Wednesday’s Words/ Nonfiction: Thoughts on My Hometown During Historic Flooding

Flooded Farmer’s Market, downtown Midland, as taken by a DRONE; photographer unknown.

Since last Sunday, there was talk of flooding in mid-Michigan. Cautions and watches and projections were determined for the targeted counties and communities. There have been heavy rains, 4-7 inches, and rain run-off contributed to the catastrophe. Edenville Dam–long in need of repairs–failed, and then Sanford Lake dam could not contain the sudden onslaught of waters from the Edenville breach. Both were breached on Tuesday and by today there was more disaster as the Tittabawassee River crested.

It is being called a “500 year event.” And it seems unreal to me at this moment.

I grew up in the elegantly planned, inviting community–a model town for sciences and arts– that’s headlining news. Midland, Michigan, home to world headquarters of Dow Chemical Company. It is an unusual community for many reasons, not the least being all those PhDs and other innovators working at Dow Chemical and Dow Corning–and so many other capable persons hired for fine schools, community organizations and a private business college (Northwood University). These folks brought with them equally able-minded spouses and children. The future-thinking minds and a great tax base helped build state-of-the-art parks and recreation areas; public and private schools; an impressive performing arts center; libraries; community-wide programs for the less economically privileged as well as the well-to-do. It has been called the “city of churches” (over 100 in a variety of fine architectural styles) and has long showcased extraordinary homes. This is in part due to Alden B. Dow, who created contemporary, cleanly inspiring designs. Dow was a protege of Frank Loyd Wright and a son of Henry Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical Company, what has historically been the primary employer in the city. (The summer band which my father long had fun conducting was even called the Chemical City Band.)

It didn’t occur to me that I grew up in an unusual city–it was smallish, and population remains only 42,000 people, but is not a suburb to any metropolis. It was what I knew– until I began to travel a bit as a youth and become conscious of far greater diversity. Our town was primarily Caucasian with a considerable number of Asians and very few Hispanic residents in the mid-century. That made the culture usually similar from neighborhood to neighborhood. My curiosity was stimulated by broader experiences awaiting me by my mid-teens. I loved much in Midland–and family and friends–but there seemed much to be desired. Though excellence was the unofficial byword for all the city represented, I strongly desired to additionally avail myself of differentness. The unknown. (As an adult, I continued to hold admiring v. somewhat adversarial views of my hometown due to a few powerfully negative experiences–memoir shared in other WordPress posts and writings. )

It was, then, the rule not exception that those I knew were talented, ambitious and mostly well-educated. And it was to be that many are now heralded, even famous, persons. We were a city made of energetic leaders who intended to forge ahead. These were classmates of mine and my siblings, friendly neighbors. And also competitors, but that was the way we were taught from childhood and it seemed fair enough a long while.

When I left by 19, I was intent on getting to the Pacific Northwest and at 42, I got here and have been very happy in Oregon. Despite many of my schoolmates returning to this ideal environment, I had no desire to do so; we all find our preferred cultures and geography if we can. So it is clear that I have not had a stake in Midland’s fortunes or failures for a lifetime. My parents also passed away decades ago. I have not been back since 2001, even during a vacation in northern Michigan after that.

But the news came about the flood, and as small panic arose I blinked back flashes of tears. It was the undeniable visceral response to learning something I’ve long cared for is being harmed.

I thought, as I talked to my brother back east: our parents are buried above the river, under gracious trees, on a hill. The thought haunted me all night of their final resting places being soaked and worse.

I thought, oh no, the lovely Wixom Lake is being emptied out as floodwaters shoves and gathers its water along with it, carries it in a powerful thrust downstream. What of the fish and water plants, the boats and people left behind? Forgive me these sentiments. My childhood is reflected in large part by pictures whose backgrounds are water–small lakes, rivers and streams, the Great Lakes. Despite not having our own family cottage on a lake, friends did. My joys grew huge at any water’s edge–playing, swimming, water skiing, and boating in it. Dreaming, writing, singing by it. Falling in love, even. I learned how to make more friends at summer camps, grew strong in the wide outdoors each day. Gained passion for the intricacies and mysteries of nature.

Water–and woods–still figure greatly in what I do outdoors and write or dream about.

Now Midland’s downtown and large swaths of nearby areas are now under water and farther beyond also smaller towns. Even now it spills over the snaking, meandering Tittabawassee River as it continues to rise and wreak havoc. The extreme watchfulness must be overwhelming. At last tally, around 11,000 folks were being evacuated from Midland County.

