, Wanda said, why not try it?

Maybe it would quiet the quaking in her diaphragm, Kayla thought as she watched Wanda’s burgundy red lips move rapidly. Her ears were on overload already. Why did people like this environment? What discourse could happen in such a place? It made her think of earliest college days, when too many crammed in a booth. The purpose had been less about conversation and good food and more about filling up residual emptiness, hunting for a potential partner, erasing the bad day or night before. She got that though she denied it even as she saw it.

Wanda waved a hand before her face. “Yoo hoo! You here or not? When was the last time you ate out and where did you go?”

“Oh, we never ate out. Maybe on a Sunday if we didn’t feel like cooking, but that was unusual. Let me think. Embers–for steaks, I think.” She took a sip of beer and swallowed without wincing.

Wanda grabbed her own beer. “That old staid place! It’s high time you discovered the great foodie scene here.” She held up her bottle, waited for Kayla to clink hers, then sat back. “I’ve wondered about you a long time, you know that? You’re the mystery person in our department. Everyone has a theory about you; no one knows anything. I tell them you have great depth but choose to keep it hidden.”

Kayla took a fast sip. This was not going to be about personal revelations or she was leaving. “Is that right? What makes you think so? Never trust your first impressions.” Turn it back on her and lead her astray, that was it.

“Your classes, for one thing. You must manage to make Intro to Sociology fascinating–your classes always fill up fast. And your other one–what is it?–has a waiting list this term.”

“Societal Impact on Women’s Life Goals.”

“Right, that one, sounds good. Tom said he stood at your door one time, opened it just a tad and listened to much of your lecture. He was surprised by how you interact with the students, and they, you–so easily. Impressive, he said. And seems like he’s always looking your way now.”

Kayla bristled. “I hadn’t noticed. Anyone can pop in if they just ask me. I love sociology and found I have a knack for teaching despite initial misgivings about doing it for a career.”

“What misgivings?” She leaned chin on hand, streaky blond hair swinging about her face.

“I thought I’d do research…I guess I still can.” She felt a sweep of heat up her face and then agitation came zooming back, so took a big bite of food. She’d not said even this much to a colleague before. It wasn’t their business, how she felt, what she desired, other than how it might impact department goals. It had to be the beer and convivial atmosphere. She  felt disoriented all of a sudden, needed to finish her turkey and bacon burger and leave.

“I know what you mean. We get derailed sometimes. Like me. I started in this direction later than most as my husband was ill a long time. I never got past this job so now am wondering what to aim for again or if I should just stay on…”

Kayla felt herself recoil. Boundaries, weren’t they important, anymore? But she agreed they both had experience with sickness and care taking. “I sure hope he’s better. You’ve never acted worried, just self-assured. You have a lot of great ideas and energy.”

“Yeah, I do make my presence known. ” She looked at Kayla, eyes gleaming. “He died a year before you arrived–was it really two years ago? Married four years, though.” She took a long swig.

“I am sorry, Wanda. Truly”

The burger suddenly felt like too much but she ate it, anyway. How did they get to this intimate stuff already? She never would have thought someone like Wanda had had such a terrible loss. She drummed her fingers on a thigh, sipped, surreptitiously checked her watch. So much emotion in one night.

“Thanks, it’s okay, things have a way of changing again. I’m dating a little, not from the college though. You?”

“No, not in a long time. I like being on my own. That is, I used to hang out with Bertie, spend time with a couple of her friends, all such smart ladies and gentlemen. And often have been alone. It’s okay that way for me, I am a solitary creature despite my interest in groups of social beings and their behaviors.”

“Naw, can’t be that okay.” Wanda dug into her salad. “I don’t imagine that much time alone with a very elderly lady is so good for you– you really think so?”

Kayla released a long sigh. She felt warm inside and out, no longer too empty or too full; the crowd seemed more settled, their voices a drone of contentment. It was alright being there. More than decent.

“Maybe not. I grew up in a small family, then went to college, and when Bertie asked if we could work out an arrangement I thought for two seconds and agreed. Really, she helped me. Gave me free room and board to just keep an eye on her and house matters. And she is not dull companion, believe me. It was a perfect solution for us both. Or maybe still is.”

Wanda chewed her kale, radicchio, avocado and tomatoes, looked thoughtful but waited.

“I miss her, more than I expected. She was more involved with my life than I knew. Or vice versa.”

“Well, you love her. I get it. She loves you. That’s the whole thing. Or it might be, ultimately. Worth thinking over and debating, anyway.” She shrugged luxuriously and sat back, satisfied.

Kayla leaned into the table, hands expressing her thoughts as she spoke. “But also, maybe I’m just lazy or don’t know what to do outside of work, work, work. Or my rotten anxiety curtails a life that works well and seamlessly like most seem to do. Like yours despite your challenges.”

“I seriously doubt that, all of it. You have what it takes, you just got too comfortable. You know how common it has been to do what you’ve done, right? For centuries women have taken care of others, of their elders. Not a bad thing, no. But there is more for us than that, right? And I was where you are, in a way, with my cancer-ridden husband…life just upends us and we have to redirect ourselves, figure out each next step.” She laughed as if it was some sort of epiphany. “Kayla, life never gets easier, it just gets more familiar, you know? You’ve had a door pushed open. So now what?”

Kayla narrowed her eyes at this woman with the too blonde hair and dark eyebrows, with her pronouncements, suppositions. And she felt such a wave of relief she was afraid she could faint, but sat up straighter.

“Walk through it…and maybe that’s what Bertie was offering me. Not just changing up her care plans. She was so ahead of her time, after all, a respected mathematician for forty-eight years. She knows how to be alone and how to not be alone.”

“Exactly. So make the most of this, I say! Get out more to art and history museums, films, restaurants, author readings, take a trip, go on a mountain hike! Let others become a friend, Kayla. And so you know, I can go hot and cold, I’m not all that together. But for sure you will not sink. If you think you might, give me a holler, we’ll go out for a beer and burger. Well, veggies for me.”

She winked at Kayla, which sure seemed presumptuous, as if declaring an actual possible friendship. But it was pleasant, too, Kayla thought as they paid their bill. She found herself laughing as they forged a path through sidewalk throngs to find her car window. It displayed her first parking ticket. The time had passed so quickly.

