Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Penny Park

If she could have avoided Marsten Street she would have, but the traffic was so bad Cam had to take the lane she could grab. It made her turn right and there was the street she tried to not use, cross, go near. It was inevitable that one day she would be corralled into its proximity. In this case, broad daylight, that mid-day blazing sunshine baking sidewalks, awnings casting heavy shadows, folks dabbing their brows while rushing to restaurants, shops, offices.

Then it came upon her, the small triangular park called Marsten Park–though that conjured up visions of columned manses and overarching, elegant boughs, of shiny long cars and women in linen dresses with floppy-brimmed hats. Now, however, it seemed closer to that incarnation. A neighborhood many invested in and it had paid off, she heard, but she’d not been here in two decades. Back in her childhood there were smudgy row houses that raucous families inhabited, sometimes two or three generations, life spilling out doorways any time of day, even night.

Penny Park, they’d called it when she was a kid. About big as a penny, her ma had said, and worth half as much. But they loved it, the kids, and some of the parents who brought smaller ones, Never mind it had one wonky swing for some years and a dented slide, with a horseshoes area (if you brought your own horseshoes), and four splintery picnic tables positioned close enough that they’d sometimes share extra burgers or frankfurters and even private info despite trying to keep talk to themselves.

Someone honked and she came to, saw the light was green, turned again since there was no choice, skimmed past the shady park. Such mammoth trees and so many more plantings the park looked foreign. She had to look again and hard. It was about empty, a small parking strip only half-full. Cam checked her watch, pulled into a spot. Parked and idled. Tapped her index finger, long tapered nail clicking against the steering wheel. She sighed and got out, shut the door. The place she had loved her life must be faced.

The first thing: play equipment painted primary colors and clean as can be– monkey bars, swirly slide, seesaws, four working swings. It took up the entire northeast corner of the triangle. That they stood empty dismayed Cam but she took a seat at a varnished bench–one of three. The day had been brutal, that Bampton case gone awry, the DA chomping at the bit and growling at her. Some days she didn’t know why she had gotten into this business of justice for all. It clearly was otherwise. But the wily ins and outs, the complex and intriguing nature of people and even the process had pulled her in from the start.

Who would have thought it? She was a pianist in her earliest and dearest of dreams. She imagined freedom from many conventions that had become part of her life, anyway.

Maybe it had started here, she thought, and pushed flyaway hair under a bow of perched fancy sunglasses. It certainly was not a family destiny, her father being a supervisor at the steel plant, her mother an overworked cook at Eagle’s Perch. But she had been a bit different, enough so that her dad said a few times a year: “How did your DNA sneak into this common stew pot?” She sometimes wanted to say that it was him, he had a far better brain than most, he had just not had a chance to exercise it all ways he wanted. But she did her own– because she’d willed it so.

A little boy ran to a swing and his mother trailed after. Soon he was pumping chubby legs so fast the swing was jerkily lifting higher bit by bit, the mother pushing only cursorily as she checked her cell phone. A half-attendant mother, much like her own, only better dressed. Cam worried he would fly out and then what? Maybe land on his feet, like she used to, mostly.

Cam and company hadn’t needed mothers much, fathers maybe less, or so they thought. They’d all lived across the street or around the corners, and after school they made a beeline for the only decent green space within arms’ reach, Penny Park. In summer they hung out until they couldn’t any longer bear the hot metal slide or smothering humidity of a Midwestern summer. They had a ball for kick or dodge ball, a found can for Kick the Can, a slingshot or two for whatever, and tangy Lick-a-Made packets saved up all week or rich butter mints snagged from blue glass candy dishes. They came there to share snacks and tales, play a game, do nothing, to hide from grown ups and maybe get into a little trouble.

Except Ben–he hung back, always with a book and a cold and sweating bottle of Vernors ginger ale. Despite the fact that the two of them lived next door, they were as suspicious of each other the first couple of summers as if they’d lived ten blocks apart. Cam excelled at games; Ben excelled at little but reading and just being outside, yet not even school held much interest. They nodded at each other after she had tried and failed to engage him in a good conversation. He watched her from behind the books and she attempted to ignore him.

But things began to change when they each turned twelve. For one thing, his father was out of work when her mother lost her job. They talked about it once briefly, a tentative, small bond over the failures of adults. They had zero allowance then so there was nothing to do but hang out at the park or sulk at their tense homes.

And that led to more chat.

“Why always the books?” she asked and plopped beside him under “his” aged elm tree. He was worried it’d be cut down for Dutch elm disease; he was likely right.

“I like what I like,” he said, scooting over a bit to create more space between them.

“What this time?”

Habits of Mammals in Spring,” he read off the cover. “Would you like to know about them?”

“Would you like to hear about my piano lessons?” she said.

“That would be a ‘no’. I am not so thrilled by your piano playing.”

“There you have it on those topics, then. But you have to talk and listen to know more about anything, not just read.”

Still, his words had stung–and did he actually listen to her practice? She tried to remember to lower the window sash in the living room.

“See, you’re the talker,” he said, upper lip curling slightly. “I hear you every day, talk, talk, talk.”

Cam rolled up a tiny bug into a leaf and tossed it at him. “That’s what we humans do.”

He laughed and batted away the leaf, laughed as if pleased by that assessment or the bug or both. It was a good sound to her–surprising. They sat quietly another few minutes until she got tired of looking over his shoulder–he didn’t move, just kept tuning pages– skimming info about beavers. It was interesting but she wasn’t going to admit it.

