Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: In the Night Houses

The first time I heard my mother’s bare feet pad down the hallway, I didn’t think too much of it. I was aware they descended the stairway. In the deep yawn of night, I was nodding over my journal, and my little solar powered, muti-colored lamp cast a rainbow of watery light. I’m a very light sleeper and Mom’s bedroom door’s hinges had needed oiling for months.

I half-waited for another bedroom door to swiftly open and Dad to call out her name, though that was silly of me. He has long slept in a diffrent room due to sleep apnea. He finally began using a CPAP machine to help him breathe correctly and–we all hoped– sleep well. Since it was working so far, I rarely heard him get up, anymore. So it was strange sitting propped against my pillows with pen in hand and hearing my mother’s footsteps. For years it was my father’s I might hear as he’d gotten up for a sandwich or shortbread cookies and chocolate milk, then to read in his kingly leather chair until he snored away. Luckily, we didn’t endure that annoyance from upstairs.

Since it was unusual for Mom to get up, I waited. But, of course, mothers and fathers can do as they please. And I was groggy–but questions bubbled up and I nearly tiptoed down to see what she was doing. I didn’t hear anything, but that wasn’t surprising since our house was big enough to accomodate twice as many people and still be about empty. The kitchen, for example, was on the far side of the glass, cement block and steel structure that was our house. Smelling the coffee in the morning required sleeping on a sofa that was a few hundred feet from it–food odors didn’t reach bedrooms. Part of my mom’s design.

The only thing I worried about was her leaving the house, but unless she was awake enough to use the security code, she’d set off the alarm.

Mom is not an ordinary person. I mean, she does all the things you’d hope or expect any parent would do–long days at her job, then domestic work at home. But she actually lives in another realm, and daily visits us on earth, I think. She’s dreamy and quirky, can be struck with sudden seemingly odd ideas. Like when she decided to build a custom treehouse in the gigantic oak that overlooks our back yard one way, the valley, the other. I was ten years old when she did that and was so excited. But it was for her idea and for her use. Didn’t she imagine I’d happily spend time there with my friends? But no, it was not to be for it was hers; not even Dad got to hang out on occasion, but he had his own space on the top floor. Seeing how upset I was, they built me a mini-dome clubhouse by the creek, complete with bright plastic furniture. Which was very cool–but it was a far cry from a treehouse.

The fact that she’s an architect–Ellie Harbinger and Associates– didn’t allow for forgiveness of her stinginess of spirit. I didn’t understand its importance until later. And eight years since it was built it’s still a top choice for her “think time” or “R and R”. I’ve been in it, sure; I just don’t stay long, not that I wanted to since getting older. The dome house came down before my fourteenth birthday. I found it embrarrassing to yet use a play house, though my friends were disappointed. We held a farewell party for it. Perhaps for our childhood, too.

So I was thinking of the treehouse and Mom as I sat in bed. I sure didn;t want her to go out decide to climb the rope ladder to her treehouse at nighttime. She’s fifty-two; she could work out and get stronger, she needs to practice yoga, get more agile. She’s attractive, and so tall she can’t help being the center of attention. But beauty and muscle strength are not priorities; brains are. In that area, she excels, if you wonder sometimes where it will lead her.

I lay down, unable to keep figting the need to sleep.

The next morning we were finishing a breakfast of blueberry waffles.

“Mom, did you have trouble sleeping last night? Is this going to be a thing now that Dad can finally sleep better?” I laughed, thinking that’d be a weird scenario, neither of them in sync yet. Didn’t they get lonely at night?

She did a full pivot, straight dark hair swinging at blue sweatered shoulders, and frowned at me. “What?No, I slept fine, dear.” Then she turned her attention back to the waffle maker, sipping her espresso.

Dad looked up from his phone. “Why do you ask, Dani?”

“I thought…well, I heard something….” I glanced at them both. Dad got up, then waited for me to finish. Mom popped a broken piece of waffle into her mouth before serving me a last one. “It’s nothing, only sounds in the night. Have a good day, Dad!”

He was already thinking of his work, and smiled at us before leaving.

“Love you–later, Erik,” Mom called out.

He lifted his travel mug in cheery salute, raced down the hallway to the foyer. He owns a construction company, but builds commercial buildings so he and Mom don’t talk business as much as you might think. In fact they are more like two different universes, and still coexist fine.

I got up and set my dishes in the sink as Mom wiped down the counter, humming to herself. I slipped by and afterr getting my backpack I turned toward her to say goodbye and when I did, caught her eye a moment. She was gazing at me or perhaps through me like when thinking hard, so I waved. She half-smiled.

“How can I convince them to finance an entire stable so I can get an equine therapy program going after college?” I asked Mel who was in the driver’s seat.

“Hold on, that’s in the far future. Just do incredibly well at university. They already know you can ride and love helping kids. Just stay passionate, they’ll get it.” She paused, then said as if lightning had struck, “Maybe you can get your own money, a small business loan for a smart woman!”

“An idea, I suppose,” I said, looking out the window at the rainy streets. And suddenly I saw my brother on a bicycle, grey hoodie loose on his slim body, face hidden as he passed in the other direction, legs pedaling hard, and I pressed my hands against the window.

“Quinn! Get over! Watch out for that car!”

But it wasn’t him, of course; he died six years ago.

“Oh, Dani,” Mel said, and she pulled over a few minutes so I could clear my brain.

******

Three nights later I was sketching an idea for a multi-purpose barn in my journal when I heard the telltale squeak of Mom’s bedrom door. I got up in a few minutes. Looking around the obscured rooms, I expected she’d hear me and say something. But she wasn’t in the living room or the library with its massive stone fireplace giving off that musky smoky scent I loved, nor the kitchen and dining room. Light leaked into spaces just enough as my eyes adjusted. I loved seeing the woods and creek beyond a wall made of glass in the living room so stood a moment, thinking how beautiful it was in the softness of moonlight. And then I felt her.

