Wednesday’s Fiction: Trial by Henry

Corbin never once felt a simple passing desire to have or even hold a cat. His aunt had had cats, numbering past a half-dozen, she didn’t really keep close track of them. He certainly didn’t bother. His visits were all about his cousins each summer. He enjoyed the boisterous company of two boys and one girl who lived the country life on a small farm. Corbin lived in a tidy cottage in a small city three hours away with his school teacher mother, and a month’s visit was an exotic vacation. He began to wait late winter for the thaw and then forsythia and crocus and finally the first intoxicating waves of late spring heat that heralded school’s imminent closing.

At Miller’s Farm there were three kids, a father who was his uncle– who actually talked to them straight up– and an industrious, sturdy mother, his aunt. He loved his aunt but he sometimes loathed the cats she adored. Mostly he was avoidant though tried to be neutral, which wasn’t so hard since they roamed outdoors and made themselves useful. But they were known to creep inside to wreak havoc now and again. Every now and then, though, he met up with one under sudden circumstances, as when he daydreamed in the hayloft. His body half-lift righted right off his cozy spot as the crazed animal jumped on him. The large black and white mouser swiped him on the nose, leaving it sore, oddly itchy and bloody for hours. That took a few days to heal and left a deep, small scar. had he resembled a mouse or bug as he’d enjoyed his rest? Did the cat lack the common sense required to avoid a boy’s enraged smack at its vanishing tail and behind? Corbin from then on was fully alert when he saw a whisker or a tail or heard the barest echo of a meow. He usually got at least three scratches a summer, anyway, and a nip or two at bare ankles. He washed and washed them. Aunt Lou covered them with snug bandages as he was convinced he’d die or go delirious from cat fever. She only shrugged and patted his back.

“You’d run if you even saw a cat shadow,” Marty teased, holding one of the creatures out to him.

Marty was heading toward burly at twelve; Corbin ran sometimes from him. But the cat scrambled out of his cousin’s arms to seek whatever it was he sought.

“Naw, not true, I just avoid their claws and teeth, which means keeping my distance.”

“I bet when kittens come again you won’t even want to pet one, you never do, not even the fluffy sweet ones,” Fran sniffed as she passed by.

Ott laughed, gave him a raised eyebrow. “Cat hater, huh?”

“They don’t like me!” It was as if he was committing a crime to not like–much less adore–felines. “I like your pigs fine. I like the chickens, mostly, and Clarence the horse–and goats the best. Lots of stuff.”

“Goat Man!” Marty shouted and grabbed his arm to give it a shake, which was a good sign as they were all headed to a field and he was never left behind. Corbin was a good pitcher.  They played ball awhile and climbed trees and the topic was forgotten for the time being.

But when the next batch of kittens did come, Aunt Lou tried and tried to get him to cuddle a tabby and gave up only when he shrank way back, stifling embarrassing tears. Later she apologized but shook her head at him, as if he harbored some strange streak in him. But he was her only nephew, her only sister’s son; he was a good one, she and her husband, Ronnie, agreed. Good for him to be out of that city.

But that was the thing he did not look forward to when he visited his relatives. Everything else was so different and fun it was hard to say farewell after July 4th. His mother came to spend the holiday, which included a delicious pig roast, more bonfires and a spectacle of fireworks for starters. After three days or so, they drove back home.

And the cats did not mar his memories, they were no longer an issue. He was satiated again, full of the warmth and simple happiness that a kind aunt and uncle offer, and the bond that is built when cousins sleep, giggle and freak out in small tents all night, gather eggs for sunrise breakfasts, see night decorated with a gazillion stars and trees loom and shimmer with firelight, and also when hunting squirrel and rabbit (not his favorite but still) and suffering a lick of skunk spray (they had unbelievably lived to tell of it–afterwards it was a small legend around those parts). The sizzling thunderstorms were something that resonated in his mind forever, too, taking over the landscape, the house vibrating with it differently. It all marked him in secret ways.

Out there spectacular forces reigned. The cats were a footnote. Growing up changed some things. But not the essence.

******

“Fran, you’re really doing it!” He held the phone between cheek and jowl as he finished wiping down the counter top after dinner.

“I am, it’s taken me four years to save enough for this trip and to take the time off. Two weeks of heaven along the Seine and exploring Parisian haunts and wonders I’ve read about so long.” She sighed with delight. “But I’ve an issue I need you to help me resolve.”

“Ah.” He often got these calls from people, mostly family, sometimes friends. It was as if he was their helpmate in a pinch–being single, childless, pet-less and living a quiet life teaching at the university. As if he had not only spare answers but spare time or cash or whatever else was needed. “I can’t water your plants from this far but I would take you to the airport, I guess. Depending on day and time.”

Silence. He could hearing an intake of a long breath, and a brittle tapping as her long fingernails got restless atop the coffee table. Fran had grown up to be a successful business owner, cupcakes and specialty cakes, and he often wondered how long it took to get frosting from beneath those pretty nails. But that was Frannie, full of contradictions he always liked. She lived an hour away but they got together every two or three months and there were the calls.

“Out with it,” he said, rinsing the sponge, tossing it into its holder.

“Okay, then, take Henry for me.”

His laughter was fast and rich. Of course she was kidding. “Okay, what do you actually want?”

Silence again. He imagined her frowning, eyes narrowed. “Take Henry. That’s it and please don’t reject the idea out of hand. He is not one of those bad cats, you know he is a prince, and you and he get along. Overall.”

“Henry– here? You have to be joking, Frannie. I would no more have a cat here than I would–well, invite a crocodile in! You know I distrust cats, I do not have the nature to sympathize with their ways, nor inclination to change my view. I can bear them now, but only just. I–“

“Yes, yes, Corbin, I know they scared and aggravated you as a kid. You’re now an adult, and I’m your cousin and I have a critical need. Corbin, this one time! Mom would rather not as her gout is really acting up and Dad, also not great, said he’d just turn him into the fields to fend for himself–“

“Henry can make his way out there fine.”

“No, he’s an indoor cat only, you know this.”

“Fran, I have enough going on with my classes and I am dating a little and I still wear a blasted two-inch scar on my forearm after all these years.”

“But not your nose or chin or ankles. I am asking you because I can’t really spend extra money or incur the risk of germs at a pricey cat hotel, and I really have run out of options. No one else is able to help me. I leave in three weeks. Paris, Corbin.”

He knew there was no way out of this one. He truly wanted her to go on her trip, she deserved this beautiful vacation. But what did he do to deserve Henry? How could a cat-loather welcome a cat? She was foolish to imagine he could do this.

He felt the heat of her desperation, too.

“Alright, I’ll give in this once for the sake of family– but you owe me, big time.”

She screeched, they made arrangements, said goodbye.