******

The house seemed to be glowing when she got home. For a minute she thought Bertie had come back without advance notice and she hurriedly put the car in the garage. But, no, the house stood empty, she could feel it’s expansive, worn elegance wanting company even as she walked toward the door. She had left a few lamps on so windows were radiant with amber light. Kayla turned the lock with her key, walked in, thought how lovely it would be to light a fire and read a few sonnets. How she might possibly swing a simple dinner for two or three colleagues around upcoming holidays.

Mae Lynn’s First and Last Drive-In Movie

Photo by Stephen Shore

The Sunset Drive-In looked harmless enough but worn out at best. Verging more on ugly, some thought. It’d been there so long, and in nineteen ninety-eight there was talk of tearing it down, building cookie-cutter townhouses or duplexes. But Mae Lynn would be the first to take a bulldozer or even an ax to it. Most citizens of Beauford had gotten used to it over the last thirty years, hardly giving it a second glance as they sped down Raymond Road toward Route 31. One movie a week played now from June through August. It wasn’t worth keeping open for that but once it was a huge draw for miles around, the only place to go on week-ends. Now, twenty miles away, there was a four theater movie complex in a much bigger town.

The Sunset was a matter of serious discussion when it first went up, many against it but just as many for it. Mae Lynn Jarrett remembered its beginnings very well. She operated the Tank and Tobacco Stop just a quarter-mile from its entrance. When it was approved, the kids and their parents would stock up on plenty of cheaper pop and snacks and sneak it into the drive-in until Mae Lynn got wise and raised her  prices. But for the most part she was against it’s very existence.

“See that movie screen over there? It was doomed from the start, if you ask me.”

She pointed to the Sunset as if accusing a criminal and shook her head with creased lips pressed hard together. There was a For Sale sign at the entrance the last two weeks.

Strangers as well as Beauford residents stopped for gas and a pop or beer. Their gazes followed her costume-bejeweled index finger as the guzzled from sweaty bottles. They were willing to listen while benefiting from an industrial-sized fan. This afternoon two women and one man said they were coming from Nashville, on their way to California. They didn’t much like Missouri so far but Mae Lynn was a hoot.

“Old Man Harrison did that. He’d argue he’d none of it but the fact it, it was his land, and then it wasn’t so he must’ve agreed. His family had held that land for three generations but he said it wasn’t no good after the Four Year Drought. He never did try to plant corn on that piece again; the other acreage was kept in hope of better grazing acreage. It gets rented out now. But he was just getting worn out with it all, like lots of folks out here. So when the land development company–land crooks, we call ’em–offered Old Man Harrison a good bit for just ten acres–he bit good and hard. Never did tell a soul how much. Up and left for Florida.” She planted her hands on skinny hips. “Huh!” She laughed like she had a cough. “We ain’t seen or heard from him since. ” She rubbed her scarf-covered head. “Set for awhile, I guess.”

She paused to help another customer, a local who hurried out again, shaking his head in pity at the captive listeners. They winked at each other–best to just humor the lady.

“Anyway, there was this ugly cracker-box subdivision getting set up out here. So Old Man Harrison’s land was gonna have a strip mall, you know, a couple of good clothes stores for the ladies, a family shoe shop, a small restaurant with overpriced Italian food. Maybe a pharmacy, that woulda been good out here–first aid supplies, all the medicines, a quick birthday purchase of perfume, a rack with sports and news magazines. But no, they had a change of mind at the last minute. Just put in that thing, sold off the rest again and it stands empty. Don’t get it.”

She shook her finger at it, then her whole hand balled up. Mae Lynn caught herself just as a splotchy red crept across her cheeks. She released her fistful of anger to the air; the red receded.

“Plays good movies, though, I hope?” the short-haired blond asked, eyes blue as cornflowers smiling at the store clerk. The younger woman’s dress was about as tight as you could make it and still get into it. It was a soft mint green color, good with her coloration. Her older companion–a sister?– wore coral pants and a blousy white top.

Mae Lynn had from the start thought this gal looked as if she ought to be a model at least or even the film racket herself, and the very idea made her cross. She didn’t show it; her business didn’t thrive on bad manners. No, she smiled right back. They were passing through.

“Wouldn’t know. I don’t see them. When they first opened up I joined the herd to find out what all the fuss was. Uncomfortable as all get-out sitting in the cab of our truck next to my Joe and Howie. Having to adjust the speakers just right. Noticing other people doing things in the next cars that you don’t want to see. Howie, my boy, he always wanted a huge drink or more popcorn and it got spilled over the seat–it’d take days to find all the squashed kernels and wipe down sticky soda pop. Joe would fall asleep, anyway.”

She paused long enough to ring up another gas customer, Tate from the feed store with his delivery truck. She’d  have liked to catch up with him but the three strangers were waiting. She bet the two gals were sisters, they shared that papery skin and those large eyes. The man might be their brother, older, none of their charm. He seemed at odds with himself, big and sort of floppy, like he hadn’t yet grown into himself, couldn’t hide it for all he tried with a nice shirt and pants. They were just curious. Looked okay, polite enough, a little rich for her blood but she wondered who they were, what they were off to California for, anyway.

So many still wanted to go as far west as possible, it seemed. It was discouraging. Not her. Mae Lynn had no desire to leave her store or town. She had never even left Missouri, a fact she emphasized when those passing through inquired.

“You been here long?” the big man asked as he eyed chips and beef jerky. The second woman put her hand through the crook of his arm, then closed her eyes while the fan’s wind rushed over her neck and back. Her hair–light but not white-blond like her sister’s–was in a pony tail that flipped up and around in the draft.

“Yes sir, born and raised in Beauford. A decent small town, top-notch farming land. Own the business with my husband, Joe. He’s in a wheelchair now. Got through the Viet Nam war, then got himself a stroke, go figure.”

“Sorry to hear it,” the man said and she nearly believed him. “Well, I never heard what the first movie was that you saw. I’m a movie buff, you might say, so I’m curious.”

Mae Lynn thought a minute; she’d no desire to recall it. But she’d humor him a nit more. “I tend to forget things that don’t deserve a second thought.”