After that they spent random bits of time together. He explained food sources for small mammals and where good bird lookouts were. She talked about playing Bach and pleasures of the always cool Beatles and why she found them both so fascinating. But when she took part in an impromptu foot race with their neighborhood friends, he hooted at her.

“Back and forth on the same grassy stretch, that’s no dang race!” he’d yell.

“Try me–I’ll beat you before you even say ‘go’!”

Then one time the kids paused to see if a miracle would occur and Ben would join up. When he shrugged, put down his book and got set to run, they tittered among themselves. Everyone knew Ben was not a sporty guy. Cam was good at this; she won three out of five times. So when they lined up behind the pine cones, she was ready to impress him again. They got off to a good start, she was ahead by several feet, outran Sam, then Ken, then Marie, when suddenly out from behind shot Ben, his skinny legs wound up and set loose as he dashed past all, and barely stopped himself with the natural barrier of a hefty tree trunk.

What a sprinter! Cam and the others gathered round him. Why hadn’t he shown them this before? What else was he hiding? Good grief, he was faster than all of them.

Ben smiled graciously, then went back to his tree, huffing and puffing a little, face reddened. He didn’t need to prove such things, he thought to himself, but now they knew something more about him. In fact, he had surprised himself a little.

Cam slid down in the dirt beside him after a few minutes.

“You had us fooled, you prankster,” she said.

He slowly turned his head and those blue-grey eyes reached in and it was like she was staring back at slow creek water, and there was something moving under the surface. Cam felt it, an energy that frizzed and she barely caught it, it was swift, wholly baffling. He shifted, scratched his chin as he did when thinking, and narrowed those eyes as if trying to see more. Then he was back to his book on rock hunting.

“I like to run, you just never asked me to,” he said.

And that was that. They were not as before, but more than before. They walked home later talking about running and rocks, her piano teacher who was mean and their parents who were more and more annoying. He felt the dry warmth radiating off her hand as it dangled beside his sweaty one; she felt the soft release of his breath on her bare shoulder as he said “later, then”.

It was as if they had always been that way. It seemed unlikely that things could ever go back. But there was plenty of time to ponder it if necessary.

******

Cam observed the boy and his mother tire of swings and they grabbed hands to cross the street; she heard trucks bump and roar past, crows scolding whoever passed. She noted a meter maid putting a ticket on her car–did they now dare charge for parking here?–but she looked into the trees and saw only Ben, age seventeen as he informed her that he was accepted into Stanford as soon as he graduated and, of course, a year early.

They had been to the riverfront all afternoon and finally–after dinner at The Floating Cafe, after they’d browsed the shops and bought matching copper and silver wire bracelets, after they’d run out of odd trivia to trade–darkness slid over sky and onto pathways and their persons. Bobbing boats were all lit up, and decorative lights gave a festive air to the marina. They leaned on the railing that kept them safe from the swirling brown river.

“I have to go, you know that– I wish it’d all work out differently,” he said, looking down at his holey sneakers. “But we are still together, right?”

She nodded, afraid to talk. He was two heads taller than she was and she was tall, and when he pulled her to him she felt as much as heard his heartbeat, steady and a little fast. It was always steady and fast– like a bird, she thought, and that swish swish had been a reassurance, a kind of audible tether to life when things got rough. His dense, warm chest, that heart, his chin resting on her head, his strong, long arms about her. This was the way they were to stand forever. She for him, he for her.

He held her head still with his, a few fingers woven through her thick, wavy hair and then he smelled the top of her head. This spot always gave off woodsy scents, the barest touch of musky something. Maybe it was because they’d spent so many years in the forest hiking, camping, sweating, dreaming: it was part of their skin and hers was richer than his. His comfort, each inch a fine venous map that led to greater things, to hope, to the next moment.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Ben asked, pulling back to see her face. “Be reckless for once?”

“Stop. Have to graduate, then University of Michigan if I am lucky, law school, a maybe or maybe not…As if you’ve never head this litany before.”

They let the night cover their sorrow; they talked of bears and Dvorak; they walked stealthily through the streets past midnight; they heard the river run with a vast indifference and then certain exuberance. It hurt to say goodnight, as if their words were windows shutting firmly to keep out a storm but also the sweeter breezes promised afterwards.

******

It was time. Cam leapt up from her bench in Penny Park, got her car, drove away and parked again fifteen minutes later. Here she was prepared to pay to park awhile, it was Bonner Auditorium, a small venue but all shined up, one meant for important events but smaller crowds. Lectures, solo concerts, chamber ensembles, readers’ theater, obscure dance company performances–these she had attended often the last three years since her return to help her mother relocate to a condo.

Since her divorce and the need for deeper peace. Which she had not quite found or created though she was getting closer.

Inside, people were talking excitedly, milling about and greeting friends, threading their way one end of the auditorium to the other. Cam found her seat easily; she had two reserved seats for the season but her mother was in too much discomfort from arthritis, to her regret. Cam’s breath caught in her chest and she coughed, fanned her lightly perspiring face with the program and wishing they’d ramp up the AC. When the lights were lowered she bit her lower lip to keep calmer. Someone was talking on stage, then there was a spattering of applause.

“Please welcome one of our very own, the esteemed microbiologist and author Benjamin Widdstone as he shares stories of his worldwide travels and research from his latest book, ‘Promise and Pleasure of the Humble Pond’.”

Sustained, excited clapping rang out and he was there in the spotlight, the boy and youth who had avoided all spotlights. Her hands clasped tightly in her lap: yes, that same slight leaning forward, darkish hair longer than she had ever seen, hands expressive as he warmed up to the topic, his deep, melodious voice–oh, that voice. She closed her eyes; a tear loosened.

