The summer dug in its heels and often seethed with heat, so that languishing on the patio was only good in morning or evening. Not that Jeanette languished much, what with her calligraphy projects, currently five in various stages. She was content to work at least 4 hours a day. The nature of it enabled deep meditative moments within the larger design and details, the beauty of it appearing beneath her pen as it slow-danced across paper.
But Lenny craved the outdoors and socializing, so he took off for hours some days, gone to who knew where. Sometimes he alerted her to plans if they were going to make and eat dinner together. Other times he slipped away, came back quietly is her head was bent over her desk. He was not such an intrusive roommate, al thing considered, she grudgingly admitted.
But if he was there he dove right into conversation, as always.
“I was thinking, I painted the bench a sage green, so why not yellow for the patio table and chairs re-do?”
She had been listening to a book at the time but she noted his mouth moving, so took out the ear buds. She gave Malloy a pat on his big furred brow, noting his tongue dripping saliva onto the floor. She had to ignore some things. He licked her chin, which made her shudder.
“Lenny, yellow screams at you, don’t you think? A blue house, a green bench–now add yellow? Make them sage green, too.”
“You have to admit yellow is cheerful. Maybe I should’ve pushed for a yellow bench, then…” He took off his Oregon Ducks cap and ran a hand over his sweaty face. “But whatever you say, Lady Boss.”
“Oh, stop it. I appreciate it, but too much alteration is…. too much. I can get you a big canvass for you to paint if you love color so much.” Her eyebrows rose involuntarily at the thought of him making any serious art.
Stroking his chin, he nodded. “I might try that. My grandfather was a painter. Well, he painted signs and such–still, he was good at it. I liked to watch him, hand him brushes. He managed a farm supply store but made signage on the side. he wanted to teach me but I had little patience for it, I was just his admirer, his steady hand and careful ways, but my dad would have nothing to do with that business. I sort of regret not learning from him, now.”
She didn’t answer, as it would keep him talking on and on about his grandfather, nice man that he likely was. It was too hot. She moved to the slider door. It was warm even with air conditioning–though she liked to keep it less cold than more. Lenny thought that odd when the whole purpose was to chill out in A/C. She opened the slider, gazing at the bench and then the table, and went out. He rummaged in the refrigerator, found his leftover ham and cheese sandwich, then joined her.
“Sage green, that’s final– for now. Do you really want to paint?”
“Okay,” he said and took a large bite. “I never tried it except for little projects. I like creating things, you see. I’m not just a factory worker.” He focused on eating, slipping a bite or two to Malloy under the table.
She emitted a little huff. “Of course not, I never intimated such a thing… Anyway, I’ve decided to go on a walk with you as suggested. The woods are cooler now. I do miss those trails some days. Might as well get back to them.”
Lenny was swallowing but the food stuck for a second. He’d asked her countless times to walk with him–he liked to share nature with others, why not Jeannette? She was so used to being alone; it had made her sort of crusty. He thought he had gotten fusty but since the pandemic-caused layoff, he realized he truly enjoyed more people, places and activities than he had had time for before.
“Well, one more thing settled, Malloy. Tomorrow morning, three of us go walking.”
Jeanette entered a kind of dream state as they moved deeper into trees. The greenness covered her, seemed to enter her pores by osmosis. It was disorienting. But each step brought her closer to an easier surrender. It was the heat, she told herself, many strong scents permeating the air, or her allergies leaping to life. But in fact, she was becoming more enchanted by earth and sky, plant and animal life. Lenny knew much about these things so he talked, explaining, for example, differences between Queen Anne’s lace and its poisonous look alike, water hemlock. His voice almost blended with the surroundings–full of nuance, light and shadow, a rumble of earth’s underlying energy brought to the surface. It was soothing to her ears, unlike at the house when he talked voluminously, sometimes without particular direction.
They dawdled by a tinkly creek, its musical flow steady and sweet. He stood with hands clasped behind his back, and beamed all around as if he had found a secret garden and was introducing it to her. They saw fat skittish rabbits scurry off, a garter snake rippling between grasses; heard vesper sparrows, juncoes, tanagers, woodpeckers and she thought she heard a Cooper’s hawk call out. Lenny agreed. It thrilled her that she remembered. But other than his identification of things–she let him go on, despite the fact that she’d lived behind these woods for twenty years–they were quiet, their footsteps light.
Why hadn’t she availed herself of all this more the last few years? Because teaching had worn her out. Week-ends required more labor without her ex-husband to help, and when she retired, she wanted to do what she loved and rest and not be bothered by compulsory conversations or additional agenda. Still, here she was. They were. And it was a sort of revelation–despite passing others on the trails, or hearing cars in the distance, or sweat streaming down the back of her light cotton shirt, it was good. She needed to walk more, explore again more of what lay beyond her closed door.
After twenty minutes they came to a meadow with tall, silky grasses. She spotted a brand new bench; she had enjoyed a pause there when it was still splintery, long ago. They sat down in the shade of a mammoth white oak and she pulled two bottles of water and two bananas from her rumpled paisley backpack. Offering one each to Lenny, they then satiated their thirst and hunger. She noted wild roses stirring in the breeze as their perfume came to her and Lenny. He got up and picked one to sniff more closely, then handed it to her. They chatted about nothing of note, then fell silent again, eyelids drooping under the veil of early summer heat.
A sudden country song filled the quietness, and Lenny pulled his phone from a back shorts pocket.
“Lenny here.” He pressed his ear closer, his eyes widening. “Wait, slow down– just what exactly happened?” he barked, sitting upright, ear pressed closer.
Jeanette sat forward, alarm shaking her from reverie. Was it something or someone at his house? His best friend?
“Oh, no. When was this…? Where is he now? And what do they say? What does that mean? Hold on, I can’t understand–yes, alright then…” He wiped beads of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, took a long intake of breath. Let it out. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I do want to come! Give me a half hour and I’ll get back to you!”
Lenny turned to her, his face drained of color, void of calm.
“That was my brother, Joe. It’s Willy–remember, my nephew? A terrible car accident. I’m getting a plane ticket to Pittsburgh.” He grabbed her forearm.
Willy, the nephew who was like a son, and always would be.
She grabbed his arms in both of her hands and they sat there a moment, face to face, Lenny’s eyes alive with fear, hers wide open. They got up and took off at a fast pace, Malloy running between them.
Lenny let her know when he arrived safely. Then it was 2 days before Jeanette got a brief update via text. Multiple organs injured, head injury, badly broken leg, fractured pelvis. It was bad. But he was alive, so far. Intensive care, a group of specialists working on things. He couldn’t see him, of course; no one could due to the pandemic. It was hell to not see him. He and his brother, Joe, and sister-in-law, Ellie, were holed up at Willy’s house with his wife Meredith, their two kids. It all was just crazy. He’d text her again tomorrow if he could.
She found herself unable to concentrate well, losing her place in her calligraphic work, starting chores, then stopping halfway through. Malloy and she sat, listened to the radio, then slouched out to the patio, then returned indoors where they watched television together, Malloy’s head on her bare feet.
Lenny texted again late on the fourth night. “Long night here, can’t sleep. They’re still assessing things, keeping him going. They can fix. thank God, the pelvis, leg. Can they fix kidney and pancreas damage? Will his heart ever calm down? Can he even respond much? No new answers. My brother is a wreck, his only son….Willy’s kids are freaking out but his Meredith is a strong mother to them…Hug Malloy for me. Give him treats, walk him, of course– please and thanks.”
She said of course she would, hung up. Gulped down a small lump in her throat. Got on her knees and hugged Malloy.
So walk they did, just around the neighborhood, mostly, at least twice a day. When he whined at the slider door, she opened it and he romped a bit, did his business, lay down in the cool grass under the trees’ great, leafy branches. Once she found him under the bench, another time, he was sitting on it as the sun went down.
She sat beside him, stroking his long back. “I know I’m not the guy you want. But we do alright, don’t we? It’s family, you know–for Lenny, it’s all about family, and almost anyone can be family.” She laughed softly at that. “But this time it is blood ties, you know, and that’s big. His pack. So we will just wait it out until he gets back.”