“How long ago was that?” the man prompted. “Nineteen sixty? Nineteen sixty-five?”

“Sixty-nine, maybe?… It was one of those action features…Joe and Howie liked it….the guy was driving a fast car…oh, he was one homely man, hardly moved his face…”

“Steve McQueen? In Bullitt?”

She closed one eye and looked into the distance, trying to pull the movie it from the past. “That’s it, I think. Fancy, fast cars, Ford–”

“Mustang 390 GT! Charger 440 Magnum!” The first woman had spoken up; her perfectly manicured hand pumped the air hard once. “Yeah!”

The big man looked at her fondly while the sister rolled her eyes.

The trio was driving a spanking new Dodge Charger, an alarming red, so they should know. Mae Lynn also knew something about cars, though Joe was the professional mechanic. Or was. Howie had long ago learned the trade and always had more work than he could manage alone. They’d have to hire someone else soon unless Joe miraculously stood up and jumped right into all the work. Not likely after all this time. She winced at her attitude. Howie was a blessing to them even more in middle-age now.

“I’m Delilah Miner, by the way,” the Mustang enthusiast held out her hand, “and this is Marietta, my older sister, and my fiancé, Sam Harking. This has been very interesting”–she looked at the name tag on the woman’s large bust as she squeezed her hand gently–“Mae Lynn. But I’m more than a little wondering why you dislike the Sunset Drive-In so much.”

“I don’t know. It does bring us more business. The last twenty-five years have been good to my family…”

She turned toward the garage where she heard Joe and Howie loudly differing on mechanical problems and repair costs. How would those sleek young adults even know what such a drive-in  meant back then? What it could do to people, a town? “Why do you say that, anyway–that I hate it?”

Delilah raised one feathery eyebrow. “Oh, I didn’t say you hated it. That’s a very strong word for a simple outdoor movie theater. Maybe you are…religious? I don’t meant to offend you.”

“Maybe we should move on, Sis.” Marietta placed her hand on the other woman’s arm and left it there, giving her a warning look.

“Yes, time to head out, honey,” Sam agreed, and picked beef jerky, lay two packages on the counter, then hurried over to the cooler to get another orange soda pop. “You ladies want anything more?” he added as he came back.

“We’re good. Come on, Delilah. Nice meeting you, Mae Lynn. You have a nice place.”

They went out to their fiery fine car, chatting with and letting Howie get in and check it out.

But Mae Lynn saw Delilah’s eyes widen with a hungry look, a big curiosity getting the better of her. She thought she might tell her more… if she got her own questions answered. Why not? They’d never see each other again. People came and went all the time that Mae Lynn wished she had talked to even more. But it was business, not a social occasion, Joe reminded her with irritation if she talked too loud or much. He didn’t like people taking up big amounts of time and space (unless it brought income) since he returned from the war; less so since he’d suffered the stroke at forty-nine.

She tried to be patient but the best things about her work were the new and interesting people. The rest of her labor was numbers, which were fine on their own, but they couldn’t hold a conversation worth a damn–and neither, God help them both, could Joe. She felt like she had actually been somewhere else after folks talked with her. Mae Lynn learned things. She found out about other states, the weather, their cities and differing ways. How other people felt about the day or night, how they managed. All she had to do was be herself and ask a few questions. She got skills out of it, like how to calm someone down if he felt he’d been gypped out of a couple dollars on gas or how to make someone smile if she was wrestling with a cranky child. With Joe, anything might happen, but often nothing much or very different, after all. Which could be good. Or could get on her last thin nerve. His silence was a deep reservoir that went dry long ago. Mae Lynn waited, still holding out for hope, and meanwhile chatted up customers.

Mae Lynn leaned on the counter and looked straight into Delilah’s quick, sly blue eyes. The cornflower color had changed to a swampy blue in a shadow cast by passing clouds.

“I’ll tell you what. You let me in on what’s in California and I’ll share why the Sunset Drive In drives me crazy as a buggered loon.”

Delilah’s laughter spilled into the room like silver spangles, her chin up, her open mouth showing off bright, expensive teeth. Then she leaned her elbows on the counter, too, her face a few inches from Mae Lynn’s. She joined in their conspiratorial exchange.

“Why, the movies, of course!” She felt Mae Lynn shrink back, saw her face go a shade paler, then tighten. But the woman had asked. “Sam is a young and brilliant up and coming producer. I’m a stage actress ready to try the big screen. Marietta is a talent agent–mine, but also others’. We thought it’d be a hoot to drive out to LA in Sam’s newest car, or at least for a few days. Marietta and I might catch a plane in Vegas, we’ll see. But we have our ducks in a row so we’re good to go. Sam also likes this locale for another project he’s in talks over.” She considered the soft featured, fine-lined face of the person before her. How still she had become. “So I naturally wondered about the drive-in… why you hold a grudge against it.”

Mae Lynn felt hot, too hot, and weak. She sat on her stool, pulled off her scarf and ran her fingers through grey and brown curls, letting the fan’s wind toss and turn them, cool her neck.

“Okay, I’m fine,” she said.

“You want water?” Delilah tentatively asked, baffled. “Look, we can just drop this.”

“Yes, water would help.”

Mae Lynn smoothed her forehead and retied her scarf, then took the bottled water and drank. She put it on the counter and pressed her steaming palms on the scratched greenish glass counter.

“Candace, it’s about her, you see. My daughter. She had such a thing about movies, said they changed everything, even maybe the world, she kept on and on about it. Drove Joe and me near up a tree, back down and around, kept us awake with worry. As if they were like some magic potion, they were so powerful to her, maybe even like a religious experience to her, because she stopped doing much of anything but reading about them, sneaking out to see them even when we made it clear: no more. It was so easy, the drive-in just a fast walk down the road, meeting up with friends and then we couldn’t find her in that crowd, so why even try? It was everything to her.”

Delilah felt confused, then a small horror crept up her chest and she fought it off. “But, wait, they’re just stories, that’s all, tales brought to a big screen rather than flimsy pages of books. They come alive with good acting, right costumes, great scenery–the movie projector gives it all to us–”

Mae Lynn slapped the counter top once. Silence, then her voice was so soft beneath the noise of cars and trucks whizzing by and the fan’s whir that Delilah had to lean close in. She could hear Sam laughing and it tugged at her. She wished she had not said one thing.

