There is Good Coffee Alone, Then There is Coffee with My Friend

I visit a suburban coffee shop right after I get work done at the dentist. And if I feel restless, unfocused or a bit lonely I can head to my area “close-in” (interesting word for inner city near the river, gradually gentrified and booming) city streets to mix with others who are sipping a latte or macchiato or double espresso. Coffee shops abound in my city and they are always busy. Within a few blocks I have my choice of a half dozen, and a 5-10 minute drive will take me to another twelve (or more). I found conflicting numbers regarding how many Portland metro area offers, but it is may lie somewhere between 750-850 shops (one source stated at least 1200, not too shocking). And then there are the cafes which offer lighter food offerings with their impressive array of coffee as well as fine teas.  I have favorite stops in my neighborhood but I won’t deign to rate them as I’m no coffee snob. I go where it’s friendly, the drinks go down easy and don’t agitate my stomach while the decor doesn’t startle or bore me too much. Though I can order a fresh cup at a tiny hangdog roadside stand and be fulfilled as I drive away.

I have always loved tea and have become more a tea person over the years (this stomach is fussy). Still, I enjoy a good cup now and then, especially an expert Aztec mocha made with almond milk, no whip. Add a tasty scone or banana or zucchini bread. That specific drink is found at Insomnia Coffee in the suburbs, and I look forward to visiting following each dentist appointment. Since I’m a frequent patient–they treat me like family–this is a grand motivator for me to endure with acceptance any indignities that are forthcoming. Last Monday I stopped as usual at Insomnia but to my dismay it was being remodeled.  What a let down, I thought the interior is great. I’m hoping this is a good sign, they’ll be back with bigger or better changes. But there are other choices, of course, though I went home to nurse my own cold brew mocha before the numbness wore off.

It got me thinking, though, how big a role coffee shops and/or cafes play in my life and apparently most people’s– at least in the Northwest, place of chilled rainy winters (but long clear summers). There are so many bars and eateries here where scores of people drop loads of money but I don’t drink alcohol and am not a big foodie. Thus, coffee and tea with lighter fare are mainstays. I go in search fairly often, as Portlanders do, for these. (We are reputedly just third in the country for most coffee drinkers–Seattle and San Francisco beat us a bit.)

I like the fact that these shops are meeting places and they support our artisan culture. I like the civilized air that presides in such businesses no matter how humble, how varieties of people come together and don’t find anything to fight about despite a good caffeine buzz. And most of our coffee shops are independently owned, despite Starbucks’ ubiquity (only 295 here owned by them…) and they do thrive. Beyond that it’s the atmosphere, usually cozy, sometimes sophisticated, and wall to wall packed with humans. (And sometimes dogs; Portland is dog heaven, one wonders if they are the actual ruling class here.) I muse over how we can be shoulder to shoulder yet claim our bit of privacy, too, and everyone goes about their own business–or not, if given to spontaneous conversations. Often computers dominate the tables, though, another pro for coffee shop hounds.

Just last Saturday morning my friend Brenda and I met to catch up. We live thirty minutes or more away depending on traffic so we usually talk on the phone, then meet up as we can. We were in the atmospheric Costello’s Travel Cafe, started after a young man traveled the world, then returned with a vision for a family business. (Other good spots for us include Grand Central Bakery, Jim and Patty’s, Townshend Teas, Stumptown, Caffe D’Arte, Petite Provence, Fleur de Lis, Peet’s, Cadillac Cafe–yes, it showcases a real, very pink vintage Cadillac inside). We thought we might be out of luck getting a table but spotted a narrow one pressed against a front window. She snagged it as I got in line to order at the counter, then she took a spot in the longer line as I sipped my mug of coffee and tasted a mixed berry scone. One comes armed with patience at coffee shops or you might even stand outside to snag a table or even a bench as someone leaves. Or up and find another nearby spot.

We had a good view of full tables outdoors–it was chilly but no rain. There was sheer blue sky above houses turned into businesses, a few older offices. Pedestrians attired in various fashions or lack thereof, hard to say, sauntered by. There also stood a medium sized, buff colored, luxuriously furred mutt tied up at a bike rack. He’d accompanied a couple of guys who sat across from him. That dog attracted everyone who passed, like honey for bees, though he did nothing but sit, then stand assuredly, a model of a dog. Perhaps that was it–he didn’t set off alarms and was just being gorgeous.

“Watch this,” Brenda said, “his parents should check that dog and talk to the owner first but there some nutty kid goes!”  She sloshed about the tea bag in a bowl-shaped cup, started on a generous slice of cinnamon coffee cake while fascinated by the child’s seemingly reckless actions. “Too late!”

This from a woman whose own dog, Gypsy, growls at me most of the time I get into her car despite having known him all his life. I bare my own teeth in a smile that may be a half-grimace. It’s the protective nature of the beast. Only Brenda has the magic touch. But the owner of the cafe dog had no concerns plus he’d been trained to be nicer…perhaps. Gypsy hasn’t worried me, even lets me pat his head with his mistress’ assurances.

The perhaps four year old boy plunged his hands into all the lovely fur, ruffed it up good as a series of squeals rushed forth. The dog looked at him from the corner of his eye but was pleased to offer enjoyment. The child was loathe to leave–only his parents tugging hard at him pried him off. The next child, an older girl, put her head on the dog’s back and hugged him. Several others paused to pet and speak to the animal who was the most popular being on the block.

I was about to dash out to get my admiring moments in but asked Brenda just how she was doing. Brenda offered a health update which has not been very good for a long while, and then came scenarios involving her six year old niece (for whom she provides care every week-end),  and her work with women prisoners (also in treatment for addiction) at a correctional facility. The stories get longer the farther she moves from her health.

All this when a small round table to the right was not three feet away. A young man with laptop had been joined by two female strangers who chatted away, voices medium quiet so he was not disturbed. Brenda’s voice doesn’t lend itself to sotto voce even when it might be applicable. We just mostly talk as if we’re alone. Anyway, the room resounded with conversations; we joke that we’ll next need hearing aids that also block out others. But it’s another coffee shop/cafe with a reputation for talkative gatherings, soccer game gatherings and other events, with worldwide travel footage on two screens. One might be in Europe for all the languages ping-ponging around.

“My niece is a lovable terror, she knows too much and says it all and she always needs attention! I’m very happy to give it. I love that kid.” She laughs from the belly. “Rug rats, that’s what I called children, aye? Not ever my fate! Now I’m a doting aunt. Huh, karma, maybe!”

Her grey–blue eyes squinted in warm light brightening everything. She shook out long, still-damp, reddish-brown hair so it was artlessly arrayed. Her Native American genes show up in rising cheekbones and how they sit next to other features, her circuitous storytelling, and becoming still, taciturn when emotion runs deep.

She sat half-sideways; we were that close to the wall, but not uncomfortable. She is ten years younger than I but walks in pain every step. Never complaining unless it is so bad she can’t contain it. Her wild life story is evident in her face but so is a quirky good humor. Brenda finds life generally funny despite the horrors humans live through (or do not). She maybe should retire from her work as the battle her body fights takes its toll but she loves her clients, is committed to being of service to others. This is all she knows to do.