That wide, mostly tranquil river’s song was pleasant background noise to me once. I played on swings, monkey bars and seesaws as a kid at the 50 acre Emerson Park. It lies on a flat area alongside the river; the land about it slopes down from a train track and Main Street above. It was not my favorite park (there were at least a half dozen then, over a dozen now) though I liked to ice skate in blowing snow on a frozen pond with buddies. We picnicked there from time to time with family, friends and our First United Methodist Church folks (just a few blocks away). My dad loved playing horseshoes; there was basketball and baseball and volleyball, hockey in winter. A good, all-around city park. We could walk a few short blocks to downtown from there for shopping or a pizza and lime Cokes. And all that time, the Tittabawassee River hummed and flowed, almost unnoticed sometimes until it rose a bit high.

But we were always warned not to put one toe in that river; it was polluted even in the fifties and sixties from Dow Chemical, which was built at its edge farther downriver. Anyone who dared jump in would be watched for signs of illness and severely warned to not do it again. It was a double-edged reality: Dow had built the city up yet seemed to imperil it at times.

We had milder flooding of the Tittabawassee; I recall it happening but not being alarming, at least to us–we lived too far from it. In 1986, there was another bad flood–but not like this one. Not enough to order 10,000 of Midland’s people to be evacuated.

It is this river that crested at 35.5 feet today, and has swamped the downtown and a vast many more acres, flooding homes and businesses, sending residents fleeing for higher ground, shelter. I try to imagine where it has all gone and how. Of course, forceful water moves where it chooses; unimpeded it can get to surprising places and when powerful and immense enough it carries or plows down everything in its way.

Then I read that Dow Chemical Company’s containment ponds have now mixed with the floodwater. There also could be sediment from a downstream Superfund site (with dioxin contamination) displaced. So future hazards are largely unknown. As home base for a worldwide chemical company, Midland may be seriously impacted. Time will tell.

And all this amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unimaginable to me how this can be survived with clear, functioning minds so recovery can begin. Yet I am assured by old friends that massive efforts are gearing up.

As I write this, happier times of childhood in Midland come forward and recede. The day camp each summer for years, the long walks in Barstow Woods by my house, sunny days at Central Park outdoor swimming pool and inside the red brick Community Center where in winter so much fun was to be discovered within the two stories one could not be bored: the damp, sharp scent of chlorine that hung in the air as I practiced jack knife and swan dives in the indoor pool, swam laps. The outdoor rink where I practiced figure skating after school, sharp edges of my blades scraping, slicing the thick ice. The stages, bracketed by heavy black velvet curtains, where I warmed inside and out in the slow heat of stage lights, and sang, danced and acted or played my cello with orchestras–or solo, and when playing to win competitions.

No, the pictures I hold close are not those in the news as the unleashed water rises higher and higher. I think I want to know if the street I grew up on–over-arched by big oak and maple trees and encompassing several blocks of my childhood friends’ homes, my playground, my whole world then– is intact, yet I don’t look. Sometimes it is best to let good memories remain safely, orderly within life’s mental and emotional archives. Because what’s going on out there is not easy to contemplate. How do I consider the whys and hows of it, what such floodwater destruction may render things? It has long been a realm of creativity, industry and educational progress–right now, a far different place, at least materially speaking. Yet, surely, Midland can overcome even this and rebuild as it has had to do before.

I know this is also a sign of the reality as climate changes increase and graver challenges and losses occur. And we must withstand it as the best minds race to find interventions, and we gain more tools via which we can survive and adapt further.

I wonder what small, ordinary Snake Creek is up to in Barstow Woods right now. How often it provided me deep peace and pleasure. Is there still the sweet chiming of gentle water as it slides between pungent earth of shallow banks, winds past white paper birches and gatherings of tiny wildflowers–or has it been swallowed up, doomed for at least a season? Please keep running clear and bright.

Dear hometown,

From my heart I offer a prayer for rescue, recovery, and deeper healings.

Love, Cynthia.

Wednesday’s Fiction: To Those Who Wait

It was an odd, fateful accident, all that resulted from that day, and it started with running into George in the middle of the day on Mimosa Pond’s path. She’d been to the bank, going over her woeful balance with a teller. After it was shown to be still in her barest favor, she took time at water’s edge, walking and gawking with deliberate pleasure. There were silken layers of southern floral fragrances in the air that half-spooked her. It didn’t seem quite right although she knew better. Her latest home base in Idaho was under a heap of snow. Tennessee held a different scent altogether.

