Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Rosewater Cafe Knife

I slipped it into the narrow cotton envelope, its heft and shape sagging in my pants pocket, and wove my way through the public gardens. I had my eye on the huge wrought iron gate at walkway’s end and sped up to close the gap between us. Also, Monroe and me–and the stocky security guard who had been watching us. If I could make the gate I’d be free to hop on my powder blue Vespa and speed away. As I held back from running, I imagined myself as seen by the guard–nearing middle age, slim, with curly hair yanked into a messy ponytail, my exercise clothing dark: nondescript. What might he say if calling in his suspicions?

“An older gal moving at a fast clip, and she hid something in her pocket–no, didn’t see her take anything but she talked to this kinda shady guy, then took something small from him and–huh? No, not sure. Well, anyway, going after her.”

How innocuous a thing, a woman meeting a man and exchanging something–might it be drugs, keys, maybe a rose cutting, even a hot diamond necklace? I laughed as I approached the gate but it was more a gasp of barely subdued hysteria.

And then I felt a hand on my forearm.

“Miss, please stop.”

I stopped, waited, breathing harder than desired. He circled me, wide face marked by a crooked half-smile, a friendly accoster, then stood back a few feet as I wasn’t moving. I did consider if I could make a dash for it but he was between me and open space. My pocket was laden with evidence, my jacket barely covering it at hip length.

I looked at him, eyebrows raised in faint surprise. “Yes?”

“Step aside so I can ask you a few questions.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m on my way to an appointment. Is there a good reason you are trying to detain me?” I tried to suppress irritation and fear bubbling beneath my words and started to smile right back but didn’t quite manage it

“Step aside, we’ll see, Miss.”

Miss, is that we get called no matter our age? I wanted to inform him I was old enough to be his great aunt but sniffed and stepped toward deep pink rhododendron bushes.

I knew Monroe was long gone, ordering a coffee and croissant and feeling relieved. He was good at that, here one moment, gone the next–story of our nebulous relationship for twenty years. We were not a couple but we seemed never entirely free of each other. It was like sharing a vast broken web where one or the other of us dangled awhile, then spun odd threads that guaranteed we’d climb back on and cross paths every few years. But what would you expect, we were sort of blood-tied, a family member being his wife once upon a time.

“Would you empty your pockets, please?”

I was incredulous. What would I take from a garden? It made no sense that he’d stop me; he had to be bored, a rookie or plain mean-spirited. I knew what I had but he didn’t, and besides, what true harm was there if he did? I made an impulsive decision to pull it out, slowly, the black cloth covering it wrapped snugly.

“Please slowly hand that to me, Miss,” the security guard said.

But I unwrapped it first, gingerly, so that he could see the ornately carved leather sheath that covered the 7 inch blade, and the leather wrapped steel handle darkened by years and years of being held. The knife was handmade by my father, Val, back in 1982 and that Monroe stole many times. Val’s daughter was its inheritor. Monroe’s ex-wife. My half-sister, Riley.

“Whoa there,” he said, and stepped back.

He picked up his walkie talkie, then studied me. What did he see? My anxiety that it would be taken again? Old memories evoked? I would not break down. But maybe run if he took it. Be done with it all just like that.

“This may need some sort of carry permit, I think, let me look at it,” he said with a grunt and a sigh. He turned the sheathed knife over and over in his hand, studying the intricate leather tooling, its wide loop almost cracked apart that used to slip onto an owner’s belt. Val’s and Davey’s until Davey went into the Army and didn’t return, and then Riley’s, until Monroe got a hold of it.

“What?” I stared at him, hard enough that my eyes were yelling at him. Absurd. But I’d felt Monroe and I meeting meeting in public was not so wise, times being what they unfortunately were, but Monroe is bolder than smart, which accounts for trouble he has generated. It took us all of less than a minute, we didn’t actually chat. I have no excuse other than I don’t trust him, don’t like him anymore, so always meet him in public. We’d talked on the phone–that led to this moment.

The return of the knife.

“It’s family owned and finally returned to me. A genuine Cosenti knife. I’m Lilly Cosenti.” As if that meant anything to this guy with the belly and the sweaty brow, hands belonging to a plumber not a security guard, who was handling my knife with keen interest.