She will wait for him backstage, tell him she can finally almost play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, yes, with some difficulty–but still, she has managed it a few times, it does please her a little–and perhaps he’d like to hear it? If he has a free hour before the next plane, next book, next field trip. If he has the inclination, if he cares to recall just a little of what she did–and find out what she does now. How they both have done without each other.

She let herself look up. Ben tilted his head, turned his body to one side and as if searching the crowd he peered into rows of shadowy seats, a flattened hand cutting off bright light. He paused one beat, two, three– then nodded, smiled, scratched the close cut, graying beard on lifted chin, and then continued.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Snookered No More

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“I don’t remember any of that. I remember the way he treated us kids to sodas, each got our choice, every time. And treated us as bigger than we were, always joking and nice. How over the snooker table, light bulbs flickered half the time, there’d be at least one out and it’d take forever for it to be replaced and he’d do it, not Bud. And spicy onions on his breath. I remember how he laughed, short and loud, shot out of his body like a ball pocketed fast. His eyes were intense, happy or sad, it was hard to look away.”

I took a long swig of my beer, leaned forward, eyes on my old friend’s tanned, lined face. “Old” more than “friend” at this point but I’d wanted to see him. Catch up in the cautious way people do after so long and such changes. I had avoided high school reunions so long that I had to manage one, at last.

Jerry shifted in the bench seat. “You always pointed out good stuff, even when we were kids, that sorta Pollyanna attitude,  naive, you know? You folks didn’t get to suffer enough to know any different…” He gave a snort, waved his hasty words away as my eyebrows rose. “Hey bygones be bygones, we were friends, we are now. But  your memories, that’s not  much to retain. You missed a few things but, then, you got out of Dodge fast.”

He scratched at his grey stubble, mouth slack as he noted my crisp blue sport shirt and stone colored khakis and sock-less loafers. Should have worn the sandals. He tried to not stare at the Apple watch on my wrist, a custom ring with lapis lazuli and two small diamonds on my right hand. I moved both below the table. I’d maybe take those off tomorrow. I didn’t need to stand out, there was no reason to prove anything; everyone knew that if I was honest with myself. We all had our paths, some harder, some much better, like Jerry’s.

“I could go on, Jerry, but you wouldn’t likely hear it. Some arguments never quit but I hope you’re still not so against him. He was a mix of things like anyone. I hope to see him again, he still lives here, right? He didn’t die, I guess.”

Jerry examined his dirty fingernails. He’d just gotten off the job, had apologized for his state, after all, we were meeting after so long, but he wanted to get  there faster. A faint ring of dried sweat stained his t-shirt around the neck. I didn’t care about that but wished we’d met later for drinks at one of the new places, not here for the indigestible greasy burger and fried okra in Bud’s Bar and Grill aka Mash and Fritters. It was like revisiting the scene of old tales and petty crimes, plus I never got what tasted so delicious at the place. I liked the shiny jukebox, now long gone. I scrounged in a pants pocket for a chewable antacid, popped one in my mouth.

“How would you know what I have done or do– or not? Hello, Madison, you’ve missed the past thirty years. Gone up over the Ozarks, never came back except for funerals twice, gone in a flash.” But he gave me a kindly look as he grinned wide to show teeth yellowed by chew and coffee. “Clary was someone you had to know a lifetime to really know at all.”

Everyone here had nicknames, even me–“Mad” or the obnoxious “Madi” for Madison– but I started at hearing that one. “Clary.” Short for Clarence Maine. I’d called him by his CB handle, “Ghost Panther”, the few times we’d used our truck CBs, and like a private joke when passing each other on the street (mine was “Navy Boy”, I liked boats). So it stuck in my mind. And that’s what he’d looked like to me, pale, muscular, stealthy. Something untamed at heart.

There weren’t that many times we’d talked much, otherwise–he was seven years older than my friends and me, so there was little reason to call him anything. I watched him at the bar and grill–we kids came and went despite the alcohol. At the rundown community center where he showed kids on how to better shoot baskets or dive in the semi-scummy outdoor pool, or how to faster tie high top Converse sneakers. In the street as I grew up… even as he became half-notorious. The crafty Lothario, Snooker King, a tough fighter who stopped most of that after he broke his best friend’s collarbone, the drag racer who won more than lost and wrecked a few junky cars in the process.  But he could be attentive, good to others, that was plain to me; people just didn’t want to see. My parents, especially, would never commend him and even condemned him for the increased erroneous ways. And I still secretly thought he had more going than most. More life, more nerve to just jump in and live it.

“Well, you got Marvel in the end, not Clary, so you should have put that to rest. And you’re still married–what a testament to Marvel’s strength! I always liked her, no bull, fun to be around. Glad to hear she did become an RN–I know she’s an excellent nurse.”

Jerry punched my arm playfully. “Yeah, she’s a good one and she didn’t do too bad. I own my own roofing company and she–we– got the four kids. Plus two pampered, fussy poodles and a house that we built.”

“That’s what I call good fortune.”

“It’s a damned lucky thing, my happy ending.”

The chilled bottle sweated in my hand. I rolled it across my forehead. It was screaming hot in Missouri, a swelter that clings to your pores and dares them to leak out more sweat. It near suffocates. The cicadas were buzzing with abrasive constancy and the sky was heavy with threat of rain that wouldn’t leave the air freshened only saturated with the same degrees. I suddenly longed for Seattle, cooler, leafier, busier. Home. That comforting if at times grating silence. Waves lapping near my house overlooking the expanse of water.