Malloy held her eyes with his deep brown ones that never looked miserable or empty but, rather, calm, perhaps often wondering, and simply kind. Could a dog be kind? Malloy had had a good teacher in Lenny; he had been raised right.
As no doubt suffering, beloved Willy had been.
One morning she plugged in the coffee pot and made coffee. Malloy’s long nose sniffed deeply of the aroma as it dripped into the carafe. She poured a small mug of it and put half and half in it and a little sugar and carried it it onto the wrought iron patio table. She sat down and took a sip and spit it out.
“Tell me. Malloy, how do people drink this dreadful brew? I have to make my tea now.”
Malloy grunted and stretched out on the still-cool flagstones.
When she came back with tea, she left the mug of coffee at the place opposite her. As if he was coming back shortly from his early morning breakfast with his best friend, smiling and carrying fresh pastries or bagels for them to nibble on.
On the eighth day, Lenny texted as she was making a snack of apples and cheese for herself, and bits of cold chicken for Malloy.
Her phone dinged and she read: “Pelvis surgery went well two days ago. Willy is responding better to interventions. His heart rate is steadier, lower. He can nod a bit, blink and tries to talk but part of his face was fractured so he can’t talk…he may look different, but who cares, he gets surgery for that. And the leg in two days if all goes well enough. Wires and tubes, they say, doing their work. Joe and I are spending more time together than we have in twenty years…sad, huh? But good, too. He’s so shook up. I have to go, Ellie needs me to do an errand.”
Usually Jeanette responded with something like: “Thanks for update. Keep your head up. Willy is in my thoughts, hope for the best for him and your family. Malloy is just fine.”
But this time, she wrote: “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you, for all. I’m saying a prayer each day. Malloy misses you, I can tell, but he likes our woods walks. Hang in there, Lenny, just hold onto hope, okay?” She felt as if tears were possible as she said these things, and it felt strange.
He answered: “The woods, good! I can use all the prayers you got. Glad Malloy misses me, but glad he is with you.”
“Willy will get better, I can just feel it.”
“Yeah…he has to.”
Feel it, why did she say that, what did that mean? It might not be true. It was up to the doctors and Lenny’s nephew. Willy had to strive the best he could to stay alive. So many factors went into recovery from a catastrophic accident. But she meant it. And believed it. For Lenny’s sake, if nothing else. He just could not lose his nephew who was like his son.
That’s when she knew. Their partnership meant something. Lenny meant something, after all. She’d never expected an unknown, down-on-his luck tenant to become an honest-to-goodness, real-as-life friend. It was something to wonder over. A sudden good fortune. But with that came everything else, too.
After that, they texted two-three times a day, check-ins about Willy’s progress and how the family was faring, and what it was like in Pittsburgh in June. Sometimes they chatted about what they were watching on Netflix, or what her work was currently, how he had projects on his mind for when he returned, especially her yard if he could have at it. The city he described sounded quite marvelous. She’d visited Pittsburgh once in her late thirties, and recalled a sense of progress, the beautiful setting against steep hills and its two large rivers.
She looked forward to their talks. But it was a surprise when he called one morning, two and a half weeks after the terror of severe crisis had waned just a bit. Willy was beginning to make some tangible progress, and surgeries and treatments seemed to be working.
Lenny was keen to talk about a botanical garden he’d visited. His descriptions enthralled her and he sent pictures to her phone.
“You should see this place, one of the prettiest I’ve seen. Not that I’ve been to many but I sure would like to take a tour of more. You would love it, so lush, colorful, and the orchid collection and the butterflies! It’s very old, too, still going strong. What a paradise.”
Just to hear the pleasure in his voice made her feel better. “You went with your family?”
“Naw, alone. I let them be more, now. Joe and Ellie just went back to work. Meredith as you know took leave from her job, is home with the kiddos. I’ve begun to ping pong between the two houses a little. I think I’ll give it a few more days, see what’s happening with Willy. But they say he looks better–I can’t imagine when he came in–and every day brings a small improvement, so far. They saved the kidney; the pancreas will take more time healing. Special nutrients are helping, too. He’ll be there awhile.”
She could hear him clear his throat, cough.
“I’m so truly sorry this happened to Willy…I can’t say it enough. You and your family must worry every minute.”
“Yeah, a drunk driver, didn’t tell you that before.” His voice cut the space between them, then diminished. “Thank goodness he made it, though. The other guy, unfortunately, did not…”
She could think of nothing more to add; the silence fell hard between them and held. She decided to break it.
“Well, at least during this time Malloy has gotten more comfortable with just me. Though he whines on your bed at night, it is heard to hear but he barks at me to take him for walks. Drags his leash over when he’s good and ready. So off we go!”
Lenny laughed readily. “Good job, both of you.”
“Yes, I agree,” she said. They wrapped up the conversation with their respective weather reports. It was a signing off they did each time they connected.
“Lenny?” she said as she answered her phone. She and Malloy had moved into bright sunshine as they left a meandering wooded trail and she put on her new aqua sunglasses.
“I might just come back. But I hate to leave them. But what else can I do? Kinda in the way now. None of us can go to see Willy, just daily updates. Then, yesterday we finally got to see him on a video call, and again today for a few. He looks…Jeanette, he was so good looking– but he’ll be alright. It looks like he’s starting to heal much more. He can’t talk, jaw wired shut, but he seems to get all we say. We just yak at him for ten minutes. A total relief to finally see my nephew… Joe and Ellie are working to keep sane, I think. I’m at loose ends, spend time each day with Willy’s Meredith, bless her, she’s a good gal, and I play with the kiddos. We swam in their great swimming pool a few times–dang, he worked so hard to get where he has gotten… They all seem some better. There’s hope, a continued, slow progress. I should let them live their lives, not have them fuss over me, which they do. I don’t want to be overstaying my welcome.”
She imagined him worrying each night as he tried to sleep, wondering if Willy needed him to stay even though he couldn’t be with him. If he’d done enough, if he could do more. She saw how he was like that, mindful of others, putting others first more often than not.
She had lain awake often, herself, thinking of the situation and everyone affected. It impacted her more than she’d expected. She didn’t know them, had known Lenny three months. But how upset he was about Willy, how brave he had been to get on the plane, offer his help, face the bleak unknown.
Feeling his absence, if she was honest, though it took her awhile to figure out that was the discomfort in her own home.
“Maybe ask them if they need you there now? Maybe you can go back later when he gets home, help out more then.”
“That’s a very good idea, Jeanette.”
When they hung up, she got back to her calligraphy, more settled than she had been in a long while. She loved her work, how it blossomed into more than she planned, the words scrolling elegantly across the pages as she gave her all to each stroke.
He called an hour later. “They said to go on, they’re managing now that Willy is improving, and they’d love to have me back another time.” But he sounded sad if somewhat relieved. “I guess I can do video chats with him when he’s unwired. I’ll tell him farewell till next time– and I definitely will be back.” He paused, then added, “But man, will it be nice to be back in that familiar bed.”
She laughed at that. “Sounds good. I knew you’d do what was best. Malloy will be happy.”
“Yeah, ole boy, sure have missed him. It’ll be good to be home again.”
Home? She repeated that in her head and aloud a few times after they ended their chat. He said it. She guessed it had become true, then. How odd a thing. How it touched her. And unnerved her– but that feeling vanished as soon as it arrived.
She put the medium-sized portfolio bag on the end of his bed. It was stuffed with painting supplies–brushes and tubes of gorgeous colors and disposable palettes and small canvasses, along with a couple of books about painting with acrylics and watercolors.
And closed his door again. He’d be walking into the house in about one hour.
He’d roughhoused with Malloy awhile, they were both way beyond pleased. Then put away his things, and came out pf his room with the art supplies in hand, mouth wide open. She smiled and waved his thanks away, taking their drinks and a cheese plate to the patio.
“Well, here we are, back on this dull but loved patio. How did we get so lazy that this is our daily thing? I have to get at it, paint this table and chairs. Maybe we should plant more flowers, how about zinnias, they’re pretty when they get tall, colorful. And we need to find more trails to walk–hike that is, if I can ever get you to be more adventurous. Plus, I was thinking of having a barbeque soon. Invite my buddies, you invite yours, we’ll cook up some burgers and franks, maybe barbecued chicken! Sound good, Malloy? Yes? Of course you can have a taste!” Lenny rubbed his exposed belly and looked up at Jeanette. “Alright by you?”