Corbin stared out the window, hands in pants pockets, full of regret. The cat was not his family. Why couldn’t she take ole Henry to Paris? Henri might have found love, just stayed on and on.

******

Henry was becoming gargantuan at just nine months–even as he sat (in that detached way of his sort) snug in a corner of the sun room. This Corbin had forgotten, the weight and bulk of him. And he looked similar at a glance to another type of cat, with ginger-colored tail about nearly a foot long, a torso lengthening to a couple of feet, and that Sphinx-like head perched atop bright chest of white. His back was mottled white and ginger, his paws mostly white and huge. Corbin thought those paws could climb mountains, and held an image of him stalking all that passed within ten miles of nose and ears. It was wild, that’s why; it had to be. Frannie admitted it had been feral the first weeks of life, than climbed under her car and camped out, even took a ride underneath the frame once to her horror. And that all made him hers.

She had worked to socialize him and had been moderately successful, she said. Henry no longer felt compelled to attack in a savage manner as it had the first four months. Corbin had met the beast a few times, greeted it with a wave that betrayed a flicker of trepidation–he didn’t turn his back on him. In response, the fledgling cat had regarded him with snobby disdain, barely sliding against an ankle their last short visit; Corbin had been prepared, so didn’t jump. But he only dared let his open hand run over his sleek back as he went out the door. Fran told him this give and take indicated they had acknowledged and even welcomed each other and so all was well.

Well, she was the amateur cat whisperer while he was a bystander with self-interest as primary.

Henry turned away from Corbin’s stare. Instead, he watched a fly buzz at the window, suddenly leaping three feet high to deftly smash it with a paw. Then he watched it writhe on the wood floor before batting it about and giving it a cursory sniff.

Corbin grimaced and left the room. Time to make his own dinner. The cat might get his can opened in a while but he must not disturb the brazen hunter.

******

It was 5:45 in the morning and there was an annoying scratching at his bedroom door. Not that cat already. His “Intro to Medieval Life” class didn’t begin until ten. He’d been up late reading Owen Sheers and his head felt clogged with cotton after barely four hours out in. He turned over and pulled a pillow atop his head. A thump commenced at the door, one-two-three thumps. What was he doing, throwing his body against the door? For what? Pancakes and sausage? That was what Corbin liked on Thursdays, it was a happy habit. He turned over again, threw the pillow at the door where it slid down into a yielding heap.

“Not yet!”

He watched as a big cat paw reached out and snagged the edge of the pillowcase, pulled it closer through the crack. Not that the pillow could squeeze under there but the sheer gall of that! The case would be sliced by those killer claws. He got up, composed a fierce face, opened the door fast and Henry ran downstairs. He smiled to himself , returned to bed.

At 7:00 the thumping  commenced once more. He stifled an urge to yell. No sense giving in to an animal that was no taller than his shins. It was only a cat, hungry is all. He threw on his sweat pants and descended the stairs.

Henry sat on the dining table, tail swinging off the edge, and the thought of cat germs was too disheartening. He grabbed a bright pink emergency spray bottle and lightly squirted the leonine body with cool water. Though Corbin backed up in anticipation of a frontal attack, it worked. Henry leapt like an acrobat, up, up and out and landing on his feet, then sprawled in repose, looking at his host without blinking. Corbin started on the pancake mix, heated up a small skillet for sausage and brewed coffee and smiled. Sunshine poured through the window above the sink and the cat was lying on the floor by the door. Score a first point. Maybe he would let him out later into the back yard. Just for a feline look-see, a taste of the real world.

 

One third of a sausage was added to cat food. A tasty bribe worked wonders with creatures. Henry liked it so got a tiny bit of pancake which he ignored.

Corbin left for class early. Best to let cats inhabit their cat solitude. He had the relief of people awhile.

******

“Corbin? How’s my Henry?”

“He’s asleep by the fireplace though there is no fire. It is nearly spring.”

“He’s probably bored. Do you talk to him? Is he acting depressed?”

“Good grief no, he is fine, he’s napping. How is Paris?”

“Divine!”

Henry yawned, stood, sidled over to him and the phone. Corbin did not offer him a chance to hear his owner or to speak, so he appeared to eavesdrop. The cousins chatted a few more moments. Before she could tell him to give Henry a hug, Corbin hung up with a cheery goodbye.

“Your mistress misses you. Now go lay back down, tiger.” It half-scared him to hear himself talk to a cat. He tightened his lips into a line line and got busy doing chores.

Henry tilted his head; his ears twitched before he briefly leaned against the human leg, then streaked across rooms, hunting something Corbin could not identify as anything at all.

******

Henry was missing. This occurred to Corbin around bedtime. It had been three hours since he was last seen. Did the cat sneak out when he took out the garbage? Cats cry out when they want to be let in, don’t they? Like dogs. Let him hunt insects–he seemed good at that–and root around for grubs and such. He continued to read students’ papers, engrossed for once. At 11:00 he headed for bed,  remembered the cat. Shrugged. He sank onto the mattress, turned on the reading lamp, reached for his pillow to fluff. And got sliced by a swift sharp knife.

He held the left hand with the right, close to his chest, blood streaming. Henry lay back and groomed himself. The blood was more a very fine trickle, but the small gash was open and red as he raced to the bathroom to get a clear look. He swabbed it with alcohol and found an old Band-aid, all the while cursing softly at the mad animal who had usurped his pillow, And supported his belief that he and cats were essentially enemies. As before-not capable of being friends.

Despite his cooling anger, he had a quiet talk with Henry.

“You cannot sleep here. It is my sanctuary, not yours. I own this house, you are a guest. Not even a paying guest. And you cannot scratch me. If you must be here, you absolutely must get way, way over there. Or on the floor, yes. I prefer you to get out but don’t want more violent confrontations.”

He picked up the cat with both hands–he was so heavy it felt an effort– and clumsily tossed him on the other side of the bed before another wound was incurred. Henry gave a protest, jumped off the bed and padded to the armchair which he occupied instantly but not for long. He looked about, found no more victims, and slipped out the door. Corbin got up to shut the door tight, leaning against it.

“Little monster!” he said to the darkness.

The light was turned off. He did not sleep a long time; even his face covered with quilt, just in case. He dreamed of hot dirt and hay, of cats’ tails like shadowy snakes on walls and mice scampering for their lives, his feet following them.

******

In the morning, they greeted each other with the barest nod. Henry’s was more a twitch of whiskers as food was offered. Corbin dashed off to class and was glad of it. Only for Fran. Never again.

******

On Sunday they sat outside as it had begun to feel like spring. Corbin held a tall glass of iced tea despite a chill and hint of rain on the breeze. But nature was fast transforming, clusters of daffodils a bloom, two robins zipping about with songs to spread. He had a world history magazine on his lap, unread.

