Wintering

DSCF4287
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Joe heard the snap of the door opening and the barest crack as she slammed it behind her. One more thing to have to repair sooner than later. He stubbed out his cigarette in the dirt of the dying African violet and glanced over his shoulder. Maddy stared at the picture window, eyes asquint in the late afternoon light,  pencil tight between her teeth. He imagined she was trying to see how hard she could bite down before it snapped but maybe that was his own feeling welling up. It was hard to say what she was feeling. They were alike that way.

The two of them had hunkered down early, right after breakfast. That’s when Isla had born that look of hers right into the living room and then back to the table then to the front door.

“I can’t stand the way the rooms turn in on you, the dust and smoke and silence choke me,” she said, shaking her mane of mahogany hair, trying to clear her head. “If there’s not more light soon, I’ll be gone to Arizona, wait and see, Joe Talford!” She touched the fern in the corner, then batted it. “The desert’s needing me, that makes it even harder! I’ve surely had enough!”

He found this amusing, as if a desert would need anyone. She meant You and Maddy don’t, so why put up with this endless snow and darkness if I get so little? It wasn’t true, they so needed her, just not so much like this.

She needed ubiquitous light like water needed sky, she felt not enough herself without it. She needed attention like the temperamental violet. He saw that and tried to do better even when he didn’t feel the urge. He’d never known anyone who required direct eye contact as much as Isla did. But then, he tended to be zeroing in on other things.

It was mostly this way every winter. Joe wasn’t sure if her tone had changed much but something in her shoulders had. The gentleness was eking away, the slopes had become ledges, sharp and taunting. At night in their cramped room if he’d reach for her, she’d surrender with little delight and afterward her warmth cooled so fast his hands were surprised. This Isla was not the Isla he knew and liked so well. But to be fair she’d had little idea what the winters were about when they’d moved back to his family’s land eight years ago. Words were nothing compared to reality.

“She didn’t take her gloves or button her coat,” Maddy noted.

“She’ll manage.”

Maddy chewed on the eraser, but when Joe lifted a bristly eyebrow at her, she lay the dented pencil on the table. What she really wanted was a cigarette. Her parents didn’t know she sneaked one from her dad’s pack once a week. She liked how the smoke shocked her mouth and lungs before sliding out in a mysterious whirl of smoke. She’d take one out back into the woods as she gathered kindling or followed a blue jay deeper down a packed, narrow trail or if it was about dark, just sat on the giant stump behind the tool shed, smoking away in peace. She liked how it made her feel foreign to her age, not quite fourteen but she felt she was leaning toward sixteen. But at sixteen she’d be close to executing her plan to get out of there: move into Marionville, start community college. Right now she could play at life a little. Pretend she was tougher than she felt, have a laugh all on her own. Sometimes she shared a smoke with Hanes, the boy down the road a half- mile, and the next time he’d bring one from his aunt’s pack. He was her age but smarter about some things, she thought, as he’d lived here all his life and his family before. But she never told him about her mom, though she could have. He’d likely know about cabin fever.

It had taken practice to not cry out when her mother took off like that. She used to run after her but her dad always caught her arm, tugged her back.

“She’s not going far, my girl, she only needs bigger space, more air awhile.”

“I know, but I want to go with her.”

“That’d be unwise. We’ll wait.”

He’d put one big flannel-clad arm about her and hold her still. Maddy knew what he meant even a few years ago but that didn’t make it any easier to see her mother unhappy. Mad as a trapped animal. Which she was, she told them many times. And they can get mean. Now Maddy didn’t even move from wherever she was.

She didn’t have the same problem as her mother; she couldn’t quite recall Arizona. The tightly sealed walls felt safe to her, the radiance of heat from the burning wood and its acrid-sweet fragrance lulled her into peace. And her dad was mostly how she liked him, quiet, and there when needed. He worked on illustrations from dawn to two or three in the afternoon (with lunch at his drafting table) and then he read or worked around the cabin or split more wood or went snowshoeing. She often went with him after school; sometimes her mom did, too, if it was a day when she found their life good or even enchanting again.

“Going up to the loft,” Maddy said, picked up her books and notebook, padded up steep steps in her heavy socks, ran past the narrow office space where her dad drew, slid past the half bath and into her room.

“Yep,” he said, too late to be heard.

Joe stirred in his chair, looked out the window. It’d been an hour since she’d left and he had work to finish and yet he sat. He knew she’d be at Twyla’s house (or Marty’s, her other good friend) by now after a long slog through snow in her heavy boots, so resisted calling her. He had a commission to finish in a week but was also intruded upon by a recent dream: a mad jumble of red rock, searing sand and scorpions with faces and Isla sailing about overhead. He’d liked the amazing desert plants and many mountain ranges, the sunrises and sunsets. He did some of his best work while they were there. But the brilliant sun was relentless, the merciless heat kept him caged like the snow did Isla.

In Arizona she had taught art to elementary school children but after twelve years she’d had enough of their racket and carelessness but even more, the yearly budget problems, having to buy her own classroom supplies. She quit and was at loose ends. Isla was meant to be a painter but the years of stressful teaching had taken a toll on the free flow of her own creativity. She had tried, found the well dry of much watercolor inspiration. She’d begun to sew everything from clothes to handbags to curtains. She sold a few things here and there, and then more and more.

And then Joe learned of his inheritance, the family land and cabin. They’d decided they could do the same work in the far north. But it was not easy for her. It was like an impossible course to run, she’d told him once in the middle of an argument, tipping a tentative truce, no more faking it.

“Or worse! It’s like a foot binding–I can’t even hobble about here with any sense of balance, can’t even take off my shoes most of the year much less walk freely in and out any day, any night, or even think half the time! My creative vision is dimmed by this–this pinched density of what you call God’s country! What I’d give to cut down all these trees to see the whole sky for once, Joe…”

He’d crouched by the wood stove while she’d gone on and on about how too much of the year she had too little nourishment, the outdoors and she had become estranged. She felt lost and small and sad. That night, like many, had ended with her tears and recriminations, his laying awake most of the night, awakening with a mean crook in his neck.

Yet Joe knew this: he loved her. He needed her in his life and so did their Maddy. And every winter crisis he feared she would not come back, either she’d perish or she’d find her way to the nearest airport. He had for years believed that the richness of the north country would loosen her with greater familiarity. That she’d learn to adore the dark rich earth and majestic forests, adapt to a rugged but comforting rural life. That she would delve into beauty, each season like magic as it spun new stories from old, the back country a balm, not a poison. He’d even believed each winter she’d made some progress. She enjoyed snow shoeing and watching birds and foxes and deer, the snow falling on the land like a pristine afghan, creating gentle shapes and bright swirls of ice on windows. He and Maddy had found their place. For Isla, it was never quite enough.

He saw with a shock that his wife was, heart and soul, a genuine desert flower. She could die here. Had all the anger and tears been warnings he had thought were passing eruptions?

He got up, pulled on his jacket and cap, grabbed her red woolen gloves and his stained leather ones and set out. It was not the first time but it had to be the last.

Maddy came out of her room and leaned over the loft railing as the door closed below her. She knew better than to follow. But she still wanted to as she eyed the sewing machine at one end of the living room. It’d been unused the past month, maybe more. She wondered if it was broken, like her mom might be, and a shiver of terror ran up and down her bones.

******

Isla knew her way around their little patch of country. She’d made the trek to Twyla’s or Marty’s often enough–or vice versa. The path through the acreage was covered partly as her last foray was a few days ago and more snow had laid itself down. Still, her feet knew how to find the trail to the fence and the broken slats where she either climbed over or pushed herself through the other side to Twyla’s a half mile away. She shoved her hands into her deep wool tweed pockets. It’d have been better to wear her so-called ski jacket and mittens but she’d been eager to leave Joe’s punishing silence, Maddy’s listening ears. Snow flurries danced about her face and barely skimmed the trees. Her mink-oiled boots squeaked on the path as snow packed down with each step.

Mustn’t forget Dan might be there. He was not the most sympathetic of men, neither easy to talk with or easy to avoid in a room, his bulk like that of one of the lovely beasts he liked to hunt and kill, whose heads adorned the walls. He seemed to want to stare her down. Twyla told Isla that he didn’t hear well so was straining to get all her words but Isla found him suspicious of any outsider. Joe was not one. His family owned the cabin and land for two, nearly three generations.

She knew Dan was expert at fixing all manner of ruined things. Twyla was stalwart and ingenious; she made do with little and made it look easy and good. She was born to this life, not the territory since she’d been raised in the upper Northeast but this was not so different. Isla and she would have had little in common except for Twyla’s quilting passion, her creative snug alongside her practical side. And, too, there was her nephew, Hanes, who she’d raised as her own. Maddy liked Hanes a lot. Isla could see why; he was resourceful, independent-minded and easy to look at. He taught her much about how to adapt there just as Twyla had done, or tried to do, for her. But Twyla knew Isla had not the heart for this life though she’d never said so. She had grown to like having neighbors who were an arty sort and Isla read to her as she quilted, helped Hanes with his homework sometimes.