Jeanette gawped at him. He was surely back, bigger than life. Overflowing with plans to put into motion, to push ahead. Anxious to make the days and nights peppier, more interesting–as if life wasn’t interesting enough already. But he added an extra bit she had missed too long.
Zing. Pizazz. Oomph.
“Yes, it is alright with me. As long as you leave me in charge of detailed planning and we execute things together. Just because I missed you a little, don’t get big ideas of huge changes and sudden good will spread all about. And I’m not about to have a man push me around again, you know, I am perfectly able minded and self-directed. I was thinking the other day that we’ve managed to become friends and I’ve missed you a little despite our differences and a certain lack of interest on my part, so let’s not–“
“Wait, you missed me?” He leaned over the table toward her, reached for a hand which she pulled back.”You missed me. Well, feeling has been mutual, Jeanette, my friend.” He patted her hand, anyway, then sat back again and held both palms up to the treetops. “But try to take over here? Never considered it! Why, that would be disastrous, I’d be out of house and home, and Malloy and I would be running back to my poor old place with tails between our legs. No, ma’m, we’re going forward arm-in-arm. If that suits you, that is.”
She raised her iced tea glass and he raised his beer bottle, clinked them together.
“And here’s to Jeanette MInthorn, who has the gumption and generosity to get me art supplies. Me, soon officially a painter!”
“Yes, no excuses. I expect you may have talent, the way you talk about beauty and color and–“
At that he got up and went over to her. Put an arm around her shoulders. He couldn’t help himself, he squeezed her close to his side so that she had to say, “Enough! Don’t you push the limits, Lenny Grimes! You might still be on semi-probation as a roommate!”
He doubted that, but he just sat back down with nary a quip. He was so glad to be back, and they talked until both of them–more accurately, he– ran right out of words. For the time being.
Chelly was counting the flies: 17 since she’d begun her shift. They careened about the storefront like daredevil mini- planes, dipping and buzzing their tiny energized bodies as if on a mission. Their wings folded a few seconds as they landed on the still-sticky counter. A damp towel was frequently rolled up and snapped at their whizzing bodies but she usually missed. Newspaper made a better weapon but the body count was still unimpressive. She wiped the whole place down all the time–she had a high regard for acceptable hygiene. And no appreciation for stealth bombers.
It was a rare, hour-long respite between clots of customers seeking sugary gratification at Hettie’s Ice Cream Parlor. What a corny name, as if cast and cemented in the early twentieth century, not budging a bit. The tacky nostalgic decor mimicked the name, white wrought iron chairs and tables, baby pink, sea green, peachy cream accents. Pastel prints lined the walls with old-fashioned park scenes, families daintily eating treats. A striped, scalloped awning. Chelly would change it to Hettie’s Icy Sweets or First Stop Ice Cream, make it black and white decor with splashes of red. If anyone asked her. No one did, of course. And the public flocked to the place.
She got the job when the weather had taken a zigzag and heated up faster than usual in April: more business sprang up. So, one more worker. People had pressed their noses against the window, tongues hanging out even when the line was out the door and it’d be fifteen minutes before they’d get in. That’s how it was with ice cream, the chilliness overtaking the toasty, the icy soothing the sweatiness: it was a hunger, sure, and eagerness for a fresh batch of happiness. Like in people’s lives, Chelly thought, looking for relief and pleasure.
She checked the big ice cream tubs and found a couple too low so informed Mike, the ancient store manager, and went to the freezer room.
Once the heavy door was pulled open, she let it close against the daylight and tepid sweet air. It felt like a strong, frigid safe for treasure on the good days. And a prison of doom on bad ones, one that could kill if you overstayed your visit. However long that might be, she hadn’t asked. Today it was a nice place to linger. It calmed her yet woke her right up. She didn’t much love the work though she pretended. Smiled as she stacked another mountain of sugary delight into a cone for reaching hands. It was hard labor, that’s what it was, made her arms and shoulders ache to scoop frozen dessert for hours. Her back whinge. It made her fingers numb sometimes. But she stayed on.
She tapped on each cellophaned, weighty container with gloved hands, counting as if counting was needed, saying aloud each flavor’s name as if she might forget.
“Minty cocoa, peach cobbler, salty-sweet seaweed, mango madness, espresso with sweet cream, vanilla bean harmony, blueberry blast, orange peel fireburst, sesame coconut….” She spoke them with flair, as if showing dessert offerings at a fancy restaurant her parents owned. Until: “Lastly, our great vintage creation… caramel-pecan-chocolate pie.”
She spoke that flavor slowly, words fluttering from her lips, her pulse increasing. Then she counted to seven with each breath in and out until the squirmy feeling passed. Chelly grabbed minty cocoa and blueberry blast, exited and shoved the door hard, pressed shut with her hip.
Three customers had come in. After she switched near-empties for full ones, she started serving. It was weird how some weeks certain flavors ruled, some lagged. Lately it was dark chocolate and blueberry. The week before, bubble gum and Key lime sherbet. Tomorrow, tropical banana with carob sprinkles. Passersby studied the menu on the door.
But Jay…he’d laugh like crazy when she listed how many sherbets there were. He thought sherbert had no business in a real ice cream line up. But she liked it; others did, too.
“Hey, what’s up?” Mike gently elbowed her. She spaced out sometimes.
Chelly blinked at him, put muscle into her scooping motion of the new batch of blueberry blast and plopped two perfect mounds into a waffle cone. Smiled at and checked out the customer. The shop went quiet again, excepting Mike and the new guy, Terrance, talking with another patron, and the overhead fan slowly rotating. Catching at a fly now and then, she imagined, only to fling it into another trajectory.
“We need something to scare off the invasion of flies in here!” she reminded him for the hundredth time. As if he hadn’t waged the war for years.
“A fly strip would scare off the customers. We don’t even have a screen door to keep some at bay. Any new ideas? I personally open the back door now and again to let them go out the back way.” Mike chuckled at this absurdity.
“Maybe an electronic zapper outside by the door–ever try that?”
“Also unappealing-it stuns every flying thing and scatters them by the doorway. We use citronella candles in summer, you know. People put up with this, they want their ice cream.”
Their words halted as she mopped up sticky drips. Then she stared out the window, at taller and wider folks scurrying by, the darker and lighter and young and aging human beings going up and down the sidewalks with easy intention. As if it was another fine day, life a fun parade, and the greatest worry on earth was if enough sunscreen was slathered on to fight off the onslaught of UV rays.
She scrubbed harder. Chelly avoided sunbathing, saw it as irresponsible of her friends. Though she always went with them to the lake. Maybe this year she’d miss out, now she was working. It made her a little sad. But the lake would still be there.
“You do a nice job, Chelly, but what’s up, why are you here? Pocket change?”
Chelly’s spun around and her mouth was about to say something she’d regret but she caught herself in time and shrugged.
“Yeah, pocket change, Terrance, why are you here?”
He smirked. “I actually need pocket change, unlike you.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Your aunt owns this shop, right? I know you could do better stuff at your family’s other places. Didn’t think I’d see you here.”
She wanted to demand why did he think of her at all–and did it matter to her what he imagined? If his tone had been stupidly accusatory or snide with an edge of cruelty she might have smacked him. But she knew Terrance a little. He was 16, a year behind her. He’d arrived in Newton five months ago. He often stayed to himself but somehow had to find her appealing. He was great at math like she was, maybe better. But he apparently lived with dark blinders on and earplugs in his large ears 24/7– because he’d not ask her that if he had any info or good sense.
“Terrance.” Mike said sternly with a sharp motion of his head at Terrance to get back to work.
“Never mind, Mike,” Chelly said, “he’s still a stranger here– he’s just, you know, speculating, got the wrong scenario started.”
MIke shook his head, returned to his desk in back. Terrance glanced at her with cautious anticipation while he straightened chairs.