Henry was  dazzled by all that lawn; he chased whatever had wings or tiny legs, chewed on grass and flowers and gagged a bit. He scampered about the edges of grass as if he was playing tag with another of his kind. For an hour he ran about and showed off that lean long body and shiny fur, then cleaned himself thoroughly, more like preened. He had to be fixed, didn’t he? He drowsed under the oak tree.

All this Corbin viewed behind sunglasses. He was delighted to wear his favorite warm weather attire, sip chilled tea and he wished he’d invited Cecelia over. But not with that cat here. At least not unless he behaved better.

Henry scampered up a tree in search of feathers but no luck, the bird had other plans, flew off. He navigated a half-slide down.

Corbin shook his head. What a predator, an alpha cat. He drank to the beast– but ho hum, what a lazy day.

******

Corbin was sick. Not a hangover, not the flu, sick with something big enough to make him want to lie down and die for two days. Might have been the lettuce, where did that come from? Did the FDA forget to test that field? Farmers, he thought, ought to be paid more but be more careful. What would Uncle think? Or was it a common student plague? He hung his head over the toilet bowl.

Henry lay on the bed, dozing. He was getting hungry. He was also waiting for Corbin to come back around, things to be normal. He got up, sauntered to the bathroom, lay flat upon the cool tile floor and watched, listened, waited. He returned to that spot after running downstairs to get water from his bowl and lay his head on two paws until Corbin glanced over at him.

They stayed put awhile.

******

Time passed and they were both in bed, Corbin with his arm flung over his eyes, Henry with his body curled up on the pillow next to Corbin’s. They slept–Henry took breaks elsewhere–and said nothing for another 24 hours.

Finally he resumed teaching. The cat sat in his beautiful way on a window ledge and saw the man leave, and liked everything else after that; it entertained him an hour or so.

******

“Corbin, I am on my way to the airport, darn it. Mom isn’t handling things well since Dad’s bleeding ulcer sent him to hospital so I’ve cut two days off. Home tomorrow. My brothers are so far away!… isn’t Paris far enough? We’ll get some dinner when you collect me at the airport. How is that Henry?”

“He’s fine. Sorry you have to return now, and to hear about more health issues. I need to see them more. I’ll be at the arrivals curb.”

She gave him details and he hung up. 

He felt a slight spring in his step as he prepared a dinner serving for Henry. Soon: once more alone. Then he ate his turkey burger and salad, even offered a bite of meat to the cat, but Henry was so picky. They finished, cleaned up and the less-wild feline sat calmly until Corbin took a seat in the sun room to sip a coffee. Corbin reached to pat the furry head and Henry began to purr very softly as he trotted along, tail swishing.

Corbin whistled quietly, a thing he enjoyed. The cat kept sliding a glance at him. It occurred to Corbin that he might like to sing, too, but was too circumspect to do that. He soon was distracted by a tidy line of ants that made their way across the white painted wood floor. 

******

“Henry, this is it, you’re now going back to where you belong.”

They were in the dining room where Corbin had paid a few bills and Henry had chased a fly until it gave up and then ate the whole thing. At least Corbin thought so– he looked away at the last moment.

Henry meowed a little, something he did at times if Corbin spoke, more often if he was hungry, wanted to be outside, or was bored or heard a weird noise or for no discernible reason. He raced to Corbin and,with an elegant slice through air, landed in his lap. Corbin’s arms flew out and he leaned back so that their weight was just balanced on two legs of the old oak chair. The cat rubbed his head on his chest and forearms, purring.

The other chair legs it the floor with a thud. “My gosh, stop leaving fur on me, not dignified behavior,” he said, arms still hovering, hands flapping.

But Henry settled on his lap. They paused like that until Corbin picked up the silky body and held him close just a second. Released him. No damage done but this was the end of it.

“Okay, let’s get that Frannie.”

******

Breathless and waving, she rushed to her cousin’s sports car, face rimmed with weariness and wide with happiness. She looked livelier than ever despite the long flight. He got the luggage. She grabbed Henry’s cage from her seat and sat with it on her lap.

“Hi, you two! How is my Henry? I so missed you–you would have loved Paris!”

“Take him next time. He was pining away, bored, irritating and needy. Back to the cupcake shop with you both! But we got by.”

She laughed in relief and murmured to her cat.

He looked over at Henry who gave him a good stare with a slow blink. Corbin slipped the car into first and took off with immediate speed. Henry gave a sharp meow then purred as he ran his rough tongue over Fran’s pearly fingernails.

Mrs. Hemming’s Broken Pot

Photo by Willy Ronis
Photo by Willy Ronis

If it hadn’t been for the mini clay flowerpot falling from her windowsill, they may never have come close to her, but it narrowly missed Henry’s left foot. Shards of it scattered and bounced on the street; a piece lodged itself under Lena’s bicycle tire as she came to a halt. The purple pansies–three flowerets–landed without fanfare.

Henry was sixteen, hanging out at the curb, impatient for his finals to be done and summer to be fully loaded with sunshine and freedom. Lena, three years younger, had ridden her bike to the store to get sweet onion and potatoes for hash their mother was to make with leftover corned beef. She was just returning. Tate, aka Tattler, eight, had been picking at a scab on his left elbow. He kept an eye on a gathering of ants that was about to swarm a tidbit of salami he’d dropped for that express purpose.

Tattler ran over, stood beneath Mrs. Hemming’s window and pointed his grubby index finger at her.

“Wait ’til my ma hears about this! A pot on that narrow windowsill? About killed us!”

Mrs. Hemming poked out her pale face, then faded back into shadow again, grabbing her big black cat. She didn’t like people looking up at her. She wanted to be the one looking, and spent countless hours each day watching cars cough and speed along, bikes slip between pedestrians and vehicles with a brringbrring of bells, the hectic lives of husbands and wives. And those children who were forced to go to school plus the ones who got to take a day off for a cold that wouldn’t quit, so they leaned out their own windows and made faces at her if she stared too much. The teenagers intimidated her with their carrying on, loud tossing of words, their gauche laughter and groans dominating the airwaves. Sometimes, if they or anyone else awakened her from nap or nighttime slumber, she had an angry word or two for them. Henry and his siblings had been admonished to pay her no mind.

“Tattler, enough.”

“A pot! That’s the third time since winter something has crashed down from her third story window. Careless,” Lena said, parking her bike and kneeling to look at her tire. “But… I guess no harm done.”

“I’m telling Mom. She’s a menace.”

Henry gave a sharp laugh. “Big word for you, shrimp. The old lady is bored, probably. Maybe she bumped into it. Or Black Velvet pushed it over when she sat down. You know she’s not right or she’d be out and about like everyone else, have a life.”

Henry picked up the shards after two cars whizzed by and there was a lull. He dumped them into Mrs. Hemming’s trash can and looked up. She was still absent, but he heard her cat, Black Velvet (they named it as it looked quite plush), cry a few times, as if the fallen pot offended her, as well.