Mom was standing at the oppposite end of the room. She was looking out, too, so I began to walk toward her quietly so as not to startle her. But then she slowly backed away, turned and floated across the cool tile floor and ran up the stairs, her long ivory silk nightgown a fluid brightness. It was quintessential Mom.

“Mom?” I whispered, because to call to her, have her answer or come down suddenly seemed too risky.

There was some purpose to what she was up to and maybe I didn’t need to know what was going on. Right in the middle of the night, of all things. Nothing much, though, from what I could see. And what if she opened my bedroom door at night when I was journalling or maybe having a cry? It would feel intrusive. It would make me wonder why she didn’t trust me to either be alone or ask for her help. We all knew the temperature of things when we came home. Especially if one of us was alone. I mean the turned inward, dreadful alone. We knew to be there for each other.

When we lost Quinn after so long expecting things to get better–he recovered from a bad cycle accident, got cancer, went into remission twice, got it worse and died–all three of us feel into each other, got so close it felt like one breathing, aching human being sometimes. Survivors in a wilderness of loss. And then, gradually over the next couple years, we separated some. Went on. More or less. We were going forward or so we hoped. Yet we still think of him every day, we just don’t say it as often.

I looked in the distance at the treehouse, then at the hulking mountains beyond in black silhouette. I went to bed, fell asleep and dreamed of Gray. The one that rescued me from a kind of adolescent madness, the one that Quinn had said would become my favorite despite his unruliness. But that’s what I’d liked about Gray and my brother. I dreamed of Quinn, his horse Volt and me on Gray galloping all the way to the mountains. That’s as far as we ever get in that repeated dream–in reality, a very long way–but it’s far enough.

Mom was already leaving for work when I finally ran downstairs to grab two slices of cold toast.

“Is Mel picking you up as usual? Because I have a meeting with a client, pronto,” she said and scooped up her briefcase, high heels clicking brightly on the tile.

“Were you awake all night, Mom?”

Mom paused at the door leading to the garage. “What was that?”

“I just wondered if you were up late, too?”

“I slept as well as usual, and what a relief your dad finally is, too!” She blew me a kiss and was gone.

Mel arrived on time and hurried me out the door with one long blare of the horn on her ancient aqua Mustang. I settled in beside her and looked out my window.

“What’s up with you lately, Dani? You seem distracted.”

“I think it’s senior year ADHD or something. I can’t be focused, entertaining or joyful every single day!”

Mel gave a short laugh. “Well, you can, actually, if you try. And it’s only January, so we gotta stay on task, right?”

“Yeah, January…rain, sleet, rain, snow, rain. What I’d give for no mud when we ride!”

“True, but our beauties can handle anything, and it’ll be nicer in the woods.”

I sighed. She was right. But what about Mom? Was she becoming a sleep walker?

“Out with it,” Mel said.

“Okay–my mom is doing weird things at night. Like getting up when she’s always been a sound sleeper.”

Mel shrugged then made a U-turn too fast. “Stop it, Mel. I am being serious.”

“Look, she’s at that age, right? Men-o-pause and all that. You worry too much about everything!”

“Yeah, but she just wanders, stares at something I can’t see. I follow her but she never notices me.”

Mel waved that aside, then parked in St. Mary’s lot and we hopped out, running for the door to avoid being late.

She was probably right, I thought, but one more time and I might… just do something.

******

Everything went smoothly the rest of the week. Even the stony, rutted trails were good enough if a bit sludgey here and there; the meadow in the valley was manageable so Mel and I kept on. Gray and I were in our usual sync; I was comforted by the sturdy rhythm of his pace. I felt strong, and happiness welled up. Margot Henderson was quite interested in my help starting in spring. She suggested Mel help. too, out of politeness. Mel is not a kid person and working with anyone who has physical and mental issues requires patience. She just wants to ride– full throttle.

“Any more night adventures?” she asked later over turkey burgers and fries at Kat’s Corner.

“Not any for six nights. It must have been a fluke. Mom is consistent. Work and sleep, play on week-ends if work doesn’t interfere, daydream every minute in between. Spacey but highly efficient, you know?”

“It’s that she’s a creative type, that’s how they are. They still figure it out, sometimes they’re even spectacular. Like your mother. Mine whiles away the time with charity work and reads more books than I think is possible, but how do I know? She says she’s read four books already this new year!”

I chewed on that and my burger. Mel’s mother is a speed reader just like my mom is a speed thinker and worker–they both get their goals met.

“Mel, if my mom gets up one more time at night, I’m going to confront her. Something is on her mind, or she’s entered a sleepwalking phase. It just makes me nervous.”

“Oh leave it, Dani. Sometimes we don’t need to know what our parents are up to. I think we just need to deal with our own stuff, you know?”

I flipped a French fry at her. She caught it, then ate it. That’s Mel for you. But she doesn’t go as deep as I wish she would sometimes. She has three siblings she detests and adores, and very little weighs on her mind.

******

It had been unseasonably warm for two days. Even though I left the window open a couple inches at ten, I was radiating heat shortly after midnight so kicked off my blanket. Or was it a noise that awakened me? I sat up and listened, every fiber of my body coming awake. There was a heavy, muted strike on something. I looked out my windows into the side yard. A faint light fanned out from the house’s far corner. I made out very little. Voices, not alarming yet people talking. I got up, looked up and down the hallway, towards Mom’s room. Her door was open. So was Dad’s. I peeked into both; their wide beds were mussed and empty.