She needed such moments away from her mother, and to practice experiencing the relief of small pleasures. The past month had not been a choice string of events. Anyone who had lost a job would not fault her for a swear word derailing her thoughts. Even the sweet green light of early spring did little to cheer her. She refused to budge until her mood lightened. Then she might re-enter her mother’s cottage with the evening’s dinner groceries in hand and good news that she was not entirely broke. She endeavored to keep the full and bitter truth from her: it could be a slight month more before her bank balance became a total loss. Unless her art work sold fast.

The footsteps behind her slowed, then stopped. She registered the sound of gravel crunching and the pause of it but was busy examining a duck that looked as if it had mated perhaps with a random crow. Pretty thing. Yet it had a duck’s bill and way of dipping and floating; it had not made a sound yet. It had plenty of company, unlike herself since arriving in town.

A husky voice made murky by duck squawks and a riffling waterfall came through her reverie. She stepped aside as if used to being in the way when others approached. A bad new habit since her humiliation.

“Marietta?”

She looked up because the person said it right, the “Mari” syllable not mispronounced as “Mary” which strangers inevitably said, but rhyming with “far” as it should be. She was “Mari” to friends–but this man couldn’t be one of the two or three holdovers from twenty years past. Could he? They’d all moved elsewhere, as had she.

Mari blinked; her eyes slid over his face. “I am. And you are?”

“George,” he said, “George Hartsell.”

“Oh…?”

 A frown rippled over his tan face then vanished. Maybe it was a few day’s beard growth that darkened his jaw and cheekbones, an almost swarthy look; he was not recognizable. He looked taken aback that she didn’t know him right off and rocked on his heels a little, studied the ducks, waiting.

But Mari remembered enough. Her second best friend had been chummy with him and so they’d all done things together from time to time. Rita wasn’t serious about him–she was serious about no one. George was always in the background, though, and brought about when she was bored. Mari thought her capricious and a little mean but he didn’t seem to mind. Studious, with a quick wit, he was nice to her–that’s what she recalled. He’d been slight, a tad awkward, and companionable enough.

“Oh, George, sorry! I think we maybe ran into each other at the ten year reunion? Nice that you remembered me, and from a distance. What a surprise!”

“I wasn’t there, sorry– in Italy at the time, I think. It’s okay. But you don’t look so different. Same auburn hair, tall, lanky. A bright presence, overall, still.”

His lively look held her gaze a moment–he had certainly gotten tall somewhere along the line, too– and they smiled at each other with some embarrassment, which she could not decipher.

“Well, so how funny–here we are. I’m back …to tend to my mother. She had a bout of cancer and is on a slow mend. Never thought to find myself back in Tennessee. Just here a short time to make sure she is healing and doesn’t feel too alone. Though she has doting friends and, of course, the church.” She picked up a stick, tossed it into the water where it floated away with no destination. “I don’t know, guess duty called.”

“The same for me,” George said and squatted, long black coat sweeping over dirt and rocks as he studied the water fowl. “My uncle is about on his death bed. He was like a second father to me when I was a kid. Haven’t seen him in well over ten years, so my father called and asked that I come. Of course, I also wanted to see him.” He tossed a rock with some force toward a land mass that mimicked a miniature island. It hit solid ground. He stood and brushed his hands off. “It’s sad, seventy-nine, he’s been very ill. No doubt you and I have other obligations. But, you know, blood family is, first and last, family.”

“Right.” She sighed. “Terribly true despite our best efforts…”

He snickered. They began to follow the path together, despite her desire to be alone before once more being immersed in the hothouse tenor of her mother’s place. But he seemed at loose ends.

“Mind if I tag along? I have nowhere else to be right now.”

Mari shrugged. “Tell me what you ended up doing, then. You were good with numbers and played the…trumpet?”

“Yes, to both. I’m in business, worked for an international company and still travel a lot. And I still play the trumpet for relaxation.”

“Not a big surprise. You were–are–good at all you did.”

“Thanks for that.”

She had forgotten how and where she had heard him play, but she knew Rita, a drummer in a garage band, said he could be a jazz musician one day–he was that natural a musician, so creative. That was one reason she hung out with him, that tie with music. Not that Mari was averse to it. She just had had little satisfaction  pursuing piano so quit at twelve.

“You know Rita became a nurse, married a dentist and moved to Atlanta.”