She’s been talking about life span lately, how fast it all goes, how it is best to seize every day and find it good before it seeps away. I know she means both of us–my heart problems, her multiple issues. But more often I sense in her some clouded if infinite horizon as she talks, see the wisp of a most uncertain future in her gaze. I look away for the sharp hurt it brings. And then she is back in the present with a joke and I talk about my adult kids and writing–she has never read it and I have never asked, it’s not needed for she knows me at heart–and the ways of my marriage and our recent trips. She cares for her elderly and similarly feisty mother, travels occasionally but only to hear music, Las Vegas or San Francisco. Once long ago she she took a cruise ship. She listens to my life as I do hers. She want to have lunch with a daughter and me.

We talk about the concert we’re attending in late spring. She has bought tickets (she buys online the first minute) for every Bonnie Raitt concert we could go to–is it five or six or even more, now?– and then I always ask what my portion is. Demand it.

“So just how much is my ticket to this concert? I know it costs a lot, this is Bonnie Raitt  and James Taylor, come on! We’re in the ninth row, the middle!”

She waves my words away, shakes her head. “You can get me dinner before and a t-shirt! We’re all set to go.”

“You’re impossible, you always say this when you know I can pay my way and am glad to do it. How can I possibly repay you?”

“I like to do this, you’re my friend, go with the flow.” She grinned, closed the topic.

I think over where we might eat before the concert. Think how I can never do enough for her, she won’t often accept it. But I am her friend.

It has been over twenty-five years since we met, working at a facility for gang-affiliated, addicted, abused and homeless youth. We did not trust each other, only grew to like each other when we took smoke breaks together. We stood near the locked doors at night and under eaves if it rained or sat on the curb if it was daytime, clear skies. Made coffee runs together to breath a bit.  She initially noted I was “too Miss Junior League and sorta snooty” and I found her dominating, quickly abrasive. I felt tempted to smack her some moments but of course, professional hopes and good sense corralled irritation. We discovered we were far more than what the eye could decipher: she was interested in both God and politics as well as the arts, especially music-. Not just her beloved blues but opera (though she didn’t and doesn’t like jazz, to my consternation). Treating people with respect despite the sharp edges she had. And I was no delicate cream puff, not by a long shot, having lived life on and off many edges if not right in the street. She later said she suspected that, she just had to test me to see,  but she was surprised I could handle such tough kids. I soon appreciated her frankness and gave it right back. We laughed hard, something I had forgotten I could do. I liked that we laughed at ourselves, too.

The cafe was buzzing. She picked at her cake as I finished my scone, her voice trailing off as she finished responding to my sharing. She was tired. I glanced at my phone to check the time. I had a commitment with another friend later, a wealth of good times for one day.

“Ready for the music hunt?” I asked.

“Sounds good, sis-tah.”

We exited for Part 2 of visiting. This was how it went when we got together–coffee or tea with food, then music, then maybe something else. (She rarely comes to my upper floor apartment as the stairs are too much to tackle.) After checking on a congenial Labradoodle dog–the Royal Furry One had left– we took off for the independent music store we love. It has an intimate, cavernous semi-darkness and the various music played, loud. After twenty minutes Brenda was empty-handed while I’d found a jazz trio. She was coughing, that cough that would not let go, and her steps had been more halting after we’d parked. Despite all, she laughed it off, as ever: “I get premium parking in handicapped spots since hips and foot went bad!” The surgeries helped but not enough.

A broad-shouldered woman, taller than I am, she commands a room even when feeling compromised. It’s her air of authority right or wrong, the laser-like vision and instinct that scans a scene, her way of asserting that she’s able to hold off any threat as necessary with her will or a few choice, well-paced words that ring in heads for long moments after. She stands as she lives, with courage and clarity, exudes a passionate interest in life. Even when she, herself, may be vulnerable. Of course, she is just a person felled by what most are felled by even while asserting it’s all good, she’s got this. And I stand by her.

A narrow window revealed the sun sliding behind thickening clouds. We both had other things to do, not like some days when our agendas are clear so we can waste time and do things like shop at Target for nothing special or visit a dog park so Gypsy is freed from the back of her car.

In the car, she stated, “Don’t put that CD in, I don’t want to hear “your crazy-ass jazz.” I retorted,  “I don’t want to hear all those moaning blues, either.” That’s how we are sometimes, smart-mouthed, quick to point out differences that are really just a few steps apart, like the span between chartreuse and pine green.

Next time. There has always been a “next time” year after year, and we have each changed. She’s gotten more careful with language and more pensive. I have found more joy and peace, shed my reserved amour some. Perhaps we’ll meet at a pretty place that has fifty fine teas in big glass jars or  at a spartan setting with bagels and cheaper coffee or a brunch spot where we’ll wait for fifteen minutes and the superior coffee costs a fortune. It may be a hideaway coffee shop with a spacious patio and vines snaking up a fence; there’ll be flowers blooming soon. She’ll fuss about pesky, noisy birds and I’ll offer a few nature stories gathered during hikes. We’ll sip and snack and talk about things, the hardest and the easier, the idiocy of this world and the beauty we still find.

Next year she may feel better, maybe not. Likely not. But we have this stellar friendship, and Bonnie Raitt again in June, that much I will count on despite life being fickle and this flesh wears out bit by bit, mostly without our permission.

I cannot begin to imagine all those fine coffee shops without Brenda.

Sorrow is an Arrow with No Place to Land

Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The first sighting occurred on a late afternoon soon after Dae bounded out the door before her, barking furiously after a squirrel who’d just scampered off. The water before them was uncharacteristically still, mirror-smoothness reflecting only heavy clouds. Stillness, often a first sign of a thunderstorm, had settled deep in Sophie’s bones when she awakened and she’d felt a peace, despite knowing there might be a storm. She had worked hard at this, the coveted equilibrium required to live a life she valued.

She stood with flat of hand to brow as if that would help her better discern a cause of the flicker of light. Unease pricked her insides. A glimmering spot above a gun metal Ring Lake disturbed the day. No spare light filtered down as raindrops plopped onto the deck. As she stepped closer, the glinting glided away at a rapid pace. A green canoe was briefly outlined, a small body in it. The big dog had seen the person, too, as he or she rounded the narrow peninsula–Sophie’s land–then slipped away. His sharp barks were more greeting and farewell than warning; the canoe was gone.

Dae ran to her and licked her fingers; both hands hung at her sides limply, as if she was deflated. It was nothing to think twice about, the lake was open to all for boating and other pleasures as long as weather allowed. But not so often did she see people on the water when a storm was brewing. Sophie shivered in the cooling wind, her eyes unavoidably drawn to Stump Island. The community island. Thomas had nonetheless tried to commandeer it to work on limnology research notes.

That he’d tried to reach, perhaps, that summer night. But his boat faltered, his body sank, languished in muck on the lake bed.

She could not speak of it after nearly a year. In fact, could still not speak at all.

She signaled to Dae and they entered her remodeled and historical chapel-house. Once inside she paused. Distant thunder and lightning illuminated the expanse, now textured with waves. A curtain of rain fell and semi-darkness spilled over all. The husky-German Shepherd mix took his place on the rag rug before the fireplace, despite no fire. He panted lightly, blue eyes following his mistress. She closed the curtains on French doors to the deck as he lay his fine head on massive paws, eyes closing.

In the loft, Sophie removed the silk caftan that covered a leotard, then lit three pillar candles and danced, or rather acted as if she might still dig deep into that primal force and bring forth movement, coppery, white-streaked hair cast off her back as she floated, lips quivering. The elegant dog lifted its head. Listened.