But she was taken with a woman who hesitated by the door, a little boy tugging at her hand to persuade her to go in despite it being close to dinnertime. Chelly’s face relaxed; her hazel eyes widened at the boy. He half-banged on the door with his balled up fist but just once. She gestured a welcome to him with a smile. Dinnertime be damned. He was a little kid and needed ice cream. She’d get him in if that woman didn’t. Then she was going to give him a huge extra scoop to take home–she’d pay if Mike complained.
She peered at Terrance, noting a flush staining his pallid cheeks. “So Jay, my brother, was an ice cream nut. We made ice cream at home and he wanted to work here when he grew up. Invent one hundred more flavors. But he didn’t get to grow up. He died before you got here, before the ripe old age of ten. So I’m working for him.”
“Oh, I’m sorry…” He hung his head, shuffled off.
“Yeah, now you know something real,” she said and gazed out the window again.
Four more people appeared and got in line behind the stalled duet. The bell on the door rang as mother and son entered, and the kid raced to ogle the beautiful ice cream tubs, eyes glossed with sunshine, shaggy hair stuck this way and that, hands pressed to his round cheeks as he pondered mind boggling choices.
“What can I get you today, boss?” Chelly asked and readied her scoop.
The lake was not so close to the house you could throw a rock into it–something Iris had determined decades ago during each summer. It faintly glistened beyond a grove of birches and ubiquitous pines, and the half-fallen ones winter had damaged, one day to be seasoned and made into firewood. The ground was boggy beneath her feet, smelled strongly of rich mud. The sky blazed a hard blue above the whispering lake and the land about it.
“But the lake is there making its music,” she commented, surveying the property, arm outstretched.
“I suppose so, with complete indifference to us,” Elliot said, pushing fists deeper into his jacket pockets. It was cold despite it being on the cusp of spring, and his eyes burned from driving three and a half hours after a bad night’s sleep. “How about lunch and a strong cup of coffee? I’m beat.”
“You go ahead then,” Iris said and walked toward the woods, leaving him to take the luggage in as well as food for a three day week-end. Her suitcase, that is; he’d lightly packed a gym bag. She had wanted to make sure there were adequate clothes for the changeable spring.
It was too much to take in. The monstrous months of the virus, still going strong. A slowdown in their respective jobs. Then Grandpa Bolo’s death. He’d been expected to make good on his decree that he’d be a hundred and not a day less as he moved from this realm to the next. His health had been great for so long they believed him. His brain was snapping-quick, his outlook positive. Until he was fifty, he’d been a hardware store owner and sold it for a very good sum. Living in northwest woods for the latter part of his life, he was entirely content except for the loss of his wife too soon. But despite all those good things, a massive stroke snatched him at 94.
“Why was he called Grandpa Bolo?” Elliot had once asked after they married.
“Everyone called him ‘Bolo’. His mother’s maiden name was his a middle name–Bolonger–and he hated his first name, Horatio. He used a nickname form of his middle name since he was a kid. My sister and I decided to just call him Grandpa Bolo.”
“You grandmother’s name, wasn’t it a country type name? A folksy name…” He hoped he didn’t sound derisive.
“Nana Nell. A mentor all my youth, as you know…” She had been anything but ordinary. Iris smiled at the way her names rolled off the tongue. Her grandmother had died when Iris was twenty-four of cancer, seven years before she and Elliott married. And now, how quickly another ten years had passed.
Elliot sighed, almost rolled his eyes, then caught himself in time. How awfully folksy it all is, he thought, then saw her smile flush her skin with undeniable radiance. His initial response was submerged. His own single mother, Nancy, which he’d called her since he was young, was another sort of story.
Maybe that conversation–or what was left unsaid–ought to have told her more, though it would have been more than she could acknowledge then. And he might have known that whatever was kept subterranean was bound to resurface sooner or later, but he believed in control of his thoughts and feelings.
Iris and Elliot found the property untended, scrappy, but that was to be expected. Leave wild land to itself and you get more wildness. Of course, it wasn’t utter wilderness; there were more places dotting Spirit Lake’s waterfront and beyond. Grandpa Bolo’s property was built in 1920. It’d been renovated more than once by the two families who had owned it. The lake was also smaller than many in Washington, still with few year-round residents. The family place was big enough–two stories–to be called a proper house. But the cedar shakes were weathered, its wide porch long ago had sloped a bit, it welcome more a yawning nod…it appeared a worn out, oversized cottage. Which is what Nana Nell called it. But Iris could recall when it seemed like a woodland castle, a place beaming with color and delights and good will.
She felt her grandfather’s presence strongly and stood with eyes closed.
Iris had always thought of it as home, period. She was moved and excited that it had been passed down to her. Since their mother has died of the same cancerous disease, she and her sister Carrie were next in line. So she, too, was part owner. And settled long in Miami not far from their bridge-playing, golf-happy father. And neither was anxious to return except for a short visit. One day, after the pandemic had wound down, she’d come a few days. Father was more about visiting at his condo. So Iris was more than welcome to the house.
Elliot emerged from it with a sandwich in one hand, a mug in the other. He raised it toward her, full of steaming brew. “Are you having one, now?”
“Not yet! I’m off to look around.”
The path, though well overgrown, was not hidden from her. It had been created between brush and trees aeons ago; so many feet had pounded the dirt long and hard. She pushed away branches and bushes, sidestepped a clump of vines, wound her way through elegant birches, which she stopped to touch, face close to its white peeling parchment. Soon enough, lapping green-blue water greeted her.
Shielding her eyes, she scanned the barely moving water, found a few boats, people with fishing rods lowered. The lake’s surface sparked with sunlight. Across the expanse, she studied the cottages and cabins. Iris wondered if the Harris family was in, if the robust Peabody brothers were doing alright. She hadn’t seen the Harrises at the funeral (where the few that made it stayed distanced). She’d heard they were in Arizona, camping out with their wealthy son. Was Marietta Holmes still taking care of her granddaughter and unemployed daughter– or had those two moved on since November? There were many people she had missed a long while, and others that she might not yet know. The assembly of souls in the township of Garner totalled less than 125, she guessed.
Which was what Elliot hated–it’s insular smallness. Or, rather, strongly disliked–he’d not tell her he despised visiting there longer than three days, even if he felt that way. She already knew he got restless and stated strong opinions if she pled for any longer. There were plenty of things he said entirely free of constraint–but her family and this place…that was a different matter. Sacred ground, he’d termed it with a half-smirk once. And Iris did not correct him, for it was true for her. She did not understand why he didn’t feel the same about his own family history; he just wasn’t close to his few relatives.
“There isa reason it’s called Spirit Lake, and it’s a lovely one,” she’d once told him. But he hadn’t asked why so she hadn’t said.
But there it was, spreading out before her. She could see both distant ends of the lake and her eyes traced the squashed oval shoreline, pausing at bird sightings and noting a new paint job on a cottage, wondering who it was hauling out the canoe. The breath that she took filled her up with fresh air. Peace. Just beyond the treeline were far purplish peaks of mountains that shone whitely with snow in the thin light.
It was time to get back to Elliot. Though Iris could not think of many reasons why other than food and coffee.
“Are you awake?” he asked, touching her shoulder.
“I keep hearing things out there.”
“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”
He wondered what else. Raccoons. Coyotes or a even wolf? No, wolves didn’t live here, did they? Bears were known to roam the mountains surrounding them. He’d seen tracks before. Mountain lions, for sure, those wily cougars.
Iris shifted, pulled her pillow closer under her head, sighed softly. She had been sleeping. Now she’d be listening, too. But only a moment. Hadn’t Elliot been a country boy until age fourteen? But that was Kansas. She yawned.
He blocked out the image of a cougar padding onto the porch, peering into the undraped living room and kitchen windows, sniffing about the door. He lay on his back, staring into a thicket of dark. In Kansas, he’d look out and see nothing for miles. The vacuous or storming sky. Fields of undulating corn, yes, but not an impenetrable density of trees, not bears on the hunt. He preferred open expanses. After ten years of marriage and living in Washington, it was still a challenge to get comfortable with endless forests, the sinuous mountain or valley roads. That is, if they must be in the country, at all. Why, he once said to his friend, Tom, did they keep planting trees all over when there were already so many you couldn’t see where you were going?