“I didn’t, no. Hope that worked out for both.”

“It did, I suppose,” she said, deciding to not tell him she had no idea what had happened since 2010. Losing track of old friends happened so fast. And now how to tell him the state of her career?

“I am or was part of a large, booming gallery–the director. Boise, of all places. But I have long been an artist. It just didn’t pay my rent.”

“You are or were a gallery director?”

She stole a glance at him but he was staring across the pond so she kept on, uncertain how to answer. His arms were swinging, matching his long stride; they moved in sync when his right arm brushed against her left. Instantly, a mini-shock of warmth, that tingle of one person touching another. George touching her, accidentally. He slowed a little, turned back to her, ready to hear her story.

“I am, but I’m on leave. It’s a long saga. Not too interested in telling it. I am re-evaluating.” A laugh came out too loud and hard, bounced around a thicket of trees.

“We’re never interested in spotlighting tough times, just remarkable ones, right? I’ve had my share. I cannot imagine your not being a fine artist,  Mari. You have such talent.”

There, he said the more familiar name. It sounded good to her. “I was sure aspiring to be one. Making work much less these days.” She turned and put hands on hips. “Okay, none in four months.”

“Well. Huh.”

“Yeah.”

They had looped around the entire pond and stood near the parking lot. He took out car keys. His alert grey eyes held hers more than a moment, and there it was. An unmistakable recognition that went a little deeper, barely. A tentative, unexpected connection. o, she was imagining it, wasn’t she?

“I have to get going, but why not join me for coffee tomorrow?”

She wanted to say: what about a wife, maybe I have a partner, too; what about keeping it formal or maybe just keeping  the heck away? But she felt that he was alone. They both wore a lean, wan look tempered by surrender to their chronic but comfortable solitary state. They had stopped expecting anything to work out. They were savvy and they had also given up. They were fine like that. Mostly. She was almost broke but that was another issue, more or less.

“Alright, why not? About ten?”

“Jana’s? Where we once sucked up too much bitter black coffee-before it became so terribly gourmet and pricey!”

That brought forward memories of forbidden cigarettes, heavy white mugs of rancid coffee in shadowy back booths. But she already had misgivings. As he found his sporty car she realized he was attractive in a slightly asymmetrical, curious way and carried himself with easy confidence. George had grown right up, become a man of the world, a doer of things. And she was tired of that sort. In fact, she was steamrollered and worn out by all men. And George was just another, albeit one with a fine woolen overcoat and light beard, and an attentive, affable manner.

******

The door jingled its small tarnished bell just as it had all those years ago. Assuming it was a newer bell, but maybe not. She surveyed the scene. Jana’s Side Street Cafe had new charcoal tiled flooring and rich blue walls but otherwise seemed the same. The booths were still dark red but sported upgraded fabric.

Mari had told her mother she’d be a couple of hours and would bring home her new medicine. Tammy’s breast cancer had responded well to treatment; most of her chest was yet intact but this was the second bout and at sixty-three, she had been forced to retire from the library after so many months lost and too much weakness. Even if she had reported to her desk, it was time to take back the life she had left, she had told her daughter. She’d worked there thirty-four years.

Every time she looked at Mari she was filled with gratitude. This made Mari cringe with shame at the secrets she was keeping from her, and the fact that she found it hard to be there more than a couple weeks. They had not been very close during her youth; they had not become any more intimate with the passage of time. But Tammy was even more the optimist now, oddly, so kept trying to pull her closer, while Mari retreated more. For every kind hour there were those prickly with irritation, the subtle and often mutual criticism they tossed at one another. They had changed in opposite ways, it seemed. It frustrated them yet they never spoke of it, just carried on, each in their proscribed roles. Only now Mari was a caregiver, not the one aided. So far. She wanted to keep it that way. She liked her independence, her lifestyle. Still, her mother was her only mother. She loved her.

George waved at her from a sunny side booth; the favored back ones were filled with college students from the Baptist college. You could tell from the studied neatness and serious gleams in the eyes.


“Hey there,” she said and slid into her side. “You look more normal today, I have to say–and rested.”

Henodded. “I was getting over jet lag. Came from Columbia, then the Bahamas.”

“I see, tough life.”

That was an actual tan, then. He was clean shaven, wore a green T-shirt under a jacket with lots of pockets, safari-style. He smelled unusual, like cedar or the sea or a mix. Mari felt overdressed in tailored black slacks, high heeled boots and a teal cashmere sweater. She had met with a gift store manager earlier, giving her a sales pitch.