All the way down the stairs I was trembling, whether in anger or fear I wasn’t sure. Afraid of the peculiar density of night and unknown events, anger at my parents for doing things in secret that made no snese to me. My heart pummeling my chest, I slid across the slick tiles, opened and ran through a metal door that led onto our back acerage. Clearly the alarm had been disabled even as I felt it go off in me.

The ground was wet, my socks muddied as I ran around the house to them. They were standing on the deck of the treehouse, looking things over, talking or maybe arguing, as if it was nine in the morning and people could care less. Dad, I realized, held a sledge hammer; Mom, a flashlight and an ax which slipped out of her hands, and she was still in her nightgown, a coat over it.

I stood with my hands on hips and shouted at them as a few raindrops spattered on my face.

“What are you doing up there? What is going on here?”

They were startled by me, looked over the deck railing of the treehouse and gave me a look that seemed to say, We have this under control, go back to bed, stop bothering about things.

They stood in a mute solidarity that intimidated me a moment.

“Mom?”

She swung the flashlight my way then held up a hand in a gesture of self defense. Both hands fell with a soft slap on her thighs. “Aw, Dani, not right now.”

“Dad!” I yelled.

He put down the sledge hammer and came to the deck railing, leaned over. “She’s finally had enough of it, Dani. She’s been thinking about it for a good year and is done with it.”

Mom rubbed her forehead wearily, entered the treehouse, lit a candle.

My mouth fell open. Her beloved treehouse that she designed, that they built to last a lifetime? And if not for me, then maybe a grandchild one day…

“I’m…struck dumb…” I said, a lump gathering in my throat.

Mom poked her head out from a window and said, “Come on up, dear, maybe it’s time to talk.”

******

There was the candle, there always is a candle that burns if anyone is there as the sun goes down. It’s for light and warmth of atmosphere, but it is also lit for Quinn. The long flame wavered in a breeze that carried more rain; it cast a yellowish light upon the walls in slinky shapes across our rounded shadows.

Mom pushed the dark auburn hair from her face and met my eyes with gentleness, her own brown ones a familiar hue of earthiness. “Yes, I saw you a few nights that you discovered me looking and thinking it all over…. I didn’t want to talk about any of it, Dani. I had to make a decision on my own, make my peace. The treehouse came to be in this place near the time our Quinn died. It has held great importance, necessary with its solace. I needed my own comforts. The solitude it afforded me, the refuge it offered. It has given me much for mourning and recovery. But now…I don’t need hideaways, do I…”

Dad linked his arm through hers and they sat closer together on the worn yellow and sage Ikat rug. I sat on alittle desk chair made of knotty branches, Mom’s design, their joint crafting. I glanced about at handmade cups and boxes, other items in their places on the built in desk. The blue glass pencil and pen holder. A small tapestry of birds and grouped botanical prints. They had done much for the interior, but that was long after its orginal build. Then it was sparse, empty of ornament. It had held only my mother’s sadness and dreams. Her prayers, likely, although she likely kept them inside herself. But in its past design and its present, it was radically unlike the clean sharp edges of the impressive house we lived in, which she’d designed and they’d built when I was two.

This was another sort of home. Sometimes I felt it had selaed her within it, taken her from me. But in time I saw it as her healing place. And it became a comfort to see it there, whether or not she was in it. It was part of our larger sanctuary of family though it held secrets. Part of my mother’s heart.

“Why would you be done with it now, though? Why not save it for the future?” I asked, trying to grasp what she really meant and wanted. It seemd too much.

“Now you’re leaving us. More change, another transition.” Her voice petered out as she looked down.

“As well you should, my girl,” Dad added.

“But only for a few years and I’ll come back home, I have a plan–“

“The point is, I really don’t need it any longer. It was selfish of me at the start to claim it as mine for meditation and fun–but then it became necessary. It became a monument to loss, to Quinn…It is past time to create new from old, or let the old be. We all have the urge to learn, take on greater projects. To live bigger, I think. And hopefully better. I want to be full of the present good times and tough ones. I need to stop dipping into the past, see where time takes me next. Open more doors. Close others.” She turned first to Dad then to me, eyes glistening. “I think we all should let go of this. My treehouse is a symbol and not needed now. We keep Quinn in our hearts. The treehouse must come down–and be repurposed elsewhere.”

I nodded as much to myself as her. Dad kissed the top of her head, hugged her. I saw the labor in her decision, how she had pondered it for long by herself. And I was on the verge of melting into a pool of emotion due to words amd feelings bursting open in rich damp air: their loving ways, marvelous peculiarities, their vision. Strength. My parents.

How lucky had we been? Quinn and me, ending up with these people as our guides. I’d always felt guilty that he had to go, my big brother who was always off and running but kept me in partial confidence, some corner of his life, in the beautiful hoop of his love. He’d lived almost as long as I had now, so far, I realized. And I could carry on with my life; he’d not be mad if I released some sadness, but pleased I didn’t hold back growing up.

“Well, are you satisfied now that you know what kept me awake? Are you alright with t his decision I am making?” Mom asked.

“Okay, so you’re dismantling it? But not with a sledge hammer or ax!” They laughed a bit. “Yeah, I will get okay with it.”

Dad said, “We’ll be careful taking it down, of course. Maybe we’ll hold a ceremony for its being put to….rest, huh, Ellie? Maybe we’ll save it in the pole barn until someone else needs it.”

Mom said, “Or maybe start over on another piece of land…?”

I immediately thought of the stables, equine therapy. How might I reuse the treehouse there? And then thought, Another house no longer needed. Will they build a new house for only themselves?

“Just put that idea aside, Elllie.”

“We can donate it to a park, Erik. I do have plans all figured out in my head. I want to create a garden out here, one with archways and secret doors, a place where grandchildren might roam. Though we might manage a tryst in the maze we design. Then there’s the glass house I’ve always longed for, with a few stained glass panels handmade by possibly me, so I will need topnotch instruction and….”