“So where did Dina go? After she left?” He thumped his bottle down. “If I can ask.”

I looked away. Dina was not a topic I indulged in with people who didn’t know her. She had accompanied me to my father’s funeral and made quite the splash with her quirky, stylish dress, her fast, smart talk. Jerry had texted me that the townswomen had wanted to know where she got such clothes. Dina designed and made them. I’d referred him to her Etsy site and heard nothing more. They’re pricey. Dina is motivated to make money even more than I’ve been. Now I’m content with my work, the lifestyle I’ve built and not looking for more peaks to conquer.

“Dina is still in the city but we seldom talk. Her first brick and mortar store is doing well, I hear. I’d say it was best for her to leave and better for me, too.” I cocked my head at him. “In time, anyway. It’s been two years now.”

“Sorry, Mad, no doubt you loved her.” He leaned into the table, spoke quietly. “Sarah Dennison likely wishes you were available. She’s single…”

A teen-aged Sarah flashed before my eyes: pale blue eyes, skinny and energetic, shy. Plump lips, first real kiss. Her talent for math, a full scholarship to Southern Methodist University–but after that? Did she get what she wanted?

“Not open to returning to the past! I’m fine on my own. But I’m surprised she’s living here.”

“One marriage might just be enough for any of us… No, in California but she’s here for the reunion. She’s in touch with Marvel–they’re so different but still friendly.” Jerry’s head jerked up and he waved toward the door. I looked through the growing numbers of diners and drinkers and spotted who it was. One person only had that bright penny hair–still!–and wide smile bestowed on everyone.

Jerry shook his head. “Well, what do you know? Here comes Melba. Big surprise. She and everyone else knows you’re finally in town for a class reunion. It’s just starting, Madison Townsley, so get ready.”

Melba, Clary’s first love and first wife, I heard, had stopped at the snooker table. She picked up a cue stick, bent over and laughed louder than everyone; several people crowded about her. She beat her boyfriend a few times, I recalled, and that was that, they were in love, more or less.

The air swirled about the swamp of it all: steaming dusky air,  faded faces with blurred names, hard luck stories and better ones, rasp of insects a hum under a shock of lightning, grumble of thunder. If only the rain would let loose.

I stood up. “I’m going to watch Melba play.”

Jerry followed past the noisy round tables to the end of the room. People squinted at me; Jerry nodded their way as I avoided the curiosity. Who had I become? No one should be surprised I’d followed the family trajectory laid forth from an early age.

She was bent over, swaying bulk of her skimming the tabletop as she took aim. I counted the fifteen red balls, six colored ones, one cue ball. Just as always. All readied, taunting the player to tap or slam them away. Contact was made, crack, it shot across the table, left side pocket.

A ripple of energy shot up my back. I’d been here with cue stick in hand so often my parents at last forbade me to play: I had to study harder, had to make something more of myself, get out of that town. In the end, I got it. But what a game it was, what fun as we all shared those hours and more.

Now I owned a luxe pool table. There had been times I’d played with the same enthusiasm–she and I even played. It had given me such pleasure. But for months it has sat abandoned in the great room that overlooks Puget Sound with its carnival of  boats, the mystic orcas, reflections of changing skies above our grand, green city.

Sadness swept over me and I refocused on the game.

Melba was in her stride working the table, her adversary barely keeping up. Spectators admired every pause, each stroke, cheering or booing as they saw fit. In a short time she trounced the other woman and was ready to flounce off to her spot packed with friends. Then she turned, her body seeming to follow that red ruffled skirt that swirled about her. She bumped into me with a force of voluptuousness that had taken over her sturdy frame. Time had made the most of who she was. I held out my arms to her.

“Madi?”

“Melba.”

She tossed an arm about my shoulders and we moved through the crowd, Jerry at our heels.

“Where you sitting?” she asked, linked her arm with mine.

They found the booth at the back, ordered more drinks; hers was whiskey on the rocks.

“I was just telling my girlfriends you weren’t due ’til tomorrow, in and out for our fancy dinner and dance. How sly are you? Welcome back, darlin’.”

She clinked her bottle against mine and Jerry’s and surveyed me openly.

“Looking good, Madi,” she murmured.

“Ditto,” I said, as it was true. Her large amber eyes flashed the same. All that hair swung in a high ponytail, a flag that unfurled in the overhead fan’s breeze.

“Tell me all in a nutshell, then I’ll leave you alone awhile.”

“Wait, Melba, he just flew in this afternoon and had to drive from St. Louis, he’s tired out. Give him room to breathe, love.”

“I didn’t wait for forty years to find out how this ole buddy has been doing, settle down. But it looks like you did good, look at your handsome self, all shined up, smart as can ever. You a high paid corporate attorney now or what?”

Laughter spilled from her like a warning or a friendly offering,  I wasn’t sure which. I wasn’t sure of much here so far, caught in a time warp. It wasn’t feeling all that supportive of a need for privacy and ease. What did I expect?

“That’s right, making the rich richer. Naw, I’m an engineer, Melba, work in aeronautics.”

Her eyes widened and she whistled. “Planes, space stuff? And where’s the wife?”

“Doing her own thing…ten years and done. Where’s your spouse or whatever?”

Whatever is right. Which one?” She flashed neon white teeth, tapped silvery oval nails on the table top. “Oh, maybe you mean… Clary?” She winced but a bold smile came back on. “It’s been a long time since you lived here. I forgot for a minute. And sorry about the wife situation. If you loved her, I mean. Of course you did, divorce is a pain for us all. I’ve had three. But Clary…yeah, well…”

She glanced sideways at Jerry who’d slouched over the last of his third beer, now looking for another. A long night already, what the hell, he seemed to telegraph, so I raised a hand to a waitress who took our order. Though two was enough for me. I had no interest in inadvertently spilling my adult life story here or elsewhere on this trip. And it was stuffy there. I wanted to step outdoors to catch a breeze, then absorb chilled air conditioning in my motel room, that aging and questionable Bel Air Suites now a well reworked Motel Six.

“Madi, he’s in prison, you know that, right?”

It was like she punched me with both fists.

“What? Behind real bars for a long time?”

Jerry took drinks from the waitress then gazed at the table, a broad palm sliding over stains and scratches.

“Yeah, he’s doing time, likely ten to fifteen years.”

“What? Why?” I shook my head hard.

“Money, it all boils down to money! He burgled a place, a 7-11. Armed robbery, St. Louis. And probably more. They caught him on tape, found him, convicted him.” She rolled her shoulders back hard as if unpooling years of hurt and anger, then downed the whiskey. “What could I or anyone do? He gambled too much. Snooker became his worst enemy in the end, and pool–then cards and horses. For so long he was rode an easy wave ’til he came up against bigger fish in the sea, if you follow. And he listened to nobody, right? Not even me. Always the joker, the wiseguy and always his way.” She touched her lips with glittery fingernails as if to still them. Stop the memories. “So that’s that, ole boy.”

“I can’t believe it or maybe I can, but I don’t care to think of it.”

“That’s just how it is, Mad, it went sideways for him.”

I leaned back in my wooden chair, balanced on two legs. Clarence, Ghost Panther, Clary: he was a guy I wanted to model myself after, even if only in private. Swagger meant confidence. An easy way with people. I might also be a whirlwind snooker shark. I might become smart in all the ways I was not yet: how to fix cars, how to drink right, how to make a fire at the river so it glowered low and long into night. How to evade blame if necessary. How to fight without making a ruckus. How to hold a woman just so when she wanted to be held.

I had watched and learned a little. But the gambling and the terrible price paid…I felt sucker punched. Like the good times had been squelched. I actually had suspected I’d see him, catch up some.

“OK, enough of that.” Jerry patted Melba’s arm.

“Yeah, I should get back to my girlfriends. Sorry to break the news.  I’m glad to see you– you seem great. We’ll talk more tomorrow, right?”

When she left it  was like a vacuum opened up. We were quieter, extra careful to say less that might rock the leaky boat of the present reality. I stretched after our bottles emptied. We looked about as people came and went; now and then he’d point out someone. Most I barely remembered. His eyes were bleary and he mentioned Marvel, she’d be waiting for him and likely me.

“I’m tired out, think I’ll head to my room, Jerry. Why not let me give you a ride in my rental car and we’ll call it a night?”

“Yeah, sounds good for now though we could talk for hours.”

As we threaded our way through the dimly lit room and busy tables, people called out to Jerry and he waved; a few exclaimed my name then started to rise. I waved, moved faster, overheated, overdressed, over-informed and a little sick to my stomach.

I flung open the entrance door. Heavy air embraced me, half-smothering rather than relieving me of the lingering heat and a vise grip of tension.

Jerry whistled. “Some car! Is that called, what–ocean blue?”

“It’s a Mazda RX-8, not a Cadillac or Tesla, Jerry! Hop in, enjoy a ride.”

I stopped myself from saying it was what I drove at home most of the time. The rest of the time I drove a refurbished, finely tuned 2010 BMW. Kerry got in as I looked back at Bud’s Bar and Grill, peered into yellow lit, rectangular windows.

The cicadas were rasping their wings off. I wondered how I endured it all those years. I closed my eyes, smelled rain coming over the mountains. Heard tree branches rattle like bones.

There was so much I didn’t want to share, things I didn’t want noticed. Things were better than ever in some ways but emptier, too, since Dina had left. In the end, my life was just not like theirs, anymore. Was it ever? Yet I had missed this from time to time. Even longed for it. For the invisible traces those beautiful if uncertain times had left on me–the same ones I had tried to scour off. It had been easier than I had imagined. Go to college, get a couple degrees, get a decent job that pushed me up the ladder and marry a woman with plenty of her own talents. No kids, but hey, I couldn’t expect everything, could I? Still, I could adjust my life, discover what was missing, re-calibrate. There was a great deal I didn’t know.

“Wait! Is that…Madison!”

Sarah Dennison came toward me like she always had, swiftly, arms outstretched. long legs reaching for more ground, pixie face strangely illumined by the bluish-green tint of mercury lights in the parking lot.

“Is it really you?” she asked, a little breathless. “I just got in a couple hours ago, I called Marvel and she said–oh, hello, Jerry!–she said you two were here, so here I am!”

She placed her arms around me gingerly as if asking permission, and I gladly brought her to my chest a moment, then held her away from me. One person I  understood better than the rest. At least once.

But this was that Sarah? Sleek, swinging silver-streaked hair and so quick to speak? She leaned her head to one side, took my hand into hers.

“Madison, a pleasure once more.”

“I’m glad to see you, Sarah, such a long time.”

“It is. From Missouri to professorship at Stanford University for me; for you, Seattle,  and aerospace,  Marvel says. We need to talk.” She peered at the car, patted it. “Nice. Are you guys leaving already or going on a spin?”

“I need rest and so does Jerry. We’ll chat tomorrow.”

I beamed back at her but felt noncommittal. I was in need of more antacids and sleep and still had to run Jerry home. It was just a lot to take in the first few hours back in the ole hometown. So much felt the same but Ghost Panther, in prison. He wasn’t exactly my childhood hero but he meant something. It set badly with me. The small fire in my belly was roiling, likely to carry me into a long, restless night.

“Alright, see you tomorrow at dinner or before?”

“Tomorrow,” I agreed and folded into the car.

I dropped Jerry off at his pleasant two-story house at the edge of town not far from where he had grown up. Gabbed for ten minutes with Marvel, who was feisty and warm as before. Sped back to Motel Six, flung myself on my bed. Stared up at the at the popcorn ceiling, then took a cool shower and pulled on shorts. Studied my face in the mirror to make sure I still had a grasp of who I was. I had a mind to pack up the few things unpacked and leave in the morning. Who needed nostalgia or jolts of current reality? It was too much in one visit. I wanted life stories to unfold carefully, slowly. I wanted to hide my own longer though it wasn’t that sad, just not what I expected it to be. But, then, did anyone of us?

My nightly ritual had to be kept even in this room, this time warp. I pulled out a notebook and my drafting pen and began to loosely sketch those I had seen. Melba, flare of laughter, a wealth of generosity but eyes hard and sparking, too. Jerry all rough angles and weariness made stronger, sweeter with contentment. Sarah, beauty revealed and brilliance undimmed, her soft shyness finally undone. And Clary’s–Ghost Panther’s–face came to the fore. But it was of the past. A person I did not the least bit know had evolved. He was…older now, too,  much older, in case I forgot that time had slipped away.

How to make heads or tails of the news? On the clean white page, at least, a creature elegance rising from leanness. Eyes that delved, captured everything, committing it to mind for reference. Future acts. Dangerous capers. Yet he had been kind to me. He had taught me to be braver than I felt: a steady gaze back, a solid stance, head held up. He had given me tips on how to win some snooker games. How to withstand losing–with a shrug and “see you turkeys later” tossed over a shoulder, striding without rush out the door. He’d applauded my jacknife dives.

A person could be deeper and better than the wrong things done. I had faith in greater possibilities. He no doubt still carried some magic, had more to offer if he’d get through the misery and wake up. But it wasn’t for me to know, I conceded.

I closed the sketch book. Popped another antacid. Wondered what was on the dinner menu at the reunion. Punched up my pillow so it fit about right under my too-stuffed skull. Turned out the pearly plastic bedside light. Turned over, avoided thinking of Dina. Wondered about Sarah.

The cicadas were singing above the purring A/C, a comfort, after all. A mournful wail of a train whistle tunneled through sodden Missouri air, the same one that used to set me to dreaming as a boy. Tomorrow would arrive one way or another. I’d not often been stymied by people or places. I chose to take in what I needed or wanted then moved forward. But it was clear some of us got left behind, like it or not. I shut my eyes. It was only a quick time travel to finish up, then back home.

Ten-four, Ghost Panther, I know you’re around, wherever you are. Sorry I missed you this time. Good numbers, 10-7.

 

 

All That May Yet Remain

life-in-detroit-in-the-1970s-8 by Dave Jordano
life-in-detroit-in-the-1970s by Dave Jordano

In this case, seeing is not quite believing. He first insists it is a mistake, his mother’s name co-opted from that of a bystander, perhaps, by a rookie staff reporter. Ace scans the half-column article in the section “Out and About” that explored a neighborhood summer festival. There was a battle of the bands and one rock band on the rise, Harry and the Hurons, was headlining that date. A few folks listening to the music were briefly interviewed.

“We came for cheap drinks and hot dogs but, yeah, the boys in the bands first, right girls?” Ellen Smalley of Troy, laughed.

She brought two friends along to enjoy free entertainment and a fun afternoon in the hot July sun. Seated with Miss Smalley, center, is Bethany Janson, left, also of Troy and Candy Lister, right, of Detroit. 

When could that have been, nineteen seventy-what? She wouldn’t have met their dad by then, would she? He smooths the paper on the kitchen table and looks up at Deanna.

“You found this stuck behind dad’s old tool box by the work table?”

He has stopped by after her phone call and a cunning invitation to come over by enticing him with: “I found a surprise about mom, maybe both parents.” She stirs sugar into his coffee mug and sets it down with a thump, steaming liquid splashing over the edge. He jerks his hand away and is about to say something but she is filling her own mug.

“It was actually in a worn cardboard accordion file behind the tool box on a shelf. There are lots of things in there. I didn’t look too  much. It felt…weird, like I had stumbled on private things.”

“Well, you did. We never saw this. What else did you find?”

Deanna pulls out the chair and settles into it like a yellow cloud as her bulky sweater envelops her frame. He squints closer at the picture, then back at Deanna. He examines the newspaper’s capture of the woman’s eyes and eyebrows, the shape of jaw and chin. That hair. The mouth with barest pout.  The similarity of that mouth and his sister’s registers as a tiny twinge under his breastbone but it still isn’t definitive.

“Oh, a few other regular pictures, a couple of dad playing ball in college, I think. An early certificate of recognition for his work at the plastics lab. Other stuff, I don’t know. What do you think of the newspaper picture, though?”

It doesn’t so much strike him as their mother. “More like a relative, like family we knew but hardly talked to, lived off Third Street near the lumber store, our second or third cousins.” He blows across the coffee’s surface. “Last time I heard from them was…don’t even know.”

“It was at dad’s funeral, going on eight years now.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He looks around the spacious off-white, rectangular room. The same type of (or were they the same ones?) blue and white checkered curtains have hung here since he left for college–the  last time it was re-done. He has returned for Christmas a few times. And their dad’s funeral. The white-painted pine table is still sturdy and takes up a length of wall beneath a large bay window in the kitchen. He used to make a breakfast mess here, get unsolicited advice, practice a speech for school, fight with his sister, get kissed by his mother on the forehead, share Sunday comics with his dad and get smacked across the back of his head when he didn’t mind his manners. All right here, a time so long passed.

“I never heard her talk about either of these girls, though. This was a long time ago, even before dad, I suspect.” Deanna seems upset by the mystery.

He finds it a curiosity to survey and put in place on a timeline.

“But he kept it a lifetime for some good reason.”

“Maybe he met her that very day.” She smiles to herself more than at Ace, as if savoring the romance of such a possibility. “But she is so lovely here, isn’t she? I mean, so full-bodied and young. Man, so different…”

“If it’s even her! I’d ask her sometime when you two are sipping a glass of wine and watching one of your shows. Make it kind of casual, be nice so she isn’t unhappy you snooped around out there.”

Ace has other things to do but he had been in town more than a week without calling them or stopping over. Thus, he feels obligated to hang out. In three weeks he is to begin what he hopes is a new chapter, no longer a lab tech like his dad was before he rose to lab manager and then headed up some projects. No, Ace is now a bona fide earth sciences teacher. He wants to look up a couple old friends, get his apartment in shape. Locate the new, up and coming establishments for dining and drinking.

He feels a shade guilty about his anticipation. A shadow drapes over Deanna’s face like a veil, then it moves, exposing fine lines and eyes bloodshot from too much computer work. She was married ten years but now is back at their parents’ three bedroom house. It has no spacious back yard to redeem its ordinariness. When he walked through earlier he paused at the back door. The cement patio looks as if it’s about to cave under its charmlessness, giving in to a mob of dandelions and cracks that snake their way to the screen door. He might have to do something about this. But he didn’t return to become a big part of their lives. He doubts they want that, either. Too much time has passed between them, a swift river, taking bits and pieces of them to other destinations.

“The thing I can’t get over is how much rounder she is. It makes her look sweet. I mean, she has always had so many edges…She looks a little sad, though, don’t you think? I wonder what that Ellen girl is telling her?”

“I think you should put it back. Unless you want to unleash mom’s wrath. But I’d like the whole story, too. It might be nothing more that a random picture for the paper that dad found and liked a lot. Her youth and all.”

Deanna pushes back her dark straight hair and looks at him a full three seconds before she asks, “Why are you back here, Ace? In Detroit area? You vowed never to return. I didn’t expect it.”

“Ditto, kid, you, either.”

Her cheeky face starts to crumple at his sharpness but she has never been one to go down the first strike so she straightens her back, making her good-sized frame appear larger. Ace stifles a grin; it is a bit like old times. He leans forward.

She folds her arms across her chest. “Well, divorce has side effects, like costing too much money. Impacting state of mind. I have my sanity overall and I have my legal assistant job. I’ll be out of this house in a year or less. What’s your excuse?”

He leans back and balances on the back two legs like he used to, even though it’s hard to not teeter. “I always wanted to teach, I just never made a big thing of it since I seemed destined to be a lab rat all my life, too. But I did youth volunteer work in Philly and I like high school kids, how their minds work. So I look forward to sharing ideas and knowledge they don’t have.”

Deanna’s laughter explodes, then subsides. “I can just see it! You like to have such mastery over things. But kids aren’t controllable like experiments and processes in a sanitized environment.”

“I’m giving it a real try.” He wants to challenge her, inform her of his excellent skills but he holds steady. They are both smart enough; they both want better, even at forty and forty-five. “I want to succeed–so I will.”

She nods and lazily stretches. Then her face hovers once more over the picture of their mother who has come from way back of their dad’s tool box to puzzle them.

“Just who was she, this young woman? I have never seen a picture of her this age. In fact, very few before she married dad. She always says they got lost during moves.”

“I can’t find our mother there, really.” He’s about over this moody nonsense. He lets the two legs thud onto the vinyl flooring. “She looks like someone who really thinks before she speaks, who has all the time in the world to do things but she’s figuring it all out first. Not really like mom.”

“Mom has always lived minute to minute, especially since dad passed. She really does think on her feet–her work demands that.” She holds the paper between them so they can both see it. “Can’t you see it, hope still filling her up with dreams? Like she is someone you want to hug close.”

It takes him by surprise, the hurt of this truthful asssessment, or the lack of those qualities in her. Their mother full of affection and tender dreams? She hasn’t shown them so much of that. Love, it was –is–there. Efficient and hard-working, a devoted partner for their demanding, bright father. A reliable, mostly reasonable mother who has also had a habit of grinding in occasional spiky words. Yes, she looked more open then. Maybe vulnerable. Pensive as the shutter closed. A moment in a life they did not share with her.

He thinks he would like a copy. And then Deanna should put it back and leave it alone.

They both freeze as they hear her step hard on the wooden porch steps, then turn the door knob. Deanna and Ace hold each other’s eyes a fraction of a moment as if to hang on to this frail thread they are reweaving. Before it is frayed again.

Bethany Janson Fishel’s home-dyed dark head pops in, a skimpy wave escaping from her wide-brimmed felt hat and falling forward. Her arms are around two grocery bags. “Who parked their big ole silver truck in my driveway, Dee? I had to park out front!”

Ace stands up first, then Deanna rushes forward to get the bags, talking as she moves.

“Mom, it’s Ace here, he’s moving back! Take off your coat and sit down. I’ll get these.”

Their mother stops and turns, hands in mid-air as they’re emptied of supplies, her direct gaze made fierce by scrunched brows. He comes forward four steps and holds out his hands.

After shrugging off the coat onto a living room chair, she’s pushing up her sweater sleeves as if getting ready to attack more work or start a “play” fight. “Arnold, you’ve decided to come around. There must be news. Well!”

He winces at his birth name. She’s skinny as ever, a narrow woman with a hunch in the shoulders. She strides over as if she hasn’t been on her feet all day. Takes his broad palms into her chilled, thin ones. There is a slight squeeze, then she lets go.

“You got that new job?”

“I did.”

“That’s good. Better to be working then not. You’ll have some challenges with such a big change, not the least of which are the teen-agers!” She follows after Deanna and the bags, then starts to unload them. “Staying for dinner?”

“Not sure.”

Deanna waits for direction, then sits down. “I say stay.”

“Yes, Arnold, catch us up. I doubt we’ll see you for another three or four months so let’s do this while we have a chance.”

“Mom, it’s been ‘Ace’ since eleventh grade. As you know. And that’s a heck of a way to comment on my new job–and coming to visit you two before I’m even all moved in.”

“Now, never mind. Where will you be living?”

“Over in Royal Oak, not far from Birmingham. Small but newer one bedroom apartment.”

She clamps hands on hips, squares her shoulders. The blue hospital uniform is baggy on her. It startles him to take in the fact that she’s still a warhorse of a nurse. Her first job was before he was in school. The same county hospital for the last twenty-five years, almost unheard of loyalty.

“Have to watch the uppity factor over there or you may not cast a shadow on this street without regretting it,” she says in that edgy voice reserved for warnings or corrections. She nearly smiles. “Excuse me a minute while I change my work clothes.”

As soon as their mother leaves the room, Deanna stands close to her brother at the refrigerator. “I forgot to put away the newspaper clipping,” she whispers. “I’m taking it to my room.”

Ace stops her. “No, leave it for me. I want a copy. Put it in my backpack.”

Deanna has trouble with the zippers so he trots over to her in the living room where he left it in an ancient leather chair. The zipper won’t budge. He opens a smaller compartment, rearranges things, takes out a hardback in which to place the clipping.

“What are you squirreling away?” Bethany asks. “Looks like old newspaper.”

Deanna and Ace freeze, the clipping in his hand, her body making an obvious move to block his.

Their mother gestures her aside. “No, I want to see. Is it something you dare not share with your mother? Even better!”

She holds out her hand, like when they were kids and she demanded some small contraband.

They want to deny her access, stuff it into the pocket and lead her into the kitchen. Make pork chops and green beans and a chopped salad. But they know better. Deanna leads the way, sits on the couch, then their mother. Ace last. She turns on the floor lamp. Deanna reaches across, takes the clipping from Ace.

“I found this in dad’s things in the garage. I’m sorry. But I wondered about it so showed it to Ace.”

The newspaper clipping is handed to her. She snags the edge, then holds it close to her eyes. They watch her face but it says nothing. Rather, it says to them “private, keep out”. Her hand trembles the smallest amount. She lays the clipping in her lap, keeps searching the page, her mouth a compressed line from which more lines creep out and down. She’s whittled way down, more than before. Ace sees how old she is, sixty-seven, still working, not able to call it a day. He cannot imagine she can ever die, and then wonders why he has such thoughts. She’s fine, just caught off-guard.

Oak branches rub against the grey siding and cars stop and start on the street. Deanna’s hand is pressed against her chest through the canary yellow sweater. Their mother is so still.

Ace broke the spell. “Mom.”

Deanna grabs his wrist and he leaves it there, her hand proof they are actually back on this too-firm, nubby couch. Together despite their desire to separate from it all long ago.

Bethany Janson Fishel speaks as if she is alone and only the wind has ears.

“My, not even nineteen. That Ellen, what a gossip. Candy…hardly recall. I’m waiting for the rock band to quit playing, the lead singer to come down, sit by me. Harry, love of my life, I suppose.”

Her children are flummoxed. She tries to hide, chin-length hair swinging over her profile.

“Your father was his friend, sound guy who thought he’d go pro. He was hired for the longer piece of the road trip. He fell for me that week, too, but I didn’t know it yet. I had eyes only for Harry Starken.” Her right forefinger taps her chin. “Maybe your dad liked to remember happier moments, before he knew about us.” She pauses, each word a small stone thrown into deep water. “Before Harry died, overdose, cocaine. On the road, me left behind.”

She sucks her lower lip in hard, then lets it go slack.

Deanna’s breath is sucked deep into her. Ace feels his heart hit a rough spot and shift. Their serious father, a wannabe sound guy? Mom, in love with the Hurons’ lead singer? He can’t feature it, but there it is.

Their mother folds the clipping, presses it into Deanna’s hands. Looks them both right in the eyes, her own empty of the old barriers that have strained to keep so much under wraps. Such tenderness and sorrow, lostness and courage. Being found out. More things only she will decipher, unravel long into the coming night.

“His death is why I became a nurse. Your dad and you kids, are why I’ve worked hard so long. Have had some fine times. It all fell together.”

And then she is on her feet and moving into the kitchen, pulling out pans and pots, getting food for dinner, calling them to come help.

Ace stands up with care. He has to make certain he won’t lose balance and steadies his sister, too, whose eyes are wide with astonishment. He links an arm through hers and they join their mother. He suspects the two of them will meet for lunch soon.