Isla was grateful for this friendship; though hard to build at first, it was woven strong over the years there. But this time, she didn’t know what she’d tell her. It had started to seem like she could not stay in this land any longer. The past three months of winter nights had gotten rockier and mornings were shaped by sameness and chores and when she picked up the fabrics they felt heavy and useless in her hands. Her website had shown a dip in sales. She had so little motivation to fill orders, made excuses to customers and felt deeply embarrassed. If this kept on, she may as well quit. May as well pack her bags and go home.

“Home,” she said, her breath aloft in crystalline air. Then: “Arizona.”

She took an involuntary intake of the air and it hurt her lungs. She licked chapped lips and kept on, cold seeping into her flesh. The sky was low and thick with grey clouds as it always was in winter, no hope of sunlight getting through. In the distance, she barely made out smoke rising from Twyla’s chimneys. They had a fireplace in front as well as a woodstove in a back room–a sprawling house, larger than most if showing wear and tear. She could have called her friend but she was nearly always home this part of the day. They could show up at each other’s homes about any time. Dan would likely be gone.

There was a muffled sound behind Isla. She exposed an ear from her cap to listen and looked about but it was nothing, or a deer streaking through the pines as it saw her. She loved the wild creatures, it was true, this was the main part holding her here other than her own family. And sheer will. She started to leap-run across the field, boots sucked into the foot of snow at times, her strong legs pulling free. Heat soon radiated from her chest as she got closer to the side door, Her thicket of hair was damp so she pulled off her hat, stuffed it in a pocket and took long strides until she reached the steps.

The screen door was closed but the inside door was open.

Isla mounted the stairs fast. She pressed her face against the nylon mesh and peered into the darkened rooms.

“Hello? Twyla?…anyone?”

Nothing but the quiet crackle of flames in the fireplace. She pulled open the creaky door and entered the kitchen so redolent of apples, bananas and oranges in a bowl, fresh bread. She looked about, and in horror fell to her knees.

On the floor was Twyla, her legs and arms askew, wavy bottle-blonde hair now half-red as blood seeped and pooled on the cracked grey linoleum. Isla looked into her unfocused, half closed eyes, felt for a pulse so soft she wasn’t sure it was there, examined a gaping wound at the side of her head.

“She must have fallen, hit the counter edge!” She reached for her phone. Not in her pockets, nowhere.

“Mrs.T? … Isla?”

Her name careened through the rooms in a barely restrained scream. Hanes came around the corner with hands plastered to his face, breathing fast with cries caught in his throat, cell phone skidding across the floor.

“What happened, Hanes? Did you call for help?” She got up and put her hands on his boney forearms.

“She–she cried out, put a hand on her head, she fell, hit the counter edge… no not yet  I couldn’t find my phone at first…” He blinked back tears to no avail, face dazzled with fear. “What’s wrong with her? What do we do?”

She grabbed his phone, called 911, explained what she could then called Joe. No answer.

“What’s your uncle’s number, is it in here? Where is he?”

Hanes pointed out the door toward the woods, then ran to it, calling out his name. Hunting, likely; who knew if a signal would carry.

“Call him, Hanes. Tell him the ambulance will be here in less than fifteen minutes. Hanes!”

The boy was pressed against the screen door, looked about to run into the snow so she called his name again loudly. He turned and caught the phone when she tossed it. Dialed Dan. No answer.

She sat by Twyla, afraid to touch her but afraid not to and so she placed her hands on the woman and prayed. What to say? What words even mattered? She lowered her face to Twyla’s.

Keep this good woman alive, damn it, don’t let her go until she’d an old lady, she’s one we all need in the world. God, you hear me talking? We need help here. Save her from this trouble, such an ending. Give me a chance to love her more, for Hanes to know her longer, for Dan to care for her better. Lord, answer me with help now.

“I see someone,” Hanes whispered out the screen. “Who…?”

The sirens could be heard from a long way off, even through the tough old trees, even with the snow-laden earth and dull clouds that capped the world. She felt Twyla’s warmth and her blood saturating one jeans-clad thigh and time was a snail. Twyla’s face was so small. Isla closed her own eyes. Life was made of many smallnesses. Microscopic, really, such tiny moments and the fine-laced snow and shards of ice and cellular mystery of blood. Anguished and joyous hands of a child, this kind woman dying right in her bountiful kitchen. Her life staining Isla’s own skin, the wind freezing tears on her nephews–no, her boy’s–face. And it becomes an infinite flood of life careening here and there, you don’t know how much it all matters until its being torn into jigsaw pieces, life strewn across sand and dirt. If only she saw more good in the scheme, felt less the struggle. Twyla did. Gave much more than sought for herself.

Oh, Twyla.

Two hands fell upon her shoulders, someone’s breath warm on her neck as chill air moved about her.

“Isla, you can let go of her now.” Joe pulled her up, engulfed her in his arms. “Isla, they’re here for her. Could be a stroke but she’ll live, they think–thanks to you, my love.”

*****

It can happen just like that, she thought later as she sat with Dan and Joe, Maddy and Hanes and Twyla on the front porch. One day you believe you know what’s best for you and then the next you see how little you ever knew and everything changes and life goes one in a decent, even finer, way.

“Snow’s about done and look at that petal!” Twyla noted happily to Isla.

Dan smiled, teeth barely showing. “Spring is coming, as usual.” He looked at Isla and Joe with quite a bit less of a squint. “You made it another winter. Stayin’ on again?”

“Not sure, we’ll see,” Joe said but his voice held hope as much as caution.

Maddy elbowed Hanes, lifted an eyebrow. He returned the knowing look and they got up and went around the back of the cabin.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure we’re staying for another year, anyway,” Isla said  as she laced her fingers with Joe’s.

Flowers, some with snow 102

 

A Way Back Home

“Life hurts more in this city, it shakes its fat fist in my face every day. I can’t take it,” he said, glasses reflecting the phantasmagoria of the giant tree’s lights. They beamed onto the brick and cement urban park, “the Square”, but he was blind to that.

TC knew what he meant, but she couldn’t entirely agree. It was pretty there. They could view the 75 ft. tall Christmas tree decked out in its glory, gather with others in the Square each morning with their maximized paper cups of coffee and a warm  croissant with butter or a cranberry scone. They could watch the shoppers mill about with brightly bulging shopping bags, study folks on lunch break as they lined up at food carts–oh, those savory aromas of hot food drove them nuts. Maybe they’d manage to get a bite to eat later. If she sold enough of her leather jewelry to tourists trying to be tolerant, or city dwellers trying to show good will, they’d get by another day. Harley didn’t think the way she did, though; he needed a drink by noon and then he went from bleakest to medium bleak.

“It’s too pretty, unlike reality, a total sham,” he insisted and took off his glasses, put them in his pocket. Something he did when his eyes hurt or he was just weary of seeing things. He frowned at her, deep brown eyes going darker. “What do you see in it all? It’s just another city where we half-starve and are too cold and wet–or too hot and dry. I’ll take too much heat over this. Let’s go back to California, baby.”

“It’s better here. I like Portland. I feel some real good energy here; just let yourself feel it, too, Harley.” She tamped down the  irritation in her words but it was like a bubble, it sneaked up to the surface.

He got up and winced, then bent over to grab fifteen bucks from her little box before she could stop him and ambled down to the Plaid Pantry. A beer, smokes, a small package of beef jerky.

There went their decent lunch. TC sighed and smiled at the same time at passersby who glanced her way. Her hip bones and rear hurt; her big jacket was barely long enough nonetheless and the sidewalk got harder by the hour.

The light drizzle had been wetting scenery along with people in fits and starts all morning. No one was much bothered. TC had pulled her burlap scrap laden with jewelry under the corner awning of Lil’s All Natural Bake Shop. They had been overlooked by the owner for two days and they hoped for a few more. But there were countless stores and offices, about as many awnings, so they’d just move on. It had been this way for about seven months, ever since she had lost the baby and he had lost his job due to being drunk too many mornings. Harley had argued he was just hung over but if anyone had taken his blood alcohol level he’d have had to cave and admit he was rarely sober. He had things on his mind and his fiancée had had a bad time of it. Two miscarriages in a year. Well, he was sick and tired, too, and out of decent luck. Maybe she was the luck killer, he wasn’t sure.