******

The second sighting happened as Sophie was driving down 137 in her truck. She was off to Haston, not far from her village of Snake Creek. Dense white pine and hemlock, a grove of birch flew by as a mostly green blur as she barreled down the road. It was also that kind of day she thought of as cornflower blue and forsythia yellow, filled with a promise of more heat to come and a day of small pleasures. She would get errands done, then stop for a steaming chai and warm chocolate chip cookie at her favorite coffee house, then stroll along Lake Michigan. Clarissa–Rissa to closest friends–said she might meet them if she got done with her restaurant supply run in time and felt she could take a half hour to relax. Sophie turned up the music, a lively pop tune. Behind her Dae sat with twitching nose pressed into sweet air a half-opened window afforded.

They were perhaps fifteen minutes out, the road empty except for towering trees lining either side and a raptor circling above. Around a wide curve in the opposite direction roared a blue sports car, top down, and at the wheel was another bold shimmer as had been seen at the lake two days before. The two-seater began to slow, presumably to approach a private road to the new Nine Lives Spa and Resort. The woman’s long champagne blonde hair unfurled like a fancy scarf freed by spring wind. Soft sunlight bounced off it spinning golden filaments. Her skin appeared an ordinary, not tanned, tone. She wore something coral.

Sophie’s eyes shifted between blue car and winding road and resisted the impulse to slow down, as well. It was no doubt a woman from down state, likely Detroit, here for a pricey rejuvenation vacation. The patrons had begun to show up more in the village already. The place offered Tai Chi, Bikram yoga, a eucalyptus steam room, an indoor-outdoor Olympic sized pool with hot tub, fancy massages by the hour, earthy skin treatments and all the rest that no one she knew wanted to undergo, much less could afford. In truth, Sophie would like the steam room after a deep massage. She already practiced Tai Chi but swam in the lake as tolerable in summer like everyone else did. No one was happy about the resort other than Rissa’s husband, the developer who sold off the waterfront parcel; he was tight with the investors.

The blue car downshifted as it arrived at the turn off, then stopped just short of turning. Sat there idling. Sophie slowed enough to get a fast peek at the driver. The petite woman looked over a shoulder; huge sunglasses obscured most of her face. She caught her flying hair with a hand as she gazed at Sophie, then abruptly took off down the driveway, engine purring.

Dae had been keen to look as well but offered no response. Sophie pondered the coincidence. Was it the same person she had seen at the lake? And if so, who was she and why might she be interested in her? The driver looked too polished and self-impressed to be a regular Michigander. She didn’t even look like a usual buyer of northern summer cottages. More akin to Sophie, perhaps, an East coaster. Did Sophie know her from somewhere? Were she and Thomas acquaintances of Bostonian friends of hers; had they met at a dinner party or lecture?

Sophie gripped the steering wheel, sped along the curving road. Maybe the driver had another interest–if indeed, there was a true interest and not some prurient curiosity. Maybe Ms. Champagne Blonde was a reporter after the story of the suspicious death of Thomas Swanson, famous biologist. And his wife, Sophie Swanson, well-known dancer and choreographer. Once of the Bostonian bramin (which they were not unhappy to leave).

She hit the wheel with her palm; she wanted to be no one of any interest, to have less of Thomas in her life now. Dae’s head rose to rest at her shoulder and she patted his head. Her eyes burned; she blinked to refocus on the road. It wasn’t going to happen, a story. She didn’t want to be found, didn’t even respond to old friends’ cards and notes, nor to emails. That life was abandoned when Thomas retired. She had long ago agreed to come with him, leave her career behind at age 45. Despite any regrets, despite hellish losses–including that of Mia, her daughter, now living with an aunt–this was meant to be home. There was no turning back, anyway.

Grief had a way of weaving you into the landscape from which pain erupted. It was a sore comfort, a remembrance of hope and a scarring rawness even as the aching was, bit by bit, subdued. And she had to start over from here, nowhere else.

A fragrant, almost warm blast of air mellowed her thoughts as the window was rolled down. The day was still new, it would be salvaged. Sophie was a pro at such things.

She felt deep pressure under her ribs, an urge to scream but when her mouth opened only a rush of soft air mixed with the breeze. Dae, on the other hand, whined, eager to run.

******

And the third sighting was other than what Sophie might have imagined.

Rissa waved as she wound her way between tables then sat on the wooden chair with a thump, uniform askew, dark hair stuck to her forehead. She blew up at her bangs to cool off. It was busy at Bluestone Cafe, the thriving restaurant she owned and managed.

“What’s going on, lady? Sorry I couldn’t meet up but I was running late Thursday and the supply order wasn’t quite right and then I got into it with Stan about numbers tallied!” She flipped a hand in the air, dismissing the annoyance, and smiled. “I’m glad to sit a little. But you don’t usually come in during rush hours. Did an appointment bring you in?”

Sophie shook her head, pulled from her soft leather bag a medium-sized notebook and shoved it across the table top. This was the  means by which she talked to her few friends. She’d written about the two times in a few days she’d seen who might be the same woman. She hated to admit to such an odd and likely irrational worry but she was starting to think she was being followed by a stranger. She described her the best she could and asked if her friend had seen anyone like that.

Rissa frowned as she read. Sometimes Sophie had fears that couldn’t easily be tamped down, much less erased. But it was best to take what she intuited or felt seriously. She was not a crazy person despite what some suggested but a hurt human being who was still healing. That night of the drowning was a complicated story.

“A person who looks like that would stick out like a sore thumb. Summer people haven’t taken over yet…but the resort is up and running, yeah, so…Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity if she thinks she knows you, that can happen. But, no, I haven’t seen any one just like that. Champagne blonde? We just have badly bleached straw blondes!” She chuckled. “I think you should keep an eye out, tell others if it keeps happening, anyway.” She narrowed her eyes and thought. “I wonder if that husband of mine has seen this person around. If anyone would recall a woman like that it’d be Sonny. I’ll ask.”

With a shrug, Sophie picked up her notebook and tucked it away. Rissa lay her hand on her friend’s.

“You do okay with the thunderstorm this week?’

Sophie smiled assent.

“That’s good. Not bad, no power losses. Gotta go, girlfriend, catch you soon.”

Sophie squeezed her hand and let go. After she finished off her iced tea and cinnamon scone she paid the bill and left.

Rissa watched her go, the tall, lithe form and legs and arms swinging, the gingery-white hair that fell nearly to her waist in a loose braid. She wished her a happy afternoon and no strange sightings.

The main thoroughfare of Snake Creek paralleled the eastern shore of Ring Lake. Right across from Bluestone Cafe was the old field stone library and behind that, an inviting grassy park. Beyond the library ran the waterfront with the public beach and boat rentals. Sophie ran across the street, toward the shoreline. She had brought a book to read on another unusually sunny day. Mainly she wanted to be among a few people though she was always somehow apart. At times her house felt so small, constraining, bound in echoing silence; it could barely contain her then and she either worked on the property or went into town.

In the morning Sophie had gotten up early, walked with Dae, made an apple pie for her older friends Will and Anna, who’d had a stroke. Then she’d sat on the deck listening to fado music, the most plaintive and bittersweet of all choices. She’d caught herself drifting into a dreaded state of longing and sorrow so put the pie in a bag and went for a short visit with her friends. Dae was left behind for once. She half-wished she’d brought him as he loved to race about park and shore. Everyone knew him, admired his friendliness, agility and handsomeness. He was her buffer, she knew that.