The guard looked at me skeptically, shifted on tired wide feet, weighed the knife in his broad palm as if it was a possible piece of gold. Which it was to some people. One of the first knives fashioned by Valentino Cosenti.

He jutted his lower lip as if impressed, and angled his head at me. “Okay, maybe it’s all good, but it should not be here. Not these days, you know. Your ID.” He looked me up and down, memorizing my ordinariness. The mole above my lip to the left. The sunspots across my chest. My roughened skin from a lifetime of ranch work.

“Sure.”

I gave him my driver’s license, wondering who trained this guy. Was he taking my knife and calling cops or just passing time? He had no idea what this was about and I was not about to tell him. I had to get going. My cool Vespa was on loan; I had to return it to the hotel, call a cab, catch a train.

He handed the license back, rubbed his neck contemplatively as he studied my knife once more, then indicated a bench close by.

“Let’s talk.”

I moaned, followed him, sat. I had just come over three hours to climb aboard that plane. I eyed the gate once more, but gave up.

“Tell me about it, Miss Cosenti. ”

He said this like it was an order and if I didn’t obey, I’d be sorry. Oh, to be at the mercy of an aimless security guard who had nothing better to do than suspect a woman like me. Who had some fancy, worrisome knife. Weren’t there a few truly lurking about that he could interrogate, then escort out? He watched me as I took off my baseball cap, smoothed stray curls away from my damp face.

“Alright, then, it was like this…”

I settled and so did he, his feet crossed at the ankles as he leaned his bulk way back, ready for my explanation. As much as I’d tell.

******

“We lived in Wyoming,” I began. “My mother’s family has always had a big ranch, so when my dad married her it also was his. They loved training horses and we had cattle, lots. Anyway, by the time I was ten they were doing better than my grandparents had, more horse breeding and training, but my mother also had a passion for cooking and what I’d call hospitality. She pleaded for the run down cafe in town, and though he told her it wasn’t a good bet and we needed her at the ranch, she won the argument. Named it the Rosewater Cafe. Her name was Rose and she said it’d be a refreshing stop along our lonely road. I often helped out there, though I’d sure rather deal with the horses, work outside. My dad, meanwhile, was getting good at his hobby, turning out more and more knives, then selling some. It was a little extra income and he liked that. All seemed to be working out real good for them–for us.

“Then one day–I was fifteen–this foreign car pulls up in a swirl of dust and out steps a tall, large woman with short white-blonde hair and a girl some older than me. My dad rushed to meet her–Mom was at the cafe–and soon they argued. I waited to see what it was about–he was not an arguing sort of man–or when he’d introduce me. But it didn’t happen. The girl stood with hands on hips as though she was too fancy for the ranch and was disgusted–I distrusted her immediately.

I knew my dad was better than average to look at, and he had a way with people; women liked him more than necessary. So it occurred to me what it might be about, a past that had caught up with him. I went to the stables, saddled my horse and took off, didn’t go back til dark.

“When I returned they were, of course, gone. But not for long. In another week, after my parents chewed on the topic a few times, the girl was brought back. Riley was her name, and she was staying for the last few years of school. Whether or not Mom and I liked it. Dad seemed resigned but encouraged us all to try to be nice.”

I scrunched my shoulders up and looked at my watch. Time was wasting.

“When do you get to the part about the knife?” the guard asked. “And who was that girl?”

I frowned at him and took a deep breath. “Riley was my father’s earlier daughter, due to an error of judgement, he told Mom, and she was a spit fire–that was why her mother brought her there, so he could get her in line, I guess. It was true the ranch taught her good things. But it only half-worked. She learned to ride and groom horses okay. But she could get mouthy; also, distracted. And it was clear to me from the start she was a big deal to boys in town and from the ranches. I have to admit she couldn’t help it; she wasn’t so much gorgeous as she had charm like clover honey, the boys buzzed about her. Some are like that….my dad and she just had it. I was the other kind, the one behind the scenes, the one on the range, free and alone…”

The guard nodded; he was hooked by curiosity. I wanted to give him a shove and go. But my story was true and it turned out I enjoyed telling it–and he’d asked for it.