Mae Lynn seemed suspended in time a moment. Joe felt her and rolled his wheelchair around the bumper of a VW van and peered at the women, then rolled away. Let his wife be, she was good at managing whatever it was, she’d find him if need be.

“No. They take away, they don’t add one blasted useful thing. How many boys are drawn to battle by war movies? How many girls are drawn to some wild idea of love that’s just no good? How many people are given the wrong idea about life just because they get lost in a moment, that bigger-than-life hour or two that they think offers something more important than what they already have? Then nothing else can compare, can it? Nothing is as thrilling as that made up nonsense…and real life looks too damn hard. It is hard. It takes stubbornness and, oh, I don’t know.”

It was like she’d run out of steam. Mae Lynn sat back and held up her hands in surrender. She had nothing more to say to her.

Delilah felt her spine tingle all the way to her brain. This ordinary woman was amazing, such energy pulsed in every word, look, pause. She had seen the hunched, somber man in the wheelchair and guessed he was her husband, and the young man, her son, covered in grease, a good whistler, a shyness in his eyes when he glanced Delilah’s way. Her family leaned on her and they loved her.

But Mae Lynn hurt beneath the banter and the talk. She had been hurt badly and so had her family.

“She’s gone, isn’t she? How did she….pass?”

“What? No, no, Candace is alive…as far as I know as of last month she’s still kickin’!”

But Mae Lynn closed her eyes against the sizzle of pain in her heart, willed herself to sit still and strong. What did this awfully shiny Delilah know? What could she understand of her one and only gullible, lively daughter, of her forlorn husband, their smart-as-a-whip son now trapped here with them in their difficult need? And her good gas station business, how much it meant to her–to them–despite the other hard facts. Because of them.

“Oh! I thought she…you spoke of her as in the past. So it had to be the movies that made things happen, right? She felt dissatisfied and restless, they filled her up with such dreams and so Candace up and left the family, Beauford, all that you care for…is that it?”

Mae Lynn held her breath. She held her tongue. When her heart settled and began to hum again, she looked at the other woman. There was one tear trickling down her cheek. Was it a true tear? Perhaps. It touched her. Delilah wiped it away.

“Mae Lynn, I’m sorry we both had to go. That we fell in love with those damned movies and left our mothers, our families behind. But everyone needs to follow a dream!”

“Sure, I know.” Maybe she really didn’t know. This was her true life, this keeping things moving along. What mattered was her family. And this little business.

“If I meet anyone named Candace…”

“Candace Jarrett–”

“I’ll tell her you and I met. Help her if I can, I promise.”

“Sure, sure.” She smiled tiredly at Delilah. A lovely young woman, but there was work to be done.

Sam laid on the horn once. They were impatient to get to LA. Or first, Las Vegas. Somewhere even farther away.

“I have to go Mae Lynn but thanks for talking with me.”

“Thanks for telling me some of your story, Delilah.”

The young woman came behind the counter and suddenly threw her arms around her. She could smell the metallic sharpness of the garage, tang of sweat, ancient rich dirt, sweet hay. Her strength was like the earth’s and she wanted it to  be in her some day, too.

Mae Lynn could feel Delilah’s fears flitting about like ghosts playing tag and she knew it wasn’t easy on her. Such deep hopes and her own private aches were taking root in blood and bones, as happened with all as time went on. She patted the-movie-star-in-the-making on her tender, bony back, then let go. Mae Lynn smiled into her limpid, vulnerable eyes and turned away.

The Charger fired up and squealed out of the station as a cranky old truck lumbered in. Mae Lynn stood up and straightened her blouse, tucked a stray grey curl back under the scarf, wagged her hand in a cheery greeting as she walked out to the pumps.

All That May Yet Remain

life-in-detroit-in-the-1970s-8 by Dave Jordano
life-in-detroit-in-the-1970s by Dave Jordano

In this case, seeing is not quite believing. He first insists it is a mistake, his mother’s name co-opted from that of a bystander, perhaps, by a rookie staff reporter. Ace scans the half-column article in the section “Out and About” that explored a neighborhood summer festival. There was a battle of the bands and one rock band on the rise, Harry and the Hurons, was headlining that date. A few folks listening to the music were briefly interviewed.

“We came for cheap drinks and hot dogs but, yeah, the boys in the bands first, right girls?” Ellen Smalley of Troy, laughed.

She brought two friends along to enjoy free entertainment and a fun afternoon in the hot July sun. Seated with Miss Smalley, center, is Bethany Janson, left, also of Troy and Candy Lister, right, of Detroit. 

When could that have been, nineteen seventy-what? She wouldn’t have met their dad by then, would she? He smooths the paper on the kitchen table and looks up at Deanna.

“You found this stuck behind dad’s old tool box by the work table?”

He has stopped by after her phone call and a cunning invitation to come over by enticing him with: “I found a surprise about mom, maybe both parents.” She stirs sugar into his coffee mug and sets it down with a thump, steaming liquid splashing over the edge. He jerks his hand away and is about to say something but she is filling her own mug.

“It was actually in a worn cardboard accordion file behind the tool box on a shelf. There are lots of things in there. I didn’t look too  much. It felt…weird, like I had stumbled on private things.”

“Well, you did. We never saw this. What else did you find?”

Deanna pulls out the chair and settles into it like a yellow cloud as her bulky sweater envelops her frame. He squints closer at the picture, then back at Deanna. He examines the newspaper’s capture of the woman’s eyes and eyebrows, the shape of jaw and chin. That hair. The mouth with barest pout.  The similarity of that mouth and his sister’s registers as a tiny twinge under his breastbone but it still isn’t definitive.

“Oh, a few other regular pictures, a couple of dad playing ball in college, I think. An early certificate of recognition for his work at the plastics lab. Other stuff, I don’t know. What do you think of the newspaper picture, though?”

It doesn’t so much strike him as their mother. “More like a relative, like family we knew but hardly talked to, lived off Third Street near the lumber store, our second or third cousins.” He blows across the coffee’s surface. “Last time I heard from them was…don’t even know.”