“I had business, forgive my cultivated look. I tried to push my nature prints at Nance’s Art and Knickknacks. I am trying not to cringe as I say that… hard to explain.” She felt her face flush so signaled a waitress.

George said nothing; he appraised her with eyebrows raised as cups were filled and cream brought.

“It is just that I have to keep making money on the side.  I don’t know how long  will be here and the job–it won’t tolerate my absence for long, and I have bills still coming in and–“

“Any good success at Nance’s or did you hightail it out of there?”

The vowels had relaxed already, just as hers had; the south was creeping in enough that they’d have to watch it or get sucked in to old habits of speech and behavior.

“Yeah, actually, she took four prints on trial. I hope they sell. I sell online, too, if you ever want to see what I do.” She played with her spoon, poured a heap of sugar into it, dumped it in, stirred. Her heat rate bumped up; she felt breathless. She just could not fake it to someone she had enjoyed and respected once.

“Hey, George, enough bull, alright? I was fired. I had an affair with the owner’s son and that was considered not acceptable as Joseph–the son–oversaw all accounts when his father was out of state.  Which was at times for weeks, months. Charles Meier considered it overt favoritism and double dipping on both our parts when Joseph pushed my work at customers. I wasn’t even showing there, of course. Although business happened outside our gallery walls. And Joseph saw to it I got paid quite a bit and he got a nice commission and…well, not okay  to Mr. Meier. So I was finally flat-out fired.”

“I see, you were both hustling.” George put an index finger to upper lip and pressed the indentation. He tried to not smile. “I guess it was a sort of ethics issue. Why didn’t he recommend you to another gallery or someone who could help without entanglements?”

“I don’t know. Laziness? He may have loved me?”

“Ah. Did you love him? Wait– that’s too frank a question, sorry. But I get it, he believed you deserved success. Plus he was smitten.”

Mari was stopped by smitten, how old fashioned it was and Southern it felt. “No. I mean, perhaps I was, but in the end it was more about the art…I didn’t separate the two very well. Love, art, men, business, work, art, love, life. It gets jumbled at times. It is not easy out there in the great art world, believe me. My prints and paintings are very good but so are plenty of others.” She lowered her face to the steaming mug and then looked up from under her eyebrows. “I took advantage of his contacts and interest, I admit it.”

He leaned back with mug grasped in both hands. “I understand some of this. I buy art.”

Her head jerked up. “What? Well, you make good money at your work, I can see that, so it must be great art you hang. What do you do? Your turn, George.”

“I’m an entrepreneur. I started out as an investor and did well fast, worked further in international banking and made a lot more money. Some years ago I got sick of working for others. I took my money and invested it in cutting edge tech industries of various sorts. Now I invest in others’ projects, businesses. “

Her mouth had dropped open enough that she made herself close it casually, sipped more coffee as she gathered her composure.

“Well, George Hartsell, we all thought you’d make it but more like an Ivy League mathematics professor or a ground breaking environmentalist, perhaps. I guess an entrepreneur is okay, too.” She let out a snort. “I mean, if you love it, why not?”

“It’s not a dirty word, is it? ” He smiled but his bright clear eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t a plan to take over the world or anything mad. I just had this knack. I took serious risks.” He looked out the window. “You know, most people don’t recognize me in my old hometown. I get the urge to extend my hand but they look me up and down, pass by quickly. It is the smell of money, I suspect, and a foreignness I seem to carry now. It’s a weird feeling. My parents are glad to see me, of course, and had a dinner with a few of their friends last night. But no one seems to know what to make of me. I want to say, ‘I’m just George–I love numbers and innovation, that’s all! It also made me money!'”

“No one knows me, either, George. Or, rather, they know me but aren’t interested. I think they all know I lost my biggest job, anyway. And I make art, after all. Most of it is not the sort they’d hang on their walls. The nature prints are one thing–and I love doing those, too– but the rest…I mean, what is art to this town?”

“Maybe a primitive painting of a farm scene? Not that that is not worthwhile.”

“Yes, likely so and I agree. And the quilts my mother and her friends make are beautiful. But I am not a success in the typical way, not like you. And now I don’t know quite what I will do next.”

“Make more art, Mari.”

She checked his expression to see if he was teasing or being downright snide, but he seemed serious. His demeanor was even gentle.