I drifted away. Stared at candle in the center of the treehouse, its brilliant flame casting a dancing golden light about the one room. On us. I had my own plans, yes. We had between us such dreaming and planning and hopes for the future. Quinn would approve.

The room was filled with my parents’ intimate laughter. I stood and impulsively bent down to kiss their cheeks. They pecked me back. I let myself down with the swaying rope ladder. They needed to enjoy the last days and nights in the treehouse. I would miss it. I hoped they waited until I had left for university. But Quinn had long departed. And I was in search of my own country of happiness, to make another sort of home for myself.


Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Spoken, Unspoken

teenager-72-2 photo by Jeurgen Teller

What would she tell him and what would she keep to herself, she wondered as she trotted along the well-beaten path. Low branches snagged her sweater and bright flying hair. Wild blackberry bushes grabbed at her ankles. She made note of where they were so she could gather the last ripe offerings. How many Lil had harvested in late summer and still there were more. They hung on until the very end, fat with life, earthy and sweet. Stubbornly hanging on, those last berries. Stubborn like she was. And Quinn.

Lil was looking for him, zigzagging through the woods, up and down gentle hills but she was running from Ray and his words. Their father, more or less. He had it in for Quinn now and that meant likely Lil, too, in the end because they stuck together. The last of his words still rang in her ears.

“If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be a futile tug of war!”

It wasn’t a new threat, that his dominant role would insure authority. Yet the way it was said and when could mean little or much, and this time it was a warning she knew to heed. Quinn had shrugged off confrontations since he’d gotten a lot taller than Ray. If not as big otherwise. In fact, that was another thing Ray said a lot—Quinn had better grow up more if he planned on talking back all the time. And cut “that damned hair” or Ray would do something about it for him.

Lil pressed a palm to her forehead, swiped away sweat and stray hairs and something with wings that got away in time. She slowed her pace, calling out his name now and then. It was a lot of acreage, twenty acres and wooded for the most part, especially when you had to search. Quinn was fifteen, twelve months ahead of her, but he acted older, went his way as he pleased. To be honest both went their own way since their mother had died three years ago, but he’d be gone for a couple days or more, camping alone or staying with friends. She had bitterly argued against his taking off many times. Said he should take her with him, anyway.

“Why do you have to leave me here with him? He gets riled up and his mood turns sour. And he acts like I’m the only one who can make a bed or chop wood or simmer a pot of stew when you aren’t there to help us. I’m suddenly indispensable. Right in his line of vision like I’m some quarry. Well, maybe not quite that bad but still…”

Quinn always said, “If he ever hits you or anything else I’ll have to kill him.” He gave her that dramatic look beneath the fall of his hair, deep blue eyes going black.

How much he had changed, she thought, and yet not at all. Just tougher beneath his creative, pensive ways.

“Come on, you know it’s his words. They’re like rocks from a pile he hordes until he wants to throw his weight around. Ray can act mean, then he isn’t, anymore. You know, hot and cool.”

Quinn would lower his eyes, give her a quick hug, shake the hair from his face and say, “Yeah, but sometimes I have to leave before I lose my mind. Before I remind him again that Mom would never talk that way. He’s just privately a fool with a fat public job, he’s the one who needs to grow up–”

“Try to come home at night, though? I hate being in my room by yours and I can’t tap out a message on the wall because you aren’t there like before, any time I want. Lying there half-blind, listening to Ray snoring across the hall, muttering away. It’s worse when I’m alone. It makes me so want Mom back…”

Quinn calmed. “I can’t always have you with me, Lil, you know that. We just do guy stuff, we’re up too late and you have school.” He glanced at her. “I know I do, too, but it’s different for me. You were born with so much more potential.” A wry smile.

“Don’t be impossible!” She threw him a playful punch, he fended her off and they headed outdoors to Eagle River to forget the way things were. To take in unspoiled air, watch for beautiful, stealthy deer and name birds on the wing. Hope for a glimpse of the rare Sierra Nevada red fox, more silver than red one time they saw it. A lucky break, or a wilder magic.

Their talk was such a tired talk, anyway, repeated often. And she tried harder to hide her hurt from him so he wouldn’t feel guiltier, because it was true he had it worse with Ray. He took the brunt of all the grief and anger their mother’s death had poured into the man. Never mind that they had their own.

Ray was not their biological father, turning up two years after she—Surprise! Here’s Lillian Grace!–was born and their real father left with some stranger for parts unknown. Their mother was mostly okay with that, she’d said, in the end for the best, and then she met Ray in town one summer. Things rebalanced some, though he was more impatient than their own father if a steady man, a good provider, as she  let slip from her thoughts behind his back. Then she got sick  doing her own job, and left him on his own. Ray never expected to have to raise kids this way. Without the woman he adored with a doting if faulty love. And there they all were, three alone together. Except Quinn and Lil were a team, after that much more so.

It stung Lil deeply that her brother could ever leave her behind, though she understood he felt harassed, and he was older and a boy. As if that gave him extra rights.

The loamy river scent filled her nostrils as she ran. She thought of what Quinn always implied–that she’d finish school and have a chance at college. That he would not. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. Their mother had had high hopes for them both and Quinn was just as smart. Just not as motivated to learn from school books. Not these days. And Lil wasn’t that clear what she wanted to do. But she did know she didn’t want to be a nurse like their mother, catch a terrible sickness from patients, end up dying too young.

