Wednesday’s Fiction: Trial by Henry

Corbin never once felt a simple passing desire to have or even hold a cat. His aunt had had cats, numbering past a half-dozen, she didn’t really keep close track of them. He certainly didn’t bother. His visits were all about his cousins each summer. He enjoyed the boisterous company of two boys and one girl who lived the country life on a small farm. Corbin lived in a tidy cottage in a small city three hours away with his school teacher mother, and a month’s visit was an exotic vacation. He began to wait late winter for the thaw and then forsythia and crocus and finally the first intoxicating waves of late spring heat that heralded school’s imminent closing.

At Miller’s Farm there were three kids, a father who was his uncle– who actually talked to them straight up– and an industrious, sturdy mother, his aunt. He loved his aunt but he sometimes loathed the cats she adored. Mostly he was avoidant though tried to be neutral, which wasn’t so hard since they roamed outdoors and made themselves useful. But they were known to creep inside to wreak havoc now and again. Every now and then, though, he met up with one under sudden circumstances, as when he daydreamed in the hayloft. His body half-lift righted right off his cozy spot as the crazed animal jumped on him. The large black and white mouser swiped him on the nose, leaving it sore, oddly itchy and bloody for hours. That took a few days to heal and left a deep, small scar. had he resembled a mouse or bug as he’d enjoyed his rest? Did the cat lack the common sense required to avoid a boy’s enraged smack at its vanishing tail and behind? Corbin from then on was fully alert when he saw a whisker or a tail or heard the barest echo of a meow. He usually got at least three scratches a summer, anyway, and a nip or two at bare ankles. He washed and washed them. Aunt Lou covered them with snug bandages as he was convinced he’d die or go delirious from cat fever. She only shrugged and patted his back.

“You’d run if you even saw a cat shadow,” Marty teased, holding one of the creatures out to him.

Marty was heading toward burly at twelve; Corbin ran sometimes from him. But the cat scrambled out of his cousin’s arms to seek whatever it was he sought.

“Naw, not true, I just avoid their claws and teeth, which means keeping my distance.”

“I bet when kittens come again you won’t even want to pet one, you never do, not even the fluffy sweet ones,” Fran sniffed as she passed by.

Ott laughed, gave him a raised eyebrow. “Cat hater, huh?”

“They don’t like me!” It was as if he was committing a crime to not like–much less adore–felines. “I like your pigs fine. I like the chickens, mostly, and Clarence the horse–and goats the best. Lots of stuff.”

“Goat Man!” Marty shouted and grabbed his arm to give it a shake, which was a good sign as they were all headed to a field and he was never left behind. Corbin was a good pitcher.  They played ball awhile and climbed trees and the topic was forgotten for the time being.

But when the next batch of kittens did come, Aunt Lou tried and tried to get him to cuddle a tabby and gave up only when he shrank way back, stifling embarrassing tears. Later she apologized but shook her head at him, as if he harbored some strange streak in him. But he was her only nephew, her only sister’s son; he was a good one, she and her husband, Ronnie, agreed. Good for him to be out of that city.

But that was the thing he did not look forward to when he visited his relatives. Everything else was so different and fun it was hard to say farewell after July 4th. His mother came to spend the holiday, which included a delicious pig roast, more bonfires and a spectacle of fireworks for starters. After three days or so, they drove back home.

And the cats did not mar his memories, they were no longer an issue. He was satiated again, full of the warmth and simple happiness that a kind aunt and uncle offer, and the bond that is built when cousins sleep, giggle and freak out in small tents all night, gather eggs for sunrise breakfasts, see night decorated with a gazillion stars and trees loom and shimmer with firelight, and also when hunting squirrel and rabbit (not his favorite but still) and suffering a lick of skunk spray (they had unbelievably lived to tell of it–afterwards it was a small legend around those parts). The sizzling thunderstorms were something that resonated in his mind forever, too, taking over the landscape, the house vibrating with it differently. It all marked him in secret ways.

Out there spectacular forces reigned. The cats were a footnote. Growing up changed some things. But not the essence.

******

“Fran, you’re really doing it!” He held the phone between cheek and jowl as he finished wiping down the counter top after dinner.

“I am, it’s taken me four years to save enough for this trip and to take the time off. Two weeks of heaven along the Seine and exploring Parisian haunts and wonders I’ve read about so long.” She sighed with delight. “But I’ve an issue I need you to help me resolve.”

“Ah.” He often got these calls from people, mostly family, sometimes friends. It was as if he was their helpmate in a pinch–being single, childless, pet-less and living a quiet life teaching at the university. As if he had not only spare answers but spare time or cash or whatever else was needed. “I can’t water your plants from this far but I would take you to the airport, I guess. Depending on day and time.”

Silence. He could hearing an intake of a long breath, and a brittle tapping as her long fingernails got restless atop the coffee table. Fran had grown up to be a successful business owner, cupcakes and specialty cakes, and he often wondered how long it took to get frosting from beneath those pretty nails. But that was Frannie, full of contradictions he always liked. She lived an hour away but they got together every two or three months and there were the calls.

“Out with it,” he said, rinsing the sponge, tossing it into its holder.

“Okay, then, take Henry for me.”

His laughter was fast and rich. Of course she was kidding. “Okay, what do you actually want?”

Silence again. He imagined her frowning, eyes narrowed. “Take Henry. That’s it and please don’t reject the idea out of hand. He is not one of those bad cats, you know he is a prince, and you and he get along. Overall.”

“Henry– here? You have to be joking, Frannie. I would no more have a cat here than I would–well, invite a crocodile in! You know I distrust cats, I do not have the nature to sympathize with their ways, nor inclination to change my view. I can bear them now, but only just. I–“

“Yes, yes, Corbin, I know they scared and aggravated you as a kid. You’re now an adult, and I’m your cousin and I have a critical need. Corbin, this one time! Mom would rather not as her gout is really acting up and Dad, also not great, said he’d just turn him into the fields to fend for himself–“

“Henry can make his way out there fine.”

“No, he’s an indoor cat only, you know this.”

“Fran, I have enough going on with my classes and I am dating a little and I still wear a blasted two-inch scar on my forearm after all these years.”

“But not your nose or chin or ankles. I am asking you because I can’t really spend extra money or incur the risk of germs at a pricey cat hotel, and I really have run out of options. No one else is able to help me. I leave in three weeks. Paris, Corbin.”

He knew there was no way out of this one. He truly wanted her to go on her trip, she deserved this beautiful vacation. But what did he do to deserve Henry? How could a cat-loather welcome a cat? She was foolish to imagine he could do this.

He felt the heat of her desperation, too.

“Alright, I’ll give in this once for the sake of family– but you owe me, big time.”

She screeched, they made arrangements, said goodbye.

Corbin stared out the window, hands in pants pockets, full of regret. The cat was not his family. Why couldn’t she take ole Henry to Paris? Henri might have found love, just stayed on and on.

******

Henry was becoming gargantuan at just nine months–even as he sat (in that detached way of his sort) snug in a corner of the sun room. This Corbin had forgotten, the weight and bulk of him. And he looked similar at a glance to another type of cat, with ginger-colored tail about nearly a foot long, a torso lengthening to a couple of feet, and that Sphinx-like head perched atop bright chest of white. His back was mottled white and ginger, his paws mostly white and huge. Corbin thought those paws could climb mountains, and held an image of him stalking all that passed within ten miles of nose and ears. It was wild, that’s why; it had to be. Frannie admitted it had been feral the first weeks of life, than climbed under her car and camped out, even took a ride underneath the frame once to her horror. And that all made him hers.

She had worked to socialize him and had been moderately successful, she said. Henry no longer felt compelled to attack in a savage manner as it had the first four months. Corbin had met the beast a few times, greeted it with a wave that betrayed a flicker of trepidation–he didn’t turn his back on him. In response, the fledgling cat had regarded him with snobby disdain, barely sliding against an ankle their last short visit; Corbin had been prepared, so didn’t jump. But he only dared let his open hand run over his sleek back as he went out the door. Fran told him this give and take indicated they had acknowledged and even welcomed each other and so all was well.

Well, she was the amateur cat whisperer while he was a bystander with self-interest as primary.

Henry turned away from Corbin’s stare. Instead, he watched a fly buzz at the window, suddenly leaping three feet high to deftly smash it with a paw. Then he watched it writhe on the wood floor before batting it about and giving it a cursory sniff.

Corbin grimaced and left the room. Time to make his own dinner. The cat might get his can opened in a while but he must not disturb the brazen hunter.

******

It was 5:45 in the morning and there was an annoying scratching at his bedroom door. Not that cat already. His “Intro to Medieval Life” class didn’t begin until ten. He’d been up late reading Owen Sheers and his head felt clogged with cotton after barely four hours out in. He turned over and pulled a pillow atop his head. A thump commenced at the door, one-two-three thumps. What was he doing, throwing his body against the door? For what? Pancakes and sausage? That was what Corbin liked on Thursdays, it was a happy habit. He turned over again, threw the pillow at the door where it slid down into a yielding heap.

“Not yet!”

He watched as a big cat paw reached out and snagged the edge of the pillowcase, pulled it closer through the crack. Not that the pillow could squeeze under there but the sheer gall of that! The case would be sliced by those killer claws. He got up, composed a fierce face, opened the door fast and Henry ran downstairs. He smiled to himself , returned to bed.

At 7:00 the thumping  commenced once more. He stifled an urge to yell. No sense giving in to an animal that was no taller than his shins. It was only a cat, hungry is all. He threw on his sweat pants and descended the stairs.

Henry sat on the dining table, tail swinging off the edge, and the thought of cat germs was too disheartening. He grabbed a bright pink emergency spray bottle and lightly squirted the leonine body with cool water. Though Corbin backed up in anticipation of a frontal attack, it worked. Henry leapt like an acrobat, up, up and out and landing on his feet, then sprawled in repose, looking at his host without blinking. Corbin started on the pancake mix, heated up a small skillet for sausage and brewed coffee and smiled. Sunshine poured through the window above the sink and the cat was lying on the floor by the door. Score a first point. Maybe he would let him out later into the back yard. Just for a feline look-see, a taste of the real world.

 

One third of a sausage was added to cat food. A tasty bribe worked wonders with creatures. Henry liked it so got a tiny bit of pancake which he ignored.

Corbin left for class early. Best to let cats inhabit their cat solitude. He had the relief of people awhile.

******

“Corbin? How’s my Henry?”

“He’s asleep by the fireplace though there is no fire. It is nearly spring.”

“He’s probably bored. Do you talk to him? Is he acting depressed?”

“Good grief no, he is fine, he’s napping. How is Paris?”

“Divine!”

Henry yawned, stood, sidled over to him and the phone. Corbin did not offer him a chance to hear his owner or to speak, so he appeared to eavesdrop. The cousins chatted a few more moments. Before she could tell him to give Henry a hug, Corbin hung up with a cheery goodbye.

“Your mistress misses you. Now go lay back down, tiger.” It half-scared him to hear himself talk to a cat. He tightened his lips into a line line and got busy doing chores.

Henry tilted his head; his ears twitched before he briefly leaned against the human leg, then streaked across rooms, hunting something Corbin could not identify as anything at all.

******

Henry was missing. This occurred to Corbin around bedtime. It had been three hours since he was last seen. Did the cat sneak out when he took out the garbage? Cats cry out when they want to be let in, don’t they? Like dogs. Let him hunt insects–he seemed good at that–and root around for grubs and such. He continued to read students’ papers, engrossed for once. At 11:00 he headed for bed,  remembered the cat. Shrugged. He sank onto the mattress, turned on the reading lamp, reached for his pillow to fluff. And got sliced by a swift sharp knife.

He held the left hand with the right, close to his chest, blood streaming. Henry lay back and groomed himself. The blood was more a very fine trickle, but the small gash was open and red as he raced to the bathroom to get a clear look. He swabbed it with alcohol and found an old Band-aid, all the while cursing softly at the mad animal who had usurped his pillow, And supported his belief that he and cats were essentially enemies. As before-not capable of being friends.

Despite his cooling anger, he had a quiet talk with Henry.

“You cannot sleep here. It is my sanctuary, not yours. I own this house, you are a guest. Not even a paying guest. And you cannot scratch me. If you must be here, you absolutely must get way, way over there. Or on the floor, yes. I prefer you to get out but don’t want more violent confrontations.”

He picked up the cat with both hands–he was so heavy it felt an effort– and clumsily tossed him on the other side of the bed before another wound was incurred. Henry gave a protest, jumped off the bed and padded to the armchair which he occupied instantly but not for long. He looked about, found no more victims, and slipped out the door. Corbin got up to shut the door tight, leaning against it.

“Little monster!” he said to the darkness.

The light was turned off. He did not sleep a long time; even his face covered with quilt, just in case. He dreamed of hot dirt and hay, of cats’ tails like shadowy snakes on walls and mice scampering for their lives, his feet following them.

******

In the morning, they greeted each other with the barest nod. Henry’s was more a twitch of whiskers as food was offered. Corbin dashed off to class and was glad of it. Only for Fran. Never again.

******

On Sunday they sat outside as it had begun to feel like spring. Corbin held a tall glass of iced tea despite a chill and hint of rain on the breeze. But nature was fast transforming, clusters of daffodils a bloom, two robins zipping about with songs to spread. He had a world history magazine on his lap, unread.

Henry was  dazzled by all that lawn; he chased whatever had wings or tiny legs, chewed on grass and flowers and gagged a bit. He scampered about the edges of grass as if he was playing tag with another of his kind. For an hour he ran about and showed off that lean long body and shiny fur, then cleaned himself thoroughly, more like preened. He had to be fixed, didn’t he? He drowsed under the oak tree.

All this Corbin viewed behind sunglasses. He was delighted to wear his favorite warm weather attire, sip chilled tea and he wished he’d invited Cecelia over. But not with that cat here. At least not unless he behaved better.

Henry scampered up a tree in search of feathers but no luck, the bird had other plans, flew off. He navigated a half-slide down.

Corbin shook his head. What a predator, an alpha cat. He drank to the beast– but ho hum, what a lazy day.

******

Corbin was sick. Not a hangover, not the flu, sick with something big enough to make him want to lie down and die for two days. Might have been the lettuce, where did that come from? Did the FDA forget to test that field? Farmers, he thought, ought to be paid more but be more careful. What would Uncle think? Or was it a common student plague? He hung his head over the toilet bowl.

Henry lay on the bed, dozing. He was getting hungry. He was also waiting for Corbin to come back around, things to be normal. He got up, sauntered to the bathroom, lay flat upon the cool tile floor and watched, listened, waited. He returned to that spot after running downstairs to get water from his bowl and lay his head on two paws until Corbin glanced over at him.

They stayed put awhile.

******

Time passed and they were both in bed, Corbin with his arm flung over his eyes, Henry with his body curled up on the pillow next to Corbin’s. They slept–Henry took breaks elsewhere–and said nothing for another 24 hours.

Finally he resumed teaching. The cat sat in his beautiful way on a window ledge and saw the man leave, and liked everything else after that; it entertained him an hour or so.

******

“Corbin, I am on my way to the airport, darn it. Mom isn’t handling things well since Dad’s bleeding ulcer sent him to hospital so I’ve cut two days off. Home tomorrow. My brothers are so far away!… isn’t Paris far enough? We’ll get some dinner when you collect me at the airport. How is that Henry?”

“He’s fine. Sorry you have to return now, and to hear about more health issues. I need to see them more. I’ll be at the arrivals curb.”

She gave him details and he hung up. 

He felt a slight spring in his step as he prepared a dinner serving for Henry. Soon: once more alone. Then he ate his turkey burger and salad, even offered a bite of meat to the cat, but Henry was so picky. They finished, cleaned up and the less-wild feline sat calmly until Corbin took a seat in the sun room to sip a coffee. Corbin reached to pat the furry head and Henry began to purr very softly as he trotted along, tail swishing.

Corbin whistled quietly, a thing he enjoyed. The cat kept sliding a glance at him. It occurred to Corbin that he might like to sing, too, but was too circumspect to do that. He soon was distracted by a tidy line of ants that made their way across the white painted wood floor. 

******

“Henry, this is it, you’re now going back to where you belong.”

They were in the dining room where Corbin had paid a few bills and Henry had chased a fly until it gave up and then ate the whole thing. At least Corbin thought so– he looked away at the last moment.

Henry meowed a little, something he did at times if Corbin spoke, more often if he was hungry, wanted to be outside, or was bored or heard a weird noise or for no discernible reason. He raced to Corbin and,with an elegant slice through air, landed in his lap. Corbin’s arms flew out and he leaned back so that their weight was just balanced on two legs of the old oak chair. The cat rubbed his head on his chest and forearms, purring.

The other chair legs it the floor with a thud. “My gosh, stop leaving fur on me, not dignified behavior,” he said, arms still hovering, hands flapping.

But Henry settled on his lap. They paused like that until Corbin picked up the silky body and held him close just a second. Released him. No damage done but this was the end of it.

“Okay, let’s get that Frannie.”

******

Breathless and waving, she rushed to her cousin’s sports car, face rimmed with weariness and wide with happiness. She looked livelier than ever despite the long flight. He got the luggage. She grabbed Henry’s cage from her seat and sat with it on her lap.

“Hi, you two! How is my Henry? I so missed you–you would have loved Paris!”

“Take him next time. He was pining away, bored, irritating and needy. Back to the cupcake shop with you both! But we got by.”

She laughed in relief and murmured to her cat.

He looked over at Henry who gave him a good stare with a slow blink. Corbin slipped the car into first and took off with immediate speed. Henry gave a sharp meow then purred as he ran his rough tongue over Fran’s pearly fingernails.

The Other Side of Things

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“Peter Barron, over here! It’s Mitch! How’re you doing, buddy?’

I didn’t slow my pace or look over my shoulder. He wasn’t talking to me, after all, despite what he thought. He was hoping to have a chat and to share his latest news, maybe finagle sharing a coffee, even, before heading to his elegant or cozy (maybe both) home. I didn’t know a Mitch. I knew Mick and Corey, Dante, Artie and TK. No Mitchell/Mitch, who likely hung out with a Laurence, Carter or Theo.

I could hear his shoes slapping the sidewalk, picking up speed. He was not going to let Peter Barron go without at least a brief and pleasant exchange. I followed the right-curving walkway of the park. This was the longest way to the creek, so he might give up if he was headed to work.

But I felt the tap on my shoulder and turned my head to look at Mitch, not varying my pace. He fell in step.

“Peter, it’s been a few years!  Mitchell Howe from the Key Club, we used to share a table now and then? Knew it was you, haven’t changed, well, so much, but you may not recognize me what with the balding and all…”

I down shifted my stride to give him a laser focused look for about five seconds, one that would erase the image he carried in his head and replace it with the view in front of him. Predictably, his forehead crinkled and he faltered, then stopped.

“You’re not Peter. No, well, I’m sorry, buddy. Pretty embarrassing, but you look just like–I mean, you could be his twin!”

“Right, it happens. Don’t worry about it.” With a curt nod of my head, I kept going.

I thought that was it when he called out, exasperation emphasizing his words. “Julian! I should have figured out it was you!”

And finally, that was all. I’d gotten away with no major fall-out for once. Hadn’t had to explain a thing or tell him I didn’t rally know about Peter’s life or no, I didn’t have his data to give out. Sometimes the person asked how I was doing but it was barely even cursory, a waste of words and air.

I found the creek where it always had been, along the edge of the wooded park, and found an empty bench. It was three o’clock according to the church bell–that booming, automated ring tone. I had a few minutes to spare.

Why did Mitch think he should have known it was me? I had no recollection of him but that wasn’t too strange. I knew very few people here. What gave me away in his reconsideration? Or was it just my similarity to Peter while I was not him? Simplest deduction, then. But I toyed with the possibilities. It might have been my height at nearly six four. It might have been the very slight limp that arose without warning. Or maybe my dirty blond hair is longer, that was likely, I didn’t make regular stops at the barber these days. Or maybe it was how I hunch my shoulders when someone I don’t know calls out to me–I prefer to fold up some, even disappear. Or my eyes when I stared at him, wintry blue and a little slanted, smallish. Or as my mother always said, wolfish–despite a reminding her wolves eyes are not blue.

I cited her genes, not my father’s–his eyes were like his brother’s, ordinary, light brown. My Uncle Albert, the chain store owner of Barron’s Appliance and Electronics. Peter Barron’s father. Peter and me, you see, we’re first cousins. Dad has had his own thing going with three stores, Barron’s Footwear. Businessmen.

I suppose I have been, too, but it all went down wrong. I have zero going right now. Peter, though, he’s a man of the cloth. Who knew? But it makes some sense to me.  He was thoughtful and good in a way many couldn’t quite muster much less sustain.

******

We grew up two blocks from each other. We were born barely a year apart. My mom and Aunt Lydia were thick as can be while their husbands, the brothers, got along sporadically. There was always some family gathering, and sometimes it was good and easy if boisterous and other times it was all drama, a few hours tied up and split apart by disagreements between Dad and Uncle Albert. Peter and I sneaked off any way it went, sooner or later. It was better to not be in the line of fire or radar-like watchfulness of the mothers. There was the back yard with its fruit trees at our house or at his, there were layers of flowers, bushed and trees with a centrally located pool and a comfortable pool house. We easily found something else to do and sometimes had to elude Karissa and Jeanette, our other cousins, the first one being my younger  sister and the second, his.

It was like the mothers planned it all, their kids close to the same ages and one of each gender, husbands in business. Aunt Laura came from the south, all those stretched, rounded vowels and charming ways, while Mom was no-nonsense and straight to the point. It worked for them and impacted our lives differently. Peter from the start was more naturally academic, halfway refined by the time he was ten. I did fine at school out of desire to keep my parents calm and was resistant to develop gentlemanly comportment. He liked to explore and push the limits some but he didn’t dare get caught, that was the thing that guided his every move. Whereas I had less concern about it if the activity got my adrenaline going and there was some sort of pay off, like we got to see horror movies that our neighbor watched after we climbed the fence and bribed their dog with hot dogs or pretzels if he was out. We’d watch through their back family room window until the dog demanded more and more food.

But as time went by, I was looking for more things to get into and Peter was backing off. We still talked after school and rode dirt bikes in summer. I swam at his house often and we had a few parties together. We stayed at each other’s houses every now and then and stayed up late eating junk food and comparing notes on girls we hoped to date some day.

But by the ninth grade we  had less time for each other. He was eager to play team sports, baseball especially, and played trumpet in the band. I’d watch him play ball but I gravitated to skateboarding and off-road biking and backpacking in the mountains. The one time he saw me at the skate park he cheered me on but after we kicked at the dirt and threw rocks into the trees; we just had too little to say. So when I had some trouble after lifting a couple of packs of smokes, a bag of chips and a soda at the corner store, things turned for good. I got taken down to jail and booked and stayed 24 hours in miserable quarters before my dad paid them off and got me, entirely infuriated. It didn’t end there, of course, but my fine and community service work weren’t tough.

When Peter came over and confronted me about it, not wanting to believe the rampant gossip that I was suddenly a juvenile delinquent, I started to deny things then shrugged, backed away. I’d had enough verbal flogging from the parents, privileges taken. After that, he gave me a worthwhile punch in the chest  and I smacked his head, then shoved him hard enough that he fell backwards with a thud.

As he scrambled up, he shouted,”Why, Julian? You’re not that person, not some mean idiot!”

I sat under a crab apple tree and oscillated between tears and cold anger. I didn’t know why I did it but it wasn’t all that terrible, was it? It had something to do with seeing how far I could go, getting something for nothing, outsmarting others, feeling energized by the risks–all the wrong stuff to feel, part of me intoned. I felt confused. But intrigued even more; the other part tugged at me.

The next day we eyed each other in school hallways like once-loyal co-conspirators or old buddy neighborhood dogs who could not or would not any longer leap over the wide ravine to even say hello. I quietly growled at him when I ran into him after that and he just shook his head, eyes flitting over my face, seeming almost amused–or disgusted, I wasn’t sure. I resolved to check my impulses and do things better and it was partly because I knew Peter knew I could do better. And my parents were on me, as was everyone.

Kids used to mistake us all the time for years but by then, we were so different in attitude and style that it happened less. I secretly missed that, and I suspected even Peter did, as it had been part of who we had always been, almost twins, cousins more like brothers who had been best friends.

I had more trouble, though. Trespassing on the golf course grounds after midnight while drunk on vodka, causing turf damage with my golf clubs. But all in all, I minded my own business, made a few friends my parents looked askance at and got my homework done. I unfortunately wrecked my car–bought with my own money after three summers working at the stores–when drag racing, a favorite hobby, on a country road. But in the end we both graduated, me by the skin of my teeth and Peter, of course, with honors and awards. He deserved it all. He was still my cousin and a decent guy. That was the last time I saw him, at a joint party our parents threw at his place. That was a hugely successful event with some wild and sad stories but, then, isn’t that what those parties are about in the first place? Farewell with a big bang for memories? But my parents and Aunt Lydia and Uncle Albert were full of generosity and good nature: we’d both (me, more or less) navigated a few rites of passage by eighteen.

Peter and I ended up hanging out as people left, horsed around in the pool almost like old times. We had survived those adolescent years and so, we moved on, he to a top university.

We still looked very like each other, though I was nearly three inches taller, and yet he was undeniably Peter and I was, of course, strictly Julian or “J” to my good friends.

******

I met Artie a year or so later at his old man’s body shop since I often had need of work on my older trucks, more often on my very fast Mustang. I had finished community college and gone on to work in residential construction and remodeling, All that work on interesting houses gave me a desire to buy my own small place and the move in with Bella, the woman I had vowed to marry–some day. Being impatient by nature, I kept coming up with mad schemes that would pay off well and faster.

“No need to think so hard about it,” Artie said as I admired the work he  had done on my Mustang once more, “you just need to join the crew I’ve got going and we’ll get you all set, man.”

“What do you mean?” I was only half-listening as I leaned against the building. Artie said things that skirted the edges of ludicrous sometimes so I usually nodded my head, then went my way.

“Why not come over tonight and I’ll explain it then. You can make some big money, that’s all you need to think over.”

“Sure,” I said, curious more than believing he had any insight into making money other than fixing cars up, a good skill but limited in profits as his father owned the shop and took a big cut.

“Eight tonight.”

He gave me a look that presaged things I could not imagine. I felt it in my spine, a shift of energies, fear and excitement and fascination all mixed together. I took the Mustang out on side roads and ran it hard. It held up good as ever but soon it would be gone.

******

The creek was flowing fast and soothed me. I shifted on the bench under the emerald density of trees. My hip hurt as it had for years since the near-catastrophic car accident when it had been broken. But the hurt had developed into a dark ache that had tunneled deeper the last few. I knew it was the rude bed and damp, chilled conditions of the prison that had housed me for eight. Grand larceny. And before that, petit larcenies, incarcerated one year and then another. I had gotten out two months ago and had so far made no dent in the job hunt. No big surprise.

I was staying at the parent’s house, in the apartment above the three car garage. But only just. Mom wanted me there and Dad did not. There were discussions that ended up sizzling and there were silences that held fast for days. Except for Mom I would have left, slept on the street. She was so glad to see me and wanted me to talk to her, “to recover from hell” as she put it, and then to move on toward the Good Life. Dad just wanted me to move on and out-of-town and maybe come back when I had changed identities if possible, or at least started to live decently again. I felt myself leaning more toward his viewpoint every passing day. I had much to recoup, and their tolerance, their tentaive kindness was half-real, half a fluke, I thought.

I picked up a twig at my feet, tossed it with an easy swing of my arm so that it made a tiny plop, spun and disappeared. It was spring already, I mused. It felt overwhelming sometimes, all those scents and colors and sounds, the many moving parts and bodies both human and otherwise. Everything was no longer what I knew. To think that this was what I had yearned for and here I was, finally. Yet I was not at all convinced I could even live a life like this, in the open world.

“Julian.”

I twisted around at the sound of his voice, rose up to face him.

“Peter.”

“So long since that crazy pool party, huh?…”

He looked himself, older but not poorly, face made more interesting by creases around his mouth and at the edges of his eyes. He had the white band of collar on, he was really an Episcopal priest, but he quickly undid it then removed it and put it in a pocket. Peter offered his hand which I took. Then we caught each other into a bear hug, brief but strong. I pushed back the pain of time lost. I was certain I looked haggard, honed down to basics.

When we sat down, we were quiet. It felt surprisingly alright. Just the creek and  trees swishing in the warm wind and robins adding to a soundtrack of nature in the city with their brash and welcoming song.

“Where do I even begin, cousin?” I asked, voice almost swallowed up in the words.

“How about starting with right now? That’s all we’ve ever got, my brother. And we already know who we truly are, maybe the only ones who can say that of us both.”

I shut my eyes and saw only a soft blur of light behind my eyelids, not bars cutting it into narrow pieces. When I opened them he was smiling his crooked smile at me.

“You may have that right. And I’ve had time to think over my place in the universe, you know. Not sure it’s in this town but today it seems to be.”

Peter bent to dig two medium hefty, irregular rocks from the damp soil. He gave one to me. We threw them to the other side of the exuberant creek, mine missing a squirrel before resting on a grassy knoll, his hitting a tree branch and landing near mine, and it all felt better than anything had in a long, long while.

 

 

An Up North Autumn: Lakes, Forests and Love

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West Bay, Lake Michigan. All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2017 (Photos not re-touched)

To any outsider and according to ordinary appearances, my husband, Marc, and I were going “back home” to Michigan for a week’s visit/vacation. That is, we were on the proverbial journey that leads to one’s old stomping grounds, a destination deemed “hometown” (seeming more a mirage than actuality). What I discovered anew is that my old home base (as well as my husband’s) was not where or what makes most sense at first glance. It should have been more obvious to us from the start; we did plan the trip together. And it is people whose presence means “home” as well as places. Both might be different from one’s original hometown.

Our main purpose for flying half the day (really entire day due to a six hour layover in Chicago) was to visit my elderly mother-in-law, my brother-in-law and his wife at a new home they now all share. Our second intention was to go on a “color tour,” i.e., to witness northern Michigan’s palette of autumnal forest hues. The drive from the Detroit airport was a wake-up call that clarified we were no longer in Oregon: hulking grey industrial complexes, drivers darting in and out of lanes without warning and blaring horns as if making a chase movie. The essential flatness, the geometry of everything. That cumulus cloud-laden sky tussling with windy rainfall. (Later, weather became, then remained weirdly balmy–why did I pack my fleeces? Oh, so-called Indian Summer was upon the state….) Here and there were scattered fall-bright trees among cityscapes and burdened highways. However, in time the city scenes were fewer as we neared our destination.

Their house was perhaps an hour and a half from the Detroit airport, and found set back from the tidy, tree-studded street, one nearly empty of any Sunday morning bustle as we glided toward the house with our rental car–a new Chevy Malibu, a fine “Motor City” auto industry-worthy sedan, I have to say. Marc had grown up in Flint and Lansing, cities other than the one we were visiting but we might have swung by his old homes if he’d wanted that. He did not mention it. So, we arrived to visit with his mother and brother. To share and discover what it meant for him–for us both.

Beth, my mother-in-law, is 89 years old; she is lovely despite worsening issues with eyesight and hearing, a slowness of gait. Her gentle face and searching eyes couple with the sharp inquisitiveness of a theological scholar (amateur but believe me, she knows the most arcane things) and longtime teacher, as well as traces of tension around eyes and mouth which stresses of life deposited. I find her smile beautiful and her laugh tender. But everyone has family history that is complicated; being human must mandate that to some degree. Visiting, I am more a semi-outsider looking in, only know parts of what makes the family tick so I observed. A pleasant occupation.

(You may need to click on some photos for captions.)

My husband embraced his only sibling, two years younger, and they began to catch up bit by bit. They’ve not been so close as I have with my four (now three) siblings; this visit was important. We found my sister-in-law yet unwell from a medical ordeal but we gabbed as we could. Beth was more the focal point. How endearing she could yet be–eloquent with such precise grammar, curious about people and events, opinions well delineated. Pleased as she could be to once more be with her older son and even me. To be able spend days and evenings with both her children held such import. It had been 6 years since we were all face-to-face. Too long. The three days zoomed by. My husband and his brother became more reconnected. Beth was pleased with the mini-family reunion as other members shared dinner twice. There was a more intimate confab here and there that I respectfully avoided, exploring the pretty back yard leading to woods. Or I chatted with my sister-in-law. I came to better realize the depth of her weariness and bravery, even as we also shared a little laughter. Her deep eyes were hard with pain, softened by a good heart.

When Marc and I were closer to leaving, Beth asked me, “Are you going to visit your parents’ graves in Midland, your hometown? Tend to the sites?”

I shifted into startled silence. No, not on this charted course.

“Well, no, the plan is to continue on up north to Petoskey and Traverse City areas. I  guess I could have but…not this time.”

Beth was politely surprised. I said something reasonable about our schedule and conversation moved on. I felt a bit stung by my inability to say “yes” to her, but it vanished soon.

Such an act is considered a duty, a tradition for adult children yet it has rung empty for me. I have not visited my parents’ graves since my mother died ten years after my father. I may never do so. Because I believe in ongoing life beyond death, I don’t feel their presences in a greenly-pruned cemetery. Because I can sense their spirits in my dreams and daily living, I don’t have undue desire to talk to them at the spots where their bodies were buried. To leave flowers that will fade and die, too.

And the fact is, I have little interest in revisiting the small city where I spent my childhood and youth. It is an attractive, even privileged place but not so much a fuzzy embrace of warmth, security and joy as a series of chain links, of strife bound together with various sorts of love, unusual experiences. And many if not most of the links became weakened or rusted through. I admire its bounties and appreciate much of what was learned there. But all those I loved the truest do not live there, anymore. In my memory files of “hometown” it is like looking at colorful pictures but also seeing mysterious muted tones of shadowy negatives, primary scenes before the final images. I did have interesting adventures, some dangerous, others tattooed with sadness. And there are those that shine within, still. Peace enough has been made and I have written much about good times, far less of wounding ones. We all are wounded here and there, in this way or that.

So when I think of growing up, I often consider other places, including what downstate Michiganders call “Up North.” Marc and I–both grateful to have shared the time with his mother, brother and the others– took to the road again. We were seeking the destinations where we each found stability or rich happiness or inspiration long ago, and from which we continue to draw strength and peace.

Photos from along the drive north:

The undulating roads into northern Michigan are lonely as large cities are left behind, but lonely in a way both freeing and calming. Hills appeared here and there, at last. The speed limit is 70 mph so we zipped along straight then curvier highways and byways, past subtly rolling land steeped in shades of green, tan and brown, the trees tending more toward gold, orange and red mile by mile. This was what we’d hoped for: Michigan’s spectrum of autumnal colors. It was a more silent drive as we feasted our eyes.

It was early evening as we arrived at Bay View, once the summer home locale of Marc’s grandparents and, thus, his whole family. We had booked a room for one night in Stafford’s Bay View Inn, which is on the National Historical Register. All the buildings in Bay View, a community that requires membership, were constructed at the turn of the twentieth century and are Victorian. This lends a sense of being transported into that long ago time. The charm of the inn’s rooms was matched by the gentile, good humored spirit of the staff. Begun primarily as a Chautauqua community, Bay View residents did and still does devotedly champion the arts and greater education. But the star to me is the land with its waterscapes.

This was the backdrop of our northern childhoods, those pines, birches, maples, oaks, elms and poplars. The Great Lakes Huron and Michigan that flow into one another. They are so huge that when we were children we thought they were much like the ocean; the horizon above the deep, clear cobalt waters was so distant and magical we could barely imagine what was beyond it. We ran down to the rocky shore where Marc started his rock hunting in earnest; he soon found a couple of agates and beloved Petoskey stones. These unique stones are fossilized rock, made of rugose coral, from glacial times. They are named after an Ottawa Chief Pe-to-se-ga (Rising Sun); their fossil markings look a bit like small suns with rays spreading outward. We found a few to take back with us.

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East view of Little Traverse Bay, part of Lake Michigan

I breathed in the bright edge of a Lake Michigan wind, hair streaming, eyes watering. The powerful scent of fresh water and wet earth provoked a tingling shiver as I scanned and took it all in, hungering for beauty. The rhythm of waves excited and calmed me at once. This ancient canvas, no longer mirage or memory but real as could be–north country’s fresh water and big sky wonders, a swaying of great treetops by lake’s edge, a hardness of stones under feet–yet moved me.

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West view at sunset of Little Traverse Bay

The next day Marc and I wandered on foot about sunlit Bay View streets and found his grandmother’s house still kept yellow and white and crisscrossing tree branches even more generous and luminous: the stillness of streets caught in a spell of life and times long past yet gently present. Each house there is beautifully rendered in the style of those times. Now many appear to be year ’round homes, winterized for the brutal winters–not allowed when Marc’s family lived there only in summer. We visited the youth clubhouse and boat house where he swam and sailed his Sunfish each day, a treat he still recalls as thrilling. We saw the stark white chapel, though closed. He was brimming with memories. I was, too, from the summers we brought our boisterous five children. It is an idyllic place and it is his “home place”, the one that shaped and educated him in untold ways he was grateful to experience. Soon, I saw a profound ease imbue and cheer him, displacing tensions of his jam-packed work life. Later we also enjoyed shopping and eating (great coffee and tea, too) in charming downtown Petoskey, the city to which Bay View utilities/services are connected. We also visited nearby, more upscale Harbor Springs; I will share those pictures another blog post.

There are two shots, a front and side view, of my husband’s grandparents’ beloved yellow and white summer house, no longer in the family. The rest is a sampling of other homes, some more modest than others, all lovely and in great shape for over 100 years. The chapel and boat club gazebo are also shown.

 

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As we drove away, Marc said: “Next year if we can return, let’s stay two or three nights at the inn.”  I agreed. The first days of our trip had been nearly perfect. (I was ill one day with a chronic malady, so had to miss out on a fabulous Cessna Comanche plane ride. Marc got on board with his niece’s husband, the Comanche pilot.) Only two more days left before we had to fly back to Oregon. How could it get any better than this?

Next Wednesday I’ll take you to a North Country jewel, Traverse City, as well as tiny Interlochen where big things happen– and where my own history sent out deep roots. We’ll also visit wine and cherry country around Old Mission Peninsula and the attractive, touristy Leelenau Peninsula. We’ll find colorful trees galore! Those parts also welcomed us. I had nearly forgotten: Michigan, for all its blustery, sometimes rougher can-do attitude, is also open, friendly and gracious in a refreshing down-to-earth way.

MI day 4-5, Bay View, Petoskey, TC 120

 

Aunt Cara, Dragons and Crows

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Photo by William Eggelston

I hadn’t planned on a stop in town on my way to visit Aunt Cara but her last minute call–“Please get a six-pack of lemon seltzer and two giant chocolate bars”–demanded I park and shop. A Miracle Mart stood next to The Corner Store, another sign of change. It had only been a year since I was last this way, but it was jarring to see cement block and huge advertisement-covered windows jammed against aging timber saddled with the beloved wide sagging porch. A new job had kept me career-engaged. Aunt Cara had been busy getting unhitched from her husband of thirty years, then travelling. I had seen him one last time over a year ago, right before they split up. And now my uncle–no, he was just Lars now–was far away and she languished, alone, weakened.

I entered The General Store, of course, and there was Mr. Brunfeldt with his ancient stained Tigers baseball cap and a clean white long apron stretched about his middle. There was a story to that cap but I had forgotten it and wasn’t going to inquire. I was surprised to not see him chewing a cigar.

“There’s Gen Whitaker, how you been? Been a year, hasn’t it?”

A passing customer with a stuffed backpack nodded at me. I didn’t know him but likely he’d know me after I left thanks to Mr. Brunfeldt. I noded back.

“Hey, Mr. Brunfeldt. Tired from the five hour drive, eager to get to my aunt’s. Where’s the lemon seltzer?”

“Fancy or cheap?”

“Both, not sure what Aunt Cara prefers.”

“The cheap.”

I got both and studied the chocolate. Same dilemma. I got the best of four choices, two fat bars.

I paid him and offered a summary. “Been busy with my new job as Manager at the circuit board plant in Wicks. Still single. Looking for a good dog now that I got a town house. You?”

His eyes warmed in satisfaction. “Well and good for us both. Profits are up with people moving in from greater Wicks area. Jerry is finally gone with his girl over the mountain. My Myra is fair to middling. Isn’t it bad luck Cara got that mess? ”

“Pneumonia, nothing exotic. Of course, she’s getting on just a little like so many. Took its toll. As you likely know. Good for Jerry and his girl.”

The man with the backpack was tapping his foot behind me. I paid and left.

“She shoulda got the pneumonia vaccine like I did,” he added with a sudden cough to underline his smugness.

I let the door slam shut, its little silver bell tinkling furiously. Didn’t he ever replace that tinny thing? Pelton was the one place I’d hoped to avoid from here on out but that wasn’t likely with my mother’s only sister here. Not that I resented her, no. I just had little time for crises and miscellaneous causes. Still my very favorite aunt from both sides, and it had scared me when she took ill like that.

The main street and its buildings held a colorful tinge in late afternoon; sunlight glazed the winking store windows. Two blocks long when I was growing up just a street away, it looked as much as four now. I squinted in the amber light, then decided to stop for coffee. Not Starbucks but maybe better, a new shop with a black and red awning and in the center a small gold dragon. Fire and Water was its name. Not a bad choice, if out of place in provincial Pelton.

The room came to view through a soft murkiness as overhead lighting was spare. Electric candles were flickering upon wood tables, benches at the longer ones and chairs at smaller. There were drapes of red velveteen pulled back from two tall and narrow windows; dwindling light filtered through and on the counter.

“A grande iced, half-caf mocha with almond milk, no whip,” I announced to the barista, hardly believing this was offered or done right. But Hanna got on it. There was a young man humming along with the music track as he cleaned. All in all, a pleasant place.

Seven other customers had their heads in computers or phones. I felt a quiver of envy, wishing I could sit in quiet privacy, too. Guilt visited me with a thump in my heart. I was there for Aunt Cara, after all. It was not vacation time for me. She needed me. I took my chilled coffee, left a nice tip and vowed to return.

A few steps past the door was an alley. Above the entry was hung a sign: “Dragon Alley.” I looked down at the short end where there were two doors, both closed, one painted pine green, one deep red, address numbers above each. Apparently apartments or other businesses. I couldn’t recall what it had been but it looked curiously inviting, in an odd way. I hurried on to my SUV and headed to Aunt Cara’s. My diaphragm quivered at the thought of her drowsing in bed, mouth slack and her hair matted. Like a pitiable old lady. I nearly wept at the possibility.

******

“Here she is, here’s my girl, Genevieve!”

Aunt Cara wrapped her thin arms about my neck and pulled me in for a long one. It ended when chesty cough erupted. I waited, alarmed, until it faded, then pulled my suitcase to the staircase. She was propped up on the couch, her worn Pendleton blanket pulled close to chest. Just fifty-five, twenty years older than I yet she looked aged for a moment. Still, tenderness and elation filled me, so relieved was I to see her up at all.

“I thought you’d never get here, I was waiting all day. I know that traffic can be terrible. Look at you, good as gold to come see me! Cropped hair, looks pretty, but what’s that on your wrist?”

I covered the tattoo with my sleeve. “Just a bird. Time for a full once-over later, Aunt Cara. Let me look at you. You’ve lost about ten pounds and your color is, well, paler. But you’re sitting up. With a side plate of crackers and cheese!”

“You now I won’t starve. Marie’s just next door, you recall her?”

“I do, a great neighbor. I need to get your seltzer so you can cool your chest and swallow that snack. And I see pills.”

“The last of antibiotics, dear, that’s all. Well, a couple more things.”

As I got the ice for her seltzer, I shook off tentacles of fear. It was a new feeling in this home. Cara was always the hearty sunflower to my mother’s hothouse orchid. I was used to seeing her ruddy-cheeked, busy with work and chores and hobbies, volunteering. A hospital administrator, she was exposed to all sorts of things yet covered at work for those who got ill. She flew from one season to the next with nary a sore throat. Until this late summer, after a trip to Alaska. After she was left on her own.

“Here you go.”

She sipped on it with gratitude, popped a pill into her mouth, then another. “I know, it’s weird! It got a hold of me when I was in Anchorage, I think, just felt so tired, chest heavy in that beautiful air. In the mountains I thought, altitude. But it stayed on, a cough and shiver here and there. By the time my plane landed, I felt feverish. And then it hit me when the taxi driver let me out at the curb. I had to ask him to take my suitcase to the door, I was so weak.”

I had heard it all before but listened intently. “Humiliating, no doubt. I’m sorry, Auntie. I’m glad you didn’t end up in the hospital. It worried me so much but have come when I could. I’ll do all I can for the next week.”

She flapped her hand at me as if it was no big thing. “I’m not contagious, that’s good. But pretty wiped out. Still, I’ve had good help here and there…I knew I’d be better soon.”

“Marie is such a good friend, and I’m sure the book club, your hospital friends pitched in.”

She nodded, turned her head toward the bay window. I followed her dreamy gaze. Early fall sunset spreading its vibrancy, a warm backdrop behind other houses. No skyscrapers poking the dusk, no rumbling, clanging metro train to interrupt us.

Aunt Cara pushed herself up to sit a little taller. “Did you see it when you went to The General Store?”

“What? I could be in another town altogether, it was odd.”

“That fancy new coffee shop.”

I held out my iced mocha. “Yes, been there. Not that fancy…”

“Ah, but it’s excellent, right? Such an interesting place!” She gave me a slow, liquid smile, then lay back.

“You don’t like coffee that much, do you?”

“But the teas, they’re wonderful, homemade herbal blends.” She tilted her head at me. “Why not go on up to your room and unpack? We’ll order take-out soon, then we can talk until I’m ruined by all the news and excitement.”

Her laugh followed me up the stairs, then dissolved into a fit of coughing. I paused on the top step, listening to the deep bass of it. How it must hurt. I hurried to the guest room, really my room, unpacked the basics all the while thinking of quiet, steady and highly ambitious Uncle Lars. How I wished they had never divorced. So she wasn’t alone and could count on his level head and hearty ways. So he’d read to her, regale he with stories. But that was my fantasy. He was long gone, back in his native Sweden with his old company. Damn, why did he have to love work more than Aunt Cara? But I missed him, the good parts I’d known.

I ran back down to find her up and at the window, holding on to the forest green wingback chair, hand to chest, her thoughts far off. She looked so wane and small. Was she thinking of Sweden, too?

“Aunt Cara, you need to take it easy!” I bit my lip as a rush of tears blurred my vision.

“Yes,” she agreed, taking my arm, feeling light as a rag doll, “so let’s order Thai and then talk, talk, talk. Or you talk, Genevieve. I’ll listen.”

I tucked her in at the couch, took her order, called the Thai place from the screened back porch. I wanted to breathe the clear fall air one moment. A crickets’ chorus rounded out the night; a wave of longing rose and fell.

******

It was early and I was not in work gear but scrambling eggs with dill, shredded cheddar and sausage in  Aunt Cara’s white and blue kitchen. And she somehow shuffled down the stairs most of the way before I got to her.

I took her arm. “I wanted to serve you breakfast in bed.”

“Had enough of that.” She paused to catch her breath. “I want to sit with my niece in sunshine. Well, it’s peeking out behind clouds, it’ll be brighter soon.” She planted a damp kiss on my cheek. “Let’s go to the screened porch.”

“It’s cold there.”

“I have blankets for us and we have coffee and tea. We’ll be cozy. Who, by the way, is gorging on all that?”

“We are. Well, you’re going to eat little of it.” I finished the eggs and toasted two slices of bread, but helped her out to the porch then went back for two mugs and plates.

“Now, cover up or we’ll have to go back in,” I ordered and she did as told, tossing one to me.

The birds and squirrels were talking and we were, too, when her cell phone rang from her sweatpants’ pocket. Aunt Cara clutched an armrest and listened. Five rings, then nothing. She picked at more sausage as I told her about my co-workers. The phone rang again, three times, then nothing and she pulled the phone out, glanced at it then put it away.

“Someone important?” I asked, gathering dishes.

Her ivory skin flushed with pink. “Oh, just a neighbor. I’ll get it later.”

But as I busied myself in the kitchen she made her way back to the living room, blanket pulled snug about her. I could just hear her muffled voice. In a few moments, she wandered back in.

“Where did you put that chocolate?” she asked.

“What? At seven in the morning? You barely ate half the breakfast, your blood sugar will go haywire.”

“What am I, your charge? Goodness, Genevieve, give your ailing auntie her chocolate. It is elixer for goddesses and humans. Then I have an errand for you.”

“Where?”

“To Dragon Alley. Right by the coffee shop, Fire and Water.”

I balanced a big plate with silver edging on sudsy hands. Pointed to chocolate bars at the end of counter with my jutted chin.

“Whatever is there? I saw it yesterday. A little sign above an alley.”

“Right. I need you to pick up a blend of herbs for me–there’s an herbalist in business there.”

I squinted at her, trying to discern more of the truth.

She laughed. “No, not that sort of herb! Justin is a certified herbalist, he makes natural medicines. He’s helped me so much, you have no idea, even the doctor was amazed how well I seemed the last visit. He doesn’t agree with it all, but he doesn’t forbid me–as well he should not.” Eyebrows wiggled up and down and she laughed again.

And her face slowly softened as if time was melting away despite stubborn cough and weakness. It was like seeing my mother come back to me, those expressive brown eyes, the same full bottom lip and slender top one that gave generous smiles, how her brown hair with bits of shining grey swirled around her thin cheeks.

I caught my breath but shrugged. “Anything to make you get better faster. When does his shop open?”

“He’ll have it waiting for you in an hour.”

******

I ordered a hot regular coffee at Fire and Water, then lingered a moment until Hanna the barista had a moment. There were two others helping customers so I caught her eye again.

“Can you tell me something about Dragon Alley?”

She snickered.”Oh, that’s just for the fun of it, but the herbalist is excellent. Even in uptight Pelton people have finally agreed some products are useful. I go for the skin care.”

I had to admit her skin was smooth and bright even in the shadowy shop. “So he can help sick people?”

“He has, from what I hear. He doesn’t do any harm…and he owns this coffee shop, too. He moved here from, hmm, maybe British Columbia? He has a little bit of accent.” Lynn leaned closer. “He’s nice looking, too–doesn’t hurt as far as some are concerned. He’s a very good boss.” She ooked at my wrist. “Cool tatoo.”

I glanced down at it. “Thanks.”

She was tapped on the shoulder by the young man, so got to work.

I marched to Dragon’s Alley to find out who this person was who was feeding my aunt herbs and flowers and likely other mysteriously contrived concoctions.

It was the door to the right, Hanna had said; the place to the left was his home. As I reached for the door handle, I spotted the narrow brass name plate on the building: Justin Q. Michel, Herbalist. She entered.

The rush of air was redolent of so many scents I couldn’t separate one from the other. The effect was less disorienting than enlivening though I felt momentarily faint. I grabbed a stool by a narrow window. Rows and rows of clear glass bottles were shelved around the room. Tins of teas and pretty packets of sachet lined the counter. When I heard footsteps, I turned and found myself caught off guard by the disarming gaze of Justin Q. Michel.

“Good morning! How may I help you this lovely day?”

His accent was a lilting, gentle French–perhaps French Canadian, I guessed. And he was at least her aunt’s age, rangy but sturdy, his strong boned face weathered by wind, sun and extreme temperatures. Falling over his lined forehead was a curve of steel grey and wavy hair; it reached his sweater collar. Was he an agrarian, an adventurer or what? Justin barely tilted his head at me.

“I’m here for my aunt’s herbal medicine, for her cough.”

“Ah.” Justine set his feet apart, placed fngers and thumbs together in a tent shape. “You must be Genevieve.” It was prounounced the French way, soft, pretty. His hand then extended over the counter top; she took it. “She told me all about you, and now you are dispatched on her errands. How good of you to help her.”

“Of course, I’m her niece. Her son lives in Europe.I’m five hours away. I worry about her here, alone, but she never gets sick. I mean, she did get sick and I was so busy that I…” I pressed my lips together. What was I going on about? I needed the medicine. “Is it ready?”

“Yes, surely you worry, not living close enough to watch over her. But she undertands.”

He already had the order waiting and rang me up. I took the package, hesitating.

“She is in good hands, you must not be stressed. She has fine friends, is strong, goodhearted, loves life greatly. Can’t miss with these! Cara will be well soon, up and going again, well, she has…elan…I will personally see to it.”

“Okay, thanks for the reassurance. ” I eyed him. “Say, why that name of the alley? Is it something you did? It is quite fantasical.”

Justin laughed. “Dragons. Well, they were powerfully majestic according to some, beasts of destruction according to others. Were they real or fantasy creatures dreamed up by those who needed to believe in them? Does it even matter? We believe what we need to believe, eh? I believe in what speaks to our health, may connect us to wisdom, to the heart and spirit of life.” He lifted his hands, palms up. “And a good name to remember, right? It helps point the way to something different, to the power of nature’s healing.”

“Good answer. I think. And Aunt Cara is a romantic, a dreamer deep down inside, no wonder she likes this place.”

“Yes, she is; our Cara is… a good woman. Send her my best wishes.”

I thanked him, left, got in the SUV and suddenly felt rudely awakened.

Our Cara.” It was Justin. It was he who helped, was there for her, was important in recovery from her loss, the pneumonia. Or maybe he was there before the divorce, I would never know. But I almost got it. Aunt Cara had been a woman often left to her own devices, someone who hoped to share a life more fully than Lars could ever manage. She was one to dance in the street, to try to count stars, to swing on the hammock while reading aloud the meaning of flowers. Who went the extra mile for her staff, still did for many others. Not because she had to. Because she cared and could not do otherwise. After my mother had died, Aunt Cara was there lifting me up with letters and  packages of pear jam and homemade brownies, phone calls to tell me I was going to make it, I was well-loved.

Now Cara was watched over by one Justin Q. Michel, herbalist. She was not lonely, anymore. Things were changing in Pelton, and even more for Aunt Cara.

When I arrived with the prescriptive plants, I held her close. Aunt Cara patted and rubbed my back then tapped it three times as she did when I was very small. Ravenous, we ate Thai leftovers on the couch, feet raised on Lazy-Boy foot rests.

“What is the tattoo, Genevieve?”

“A crow.” I pulled up my sleeve and she peered at it. “He kept watch at my building for three years. Sat in an old oak tree, watching all, and sometimes he flew down to squawk at me. At least, I thought he tried to talk to me or maybe fuss at me and I always looked for him, even named him Cyrus. He was a comfort during that last terrible job that made me dread each work day for years. And then one morning Cyrus wasn’t there. Not dead to my knowledge and not lame. Just gone. He had moved out, moved on, found a better spot. I took it as a sign. I quit my job, got this new one and moved to another place. Now all is well.” I smoothed the rendering of my bird’s feathers.

“And I thought you were the realist among us!” Aunt Cara chuckled.

“Aren’t I? Sometimes you have to interpret reality new ways.”

“That’s my girl, my Genevieve!”

“True, I am always and forever your girl.”

And that was the gist of the story in funny old Pelton, less me helping my aunt and more us helping each other. Sometimes, too, an old hometown is misunderstood or it changes, like magic.

The Bus to Betelgeuse

Photo by Robert McFarlane

He disliked buses, their narrowness and heaviness, built with two skimpy rows of seats crammed against moving walls, the invasion of strangers’ bulk and breath so close to his space. The walls looked stationary but trundled through the mayhem of city streets while stale air blasted. Still, they were indispensable.

Cars weren’t much better, just smaller. Michael hadn’t owned one that had run more than a few months at best. Taxis were worse with tons of humans occupying the same places day in, day out, and being trapped with a driver who couldn’t bear to stop talking or wouldn’t answer one question decently. He’d relented and taken buses for three years now. And this one would be carrying him along with other restless or drowsy people for the next two hours, a marathon in his view. He didn’t know if he was up to it and stared ahead into the unspooling velvet of darkness, half-wondering if there was a stop where he could still jump off.

Elena had never understood Michael’s attitude about public transportation, but there were plenty of things she didn’t get yet.

“What’s the big deal? You’re picked up and moved from point A to point B for less than you’d pay for a crappy car’s maintenance and insurance or a parade of taxis. You can chat with neighbors or not. You can read or sleep. You don’t even have to pay attention to the driving. It’s perfect, really.”

Michael waited for the final word. She had one more often than not. He knew what this one was.

“Besides you’re an actor, you should be grateful for the chance to study human nature closer-up. You can even be anyone you want for the ride and no one will know the difference.”

“It’s mostly tolerable and does the job,” he said and kissed the top of her head. She came up to his shoulder but she always seemed taller–until she leaned close. He put his nose to the crown of her head: a minty-herbal scent. It was as much her signature as the sheen of long auburn hair or the pale dash under her chin, a reminder of a fall at two years old.

They’d been together long enough, three years now. Each morning she went off to her computer programmer job and he–if he got lucky and his agent called–showed up for a couple auditions and tried to impress. He was moderately well paid for acting the last twelve years, which said something. Commercials and the stage, a bit part in a couple of indies. The first had been his bread and butter but lately he’d been hired for fewer.

George, his agent said: “Frankly, being thirty-eight doesn’t help; each year you’ll be older, less handsome, it’ll get harder. What’s your back-up plan?–not too early to get that going.”

It shouldn’t have shocked him but it did. He didn’t look old according to Elena or those who did hire him. His resonant voice was in strong and elastic form. His looks were as useful as ever, good enough like his physique. But it all could be crumbling under his feet, he being the last to know. Michael had no “back-up plan.” He wasn’t counting on Elena, of course, it wasn’t her responsibility to uphold his financial health. Though she did, at times. He didn’t tell her much about his bank account; it was one of those topics he intended to continue to avoid.

So when the final paycheck from Tiptop Organic Jams and Jellies covered his portion of rent in their Chicago flat, with only five hundred left over, he started to sweat. Nothing else materialized the next three weeks. He had a little in savings but it wouldn’t be savings if he spent it all now. It was his rule to forget about it. Only a dire emergency could make him ransack that little nest. It wasn’t to that point. Yet.

Then his cousin called. A fill-in plan presented itself.

Leon was Michael’s only male cousin. He’d inherited four car dealerships his father had begun and built to sterling success. Then he managed to run them even more profitably after Uncle Craig dropped over from a heart attack. No one missed him –a loyal friend, a bulldog of a boss–nearly as much after Leon got hold of the business and upped their salaries.

Though they talked every three or four months or at least texted, the last time Michael had visited (with Elena) his bigger-than life cousin was at a New Year’s Eve party a year and a half back. It was held at the overly grand (“mammoth cracker jack of a house” Michael warned Elena, giant-sized to fit his cousin’s personality) in the ‘burbs. Three young ones and a Labrador running riot over expensive carpets and hardwood. Leon’s wife, Meadow, smiling as if her mouth was wired open. It was likely to show off the blinding white capped teeth. But Michael missed that crooked front one; there was something endearing about it all the years he had known and cared abut her. Everything was overdone, reflective of Leon’s fortune. Michael tended to feel as out of place as a beat up tan Ford truck in a showroom full of gleaming Aston Martins. It could have been much worse, this was his cousin, after all, nothing was big news. Elena went into social shock.

Leon–affable, expansive, hyper as ever–was too busy wheeling and dealing in the back so-called game room to talk more than a moment. The booze didn’t just flow. It had started to transfuse guests’ blood by eleven o’clock. Troublesome mischief percolated under the surface, you could see the looks, feel the air crackle with a hilarity that veered toward old insults or fresh complaints or ill-mannered desires. He wasn’t delicate of nature but Elena paled, the combination of such affluence and drama was too much. They left shortly after midnight though they’d been invited to stay overnight. He might have done so but she declined by abruptly leaving while he was trying to decide, coats on his arm. He felt he had little choice but to follow her. He was disappointed that his cousin’s life seemed drowning in ostentation. But it was his money, his choice.

“So, I’m thinking I could use you this summer, Bro,” Leon confided after they caught each other up the first five minutes.

Michael felt suspicion rise up as he poured an oily cup of late afternoon coffee. “Bro”–a blast from the past. He sank his teeth into a third chocolate chip cookie. He could hear Leon chewing gum, a habit since he’d quit smoking. His cousin had an obnoxious talent with gum since he was a kid. The more agitated, the more snapping and cracking. Leon once could  blow bubbles like nobody’s business.

“That right, Cuz? What’s up?” He took another small bite.

“Well, you know Amy and Ian are natural hams like you… but I can’t get them to go to the children’s acting school out here. They’re eight and ten, why wouldn’t they want to play make believe with other kids, learn the skills if they like it so much? They think it’ll be boring, of course. So I was thinking that you’d come out for the next few weeks, get them going so next fall they’d be primed, set to go to the after school program.” He paused for a breath. “You working now?”

Michael stopped chewing, crisp cookie turning to mush as he looked at the street scene below. A bus stop was at their corner and all day people clustered and broke apart, gathered then disappeared inside cranky city bus doors. He wished they’d move that stop so he could get some relief from it all when at home.

“I’m not a teacher, as you know, and certainly not of children. Never taught a kid one good thing on purpose, anyway. I’m just taking a break between jobs.”

Did his cousin really think he’d throw away summer opportunities trying to teach his kids acting–a little family fun?

“Aw, you can do anything you put your mind to, teaching kids is nothing. They look up to you, Michael, they point out your commercials every time like they were Oscar winning moments. They think you’re famous, friends find you impressive. If you taught them fundamentals, they’d be motivated as heck to learn more.”

“Nice. But unfair, Leon, to put me on the spot. Besides, ever think I’m out there, doing my best footwork every single day? Or do you think I get good jobs waiting around for the phone to ring, one solicitous summons after another for my rare talent?”

Leon laughed. “You and those words. Naw, of course not, but I’ll bet you have a spare couple of weeks, at least. I know you aren’t in any plays for now–Meadow keeps up with Chicago theater gossip, we donate money everywhere… We’d try between your jobs. Twice a day classes or one long one, a big performance at the end….we could have friends over, make an occasion of it, opening night sort of thing!” He covered the phone with a hand and spoke rapidly to someone in his office, then returned. “Think about it. I’m too busy to talk more but wanted to put it out there–”

“Where would I live, Leon? In your servant-supplied guesthouse? Or would Meadow deliver breakfast in bed with a blue-black rose in a crystal vase?” It came out sharper than expected. The imagined scenarios were weird and ridiculous and he was verging on rude. He was ready to say “thanks but no thanks” and just hang up, sit on the back balcony and while the time away until his agent called. “I take that back, really uncalled for.”

But Leon erupted into a chortling; likely whoever was there looked his way. It took a second for him to start again. “Michael, we have this house with seven spacious bedrooms and only four are occupied at the moment. Your own room, en suite. The one at the back facing the pool as you like it. Come on, man, what a deal. You can swim and tan and teach my kids how to make more drama and I’ll pay you a couple grand, okay?”

Michael’s eyes locked on the next bus coming to a halt. “What’s that?”

“More, then? I doubt you could top that right now.”

“Two weeks, huh? I might have to come back to the city for jobs, you never know.”

“Three weeks at minimum, okay, plus add a few days for rehearsals, right? We’ll revisit the money later.”

“I’ll think it over,” Michael said, considering his bank account, how it longed to tally greater numbers.

“You do that, Bro, talk soon,” he said cheerfully and rang off.

******

Elena came in and let the door bang shut, then dumped a bag of groceries on the kitchen chair. He told her what Leon had said.

“You’re not even close to him, Michael, you hated being out there last time. You talk on the phone, what–twice a year?”

“A lot more than that if you count texting, which we do. Hate is a very strong word, I found it discomfiting. You hated it. Anyway, I’m the poorer one in this flat. The fact is, I can use that money.”

“You don’t need money right now, I’m working, you’ll get more jobs. You always do.”

“That’s yours. I make my own. And it’s been a bit of a dry spell…I’m getting older, maybe that’s the slow down.”

“Oh, poosh-wah, you’re the perfect age.” She kissed him as he freed the carrots and potatoes from plastic bags. “So you’re going to the hinterlands to teach your niece and nephew– what? How to pretend more? Do they even have talent?”

“I don’t quite know. Amy sang pretty well even at five and has taken loads of dance. She’s ten now so odds are she has more going on. Ian may or may not, he’s been into skateboarding…It doesn’t matter. I can use this money so I should do it.”

She took a jug of milk from one hand and then an egg carton from another, appraising each as if she wasn’t sure what it was, then crammed them into the refrigerator with a  shake of her head. “Seriously? Odd idea, but it’s your family. And bank account.”

But Michael had decided. A couple of weeks in the suburbs might even do more good than harm. Maybe he’d re-think his career. He might even be a good teacher–a whole new option if needed. Then a cringe ran up back and neck, transforming into a furrowed brow. He didn’t even like kids much; he was awkward around them. He was an only child, himself. Even being around Amy, Ian and little Leon II, well, he never knew just what to say or do, though he loved them. They were family, after all. He repeated to himself four times, as if a mantra: two grand–that’s to start. But he felt less excited than before. He felt something else altogether, a hint of shame, a sense he was doing the wrong thing here, after all.

Michael was accepting money from his family to…what?…have a good time with and share his calling–that’s what acting was for him–with his niece and nephew.

What was wrong with him? And what was Leon thinking–first, asking him to do this but second, offering to pay him? Perhaps bribing him, if you wanted to call it like it was? What was he expecting of him? And then he considered. His father had died early from heart disease. He was not even sixty. Leon had just turned forty-one but maybe he, too, had felt the passage of time like a blemish upon the present.

And then it occurred to him that they both had careers that depended on selling. Cars or one’s own self, it was still a sales job so Leon was as much an actor as was he. It must run in the family.

******

It was getting dark, and a nighttime phantasmagoria of lights, moving and still, provided hypnotic relief as he settled in his seat. Michael had packed a bag in the morning, then attended an audition that went poorly at the Moda Nouveau Theatre. The play was stilted and ironic, not enough action or–dare he admit it–heart. The director was not one he’d have even enjoyed. It was work, but he wished he could find an old-fashioned meaty role.

He had met Elena for mediocre Italian before the bus left at eight-thirty. They’d talked about her coming out the next week-end, but they both knew she’d rather be at home or with friends than at his cousin’s. She’d only met him that one time and it had bombed. It was okay; he could always go back to the city to see her. The first night out he’d be staying at a good hotel to help ease him into Leon’s world. Elena’s generous treat, her way of trying to be more supportive, he guessed. But when they parted it was like she just floated away and he was left on his own for once. It didn’t feel bad.

When he had to embark, she had held on to his neck longer than usual, smoothed his forehead, hair. Kissed him twice, gently. He wondered if she was trying to tell him something but they had noting more to say. He’d call when he had something of import to hare.

The bus was nearly empty. Well, who else was going to head out to East Norwood this time of day on a Thursday night? What would be the point unless returning from an event? But despite the hard bench seat, he relaxed. His head filled, then emptied of miscellaneous things as miles ticked by and the road and country turned ebony. The visit might do him good or it might not but he couldn’t dispute right timing due to the need of monetary infusion. He suspected Leon would pay him more if the kids liked him, if it worked out well.

But as he watched dark shapes outside the window morph and recede he also saw Leon and himself racing down the big hill by his uncle’s older but big colonial house. The yard alone made every visit a joy, such private acreage. There were two rope swings hanging from tall trees and even a trapeze. A flower and kitchen garden that overtook a portion of land. A kidney-shaped pool in the back with a yellow canopy sheltering chairs and a round table. A fire pit where they roasted hot dogs and made S’mores.

Michael could make out the Big and Little Dipper without any trouble. His dad pointed out a few more constellations, including Cassiopeia and Orion–the last Michael’s favorite. Orion was a superior hunter whom he felt was a nighttime guardian, even a slayer of monsters. And there was Betelgeuse, the cool red star with the silly name. A supergiant star beaming from Orion’s shoulder. Michael longed to see that red star up close. He thought it a powerful amulet captive in the sky, it was so bright, the ninth brightest they could see with their eyes, his dad said. He secretly felt its light pulsed at him so he made his own small pulsing, open-and-closed-fingered motion back at it, like a lighthouse beam flashing on and off. If, that is, no one saw him. Once Leon did but said nothing, just waved at the star, then ran off into circles, yelling at nothing.

They had freedoms at that house, in that yard, that Michael didn’t experience any other place. The expansive space and open air were like a drug before he knew what that really was. Everything seemed more fascinating, intense. He and Leon were “thick as thieves” as his mother said laughing, getting into minor scrapes, mapping out escapades. His cousin followed his lead back then. Michael always had a story plotted, an adventure outlined. The summer visits at his cousin’s was shaped by happiness. Even when he broke his arm falling out of his own measly tree so was half-lame all summer–Leon showed him things he could still manage. Even when Leon got tonsillitis so was bedridden much of the summer. Michael told him stories until he fell sleep, face pressed against the damp pillow, drool slipping from his thin lips. Or he’d bring him a worm, a frog, a colorful rock or piece of moss for the terrarium in his vast blue bedroom, anything to make him smile weakly.

Even when Michael’s mother and father divorced the summer he was eleven, almost twelve. They still went, his father and himself, but it was different at first, painfully quiet. No one knew what to say. Michael headed to his usual room  to stare out the window at the sparkling pool. Then Leon burst through the door, yanked him right out of his gloom. They went swimming and diving for hours, skin like glowing. Later, they sought crickets’ hideouts. Pretended to hunt with the dogs and makeshift bows and arrows.

Leon didn’t have to ask Michael anything. He saw what the divorce was doing to him. So he was just there.

Nothing was hardly ever worse–maybe some hot headed fights he lost to him,  a few bad mishaps they still didn’t tattle on each other about but maybe should have–when he was with Leon, and usually things were much better. Back then, anyway.

Why and when had they left all that far behind? Money interceded. Ambitions of different sorts. They’d grown up, that’s all, and then time started to dribble away and then it somehow was on its way to running out, so many grains of sand piling up at the bottom of the hourglass. Pathetically small, those grains.

His phone rang and he, half-dozing, started; it was George, his agent. The bus was approaching its final stop so he let it go to voice mail. Michael grabbed his bag and got off the bus. The sudden cool of deepening night swept across his face. He breathed in as though starving for oxygen, walked at a brisk pace three blocks to the boutique hotel.

Before slipping into the big empty bed, he remembered to check his message.

“Michael, good news. You aced it! Interlake Transit Corp. wants you for their commercial. Maybe an employee training flick, as well. The one in Wisconsin, remember? They pay very well. Call me back tonight so I can get back to them bright and early.”

Michael dialed his number; it went to voice mail.

“George, really, the transit people?” He snickered to himself. “Sounds excellent! But not until I’m done with my family business. If they can’t wait a couple weeks, I’m not their man. Not even kidding.”

He turned out the light and stared at the ceiling awhile, wondering what lay ahead. He drifted off. And in the theater of sleep he saw Leon running along the creek behind his mammoth and overwrought house and he was trying to say something, his hand gesturing to hurry up, to follow him. He was calling with lighthearted urgency, shouting out Michael’s name, so Michael flew toward the creek to catch up with him. Rammed right into him so they tumbled into the shining dark creek, then rose drenched and howling like happy fools, like common kids, while Betelgeuse threw its distant but fiery brilliance–perhaps a signal—upon them.