Lena trudged up the stairs with bulging mesh bag in tow. “I’m going in to give these to Mom.” She turned back to Henry. “We should take the flowers, replant them. Better they live than die.” She had a soft, pained look on her face as she glanced at them, limp and forgotten by the road.

Lena was always saying dramatic things. She was usually level-headed and Henry liked that but there were times she was so much heart and soul he wanted to run for cover. He liked things that made sense. He was into drawing but that made sense, too, the perspective, depth; shapes and colors changing white space.

“Henry.” Lena turned to face him, her wide eyes pleading. “Please?”

“Why me?”

“I have to take this food into Mom and get an iced tea.”

He frowned at her hard. Lena went inside and slammed the door.

“They’re dead already, leave ’em,” Tattler said as he lay down to better scrutinize the ants at work. “This meat smells gross.”

Henry crossed the street with a dismissive wave at his brother.

“Don’t go!” Tattler called after him. “Lena tries to make us do stuff just like Mom.”

Henry craned his neck to get a better look at Mrs. Hemming’s window–only scrubby grey emptiness was there now–and then picked up the bedraggled flowers. He looked around for something to put them in and saw a discarded paper coffee cup a few feet away. It was clean enough so he tucked them in and dashed between a red scooter, a battered Ford truck, and a very fast bike. He thought he heard Mrs. Hemming but when he looked again all he saw was Black Velvet.

He could see his mother raise their own window sash.

“Bring those poor flowers in and set the table. And tell Tate to come take out the trash.”

“I’ll take out the trash and Tattler can do the table.”

“Henry. Now.”

After Tattler took out the trash and Henry set the plates ’round the oak table, their father got home. They filled up on hash, their own green beans and fruit salad. No one mentioned the pot falling; it seemed unimportant as their father told them about another lay-off at work.

Afterwards, Lena carried the battered cup of pansies to the back yard. Henry followed to see where she was planting them. Instead, she took them out and nearly cradled them.

“You’d think they were babies,” Henry laughed. “Put them over by the African daisies.”

“I’m leaning towards putting them in another pot. And maybe taking them over to her.”

“Why? She dropped them.”

“Did she?” Lena’s blue eyes fixed their powerful gaze on him. “I think Black Velvet tipped them over. She doesn’t usually put flowers out there. Maybe they needed some air and light and the cat sat next to them and they fell over.”

“You’re suddenly the good neighbor? We’ve known she was there all our lives–well, for almost ten years–and she has never spoken to us except to tell us to quiet down. She sits there every day, rudely peers at people, keeps track of where they go and when, who they hang out with, who moves out and in. Drops stuff! Remember the used plastic fork and knife with paper plate that sailed down in spring? Dad picked those up.”

“I guess you’ve kept an eye on her, too, Henry.” She got an empty green shiny-glazed pot. “That’s her life.” She scooped out potting soil from the big value-sized bag, spooned some in the pot, added the flowers, then more soil.

The narrow rectangular yard was a carnival of colors and shapes, bees and birds. Their parents worked hard on it every year, planting vegetables and flowers, building it up and diversifying. The spiders and other creeping things were in heaven. Henry and his family sometimes gathered at a picnic table after the sun went down. He knew he’d miss all that when he left home eventually.

Lena was patting the soil down, her thin, dark blonde hair a sheer veil across her face. She held it up to Henry for his approval so he showed his admirable teeth in mock appreciation. But the pansies did look more than decent. Tattler opened the back screen door and let it bang a couple of times before he closed it tight, then sat by his older brother.

“Looks good. I know you think we need to take it march it back to her.”

“What? No way!” Tattler banged his knee.

Lena’s face lit up. “Yes! That’s what I wanted you to say–not you, Tattler, Henry–I know you don’t care. Perfect. Let’s go.”

“What will Mom and Dad think of that? What if she’s…you know, a little scary?” Their little brother had more bravado than either of them but he was often cowardly in the end.

“I don’t think they’d mind us doing that–they belong to her, anyway. How scary can she be? No one has complained except to say she’s a loner and odd.”

They had been in the apartment building to visit a few friends over the years, but not up to the third floor, to the door number that was noted on Mrs. Hemmings main entry mailbox. But there they were, just like that after a lifetime.

They looked at each other, Lena’s eyebrows rising and falling. Henry rubbed his chin and sucked his lower lip in. Tattler punched the doorbell twice, two sharp rings heard beyond the door. There was a peephole and they all stared at it. No sound came to them at first so they waited in uneasy silence. Then there was shuffling along the wooden floor and Black Velvet meowing tiredly as if it was a bother to pad alongside Mrs. Hemming to deal with a nuisance.

“Saw you out there.” The muted words seemed to emanate through the keyhole. She had a low voice, a little scratchy. Was she bent down to it, speaking into it as if it was a telephonic device? “Go away.”

Lean bent over and talked back through the keyhole. “Mrs. Hemming, we have your flowers.”

No answer. Black Velvet mewed louder now, scratched the door.

“The ones you about dropped on our heads!” Tattler offered.

Henry stepped forward. “If you’ll just open the door a little, we can slide through the flower pot. We fixed them for you.”

“She’s not going to open her door to us,” Lena hissed at him. “She doesn’t even know us. Let’s just leave them.”

“She knows us,” Henry whispered back.”She sees us nearly every day, I’ll bet you.” He knocked lightly on the door. “Please open so we may give the pansies back. We know you didn’t mean harm. They fell, right?”

Stillness.

“Gosh, Mrs. Hemming, open up, we’re almost actual neighbors!” Tattler stared at the keyhole, then started down the hall. “I’m leaving!”

Henry hesitated, then touched his sister’s arm, signalling time to go but Lena looked intensely at the door as if she could will the doorknob to turn. He couldn’t believe she was going to wait but that was how she was when she had an idea accompanied by big feelings. Sure enough, she bent down to the keyhole again.

“Mrs. Hemming, I just want to tell you we have a wonderful garden. I could bring you vegetables. Maybe. I’ll check with Mom. I love your pretty black cat. We even named it Black Velvet. I see you at your window, too. I even wave, you know that, right?”

Henry made a noise in his throat, a harrumph sort of sound. He didn’t wave. Well, maybe on holidays if no one was nearby.

The cat stopped meowing and pawing at the door. They began to think the woman had left for somewhere else, her room to get away from them, to her television corner–did she have one?–to distract her from two young hooligans who were bothering her. Maybe she was nervous, even scared.

Lena put the flowerpot down by the door, the purple pansies nodding their lovely revived heads with the movement. The two of them studied the worn wooden door. There was a hook on it that must have once held a plaque or a holiday wreath. Something.

He chimed in a last thing, “They’re in a new pot, green and shiny.” But it was feeling stranger to yak at a closed door in a dim, empty hallway to someone who didn’t care.