“It was at dad’s funeral, going on eight years now.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He looks around the spacious off-white, rectangular room. The same type of (or were they the same ones?) blue and white checkered curtains have hung here since he left for college–the  last time it was re-done. He has returned for Christmas a few times. And their dad’s funeral. The white-painted pine table is still sturdy and takes up a length of wall beneath a large bay window in the kitchen. He used to make a breakfast mess here, get unsolicited advice, practice a speech for school, fight with his sister, get kissed by his mother on the forehead, share Sunday comics with his dad and get smacked across the back of his head when he didn’t mind his manners. All right here, a time so long passed.

“I never heard her talk about either of these girls, though. This was a long time ago, even before dad, I suspect.” Deanna seems upset by the mystery.

He finds it a curiosity to survey and put in place on a timeline.

“But he kept it a lifetime for some good reason.”

“Maybe he met her that very day.” She smiles to herself more than at Ace, as if savoring the romance of such a possibility. “But she is so lovely here, isn’t she? I mean, so full-bodied and young. Man, so different…”

“If it’s even her! I’d ask her sometime when you two are sipping a glass of wine and watching one of your shows. Make it kind of casual, be nice so she isn’t unhappy you snooped around out there.”

Ace has other things to do but he had been in town more than a week without calling them or stopping over. Thus, he feels obligated to hang out. In three weeks he is to begin what he hopes is a new chapter, no longer a lab tech like his dad was before he rose to lab manager and then headed up some projects. No, Ace is now a bona fide earth sciences teacher. He wants to look up a couple old friends, get his apartment in shape. Locate the new, up and coming establishments for dining and drinking.

He feels a shade guilty about his anticipation. A shadow drapes over Deanna’s face like a veil, then it moves, exposing fine lines and eyes bloodshot from too much computer work. She was married ten years but now is back at their parents’ three bedroom house. It has no spacious back yard to redeem its ordinariness. When he walked through earlier he paused at the back door. The cement patio looks as if it’s about to cave under its charmlessness, giving in to a mob of dandelions and cracks that snake their way to the screen door. He might have to do something about this. But he didn’t return to become a big part of their lives. He doubts they want that, either. Too much time has passed between them, a swift river, taking bits and pieces of them to other destinations.

“The thing I can’t get over is how much rounder she is. It makes her look sweet. I mean, she has always had so many edges…She looks a little sad, though, don’t you think? I wonder what that Ellen girl is telling her?”

“I think you should put it back. Unless you want to unleash mom’s wrath. But I’d like the whole story, too. It might be nothing more that a random picture for the paper that dad found and liked a lot. Her youth and all.”

Deanna pushes back her dark straight hair and looks at him a full three seconds before she asks, “Why are you back here, Ace? In Detroit area? You vowed never to return. I didn’t expect it.”

“Ditto, kid, you, either.”

Her cheeky face starts to crumple at his sharpness but she has never been one to go down the first strike so she straightens her back, making her good-sized frame appear larger. Ace stifles a grin; it is a bit like old times. He leans forward.

She folds her arms across her chest. “Well, divorce has side effects, like costing too much money. Impacting state of mind. I have my sanity overall and I have my legal assistant job. I’ll be out of this house in a year or less. What’s your excuse?”

He leans back and balances on the back two legs like he used to, even though it’s hard to not teeter. “I always wanted to teach, I just never made a big thing of it since I seemed destined to be a lab rat all my life, too. But I did youth volunteer work in Philly and I like high school kids, how their minds work. So I look forward to sharing ideas and knowledge they don’t have.”

Deanna’s laughter explodes, then subsides. “I can just see it! You like to have such mastery over things. But kids aren’t controllable like experiments and processes in a sanitized environment.”

“I’m giving it a real try.” He wants to challenge her, inform her of his excellent skills but he holds steady. They are both smart enough; they both want better, even at forty and forty-five. “I want to succeed–so I will.”

She nods and lazily stretches. Then her face hovers once more over the picture of their mother who has come from way back of their dad’s tool box to puzzle them.

“Just who was she, this young woman? I have never seen a picture of her this age. In fact, very few before she married dad. She always says they got lost during moves.”

“I can’t find our mother there, really.” He’s about over this moody nonsense. He lets the two legs thud onto the vinyl flooring. “She looks like someone who really thinks before she speaks, who has all the time in the world to do things but she’s figuring it all out first. Not really like mom.”

“Mom has always lived minute to minute, especially since dad passed. She really does think on her feet–her work demands that.” She holds the paper between them so they can both see it. “Can’t you see it, hope still filling her up with dreams? Like she is someone you want to hug close.”

It takes him by surprise, the hurt of this truthful asssessment, or the lack of those qualities in her. Their mother full of affection and tender dreams? She hasn’t shown them so much of that. Love, it was –is–there. Efficient and hard-working, a devoted partner for their demanding, bright father. A reliable, mostly reasonable mother who has also had a habit of grinding in occasional spiky words. Yes, she looked more open then. Maybe vulnerable. Pensive as the shutter closed. A moment in a life they did not share with her.

He thinks he would like a copy. And then Deanna should put it back and leave it alone.

They both freeze as they hear her step hard on the wooden porch steps, then turn the door knob. Deanna and Ace hold each other’s eyes a fraction of a moment as if to hang on to this frail thread they are reweaving. Before it is frayed again.

Bethany Janson Fishel’s home-dyed dark head pops in, a skimpy wave escaping from her wide-brimmed felt hat and falling forward. Her arms are around two grocery bags. “Who parked their big ole silver truck in my driveway, Dee? I had to park out front!”

Ace stands up first, then Deanna rushes forward to get the bags, talking as she moves.

“Mom, it’s Ace here, he’s moving back! Take off your coat and sit down. I’ll get these.”

Their mother stops and turns, hands in mid-air as they’re emptied of supplies, her direct gaze made fierce by scrunched brows. He comes forward four steps and holds out his hands.

After shrugging off the coat onto a living room chair, she’s pushing up her sweater sleeves as if getting ready to attack more work or start a “play” fight. “Arnold, you’ve decided to come around. There must be news. Well!”