She felt a wave of relief as she lightly panted, feet slowing. There were glimmerings of reflected light on Eagle River, just beyond a scrim of leaves starting to slip off  their greenery and put on gold and rust. Surely he had to be on this stretch of the bank, another favorite area. He hadn’t been at the dock or the stony ridge at the inlet. By then Ray had stopped yelling at her to come back; she’d known he wouldn’t try to follow her. A week ago he’d hurt his knee during a fall from his truck bed. He’d unloaded a half cord of wood for their wood stove and somehow toppled. It had been one more reason why he’d steamed at Quinn, who had of course taken off in the middle of it, having heard more about his hair and friends.

It had started as usual.

“That hair will blind or strangle you one of these days, it’s always in your eyes or hanging around your neck. You need to clean up, Quinn. Get a job after school. And also leave that Wilson girl alone, she’s not in your league.”

“My hair is none of your business and it’s ridiculous you make a big deal of it. And what would you know about who’s in my ‘league’, as you put it? It’s clear you don’t think I’m good enough, just say it!”

Quinn had stomped off, gotten his bike, stirred up the dirt and dust. Lil helped with the wood. It was no big deal, not really hard, she just wished Quinn was helping her stack it so they could exchange a look, get the work done faster while Ray moaned on the couch, frozen bag of peas clamped on his knee. In two days it was better but he still limped about.

This time, though, Quinn had just wanted to go fishing. He was anxious to take off and was waiting for her to get home. As usual, Ray had things to say first.

“Your brother got caught with the Wilson girl today, I heard.”

He said this as soon as she was dropped off by her friend Carol and her mother and entered the house. Like he’d wanted to drop this bombshell for her ears despite Quinn standing there, too. She nodded at Quinn, eating cold macaroni and cheese from a plastic container; he tossed it on the counter and it slid, fell into the sink.

“Don’t talk about Anne.” The fork in his hand was pointed toward Ray, emphasizing each word. “And don’t imply I did something wrong.” He turned to Lil, who stood in the kitchen doorway, eyebrows raised, half-smiling. “I talk with her before and after school–you’ve seen us, right?” He tossed the fork into the sink, put the leftovers away.

Lil shrugged. “And? So?”

“Nothing, he just likes to yak at us.” He lowered his voice. “But I did get a crappy grade on that world history test. That sucks, have to do a re-take.  But now I’m going fishing. Want to come?”

“Sorry about the test.. No, not yet, I have homework. Maybe in a half hour, but then there’s dinner…”

“Let him start it, he knows how.”

Ray looked around the living room corner where he sat at a small desk paying bills. “What’s that?”

Quinn grabbed his fishing gear and left by the side door, urging her to join him. And she should have right then–didn’t she want to hang with him more? But the door banged shut and she went to her room to work on Algebra. In fifteen minutes, there was a knock on her door.

She said, “”I’m busy, Ray, homework.”

“Sorry, but we should talk.”

She ignored him, kept working.

“It’s about Anne Wilson and Quinn.”

Her pencil hovered above the paper as she considered. Was he going to just complain to her, gossip as ever, then go on his way? Or was it serious?

Ray Leger managed the historic, expensive hotel on the edge of nearby “wine country heaven” and he had long, sometimes variable hours. It must be a day off or he’d go in later, be back in the wee hours. Ray got to hear a lot of stories being the big manager there. Everyone had info to swap about residents as well as upscale visitors. The Wilsons were a family that recently moved there after vacationing in wine country for some years. She didn’t know what the parents did but Anne was popular in school now– smart enough, chatty and sporty. Lil liked her alright but from a distance. She’d been surprised her brother found her that interesting.

Lil got up to open the door. At least Ray never just walked right in, he gave them that.

“Thanks, Lillian.” He looked around for her blue antiqued wood chair, pushed off her robe and sat. “I’m hoping you can persuade your brother to stop seeing this girl before there’s more trouble. Mr. Wilson came to see me today at the hotel and he’s worried about his daughter’s reputation.”

“Really? Doesn’t he know we’re a family with a good rep? Didn’t he know and accept you before when they came down as tourists? Didn’t Quinn and I get introduced to Anne by her own mom? In fact, Mom helped out when Mrs. Wilson was ill with–”

“He saw them smoke together today, Lillian, before school.” Ray leaned toward her, his hands splayed on his thighs, feet planted on the floor. “Pot, you know. That’s not good.”

Lil inclined her head, frowning. “What? Pot? You mean Quinn doesn’t even drink, but he smokes pot from time to time and that’s the whole nasty situation?”

“Well, Jud Wilson is a chemist or something–he knows about drugs, all the affects. And he feels pot is super bad for teens and doesn’t want his daughter mixed up with it. Plus, there’s the hair issue.”

“Almost all of Oregon smokes pot, Ray. It’s legal. Where has he been?”

“They’re from Utah, originally. I think they lived in Arizona awhile.”

“Oh, they’re religious, maybe… might be Mormon? No,  that can’t be it, he and his wife love the wine here.”

“I don’t know about all that. They’re not liberal, no, and not everyone is here, you know.”

“Well, Anne should make her own decision and that should be that, right? She needs to discuss it with Quinn and her dad. We don’t have to deal with it all.”

“Wrong, he said he doesn’t want her to see him again. And he was very put off by his hair down his back, said it’s not what he’d expect from my kids…and Anne has other friends and Quinn should back off.” He spread his hands wide. “Made it clear. And I will not disappoint long-time associates….”

“How rude!” But Lil bit her lower lip hard, blinked a few times. Where was her mother when she needed her? They were her kids, not his, really–weren’t they, still? She would know what to do. Really, his associates?

“But worse, he’s bound to tell the law. You have to be 21 to buy marijuana, you know, just like for alcohol.” He shuddered ever so slightly. “And my hotel cannot afford any bad press, not of my kids not doing the right thing. It reflects on me, after all, then it gets out and it’s bad for business. It has to stop now. But he won’t listen to me!”

“Quinn already knows about being seen smoking with her?”