Lena leaned her shoulder against the door jamb. “I’m sorry…about things. If you’re happy to have the flowers back, maybe put them on the window sill so we know…”

Henry tugged at his sister. He knew she was disappointed even though it would have been surprising if Mrs. Hemming opened the door even a hair. She had been apart from others so long; she was aged enough to have pure white hair wound into a fat knot on top of her head. No one did that, anymore, they cut it all off. She was bent over from a painful back or from hunching up at the window all these years. Just that much he could tell from the street when he saw her. He had heard from his mother that volunteers for the elderly shopped for her, even took her out if needed but he’d only seen that happen once when she had pneumonia last winter. He was amazed she’d returned.

They ran down two flights of stairs. Mrs. Hemming just didn’t want to hear from them, didn’t care about the flowers or their efforts. She liked being left to the companionship of Black Velvet. She couldn’t face the world, he guessed. Maybe it had disappointed her, maybe one day she had gone outside to do an ordinary errand on a blue sky day and something terrible had happened right before her or she’d lost her way and panicked. Or her husband dropped dead before sixty and that was that for sociable living. No one seemed to know, everyone had a different story when asked. And no one really cared about it one way or the other, now. Or her.

They burst through the main door and into early summer air, light sweetness replacing dusty, clingy smells, that cave-like feel. Lena went into the townhouse without a backward glance and was met by an excited Tattler. Henry sat down on a step to call his friend. It was surprising, what they had done, and not altogether good, he thought. They might have made things worse.

The friend’s line was ringing when he saw a slight movement at the third story window, the waning light flashing off a windowpane. A hand grasped the green flowerpot of pansies. It was placed inside, facing the wide open window, a safer spot. They looked lively up there, so colorful. Black Velvet jumped up, took her post near the pot. It all felt right and good. Henry ended the call. Maybe he’d grab his sketchbook.

One of the two narrow window doors were partially closed against a cooling breeze. But Mrs. Hemming reached out and made the smallest salute to the dusk, to Henry, that empty, ancient palm suspended as if waiting for more from the quieting street, the tired and misunderstanding world. Then it withdrew once more. She had seen him. And he had at last seen her.

 

Rescued by Rilke

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Saturday night, the rain less a deluge and more a tuneful patter. I am sitting with my grey tabby, Dickens, and reading poets Denise Levertov and Louise Gluck and just finishing a perfect poem, “Autumn” by Rilke. And the phone rings. I ignore it. I am reading the four stanzas for the fourth time because they break my heart in a way that floods me with tenderness, even joy. I want to feel it completely. What can I say? I’m a therapist but my inclination is toward mysticism. The beauty of life was shaken up long ago but still I see it and reach for it.

The phone keeps ringing, jarring the quietude, until the voice mail takes over. I read again each line, then close my eyes. Dickens sleeps or pretends to as rain drums on the awning of the window. It is the kind of night I wait for, when everything is comforting. Meaningful without being hard. All I need is a mug of tea and a shortbread cookie so I ease myself off the couch, Dickens stretching gracefully, hind legs to front paws.

I stop at the phone on the way to the kitchen and check the voice mail. Nothing. I rarely answer the landline but I can’t give it up. It is my business line, the one that fields after-hour calls from the office, intercepts fundraisers and records appointment reminders. The kettle boils as I read a few pages of Levertov, then add a tea bag that releases peppermint, cinnamon, and ginger, along with catnip and other delights. Dickens will poke his nose into the cooling steam.

I am settling down with Hirsch, a new poet, when the phone rings again. I hesitate, get up to check the number. Same unknown number as before. Wait to see if there is a message left this time. There is not. I sit down and resolve to ignore it, turn to the first page of the new book.

Dickens is unsettled; he smells the catnip or maybe he feels restless after so much napping with me. Rainfall has started to drum harder; rivulets stream from the black and white awning, all the way down to the ground which is at a near-flood stage. I watch as headlights from cars suffuse them with brilliance. I am sleepy. Tea beckons. Dickens walks along the back of the couch and finally sits, but stretches his neck out, catches a whiff of my tea.

The jangling of the phone dissipates my reverie so I get up and grab the receiver.

“Hello?”

Silence except for rain in the background.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

Not even a breath released. I start to hang up.

“Wait, don’t hang up, it’s Renee.” Her voice is low and rich, slow to move. Thick honey. “Maynard’s friend. He gave me your number.”

I mentally run through my client list and cannot recall a Renee. Maynard. Did he ever mention a Renee? No. But Maynard Gentilly, the trombone player with MS and too many bottles of bourbon, is a long-term client.

“Yes, Maynard…he referred you? I’m so sorry, you’ll need to call the office on Monday. The voice mail message gives that information. If it is an emergency–”

“Well, I’m not sure it’s all that. But it’s something. Something big, bigger than me. You’re Martha Berring, right?”

“Marta. Marta Berringer. Do you have the right number? Renee…what is your last name now?”

“Marta, Martha, either way you’re the one. It’s about Elias and Sarita. My kids. They seem to be in trouble and I don’t know what to do. Maynard, he said you could help me out. I think they got with that guy Arnie Z., runs so much around here, you know”–her voice softens to a whisper–“drugs and stuff.”

I glance at Dickens sniffing my tea delicately. “Look, you have the wrong number. You might call the police.” I frown at him when he taps the mug with his paw. “Are you safe? Can you make that call if needed?”

“No, no, no police! Just someone to check things out. You know, see what’s up. You do that, I know, Maynard told me you’re very observant, he pays you good money to get the details and you work pretty fast. He said I’d better call. But that’s all I need, really. Information. I’ll take over from there. It will be better when I know.”

“Renee…what’s your last name?” I write down the two alleged kids’ names on the note pad by the phone. “I’m not a private detective. People come to my office and talk about problems. Issues in their lives. I try to help them make better sense of things, heal from difficult experiences. Recover from addiction. Maybe that’s why he gave you my number. You mentioned drugs. Do you want help with drug problems?”

“I can’t come to your office. I don’t have a drug problem! I should never have left my apartment. Cold here.” Renee coughed hard. “Elias, he was gone a week, then Sarita took off after him in the Buick. Then they both… just…gone. They’re kids, Martha, just kids….good kids who turned the wrong corner.”

My sleepy mind stands at attention. Kids disappearing, not good. But I need more; she is very distraught. I take the note pad and pen with me, then remove the tea from Dickens and lean back into the couch. Dickens settles once more on my lap. The wind comes up and the awning riffles, making a slapping sound. I grab a woolen throw, toss it over Dickens and my lap.

“Your kids… that is worrisome. How old are they, Renee?”