He and Nancy, his hard working, divorced mother, had left Kansas for Las Vegas and never looked back. If he had never gone to university, then taken that first financial consultant job in Seattle…but, then, he loved city life, the hustle. He couldn’t wait for the pandemic to wane, to get out there once more.
And if he’d not come to Seattle, he’d not have met the talented artist, Iris Merriman, his future wife.
No, he’d have not met Iris. Things would have been different. Easier, maybe. Lonelier, maybe.
There it was again, a rustling, a shaking sound–a bush tangling with an elk as it walked through? He could deal with that okay, just get a rifle. He knew a bit about hunting. Still, give him skittering lizards, even a rattlesnake. Elliot turned, balanced on his side, listening hard, finding shapes in the dark he was certain weren’t likely there. Thinking: two more days to endure in the weirdness of country.
At the dock things were happening. Birds rising up and falling across a cool curtain of air, their early morning songs skimming the lake, circling treetops. Squirrels rooting around and gossiping. Fish emitting bubbles that popped up at water’s surface. Little dark whirlpools that twirled, eddied, vanished to secret places below. Soft tangerine and candy pink-tinged branches of black-green pines. Color of many tones washed over the languishing body of the lake like slinky raiment.
It was a good breaking of dawn. The best way to greet life was to meet it as the sun did.
At the end of the dock–newer than recalled–Iris was wrapped in a nubby woolen blanket. She sat forward in a creaky folding chair. Opened her sketchbook, chose a colored pencil. She looked and looked, began to render what she saw, felt.
As she drew, she remembered. Sitting there with her grandmother at her side, each of them engrossed, the quietness a blessing.
Nana Nell had been an artist, making baskets, ceramics. Collages of nature’s treasures. Small watercolors of wildflowers and lake scenes, sometimes of tiny people melding into the landscape. She’d taught Iris how to hold a pencil and brush, to loosen her grip. How to daub different paint pots and make new colors. To make interesting things of yarn. To see with soul and heart, not only her eye. To render designs with thoughtfulness and care. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator and got her degree, then became good enough that in time she was able to freelance. She drew pictures for children’s stories, for magazine articles, if needed financially, even for ad campaigns. Her favorites jobs were books, though it could be taxing to come to an agreement with everyone about how to execute what moved her while complementing the story. The other jobs were just jobs, but she enjoyed all labors.
Here, though, she could let her hand tell any story it wanted. Or represent with no embellishment just what was noticed. It was as if her eyes and brain carried sensory input and a feel of a place, animal, person or any other thing, and with speed and glory: suddenly it would flow from the tips pencils or charcoal or brushes. A direct line of energy. A charge of clarity. A liberation of everything that mattered to her. She loved most the natural world’s magic. All she had to do was sit and wait for it to arrive from her body’s perception, then race into her being and back to her fingertips.
If only Elliot understood this. He failed to accept that she did not want to be a strictly commercial artist. He had at first encouraged her art shows but the galleries were small, the openings soft, the rewards not nearly as much money as he had hoped. Still, she’d developed a website; sales increased over time. And she kept getting contracts for the other work. In time, he stopped thinking about it, let her be. He made the greater contribution to their coffers and future. He worked hours she’d never withstand, he believed, with her artist ways and temperament and that was alright, he conceded, as long as it kept the peace. But it often was not the key that he’d wished. She was so….adrift in her own small world. As he was, he guessed, in his. And seldom the twain did meet in recent years.
He had just awakened before she appeared. He didn’t dress, but slouched into the porch swing with a fleece on, hungry and tired. He had taken a look about and found no sign of intruding creatures around the house perimeter. He deducted he’d conjured up the sounds. But wasn’t convinced.
Iris’ sketchbook and pencils were clutched close to her chest as she approached the house. She was often magnetic, her straight long hair drifting about narrow shoulders, long legs taking the dirt path with ease. As if she was meant to always walk briskly without ever tiring. Not a big woman, she could disappear as well as gradually command a space. It was her focus, the zeroing in on people in any setting that so captivated. She might be studying momentary light on the planes of their faces, but they appreciated her gentle attentiveness. They wondered what she saw. As he had.
Now Elliot frequently waited for her, patient at first, then frustrated as time went on. For her mind to come forward to meet his, for her gaze to lock with his in a signal of passion, for her work to take up less room and make more for his work, his day’s events and needs. Sometimes he felt like she’d long ago started a migration to another land. Had left him by the side of the road, free to join the trip or turn and go another way. She cared but she was missing, somehow. He couldn’t put his finger right on it. They had argued about their separateness more and harder lately. Ever since the Spirit Lake house had become hers.
Hers. Not theirs. He’d never thought it could be any other way.
“Had breakfast already?”
“I haven’t. I was waiting for you.”
She gave him that smile, the one that said all is well in my world and let’s have a good day. So he followed her inside, hopes lifted. He knew he had to make the best of things over the weekend. He wanted to and yet part of him pulled back, waiting again for her to fully see him. Anxious that this house meant more to her than he did. That they had come to a fork in the road.
Iris felt his worry rise from his body like the cold he needed to better dispel. She let it pass her by. She knew what made sense for them, and she knew she loved him. One way or another, their destinies would work out right.
In the afternoon they walked. Iris showed him again her favorite places. All those years she had come for the summers; she was a full Spirit Lake citizen by age five. The tiny store, run by the Hedlund clan, two miles down the road, where you got bait and most everything else in a pinch. Like a convenience shop, just less interesting in inventory than a city’s, Elliot noted. The hilltop view where you could see the mountain range more fully, their mighty breadth and height leaving them both struck by nature’s grandeur, as usual. The place where she found butterflies amid brightly bobbing wildflowers spring into summer. The best picnic spot under massive oak trees by the lake where her family laid out ham sandwiches and devilled eggs, veggie sticks with dill dip and sun brewed iced tea. And the family recipe, a dark chocolate cake with cinnamon. Elliot shared a couple of picnics like that; excepting the bees, flies and ants, it had been nice and tasty.
“Let’s get out the rowboat,” she said and tugged on his hand.
Before he could protest, she pulled him into a galloping run to the boathouse by the dock. It felt good to be there with him. He was calmer, more accessible than in the the city where he and everyone else seemed so compressed. Concentrated on matters of importance, the race to make money stack up. She felt he’d made a vow as a kid to be a Success before anything else could claim him. She’d known this from the start, but back then he was able to be vulnerable, too, more malleable under the engine of driving energy, curious about so much more.
“I’ll row, it’s in my blood, this boat thing,” she said teasingly, “and you always put us into a circular pattern to nowhere.”
“That’s true. We didn’t have boats in my part of Kansas…I still might learn.”
“What? No lakes of rivers in that state?”
“Well, not so I noticed. A sea of corn or grain, yes.”
“I wouldn’t have been the same person without water and boats. I’d have gone stir crazy being landlocked. There is something about skimming the water’s surface, being shown a panorama like this, watching life over and under the surface..it never fails to make me fall in love all over again.”
He had to agree it was pleasant, the rocking of water, the line of neat cottages and rustic cabins, others out in their boats. Like postcards you’d send to a buddy, proclaiming how much fun is being missed, a huge fish on a line prominently displayed. But he didn’t fish and the truth was after a half hour, he wished he was reading a newspaper or texting at a sidewalk table of The Merchant’s Coffee Shop. As he preferred to do on non-working Saturdays. Even if it rained–there were canopies and umbrellas set up, even in the pandemic.
Iris put up her oars, one on each side.
“Doesn’t it feel safe out here? I mean, from the world, from illness. And so many other sad events.”
“I suppose so. But I’d rather be in touch with that world, too. Live within it. I mean, we can’t run away from things. Or we just shouldn’t. We have the responsibility to do what we can, carrying on and planning for a changed future.”
“Yes, I know. But people manage the best ways they can, not always the same as each other, right? We all have different ways to achieve those goals.”
Oh, here it comes, he thought, our great divide. He looked toward the sound of a truck rumbling over some gravel road, likely a few ATVs or an earthmover to shove dirt around to make way for a new house. Garner was beginning to attract attention from city dwellers. That appealed to him, the investment aspect. But so much of the land was privately owned already, it was hard to get in. Except, they had an “in”, didn’t they? Or she did, anyway.