Fiancée. TC had said that word a few times in her mind. It had first felt luxurious in her mouth, like caramel and dark chocolate or salmon with creamy potatoes. It had shaken her up, given her a small thrill that he’d asked her to marry him a year ago. That was when he was still working at the factory and she’d had a part-time job waitressing. But she’d had her doubts back then, too. Harley wasn’t easy to be with; he wasn’t pleased with anything for long. He reminded her of her father, really, who’d been miserable enough about his circumstances that he’d exited her and her mother’s life early on, then later turned up dead behind an Alaska cannery. Her mother and she hadn’t gone up to his funeral even after his current girlfriend called, hysterical. It had been three years since he’d skipped out by then. They’d not missed him much; it was sad but understandable her mother reassured her.

TC was eleven then and she already had the notion that men tended to be thin-skinned, slow to change, hard to coax love from; she found real life matched those ideas that over the eight years. After the miscarriages, she ought to have struck out for better parts but she was determined to not do as her father had done.  Look where it got him. Her mother just swore and threw up her hands the last time TC had met with her, told her to lose that boy.

Now here they were. Lacking a home and broke and Harley going from bad to worse. She worried about his alcohol problem every minute. She wasn’t able to make one whit of difference.

“Those are cool,” a teenager said as she touched a pair of earrings with their fine leather leaves. “You make these designs yourself?”

“I do,” she said and held them up to the potential buyer. “Thanks!”  But she knew better. This was a teen with little cash, less real interest. The girl fingered the earrings, put them back, made a peace sign and left.

Someone will come along and buy five pairs, TC told herself in a sing-song way. It was like a spell she said often. It could mean at least fifty dollars, maybe seventy-five if they got the fancier ones. She got scraps at the leather supply store and she had had the tools for years, so her profit could be decent.

If only they hadn’t lost the apartment in Sacramento, but when Harley got going all the money was poured down his gullet or wasted elsewhere, she was never sure how. And she had been unwell with the pregnancies, then miscarriages. It got too hard to get up each day and try to hold things together while Harley was out there ripping and roaring with buddies. TC hated being a loser, being unable to pay her way, giving up when she had a very strong will. her will didn’t do her much good when she made bad decisions. Yeah, she had weak-willed herself right onto the streets along with dealing with Harley past the expiration date of their relationship.

So much for being a fiancée. And how to will herself off these streets, nice as they seemed? She knew she might be kidding herself when she filled up with hope but it mattered to her to believe, anyway.

Before the sun had peaked and then started its way back down, TC had made three sales, enough that she could eat even in the morning–maybe share with Harley if he hadn’t gotten food. She stood more often, shifting from foot to foot, rubbing her gloved hands together, blowing her nose on extra toilet paper she had taken and stuffed in her pocket earlier. She had to go to the bathroom now, but she’d learned how to wait and wait and wait, if necessary. When Harley came back, they’d go into a store for a while to warm up, use restrooms. Meanwhile, the towering Christmas tree was so beautiful TC stared at it again, then counted the bills and felt much better.

But Harley didn’t come back. TC decided to not run the streets looking for him; it was getting late and unsafe. He might show up later, he might not. That was, finally, how she felt.

******

It was dark  by 5:00 so time to head out. After she used the restroom, washed up a little and ate a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (and saved the turkey jerky, a fair protein source), she warmed up as she sipped fragrant hot coffee. Harley was nowhere near from what she could tell. She got up and checked out nearby shelters, but they were already full since December was spewing icy darts of wet. She walked to a nearby residential area. Her feet were starting to ache with damp and cold, the old leather seams of her boots letting in water; she tried to avoid puddles. She knew of a small apartment building; its second floor cement balconies were big enough that she could stay mostly dry beneath one. There was a spot by a casement window where she curled up with a fleece throw kept stuffed in the backpack. The spot  was still available; she hunched down, knees to chin, blanket about her, thick navy cap pulled down to her eyes. The trick was to become invisible–not the tenants as much as roaming street people. So far it seemed she was alone.

It took a long time to doze off to the dull rhythm of rain on cars, trees, gutters and roofs, that balcony but when sleep came it gave her five or six hours, to her surprise. She’d been dreaming of Christmas  as a kid, and she was about to open a box she shook it but it sounded and felt empty. TC straightened up, the aching stiffness making her feel old and half-sick, Her legs were cramped up so she stretched them, only to get a direct hit from raindrops. TC yanked her soiled blanket tightly about shoulders and chest. Her cheap cell phone indicated it was almost midnight. She should move, find a doorway even more protected.

“Hey,” a husky but feminine voice called out. It came from above. “What’re you doing there? It’s freaking pouring ice chips and it’s about my bedtime so I step out for a smoke and there you are, shivering underneath my feet!”

TC stood up fast, crammed her blanket in her pack, started across the muddy spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, girl–I’ve seen you here before. I was going to offer some help this time.”

TC hesitated, looked back, rain flooding her face. She then pulled the cap down to her eyes and struck out.

“Hey kid, I’ve been there!” The woman lit a cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the weak light of her balcony. “I’ve done the street thing, suffered the price and now have a place.” She coughed. “This weather, what can you do? I have a couch you can use tonight, no deals needed, no ulterior motives. Just a chintzy dry spot.”

TC hunched her shoulders. The rain was biting at her skin now, it was closer to sleet, and she was shivering in spite of her strong will to be okay, to deal with it. She’d heard the stories of street people dying of hypothermia, getting vicious lung infections, being killed. This woman of about fifty with reddish hair stood on the covered balcony in sweatshirt and sweat pants. Waiting as if she was willing to be patient. What was there to lose? Maybe she would attack her, maybe she would do worse, her nightmares come true but she carried a knife, everyone did.

With Harley she had felt safer even when she wasn’t, really. Why did he disappear again? But it was freeze or hopefully get warm.

“So you know, I’m Eve Marker and I live with my terrier, Pearl. I’m a singer but she is not. She doesn’t bother to bite unless I am scared. I’m not a bit scared, and neither should you be, dear. I’m cold and I’m going in, are you coming?” She tossed her cigarette into the sheet of rain. “And you are, if I might ask?”

“I’m TC.” Her skin was starting to get goose bumps from the temperature. “Okay, yeah.” Did she know the name Eve Marker or was she just wishing she did? A club, maybe, near where they hung out. Not that it made her feel very reassured.

“Smart kid. Go to the front door.”

Animal comfort just won out. She ran to the heavy door but it was locked so she, stood under the eaves until the older woman came. She followed her upstairs. Eve wasn’t as old as she had first thought; the woman gave her a lopsided smile and her face softened.

“Hello there,” Eve Marker said.

“Hi.” She wondered if this was the biggest mistake of her life but no alarms went off in her. She knew how to sense danger and avoid it if at all possible. This was just different, even if peculiar.

When they entered the apartment, and Pearl the terrier lifted her head from her bed and then put it back down on front paws, TC was filled with a small relief. It was a small, cramped place–Eve said it was one bedroom, that was all she needed–but no matter, it was dry and there was small fake, decorated Christmas tree; a candle burning that smelled of cinnamon; and a tiny kitchen revealed a late night snack of half eaten toast and peanut butter nd a mug on the counter. TC dropped her backpack, took off her shoes by the door, then lay her wet jacket on top of the rest.

“Nice manners, TC, you were raised good. Want some tea?”

TC looked about her. She felt calmer, now she was inside the pleasant rooms, soon to dry out. “Sounds nice, thanks.”

Eve leaned against the kitchen counter, hands on thin hips. “I don’t know why I let you in. You could be a madwoman! But I just thought, I’ve seen you a few times down there–I’m an insomniac, everything gets me up and going–and tonight the spirit moved me.” She smiled that sloppy smile at TC. “And like I said, I’ve been on the street. Once, long ago, for nearly a year. I got behind on all my bills and one things led to another. Those were the bad ole days when I was below thirty thinking life owed me and I drank to silence the whiny wail of self-pity.”

She laughed a throaty laugh, eyes half-closed, and waved her hand as if to dispel the past, faded red hair fluffing about her delicately lined face. She filled a mug with hot water, dunked a peppermint tea bag into it–Eve thought she’d like chamomile but no matter, any hot tea was a gift as she dried out. “What happened, TC?–and what’s that short for?”

“It’s just TC.” She pulled her hat off and shook matted chin-length brown hair. Put her nose close to the bright scent of mint.

“Alright, then, you from around here or what?”

“Are you?” She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t about personal questions yet. “You said you sing?”

“Yes, born and bred. I’m at L’Heure Bleue Club four nights a week, you know it? Jazz club at Twelfth and Main. Tonight is a night off.”

“I’ve heard of it.” She had passed it many times; it was in a more ritzy part of city center.

“Well, it doesn’t pay like I used to be paid but it’s a gig and I’m glad of it. Music is my only love these days!”

TC sipped and when she bent her head she could also smell sweat and the dirt and despair and anger of the streets on her. “I make jewelry, that’s how I try to get by. Harley, he– oh, never mind.”

“I know, he’s here and there, huh? I like the sound of handmade jewelry. Maybe tomorrow you’ll show me.”