“Then Monroe came along.”

I recalled him in full technicolor. He had been–still was, of course–a few years older, easy to laugh, brawny, impressed with himself, testosterone like a flare that lit up everything. He moved like a mountain lion, stealth and grace. Another one that baffled. Intrigued me, okay, but I was busy working.

“He and Riley, though, made a match, nothing anyone could do or say would change that. As soon as she graduated that was it, they got hitched despite our dad wanting to run Monroe off. But Riley settled down, so did Monroe, it seemed. The problem was, there were still others who wanted to get close to her…like Monroe never existed. I guess ’cause he was an outsider from Arizona and so didn’t quite count..”

I shrugged in mild sympathy for Monroe, then stretched, raising arms high, twisting side to side. It was getting late. I saw my so-called guard gripping the knife as he waited to hear the punch line. It irked me that he had taken it, that I needed to tell him all this.

“The knife, miss– what about that part?”

I shook my head to clear it, stared beyond the gate. I never could stop a story once started, yet time was slipping by.

“Well, that knife you have that’s mine–it used to be in a wooden case with a glass pane in it so it was just visible, and kept under the counter at Rosewater Cafe. Dad put it there for Mom’s protection–you just never knew, he said. But as his name circulated due to his skills, customers wanted to study it, even made good offers on it. Eventually, though, it was locked and displayed from a high shelf above the coffee bar. It was like free advertising; his knife business got hot.

“Riley and I both worked at Rosewater. By ages twenty and eighteen we had made a truce, had found ways to get along as we got older. Then, one day Monroe was just finishing a three eggs sunny-side up with beef sausage breakfast when this guy walks in and asks for Riley, eyes cloudy with anger and hurt. I won’t bore you with whys and wherefores but just say that Monroe took great offense over it all. There was a bad fight and then Riley got the knife case down and smashed it open with a hammer and…and…I can tell you my mother fell down in a dead faint–it took her a long time to get over things.”

I gulped, heart banging. I had not once told the truth of that morning twenty-four years ago to anyone outside the family.

“Yeah, then what?’ the guard said, leaning heavily toward me, eyes popping. “Someone die…?”

“Of course not.” It occurred to me this was what the guard waited for, some bloody end, the thrill of arresting me. “But the guy got hurt between fists and that knife.He ran out the door but threatened revenge. But there was no next time. Monroe left Riley the next day, went back to Arizona… though he kept in touch–they had that need of each other that never really ended despite remarriages. The wounded lovelorn guy had vanished, had a few scars. And no one called police; it just wasn’t what you did. The stranger shouldn’t have barged in, said his piece….

“Dad kept his proud if deadly creation under lock and key in a secret place until he died. He had willed it to her. I guess he felt Riley was the one who deserved to live with its history or maybe he was saying she was a tough nut and there was her reminder. It was valued at about $5800 then, ten years ago. Yeah, it is that beautiful a thing…”

The uniformed man pulled the knife out of its sheath a little and examined it, the quickly put it away. Just him doing that sort of scared me but I understood his desire to see it. It was so finely wrought it seemed a work of art, more than a weapon. So many had wanted it in their collections. But it had been used for harm.

“Monroe wrenched it from Riley, took it to get rid of evidence–it was meant to be gone forever. But then dad got it back from Monroe with a bribe…stupid, huh, family feud like that. But it was worth so much, too. Riley finally told Monroe, you’ve gotta lay off, it’s a family heirloom, hers when dad died.”

“So how did Monroe get it once more? What a mess.”

“Yeah. He stole it from Riley after she refused to talk to him again, don’t know how. She suspected him, of course, but was sick of the whole thing. I kept out of it. Then all of a sudden last month he decided to tell me he did it and felt guilty, said he was ready to let go, stop the craziness. He’s made a decent living buying and selling antiques and other stuff; I figured he’d finally sold dad’s knife.” I shivered in a gust of wind. “But he didn’t. Now I have it.”

The guard slapped his thighs.”But why didn’t he just give it back to Riley, ask forgiveness and all?”