“Sixteen, seventeen. They took to the streets over summer. June, it was early summer 2013, no, it’s 2014. Right? Right. Now school’s started they’ve stayed out late, never do see them anymore. They fell into the wrong crowd, you know, drugs, do nothing but hang out. Sarita, she’s not like that, she’s smart, she’s got talent. Elias, well, he’s his daddy all over but he could be different, learn a trade, make good money. But they’re just… gone, I tell you! I called because I don’t know who or what else, oh, hell, I don’t know anything, anymore, it gets all mixed up…”

I hold the mug under my chin, warmth spreading to my cheeks and ear lobes. The ginger and mint perk me up more. I’m hungry but forgot the shortbread. In stead, I start to jot things down. “They’re gone, you feel, for good…disappeared? Or they’re gone right now and you don’t know quite where?”

“That’s the thing, I need someone to find out. I called you because you do that, figure things out. Maynard says he trusts you with his life. His life. Sarita and Elias, they left last month and nothing since then. Not a word from them, no one answers their cell phones. I have called a thousand times, Martha. I can’t even leave a message.” Her voice trembles, an undulation of sound that treis to be clear words. “I–I last saw them… in the plaza. They were running past Cal’s Kitchen. I heard it then, all that screaming, those shots like a war starting up. They kept running, running even though I yelled their names, told them to stop! I fell, caught my head on a bench, then got up a few minutes later. They were just…gone. Maynard, he said to I need to lie low now, take it easy but I can’t, I have to find them. You can do this, right?”

“Wait. Gunshots? You heard gunshots in the plaza, is that right? And your kids were there, you watched them run.”

My mouth feels dry despite having sipped tea as Renee talked. I now recall news on television, two weeks ago. Drug house raided. Full of customers. People ran, scattered when shots were fired. Three dead, three on the run. Drug dealer apprehended. But who was it that died? Who disappeared?

“They were there, ran, then gone.” A crying out that was more stifled scream than crying. “What can I do? Where can I look, Martha? They say it’s too late. Maynard even says so!”

The blanket is pulled close around my shoulders and Dickens leaves, no longer intrigued by catnip-dosed tea. My vacated lap is chilly. I shiver. Why did I answer the phone? What can I possibly do for this woman?

Three dead, three runners. If Elias and Sarita were there they were either shot or are in jail or off to points unknown. Renee is terribly lost, too. Grief has throttled her and won’t let go of her mind, body or soul. Maynard knew this. Gave her my number so she could get help. But when the office recording came on, she dialed this number, hoping I would answer.

“Renee, what’s your last name? Number? So I have it in case I need to call you.”

Silence. Perhaps she is looking for her number on her cell phone. I can hear her rummaging in a bag or purse. “Ostrowski. It’s 772-2821. No, 774-3821 or… what is it? What did Sarita say it was changed to? Maybe 772-8321? I don’t know her number anymore!”

“Renee. Listen a minute. Will you do that? Sit down wherever you are. Hear me now. I don’t need your children’s numbers. I would like yours. Maybe I can help you.”

I know I can check my caller ID but I want her to be present right now, focus, alleviate the growing hysteria. I hear her warm voice slip into tears. The phone is held away, perhaps set down, and she is inside sorrow, that place where darkness sifts through all losses and leaves nothing unturned. Pain rises to the surface and forms a bright wound that drains the ache.

I know so well this sound. It replicates, echoing through my dreams. It careens off my office walls. It can tangle my thoughts when I am trying to pursue a simple, good time with friends, pull me back when I let down my guard with the man I am seeing. It can reel me back to those steep ledges where life is perched above a deep valley as I am asked to witness one more person’s hidden truth. Unspeakable, heart-stopping things. But I do know how to step aside–this is my work, discovering trouble and extricating those mired in it– and let anger and hurt run like a river, let it spill from the person who cannot hold it inside any longer. I can be a very still island amid drowning emotions. The world’s mothers and fathers cry out all night and day for their children, for themselves. I can only pray for this patchwork human world.

I hear the need underlining Renee’s voice. She is floundering, becoming more weary.

“I cannot give you more than this, my children are gone, my life is an empty sack, Martha, emptied of everything. I cannot find them in my desperation. It is terrible, terrible, the awful longing.”

“Where are you?”

“Wh-what’s that? Me? I’m at the plaza. Hoping they come back.”

“Wait there. Please don’t leave for a few minutes. Alright?”

I should never do this, not ever, leave my home when work hours are done and then go to someone who is a stranger and there are so many unanswered questions. I have not done this before. But tonight is different. I have read poetry that opened me up, exposed me to abiding Spirit again. And I cannot find a way to staunch the bleeding of this woman’s heart by taking notes. It spills into my life, no matter inconvenience or common sense. I leave my books and Dickens the cat and steaming sweet tea. Leave my safety zone. I hurry down the street in dauntless rain and take a near-empty bus. I get off at the plaza.

Renee is there, alone, sitting on a  bench in the covered bus stop. I know it is she. Clutching a phone to her chest. She looks up, wordless, head shaking back and forth. I am a tall woman in a navy trench coat with long wet hair stuck to my face, tennis shoes and jeans soaked, my glasses beaded with water. I take them off and look at her. See her soft, round, lined face. Her darkened blue eyes, the creases in her forehead. Her anguish a mark upon her.

“I’m Marta, remember?” When she doesn’t respond I start again. “Hello, Renee. I’m Martha Berring.”

She stands up, throws her arms around me, her life turning into sand in an hourglass, her body passing through my grasp, so I grab her under the arms. Grip her back until my fingers hurt. I ask for help and the rain falls like stars tossed down. The night is a cloak pulled about us, taming outrage and despair. We are standing together and rock and rock and the weeping late autumn air gathers about us like the Breath of God.

 

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(NOTE: We all know this world is far too full of sorrow. So today I read poetry by Rainier Maria Rilke, a favorite poet. I came across “Autumn” again, absorbed it, and then this story began to form. Please find the poem; read it yourself. Especially the very last two lines. You will be glad you did.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Deal

 

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Through my office window slipped a warm breeze, adding a gift of more oxygen to the light. But the young woman sat before me with hands clenched, deep-set hazel eyes averted and brimming with unshed tears.

I had asked her a simple enough question: “What are your dreams?”

I knew the answer already but waited for her to speak.

“I don’t know! I don’t have dreams. What are those? Fantasies! All I ever had was a crazy need to survive.” She looked at me, eyes empty of tears as suddenly as they had filled, the hurt pushed back to the tender places she guarded so well. “I guess I’ve done that so far, anyway. Gotten by, day by day.”

It was an assignment: come up with three things you want, such as wishes you had as a child that were put aside, hopes you let yourself dare to long for, situation imagined that would make you happy. But Marta wasn’t accustomed to thinking in terms of what she would love for herself. For her daughter, yes: a better life, which currently meant shelter in a safe place, enough healthy food, health and friends. But for herself? Just getting by in the most basic sense was enough; she had eaten from dumpsters outside of restaurants and slept under highway overpasses and shot meth. None of it had killed her so far.

Marta’s mental health and addiction treatment had spanned three months so far. It had begun with a DUII, her first, and developed into something more far-reaching than she had expected. She had presented herself as amenable, even friendly, but it had been a veneer, a shield, as behind that was a tough woman who was paying attention, keeping tally. Deep beyond that was a soft core that floated in pain. I saw flashes of her soul when she thought I wasn’t looking. There was a radiance but it felt to her like a weakness. She drank to keep it in one spot, in the dark, under wraps. It was better, she informed me, than the methamphetamine she had used for eight years and finally quit at twenty-three after too much, too fast. As far as she had been concerned, she had to “do the time” in treatment. It was easier than what her spouse was doing: time in prison for violent crimes. Some against her.

For the first month or so she thought little of me and my tools for life and yet she had come to every individual session and two groups. I had reserved any judgment. I knew for a fact that a counselor–or anyone else–cannot predict who will make real headway and who will give up. Marta caught my attention, though, with her strong will and quick mind. She just couldn’t see the potential she had. Yet.

Years living the gang life and finally out, at least as much as she could be then. Multi-generational domestic violence. A child born right after she had gotten clean whom she adored and worried about every minute.

“Maybe Trina will have a good life, maybe she will be kept enough from harm, find a way to something good. I’m working on it. I changed jobs like you suggested.”

The corners of her mouth dipped, then changed into the barest crescent of a smile. She had left a fast food job for a factory worker job, working swing shift as her erratic mother kept her child. But it was better pay and she had done well enough that she was shift leader already. It didn’t surprise me. Marta knew how to problem solve on her feet, learned quickly and wasn’t afraid of hard physical work. She had inner endurance and stamina. I’d want her on my team as long–as she stayed sober and crime-free.

“So maybe you could look into moving in a few months, you think?”

“Maybe. Have to finish this first. This costs me! But, yeah, maybe by Christmas I can look around.” She shifted, put one foot underneath her. “That would be good for Trina. Some present!”

“So, one dream–one wish–is having better housing for yourself and Trina.”

“I guess.” She paused as if checking to make sure. “Really want to know? A small place outside the city, maybe. But I’d start with an apartment just outside of my block.”

“Outside the city…?”

Marta blinked at me, shook her head. “You’ll think this is weird, but I’ve always wanted to be in the country. My grandfather was poor but he lived on an acre of land in Texas and sometimes we’d visit him a couple of weeks. One year–I was eight–we lived with him. He was hard to get along with–you had to dodge dishes and worse–when he drank tequila. But he cared about us kids. He had three dogs. A huge cat, great mouse killer. I always thought it something that I’d wake up and see the horizon. The air was different, you know? Like there was more of it, smelled good, sorta shone in the daylight.” She gazed out the window.

Her jaw relaxed, her lips softened as they slackened. The vision in her head pierced thick inner walls, roused a gentleness I had sensed but rarely glimpsed.

“A garden, maybe, tomatoes and pumpkins and crap all like that.”

She flushed, wriggled in embarrassment despite the effort to stay in that other zone, the one where she lived only to survive, worked to keep her daughter safe, alive, first and last. Marta knew about guns. She knew about running through deep of night from feet right behind her, sometimes many, who pursued her for no good end. She knew about weapons and trades. She knew what it was to have her husband tape her mouth and beat her because she was too pretty and smart. Because her nature was to be dauntless. Or he just felt like it.

Marta knew sacrifice, fear, exhaustion, numbness. But not much more.

“Who all would live there?”

“Trina and me.”

She looked up at me suddenly, shock widening her eyes.

“I heard that, Cynthia….not him…not Tito…”

Silence filled the room, a divided presence, half-doomsday and half-epiphany. My heart thudded a bit. I had waited a long time for her wants to change, for her world view to separate itself from his. He stayed alive for her so he could dominate and brainwash, put her to work dealing drugs with him, give her whatever he thought she had coming. The last time he made a mistake he had no way out. And he was up for parole again in four months.

“Marta, you do have a dream. More than one. Close your eyes a minute, will you?”

She hesitated, closed then opened them, sat back and let her eyelids fall over tired eyes.

“Do you see it? ”

“No.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, okay, I’m getting there. It’s…a nice, safe place in the country, with my daughter. Small and…bgray? Somewhere to breathe and have a dog and a cat. My daughter running barefoot, real clover everywhere. Tito? His chair has a pit bull in it. He’s a good dog, maybe.” Her laughter rattled the room. “The house is nothing much but it’s mine, it’s good.”

Marta opened her eyes and squinted at me. “But the problem is, Cynthia, having a dream is dangerous. It can make you crazier. It takes a piece of you–because, dreams? Come on! They don’t come true.”

There it was, the slip back into the habitual self-talk of loathing and bitterness, the fall into a stream of fast current that wouldn’t let go. She would need to climb out of this, shut down thoughts that took her to dangerous places. She had to keep her mind open to something finer, healthier. Prepare for a battle but plan for victory.

That is, that was what I wanted for her.

“Can’t dreams make you powerful, too? Can’t they inspire you, teach you, help you hope?”

“In your world, maybe. In mine…” Her hands grabbed the chair arms and she leaned forward. “Big difference. But, hey, I’m in this treatment and the insurance is paying good money so why not? Why not think about things? You’ll tell me the truth, I know that. I can tell you things I haven’t said to anyone before. really bad things. Some good things. I’m not stupid. I can learn. So I’m willing.”

“Willing. That’s a concept to love.”

“So you say. Well, I’ll make you a deal, Cynthia, that’s how I do things. One, I’ll stay and complete this. It’s not so bad as I thought. Two, I’ll start a list of one thing a week I wish for. One small thing. Maybe I’ll get it better that way. Like today. I didn’t see Tito in that picture. That was…well, it scared me. I don’t even know what to think. But it makes sense, too. It might be right even though I barely can imagine.”

She sat back, released the arms of the chair, smiled just a little.

“But you got to stay my counselor. Got it? You can’t pull out when I’m going in for the long haul. I won’t do this with anybody else.”

Her words created a lurch in my stomach. I knew I was leaving the agency in less than 6 weeks. I wasn’t certain she would be completed by then.

“Marta, I appreciate your appreciation….but I can’t promise I will always be here. The good thing is, you’ve already changed your path by staying sober and envisioning something better for you and Trina. You’re so persistent. You’ll go forward if that’s what you desire.”

While she considered this, I restrained myself from throwing my arms around her, giving her an award, celebrating triumph with her. Still, I knew better. Changes would be stormy well as illuminating.

And I had my own secret. I knew it wasn’t me she counted as an ally as much as God. That the deep beauty within her was revealed to me by my soul’s ever-seeking eyes. Every session was preceded by a prayer, that I would see the true person struggling to get free. That I would be a conduit for God’s mercy.

The session presented a small beginning. Potent. But tentative nonetheless. I was always calm, knew to sit just enough, contained. I leaned back, too. To say less, not more. To not overwhelm this person with great joy when she was only learning what joy could be. And barely believed in it. Still…

“Marta, you’ve made my day, no, at least my week! Now time’s up.”

“Really?” She stood, her height commanding, shoulders squared and readied for the world. “I mean, the first thing?”

“Yes, really.”

“Nice.”

She spontaneous her smile filled the room.

Out the door she strode, down the stairs. I could see her from my office window. Her long dark hair gleamed in the light, her fancy tennis shoes made a fast path to her car. She turned around as she opened the door, put a flattened hand to her forehead so she could see up to my window. I think I expected her to salute in mock respect or to give a perfunctory wave or maybe do nothing at all. Marta was not an easy one to predict even though she had such potential. But she lay her hand to heart, then raised it up to me, a testimony, a promise, the sealing of the deal.

 

(Note: Identifying details and name have been changed.)

 

 

 

 

The Table

 

After she left the place, she realized they never spoke. There had  been another free table when she arrived or Carlotta would have put her purse on the other chair and that would have been that. She knew how this place worked when business got heavy. She had a lot on her mind since arriving for work at the alterations shop. She didn’t need company, she needed a corner of solitude so she could think. Figure out what made sense in the scheme of things.

It had been four years working for Daniel and he was the same as when she started: blustery, sarcastic when he had the opportunity, and very efficient. And nice-looking, she had to admit, with longish hair that waved just enough over the tops of his ears that she had to catch herself from smoothing it down and back. That would have been the end of her. She was older than he, but he was the boss, no doubt about it. Still, they did well together, Carlotta working the register and phone, Daniel expertly handling alteration consults and the sewing machines. Business had increased the past year and he’d put a “Help Wanted” sign in the narrow window. It was a month before he liked an application and then he interviewed her twice, just as he had Carlotta.

Lanie was good. She could finish a pair of hems in less than half a minute, the jeans under sixty seconds. They required changing to a heavier needle and having patient, strong fingers. She knew all the fabrics backwards and forwards. If there was a rush order, rushing was like taking a stroll for her–she never sweated it, never complained. At least not to them. She was friendly enough to start but Carlotta noticed she kept her distance once she was in for the long haul. Lanie had the demeanor of a contented cat who had a bold work ethic, even when the shop was fraught with piled up orders and the phone ringing off the hook like a demon. Carlotta looked over her shoulder at the woman once and thought, Yeah, she’s like a panther, sleek and fast and quiet. It gave her pause. But five days a week the three of them worked in sync more often than not and the money came in.

It would have gone on like that if Carlotta hadn’t ever seen her at the back door, swapping cash for something in a packet every couple weeks, then more often. She knew it wasn’t buttons; Carlotta was not well-read or worldly like some people but she wasn’t naïve. But she had never seen this before, not right under her nose, so she waited. During the next two weeks Lanie met the same short, skinny guy with a dark baseball cap on backwards. Carlotta couldn’t see his face when she peered out back.

Lanie hissed at her when they passed on the way to the restroom this morning.

“What’re you always lookin’ at, Lotta? He’s my brother Tommy, I’m helping him out if you want to know, it is what it is.” She said this with the ease of one slightly annoyed neighbor to another, as if they were in conflict over a fence but could come to a reasonable understanding.

Carlotta shrugged and half-smiled, then helped out a customer. Soon after, she left for lunch, and the question on her mind was whether she should tell Daniel about her suspicions.

So when she got to the restaurant, she had a busy mind and she wanted to just eat and ponder. When the girl with the shiny long hair and pricey sunglasses looked around for an open spot, Carlotta tried to send her a thought to move away. Nonetheless, she zeroed in on Carlotta’s table as though it was critical to survival during an emergency landing, not lunch, so there had to be a place for her. Carlotta sighed and nodded at the empty chair. She was brought up to be a nice person, that was the problem. But they both had to eat.

The waitress came and went, the mediocre food put on the table and Carlotta sneaked looks at the girl on her phone. She was working that thing like crazy, like she was born ambidextrous, which Carlotta was not. She wondered if those hands made pretty things or wrote important documents or scrubbed toilets. No, not toilets, she could see that. They were manicured with a soft blush of color on each fingertip. That and her toenails probably cost half a paycheck. Once, the girl looked up from her small, undressed salad and stared through Carlotta, somewhere far beyond this buzzing, garlicky and syrupy spot that served breakfast all day long. Her eyes were a blue like melting icebergs; she blinked twice. Carlotta finished her pasta and picked up an old newspaper and thought about Lanie again.

The phone rang out like a rock song and the girl answered.

“What did they say?” Her voice was a restrained tremor. “He’s going into surgery? Now? Why? Oh!” Her hand flew to her mouth and she turned away from her dining partner. “I knew it wasn’t just the flu all this time…So, does he have, I mean…? Please. No.”

She tried to not listen, but caught fragments about lungs and breathing issues and how she had told him last month, no back in May, that he had to see a doctor. But he had said, no, it was that bug that wouldn’t shake loose. It made Carlotta wish she could turn this off, her interest in other people. Even strangers felt important.

The girl was quiet a long time after she hung up. Carlotta rustled the pages as she sipped her soda and looked at her watch. Five minutes left, then back to the shop. She read the comics and chuckled aloud. That was a mistake. The girl rocked forward. Tears started to run down her ivory-fine cheeks and she turned to face the wall, the salad pushed aside. Carlotta folded the paper and sat there, stumped. Was she supposed to say something? Should she ask her how she could help? She wanted to do the right and good thing, something that told the girl she saw her sitting there and was sorry. Was it her father entering a hospital? Lover that lived on the east coast but who she saw not long ago? People had those relationships, how, she didn’t know. Or maybe it was her best friend. She had all these questions and none were appropriate to ask. Curiosity could be so inconvenient, embarrassing, really.

Carlotta stood, checking her watch. She had to go talk to Lanie this afternoon. It would be uncomfortable, even hard, but not that hard. She grabbed her purse and saw her table partner smash the thin, white napkin to her face, staunching the tears. Carlotta hesitated, then lay her wide palm on the girl’s boney, terribly young shoulder, just for an instant, long enough. The girl turned around but the older woman was exiting, her stride long and full of resolve.

“Thanks…” the girl whispered behind a cascade of hair. She sat straighter, smoothed her forehead and resettled her sunglasses, then picked up her phone once more.

(Note: First posted in unrevised form on Patricia Ann McNair’s blog which includes journal prompts. This photo was captioned “They never spoke” and this was my response. Thanks again, Patricia Ann.)