He winces at his birth name. She’s skinny as ever, a narrow woman with a hunch in the shoulders. She strides over as if she hasn’t been on her feet all day. Takes his broad palms into her chilled, thin ones. There is a slight squeeze, then she lets go.

“You got that new job?”

“I did.”

“That’s good. Better to be working then not. You’ll have some challenges with such a big change, not the least of which are the teen-agers!” She follows after Deanna and the bags, then starts to unload them. “Staying for dinner?”

“Not sure.”

Deanna waits for direction, then sits down. “I say stay.”

“Yes, Arnold, catch us up. I doubt we’ll see you for another three or four months so let’s do this while we have a chance.”

“Mom, it’s been ‘Ace’ since eleventh grade. As you know. And that’s a heck of a way to comment on my new job–and coming to visit you two before I’m even all moved in.”

“Now, never mind. Where will you be living?”

“Over in Royal Oak, not far from Birmingham. Small but newer one bedroom apartment.”

She clamps hands on hips, squares her shoulders. The blue hospital uniform is baggy on her. It startles him to take in the fact that she’s still a warhorse of a nurse. Her first job was before he was in school. The same county hospital for the last twenty-five years, almost unheard of loyalty.

“Have to watch the uppity factor over there or you may not cast a shadow on this street without regretting it,” she says in that edgy voice reserved for warnings or corrections. She nearly smiles. “Excuse me a minute while I change my work clothes.”

As soon as their mother leaves the room, Deanna stands close to her brother at the refrigerator. “I forgot to put away the newspaper clipping,” she whispers. “I’m taking it to my room.”

Ace stops her. “No, leave it for me. I want a copy. Put it in my backpack.”

Deanna has trouble with the zippers so he trots over to her in the living room where he left it in an ancient leather chair. The zipper won’t budge. He opens a smaller compartment, rearranges things, takes out a hardback in which to place the clipping.

“What are you squirreling away?” Bethany asks. “Looks like old newspaper.”

Deanna and Ace freeze, the clipping in his hand, her body making an obvious move to block his.

Their mother gestures her aside. “No, I want to see. Is it something you dare not share with your mother? Even better!”

She holds out her hand, like when they were kids and she demanded some small contraband.

They want to deny her access, stuff it into the pocket and lead her into the kitchen. Make pork chops and green beans and a chopped salad. But they know better. Deanna leads the way, sits on the couch, then their mother. Ace last. She turns on the floor lamp. Deanna reaches across, takes the clipping from Ace.

“I found this in dad’s things in the garage. I’m sorry. But I wondered about it so showed it to Ace.”

The newspaper clipping is handed to her. She snags the edge, then holds it close to her eyes. They watch her face but it says nothing. Rather, it says to them “private, keep out”. Her hand trembles the smallest amount. She lays the clipping in her lap, keeps searching the page, her mouth a compressed line from which more lines creep out and down. She’s whittled way down, more than before. Ace sees how old she is, sixty-seven, still working, not able to call it a day. He cannot imagine she can ever die, and then wonders why he has such thoughts. She’s fine, just caught off-guard.

Oak branches rub against the grey siding and cars stop and start on the street. Deanna’s hand is pressed against her chest through the canary yellow sweater. Their mother is so still.

Ace broke the spell. “Mom.”

Deanna grabs his wrist and he leaves it there, her hand proof they are actually back on this too-firm, nubby couch. Together despite their desire to separate from it all long ago.

Bethany Janson Fishel speaks as if she is alone and only the wind has ears.

“My, not even nineteen. That Ellen, what a gossip. Candy…hardly recall. I’m waiting for the rock band to quit playing, the lead singer to come down, sit by me. Harry, love of my life, I suppose.”

Her children are flummoxed. She tries to hide, chin-length hair swinging over her profile.

“Your father was his friend, sound guy who thought he’d go pro. He was hired for the longer piece of the road trip. He fell for me that week, too, but I didn’t know it yet. I had eyes only for Harry Starken.” Her right forefinger taps her chin. “Maybe your dad liked to remember happier moments, before he knew about us.” She pauses, each word a small stone thrown into deep water. “Before Harry died, overdose, cocaine. On the road, me left behind.”

She sucks her lower lip in hard, then lets it go slack.

Deanna’s breath is sucked deep into her. Ace feels his heart hit a rough spot and shift. Their serious father, a wannabe sound guy? Mom, in love with the Hurons’ lead singer? He can’t feature it, but there it is.

Their mother folds the clipping, presses it into Deanna’s hands. Looks them both right in the eyes, her own empty of the old barriers that have strained to keep so much under wraps. Such tenderness and sorrow, lostness and courage. Being found out. More things only she will decipher, unravel long into the coming night.

“His death is why I became a nurse. Your dad and you kids, are why I’ve worked hard so long. Have had some fine times. It all fell together.”

And then she is on her feet and moving into the kitchen, pulling out pans and pots, getting food for dinner, calling them to come help.

Ace stands up with care. He has to make certain he won’t lose balance and steadies his sister, too, whose eyes are wide with astonishment. He links an arm through hers and they join their mother. He suspects the two of them will meet for lunch soon.

 

Luce Carmichael, Mistress of Missives

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The vestibule flooded with silken light and illumined dust but I saw her hesitate on the porch. The sheer curtain that blurred the outside world revealed red pants and a yellow shirt, a delicate arrangement of features. She was looking at my name plate, wondering if she wanted to ring the bell. Then she excited the chimes with one button press.

I– the Lucille (Luce for short) Carmichael, Handwriting Analyst noted at my door–answered, the sweetness of cherry blossoms entering with the young woman. She was perhaps twenty, not so small but bent by a burden, whatever that turned out to be.

“Helen Meyer. Two o-clock appointment–am I late?”

“Not at all,” I said, ushering her into the solarium. “It’s warm in here, I have cracked one of the windows. Don’t mind Sibelius.”

My copper-colored tabby, a lover of classical music, took that moment to wind himself around Helen’s legs, then sauntered out the French doors. Her eyes followed him longingly. Was she a feline afficionado or a tad lonely?

“Tha plants are amazing,” she noted, settling into the cushioned wicker armchair. “Towering,” she added and pointed at my ancient umbrella plant.

Was she going to be another client with a hidden fear of plants that might overtake her? I had met such a one once who had to be ushered quickly into the formal living room, my least favorite spot.