“So we have noted before,” he said. “I like to be in the mix; you like to step back and work from the edges.”
She grabbed the oars and rowed a little more to pass a couple fishing nearby. “Not fully stand back, just to get more or better perspectives. Use my talents the ways I feel work best.”
He looked at her quizzically. “What are you getting at?”
“I’ve been thinking.”
“Yes, I know. We keep beating around the bush, don’t we.”
“Well, much has happened this year. We feel so much less certain of anything, It takes thought.”
Her strong slim arms pulled on the oars in a rhythmical manner, a slow but steady power so that they crossed over the lake toward the house with the slightest lurches, then more gliding, each stroke moving through the chilly water almost soundlessly. She was good at this, had a way with the lake no matter the manner in which she approached it. She had such a feel for lake life.
Iris could swim across it; he couldn’t swim well even in a pool though he could almost dive well. Iris could sail the green Sunfish very well; he never had and then when he tried, they’d capsized. Iris could tell the weather by the direction, speed and shape of waves against the shore, the sound of wind in trees. She had grown up near Seattle in a smaller, woodsy suburb, but she had learned about most important things in and on Spirit Lake, it seemed. Elliot had learned on the fly as his mother worked as a blackjack dealer in casinos. But he knew things, too. They just were not in her knowledge pool–as his were not in hers.
She let the oars drag a bit in the water and looked right at him. “I want to stay, Elliot.”
“Of course you do, you say this every time we come here. And you lost your beloved grandfather and you miss the old times…”
“No, I mean, yes, that is true. But I meant that rather than rent out the house by summer and for a long while as we discussed, I want to just live here. To keep it for us to use.”
“You can’t be serious. Alone, you mean? I have to go back to the city. What about your own work? Friends? What about us?”
“I have figured it out. You’ll drive over all the weekends you can. I’ll come to the city, too. I can freelance anywhere– you know that. My friends? They can visit eventually, when it is safe, and vice versa. I have a few old friends around here, too. We could make it work, Elliot! It seems so perfect–we each get what we want and still have each other.”
Her expression was so intense, she looked like a giddy teenager. It seemed suddenly absurd, the whole thing. Was this what she’d imagined when the will was read? How had he failed to miss it?
“The whole time–you had this planned, didn’t you Iris?”
She shook her head and started to row hard again. “I didn’t, truly, Elliot. But ever since we drove down the private road to the house I felt like it was where I most belong. Once and for all. I might discover otherwise, I guess. But I want to try it for six months, at least, see how it works out.”
“You can’t mean this.” It was sinking in with a feeling akin to horror. She wanted to leave him then, essentially–end up living here? They’d made a sound plan, they would keep but lease the house, then someday perhaps build a tidy cabin of their own on the lake. For holidays. For investment purposes. And the land was worth something.
Once more she let the oars dangle in placid water, dragging and leaving barest wakes on either side.
“Don’t you see that it’s what Grandpa Bolo wanted for me? He gifted the place to me–and Carrie, who doesn’t even want it. He knew how I loved Spirit Lake and the forest and mountains, its people, the way of life. He knew it’d be good for me to still love and watch over it. I don’t really trust others to do that right…” He had turned away, hands holding tightly to the boat’s sides. “Elliot– I can paint and make things so happily here. There’s much to inspire me. I can do really good work here again, I know it–I’ve been stuck, almost bored lately as you know. This might be the answer to it all.”
“Yes, your selfish answer to our situation, our being out of sync, your artsy world versus my commerce world..it is such a mess, isn’t it?” He stood, angily gesturing toward shore, at her, and rocking the rowboat. “I can’t accept this, it isn’t good enough for us both!”
The boat began to tilt and sway side to side.
“Elliot, be careful sit down now!” she called out.
But he was off balance, falling fast, and as he grazed the edge going over, he thought, this is how it ends? Iris dove in deeply and the cold shocked her hard but there he was sinking, arms waving, legs flailing, and she breast stroked her way to him, grabbed him around the waist and pushed upward with all her strength, her legs beating the water, her free shoving the stunning water away, reaching and straining toward light and air. He was heavy, heavier than he should be, and she realized he was pushing against her, fighting, afraid of drowning, afraid of taking her with him, perhaps. She clamped him with her arm around his chest, held his back to her front, plowed ahead, up and up before her lungs burst. They broke through, bobbed upward with the force of it.
“Elliot,” she sputtered, “stop fighting, we’re safe!”
He was gasping hard, coughing and choking, and grabbing the side of the rowboat when a motor boat came up fast.
“You need help? Oh, Iris! My gosh, let us help!”
The big bearded Peabody brothers, still hearty at sixty and sixty-two, hauled him complaining and gasping over the side of their boat, checked him over, threw their jackets over them. Then the older brother joined Iris in her boat and rowed her back. The younger one whisked Elliott over in the motorboat.
Chattering teeth made her clench her jaw. They’d nebeen in not more then two or three minutes, that was good, but still, so cold. “Never could keep you straight, look like twins.”
“I’m Adam, that’s Mike,” he said, and laughed as if it was a joke. “Good thing you can swim.” He cleared his throat. “Might be good to teach your husband.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Grateful for your help.”
“Anything for Bolo’s folks, rest his soul–any time.”
Iris blinked back tears. Her hair streamed, her jacket and shirt clung to her chest. She’d lost both loosely tied tennis shoes. The ones she had left there a few years, just for the lake.
“Long, warm shower now, or a bath, both of you,” Mike said as he dropped off Elliot with a nod–and a tip of his hat to Iris.
“I don’t get it, but I see there’s no changing your mind. If I had my way, I might never see this place again. Or any other silty, weedy, stinking lake, for that matter!”
“I know.” Iris poured coffee into his thermos for the drive back to Seattle, placed the sandwich and apple in the lunch bag. If only he really was just going to leave for a day’s work and then coming back shortly. “But we will give a good try, and thank you for that. You won’t decide to throw me over in a divorce action?…”
“No.” Saying it made it a more clear and certain decision, through he’d had a niggling doubt overnight.
Iris walked him to the car. “So, you’ll be back with Tom and my car next Saturday, right? He loves the outdoors, especially fishing if I recall.”
“He does,” he said grudgingly. “Yes, and I’ll cart over more clothes and whatever else you decide. Make that list and text or email me by Thursday.”
“Yes.” When he got in and shut the door, Iris leaned at the window he rolled down. “You know it’ll all be alright if we look at it as mutually beneficial. Right? We’ve been at odds a long while, and I’ve been restless with much and you have felt neglected. You want to work longer and later hours even at home. I like early rising and early to bed. You like running every day and I like yoga…we both need some time to regroup. It isn’t just me wanting this place, it’s more, I believe.”
“I agree, Iris, it’s just not easy. And less so in these crazy times.”
“We can be in touch every day. We’ll see each other as often as possible. It will be a small adventure.” She leaned close, kissed him tenderly. It felt good, the kiss–and their farewell for the time being.
He began to back up, then stopped. “I never learned after all this time why the lake is called Spirit Lake.”
“Oh, that.” She smiled, gazed past him, to the shore beyond the trees. “I might tell you someday. We’ll see.”
He shook his head, waved at her, then left.
Nana Nell had told her one summery day when Iris was ten. They’d been drawing together the shore, the blanket covering the stones and lumpy earth, August green trees dancing in the wind.
“I make art better outside, Nana Nell.”
“Of course you do. It’s the lake.”
Iris squinted at her. “Why?”
“Because once there was a woman who ran away from home to find her heart’s desire. She didn’t want to live an ordinary life. She wanted to do something special and good for the world, but she didn’t know what until she arrived at this jewel of a lake.”
Nana Nell paused as she added color here and there to her sketch.
“Nana, what next?”
“She became a well-known artist. She also donated much of her money to help build an orphan’s home in Garner. But then, at too young an age she drowned in a terrific thunderstorm that came up while she was in her boat, drawing nature’s beauties.”
“But that’s not the full ending, child. They never found her. But she finds those who come here. Every morning at sunrise she skims the lake. Well, her spirit does, and she watches over the rest of us if we belong here. And if anyone falls overboard, she brings them back up to safety.”