Kayla the waitress– no one they knew– brought more coffee but they had had their fill and grew restless. The sun streamed in; they were drawn outdoors.

“Let’s go to the park,” he said and guided her out by her elbow like a gentleman well raised.

******

“Here’s the thing,” he said, “you do need to create so you can’t stop now. I need to create, too, just with different materials, using different avenues. I love the way the human mind can imagine and devise an vast assortment of ideas. I had my own dreams as a kid. I’m holding onto them as long as I can work it right. You can do the same. Should do it.”

They’d walked around the shimmering pond. He’d mentioned he was divorced for over five years and she’d said good for him, he was brave–she’d never even tried a marriage. He’d told her he was tired of travelling and had two houses, one in Wisconsin on a lake and one in L.A. and “a modest apartment in New York” and he’d like to stay put awhile. She wondered how simple or small ‘modest’ meant but just having three homes seemed entirely excessive. A bit interesting. They’d talked about art a little, what he had bought and who she admired and what her next project might be.

“I know. I’m not giving up. I just am taking a break and really have to make money soon.”

“Okay, you know what? I can likely help with that. Now, don’t start being negative or suspicious until we talk over some things. I have a week to hang around; we’ll come up with ideas, think it over well.”

He leaned against a tree and reached out to push a stray lock of burnished gold hair from her eyes. She found the act lovely and natural. They both sensed there was something more underneath it all. They weren’t just two buddies passing the time of day to stave off boredom, catching up on old times, swapping stories to impress or garner attention. It was happening fast, but that didn’t negate the existence of something more stirring between them.

They liked each other’s company, had begun to click, even started to understand the direction and content of their thoughts before all the words were said. It was as if they had always known they might trust each other–when they were seventeen, more captivated by Rita’s boisterous energy?– but had put it aside and so now they resurrected the actual possibility.

Mari took a step backwards, then came forward once more as he carefully opened his arms. They stood there in the warm breeze, hip to hip and chest to chest, minds clarified, their hopefulness magnetic. Like they’d been needing such a moment a long while, and now they were meant to fit.

“Hey there! My gosh! Are you for real?  Is that Marietta Masters and George Hartsell from the good ole, bad ole days? I can’t believe this–twenty-five years later!”

Mari said into George’s ear, “Good grief, that’s Tommy Jenkins, isn’t it! Balding and slouchy but no mistaking him!” 

“Oh, no, not today if ever. Let’s get out of here, lady.”

George grabbed her hand and they ran around the bend of Mimosa pond until they came to his car, a vintage green MG. “Let’s head out to the country, what do you say?”

They had managed to leave the town a few miles behind when George shouted into the wind, grinning like a madman at Mari, “By the way, I already own six of your prints and two paintings!”

Mari smacked his arm as her eyes teared up. She wasn’t sure if it was the heady Tennessee spring wind that got to her or the sudden start up of actual happiness. But she did know her mother would forgive her for not sharing the whole truth. She would even cheer her on, then hug the breath right out of her and say, “Told you that all good things come to those who are just willing to hang on and wait, darlin’.”

Aunt Cara, Dragons and Crows

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Photo by William Eggelston

I hadn’t planned on a stop in town on my way to visit Aunt Cara but her last minute call–“Please get a six-pack of lemon seltzer and two giant chocolate bars”–demanded I park and shop. A Miracle Mart stood next to The Corner Store, another sign of change. It had only been a year since I was last this way, but it was jarring to see cement block and huge advertisement-covered windows jammed against aging timber saddled with the beloved wide sagging porch. A new job had kept me career-engaged. Aunt Cara had been busy getting unhitched from her husband of thirty years, then travelling. I had seen him one last time over a year ago, right before they split up. And now my uncle–no, he was just Lars now–was far away and she languished, alone, weakened.

I entered The General Store, of course, and there was Mr. Brunfeldt with his ancient stained Tigers baseball cap and a clean white long apron stretched about his middle. There was a story to that cap but I had forgotten it and wasn’t going to inquire. I was surprised to not see him chewing a cigar.

“There’s Gen Whitaker, how you been? Been a year, hasn’t it?”

A passing customer with a stuffed backpack nodded at me. I didn’t know him but likely he’d know me after I left thanks to Mr. Brunfeldt. I noded back.

“Hey, Mr. Brunfeldt. Tired from the five hour drive, eager to get to my aunt’s. Where’s the lemon seltzer?”

“Fancy or cheap?”

“Both, not sure what Aunt Cara prefers.”