I scrunched my face in mock horror. “No way. They are sort of sworn enemies, despite still being soul mates. And she likely saved his life with her intervention–I didn’t tell you, the guy had a handgun back of his jeans that was never drawn once she got him, he was hurt pretty bad…But no, they don’t even talk now.” I looked at my hands in my lap. “Besides, it is really part of my dad’s and mom’s legacy–way before Riley had in in her grasp.”

“Oh…so Riley was the one, how about that.”

And he handed it back to me, just like that. Stood up to his full five feet, six inches. He was about to say more when his walkie talkie crackled and a muffled voice was unintelligible so he talked back and brought it close to an ear.

“I gotta get going,” he said, “someone’s messing up the flowers along with their dog.”

“That’s it, I can go now?” I tucked the leather-encased knife into its cloth, shoved it back in my pocket.

He raised a hand. “Thanks for the tall tale–that was interesting–but I have work to do–good luck, Miss Cosenti!”

He ambled off like a slow bear on the run.

I stood slowly, blinked in honeyed sunlight.

From yesteryear to the present moment was a long way to leap. But I strode through the gate, found the pretty blue Vespa, took off, my knife secretly gleaming. Riley would be happy to have it back. If it ever got to her.

An End to Quixotic Life

Photo-Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

After a brief business trip to the west coast they could have taken an earlier flight back to Virginia; he could have bypassed the visit altogether. It’s a jolt to be back here again. He imagines his grandfather would declare it unfit for eye and soul but he thinks the property retains some of its charm. Or it could with expert care. It was so much more expansive, open to sky and the grand Columbia Gorge when he was growing up. Trees, flowers and other plantings have gone wild, ravaging the grounds’ elegance. It used to offer such coherence of design.

It is Elinor, his wife of three years, who has encouraged them to visit once more. He was informed old family friends had taken ownership from the last buyers. Still, the late afternoon party invitation was an aside in the phone call, as if the Griswolds were not that thrilled to extend it but compelled by good manners. They had been eager to share their recent purchase, though. And there will be croquet so dress the part. So Patrick humors Elinor; she’s wanted to see the scenes from his upbringing. The place was in his family for over eighty-five years, after all, two generations.

Patrick feels there should have been a memorial of sorts, create a transitional ceremony noting its passing from one dynasty to…well, the Griswolds aren’t a dynasty but they might be someday with enough business acumen and luck. His grandfather and father would have appreciated that idea, some suitable bombast to mark its fate. But Patrick never quite took to Hal (who had once been a Harry; apparently Hal better suited him now), though maybe he did a little to Pris (Priscilla Martin before marriage).

Neither old friend had been any good at basketball or swimming, hadn’t shared his enthusiasm for spontaneous adventures. They had little use of reading for pleasure, something Patrick early on found improved on real life, plus he was easily held in thrall. The other two were the type that studied too hard to better forge ahead, making them seem more admirable. Maybe they were, though Patrick did well enough. Now his old cohorts seemed on the path to their own material glory. Back then their brief entertainments included gossip and television. They complained of heat and bugs when prodded into doing something even faintly athletic. So Patrick and his younger sister, Susan, included them since they were scholl cohorts but were not so close to them.

The tennis court is still intact, he sees, but weedy, a few snaking lines in the cement pad. He has an urge to bound onto the court, execute a few phantom serves. Do they possibly own tennis rackets and balls? The pool on the other hand looks good as ever, and now is being used by the Griswold’s seven year old daughter. Patrick wishes he had packed a swimsuit; he’d like diving from the low board and swimming a lap or two. He’s pleased Elinor undertakes her own social meandering after he introduced her to a few folks he once knew. Hal did the bulk of introductions, then let them be.

In the distance she looks ethereal with her wide-brimmed straw hat and flowing ivory skirt topped by a linen blouse. The setting is much better enhanced by her attire and grace than Pris in her crayon-bright attire. He warms at the thought.

“Is it all you remember, Patrick?”

Pris is standing behind him when she speaks but he still recognizes the scent she wears, to his surprise, something from Guerlain she once told him in high school. He never forgot it after they briefly dated; she was far more into him. He wonders if it was a deliberate choice today, then thinks himself an arrogant idiot for the thought. Maybe some never alter what was once liked. He finds that idea odd.