The waterfront was busier than usual but it was a Friday, almost May–more people were coming to visit. She sat on a bench under a newly leafed poplar. After reading a few pages she looked up and down the shore, watching people hunt for attractive rocks and toss a few, play ball.

And there sat Ms. Champagne at southern end of the rocky beach, knees drawn up to her chin, pale hair blowing about. Alone. Sophie started that direction, wishing she had a friend with her. What would she do when she got there? Ask who she was  and why she was always around when she was still so damned mute?

The woman turned and saw her before she got there, her legs flattening onto the rocks, hands grabbing the brilliant mass to tame it again in a ponytail. Then she got up, shifted her weight. Sophie stopped about ten feet before her. She dwarfed the stranger from her height of six feet; the other woman was nearly a foot shorter. And so much younger, perhaps 30, 35?

The woman offered a tentative smile that drew wider when Sophie did not respond in kind.

“Hello, I’m Signe Johansson. I know we’ve skirted each other a few days. I’m glad you came to greet me as I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach you.”

Sophie inclined her head at Signe and found her open-faced, eager to talk so offered her hand.  Signe knew who she was, so no speaking was necessary. Her notebook might yet be useful, she would wait.

“Can we find a bench so I can explain…?”

They walked with only the lulling noise of waves to the spot Sophie had been reading, sat, then half-turned to each other. Sophie stared at the woman’s sparkling white and red tennis shoes. She glanced up, had burning desire to ask her ten questions and bit her lip. Signe smoothed her black khakis and took a deep breath.

“You are the Sophia Swanson, I know that. And I knew your husband, your famous partner.”

Sophie’s lips formed his name as alarm spread over her gaunt features.

“Yes, Thomas…I worked in the same building at Boston University. The Earth Sciences department where he lectured many years in between research trips.”

Her dark blue eyes–too bright, marred with redness– locked with Sophie’s.

“I know you’re at a disadvantage as you don’t talk. That’s what I heard. We heard. After his death. That it was too much. I’m sorry. He was…amazing. We were…friends, good friends… ”

Sophie fought the urge to get up and leave. Who was this Signe to be following her, trespassing on her life, talking as if they were bound to make a friendly connection via her spouse? Speaking of her entirely dead husband–familiarly, casually?

“Wait, Sophie– I’m here.” Rissa’s gravelly voice penetrated her distress and then she came around to stand before them. “I’m Clarissa, Sophie’s closest friend and ally–and you are, exactly?”

“Oh, hi. I’m Signe, an old friend of Thomas’.” She smiled sweetly, too fast. “I’m glad you came. Now maybe she and I can talk with your help. I know an investment partner of Nine Lives Spa and Resort and I thought I’d come up  and visit the new place and also…” her voice petered out.

Rissa sat on the end of the bench by Sophie and leaned forward . “I see, very nice, we have a great area to enjoy. My husband is a developer. I appreciate your interest. But what does any of this have to do with Sophie Swanson? Did you come to give your condolences?”

“Yes, I did.  I guess I wanted to share memories with her. He was a brilliant man and a gentleman.”

Sophie drew out her notebook and scribbled a few lines. Rissa read them.

“How well did you know him and for how long? And what do you teach?”

“Hydrology, environmental interventions. I knew him for six years, he was a mentor,  co-worker, a friend.” She looked at Sophie and then at Rissa. “A truly good friend,” she emphasized.

Sophie scribbled another few questions. Rissa spoke once again.

“How come Sophie never heard of you? Did you two meet, even at a public function? And why would you find it necessary to come here and talk about this friendship with Thomas? It’s peculiar.” Rissa’s nose wrinkled.

The woman took a deep breath and turned toward Rissa sharply. “Look, why are you interrogating me? I came to pay my respects, to tell Sophie how much we appreciated his work and his kindness, that’s all.”

“Funny, it doesn’t seem like that. She doesn’t even know you and you’re avoiding the real answers. My gut tells me you knew him a bit too well–“she put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder as Sophie ‘s fingers clenched her sweater–” and you’d not planned on meeting her yet now you have and with an unsavory interest. Meeting his mourning widow now…I don’t like it any more than Sophie does.”

Signe sat up straight, shoulders back. “There was a lot she didn’t know about him, that she didn’t care to know more about–she was so busy with her career and he was alone a lot–who could he talk to about his research –and his dreams? Some of us were there, that’s all I want to say! I–I just wanted her to know how much I adored Thomas Swanson!” Her voice had risen like a frantic adolescent’s. Face flushed, her blue eyes darted about, filled with tears.

“Stop there, Siggie,” Rissa said. “You need to take this to your shrink. You’ve  no right to come here, say these things to her. You don’t know Sophie, not one bit.”

But Sophie got up and bent her graceful height over the sniveling Signe. Sophie tapped her lips so Signe would watch them. Carefully formed the silent words:

Thomas was never yours, he was mine–she touched her chest–our daughter’s. Now goodbye.

Rissa and Sophie left arm in arm. Sophie was not crying. She was not shaking, not wanting to run back and hurt that woman. She knew so many things Signe Johansson would never know. And she had long felt tired out by that knowledge and since his death, whittled down by grief of the darkest sorts. No, she felt sorry for this younger–and weaker– Signe, who must have been left alone. Far too lonely. And Sophie was not. She realized she finally missed her husband less than she ever had. Or, at least, the man she knew, his cynicism, his spurts of tenderness, his brilliance and dependence. And finally, the undoing of his life by a sly and ego-hungry madness in a boat on a thunderstruck night. Night of terrors, her life nearly lost, and Sophie had barely survived the man she had loved. She would keep searching for her own voice.

 

(Note: this is a story based on a novel of mine, Other Than Words, written many years ago. I keep revising/ coming back to it. Another post about Sophie can be found here: https://talesforlife.blog/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/

If you are interested in reading more, let me know and I will post more links.)

 

Friends for All Sorts of Weather

The voicemail was brief and to the point. She’d called to let me know her phone had been inoperable or she sure would have called me sooner to see how things were. I’d left her a voice mail a few days earlier about my spouse’s new worrisome medical issue. Just hearing her voice brought a sense of relief. I knew we would talk more and soon. B. is always there for me and vice versa, even if we must miss each other a couple times.

I had met her 25 years ago when working with addicted, gang-affiliated, abused and generally high-risk teens in a long-term residential facility. B. was about as different from me at first glance as one might imagine: big and tough, boisterous and prone to swearing, full of jokes and quick to aggressively make her views known. I often found her obnoxious while I gained respect for her insights, her firm boundaries yet good rapport with the clients. We often clashed over the simplest things. Then we began to share a smoke during our breaks, talked more, and became cautious friends, then good friends. It turned out she had a tender side, was often considerate and could be very good natured. We made each other laugh a lot. I was still new to Portland, and having her friendship helped usher me into a more welcoming, hospitable adjustment. In time she calmed down a little, got a bit softer though her boldness and strength are never in dispute. She has shown herself to be generous with time and resources. We are very close friends and I cannot begin to say how much I yet admire and appreciate her.

Developing friendships has never been easy as it was when I was a child. I moved a lot in my twenties and thirties. Life circumstances have often created barriers– living in the isolating country, lack of free time (five kids), work demands, health problems, a spouse who prefers to be more of a loner. I have had to more often carefully root out potential friends, and sometimes have even advertised for them (more on this later). I have also had to be ready to let go of them as work and life have demanded yet another move. Luckily, I have been in Portland the longest I have lived anywhere–and some good friends have remained here, as well.