“The cheap.”

I got both and studied the chocolate. Same dilemma. I got the best of four choices, two fat bars.

I paid him and offered a summary. “Been busy with my new job as Manager at the circuit board plant in Wicks. Still single. Looking for a good dog now that I got a town house. You?”

His eyes warmed in satisfaction. “Well and good for us both. Profits are up with people moving in from greater Wicks area. Jerry is finally gone with his girl over the mountain. My Myra is fair to middling. Isn’t it bad luck Cara got that mess? ”

“Pneumonia, nothing exotic. Of course, she’s getting on just a little like so many. Took its toll. As you likely know. Good for Jerry and his girl.”

The man with the backpack was tapping his foot behind me. I paid and left.

“She shoulda got the pneumonia vaccine like I did,” he added with a sudden cough to underline his smugness.

I let the door slam shut, its little silver bell tinkling furiously. Didn’t he ever replace that tinny thing? Pelton was the one place I’d hoped to avoid from here on out but that wasn’t likely with my mother’s only sister here. Not that I resented her, no. I just had little time for crises and miscellaneous causes. Still my very favorite aunt from both sides, and it had scared me when she took ill like that.

The main street and its buildings held a colorful tinge in late afternoon; sunlight glazed the winking store windows. Two blocks long when I was growing up just a street away, it looked as much as four now. I squinted in the amber light, then decided to stop for coffee. Not Starbucks but maybe better, a new shop with a black and red awning and in the center a small gold dragon. Fire and Water was its name. Not a bad choice, if out of place in provincial Pelton.

The room came to view through a soft murkiness as overhead lighting was spare. Electric candles were flickering upon wood tables, benches at the longer ones and chairs at smaller. There were drapes of red velveteen pulled back from two tall and narrow windows; dwindling light filtered through and on the counter.

“A grande iced, half-caf mocha with almond milk, no whip,” I announced to the barista, hardly believing this was offered or done right. But Hanna got on it. There was a young man humming along with the music track as he cleaned. All in all, a pleasant place.

Seven other customers had their heads in computers or phones. I felt a quiver of envy, wishing I could sit in quiet privacy, too. Guilt visited me with a thump in my heart. I was there for Aunt Cara, after all. It was not vacation time for me. She needed me. I took my chilled coffee, left a nice tip and vowed to return.

A few steps past the door was an alley. Above the entry was hung a sign: “Dragon Alley.” I looked down at the short end where there were two doors, both closed, one painted pine green, one deep red, address numbers above each. Apparently apartments or other businesses. I couldn’t recall what it had been but it looked curiously inviting, in an odd way. I hurried on to my SUV and headed to Aunt Cara’s. My diaphragm quivered at the thought of her drowsing in bed, mouth slack and her hair matted. Like a pitiable old lady. I nearly wept at the possibility.

******

“Here she is, here’s my girl, Genevieve!”

Aunt Cara wrapped her thin arms about my neck and pulled me in for a long one. It ended when chesty cough erupted. I waited, alarmed, until it faded, then pulled my suitcase to the staircase. She was propped up on the couch, her worn Pendleton blanket pulled close to chest. Just fifty-five, twenty years older than I yet she looked aged for a moment. Still, tenderness and elation filled me, so relieved was I to see her up at all.

“I thought you’d never get here, I was waiting all day. I know that traffic can be terrible. Look at you, good as gold to come see me! Cropped hair, looks pretty, but what’s that on your wrist?”

I covered the tattoo with my sleeve. “Just a bird. Time for a full once-over later, Aunt Cara. Let me look at you. You’ve lost about ten pounds and your color is, well, paler. But you’re sitting up. With a side plate of crackers and cheese!”

“You now I won’t starve. Marie’s just next door, you recall her?”

“I do, a great neighbor. I need to get your seltzer so you can cool your chest and swallow that snack. And I see pills.”

“The last of antibiotics, dear, that’s all. Well, a couple more things.”

As I got the ice for her seltzer, I shook off tentacles of fear. It was a new feeling in this home. Cara was always the hearty sunflower to my mother’s hothouse orchid. I was used to seeing her ruddy-cheeked, busy with work and chores and hobbies, volunteering. A hospital administrator, she was exposed to all sorts of things yet covered at work for those who got ill. She flew from one season to the next with nary a sore throat. Until this late summer, after a trip to Alaska. After she was left on her own.

“Here you go.”