But no, she only turned to me, anticipating something.

“I had little to do with them. My son had a knack.”

She was about to ask: was he no longer tending them? I could see Helen had natural curiosity, her eyes running over every inch of the space. Anxiety, as well. Her fingers clutched her purse with a delicate tremble. She had called me a month ago, inquiring about my work and then called back two weeks later, seeking a consultation. Love matters. It usually was, not matter who or what or why.

“I brought his letters, only two. He sends them to me on special occasions as he knows I like that.” She unzipped her battered leather bag and pulled out two envelopes, then removed the letters and handed them to me.

I took them. “Before we begin, what is it you are looking for? I can tell you all sorts of information, little quirks and odd hiccups of personality, tendencies and proclivities, but it would save time if you would describe for me your concerns.”

Her smooth brow bunched up, her brown eyes clouded. I was afraid I would have to restate the paragraph but waited.

“I’m not sure. I mean, we have been together almost a year and I know him well. Maybe. And he’s talking about a permanent relationship.”

“Too soon? You could give me a sample of your writing. I might clear away a few of those cobwebs.”

She laughed. “I’d thought of that. But I need more insight into him. Toby, our writer in question.” She leaned forward, hands grasping her knees. “It’s just that, you see, my grandmother hasn’t been so welcoming of him. She finds him lacking.”

I held close the letters to my eyes as if to see inside the envelopes, like a mentalist, then stood. “First things first. Let me study these a moment. But would you like an iced tea? I have just made some fresh.”

“No, thank you, well, on second thought, yes.  Please. No sugar.”

“Never sugar. I like things to be unaltered and undiminished. It’s a mint mixture.”

Helen nodded then closed her eyes against the brightness that filled the solarium. I could have lowered the rice paper blinds but the spring light and warmth were soothing to all living things. Sibelius trotted after me but seeing I offered no conversation, disappeared around a corner. The teas were fixed, tall blue glasses set upon a wooden tray and carried in. Helen’s eyelids flicked open.

Her grandmother was the heaviness, I thought, and set our drinks on the table between us. I thought Toby a secondary issue, but wasn’t sure why.

The letters were nicely written, words conveying a tendency toward romantic reassurances, his budding devotion clear in both. The handwriting was firm, rounded, each “o” and “a” full of space, slightly open at top–he might not seek all secrets but was easy-going. The “ls” were inflated as well as other upper loops–a man more often than not impelled by his feelings. The lower loop lines were longer but tidier; the mid-zone a bit uneven but in proportion to the two other zones. The slant tended forward more as he wrote, his emotions driving the words. The personal pronoun “I” was standard copybook, modest. His statements were heartfelt. He was vibrant–you could see that in the longer dashes of the “ts” and verve of the hand. An athlete (the lower zone reflected a very active person), yet someone who appreciated talk, just not as much as action. An uncomplicated person in a good sense. Not ambitious, more relaxed than that. He might be prone to outbursts–those upper loops nearly ballooned here and there–but not violently. The rhythm was steady but unremarkable–not a fast thinker but not slow, either.

I had begun to delve deeper when I realized Helen was watching intently. I tended to get lost in my work. For that reason I preferred people mail me their samples at least a week before arriving at my door. And no emails with attachments. I had to have pages in hand. See the marks, feel the pressure of the pen’s or pencil’s tip on paper, examine it closely, even utilize a magnifying glass to discern the telltale trail from head to hand to pen to paper. Observe neurological manifestation of who they were in motion, in fact, not fancy. Or at least that is what I believed and practiced. And that was my bread and butter.

But Helen had limited time, she said. I fit her in between a wearisome relative and a fan of my column from Great Britain. What was wrong with this fellow? Little that I could see. Perhaps too intense for Helen. A bit prone to sentimentality–that wasn’t a crime, was it? Loose lipped at times, as he would want to garner any allies if needed but he also he liked people. Given to surprising excessive emotion when one considered the rest of the traits. A personality that spoke of a solid young adult who had room to grow.

I made it my business to pronounce no judgements, to put any personal preferences aside. I had to report only how data added up. Every mark could make a difference, even a flick or slide of a line that slipped past the controlled hand, a truncated or jagged start or finish to a word or letter that might promise something untoward and could not restrain itself for long. This is what a police department would expect me to discern and note. But Toby, this writer of love letters, was not the slightest bit dangerous. An unremarkable sort. Dependable. And not exactly inspiring great things.

I took a long quaff of my iced tea.

“Tell me about your grandmother.”

“Pardon?”

“You stated she has her doubts. She has influence in your life, that is clear or you wouldn’t place such importance on her opinion. You’re close, is that right?”

“She helped raise me for years. My mother has MS,” she said, reaching for Sibelius as he sat nearby, tail flicking. He barely sniffed her hand, then leaped atop his favorite book on the table, a history of American architecture. “Grandmother Dee has strong opinions about everything. She and I have had some times.”

I noted the wry expression, a small downturn of her lips. “Good ones, too?”

“Oh I hope when all is said and done the good will outweigh the bad. As for her feelings about us…I don’t know. But I am still affected by her disapproval despite having left home–her and mom still live together–five years ago.”

“Ah. She disapproves of only Toby? Or of you?”

Helen jerked her head towards me. “Me. Why should I care? Well, she’s smart and educated and has the advantage of decades of experiences. Three husbands, every one of them unable to outlive her. She’ll be eighty-one this fall. She’s not very well and her mind is like…”

I waited. A sieve? An iron fist? A file cabinet of every right and even more wrongs?

“It’s like….a crazy garden. An incredibly flourishing garden with grand flowers and very few weeds,” Helen said, voice dampened with a hint of tears. “She doesn’t tolerate weeds. She’s a careful and tidy person even now.”

“Weeds? Is that how she sees Toby?”

I calculated whether or not I should also add and you? but did not. Even though it seemed so, as she brushed her cheek of a tear and tried to recapture a sense of dignity.

It happened here. The solarium, a refuge. My careful investigation of private places. Even Sibelius with his lovely and gentle demeanor. It’s said a handwriting expert is not unlike being a detective combined with therapist except I don’t diagnose so anyone could officially  hold me to it. I have intuitions and ideas. The written word to reveal the truth. And sometimes people became too tender or have to deal with an upwelling of anger or are disoriented by the findings or talk of them, uncertain which way their world is meant to be turning.