Making friends used to be clear and simple: bumping into someone at the playground while playing catch, being asked to join a group or team, perhaps finding one’s self sitting next to the new kid and wondering who she or he was–so offering a smile, asking her or his name and maybe from which street, town or state the person had moved. One was connected in a neighborhood just by being present or from engagement in school activities, church events or attending a good weather picnic and special parties that grown-ups organized. In my childhood city of Midland, population about 28,000 when I grew up, it would be hard to get too lost in a crowd for long. We knew who lived on our blocks but even beyond, who delivered mail and newspaper (as well as their families), who participated and how in school or town events. I might make a new friend because an old one invited that girl to a pajama party. And we might even know of one another already. We inhabitants of smallish hometown were familiars more often than not, knew people via family name or accomplishments, as well as other basic information like who had a big family or had lost a parent or grandparent to illness or accident (with perhaps details of same). It was a fairly friendly town, (though it could be a closed place, as well–other cities found us a bit exclusive) and finding new connections was just a part of ordinary living and doing.

My first significant best friend (beyond my several neighborhood “besties”) attended the same United Methodist Church. We met in the fifth grade in Sunday school. We noticed we shared the same first name (somehow I was dubbed “Cindy” by my teens; I didn’t like it, though, and reclaimed my birth name at 18). We sat huddled in the airy balcony during services, passing notes back and forth as we scribbled away on church bulletins. We developed a Sunday afternoon tradition of meeting at nearby Nugent Drugs’ lunch counter to enjoy a cherry or lime Coke and split an order of steamy hot French fries and gab for an hour. I’d sometimes spend the night at her place and she, at mine. We hung out in junior high school, walking arm in arm down the hallway, both of us turning when our names were called out since we answered to both. She had dark wavy hair; mine was a light auburn and she was a few inches taller. I felt part of a set of unmatched twins.

It seemed we could talk about anything–from hunky but annoying boys to hairdo fiascoes to the meaning of religion to private hurts and dreams. We lived in different areas of the city–hers was a far wealthier neighborhood. Her father worked for Dow Chemical Company in a higher up position and my father was in music and educational administration. It created a disparity in economic levels though not otherwise; it didn’t seem to matter. We were introspective with extroverted tendencies, loved academics and reading, enjoyed competition, and had four siblings who drove us nuts. Admiration played a part: I thought she was pretty and smart; she thought I had plenty of talent. But mostly we liked each other’s company. Perhaps as important or more so we entrusted each other with our secrets, our real life issues.

We began to drift apart as we got engaged in more serious high school life a few years later. It appeared we’d slowly and radically changed–or I had–and prioritized different goals. She was a debater and class president; I was edging toward hippie/folk singer/poet who explored more liberal politics. I had, instead, become best friends with another girl, someone who seemed to better understand me as I faced various challenges and trials. This new friend, Monica, was an intense personality, a rebel. I found her caring and loyal, while very zany and spontaneous. We supported each other through ups and downs that no one else comprehended as fully.

I was also very close to a boy or two, and one in particular with whom I remained friends until his death four years ago. A year before El passed away he decided to visit all his oldest friends. He flew out from the Midwest and on his itinerary Portland was a stop. We spent the entire day. I drove him to the most beautiful places, and we shared food and drink at a lovely street cafe. His conversation overflowed with happy memories and a generosity of love. It pained me to see him so ill with congestive heart failure, saw how death lurked about him and yet he was vibrant in a profoundly intrinsic way, as ever. We hugged a long moment before he turned and walked away. I watched him go and then gazed at the space where he had been. I knew he was soon to leave us all. Through the decades we’d been first and last kind to one another, shared triumphs and sorrows. Reached out to each other with phone calls, long letters, spur of the moment emails that were about creativity, the great beating heart in music–he was a sound engineer–and life’s madness as well as its ineffable beauty. I so valued and still miss El. I always felt blessed to have a male friend who had remained just that–close to my heart, as my buddy.

Although my first friend C. and I stayed in touch with occasional phone calls and with later random newsy letters, the last time we met a few years ago the conversation felt stilted. At best based loosely on reminiscences, at worst without interesting focus, losing momentum as awkward pauses derailed us. We lived in the same city so I’d hoped we’d reconnect well. Well, she’d become a political professional, had been single and childless. I’d become a mother and wife, a counselor, was deep into writing and the arts. It felt like a second loss of the same friendship though it was a matter of life taking us in far different directions. And time passing–we had quite outgrown each other, I think.

My second best friend left our hometown and found substance troubles and drifted about the Southwest– while I kept up my own drug using lifestyle, then switched track to enter college, write and paint. Then got married, had children just like that, and remained longer in Michigan. We lost track of each other fast, only years later caught up with each other again via email. But that had its limits. Too much had happened to span the gaps sufficiently, despite our deep if brief friendship of yore. I was happy to find out she taught biology and math at a Southwest high school, had two sons she adored. It was good to hear she was well, that she liked her life.

I figured out by age 20 that friendship might not, and need not, last for a whole lifetime–though I wished it would, at times. People (and friends) came and went throughout college and when moving to and living in different cities, even states. When I look back, I realize I’ve had dozens of friendships that have enriched and opened up my life. But they have not all been intimate or long-term or even valued beyond a certain circumstance. They have not always come to a gentle end, either. One or two were wrenching. Thankfully, most have been bittersweet at worst, marked by sweetest farewells at best. I’ve also twice made sincere attempts over months to become part of certain apparently pleasant groups that center around my interests–but finally gave up. Cliques are cliques, no matter one’s stage of life; I have no patience with them. (One gym membership was ended after over a year of trying to make an inroad within a group of older adults. It became apparent most had been members for even decades; their friends were picked and that was that. I found it very odd–it was just an ordinary gym.)

Work is one place to connect with others, though I feel that such friendships function best within work; otherwise, things can get complicated. But such friendships are vital to ensuring a more genial, supportive environment. I could flop down in an office chair and process a half a dozen weighty concerns about work and some of my life with several co-workers, and they would do the same. but never had dinner at each other’s homes, and seldom if ever met partners beyond the family photos on our desks, the tales we impulsively shared. Still, I can name many people I came to respect and feel fondness for, whom I would call friends even now, despite changes in work environments and passage of years. I yet have lunch very few months with a couple of co-workers from the last agency I worked at four years ago. We catch up as easily as we did before, greet each other and say farewell with firm hugs. And that is valuable to me.

Some of my good friends were found using want ads: “Looking for an experienced writer, women preferred, who would like to share/critique our writing projects. Can meet in library, coffer shop, homes. ” Others were pleas for larger writers’ critique groups. I have been in three main groups and have had one-on-one interactions with three writers in the  past few years, I also have attended weekly writing groups for various periods of time as well as attended workshops. Those provide a lot of opportunity to get to know people who love to write. The individual meetings have provided good exchanges not only of writing, but also greater discourses and disclosures that led to closeness while always centered around writing/critiquing.

After a year or more, when our projects were each addressed and reviewed with one another, those particular friendships became less important to us both. Inevitably, we met less and less and finally no longer. One friend moved to Arizona and embarked on a whole different life. Another got too busy with her family and her teaching responsibilities. A third friend and I had a significant disagreement regarding the ending of my novel, leading me to think she had missed the point of what I was writing. I think she felt the same way about her poetry and my critiques. That’s how it can go…we never mended that rift enough to be as friendly as before. You never know what will happen when you advertise for writers who may or may not become friends. Most of the time I’ve had great fun and learned more about craft, about communication of ideas and story making than when revising all alone. Writers’ groups can be equally variable while also worth one’s time and engagement.

My closest adult friends have tended to be found in recovery groups. I became involved in Alcoholic Anonymous way back in 1980. I was not glad to attend, didn’t trust it all, and found the people to be sad, touchy-feely, and overly simplistic in their thinking. Eventually I figured out there were more than a few people who knew a lot more than I did about staying sober and reconstructing a rewarding life. And out of those more contacts arose, opportunities to make friends. I could call anyone I thought a good bet for supporting a recovery lifestyle; they would listen on the phone, meet me for coffee. We had lots of satisfying conversations; I well recall the contentment they brought when I was in need of more peace.

One thing the twelve steps promise and make good on is that whenever anyone needs help they will be there, even though we didn’t know one another very well. I found that remarkable and generous. A few women and I just clicked as we learned of each other’s needs/hopes/challenges. We became trusted confidantes as well as cheerleaders for our ongoing sobriety. I knew that just by saying I had a rough day, they would immediately know what I meant and care enough to listen as well as share insights and hope with me–and soon I was able to be there for them.

No matter where I have moved–to Tennessee, to different cities and towns in Michigan, to the Pacific Northwest–I have had a ready group of friends if I so choose. I can go to a meeting even while travelling. All I have to do is walk into one, shake hands if I want to and offer my first name–not even why I am there or w hat I want out of it. I just can sit there in the midst of others who are redeveloping their broken lives or just refreshing their peace of mind. It’s a remarkable function of A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson’s original idea that one person who has a little more sobriety can and should if possible help out another. And so we do, and in the process, we form bonds that are strong. My three best friends are women who’ve been in recovery for at least as long as I have been if not more. Hard to believe that all these years have passed and that we still love each other, will take care of each other. We have seen each other at our worst and at our shining best.

Sometimes as I sit here pondering or writing, or I run errands and see other younger women linking arms, I muse over the years when friendship making could be a built in-perk of raising a family or going to work day after day. My children are grown and for the most part have moved away–or are swamped with their own work and family matters. In fact, even my grandchildren are nearly grown up or already gone. I think about how I might make more friends; I don’t have a surplus. I do find solitude refreshing, fulfilling, full of creative options I can finally enjoy. But I also miss at times the company of more than the usual crew, the exchange of a vast mix of ideas and belly laughs. I wonder if I might return to working outside home, or dive into volunteer work. I guess as we age opportunities to meet others have to be created more deliberately. But I have such gratitude for the friends I have–even if they still go to work and we have to set a date, time and place to have lunch. They are fine people to know and it sure isn’t the number but the quality of friendships we have, in the end.

Come to think of it, I am going to a meeting to see one of my three best friends tonight; I need to pick a good movie to see on Sunday with another. And I need to get back to B., who left me that voice message. I know she has her own issues and would enjoy a chat over a muffin and herbal tea or just the phone. Thank God for the beautiful saving graces of tried and true friendship. It’s like a seaworthy boat in life’s restless waters that always has room for one more.

(P.S. B. called me just as I was finishing this post–she was in need of a listening ear. I am so glad to still be here to give it.)

 

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Death of a Spiritual Warrior

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(In Memoriam, for Vincent)

Old Ghost Man is gone,
he’s changed his name again,
left wisdom’s better parts
to seekers, strays and nomads,
those who embrace the good path
and those who care little
how life is dreaming come awake.

He drummed it up, offered a glance
of ironic cheer, a madcap holiness
brewed from trouble, trickster spirits,
eagle feathers, cries of wildness
human or not from streets that kill
when there ought to be redemption.

Take my salvation, it’s for real free
he said,
always enough to go around.
Yes, even you white woman,

you make stones turn again,
you know what I mean, aye?

The stones named:
men, women burned down to ashes,
shattered with grief, souls stitched
with bitter roots, scoured by drugs.
But welcomed with dance and story,
given respect, they just wore down hate.
Then they rooted out places my hardness
had cracked, my tenderness hid. We traded
thundering silences, lightning’s song,
tears for small joys.

Old Ghost Man, he nodded my way,
raised his hand in greeting when some
turned backs, were stubborn doubters.
See, just walk strong and soft,
he whispered, or chanted my name
without fear, cynn-theea-a-a, 
like a swirl of painterly desert winds,
a slow ride on river’s serpent back.

Ghost Man is gone, gone, gone
he’s changed his name again
is heard in echoes, love circling ’round
he’s slipped out, moved to a better house.
Old friend, I see you now beyond
that rain shadow mountain,
untethered,
laughing and winking,
aloft.

The View from There

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Jo looked out the kitchen window and suppressed a voluminous gasp in deference to Matthew, who was just settling into position with his New Carrington News, a steaming mug of coffee and a whole wheat bagel.

He’d grunted at her upon entering the kitchen; she’d nodded and brewed a big pot. They often reheated leftover from the previous day, but this morning required the bright aroma and rich acidity of fresh caffeine. Jo knew from the many times floorboards creaked and their mattress dipped and bounced that he’d had a “kangaroo night”, up and down, here and there and everywhere. That’s what she called it; he called it “old age purgatory.” After the third time he’d pulled on his robe, jammed an old fishing magazine from a pile he kept bedside into his pocket, holed up in the empty room across the hall. The goal was to read until he dozed off. Her hope was he’d alleviate any night demons and aggravations so the next day wouldn’t be ruined for both of them.

“What is he doing?” She muttered to herself, craning her neck to better see outside. “Seems to be cleaning up…is it worth plunging to your death, though?”

Matthew typically didn’t talk for the first hour following a bad night; the newspaper emphatically rustled. Jo topped off his favorite mug from their Alaska trip. It had a homely moose on it, but it granted him happier memories. She returned to the window. The roof-scaling neighbor was still there, his leg slung out a small window, half his torso as well. He wielded a broom with some power, scrubbing and flicking off leaves and perhaps moss, though everyone knew that moss was loath to leave shingle, wood or rock once at home. She put a finger to curling lips, shook her head. That Van Tolliver, full of surprises.

He’d been a good neighbor for twenty years, waving whenever he caught a glimpse of them, at times sharing his tools and more often, anecdotes, taking in their mail hwen they were gone–and vice versa. They’d enjoyed three or four meals together each year–grilled and easy fare, various holiday spreads. Then Francia, his wife, passed. There one day with her arms full of groceries and a chipper “hello” to Jo, then felled by a fatal stroke the next. It happened so fast the neighborhood felt she still must roam the back garden or the living room where she taught small children piano. But that was that and in time they forgot her voice and face. She had been a lovely and rather benign sort except for her enthused piano playing overwhelming the street off and on. Jo was one who liked to hear it and found it sad she would not play another note.

Van, she could see, was scrubbing away with a long push broom, an awkward and perilous endeavor. His large foot was braced on the slanted roof. It looked clean enough to Jo. People generally hired others to take care of such tasks. Van had been gone a lot, though, since Francia’s death so maybe he just wanted to tidy up his place. He’d gone to Italy, France, Spain and Greece and who knows where else. An investment consultant, he’d told them he’d been tied to a desk so long he’d forgotten how to ambulate through the world and it was high time. He’d seemed rather cheerful despite his wife being gone only six months his first time out. But then, he always was more upbeat than most.

“What were you mumbling about?” The paper was lowered enough for Matthew’s bloodshot eyes to appraise his wife.

“It’s just Van. He’s sweeping his roof off, half way out that little upstairs window..”

He furrowed his brow. “Well, sensible or not, he’ll get ‘er done.” The paper flipped back up. “Coffee could use more sugar. Please.”

She was amazed Matthew had spoken, not barked at her so she got the sugar bowl and spooned it in for him. Then Jo took her white porcelain cup, grabbed her navy sweater from the coat tree and stepped onto the covered porch. Van was so intent it was as if he was executing an important duty. He didn’t notice her across the street.

It was true Van got things done. He seemed to have a knack for fixing broken mixer and fan motors and faulty toasters (he’d fixed theirs’); painting his house despite being seventy (with his son’s help he got it done); tuning up the older cars he preferred; landscaping as needed. It seemed to Jo he’d missed his calling being a sort of gambler who made magic with people’s money. Francia was proud of him, said he’d grown up on a Kansas farm and was the first one in his family to get a college degree. She liked being the wife of someone well-positioned; she liked being a stay-at-home wife and mother. Jo couldn’t imagine it. Jo had worked for a power company for thirty-five years and only retired last year. Matthew was gone for weeks at times on field trips.

“Your husband is such a thinker, isn’t he?” Fannie had noted one of the few times they’d gone out for lunch. “That’s amazing, being a naturalist plus reading two to three books a week.”

“Yes, that high school speed reading course did the trick. He cogitates a lot, but I can’t say I know what he thinks of what he reads or much else. He’s never been a gabber, not like Van. Not like I can be at times.”

Francia smiled a faint smile, head tilted, then her eyes darted away.”He does go on, doesn’t he? You’d think a numbers nut wouldn’t carry on with words so much. Honestly.”

But Jo hadn’t meant it that way. She liked to hear his (and others’) opinions, ideas, stories. Van had a way of making things interesting even when they weren’t. He laughed deeply; it was pleasure to hear. They weren’t quite real friends, though, but sociable neighbors. It wasn’t as if they spent much time together. They didn’t confide in each other, not even when their second son. Tom, was seriously injured in the Iraq war, not even when Matthew got pneumonia and it took nearly two months to get well. They’d drop off a casserole or a get well card with flowers and go one with their own business. Who they really were remained a future topic that never came up. She found Van and Francia a curious pair: she with her lacquered fingertips, classic tastes and doting motherhood; he a bit disheveled even in good suits, his tinkering and mending, his charms more intangible, less reliant on status. Jo thought she and Van might have been good friends in another time and circumstance; they had been at ease with each other in an instant.

Van was ducking back in. Jo waited, sipping. A few moments passed and he emerged again, changing position. Jo imagined it killed his back–or would tomorrow–to reach and bend and scrub like that. She wished she could carry over a ladder, climb up to help with her own broom. She could do that if she wanted; she was strong and steady. If he’d like her company and help–wouldn’t he find that strange? Wasn’t it odd she even thought of it? She wriggled her shoulders to slough off the image just as Van raised his head and looked at her. He beckoned with a momentarily free hand. She looked back into the house. Matthew was still likely reading and then he’d take his shower, get semi-dressed and fall asleep in the easy chair as he read or watched a show.

She crossed the street, drawn into the radiance of final colors of dignified trees. She located him in a shaft of clean light.

“I know, you think I’ve lost my mind, but it needs to happen.”

She pushed her floppy grey bangs to the side, shielded her eyes from a splash of sunshine. “I do not. Okay, you could do yourself in. I have to suppose this is for a good purpose.”

“Yes, I hope so.” He leaned lightly on the broom handle. “But I can’t say what.” He lifted his eyebrows above his glasses, grinned at her as if he’d captured the proverbial canary and not letting it out.

“That so? Must be illegal or virtually impossible.”

“Some might say so. I’ve long wanted to do it, but first had to finish this chore. Drier weather helps. It looks better, right? Oak and maple leaves were matted up along here.” He pointed with his chin. “The moss has gotten ahead of things, it can’t help itself. I’m torn between wanting to leave it and thinking it must be relieved of my roof. A big job for another time. Such a primitive life form that enchants me…”

“I agree. We have it inching over the walkways again. I don’t like to step on it which Matthew says is silly, it will never give up. If there’s a torn piece, I always put it back in place and pat it down with a few encouraging words.”

Van laughed and straightened up a bit, then rested the broom on the roof. His clear eyes found hers.

“How are you, Jo? Still writing haiku?”

She took her hand away from her eyes and lost vision to the dazzling light then glanced, half-blind, back up. “You remember? Is that what you call it? I don’t know.”

“Maybe. Let me see if I can find it in the ole memory bank.” He cleared his throat.”‘Night waters shift to welcome twin flower of moon.'”

“My. That was awhile back, yours and Francia’s 40th anniversary. My silly handmade card. I can’t draw much. But if something comes to me I just give a poem a try. Not often, not for awhile, either.”

“I’ve always meant to say it really struck me. I still have it on the shelf above the dresser in our–my–room.”

She felt heat pink up her cheeks. “Oh, thanks. I’m glad you liked it.”

“Jo? Where did you get to?” Matthew called from the driveway. He appeared freshly showered but his mood hadn’t altered.

“Here, talking to Van!”

“Hey Matt! A fine morning to you!” He grabbed hold of the broom again to sweep and scrub away nature’s debris. “Keep your eyes peeled later, Jo,” he said.

And then he winked, slowly, one grey eye, magnified by the lens and focused on her, the other slipping under a shutter of flesh. Jo thought it might have been a malfunction, that flickering eyelid. It wasn’t always easy to control one’s body as age worked itself into every sinew and bone. But when she looked closer, he was smiling wide as he brushed more leaves off. He seemed good, happy.

“What the heck is he up to now?” Matthew said, a scowl arising from bleariness as she joined her husband.

“Let’s get another cup. He’s cleaning up a mess of leaves and moss.”

“He ought to hire someone. I’m going to watch my fishing show. I’m not up for much more today, Jo.”

“It’s alright, honey.”

She placed her hand against his back, not to nudge him, just to let him know she was still right behind him. She was always behind or beside him or soon to be there. It was how it was. He wasn’t sick, really, not incompetent; he was just stuck in a rut and expected her to stay there, too.

Jo climbed upstairs to the third bedroom that she used for an all-purpose area since their daughter, Maggie, had grown up to work in the Netherlands. The heavy desk was against the back wall so she could look out over the yard as she paid bills or signed various cards, wrote a few letters which she loved despite having a PC. She worked open the sluggish second drawer and searched the hanging folders. There it was: “Odd Jottings.”

Scrunched up to the desk, she thumbed through the contents. Paragraphs on napkins. Quick sketches on memo paper. Little bits of poems on index cards. She had once planned on decorating a metal index box and putting in a poem-card each week. But even as she’d thought of it she knew it wouldn’t happen, not in any deliberate way. They were just passing thoughts, dreamy visions. Why should she even keep them? Maggie didn’t even know she did such things, neither did Matthew. That is, he knew but it didn’t register as anything to remember about her. It made her impatient with herself. How often had she told herself she’d take a writing class at the community center or even the college? She read a few and felt the words warm her, then put them back into the folder and away. Then she set to work on chores. But she thought how Van liked her offering enough to keep it out in view. To recite it.

As the day came and went, she thought of many things she preferred to not think about. But after lunch and doing laundry and going through a pile of mail with Matthew; after white bean soup for dinner and cleaning up and watching a series they both liked, Matthew ascended the stairs to the spare bedroom. He carried the latest library tome about depletion of natural resources in North America. He desperately hoped to fall sleep, stay asleep all night. Jo bid him good luck and looked at reflection in the half bath mirror with bland acceptance. She brushed her hair out, then drew the living room drapes, pausing halfway to look across the street. She saw the light on in the room where Van had leaned out to brush the roof.  But not him. The street was blanched silver-white as a nearly full moon rested high above.

Jo exited through the front door. Sat on the top step. Early darkness lay softly about her. She liked being outdoors as much as Matthew used to and often still did. But to him it was first a laboratory, a universe to document and conspire with or against depending on research and objectives. Secondly it was a pleasurable environment of one sort or another. For her it was a powerful mystery she lived within. That was enough.

Up on Van’s roof something was going on. He was present now, appeared to unfold something rectangular over the window ledge, worked with it beyond the window, then he was climbing out slowly, one long leg at a time. He wasn’t a compact man. Jo stood, started to the street. He’d hurt himself, might fall and how would she help him? No one else was around except for a lone dog walker moving down the sidewalk.

Now he was patting something down and out.

She hurried across the street, into his yard. Looked up at him.

“Van,” she called in a raspy whisper, “have you lost all common sense? What are you up to?”

“Jo!” he relied with equally quiet voice. “Come on up!”

“What? I haven’t walked on roofs in a long time if ever, and what’s the point?”

“Oh my, does there always need to be a major point to make?”

He stopped talking to scan the sky above trees and other roof peaks. She looked up high, too. It was a sheer night, budding with beauty as stars took their places all over.

“How do I get up there?”

“Back door, up two stairways, last room at end of the hall.”

Jo followed his directions and in a short time was standing inside a sparsely furnished room, noted a screen on the floor. Her hands gripped the smaller window ledge; she looked out and about. There were stretchy cords strung from window to something that looked like a rug.

“Wait, what keeps you from sliding down over the edge?”

“Nice jute rug I had in the basement, it grabs hold well. I tried it out first. You see it’s also attached to the window sill with bungee cords? I got it all rigged up.”

She took his extended hand, surprisingly strong grip but so was hers. They managed to get her out through the window one part at a time. Once settled beside him, her heart about dropped to her stomach. She had to cover her eyes, removing one finger at a time.

Van appeared to be in a state bliss.

The street was limned with silver and gold emanating from two street lamps and a cool drift of moonlight. The town was trying to be at rest. A teenager’s broken down car as it shimmied by, radio blaring, and then all stilled except for the murmur of the state highway beyond and far off, a train taking its load to the next stop. Trees chimed in with a brief shuddering of leaves; Jo’s hair lifted and fell about her neck. Her two-story bungalow looked bigger than she expected– it felt so small sometimes–and pretty, she admitted. She took a long breath of night air and tasted wood and leaf, moss and old shingle, and the faint but not terrible pungency of the tall man next to her.

He spoke as if far away. “I did this once before. When we moved in. No one knew, I thought, until Francia found me and gave me a tongue lashing for being so irresponsible. I didn’t think I was, but I felt guilty, anyway, for scaring her. Then the boys tried it a couple of times–this was Scotty’s room in high school– and we all kept it mum.” He hugged one knee against his chest, but she kept both of hers laid out for increased purchase. “Anyway, it’s taken me all this time to get back up here.”

Jo didn’t feel afraid as she looked over the neighbors’ homes, through the treetops. The massive moon glimmered. “I sure see why you like it. The moon feels closer, all looks better from here.”

He turned his head to her. “Where’s Matthew?”

She pressed back alarm with hand to chest. “He’s upstairs reading, hoping to fall sleep and not wake up until morning. I hope he doesn’t come looking for me…this would be hard to explain!”

Van made a huh sound, then: “He’s welcome, too.”

But they knew he’d never be do such a thing; almost no one they knew would. They watched as sweet gum branches swayed over the house. Jo felt a little like she was on a slow ship, sitting in a crow’s nest uncertain of coordinates but finding the view excellent: land in sight, heavens within reach. The breadth and width of the inky sky caught her off guard with its majesty. Her head jerked backward and she almost lost balance. It was a lot to look at up there.

“Hey, careful,” Van said and put an arm around her back. Then removed it. “So what about your poems?”

“I had forgotten about all that until you mentioned it.”

“Now you might make more?”

“Why should I?”

“It’s good to reach beyond ourselves, discover something different. Often something better.” He blinked. “Why not? Sometimes you have to move with an intuition, a feeling, Jo. You know that. It’s not all about what you can line up in columns, sort out in assessments.”

His words floated through air that soothed, found a place in her mind. “I do know.. how did you find that a part of your world view?”

“It’s not a new thought, after all. But the past week I’ve cleaned and sorted a bunch of stuff I don’t need or want. I found myself at this window, realizing I hadn’t done much that was spontaneous for a long time. It’s easy to find excuses, isn’t it?”

Jo closed her eyes, felt a breeze move across hands, face, neck, ankles. a living touch. They sat there several minutes. The silence wasn’t strained but like moving through another time and space, half-dazzled by moonlight, the different altitude.

She sighed, content. “How’s this?” She faced him and said it a bit fast. “Time floats on long wings of night, brings eternity from deep wells of stars.”

Van leaned over to her and his nose bumped hers.”See? Just like that.” He snapped his fingers and it sparked something in the darkness.

They both felt it, a rumble of warning, then an incipient delight. It was almost like the air carried magic dust like in a movie and they breathed it in. Everything looked good and interesting; they felt good and something–maybe special or smart for a bit. They just sat there a little longer until her hipbones started to cringe and he felt a stiffening ache in his back. First she entered the window, stepping down to a chair beside it and then off. Van followed, more clumsily, with her hand on his elbow. They went downstairs; he let her out the side door.

“Van, that was wonderful and just nuts.”

“I should have done it sooner. And you’re welcome on my roof anytime, Jo, and I always suspected so.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll keep it in mind, old roof walker.”

Their laughter somersualted across the ordinary street, dove into the earth.

She crept up to the bedroom where Matthew had taken refuge. His book was open on his belly and he snored for all he was worth. She turned out the bedside lamp.

Then she went down the hallway to the space that housed her second-hand desk. She rooted around for a squat candle in the bottom drawer and lit it with matches she’d filched from somewhere she and Matthew had travelled long ago. The light flickered, then caught and filled the room with hope.

There was much more she needed to do in the days, months and years ahead. She wanted Matthew to agree and come along but if he didn’t she’d manage alright. Home would always be home. Still, life was not only resting and waiting, or boarding the right train to the correct place, it was also about just getting on and going. She had forgotten the crux of that until she sat on Van’s roof.

Jo cracked the window enough to allow the barest waft of a stony-sweet scent. Winter was coming. She felt ready for the endless rain. She pulled out a fresh piece of paper, uncapped her pen, let images and words lift her into landscapes of the moving night.