Iris said nothing a long while. Then: “So those people live?”
Nana Nell nodded.
“When was this, Nana Nell? Did she have a name?”
“Oh my, it was Mary something…Mary Murray…Mary Millay…Well, it was before I was born, before Grandpa or even my parents came to be. It was before anyone can exactly recall, anyway. But the lake does not forget. And she still calls out to some, you know. She called to me, and Grandpa Bolo, and now to you.”
Iris smiled so hard her face felt it might freeze that way. “Because we’re artists!….and Grandpa Bolo loves the lake and earth, too!”
Nana Nell smiled back, patted her hand and bid her keep drawing.
“Maybe she was part of our family,” Iris said impulsively as she shaded a mountain peak.
But Nana Nell did not reply. She was busy creating.
When she had thought enough of Elliot and his leaving and her staying, Iris got her sketchbook and colored pencils and sat on the dock. A damp wind fragrant with a herald of spring on its tail came by, and warm sun soothed her sadness, and music of the lake awakened a dormant joy. Before too long, there would be sweeter rains and softer days rife with wildflowers. Creatures would venture out more, stop at her door. She would go swimming and boating. She would make beautiful things. She might just sit and attend to the water and sky. She had not felt so comforted and right in her own skin in a long while. But Elliot would call it home one day, too. He just hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Or, at least, she kept a small hope of it.
They said she developed a powerful swagger after the fire, and not the sort that may bring pleasure to the eye. She had grown up fast since the fire that attacked her family’s tinder box of a house and left it ash. It took over three years for her to learn to cope at all with the loss of her younger brother and parents. It would take a lifetime to figure ways to live with and beyond it. No, the way she took up a space was not a welcome but warning, long legs moving forward in near-gallops, feet planted so hard the ground wanted to shake them off. Her arms swung rhythmically; her head, set above those Coverson broad shoulders, had chin up permanently in public, and once- sharp but dreamy eyes half-closed to survey any thing or person which crossed her path.
At nineteen Renee, known now as “RC” around town, rarely answered no matter any name called out by peers. Her presence gave off an air of having lived very long already and she was prepared to fight it out from there on. People avoided her quick tongue once she gave in to a casual conversation; how to answer someone who had suffered much yet brooked no fallibility in others?
It was a jolt at first. She’d been the Coverson family hope of a different future, the girl being smart and kind, hard working. After the fire, she still attended school but barely graduated. Her English teacher found her work often impressive but disturbing, yet gave her all As. Otherwise, she skated by, waking up in a cloud each day at her Aunt Dee’s house and met the hours with a long stare, like a rusty wind-up robot. When her aunt got her up and dressed, she just went on for lack of anything else to do. If her hair went unwashed and her clothing bore signs of an overdue cleaning (despite Aunt Dee’s tireless efforts), who cared. No one judged her back then. They were sorrier than they could say, but didn’t know what more to do much less talk about with her. So they watched her change from promising and sociable to closed, sad, even bitter. After high school, most lost much interest. RC was who she was; life did things to people.
Then Renee Coverson came down the street one day in early spring, dressed in usual plaid shirt and torn jeans and her mother’s worn boots–boots of her mother’s. When she entered Maddy’s Fashions, customers were surprised. You couldn’t avoid looking at her, either; she’d been touched with her mother’s exotic aura of beauty. They seldom saw her around, as she avoided unnecessary social situations since her family perished, including shopping done alone, at least.
“RC, hey,” Jana said from behind the counter, her mouth left hanging open.
“I need a dress. Something kinda dark, longer skirt, easy. Size 8, I guess.”
She plunked down a credit card on the counter and stood with hands on hips and feet apart, surveying the racks. Jana looked her over discreetly, considered the inventory. It was most all spring prints, light, airy, elegant or snazzy. Years ago as RC was growing up fast every one worried she’d end up being the one all the guys wanted. Now, it was a different story. Jana got married, so no big deal to her. And the guys were afraid of RC’s history which she carried everywhere like an invisible cape, with dagger.
After lots of shaking of her head, RC selected a maxi cotton dress with small scoop neck, a green-black color with a little cream–it was a viney print. It looked large for her, Jana said, but RC entered the dressing room as three young women whispered to one another, eyes watchful. Two other shoppers arrived. They surreptitiously waited to see if RC would come out in the dress. To their surprise, she did.
Renee Coverson looked in the three-way mirror, eyes narrowed as usual. She smoothed the fabric over her lithe body, slowly turned. You couldn’t say it was a terrific fit, Jana confided later to her best friend, as it hung too loose, was an odd length and the shoulder seams sloped off a bit. But with that thick, deep coppery hair, RC’s eyes opening wider, her pale muscular arms appearing, a curve of calves winking between boots and hem–well, it somehow looked very good. Forest green and ivory vines draped gently over a honed body so long hidden that no one knew what she looked like, anymore. And now that they did, the shoppers fell silent.
RC spun around, both palms up and glared at her audience.
“What are you all gaping at? You don’t have anything better to do with your money and time? It’s just a dress; I’m just me.”
The room was full of lightning, that’s how Jana described it later, and people pulled right back. RC vanished into the dressing room, came out with her old stuff on. Murmuring, the young women turned to each other, full of new gossip. Jana took Aunt Dee’s credit card, despite it not being quite right to do so, and the dress was Renee’s.
She took the bag and turned back to Jana. “Thanks. You aren’t so bad, you know?” then pushed out the door in a terrible hurry again.
It wasn’t a smile she had offered Jana. But it was still something. Maybe RC was coming back to a more ordinary life. God knew that the conflagration her daddy started was the worst day of RC’s life… or ever would be.
“RC, RC, RC. that’s all they ever call me. Did they forget my real name? It gets on my nerves hearing it.”
Aunt Dee looked up from potatoes she was peeling, then handed to her niece, the lettuce to tear up.
“It’s been a nickname awhile now, it’s only your initials,” her aunt said, her low voice going soft. Though she did know that was a white lie.
“Only since seventh grade when Rene James moved into town. Why didn’t they just call her RJ instead?”
“Maybe because you never objected. Or…”
“Never mind. That was then, this is now,” Renee said, tearing up the iceberg leaves, tossing them into a bowl. She grabbed a carrot and another peeler. “I’m Renee. Period. I need to do something about it sooner than later.”
Aunt Dee had heard once what RC really meant: “rough cut.” The young brats in town had started that, likely the boys, after Renee had changed into a brittle, grief hollowed girl. Rough cut: a major tree trunk sliced up with a serious saw and then left unfinished. Not pretty wood that was finished. Her brother Johnny, Renee’s father, had been a woodsman, eking out a living selling cords for fires in winter and snowplowing, and crafting furniture, or doing special projects for renovated houses of the well-off. Rough cut, a way to designate the sort she came from, perhaps. Not a good term for a human, not a fair one in this case. Her niece was better than that, more like teak, mahogany shined up, fine wood waiting to be made good and lovely once more after too long gathering dirt and dust.
She wondered why now she did it, got the dress. Two days before the anniversary of that horror of loss, she could hardly bear to think of it–Renee had gone out alone to get it done. Something about how she wanted to commemorate it for once, she mumbled. It spooked Dee. Her niece never wanted to make a note of it, refused even to visit the graveyard, instead going off to the woods for hours as Dee worried. And then she’d show up at the cabin, calmer than usual. But set apart, so alone.
“You like my dress?” Renee asked.
“Sure, but I’ll like it better if I see it on you and know what it’s about.”
Renee turned and leaned against the sink, pulled her hair back and slipped a rubber band on to make a ponytail. My, how she looked like her mother. Evelyn. A strong but too long suffering woman who took care of Dee’s alcoholic brother best she could, and what a wearing down sort of life it was til the end. It made her bones cry out. Dee shook her head.
“What’s up, Renee? What is going on lately? You’re up, down and more mysterious than ever. But you seem less angry.”
That was taking a big chance. Never talk about feelings if you could help it, the family motto. Since Dee was a teacher’s assistant, she’d had training and knew how to listen and to coax kids, and maybe that was why Renee talked to her a bit more over time. But they’d been overall good Renee’s whole life in many ways; after the fire, they got used to each other more, then got more trusting and their bond was nothing to trifle with, as her Russ used to say.