“I don’t know if it’s any good. Just made a few bucks. But Harley’s gone, maybe. Just has less patience and sees the worst in everything. I guess I should find him.” She looked back at the door, as if thinking this was a mistake and there was time to get out fast.

Eve watched her face close off emotion, saw her mind drift and so she yawned dramatically without apology. “Listen, TC, I am going to try to get some shut-eye. The more we talk, the more wide awake we’ll both be.” She rose and pointed down the hall. “Bathroom is there, feel free to shower, warm up. I’ll get some pajamas if you want. If you need anything else, holler.”

TC’s eyes flickered with anxiety despite a deep desire to be calm. The lady came closer and TC could not avoid her eyes without being rude.

“Hey,” Eve said gently. “You’re safe here. I get it. Still, we may as well be as nice to one another as we can. I know you’ll hightail it out of here early morning. It’s okay. Eat something. Take food to go, I don’t care. I can give you a few bucks, I’ll shove it under my door to the hallway, you can just get it, no worries. ”

TC shook her head. “No, I won’t take anything–maybe I should leave, I shouldn’t be bothering you and I’m not sure– I mean, why?”

Eve ignored the question. “And let me know if I can help otherwise. You can look me up at the club anytime. Tonight, though, I’ll put clean flannel pjs and undies in the bathroom if you want to use them. Toss your clothes in the washer, dry them tonight –there are stackables in the closet by the kitchen to use.” She gave a quick but sad smile, eyes quiet as her voice. “Night, kid. Take care.”

She turned and went to her room. Pearl trotted after her mistress with the slightest glance at TC then gave a small yelp as she disappeared after Eve.

TC sank into the lumpy couch, smoothed the worn wooly blanket on it and gazed at the blazing Christmas tree. Sleet slid onto, then pummeled roof, street, trees. She thought of Harley squeezed in between the dozens of other dirty, tired, hungry, angry and tough and longing men at a shelter. Or drunk under one of the many bridges, too cold for living long. New fear and hurt threatened her fragile hold on her oddly improved night. She looked toward the hallway. What luck she had found under that balcony,  being told she could come up just like that.

But a stranger, she was in a stranger’s home and no one knew where she was; no one really cared. Even her mother had gone off the radar the past month or two, caught up in her own dramas (husband number three) and pressing needs. His house was overrun with two bratty kids and three crazy cats, she’d said. No room for TC.

TC entered the clean oh-so-private bathroom, not a mildewy group shower, and stripped off soiled damp clothing. Held a sweet-smelling, soft green towel to her face. Her feet had raw blisters, more cracked and itchy spots. When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror she shuddered. How had she gotten this miserable and worn out? Where was her basic good nature, the hope? Was it all an act for Harley, and to kid herself so she could go on?

The shower was turned on; she stepped into a generous spray and let it run over chilled flesh a long while, relishing the moments, the fresh smell of the soap. Heavenly. This woman must be a genuine angel–was that possible in these times? She giggled at that and let out a deep sigh. She’d have leave in the morning, of course, but at least she would have another good memory.

Eve heard the shower and lay with eyes wide open. The girl would leave at dawn and keep on running, no doubt. She knew how it was. No good place to claim as one’s own, no one to care for you, no reason to keep trying after a while. Or was she like herself, more stubborn, and willing to get out of her own way, let the man go and start to better grow up? Get a life together again?

The water flowed a long time. Eve imagined how good that steamy air felt to TC and recalled how it had been for her when she had been drifting in a haze of boozey illusions and days without food or good hygiene. But she drifted off, anyway, and began to dream of her little sister when she was still alive, of the music she adored and sang by heart every set, of other rains sweet on her lean body in a faraway time, a different country.

A triple knock at her door brought her right back so that she sat bolt upright, her quilt pulled to her chest.

“Who…?” Oh, the girl again.

“Eve?”

Her whispery voice didn’t sound right. She must have been crying, that was it.

“Yeah, what is it, TC?”

“Can we…talk a little more? I’m sorry to bother you.”

So Eve got up in the fine veil of darkness and sat on the couch. The Christmas tree threw a multicolored prism of light across the humble room, on a bunch of white and yellow mums in a second hand blue vase set upon the coffee table and the art prints on walls The leaf print overstuffed pillow on the floor was taken by TC, where she slouched, looking at her hands.

“Shoot,” Eve said. “We all have stuff we need to tell.”

“My name is Teresa Christine…Keenan.” Her voice almost disappeared but she began again. “I grew up in L.A after my father left my mother and me and then we got by on her hairstylist’s earnings–she’s good– but it was not a piece of cake. Though back then I thought it was all good, I was glad to wake up in my peach bedroom with its narrow bed and a handmade Raggedy Ann doll and my library books, hearing my mother yelling for me to get up, come down already, it was late, and she made me frozen waffles. I believed if I tried hard enough, things could be better… but things got worse off and on. My mother says all this is just more life, take it for what it is and don’t complain. But now I have to change things. I just can’t accept my life like this.”

Eve heard her voice as if it was the sea rolling in and out and she sensed this lost young woman might be ready to find her own balance for the first time. She might even stick around a bit. Pearl jumped up to listen on Eve’s lap, ears cocked, and they sat that way even after the heedlessness of winter rain failed to wreak greater damage and just gave up. Even after TC fell into the relief of  good sleep.

 

Ruffian, Sir and Mr. Briggs

 

Salmon Creek early summer! 036

Don’t ask him who he is. He isn’t certain, anymore, though he gets the occasional hint. The view from his sight line tells him little, other than his feet appear average and his limbs look good enough. Passing by a storefront window he catches a glimpse and stops, taken aback. Is that all there is to it, this body he occupies? He has heard the name “Tipper” or “Tip” a few times and it seems odd, something to note about a restaurant patron. Although he might be considered a sort of patron, he is certainly not a “tipper.” He’s more a nuisance, he supposes. But for the most part he is unperturbed. Once he was called “Ruffian” loudly, three times, by a woman who tried to get a small sack of steak bones from him, telling him this was bad for him, finally yelling he could just choke on them, then. Who was she kidding? Bad for her, maybe. He worked hard to snatch it away with ferocious bared teeth. Triumphant, for once! He likes the association with that so kept the name she threw at him.

Not being accustomed to giving an account of himself to anybody, there is also no documentation. No tags, no numbers. Ruffian doesn’t feel compelled to say anything about his story, such as it is. It matters little if he is great or small, handsome or passable, refined or common. Well, he knows he is not refined though he suspects he could pass with certain right touches. And it’s possible he’s some closer to handsome than not but, really, he also knows he tends to be patient with ladies of his ilk and so they get along. The main thing for him, though, is to keep going, stay alive, or if taking a break and hanging out also stay alive. Avoid burrs and broken glass, rats, raccoons and skunks; a handful of cats unnamed; barbed wire fences and security systems that are hair trigger. And bad meat. And bad tempered two-leggeds. Well, his own kind also leave some things to be desired, it’s true. He isn’t bursting with trust despite being congenial. Cautiously nice with second thoughts at the ready is his general mode. But a dog can only be prepared for so much, despite the basics about famed noses and ears and possible ESP. He’s not up on things enough to know about all that. He lives by instincts, the gut feelings even more now. That has to be good enough.

The neighborhood he likes most is North Hedges. He heard of it from the man who sells houses. This was at a coffee shop when he tossed a bagel remnant to pigeons. Ruffian caught it and got away in time to avoid pecking and swatting from all. Anyway, the praised neighborhood translates into high walls and dense bushes that also are boundary lines (good for relieving himself). There is the occasional old-fashioned fence. Many of the houses are humongous, a few reasonably sized. Leftover food is excellent everywhere. He likes best those with ordinary fences along side and back yards; he can wriggle past rotting or unevenly spaced wood slats. He waits until garbage day, very early to beat out competition, or for compost piles to be enlarged. Or a more rare treat from a generous dog-lover. Ruffian could search less enticing blocks nearby–has– but pickings are not even close to being as tasty.

There are also overhangs on odd, smaller second houses–the ones that shelter cars and such–and since it is known to rain even when sky is blue and breezes smell more verdant than mud-wet, this is a bonus. In fact, it rains all year off and on. So if he can find a spot under a roof line and only suffer dampness about the edges, he’s set. Recently it has been drier. His black and patchy white fur is not matted as badly as he can scratch and gnaw at knots and bits much better. There are a few random generous humans who feed him treats. And of course, Ruffian knows which cafes and restaurants to go to when they close. He otherwise roams, searches and negotiates with others like him or not.

But he stays closest to the house with a freshly-painted white fence that happens to be missing two slats. Ruffian can’t decide just why. Yes, their food is good. It seems a place that is overall safe, which counts for something these days when free-roaming animals get poisoned and turned in to the dog cops. It’s quiet, yet not too quiet; he hears music and it’s sweeter than usual noise. Often there’s a man seated at a stool, hands running over a black and white ledge of keys. Good sounds wander outdoors, even last winter at times. Ruffian sometimes curls up by the wall closer to the music but he prefers to remain at the back edges. Occasionally he will forget himself and join in a few bars which then brings two smiling faces to the door. This shuts him up.

There’s a structure in the back yard that is covered with a round and pointy roof, with chairs to sit amid vines and flowers that wind up lattice. The woman often sits there. She talks with people, sometimes the man. Marie and Marvin Briggs is what they repeated when someone asked if these were, in fact, their names. Ruffian heard them say them to each other enough after that. But that day there were many boxes and other unknown items dropped off on the porch. That was awhile ago; Ruffian hasn’t seen Marie outdoors much though he’s been roaming farther with the warm weather so has no doubt missed much. Sometimes he notices the piano isn’t played; that may not be a good sign. He also hears their voices getting loud and crying sounds, like Marie is speaking in pain. It bothers him mainly because it is different. It changes the feel of the entire house and yard. But Marvin, especially, yet notes Ruffian’s presence by managing fast eye contact or talking to him when he sits on the deck, glass or cup in his hand. But he doesn’t try to approach Ruffian. Or vice versa. They understand something of each other.

They both have seemed welcoming enough. Marvin calls out with the name “buddy”. Ruffian wishes he could correct him but now and then barks in return. The man then shows him a treat of some kind, a bit of sausage or chicken, even a portion of cold baked potato, then lays it on the decking so it can be gobbled up in private when they leave. Marie talks to him as she works in the garden even if she isn’t looking at him, her steady, soft voice an aid to his dozing. He gets worn out, out there. But he keeps to himself in the end. He isn’t in the habit of going to strangers, even if they are better known. They are people. He is canine and long on his own.

There are other canines and most of them are leashed or even tied up or worse, kept indoors which Ruffian finds ridiculous and cruel. They generally growl at him, warn him to stay away from their domain. Maybe these don’t know how to manage things without a leash or commands. He sits a distance from those yards, listens to threaten and complain, then goes on his way. If he barks and bares his teeth, too, much fuss ensures, the humans get involved with a very uncertain end. Often it’s not fun for either dog when all they were doing was having a conversation that didn’t invite humans into it. It is not so hard to come to a mutual agreement, in Ruffian’s opinion, with talk that is to the point.

But there are other canines as footloose as is he. More so, in truth. Not the usual motley crew. Canis latrans. Coyotes. They have been moving in and about more lately, and Ruffian has seen a few things, cats that don’t get to see the sun rise, rats and mice that just give up, other small creatures that need not bother moving in much less seeking emergency shelter. But for the most part Ruffian notes coyotes comings and goings with detached interest, as they do him. Ruffian realizes he is a bit bigger than most of them, though not a forbidding dog. He just can take care of himself after a couple years on the street but he is not interested in aggravating anyone, either. No competition can be had with coyotes form what he understands.

One certain coyote shows up– Ruffian is pretty sure he’s the same one– a few times a month. Tonight he’s around again. The Briggs’ should clean up their brush and mend their fence but since they do not, coyote and Ruffian have equal access. Well, Sir Coyote (as Ruffian has taken to calling him; he’s a bit royal in bearing) can jump higher, four, five feet or more, something to witness. And is better at this night hunting than he is, admittedly. Though not that close to being congenial, they acknowledge each other with a brief clear glance, eyes locking for less than a second. Sir Coyote tends to be entirely unheard and unseen by humans. He sniffs out rodents, other smallish creatures, makes brief work of it, is gone. If it was possible to be more communicative and join in, Ruffian would. But he knows better. He is outclassed by Sir, who was born wild, still is though now sharing sprawling, densely populated cities. A dog that was once cared for and owned by others and then lost to the byways and highways one day, Ruffian has learned about his wildness out of desperate need. It hasn’t been so hard.

But it isn’t his the same way as coyote’s. There is dog and there is dog. Sir Coyote is so fast and sleek, smart right down to his bone marrow, and displays talents Ruffian wishes he could recall or learn as well. Like being able to vanish without you knowing it  happens. Playing tricks on the mind when you think you are attuned. Since Ruffian’s been close to humans, he has lost his wariness. He’s a raggedy pet that was inadvertently freed. Sir is a “Sir” for good reason.

Tonight Ruffian sees Marvin come out to the deck and he wonders if Sir will do something about that but no, he is intent on scouting and grabbing and gobbling, if in that quiet, efficient way. Marvin frowns at a sound he stirred up, studies the spot Sir was but a second before then rubs his eyes and sits down with legs splayed, arms crossed over his thin chest. He looks up at the half-moon.

“Are you out there, buddy?”

Ruffian lifts his head. The anticipation of more brings him to his haunches.

“I can’t sleep again. I wonder if I’ll ever sleep again.”

Ruffian is unimpressed, also would like to sleep so lays back down, puts head on folded paws. Half-closes his eyes. Sometime Marvin talks to him. It’s okay.

“She’s gone, did you know? Marie. Our Marie.”

Ruffian jerks hi head up. That name, that tone. He looks about. Marie. But she isn’t there. He lowers it again, watches from among groupings of daisies and newly showing-off hydrangeas blooming by downed, forgotten branches and a rich thicket of ferns. It’s his cool spot to rest, under the fancy ferns.

“Why do you insist on staying out here? Or is elsewhere? Not having a home is not good. Is it?” He scratches his own fur-like head of hair. “Maybe you feel something here…? It hasn’t been good, not for a long time, really. Buddy, I tell you, she tired of things. She’s sick to death of my piano compositions, too, which cuts to the quick…”

He stretches, yawns, making a cascading sound on the exhale. A dissatisfied whine. Ruffian nearly barks at him to settle down, but the man might jump up, come after him.

“You there or not? I thought I felt you…I had mediocre fish tonight, old frozen halibut. Not your ideal meal–mine, either. She would have known what to do with that because she is a chef. A high-paid chef, you know that?” He laughs. “Of course not, you’re a dog. Well, maybe you could tell from the nibbles she gave you. Well, I have leftover French fries if you’re hungry.”

Ruffian has an impulse to show himself, anyway, but thinks better of it. Marvin sounds and smells very alone but also grief-bound, that trapped soured sweet odor. He should definitely be asleep now, escaping himself. Ruffian should be dreaming, too–of chasing things and winning. Of teaming up with Sir Coyote and finding a strong pack at last. He gets tired of being alone, too, but always something doesn’t work out. He doesn’t like the mentality of a gang of dogs gone crazy, either. He’s better off here in the flowers and ferns, a few other choice spots around North Hedges.

But could be Marvin is better off on the deck looking at the sky. It’s sharp and brilliant up there. Stars holding their patterns, each perfect place. Ruffian yawns, too, licks lips and nose. He’s feeling a bit parched. Licks dew off grass.

“There you are!” Marvin leans forward, hands dangling over his knees. He then picks up his glass from the side table, holds it aloft, drinks from it. “Well, I wouldn’t want to be in close company with me tonight, either. I’m an idiot to have let her go! I’m a damned fool to have thought I could keep her with songs and lots of promises of better times…”

Marvin drinks again. Ruffian thinks he would like some of whatever that is. He’d like a really huge bowl of something, cool water preferred.

“The thing is, I have finally sold some songs, buddy! I booked more gigs.”

The man stands and steps off the deck. He holds out his arms to the fragrant, damp garden, then raises them to deep sky and far moon. “Merciless, that moon, it keeps shining on. Looks so cold. Like Marie can be.” He steps closer to the flowers, pauses, then calls to Ruffian. “Hey, I see your eyes! You’re not keeping them shut!”

Ruffian backs up on his belly. What is Marvin doing? He knows better, this man. He’s offered him food but Ruffian has kept his distance from the start. If Marie is gone, what next? Will Marvin take over his life? Then he’ll disappear. Why should he even bother to offer his scent, his warmth, his stokes to such a one as Ruffian? It would be dangerous for them both. Ruffian could bite him or worse.

This living on the run, it’s been working for him okay. He backs away, then stands and trots to the gap in the fence.

“Wait, buddy!”

From across the way a bigger voice cuts through the dark. “Briggs! Shut up out there! It’s two-thirty in the morning! Can’t you hang it up by now? Just give us all a break? Go to bed, man!”

Ruffian noses his way through the elegant ferns, finds the gap and exits the yard, pushes through bushes on the other side that snag his coat. Stands tall on the sidewalk. He spots Sir Coyote running down the street. He very much would like to follow. Knows it’s futile. He’s stuck on the sidewalk, panting lightly, about to search for water.

“Buddy, you leaving me?”

Ruffian knows this sound and look. Marvin talks like a disappointed boy. Bewildered. He stands there with his long bare feet, those loose pajama bottoms, narrow chest vulnerable and pale, head of hair sticking out like Ruffian’s. He studies him with one white-tipped ear tilting this way and that, then the other turning, but his tail is not wagging. It’s waiting.

Ruffian considers this abandoned human. Weakened, downcast, tired out. He knows how these can feel. He steps the barest bit forward, stretches his neck out so his nose comes close, closer. Sniffs deeply. Marvin does nothing, looks at him with dark, silent eyes. Damp nose bumps against empty warm hand. Ruffian sits nicely and licks the salty skin.

Marvin squats on the sidewalk, reaches out, uneasily smooths tangled fur between Ruffian’s floppy ears as if making contact with something special–or potentially hazardous, he’s not sure which. Ruffian wants to ask what’s going on and where’s the blasted water, but says nothing. He’s looking at thin trails of wetness on Marvin’s cheeks. He wants to lick them clean. The whole man needs something more, much more.

Marvin gets up, walks away with the last of his energy so he can crawl into bed to rest awhile. He opens the gate in his fence, enters his pretty but Marie-less yard. Ruffian hears that sudden, almost silent loping and scans dense air over his shoulder. Sir Coyote is passing, head and tail low, silhouette compact and powerful, driven forward, onward with barely a glance at the dog on the sidewalk. He surely notices him once more but likely finds dogs a tad foolish, even inferior if truth is faced. Ruffian’s heart races as the coyote vanishes into shadow, then it settles. He steps forward, nudges the unlatched gate with his fine, strong head. Marvin has gone inside and locked his door. Ruffian sees the bowl of shimmering water and drinks long. Lies down on the deck, puts head on paws with a shuddering sigh. He is filled with an odd relief and easily tracks night’s wiles ’til daybreak stirs up life in them again.

 

The Loft

Image form The Fugitive
Image from The Fugitive

After the taxi dropped him off, he’d washed up and unpacked, then tossed his gym attire into a bag and shut the front door behind him. Cal Rutgers should instantly recognize this neighborhood like the back of his capable hands, but it never failed to throw him off kilter the first day. Hence the walk to the gym, taking in every window and lamppost and sign, his feet hurrying along the trash-free sidewalks on Holman Street.

The storefronts were pleasing in a reserved way on the deserted Sunday afternoon. An unexpected wistfulness visited him as he passed rooms that had kept him company over the years. Marionville was unlike most other places he visited, suitable, staid, conducive to passing time while preserving the best of a number of old-fashioned ideals. Best of all, it helped order his mind and body as he readjusted between trips. It decreased toxicity of endless travel, made less vivid the dangers of his work. More manageable. The familiarity beckoned him with its soothing commoness. It cheered him even as the threat of exhaustion hovered like a low-flying helicopter.

Cal pushed aside the sense of displacement, feeling lost. Odd for a man who was a rover, used to adapting moment-to-moment, adept at charting a course in unknown environments. This was the immutable spot on which he hung his hat–not in actual fact, he didn’t have one he’d hang on any hook–a town he had called home for over eight years. He’d figured it was as good as any, centrally located in the country, with friendly folks who’d mind their own business if that was better appreciated. Oh, they thought of him as their own local celebrity, sure–a published photographer!  a world traveller!– and it tickled him when they hesitated on the edges of The Clock restaurant, say, glancing his way with curiosity. Such easily impressed citizens.

“Cal! Hi!”

He’d look up from his plate of eggs and hash, nod with a lift of his chin and fork if it was someone he cared to talk with. Then he’d share a few tales and listen to theirs, and it would be a good visit for both. Something more to tuck away for another time. Perhaps a storyline when he ran dry.

Cal pushed open a metal-clad door. Mike’s Gym, homely hole in the wall, was the only one (of two) open on Sunday but even then it closed early at eight p.m. The space held no more than a handful now. Cal was greeted with a high-five by Mike and a few grunts from other men.

“What’s going on, Rutgers?”

Cal surveyed the warm, sweaty rooms, noted everything as it was before he left. “Just the usual, interesting craziness out there. What about here?”

Mike shifted from one foot to another like a fighter getting ready to lock into position, his forehead limned with perspiration, breathing a little hard. He’d been working out long before Cal had flagged a taxi at the airport an hour away.

“Same ole, same ole. Well, Greta’s pregnant again. A better profit this month, the coupons bring ’em in.”

“Good work. Tell Greta I said congrats–again.”

“Now where you been?”

“Just out of Columbia. Jungle assignment.”

Mike shook his head. “Yeah, that’s right. Catch any monster snakes or get caught?”

Cal laughed as he entered the dim locker room. He stretched, did twenty quick sit-ups that tired him after the “red-eye” and a couple of more flights home. He found his spot by the free weights, prepared to empty his brain of images formed, filed and dissected. An hour or so here and he’d free up life once more, settle into his loft apartment with a new point of reference.

As he lifted the dumbbells he saw his housekeeper Emma run past the smudged picture window, hair flying. He made a note to talk to Mike and Greta about her, then set to it with mighty effort.

********

He got annoyed with hotels and other drop-in places so the loft was a gift to himself, situated on a gentle incline above town center. He’d found it one week-end after visiting an old college friend, a lawyer–since moved on to bigger places and cases–and took possession of it after he’d returned from India. The fourth floor of a converted, mixed use warehouse, its spartan expanses appealed more than the Technicolor view of the valley. He liked moving about open spaces; it was the best he could do here. But, too, the loft was so unlike many places he had bunked, whether a tiny, dark bedstead or a one-man tent or makeshift accommodations involving thickets of bushes and his backpack. As a travel photographer, emphasis on wild, hidden or unusual places, he was used to curling up and falling asleep without much fuss.

This purchase was a welcome respite from that, as well as far-flung locales. Countless inconvenient, dangerous, stunning moments. Boredom or sore limbs that invaded the hours of patient waiting, the odd contortions it might take to witness, then capture shots.

But it confused him, still, at times–where he was, what he was really doing, why he was immersed in another culture or landscape that did not always welcome his enthusiasm and precise documentation.

When Cal got out of the shower at the loft after the work out, his fingers paused. The towel was a luxe, thirsty blue item that had been perfectly folded over the heated rack. Not the ivory towels he always used to keep it simple.

Wait, did he order these at a front desk? Did someone else on the team he travelled with bring them in? Was he in the right room? In an actual three-piece bathroom?

His eyelids fluttered. He was back in Amazonia with its pressing growth of greenery, the air dripping onto his skin, the most rudimentary facilities shared with insects, reptiles and any others in the area.

He opened his eyes and then the fluffy towel, tossed it over him. No, he was home.

It had to be the housekeeper, the gal Greta had suggested. She thought he needed someone to thoroughly clean up when he was away. Cal didn’t require much, he’d told her the day before he left six weeks ago. He maintained a habit of tidiness out of necessity, didn’t need much for his work there other than basics and his camera equipment and computer and other technological aids. Seldom left behind a mess. He had a habit of minimalism.

The loft was larger than required. There was a part of him that worried he’d start filling it with possessions not needed like large furniture or wrought iron candelabras or matched cookware. Or useless objects that attracted him on trips (he had a few but mostly gave them away), more irrelevant books he’d have to stack on the floor like teettering sculptures.

As far as housekeeping, yes, there were socks cast off and forgotten, stray hairs in the sink after he finally shaved a few times, wrappers of frozen ice cream treats that sometimes didn’t make it to the trash. He suspected dust accumulated like microscopic confetti without his help. It was an old building and he liked it that way.

********

He’d invited the young woman in, then told her housekeeping was not truly what he needed.

“The less I have to deal with, the better. I love my peace as well as a comfortable austerity. I’m a loner when at home, lean towards feral, nearly, fallout from my work.” He’d raised his eyebrowns at her placidity. “So, just how much would you have to do with all this, anyway?”

She’d looked at him as if he was speaking a peculiar language but she knew how to translate.

“I can take care of it all.” She looked over at the kitchen, which appeared untouched, then around the cavernous living areas. “I don’t think it will take me more than an hour or two after you leave if this is any indication. I’m efficient.” She pushed long hair away from her eyes, and pulled it back to make a quick bun of dark honey-colored strands.

Her eyes were orbs of green with dabs of amber in a face fashioned of fine bones. They sat above a prominent but classic nose. Expressive mouth. Androgynous at a certain angle. Captivating. Greta had confided that Emma had been a model once, then had suffered a tragedy, never mind what but she was a great housekeeper. She’d be around for a few months. Needed some easy cash is all.

“You’ve done this work before, I guess. I’ll pay seventy-five an hour. I’ll trust you to clock in and out on a schedule I’ll leave on the kitchen island. Get the keys from Greta and return them each time.”

He was anxious to catch his plane. Greta had reassured him but still, it was his home, his refuge. Here he wasn’t much keen on sharing it in general.

“I’m developing a creative arts website, well, fashion to start but yes, I clean and organize well. It doesn’t take brilliance to accomplish. I know who you are, and I know you’d like things done right.” She showed her teeth in a brief smile, then pressed her lips together.

“Yes, good.  I have my own cleaners in the laundry area. I’m afraid I have to rush, thanks for coming. Just don’t change up anything.”

But she’d had other ideas.

******

When he’d returned after a shorter trip there had been a clear rectangular vase filled with black-eyed Susans on the metal and teak dining table. They were an unwanted anomaly and he felt irritated initially. As he crossed the room they did look lively against white walls, the wide window and the scene it framed. He left them a few days, then tossed them; rinsed and put her vase atop the refrigerator.

The second time he came back there had been an unscented, sage-hued candle in a small filgreed golden holder by his bed. He almost lit it, then hid it in a drawer. He thought that he didn’t want Emma in his bedroom, then reasoned that she had to do her chores. She was feeling creative about a very routine job, he guessed. Maybe she had lingered here imagining the ways it might be refreshed and chosen this candle as the least invasive.

But, still, he had told her to not change things. It prickled him then was soon forgotten. The night before he left he happened to look in the bedside drawer for something and there it was. He finally lit it, watched its flame evoke shadow dances on every surface. Remembered sweet hours of circling ’round fires in wilderness, so sat awhile with it in his hands.

Next time Emma had left on a living room lamp, as if she had just been there, wanted enough light to allow them both to better make their way. Which he did not need; the light of the moon was enough. His vision was excellent. He noted the bulb cast a dimmer light; perhaps a lower wattage. Maybe the other had burned out and she was eco-conscientious.

But it struck Cal that she left something of herself, a feeling both quiet and definite. It was nearly two in the morning and his every bone was aching from an arduous journey across mountains, then deserts, then a fourteen hour flight. But he slipped through each room cautiously, called out her name once. He stood in the middle of the loft and looked out over the slumbring town, hillttops ridges meeting starlit sky. Did she come here more often than she was expected? Why did she leave things differently?

Cal fell across smooth, crisp, foreign sheets of his downturned bed and slept thirteen hours.

He was home just eight days that time and never got around to calling Emma. He had first been concerned that she found it impossible to help herself, changing his perfectly good loft. It mattered less as time went on. When he ran into Mike and Greta, he didn’t even bring her up. Neither did Greta, he mused.

After that, he began to expect something different. The months passed and he sought out a small surprise, to his chagrin, as if he was a small child, even made a game of trying to guess what it would be, where it might turn up. He couldn’t bring himself to call her. And he mentioned it to no one. Candied orange slices in a dish. A butterfly wing set into a piece of glass on the desk. A tiny red bird hanging from a piece of string from the bright globe in the bathroom. A fanciful alphabet on silvery paper–made by her own hand?–left in one of his books as a marker.

He kept them all.

Then after a trip to Patagonia he arrived home mid-day to find a photograph housed in an ordinary black frame. Of Emma.

She was striding along a bank of stony beach shot through with wild grass, the lake beside it calm and silvery-blue. Her long tweedy skirt was lifting a little from boot-shod legs, the wind evident in her wild hair, face turned to him. She wasn’t quite smiling. Eyes were lit up beneath hooded lids. Emma had on an ivory Aran cardigan, one hand in a pocket. But the other held a lantern aloft, orange light casting a small halo before her and over the grasses. The sky above dark, backlit trees was imbued with deepening twilight.

It was beautifully wrought, incandescent with her presence. He searched for the photographer but none was noted. She seemed so real in that frame that Cal for an instant believed she was stepping into the room, would speak to him. It caused his mind to whirl and his fingers to itch for his own cameras. And his heart started to thrum more deeply.

Why herself presented but not a word to go with it? A gift of sorts, perhaps because he was a photographer. And she was the photographed. Likely it was from an old modelling shoot. But was there more going on here? He placed his fingers on her face.

Cal stepped away from it, turned off the lights, entered his room and collapsed on the bed where he dreamed of savannahs and zebras with Emma sitting tall upon one, his camera put aside, his tent then blown away by a stormy wind. She lifted her hand to him and rode off.

When he awakened, he had a need to meet with her, take her to lunch, ask her what was  going on. Who she was. Sit with her, listen to her story. Get his own pictures. Learn her ways.

He called the number Greta had left him in the beginning. Months ago.

“You have reached Emmaline Hathaway. Please leave a clear message.”

He hung up, then slammed down the cell, picked it up, dialed Mike.

“Oh, yeah, sorry but she’s left town.”

“What? Left for where?”

“Yeah, she got some modelling gig. I don’t know much about it, you’d have to ask Greta. I guess they offered her really good money so off she went. But she was just here for her grandma, you knew that, right?”

“Grandmother? I thought she had a house here, shared it with a roommate.”

“Right, with her grandma at the house, not Emma’s, well, it’s hers now. The old lady had pancreatic cancer. Gone now, too, sad to say. Nice woman, too. Greta will find you another housekeeper.”

Cal thanked him and rang off.

He sat before the photograph. The lighting in the picture was lustrous even as it was shaped by shadows. He resisted the impulse to critique it and studied her, instead. Her face was a country of peaks and valleys and vulunerable points, her eyes wide. Glimmering. Watchful, attentive. Amusement, or was that joy wrapped up inside? Her mouth was still but he felt something was about to fall forward, a telltale sound, another clue that indicated more of who she was and what she meant by her fearless, open look. What was on the path she walked? What could she see as she surveyed the scene ahead of her?

And now–what did she see and do now?

Leaning back, he kneaded the grooves that lodged between his eyes. She had been telling him something, hadn’t she? She had maybe even been staying here from time to time. She had wanted to give it something more, a certain touch, a bit of whimsy, objects to bolster or amuse him. But she had left him mementos of herself when he did not object.

“Did you find refuge here, then?” Cal moved through the sunny, high-ceilinged volumes of space. “Did it help any? As much as it did me?”

Away from sadness, hours she spent with a dying grandmother. Maybe she had come here and let her eyes sting with tears, let them caress the slumbering town. And like he often did, wondering how long, how long did he have there. When would she have to move on. When her grandmother would pass on, yes, and then Emma’s very aliveness would be indelibly wounded. How long before she was squeezed back into the haphazard milieu of the world.

He understood the need to be here and also to go. It was a closing and opening of passageways, the realignment of points from which one departed one life and then resumed the other. It was his way, too. They had crossed paths but only just barely, and she had given to him almost imperceptibly yet so willingly. Cal felt her like a surreptious warmth spreading across his skin, then his soul. He knew any time he could reach inside to hold that seedling of generosity close.

But he’d find her. Or she’d find him.

Cal grabbed his gym bag and headed to Mike’s, his feet running along the aging sidewalks, the blue and sunny afternoon trumpeting possibilities, Marionville a salve upon his soreness. For now, he was back home.

The Mime and the Houseboat

Photo by Rennie Ellis
Photo by Rennie Ellis

The story was that she came up from the south by way of the river on Octavio’s ramshackle houseboat in 1995. He’d been on one of his trips, fishing and trading and so on. I was gone then, working in Leeds, but two years later I came back and eventually met her. She was barely forty, I guessed (to his fifty). She was winsome and lively; Octavio would have it no other way. But she didn’t keep him in her sights. He soon went missing, she said, but seemed less worried than irritated and not much of that. The neighborhood knew he was on another jaunt, maybe gambling or fishing, this time took off on motorcycle, an old Indian Arrow he kept at Artie’s garage.

The women felt sorry for the Lady from France–her real name wasn’t known. She had remnants of a musical French accent and didn’t deny it. Soon it was just Lady, as she had a sterling if lightly tarnished manner. Anyway, they offered her plenty of unsolicited advice and she’d look sad for a day. Other times, their words were met with a delicate shrug. But the men, well, we thought she must have known what she was getting into or had other reasons for floating around with him. Octavio had his good points but sticking around wasn’t one of them. He’d never lived with anyone as far as we knew. Not that we thought it was okay to leave this woman alone, being new to the docks. So we all kept a look-out for her. Or him, however you saw it.

Whenever he was gone, which was as frequently as ever, Lady kept up appearances. She fixed up his well-weathered houseboat. She planted pansies and daisies in rough hewn flower boxes that she hammered together herself. Painted the window trim yellow and the door blue with leftovers from two paint cans. She was often seen sweeping and airing things out, and I’m sure they needed it as Octavio was not a tidy man at heart except if he chose to clean himself up. Then he excelled; the rest of us couldn’t help wonder how he did it, that transformation from river rat to debonair man.

When Octavio came back, he rode right past the houseboat at first, then circled back, sat on his rattling motorcycle. Just stared as Lady peeked out of a window. Finally, he gave it rave reviews, threw a small party on board so we could all appreciate her work. You could see he thought Lady was something good, even special. In fact, who could miss it? Everyone watched out for her, though she didn’t seem fragile. Or lacking in street smarts. She just had a peculiar decorum that invited protection, even from many of the women.

She wasn’t a talker but her face spoke volumes. I thought she could have been a silent film actress if we could go back in time. Turned out she was a legitimate dancer, then a street mime once upon a time. She didn’t make much of it, just agreed it was an interesting way to make a living and she did well for many years. Off and on.

She laughed when someone asked her to mime something, then just stepped up on the houseboat’s porch hand rail on bare feet. Just leaned against a post with her shoulder and made like a ship’s figurehead, one leg raised high, arms reaching upward. She sure looked like one of those formidable wooden sculptures that seem as if they could quell or do battle with any storm. And she was petite and lithe, not tall or husky. We gasped at what a bold figure she made. I almost grabbed her to keep her from toppling into the river. But she didn’t fall. She was rock steady, didn’t bat an eyelash or wriggle a toe. She hopped down as we clapped.

Lady was easy to be around, seeing to people’s needs, comfortable with men or women, her clear sea-blue eyes focused on the speaker with the encouraging gaze of someone who learned long ago the way to someone’s heart was simply to listen well. I wondered if she understood everything we said; she’d sometimes frown and ask for a definition of a word. I asked her once how long she had been in our country.

“I was born here, in North London, then my mother took me to France in search of her fortune. Many years gone, now back awhile.”

“Did she find it, her fortune?”

“No. She married a mad Frenchman with a small venue. A theatre. She worked for him tirelessly as a designer and seamstress, making costumes. I had talent, too, danced early on. Then at intermissions. Later, starred in many things. And finally, a street mime.”

She was doodling on a scrap as she spoke, as if to avoid looking at me or maybe to focus better. She crumpled it, tossed it aside. I wanted her to keep talking. We were on her covered deck eating oranges as a light rain fell around us. Octavio was at the pub, a newly favored haunt when in town; she never enjoyed it for long, I’d heard, so let him be.

A breeze ruffled her long half-grey hair. When she turned to me, her eyes were like hard glass stones. I started to speak when a smile flashed across her pale face. She shrugged. That seemed her punctuation at the end of everything, just like that old saying, ces’t la vie.

“Octavio is a decent man at heart, Lady. You’re good for him.”

“Eh, he’s good to me. It’s okay, a man who is nice looking and usually kind enough. But it’s this houseboat–I have fallen in love with it.”

And she swept open her hands to include all of it, the structure, the river with its changing traffic and signs of life, the street where many of us lived and worked. I felt her happiness. I thought, she’s no different than anyone, afterall, needs a feeling of security. But it wasn’t likely to last forever, not with Octavio.

Lady jumped up. “I have work, Hugh. Bring bread and cheese sometime. We’ll have lunch.”

We became friends of a sort. She remained guarded. Maybe she liked my face, too, or maybe it was just timing. You know how sometimes things just fall in place–synchronicity, they call it. Was I smitten? Only a quarter true if so, and I’d have denied it if anyone said it. I had been long-married, was in my second year of a lackluster, sometimes miserable, freedom. I was drawn in by her differentness, had an irresitible urge to get to the truth of who she was. I was also bored with my life. I was particular about keeping things in perspective. I was a machinist and knew all about being careful. Exacting, if needed.

On a sunny day, that rare event, she’d say, “The sky is a perfect backdrop to lunch with burgundy wine. See it change from blue to bluer? It’s the lighting, Hugh.”

Or if Octavio was around she’d call out to him: “Octavio, mon amour, come, put your arms around my waist, dance us right out of this bleak world, into the heart of dawn.”

Octavio shook his head, then held her close, breathed into her voluminous hair. He looked good when he was with her and acted better. Very few of us understood why he would ever leave her.

The women sometimes repeated her poetic phrases, mimiced how she spoke, half joking. A couple decided to take dance lessons, as her grace was such that anyone would want to copy it. They invited her out, as she had no children to keep her busy, no tirades offered against Octavio. She spoke a little of her exotic life on stage and street corners but always with reservation. They all said there was a sadness behind her facade of ease. They didn’t believe she loved Octavio but she sincerely cared enough; he gentled a smidgen. We gradually enfolded Lady into the community, pleased with her presence.

The years continued, repetitions of sorrows and joys, wearing on our face and softening our bellies, our fortunes ebbing and flowing. The river rose and churned and stilled, full of its own drama; we watched it as one of our own, with affection and worry. Respect.

I had less time to visit Lady and Octavio over the next five and then long ten years. My health declined with diabetes. She stopped by to see if I needed anything but left after a brief chat. I was kept abreast of things by the street, heard how he was gone farther and more and she had turned inward, less sociable again. Every few months they might float off and return a week later but mostly he took off on his often-repaired Indian Arrow. Some said Octavio had just expected she would tire of him and leave. Hoped so, then he’d be footloose again. But she burrowed, stayed and stayed. Made herself an integral part of his life, our lives. A part of the houseboat, even. Perhaps too much a fixture, they’d heard him grumble at the pub.

The day came that we’d worried over, a couple years after Octavio started to drink too much and created havoc here and there. Much longer a wait than we had expected but he did find her alluring, afterall.

It was late afternoon and I was napping. My cat, Henry, startled and then I was fully awakened by a hard rap at my door. Annoyed, I got up scratching my beard and shuffled over to open it. It was Lady.

She didn’t speak, just placed her hands at her throat and squeezed, thrusting her tongue out, her face turning pink in the dusky light. I reached up to wrench her hands away. She smelled odd, acrid. Smoky. In the distance I could hear a siren.

“Lady, stop! What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

“Octavio! House! Come!”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me, then pointed toward street’s end where the houseboat was anchored. We raced down. Saw fire engine and ambulance pull to a stop. And then she screamed. It was not a sound I’d want to hear again from her. I was certain what it meant. What lay ahead. He was dead. The houseboat was spewing flames like fireworks gone bad.

But Octavio did not die. He had had a heart attack in his boozy panic over his combustible floating house. He got better, collected insurance money due to irreparable damage caused by faulty wiring, and had the remains hauled away. Then left Lady on his Arrow.

She did not recover. Her houseboat was gone, her man had disappeared for good. Her hair went fully white soon after, five years before she turned sixty. She took to the street even though some offered her a bed or couch, usually sleeping on benches, under bushes, wandering the streets. And practicing her rusty art of mime (I never saw her, couldn’t bear it) for a little cash each day, getting hand-outs at restaurant back doors. When we came face-to-face by the river park three months later, she kept staring at my left eye. It’s eyelid was sagging, another sure sign of old age. She looked terrible, her face streaked with grime, her clothing raggedy, filthy. That hair, ruined. She’d taken up smoking, inexplicably. It all made her look forlorn, wrung out.

“You’re getting old,” she stated.

“Yes,” I said. “Inevitable.” I cleared my throat and looked her up and down pointedly. “You’re…well, getting dirty and smelly.”

“Yes,” she said. “Also inevitable.”

“Come home and take a bath.”

She put her hand in mine and we walked slowly to my little place, people staring at us as if we were two demented souls bound for the twilight zone. I smiled down at her, glad to have her close again, and she shrugged. I got her fresh togs from the next door neighbor, who came to help Lady in the bathroom. It took a long time.

Later, Lady and I sat by the fireplace and she warmed her sore feet and legs. Henry jumped into her lap, checked with me by way of a glance, meowed, then made a spot on her lap. She stroked him, murmured something. Her hair broke against the narrow cliff of her shoulders. Tired like all of her. How would she recover? I felt hurt by life’s fickleness, her lostness.

But then she spoke.

“I’ve been often abandoned. But now, bereft. I am not so wonderful! But never have I been so mad and also in utter tatters with you. I vow I will stay clean. Maybe wander at times but not too far… Henry needs my care, see? Ah, Hugh, mon ami, how long trouble can seem, how short our patience with it. But so it is.”

She closed her eyes and reached for my hand.

“Got to cut this gauche hair.”

I said nothing, content. She cleared her throat.

“Hugh?”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s Selene. But really Trudy. Morris. Birth, ugly name.”

“Hmm.”

Lady is often about the streets. I’m not sure what all she does. I do know she takes food to other cats she sees scrounging about. She hasn’t found my place quite as amenable as her doomed houseboat but she returns. People talk, say she’s lost her mind but maybe she’s found it in some essential way. She tries to be pleasant but they’re afraid of her, I suspect.

I am afraid of very little, that’s my strength, and now my broken, beautiful friend is here to keep us–Henry and me–company. Sometimes she’ll mime something for us, odd as that seems but it is a rare and beautiful form of communication, making words seem like noisy foolishness. She is in by dark. She takes her bath before climbing into the pull-out bed, but will sometimes keep me company if I have insomnia. Henry alternates between her feet or head and mine. We have our tea in the morning as we remark on the color of the sky and life of the river. Lady and Hugh, we’re the story now but we’re just getting older, getting by.