He turns abruptly to see her long-lashed eyes brighten with amusement. Discovers her square teeth unusually white.

“It is and isn’t what I recall. Ten years since I visited, after my father’s funeral. It was left intact, I think, after the other owners bought it. Which I appreciate. What about your plans?”

“I’d think it needs gutting and a total reno. Finally! It was getting old when you grew up in it. It needs more than a facelift now.” She turns as she places the lip of the tall glass to teeth. A delicate eyebrow rises. “Is that a shock?”

Patrick’s thin lips spread into a cursory smile. “It’s to be expected when a place ages, the fading paint, the creak in the floor. Our horse farm is one hundred fifty years old. But lots of people can’t stand antiquity. Newer means better, so we’re told. Faster, shinier, oh, yes, more ecological but also disposable.”

“I don’t plan on DIY work, no worries there. And I like a traditional look. Just a refreshed one, more color.” She steps apart from him and stares into the scenery. “How is Elinor managing on that place when you take off? She says you travel half the time. Doing heavens knows what, carousing with locals on Crete, I gather, or in Tuscany.”

“She’s devoted to her horses. She isn’t the kind of woman to pine away for an absent husband. Actually, I tend to wander alone more often than not. Scandinavia. India. Montreal. I love coming back to her…And how about you? How will you like it out here without the city excitement?”

“I grew up out here, remember? And it turns out I’m a bit artistic, I paint miniature dogs and cats. I have embroidery projects. I work part-time at the law office. And I have Laura.” She waves to her daughter who is just climbing out of the pool. “She might miss her friends so far out but she can have them out for sleepovers. There’s so much room! I thought it was bigger–as a child, it seemed beyond vast–but I do admit I still can feel lost.”

She looks at him as if expecting a memory to be shared, a moment of intimacy. Patrick’s mind brings forth the house’s interior. He knows how much room is there: eight bedrooms and five and a half bathrooms, a cool, shadowy formal living and dining room, a rustic family room, a leather-and-cherry study, a semi-circular breakfast nook and a pantry almost the size of the kitchen (once white and pale blue)–

“Patrick!” Hal saunters up, slaps his back and hands him a beer. “What do you think? I mean, really? Can you believe your old buddies are married, had a child and are now living here?”

Pris studies Hal and Patrick from under the fringe of red bangs. Patrick looks away. He finds her hair alarming. It was once auburn brown; now it is nearly the bright penny color of Elinor’s hair, an odd coincidence though his wife’s is the real thing.

“What do I think about your buying my family’s old estate? Or about your success in real estate? Or Pris’ very red hair?” He doesn’t mean it to sound so sharp, but the words hang in the air between them and silence gathers.

Pris lets loose a guffaw, to their surprise, then waves to a woman easing into the pool. She dashes off, leaving the men alone.

Hal eyes his old pal and wonders if he made the right decision asking him to stop by. They weren’t all that close and Patrick has turned out to be a semi-reclusive, story-scribbling type. He has published three suspense novels already and they seem to sell very well. Hal likes them. Of course, Patrick doesn’t have to actually work for a living with his marriage to Elinor and his inheritance. He can still play around while Hal works like mad to give his wife what she wants and deserves. What they both want. Including the Keating’s ancient estate.

“I’ve coveted this house ever since I met you,” Hal admits. “Now I have it to myself.” He sighs, a man well-satisfied.

“Really? You liked it that much? I thought you came over to harass, then attempt to romance my sister and, barring that, to avail yourself of all amenities.” Patrick slugged Hal in the shoulder, lightly but not too lightly. “But it was fun to have you and Pris and the rest over to play. We had some incredible pool parties.”

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“That we did. And Pris and I will again.”

“Remember the Fourth of July after our senior year? The fireworks our two uncles set off down below, how the sky over the Columbia River blew up with all those bright explosions? Then those stars later, which are always better. Pris and Susan and the others jumped in the pool fully clothed, music was blaring and you got lit on vodka, stinking drunk!”

“You always wore trunks underneath your shorts, ever ready for a quick lap around the pool, a grab at the girls! Yes, indeed, I passed out in Susan’s arms–eventually.”

Patrick squirms at the thought. “You did? Where?”

“Under that–” he spins around until he finds a towering elm–“that monster tree. That one nearest the brick outdoor fireplace or oven or whatever it is. There wasn’t any fire burning, of course, so no one else was over there but us.”

Patrick lifts his straw hat, scratches his head, then carefully resettles it. “Susan’s husband is at Oxford, you know, and she’s doing noteworthy new research on Joan of Arc. She’s happy.”

“Well, that’s great, good for them!” Hal reaches down for a stick, then tosses it into the air where it flips twice before making a rapid descent. It bounces into the pool. “But it was your house, I have to admit, that brought me back. We lived on the other side of the road, in a very sound split-level my dad built. Custom design and work! Pris and her family lived four miles east with her mother, yes, it was quite a bit rougher than today…We each lived such different lives. I absolutely wanted yours.”

Patrick finds this sad and a bit absurd. No one can take over another’s life. There are so many factors, the shifting strands of personalities, fortunes that change. You create your own life. Anyone can copy externals or repeat a few choices. But if Hal thinks his moving into their house will be as wonderful as it was for Susan and himself, their parents and extended family, he is in for a rude awakening. That house shared their lives, harbored, celebrated and suffered them well. There were decades of living through ups and downs. Things Hal doesn’t know about and never could understand. The Keatings created their home’s energy. It was seasoned with love. It was a testament to loyalty of family, dedication to noble enough aspirations, a friendly showcase of substantial and comforting style.

That Patrick took another route via Elinor and writing didn’t terribly distress his grandfather or mother. But his father stopped talking to him for five years, then regretted it when he became terminally ill. It could not have hurt Patrick more, those lost years, but in the end they found a commonality once more. They were Keatings, afterall, they were one and the same if with different stripes.

But the house, this acreage, has been in other hands for so long. It is not the same as it was and never can be, not even for Patrick. Certainly not for Hal. He and Pris will have to make it entirely their own, whatever that may be, just forget the varnished past.

He thinks of saying all this but he can see the gleam in Hal’s eyes, how the fervor of new success and the ownership of such a house and so much land have served to ignite him with fabulous expectations. He got what he meant to get.

“Pris may have had the right idea–gut it and start over. Make it something just right that suits you.”

“I can’t have that! We have to preserve as much as we can. I want it to be as it always was.”

“Good luck, then. It was a happy house for me. I hope it is for you.”

Hal shines with triumph and pumps Patrick’s hand. They reminisce as they walk the perimeter of the grounds. Patrick feels a shiver here and there: this is where their favorite calico cat ventured out and never returned; this is where he and Susan climbed a tree with their sleeping bags but Susan fell and broke her leg; this is the rock bench where he brought his notebook to write things on week-ends. The huge brick oven presided over wonderful barbeques, scads of people milling about, the Tiki torches casting their burnished glow on everyone.

Once back at the pool, he has the sudden urge to swim. He strips down to his boxer shorts.

“Wait, Patrick, really not appropriate this time, come back!”

He runs off the diving board, clutches knees in arms and executes a cannonball. Smacks onto the lambent surface of cool aquamarine water, then sinks and sinks into the depths. He keeps a strong hold on his breath. Opens his eyes. All is lit up, gentle perfection, voluminous space emptied of distractions. He shuts his eyes and floats sideways, then upward when there is a rush of water and bubbles beside him. He sees Elinor’s white blouse rising off her chest, her skirt ballooning around her bent elbows. She has a giddy look. Her long red hair streams around her, fire and water commingling in this momentary heaven. Her mouth tells him, I love you.

They grab each other’s hand and float upward, their heads breaking surface. They gasp and giggle, arms thrown about each other.

All around them are the party goers, some considering jumping in, most staring at them with a mixture of admiration and distaste. Strangers drinking and eating and whispering and plotting on this land that was once Keating land. Not his now. It doesn’t cause any pain to say it aloud so he does, to his wife.

“This is so not my life, anymore. It’s a relief to be returning to our own place, my real life.”

“Yes, so right.”

Streaming water, they walk to an edge of the property where she picks up sunglasses and purse from the picnic table. They pause to admire a last time geography of his youth, the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge. The place that set him dreaming and moving on a good course.

“Patrick? Elinor?” Hal and Pris dash toward them with towels. “Can we help you back to the house?”

“No, we’re on our way.” He sweeps his arms open and around the area, turns to Hal’s disapproving expression.”Treat it kindly but make it your own. It may take good care of you.”

“Where will we change?” Elinor whispers as they walk away.

“In one of their bathrooms or in the cab?”

“Your pick.”

They leave the others chattering, no apologies offered for the pool plunge. No last words for this good land, the esteemed house. Off to horses and stories. A sweatier, more intriguing, contented life.

DSCN1712
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

 

New Tree City, as Pen Sees It

The look-out is the monster maple in our back yard; it’s the main place I like to be, especially when dad gets home and relaxes on the porch. His spot and my spot both overlook the hilly area behind our garden. He watches the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash or sugar peas grow and ripen–whatever is in season, we tend. I guess he  must look at the hills and woods and remembers what it was like when he grew up here with Pops and Gram, but they’re both long gone. He has told me how there wasn’t a house for at least a mile in all directions back then. Now we live on a paved street at the edge of town and Marionville just keeps creeping past the corner where they finally put a stop sign. A few good cars had to get bashed and a half-dozen lives of cats and dogs ended before it mattered. Now it’s a four-way stop. Dad says it doesn’t mean anything; nothing will stop the town from spilling over the hills and up here.

I’m who he has now. He calls me his blue-eyed soul girl because I like Motown music and because I’m the only girl left, I guess. Mom took off last year. She found out she could make more money as a medical receptionist down below, some small city by Ann Arbor. She has this new person in her life, a girlfriend named Lela. Don’t ask me what that’s all about because dad doesn’t say a thing so I’m not going to ask. I don’t see Mom much since she moved out. She calls once a week or I do. I haven’t met Lela but maybe one day I will. I miss mom too much some days, others not so much. When you get down to it, dad is about what I have, too, except for three good friends at school and a couple of neighbors I like to fish and ski with, meet for a Saturday movie at the Miracle Theater. It’s strange growing up with just a dad but we always did get along better than mom and me. I didn’t ask him to go school shopping with me, though. Telly’s mom took me and got me a bra, too. He hasn’t noticed which is a relief. I’m afraid it will upset him, my growing up already.

Dad says I’m better at climbing trees and running than most boys and he’s right about that. I’m eleven, I can outrun most of the guys around here, and I’m a strong cross-country skier and better downhill skier. He says when I turn twelve I might get faster or maybe slower. We’ll find out in three weeks, after my birthday. I have no intention of slowing down. I can’t help being strong and fast, it just suits me, as mom says.

The reason I spend so much time in the upper third of this maple is because I can see everything. And it’s peaceful. I can survey a small kingdom. There are the Scranton hills, named after Jonas Scranton’s farm that went under before I was born. They’re a relief no matter what the season, they just roll out their colors and designs: mind-freezing beauty. I get a great view of Marionville spreading out beyond the bottom of the hills, namely the south end of the lake, several businesses and the jumping waterfront park. The big woods on the far side of the lake are special after it goes dark. Yellow and white spots shine here and there until the dense trees are sparkling like they’re full of fairy lights.  And I get a decent view of Telly Martin’s place to my right, where he, his parents and sisters live by Silver Creek, in their chalet. Especially their back yard, which is where most of the interesting action is at any house. They’re always doing something, like badminton and barbecuing. I haven’t been there in a few weeks and I miss them even though the two girls are younger and like Barbies too much. My mom, I know, enjoyed Telly’s mom; they had coffee many mornings. But no one asks about her.

Telly and I used to hang out more; he’s fourteen now. I think he also wonders about my dad. One time Telly came by, dad was sitting in the rocker by the scarred square wooden table he uses for about everything. A glass was in his hand so he didn’t reach out to shake Telly’s, as is his way. A big ole bottle of Jack Daniels was next to his book, likely a complicated spy novel he can get lost in. The reading has always been his pleasure, but the whiskey came out after spring break. Before that, a cold beer on a warm week-end was all I saw.

“Come around to see my Penny, eh, Telly?” dad said. He’d had two small glasses already. Three is his limit but it should be one. Or none.

Telly shrugged. “We were going to take a walk. I keep seeing a red fox at the creek. Real pretty.” His hands were in his jeans pockets. He smiled nice.

“Never mind the fox, son, and never mind my daughter. She’s too young to go off with a young man.” 

“Dad, I’ve known Telly for six years–” I protested. It was shocking to hear him talk like that.

“That’s right. He was eight, you were barely six. Played all day.  That was then. This is now. We don’t need more trouble.”

Telly frowned, then winked at me with each eye, our way of saying “later.” He left before I could stop him. But I can see him in his yard; we keep an eye on each other in lots of ways. In fact, my dad doesn’t even know we leave notes under a big loose rock in the field stone wall that divides the Martin’s property from the empty lot between us. That goes back at least four years. Still, I’ve had some doubts about Telly this fall. He’s like a polite acquaintance when I see him in school and hangs out with the first person to move into New Tree City. That’s what dad and I call it.

A developer bought ten acres of the hills and planted skinny, skimpy trees, some maple and some poplar, a little bunch of white pine. It was re-named New Scranton Hills. They brought their big earth-moving machines and started digging up the rich, sweet earth. First time I saw it I winced. It hurt my bones, even my teeth. Dad swore.

So what dad really watches since spring are the new houses cropping up like morel mushrooms. Only he likes those so much he’s on a mission to gather them every spring.

“That’s what’s wrong with Marionville. It can’t stand being the same year after year. It keeps looking to progress but it’ll end up being just like any other fast-growing town. They’re all the  same. Like white bread, right, Pen?”

He took another swallow–I could hear him cough a little–and I grasped the next branch, got a familiar foothold and pulled myself up higher. The leaves were starting to fall and a red one landed on my face. It smelled ancient and comforting.

“Well, dad, nothing can stay the same forever, probably.” I zipped up my hoodie against the autumn chill.

“There you go, that’s the mentality your mother has, our county has, the whole blasted country has. Gotta be bigger, fancier, more, more, more.”

I looked down through a new hole made by leaves falling. He was on his second glass and already he was getting miserable. I had a mind to shimmy down and grab that whiskey bottle and pour it in the garden, let the bugs and squash get tipsy for once. They’d probably just get sick, though.

“Well, no one knows this land like all of us up here, dad. And for sure no one loves it more than you. Pops would be happy you haven’t sold out.”

He chuckled. “That’s right, Pen. No selling out. You can bury me right here, too.”

I looked out over the land and blinked, then looked again. There was a house going up that looked way too big for the land it had grabbed. The carpenters were done for the day, and the frame they had left was a three-story something that dwarfed the new trees and the houses on either side. It hinged on being a mini-mansion from what I could tell. I wondered if it was one of those community places where there would be an indoor swimming pool, rooms to throw big celebrations in, maybe a game room for things like billiards.  I pressed against the sturdy trunk and leaned out a bit, parted the leaves. But it might just be a house, with all those options in it. You could fit four of our house into that building. It made me dizzy to think of it,  excited and mad all at once.

“You hear me, Pen? I don’t want you to start making friends with any of those people, okay? That’s the type young Telly might go for now, you wait. New Tree City people just don’t belong up here.” He banged his glass on the table. “Period.”

But I was gazing out at the lake and the woods and the sky beyond. A silky wash of dusk and then twilight colors spread over the treetops of the lake’s far shore and they glowed for a minute. It got so intense, that’s all there was: oranges, pinks, yellows, then night blues but with a weird light of gold fanning out over the world. The tiny fairy brights lit up the blackened woods after that.  I was alone but happy in my treetop. My dad had given in to whiskey or sadness or maybe sleep. I understood this: he wanted to forget some things and remember others. But New Tree City sat mostly empty of memories while I had nearly twelve whole years in this place. I really held the whole world in my arms. It fit me just right. I’d write a note to Telly about it in the morning; he always got it.