“No. I didn’t get that far. But they–parents and Anne– are coming over tomorrow night. Luckily, they were busy tonight. Gives us time to talk, think things out.”

Lil got up and paced. “Actually, you want me to break it to him so you won’t have to face off, right?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Thought you’d be concerned, too.”

“Or were you concerned about your job? You know he smokes. I have a couple times and you have, too, I’m sure! And you like your wine wine, drink at the hotel bar sometimes after work. I mean….both are common here, so isn’t it that this might somehow ruin appearances, us teenagers who can’t seem to toe the line?”

She felt disgusted, done with the conversation. Let him fight his own social battles and deal with Quinn himself. It was not her problem.

“No, not entirely. Maybe that’s why he isn’t doing as well in school the past year or two, have you thought of that, Lillian? Maybe he’s too stoned to care.”

Well, maybe our mother died and we still want her here, have you thought of that, Ray? she wanted to shout back. But she just sat on the edge of her bed. Saw the late day sunlight seep through blinds and paint thin bright stripes on the hardwood floor. Her feet were cold. Her hands were almost cold. It was going to start raining every day and she’d be outdoors less as temperatures dropped. Quinn and she would be trapped here with this man who didn’t even know them…well, a man who watched over them but lacked the skills and love their mother had.

Had his own worries and frustrations, sure. Hard to hate him for any of it. His own loss. Like hers, but different.

Still. She let out a long sigh.

“I do care, Lil, I really do– for both of you but he sure won’t hear that. Maybe he’ll think things over if it’s your voice saying it.”

Lil got up and went to the door. “You could be nicer to him. And you should go now. I’ll think it over.”

He looked at her without wavering long enough for her to feel pinpricks of tears. Who were they for this time? Him? Or as usual, for herself? And for her almost twin, Quinn?

But she left the room first. Ray followed a few steps, the felt the familiar sad emptiness as she bounded toward the front door to go warn her brother of impending complications.

He couldn’t stop himself so he yelled: “If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be one futile tug of war!”

******

Lil parted the heavy branches and there he was.

“Quinn!”

He was not fishing. He was in the river, clothes still on from what she could see. Eyes were closed tight against the world. Looked like he’d churned up the river bed. His long hair streamed over his shoulders. He must have heard her but didn’t speak. It scared her, his being so still, and she slipped into the water, too. Stood near him, unwilling to disturb his reverie further.

And for a perfect moment, she saw their mother. In his features, in the way he stood so quiet with calm face tilted toward the muddied, swirling surface. How she loved it there, fishing or swimming in it, playing “catch” with her dog, Jersey Girl, or teaching them how to snorkel and ride rubber tubes downstream after it rained and the water ran faster.

People often remarked that they looked like twins, Quinn and Lil. That they took after their  graceful mother rather than their disappeared father who was tall, mammoth-shouldered and walked heavily and confidently like the lumberman he’d been.

They both had some of her for always.

“I know,” Quinn said, “I know.”

Lil waited.

“All of it, Anne told me. Don’t ask why I jumped in, just wanted to. It feels good.”

His eyes were still shut. His body was moved a little by current that ran swifter there. They both held their ground and she shut her eyes, too, just to feel it all with him. Chilly and warm as currents altered their courses; soft and strong; familiar and strange with its power.

“Okay, ” she said.

“It’ll be alright, Lil. Anyway, I know a couple other girls– Anne isn’t the only fish in the river. And I don’t like to smoke that much so stop worrying.”

She looked at him then as his eyes flashed open. He grinned at her, grabbed her arms and dunked her; she dunked him right back. Soon they were in full skirmish, laughing and gasping, swimming out of each other’s grasp. They finally gave up, fell into each other as they scrambled and slid on the muddy, stone-embedded river bank, water streaming from every limb and their dirty faces. When they reached the flatter grassy part, Lil and Quinn collapsed under a tree, more happy.

A few yards away Ray stood watching, recalling the past. Ache filled him. How he wished he had some of what they had, was welcomed into that circle as he had been when they were small. He wanted to remember her with them now. He took a step forward. But it felt too hard and he turned back to the house as the two teenagers got on their feet. And saw him thread through thickets of blackberries, then limp through cottonwood, alder, maple and fir that stood tall in a dusky autumn haze–this place that was now shared by three.

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: This I Can Tell You

 

I found the past today, your zest and stillness,
the sturdy early years and in-betweeness.
Now you’re three quarters grown, still present
more or less, despite a bit of steel in lip,
a drape of walnut colored hair, a flutter
of eyelids, your face a study in pallor and shadow.

These obscure a teen-aged life, its secrets, until
a smile creases the standard blase position.
Words can appear like dewdrops or lightning:
ideas, feelings, a pronouncement, a kind of poem.
I pay heed, branch to bright leaf, age to youth.

Remember how easily you played and sweated?
Danced and pretended with my necklaces, scarves?
And memorized the properties of plants, liked insects,
revered high desert creatures, shared your drawings
or whatever made you mad–it all mattered.

I saved up those times when you still
found my hand, offered wildflowers, songs.
Your heart has ached, become strong in life’s vagaries;
kept company with humans, wildness, imaginings.
A thrum of mystery has gentled sadness, fed hope.

I have been glad to act a fool, to hurt for and hold you.
Still invoke angels to do great work with you.
I am nearer than you know as you sit with
daybreak and midnight and mine the depths
for wisdom that reveals greater truth.

Like water and salt, granddaughter,
the element bravery resides in you.
Like seed and starlight, love and faith,
your life will reach far, forge its way.
I will be here if you somehow forget.
Speak my name. I will remind you again, again.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Walking the Rocks

Columbia Gorge, Cascade Locks, misc 231
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

He recalls his brother used to walk the rocks
in bare feet, leg muscles bunched and
hair long and loose, head tilted up to sky.
Heavens were unbearably far, earth a burden.
They made a fifteen year journey from
childhood to adult but it seemed beyond time,
was their time, separate from the slow footed pack.

No one dared deny the larger stories,
how his brother could fish with his hands,
call fox from its den and elk from the
shadows, conjured from perfection into fields,
alert yet perplexed. And girls in his dreams
whispered apologies for not finding him sooner.
Many people followed him into morning, past dusk.

Or this is what was believed and some say
imagined, but they didn’t know all. How he
investigated variables, lived outer limits,
puzzled out planetary maps and knew the arc
of a symphony of stars. It was trying to
be the younger, to desire a man’s wisdom,
be radiant as moonlight and tough as hide.

Stop desiring, big brother showed and said,
just live it, meaning do a thing, don’t pine
for it so now this is what second brother does.
Those days are half-erased when they both
would sling rocks and drop secrets
into undertow of the aged, roiling river.
He, the one left, walks rocks, runs fishing boats.

But his brother went up mountain to build a
hideaway between salmon bones and bear claws,
has turned contemptuous of gravity’s ties.
But he is no longer innocent of loss, for
he has abandoned his only brother, left the scene,
gone so far that smoke signals no longer rise and speak.

Lessons from Cottage Life

Coanes’ Cottages, the faded wood sign indicated, a dingy white arrow pointing the way. After a long car ride from mid-to-northern Michigan, I was ready to tumble out and gallop down the dirt path to the lake shore. Dad opened the trunk as Mom gathered up a few stragglers in the back seat. I deposited my suitcase at the door of our rental cottage and waited. Mr. and Mrs. Coanes emerged from their own cottage, dressed in the usual matching plaid shirts, greeting us with a flurry of welcoming talk. I said on cue, “Hello there, nice to be here, thank you for having us” and was thus briefly released from other required social duties.

I ran through long-limbed, shady trees and dry grass stubble, arms flailing, legs reaching, breath rushing though me until there was the same old dock before me. The lake spread out from the shore, a shimmering mirror on surface, deep and clear just below barest green-blue waves. It was rimmed by deciduous and pine trees standing close to one another, tight against gusty storms that often swept off mammoth Lake Michigan a few miles away and Canada beyond that. The calendar had already been turned from August to September so it was far quieter than summertime’s high season. A few diverse trees on the other side bore leaves in process of transformation, green to gold, red to orange. Just the way I liked it.

It was the time we tended to visit the Coanes’ Cottages,  after their busy vacation season ended and kids were back in school. I vaguely recalled them from church; my parents had known well when they had still lived and worked in our hometown. And then they retired from “good jobs” as Mom indicated, and part-time pleasure became a full-time business. By early to late fall we could stay in an unclaimed (I guessed free to us) cottage which to me far better fit the description of a cabin. It seemed a kind of luxury to me to be there though I had stayed at other lakes, for other reasons (performing arts and church camps, friends’ summer homes). The homely but decent-sized cottage, cheerful fire in the fireplace when nights turned cool; the old log walls and wood floors emitting the musky smoky scent I loved–it was a fall reprieve from our already hectic city lives. The decor of the habitat was primitive and basic to me even as a young teen, but its simplicity soothed me, reassured me with its longevity and sameness.

My parents weren’t so much true outdoors people so much as general science lovers and nature admirers. Even Dad didn’t fish or boat much (he liked tennis and bike riding) though most other people came in droves to catch abundant bass, rainbow trout, perch,  pike, whitefish and more. And also to go boating, swimming, windsurfing, water skiing, to name a few. And that was only in summer. Winter held plenty of attraction with fun activities like ice fishing and ice boating.

I understood that the Coanes were different from my parents’ other friends, and also my friend’s parents. They preferred a pared-down sort of life, in sync with the outdoors all year, a far more rugged life. Mrs. Coanes held me in thrall as I shyly observed her. She exhibited such energy and strength, a pervasive independent attitude. Though this was a bit like my mother, Mrs. Coanes routinely fished with success (we’d eaten the catch many times) and even hunted deer; she tackled the same heavy work as did her husband. They had ruddy cheeks and calloused hands. Mrs. Coanes didn’t fuss with make up or bother calming her curly, silvery-brown mop of hair. I thought it curious that she and her spouse dressed about the same–long sleeved, plaid flannel shirts, baggy jeans or old khakis, laced leather boots, even in summer. From a distance they were nearly interchangeable when they had their caps on. They seemed to be perpetually in a good mood, easy to be around and full of stories about game or fish they got, the customers they had met, the changing of the seasons–and good books they had read.

They also played bridge and knew much about science, art and history. After dinner we often hung out at their cabin or they came to ours. I skimmed my novels or the cottage’s crossword puzzle magazines while the four of them played bridge or Michigan Kitty or Scrabble or checkers (I might  join in the last two). I listened to conversations about our town versus the lake life as well as my parents’ various engagements and our large family. They didn’t have children, an noteworthy fact to me, the youngest of five. I learned that they both had worked at Dow Chemical Company–it was the main employer of in Midland, Michigan and though they’d enjoyed being company scientists, they loved this life more.

I tried to imagine my parents owning such a place and failed–surely not Dad with his tuxedos as conductor for concerts or playing in string quartets, and Mom with attendant elegant dresses or her work as an elementary schoolteacher. But they had other sides to them. Mom had grown up on a farm and was not at all averse to physical work–her energy seemed indefatigable. Dad loved to tinker with cars and repair things. They both camped for many years with a pop-up camper and enjoyed the relaxation it brought.

But during lake visits and while staying with the Coanes, I saw them anew at times.

I learned Dad greatly enjoyed the water and loved to sail. He put on swim trunks and joined Mr. Coanes on the small sailboat buzzing with excitement.

Mom shouted after him, “Put a lifebelt on! You could capsize and drown! Don’t go out too long or far away– I want to be able to see you!” Her nerves were not hidden though her face appeared calm soon–or taut with anxiety just beneath the surface.

Mrs. Coanes tried to reassure her but it didn’t do the trick. Mom would jump up from her camp chair, walk along the muddy shoreline and flatten a hand against forehead to shield her eyes from sunlight. She tracked the sailboat’s progress.

I’d swim awhile, dog paddle deeper and be carried out by chilly, lapping wavelets to the floating dock. There I’d dive off the buoyant wooden square again and again. Pungent scents of lake; the sweet, crisp air of early fall! And Mom wasn’t worried about me. I was close enough, she knew I was a strong swimmer. But Dad was disappearing around a peninsula with Mr. Coanes, off on a small adventure.

“Why don’t you swim, Mom?” I asked.

It heretofore hadn’t occurred to me to ask. She was in her fifties and I somehow had assumed that, like most women of the times and that age, she just didn’t want to get into a suit and be sopping wet while in full view of the public.

“I don’t like water,” she said, scanning the distance. “Never have.”

I thought about that. She daily took baths, of course, fast ones it was true but she never had mentioned a dislike of water. She washed things, she watered the garden, she bathed us kids when we were little. Did she mean she didn’t actually like getting right into it awhile? Hard to avoid when bathing. I thought this most peculiar. And one thing I liked about being close to her was that she was the sweetest smelling person I knew, even her breath.

When Mrs. Coanes had gone elsewhere I got more nosy. “So–why?”

“I just don’t like how it feels, being doused. I never take showers, you know, a quick bath in tepid water. Or a sponge bath–don’t look at me like that, that is how it often was growing up! You recall I get up before you all do to get ready, and there is a line when I get out.”

“Well, so you feel you have to hurry?…but is there one real reason why? I mean, did something happen that was scary?”

“That’s the reason why: I don’t enjoy water,” she said with quiet exasperation and got up to pace the shoreline again, hands stuffed into pockets of her attractive Pendleton wool plaid jacket. I noted her sturdier casual shoes beneath a lighter tweedy skirt.

It made no sense; it bothered me. How could a person not like the way water slipped over skin, soft and smooth and refreshing? A bath was one thing but a lake….they were full of fascinating life. Viney weeds could suddenly wind around legs, true, and blood suckers met in the muck were gross. But toe-nibbling fish were okay. I knew Mom had a real appreciation of earth sciences, had studied them in college and often talked about geology and etymology. But she had never included water life in her enthusiastic fact-sharing, either. And I still didn’t quite know why.

“Hey Mom, stop worrying, Dad is a good swimmer and he’s with a veteran sailor.”

But she had to be afraid of water; she acted worried about his safety. I tended to find my mother fearless. Even if she hid a few anxieties, she tried to faced things head on. Perhaps that was what she was doing by letting him go ahead on the little boat each year, just staying watchful rather than becoming a little hysterical. My mind wandered–did someone she know actually drown? Did she come close to it? Did she get doused with water from a farm hose by one of her many mischievous, maybe sometimes mean brothers?

I felt as if I was seeing into their lives from a different angle, with more open eyes. And I also felt somehow less confined to childhood’s real with the bits of new knowledge. What else didn’t I know about them? I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for much more.

Mom shrugged off my words, then tossed me a tolerant smile, as if I couldn’t begin to understand such things. Mrs. Coanes returned so I grabbed a towel, happy to get off on my own, to doze and dream, get a decent tan. Then Dad and Mr. Coanes edged back into view so I sat up again. Mom waved and jumped about as if she hadn’t seen them in days. I sat up. Dad was at the helm; he was sailing the boat by himself. Yes, it was a small boat but there was something about his hair ruffling in the wind, the honeyed sunshine on his elated face, arms and back strong and that easy joy so apparent. My father, set free awhile. Free from endless labors, from even family, from public expectations. It was Dad in the midst of water and wind as the boat skimmed the brilliant teal blue lake. He brought it in nicely.

Mom restrained herself as they finished up. She gave Dad a beach towel to dry off. He was alert, excited–my often taciturn, tired father was a joyously revised one. I congratulated him on his outing and Mr. and Mrs. Coanes noted what a natural he was at sailing. Mom, smiling easily once more, slipped her arm through the crook of his and they walked back up the small hill to the cottages.

I knew what I was going to do the next day: get my chance out there on that sailboat. I had had a taste of sailing at camps and longed to sail more, like Dad.

But that night as the adults played cards, I went down to the lake and sat on the end of the dock. The waves slapped against earth and dock in the sweetly comforting way I never failed to miss when back in the city. Frogs and crickets and birds sang and chirped. I listened for loons, those strange beauties. And an entire sky opened itself to me like a magic kingdom, moon like a beacon, even a harbinger of very good things to come. If I felt a passing pang of loneliness, I imagined another teen sitting across the water doing the same as I, feeling the same tender thrill, that sweet anticipation of an entire life ahead.

Those early autumn stars stirred and settled themselves in the swaths of another night and I imagined them like pinholes into heaven. I propped myself on forearms and tilted my head back to observe them in their true glory as twilight gathered more darkness. Such a perfect, confounding universe, so many questions to ask and answer. If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that nature was my companion and would be my inspiration and solace my whole life long. I would never feel entirely bereft or lost with nature all about me.

I understood some of why the Coanes left our small city far behind, and why Mrs. Coanes simplified her life. Looking back she was a quiet pioneer, forging her own path in the early sixties when many women wouldn’t have dared–except perhaps, other outdoors women or athletes. How fortunate I was to have known them and to have enjoyed their hospitality. To learn a little about water’s powers and that far off country of grown up life and marriage.