Helen had gotten hold of herself and was petting Sibelius, who then deigned to lick a finger.

“I think she finds Toby less than, you know, he isn’t quite good enough for me, she thinks. For our family. It’s not money so much. He’s going to be a plumber–they do alright. I think it’s that she was forever telling me I would marry a lawyer, maybe a surgeon or at least an eye doctor or vet, for crying out loud! I was her project all those years as mom faltered. I failed to stay on the honor roll in school. I got into trouble if you want to know, drank too early to escape, barely made it to graduation. But I pulled it together, went to community college. I work as a medical assistant but that is a far cry from what everyone hoped.”

She looked at me full in the face, then fell back against the seat cushion. “I’m not the daughter my mother needed or the granddaughter Grandmother Dee hoped for. And now Toby is standing in their way somehow–of what? What they think I should do? But the ridiculous thing is, Grandma Dee believes I have the same requirements she does and I just don’t know it yet.”

I found that more than disheartening: the poor young man was made a scapegoat of sorts. An impediment to a needy grandmother’s precarious sense of well-being–her flourishing mental garden notwithstanding. Her mother I could understand–she wanted so much more than she could give her daughter. But Dee? Why would she impute this child with her own greed for more? Yes, it was likely the old woman wanted security for her family before she left this world. But I would have no further concern with any of it.

“That is difficult. Such a complicated unit, the family. But would you like to know what I have found?”

“Of course, I’m so sorry, please tell me.”

“As you think, I suspect: reliable, good-hearted, healthy of body. Toby is given to experiencing and expression of intense emotions. He is not unstable but has fierce feelings that can run him. He likes people, is not suspicious and is sincere in his caring for you. I see no criminality or significant instability, no malice, no secret proclivity for behaviors that could distress either of you in a serious manner. Your boyfriend is of sound enough mind, reasonable intelligence and accountable. I would say”–and here I swept open my arms and hands to conclude the findings– “that he is well-adjusted, a little young perhaps but on his way to becoming a kind and solid man. He is likely to stick by you no matter what comes.”

She didn’t respond at first. She took it all in, registering my findings and counter checking against her own list, waiting to determine if hearing his several attributes were going to make her more certain of her choice.

Would Helen stick by him? I felt it more likely than not.

Sibelius roused himself and jumped down, left the room as if his own work was done as guardian of books and plants, assistant to the handwriting analyst. Or he was bored and hungry.

“Is that enough at this time?” I wondered if she expected something more. She hadn’t paid for a Level II consult; she had just brought in the samples, after all, but I wanted my clients to be satisfied. “Is there something else?”

She stood up and walked around the room, paused at the umbrella plant. It was something to behold, it was true, thirty years old and a lovely survivor.

“I don’t know what I want, to be honest. I do know Toby. I learned some new things. I do feel reassured by your evaluation to some extent. But it’s me, after all.” She spun around and pointed at her chest, at the heart where the finger always wants to point. “I should move back home, that’s what worries me. I should stay with my grandmother who’s not going to be around forever and help out my mother who needs me. I ought to give up Toby and just concentrate on being there for them.”

I sipped my tea. Here it was, the hurt and guilt. The real dilemma. I kept thinking about grandmother’s weeds, Helen seeing herself and Toby as something un welcome, even noxious in that vast garden. How would she reconcile that with a sense of duty? Give up love that would be steadfast? Sadness found me.

“But I do want to stay with Toby. I see he is a genuine person, not extraordinary maybe but the kind of guy I need. Someone I can count on in unpredictable life. I just hope I can offer him as much. I want everyone to be satisfied, but that’s not really possible. Grandmother Dee and mom will have to make do with me as I am. Not fabulous but still a part of the family. As Toby and I are going to be together. But we live in the same city, so we can help them out. I won’t turn away now or tomorrow.”

She never did seek any important answers from me. Helen needed someone to hear her. I was a captive listener, removed from her personal realm. Someone to confirm what she already felt she knew. She was like many of my clients, ready to know as much as they could handle, able to see truth as it suited them. Did she hear my notation about his intense emotions? Did she know this might cause her some grief one day? But she was willing to take the chance. For now.

We finished our tea. Sibelius trotted up to her as she prepared to leave.

“Thank you for your help. I think I have a better idea what is best for me, for Toby and for my two mothers.” She gave a short laugh. “I might bring you a sample of my own writing sometime. I’m not sure I’m in the right career.”

I looked at her and saw her helping, taking care with details, encouraging, keeping things in balance when patients were too afraid to look to the doctors. Her mind was an inquisitive tool. Fair above all. I didn’t need her sample.

“Have you thought of being a nurse? Or even a doctor?”

Helen’s finely arched brows shot up. “I’ve daydreamed of being a doctor or even RN… I never said it out loud!”

“Well, you have now. Give it real thought. There is still time to explore options.”

“Thank you, this was more than worth it.”

I watched her stride down the pathway. Grandmother Dee was wrong about the weeds in her garden and never told her granddaughter the whole truth. Helen had a flair about her, a touch of pizzazz in her bold willingness to question, then learn. It was like the errant gift of a bright-blooming weed or an orphan plant that provides spots of unusual form or color, a good surprise. And she possessed courage that got to the essence of things. These would offset all that sturdy everyday-ness that Toby so easily offered her. They would fit together just fine. The dowager (could I think that? was it true?) Dee might even see it all come to pass.

I leaned against the door. Helen hadn’t asked me about my son but that wasn’t her business, not her place. I glanced at his picture on the wall. Jack: in a boat, in Nova Scotia. One who couldn’t stay put. Off to more adventures, some foolish, some not. I wondered what he was growing there? Was there a lasting partner I might one day know? Sibelius never knew him nor did he care that I was reminiscing. He made his impatient sound and rubbed against my bare foot.

I entered the white and blue kitchen to set out lunch for us both. My next client wasn’t due til three o’clock, a man seeking clues to his ex-wife’s disappearance. Yes, always love matters. It’s what we are about, beginning to end.