“I’ve got a plan, Aunt Dee. I’ll let you know about it soon. We stick together, bread and butter, right?”
This childish statement so touched Dee that she stretched out her arms to hug her but Renee didn’t respond in kind: paring knife and peeler in her hands, chin jutting a bit, eyes narrowed just enough so it was like shutters being pulled to again. And then she sliced up a tomato fast, chopped the carrots faster. And asked about salad dressing choices and if they still had sliced almonds.
Okay, then, perhaps tomorrow. Dee put the pot of potatoes to boil and hummed, ignoring her niece. Tucking away her heart, a wounded dove hiding in a thicket, waiting to heal up more.
If there was one thing Renee loved, it was dawn. It was the possibility of a new start each time, and that was what she needed to bear life. She had long awakened early, gone to bed late, and that pattern still felt better than most things. Aunt Dee lived only a half mile from where her own family had lived, yet harder to get to when it snowed or stormed. The roads were gravel the last bit to the cabin on a low hill. It was snug against forested acres like her parents’ had been, but here it was deeper, thicker, full of wild things that she might see if she was patient. Darker at night and greener by day, especially after winter.
She’d run here countless times when her father had been slobbering drunk and belly aching or, more rarely, swinging clumsily, then slumping over in inconvenient places, kitchen floor or the shed or the roadway when it was five below. She’d been at Aunt Dee’s that night, helping her with canning and then Dee helped her with exam study questions. That was not unusual; she was told she should not feel such heavy guilt every single day. Renee could hardly think at her own chaotic house, after all, Dee had said once, and then regretted it as the words were true but stung.
If she’d been there then. If Kenny, her brother, and their mother had come with her as Aunt Dee had suggested. If her father hadn’t drunk too much, built and lit a fire in the fireplace haphazardly– then spilled that damned whiskey bottle. It was finally determined by sheriff and firemen. Renee had already blamed him. She knew he’d been in a black out, took them with him out of the blind neglect that came with the powerful sickness.
Out here it was empty of all that, and peaceful. She craved it from the start. Uncle Russ was a kind man, only given to a beer now and then, then he was sick with cancer, gone when she was eleven. Only her harried, overworked mother’s needs even kept her at her own house. And her brother’s hunger for her attention, which she gave him as she could. She’d often felt guilty about wanting to leave but took off, anyway.
Still, she had risen at dawn there, too. Before he had awakened. Before Kenny asked her to take him with her. She needed that half hour. To breathe. To see clues of God. The creatures slinking about in shadows, then softening illumination of day. To just be herself, her own small, searching and more hopeful self. Blessedly alone. And now she was, that was one certain thing. Except for Aunt Dee.
And so in the morning she once more threw off light quilts and swung feet over the edge of bed, rubbed her eyes, pulled off bedclothes. Got into the bathroom before Aunt Dee beat her to it and then dressed. Opened the back door as silently as she could, then sat on the back stoop, knees pulled high, chin propped on her palms.
From there she could see it happen, a slow flare above treetops, navy sky doing its magic brightening, seeping watercolor hues a report of coming weather, birds chorusing, all things coming awake with her, scrabbling in that way that soothed her ears and filled her enough to go on. If not for the stealthy arrival of each dawn, she would have lost her mind and disappeared in the forest for good long ago.
Soon she would do what she’d planned for six months.
The calendar date marked came, the one Renee Coverson had dreaded and avoided commemorating for three years. But not today.
One with gray hair cut short and one with a burnished braid and an understated dress moved in expectant quietness through musky forest following a worn, rutted path.
Long ago Dee and Russ had hacked out the two mile route to gather kindling or search for dead and down trees to cut up; visit the west meadow and pick blackberries and wildflowers; run their beloved beagles or any other dog they took to–and it was comforting to trod, as she often did alone when Renee was gone. Sometimes they took it together but not much during snows, which finally had abated.
Her chest was drumming with anticipation as they wound deeper into pine and spruce, oak, ironwood and birches. Renee took the lead decisively, her stride steady and long, energy increasing the moment they began. She wore her backpack, bulkier than usual, over her new dress.
“Slow down, what’s the rush, we have all day,” Dee puffed words out as she picked up her feet faster. “I wait three years for you to join me for this date and now you may leave me behind…”
Renee stopped and frowned at her aunt, then inclined her head and gave a slow, small smile. “I’ve been waiting, too, I’m impatient, Auntie.” Then she took Aunt Dee’s arm. They tried to sync their steps and finally managed it..
“What is going to happen when we get wherever we’re going?”
But Renee said nothing more. It was quite enough that her arm was laced through hers.
In the meadow, a brilliant light had painted the land and its vegetation golden and emerald; it pulsed with life, itself. Dee wanted to sit in newly sprouted, greening grasses. Listen to the meadowlarks for hours.
“We aren’t there yet, keep going,” Renee prodded.
At the northern edge of meadow land there came a narrower path half-overgrown by vines and grasses. As they entered groups of tall trees again, the younger woman steered the older toward an opening that was filled with dapples of sunniness and shade.
“Cover your eyes now,” Renee half-whispered,”I will lead you.”
When Dee was stopped and instructed to stand still with eyes shut, she heard her niece open the backpack, then rustlings and steps here and there. She almost peeked but knew better–it had taken so long for Renee to come to this point. Finally, she was allowed to see.
She gasped, and hands flew to her mouth. She reached for a tree trunk, braced her weight as her head felt light.
Renee stood close by and Dee looked more. There in the small clearing among elegant birches stood a perfect tiny pine house. Perhaps two by two feet, it had a roof and windows and a doorway open to sweet air and light. With a partly open back, it about resembled a doll’s house. But it was not a doll’s house. It was a replica of a most ordinary simple house. Like her brother’s family house.
There, intact in the woods.
Dee knelt down in the dirt to look inside, eyes stinging, and Renee joined her.
“What on earth… Renee—how?”
“I made it.”
Aunt Dee studied the good proportions, clean corner and smooth edges, the neat, flush nails, then at Renee. “You did this? How and when?”
“I got a few supplies from the garage last summer, yeah, from our old place…it was hard, but anyway, I stored them in your smallest rundown shed of yours, hid things behind junk. Uncle Russ had tools, too. I waited until you were gone for long periods a few times. It wasn’t that complicated. But I have very slowly worked on the people who stay there…and just finished yesterday, so I could bring them on this date.”
“You have skills, and it’s wonderful, what you have done here…”
She saw then the wooden figures Renee had just placed, each in a different room, standing or sitting. They had jointed limbs. Narrow faces with clear hand-drawn eyes, line mouths. Just sitting there, apart. Not quite smiling but not grimacing. Again came a hand to her mouth as she held at bay tears, unwilling to mar the moment with her sorrows, which lessened by the moment.
“Yes, I have basic skills and ideas, so I just did it. It was helpful, I guess. To hammer and cut and put things together. To remember– but make something clean, new…know what I mean? To try to make it a little better than it was. But we did have some love, we did….”
Her face had begun to alter as she spoke. Anger melted from her– tension released her smooth lips, narrow creases eased from her brow. Her eyes were wide open and she was looking at the house, then into the woods, and finally at Aunt Dee. It was as if Renee was coming to, even finding it okay to look at life full-face more.
“Yes, I think I understand.” Dee got up from the damp ground.
Renee reached inside the back of her miniature house. She picked up each figure, then arranged one after the other in a circle, in the room at the front of the house. They stiffly faced each other, mutely obedient, and then she made the pegged arms and legs touch lightly.
She and Aunt Dee were still, too, arms linked. Benders Creek rushed downstream behind them, a jay screeched and took off, the red-winged blackbirds gathered in the meadow and carried on. They took in the creation that sat among trees, sunlight warming the constructed pine building, its few rooms brightening, the four figures resting in sweet symmetry.
Renee bent to pick a smattering of periwinkles and marsh marigolds about their feet. In the center of her pine family gathering, she placed blossoms. Aunt Dee bowed her head as her niece laid her hands a long moment upon the roof, placed a tender kiss on the sun-touched front doorway, then walked off, lanky body easing into sunshine, soul lighter with each step, new dress swinging above her boots.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson