Each year the building looked forward to it–that is, if they had no other pressing or thrilling plans. They checked their lobby mailboxes a week ahead, anticipating the handwritten and simply illustrated (with perhaps a snow covered pine, a blue jay atop it) invitation to a Resplendent Holiday Feast. At the bottom, under the signature of PJ Mulligan, Sr.: You are all what makes it resplendent.
Mulligan had been a banker for many years and was happily all about retirement when his wife got ill. And did not recover. This changed things in every way. He sold his lovely Colonial and hightailed it to the nearby more moderate-sized town of Goosehollow where he took the first decent apartment he could find. Everyone who knew him well expected he would buy another house, a cottage, perhaps, but no he said he was not close to ready for one last permanent dwelling. His home had been Jean and their son. Now, five years had passed and he’d started to grow moss on his heels, he said, so that was that; he dug in and made it work.
He appreciated his neighbors, most of whom had lived in Mistral Manor for a good number of years. They were a varied bunch, not at all offish as some had been in the city. If people didn’t stay they likely had no business being there in the first place. The rent was good. The upper story views, especially, were great–tidy courtyard with a fountain in the center, bustling nearby streets and a sprawling park not far. The community had become close knit without becoming suffocating. For the most part. Obviously, if you were a loner, this might not sit well. Mulligan was at first on the verge but rallied the second year and all went well after his first Resplendent Holiday Feast as cooked and shared with whomever would like to come. And about 14 came then, and finally it became a more usual 8 or so.
Marty was the first one to notice the invite hadn’t appeared in a timely fashion.
“I suspect he’s tired after his Banff vacation to see his son, Phil,” he suggested.
Carrie from across the hall nodded in agreement. “I did see the cab drop him off two nights ago. He looked the same, just fine, but that was a big trip. He’s no spring chicken.”
“Two weeks he was gone. I missed his cheery waves in the hallway. He said he wanted to ski–a bunny hill, it was too long since he last raced his way downhill. Maybe he strained something.”
Carrie noticed Marty had shaved his beard and couldn’t decide whether or not it did his roundish face any justice, so she unlocked her door and hoisted her grocery bags again. “Patience. He always has the feast.”
“But what if he doesn’t this year?”
“Then… it is what it is.” She noted his look of consternation. “No worries, Marty, all will be well.”
Marty thought Carrie was too Zen, she might show more concern, at times, but he liked chatting with her and petting her half-feral orange cat, Spicer. Maybe he was just too worried about things; his mother always said so. Marty wish he felt more secure about life. Himself.
Carrie leaned against her door after she closed it. “What if Mulligan has no feast?” she said to Spicer, who flicked his tail and ran off. The thought made her uneasy. Mulligan was a favorite of hers, not the least because he was a fine cook. He also always tipped his hat at her, whether or not he actually had one on, and asked after her and Spicer. And she also liked his vinyl collection.
Marty had nowhere to go for holidays. His parents now lived in Amsterdam, of all places, a move that had disturbed him–they’d just retired! They’d been close, hadn’t they?–and his sister, Ellie, then moved to New York City. His beloved Cecily had broken up with him the first of September. The apartment now seemed nearly unsuitable or entirely sad; it needed her arts and crafts, her laughter. But Mulligan always cheered him up, he had a knack.
“Hey Marty! No invites yet, huh?” Lance bounded up the first inside steps. He raised bushy reddish eyebrows and shifted a backpack bulging with all the unknowns he crowded into it.
“Nope. Patience, I guess, right?”
“That feast is the event of winter–other than fantastic parties for New Year’s Eve!”
“Yes, it sure is.” Marty knew Lance had lots of invites to lots of things. He didn’t care, he hung out with Gerry and Pete on New Year’s Eve at Rasputin’s Bar and Grill. But he wondered about those parties.
Lance whizzed by him, then spun around. “You find a nice new girl, yet?”
Marty stepped back, pushed a hand though his hair. “No, no–of course not.”
“Well, let me now how it goes. I’d be glad to set you up on a blind date–“
“I’m good, thanks, Lance. More or less.”
“Alrighty, chat later!” And he bounded off to his place up the next three flights of stairs. He never took the elevator.
Lance slowed down on the third floor. Pressed hand to chest. He’d been a bit out of breath lately. He wondered if his heart was going to act up again. But he felt alright. He ascended the next set of steps and thought again of Mulligan, if he was feeling alright. Good man, congenial. And a skier for decades, he just went to Banff. Maybe he should check in on the guy this week-end. That man could cook, he might have missed his calling!
Meanwhile, Harold and Tina in number 14 were busy thinking over Christmas funds and lack of money in general when their daughter, Nance, came in and slumped on the couch, coat still on, boots kicked off.
“No invitation. Doesn’t Mulligan send them out by now?”
“Well, yeah,” Tina said, “but he was just at Banff. Give him a break–he has stuff to do.”
“Like us, kiddo.” Harold punched a few keys on his old school calculator as his wife looked over her gift list, chewing her lower lip. “You okay, glad to be off school awhile?”
She had had a regular boring day at school, she was so glad it was out for the holidays. She thought about the boy who always ignored her when she really wanted him to just look her way. Was that bad or good?
And Nance wished her parents would quite calling her “kiddo.” She was fourteen. She was taller by the minute, would surpass her parents. Anyway, she had a good gift for each one. In art class she’d hand built a rectangular tray, then fired it with a fancy glaze streaked gold and teal, her mother’s favorite color combo. For her dad she had made a coffee mug, earth tones.
Harold gazed at Tina with sorrow. He showed her the final numbers when she lifted her head. She shrugged one shoulder, looked down, blinked lest a tear wet her cheek. His job had been a perfect fit and for forever, until it wasn’t. It ended the night before; Nance didn’t know yet.
Tina cleared her throat, blinked. “I have to work overtime– just have Christmas Day off this year, kiddo.”
Nance frowned; her mom worked way too much, she was hardly ever home. “Yeah, okay, Ma. Dad and I can manage, and we have the Feast on Christmas Eve.”
“Hey, Nance, I wanted to talk to you. Got a minute?”
She knowingly smiled at him–it was, of course, about his gift for Ma–but he was leaning forward in his chair, hands gripping knees, glasses perched on his head giving him a serious look.
“I’ll start dinner,” Tina said and left the living room thinking about the feast, how she’d have to miss it. Thinking about her husband, knowing he’d find another job, he just would, maybe even soon.
Between fourth and fifth floor, LaDonna sat with knees pulled up to chin on the staircase landing. She moved over as Luke came by, raised a hand in greeting.
“What’s up?” he asked. “Oh, LaDonna–Owen again?…You okay?”
She waved off his concern. “Never mind. He’s sleeping it off. He has ten days off, right? So he got an early start after work today.”
He sat down, shrugging free his jacket. “I imagine he’ll be at it the whole time.”
“I never know for sure but I won’t be here all that time. I work at the salon until Monday night, so he’ll mostly have the place to himself and Mugsy. Maybe he’ll go to his brother’s and drink–they do that every chance they get.”
“How is that big lump, Mugsy? Haven’t seen him awhile– for a fat ole bulldog, he’s pretty spry. Makes me think about getting one.”
LaDonna laughed. “You’ve said that three years. You’ll never have a pet. You’re too busy entertaining audiences here and there, everywhere. Next stop, big bad city for good, you wait.’
“I’d rather have more human company.” He glanced at her, expressive eyes saying all he could not but she turned her head.
“As if you don’t have any.” Her stomach flip-flopped. “We don’t always get what we want, Luke, you know that by age 33.”
“Huh. You know my real age. Not even my agent knows that.”
She swatted his arm. “You had your thirtieth birthday bash here and I showed up for the heck of it, remember?”
“How could I forget?” Luke sighed as she moved a tiny bit from him. “Anyway, we have the feast to go to, right?” She always went, sans Owen.
“I wonder. No invitations.”
“I know, I thought it was due.”
“We should check on Mulligan, see he’s okay.”
“You always put others first, you know that?” Luke stood up, slung his jacket over his shoulder. “Come on, I’ll walk you up. I’ll check to make sure he’s actually passed out.”
“No thanks. I have a book to read. I like it fine out here.” She picked up the paperback and began to read aloud using her storybook voice. “‘It was at last snowing heavily, and tracks left by the horses were deep and sparkling on the snow-covered road. She pulled the blanket closer about her shoulders and peered into the forest and saw a flash of red wings. It was a sign.’ See?” She smiled, a weary one, he thought, but generous all the same.
“I see, catch you later, but you could charm any audience, yourself, ” Luke said and hurried up to his apartment. If only she was not staying with that lout. If only she would give him a chance. If only!
If he had any sense, Mulligan might have remained at Ben’s longer. It was a winter wonderland in Banff, he’d successfully skied a little, and Ben was excellent company as was Sara, his wife. They’d wanted him to stay on until after Christmas but Ben ran an inn and Sara ran a boutique; they were so jammed up this time of year. Mulligan needed to get out of their way, let them have time alone as they could.
He wished they’d have a baby, he thought dreamily as he ladled the peppery-herbed chicken noodle soup into an antique porcelain bowl. Good thing he’d frozen some of it before he’d left. Yes, a little one would do all good. They’d have to slow down. And he’d be full of so very much more.
Because lately he felt emptier than he should. The travel was not bad, the vistas breathtaking, the visit lively. The snow pack, great. But he’d watched them scurry about, so successful and energized–and he’d felt powerless somehow rather than relaxed. What did he have to do when he got home, either? Not much. Volunteer twice a month at the Red Cross. Shelve a few books at the tiny corner library as hour twice a week. Meet with chess club once a month. Have brunch with Jack and Antonia from church on occasional Sundays. But what did they talk about? He didn’t like to mention aches and pains–they did and it took up easily twenty minutes– and they read supernatural thrillers, fine, but not poetry or nonfiction on science or biographies. But they liked a game of rummy, liked good food–that was good enough.
Wasn’t it? Life was what you made of it; he knew how to do that. He generally had liked his fine, had little to complain about. Well, until Jean left him hanging here. But he’d managed. He appreciated Goosehollow, his sunny apartment, the balcony where he could see everyone coming and going. The picturesque town that looked even better over tops of trees. He’d tried his hand at poetry writing, secretly. It was an experiment and was yet to be seen if it panned out as anything other than wisps of letters and imaginings set upon paper. Sometimes he liked to fantasize: A Banker’s Treasury of Verse. Silly, he knew.
But that time had come again: Christmas. And Mulligan knew he had to get invitations sent pronto for his yearly Resplendent Holiday Feast. Yet this feeling persisted, like he was scaling a mountain some mornings as soon as his crusty eyelids slid up. He’d seen the doc and nothing was more wrong than before, which meant only that he was older and not having as much fun. He took St. John’s Wort, called it good; it maybe helped a little.
He’d loved cooking the feast, having the garrulous bunch over around sevenish, a more civilized hour to share his offerings, then they’d play cards or charades or dance to his records or just sip wine, be peaceful. Luke usually read something to them since he was an actor. His voice was resonant, his words so infused with feeling they were spellbound. Marty might sing a little. People usually moseyed out by eleven after they helped clean up.
Every other year he’d anticipated it but clearly this year not so much. He wasn’t even inspired about a menu and that was serious. If Jean was here, she’d laugh, tell him to…well, no matter, she wasn’t. He didn’t have anything to say to her, either. Not right yet. She ought to have stayed with him, oughtn’t she? The years were not kinder without her. It wasn’t her fault, nothing was anyone’s fault, he knew that. Mulligan was only feeling sour; he had to shake it off.
But how was he going to tell them to make their own big deal meal for once? Just let him be, sulk a little in solitude, doze by a fire. Forget.
They hunched over chipped white mugs of coffee and whined companionably. Mulligan was skipping this year’s feast, terribly sorry, he was going to stick with soup and a sandwich Christmas Eve, and please don’t worry. He liked a little time to himself, too, so everybody have a good holiday!
That little note on green paper was tacked on the community bulletin board just beyond double lobby doors.
“It sounds like a crock.”
“It scares me for some weird reason.”
“It’s just that he’s getting up there, you think? He’s way over seventy.”
“Naw, trip just tired him, maybe it wasn’t a good visit. His son is a fancy inn owner. Met him once. Nice– but you know…important.”
“Well, Mulligan isn’t so regular a person in some ways. He’s kinder. But I suggest we consider reaching out to him.” Carrie reapplied lipstick, no mirror, a dash of mauve gloss. “Well?” she said when they stared at her.
They thought her comments worthwhile. Especially when she usually was more circumspect–and cool.
“I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? I haven’t even seen him since he returned. Not that I should, but it’s been nearly three days already. He usually is out and about!” Marty said.
“True,” Lance agreed. “We should stop by, offer some help.”
“We need to consider him,” Luke agreed. “Not just us, right, LaDonna? I mean, he’s the one who’s really alone, we all have something or someone to consume time and attention. Maybe we’ve been selfish.”
LaDonna dropped two cubes of sugar into her coffee and sloshed the mug back and forth. “Yes, we need to do something for him this time.” She sat up tall, grey eyes widening and lit up, which was something considering the deepening bruise near one of them. “Potluck!”
Luke reached for her hand without thinking. Others noticed, their eyes sliding over his finely featured face and warm eyes, at her beautiful black hair, blushing cheeks. LaDonna put her hand in her lap and Luke leaned back.
“I agree. I can barely cook but I do know how to make hash and baked beans,” Marty offered.
Harold laughed. “And I can make cinnamon tea–or mocha java from an instant packet.”
Lance signaled the waitress. “Another round of the coffee pot, Jill!” He took out a little notebook and stubby pencil. “Let’s figure this out.”
Mulligan opened his door to a group of babbling residents. Friends, alright, they were that. He couldn’t make out a word of what hey were saying so he ushered them in. What choice was there? Probably thought he was no longer breathing. But he was; he’d eventually get over whatever this mental virus was.
He stood with arms crossed over his broad chest, feet apart but he managed to look neutral. “I have a small case of woes. I’m pooped out. You’ll have to live without the feast for just this once. Now, is that what you wanted to know before I kindly ask you to move along?”
“You’re not contagious!” Lance grinned at him. “A relief, Mulligan, I’m in training for February marathon.”
“We wondered what’s up, that’s all,” Marty said.
Carrie shook her head at Mulligan, a little frown forming. “But everyone gets a bit blue at holidays if they’re honest, some just more than others. We came to see if you need anything.”
Mulligan sat down as they stood waiting and shifting one foot to another.
“I guess I’m out of commission for once. I’m not used to giving up on anything, but seeing my son and trying to ski, then coming home to an empty apartment–well, it is sometimes enough to stall a person. I just need a break from all the gung-ho festivities.”
“You might need a dog,” Luke said. “I might. Despite the applause I have my times, too. Look, you’re our friend, we want to cheer you up.”
LaDonna went to Mulligan, sat on the arm of the chair, put an arm about him.
“What’s with your eye being bruised?” Mulligan asked as if they were alone.
“Mugsy got in the way of my face. More important, I think you deserve a batch of my usual anise shortbread cookies. That’s the least I can do. Will you be home Christmas Eve? I’ll bring them by.”
“Well, I suppose so,” he said.
“I can help, too,” Harold said. “Well, maybe Nance can pull together a mac and cheese dish. “
Mulligan gave them the wannest smile, wrinkles deepening a touch. “I won’t lock the door, if that’s what you mean. Very nice of you folks to offer and to just come by.” He stood again but he felt uncertain, not sure if he might rush them out or if he should offer them a quick drink, which he did not really want to do.
“Let’s go, guys,” Carrie said. “I’ll come by with a couple treats next week, okay?”
Marty nodded and waved at Mulligan just as Mulligan had always done at him.
When they were gone and their voices had vanished down hallways, he sank back down into his easy chair. He should light the fire. He should put out the ceramic Christmas tree, he supposed, light a candle in the window as he always did for Jean. He should go to bed and read and doze, yes, that was the best action to take. So he did.
He’d forgotten what day it was. Time had slunk by. Oh, he had gone to the town square to gawk at the gaudy, huge tree that was going to waste after it was taken down. He had bought himself a small slab of ham for Christmas Day, fresh broccoli and carrots. So when there was a sharp and insistent rap on his door, he startled. He had knelt by the fireplace–he’d finally given in and lit a fire and was poking at one of those wax and sawdust logs. He hadn’t bothered to get the seasoned and fragrant logs yet. He struggled to get up, felt impatient and a little foolish about it even though he was alone.
“Who is it?” he called out as he turned the doorknob.
“Mistral Manor calling!” someone called back, likely Luke.
Mulligan shook his head, swung open the door.
“Surprise, Mulligan!” they called out.
He stood back, mouth agape as they paraded in with their fragrant hot dishes and platters of redolent cheeses and meats, the tins of enticing cookies.
“What on earth?” he said.
“We have brought the Resplendent Holiday Feast to you,” Nance said, showing him the mac and cheese.
“From us to you,” Carrie and Marty said nearly at once and laughed.
Everyone turned to him after they set their dishes on his table–waited to see what he’d do or say.
And he didn’t know what to do. He’d let them down. What was it about? Should he rush to them, throw his arms around them? Should he let himself bawl like a baby, for the most ordinary reasons in the world? Should he caution them to please not scorch his teak tabletop? Or should he just thank them for their surprise of consideration, time and effort? Honestly, they had such generous spirits, he was stupefied. Not usual for him.
He stuttered a moment, then: “A real portable feast?” His voice came out in a regrettable mouse-y squeak.
He got himself together. “Well, for goodness’ sake, you sure did show up–and you have shown me up! Guess I will rise to the occasion and put on the coffee pot and get the good plates down. Carrie, find the Christmas tablecloth in the buffet drawer, and will you all please remove the hot dishes a moment. Luke, did you bring something to read? Oh, good man! Lance, grab those cookies, they belong in the kitchen, out of temptation’s way for now. And LaDonna…”
He stopped as she turned to him, the bruise discoloring a spot of tawny skin but her face was tinged with happiness.
“He’s gone to his brother’s, don’t worry!” And she got the silverware from the silver chest, smoothing the lustrous pieces, so relieved to be there. To be on her own a bit, but with friends.
Harold and Nance moved the table away from the bay window to make more room for everyone. She’d taken his layoff okay; she’d been glad to make the casserole and he was proud of her.
“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you…” Marty took a full breath and began once more.
He gleefully sang out as he and Carrie got chairs situated. The rest stopped to listen. Such a voice! He ought to be on the stage, not at a computer desk all day. But Mulligan felt a spark of happiness, and thought how his neighbor would always have an appreciative audience in Mistral Manor. And that counted for something.
PJ Mulligan, Sr. couldn’t help himself and he nibbled a corner of a perfect anise cookie. Then he joined in with clanking notes, loudly belted it out with the others, every word bright and clear–and with higher hopes crowding out that useless emptiness.
It was not that she was the most attentive housekeeper but, still, the accumulated dust clinging to spans of webs shocked her. Underneath the bed was not the first place Meredith attended during a once monthly dusting and vacuuming. If that. In fact, she couldn’t even recall when last she flogged the dust bunnies under her queen-sized bed. She shimmied on her belly, retreating from the noxious view, then looked again. There were things under there she couldn’t identify right offhand. It was a shadowy, narrow passage where things disappeared and possibly changed form without her barest knowledge. Truth was, she recoiled from this spot and what had possessed her was only a night-time ghost, a thing of no import, anymore.
She had been looking for a box of photos, pictures the sort examined every few years but not deemed ready for the garbage. They held pictures of a brief marital experience and before that, herself in youthful moments ranging from boring to absurd. And some from university, the fun, the madness and hard labors.
It had been awhile since she allowed any reminiscence but the night before she had dreamed. Not the usual ones of dilapidated houses with secret rooms or journeys that led somewhere familiar and with a dead-end. She had dreamed of Trevor. And that was dangerous–and had led to pilfering dust heaps for a few old photos in a moment when she forgot herself. Now she sat on the floor, back against bed frame, and blew her nose. Dust allergy was not a benign one to have in this case.
Trevor Frank was a cellist from university days. Trevor was in fact first chair cellist of their university symphony, and so attractive that Meredith had refused to look at him a second time from her concertmistress’ chair. She had no patience with faulty dalliances, and he had a plague of females trotting after him. Of course, he’d acted as if he couldn’t be bothered even as he appeared to woo half of them–from what she had heard. She was much too busy practicing her violin and studying music theory and composition, performing in a trio plus a chamber music group that required occasional travel.
And then there was music for fun and small profit. Traditional bluegrass, Old Thyme music at a couple of city bars once a week, or a farmers market or crafts fair. A few music festivals for enthusiastic crowds. This was when she woke up and just gave herself over. Not that she wasn’t a serious classical musician, she was just not a thoroughly sincere one when it came right down to it. She had admitted that to herself during second year and began to play bluegrass more. Everyone could see it, that she felt it to her core. Of course, she would. She was taught by experts, her father and aunt. She was not studying that music but classical and it was a hard thing to determine which mattered most. As if that was even possible; they mattered differently.
But all those thrills and conflict came well before the accident. Trevor and symphony and fiddling and degrees–another lifetime. Meredith pushed herself up from the floor and grabbed her cane from the bed and listed to one side, then righted herself and walked away from the dust and the past. She should never have looked underneath the bed, as now she wanted to pull things out. The pictures, the memories. And maybe, just maybe, even her fiddle. She realized again that they all lurked beneath her restless sleeping body, hidden and cocooned due to neglect and time.
Meredith had three violin students in the afternoon, then an errand or two, and after that she had her exercise with the stretchy bands and free weights as she watched the news. But a door had been opened in her consciousness, and it was would not close without a struggle–and then would stay shut with only a much heavier bolt and greater locks. As night spread its lustrous dark upon her townhouse, Meredith fell against her pillow and prayed for a dreamless sleep. But it was not to be.
The definitive night. Blackness and whiteness swirling and stupefying noises, crushing pain.
It wasn’t long after Meredith decided to get her Masters in Music Education while playing bluegrass more. Her band, River’s Gate, had gotten more gigs. The onslaught of snow thickened to a veil of white after they’d played in Cincinnati, Ohio, then set out in flurries for Ann Arbor. Roads were predictably slick, snowfall soon turned into a blizzard but they couldn’t easily stop or turn back. They inched their way home. A few vehicles had stopped along roadside, engines running to keep heat going as they waited. Tom had suggested the same but Jeremy, who was driving, had insisted they keep on as best they could. Char agreed; it would soon close in on midnight and they were all tired and she was hungry.
The awful accordioned sounds-even in a blanket of snow- and power of the multiple collisions were so sudden that they barely cried out in horror. A pile up of nine cars and they were in the middle. Tom and Jeremy and Helene: badly bruised and shaken to the core. Sitting in the passenger seat, Meredith’s ankle and femur were fractured and right shoulder was dislocated; the little finger on her left hand was broken. Her forehead sustained a three-inch gash from which blood flowed down into her eyes as she blacked out.
Trevor, the man she’d determined not to love but did, anyway, arrived the next morning to her hospital room, took one unnerved look and fainted. She saw him crumple through the gauzy blur of pain and drugs. In three more months while Meredith was working on healing and trying not to think about packing it all in and dying, he was on tour with the Divergent Quartet, and did not return to her.
Meredith sat bolt upright in bed and covered her ears as if the sirens were still wailing. Her chest vibrated painfully with the pounding of her heart, her forehead and neck were wreathed in sweat. When she lay down again she stared at her hands, held them up to her face, then threw back the curtain and searched the starless sky.
But what was that other sound? That half-mournful tune that betrayed a broader human happiness? Who was the someone playing out there, perhaps standing on a corner playing that violin, alone with the music in deep of night? She recognized it, that song, that fiddler from somewhere. The expansive night was alive with it, pulsed so sweetly with it. She collapsed on the bed, let her breathing slow, the music playing on. She nearly wanted to go out and find it.
It was as if her life had been turned back on and the volume was set to “loud” and she knew the entire song of it by heart. Every phrase and pause that counted. Every high and low note. And it was a redemption.
The respiration mask was in place over nose and mouth, and Meredith had taken her allergy medicine. The cleaning and sorting–it was something that finally had to be done, she’d concluded. When she’d called Helene and explained how she felt, there was no turning back. Helene had known her eight years. She was still her closet friend, despite going forward with her bluegrass career, travelling for weeks at a time. Despite a lingering guilt over not having been badly hurt like dear Meredith. Over still having what mattered most to her while Meredith did not.
“You know what you’ll find, don’t deny it. I think taking you to the symphony concert was a good idea last month. You have had no peace, which is ultimately a good thing. Music has visited you more; it’s calling to you.” Helene smiled and knew it was felt over the phone.
“Don’t be so emotional, it wasn’t that. I teach, I listen to my CDs often and radio, I go out to the brew pubs to hear live music, I attend concerts here and there. I play some by myself. It was just those dreams… Trevor. And then the other.”
“What was he doing in the dream, by the way? You never explained it.”
“I’ve been trying to forget it. Just playing. I couldn’t hear him, of course–but I could remember his gorgeous tone. A faint echo of sound… He glanced at me, those eyes. Then got up and walked off stage, his cello in hand.”
“Maybe he was saying good-bye, vacating your life for good. You know you need to do it. And address the rest, right?”
Meredith sucked on the end of her mechanical pencil. She’d been making a list of pros and cons for dragging out any and all treasures and junk from under the bed. Trevor’s pictures were one part. Face it and forget. Isn’t that what people did with phobias they wanted to get over? So maybe her looking at their last beautiful, happy pictures–that brief year and a half together–and then, say, a ritual burning? But what of the rest that awaited?
“Anyway!” Helene cleared her throat loudly, “I think getting out the boxes of music and violins and dusting it all off is the most crucial part. It’s the first time in all these years you’ve even mentioned this. Trevor is one thing–a man like that…it was hard to move on, but you did it. The dream was just that, don’t you imagine? A reminder perhaps, of many things past. And I still remember our terrible night, the accident, too, you know that. And the aftermath. But your losing so much music?…I mean, Meri.”
Meredith held her breath. Don’t say it, don’t say another word, she silently pleaded. “So, do you want to come over when I decide to get under there and finish things off? But I don’t need counseling every step of the way. Give me some strength, okay? And just hang out with me.”
“I’m all about change and progress, girl, just say when.” She was elated that it had finally come to pass. “Maybe afterwards we’ll go to Burt’s Brews and Beef to celebrate.”
But Meredith didn’t think she would be in any mood for that. She’d rather douse her feelings with a hot bath and murder mystery after Helene went on her way. Or a whole bottle of chardonnay.
Now they stood in the golden light of the room, windows flung open to encourage the fleeing dust to find its way out. Helene wielded a long vacuum attachment that would more easily suck up dirt, miscellaneous debris and potential spiders. They had pushed the mattress and bed springs off the frame to allow easy access. Meredith let her eyes roam over the lightly fuzzy-draped boxes of papers and books, the plastic containers of sweaters and some of the photographs. And at the head of the bed frame, right below the area her head rested on pillows night after night, were the two violin cases covered in a film she could trace her name in.
Helen turned on the vacuum and maneuvered the attachment into the stronghold of her past, the mustiness that swallowed it up. Meredith started on the wiping down and sorting.
The boxes were much easier than she imagined. Some contents she kept intact after cleaning each storage container with cleaning rags. The few photos she’d printed of Trevor and her were tossed after only brief looks; it was far more painless than she’d thought possible. She felt a wisp of sadness –his beauty, such gifts–and then a sore acceptance. He had been her first true love, maybe her last but it was long ago. There was no more bleeding to staunch, she realized.
It was the violins.
She did not even wnt to touch them until Helene reached for one.
“I’ll get it– please!” Meredith said.
She pulled it out, unlatched the case clasps, biting her lips tightly closed, her chin trembling. As she opened the lid, there it was, the instrument that was to take her far into a classical music world, toward a career that might have sparked greater accolades and excellent remuneration. Like it did Trevor and others. It gleamed but dully in late afternoon sunlight as she held it up and they looked it over together. The strings were loosened; one was unwound entirely. She saw that the bridge was a bit askew and a small crack was evident at the neck. The bow was a mess, the horsehair broken and flapping as she held it aloft. No hands upon the fine wood, no bow on taut strings–it all led to disrepair. It tugged at her, made her sad, this instrument, but she put it back in place as she heard Helene exclaim it could be refurbished; it was in fairly decent shape. Then she got the other violin case and put it on her lap.
“Go on, Meri, open it up, it’s okay,” Helene said gently, a hand on her friend’s forearm. She turned off the vacuum, sat down beside her.
“You can. Good things are in there.”
“Terrible losses are in there. Family legacy. My failed love life. An absence of hope.”
“You’ve done more with music than some would expect. But you can likely have more.”
“More what? Self-loathing?”
Helene drew a little away from her. Waited. Maybe it had been wrong of her to come. She knew it would be rough but she wanted her friend to find a glimmer of happiness in there, too. And it was possible, the finding and doing something with it.
Meredith was taken aback, too, but who was this friend of hers to say anything–who thrived where she, Meredith, had nothing? Who had every single day what she had once loved so much she had had to let it go? To survive better. What might she have done instead with a damaged shoulder that never felt quite right and a weak, crooked finger? All that time away from her instrument. And a faulty leg that made her look like incapacitated at so young an age. She had tried to not bemoan her fate. There were worse things than the life she led now. Her deepest thoughts and feelings had been kept to herself most of the time. One did what one had to do.
Even Helene did not know the truth of it. How she ached some days when her students played, their skills increasing each week, their determination and talent emboldened by progress, their pride and pleasure growing as they reached one more hurdle and cleared it. They had won awards often; she had won recognition, too. And yet as she had closed her front door or walked off stages after recitals and competitions for her students, there remained a nagging sense of defeat. Not triumph. For Meredith, the real music had long ago stopped. And her own (successful musician) aunt had said impatiently after some years passed, “Why not simply accept it? Get on with your life, do what good you can with the remainder and the music!”
Meredith clutched the third generation fiddle case to her lap. How sweet it had become from all that singing it had done, and now how silent. She had been surprised no one demanded it be given back.
“Please,” Helene said, an arm wrapping around her thin shoulders. Holding her in place.
So she just did it. Opened her instrument’s case, blew off vagrant residue, held it up to golden light. It did not look too bad. In fact, it seemed okay except for needing new strings. And a re-haired bow. The mask was removed from her face and she stood up with Helene’s help, abandoning the cane. She placed it under her chin, held it there with her strong left hand and felt it snug up right above her collarbone. Her faulty shoulder did not complain. She closed her eyes as Helene got the bow and put it in her right hand, her corked little finger clasping itself along with the rest to the bow’s end part, the frog. Broken horsehair strands dangled forlornly but she drew it across the limp strings anyway.
“How does it feel now?”
Meredith smiled and looked at her friend, clutching the violin to her chin. “Not too bad. familiar and almost comfy.”
“We’ll fix it all,” she said, beaming at her, “and then you can begin to play again.” Helene was ready for resistance, tears, even wounding words exchanged but she was ready to hold fast.
“Alright, then. Let’s get it done. I’m ready to try to get it back.”
Helene clapped her hands and laughed.
Later, when she was ready to start, Meredith wondered about it all. After trying weeks and months of practice and discouragement and then more slivers of hope shining inside her, she mused over everything. Success required making many adjustments, harder work. Swallowing pride. But she was not often daunted. Lingering fears seeped away, day by day. Hands, mind and soul managed to take over.
Still, even after her first tentative sharing with Helene and then others, playing those Appalachian and old Irish, Scottish and English tunes that sounded good or nearly good, after all– she still didn’t know quite what had turned the tide. Was it Trevor bidding her farewell in the dream? Was it her students’ joy even as she was missing her own? Was it nightmares of the accident again, how she saw she’d lost some but not all of what was needed to seek again her truest calling? Or maybe it was Helene who helped her face it and work to get it back.
Or it was an unknown fiddler offering fine music to the night’s deep attention, and to her, the only one able to hear its plaintive call.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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