She sipped on it with gratitude, popped a pill into her mouth, then another. “I know, it’s weird! It got a hold of me when I was in Anchorage, I think, just felt so tired, chest heavy in that beautiful air. In the mountains I thought, altitude. But it stayed on, a cough and shiver here and there. By the time my plane landed, I felt feverish. And then it hit me when the taxi driver let me out at the curb. I had to ask him to take my suitcase to the door, I was so weak.”

I had heard it all before but listened intently. “Humiliating, no doubt. I’m sorry, Auntie. I’m glad you didn’t end up in the hospital. It worried me so much but have come when I could. I’ll do all I can for the next week.”

She flapped her hand at me as if it was no big thing. “I’m not contagious, that’s good. But pretty wiped out. Still, I’ve had good help here and there…I knew I’d be better soon.”

“Marie is such a good friend, and I’m sure the book club, your hospital friends pitched in.”

She nodded, turned her head toward the bay window. I followed her dreamy gaze. Early fall sunset spreading its vibrancy, a warm backdrop behind other houses. No skyscrapers poking the dusk, no rumbling, clanging metro train to interrupt us.

Aunt Cara pushed herself up to sit a little taller. “Did you see it when you went to The General Store?”

“What? I could be in another town altogether, it was odd.”

“That fancy new coffee shop.”

I held out my iced mocha. “Yes, been there. Not that fancy…”

“Ah, but it’s excellent, right? Such an interesting place!” She gave me a slow, liquid smile, then lay back.

“You don’t like coffee that much, do you?”

“But the teas, they’re wonderful, homemade herbal blends.” She tilted her head at me. “Why not go on up to your room and unpack? We’ll order take-out soon, then we can talk until I’m ruined by all the news and excitement.”

Her laugh followed me up the stairs, then dissolved into a fit of coughing. I paused on the top step, listening to the deep bass of it. How it must hurt. I hurried to the guest room, really my room, unpacked the basics all the while thinking of quiet, steady and highly ambitious Uncle Lars. How I wished they had never divorced. So she wasn’t alone and could count on his level head and hearty ways. So he’d read to her, regale he with stories. But that was my fantasy. He was long gone, back in his native Sweden with his old company. Damn, why did he have to love work more than Aunt Cara? But I missed him, the good parts I’d known.

I ran back down to find her up and at the window, holding on to the forest green wingback chair, hand to chest, her thoughts far off. She looked so wane and small. Was she thinking of Sweden, too?

“Aunt Cara, you need to take it easy!” I bit my lip as a rush of tears blurred my vision.

“Yes,” she agreed, taking my arm, feeling light as a rag doll, “so let’s order Thai and then talk, talk, talk. Or you talk, Genevieve. I’ll listen.”

I tucked her in at the couch, took her order, called the Thai place from the screened back porch. I wanted to breathe the clear fall air one moment. A crickets’ chorus rounded out the night; a wave of longing rose and fell.

******

It was early and I was not in work gear but scrambling eggs with dill, shredded cheddar and sausage in  Aunt Cara’s white and blue kitchen. And she somehow shuffled down the stairs most of the way before I got to her.

I took her arm. “I wanted to serve you breakfast in bed.”

“Had enough of that.” She paused to catch her breath. “I want to sit with my niece in sunshine. Well, it’s peeking out behind clouds, it’ll be brighter soon.” She planted a damp kiss on my cheek. “Let’s go to the screened porch.”

“It’s cold there.”

“I have blankets for us and we have coffee and tea. We’ll be cozy. Who, by the way, is gorging on all that?”

“We are. Well, you’re going to eat little of it.” I finished the eggs and toasted two slices of bread, but helped her out to the porch then went back for two mugs and plates.

“Now, cover up or we’ll have to go back in,” I ordered and she did as told, tossing one to me.

The birds and squirrels were talking and we were, too, when her cell phone rang from her sweatpants’ pocket. Aunt Cara clutched an armrest and listened. Five rings, then nothing. She picked at more sausage as I told her about my co-workers. The phone rang again, three times, then nothing and she pulled the phone out, glanced at it then put it away.

“Someone important?” I asked, gathering dishes.

Her ivory skin flushed with pink. “Oh, just a neighbor. I’ll get it later.”

But as I busied myself in the kitchen she made her way back to the living room, blanket pulled snug about her. I could just hear her muffled voice. In a few moments, she wandered back in.

“Where did you put that chocolate?” she asked.

“What? At seven in the morning? You barely ate half the breakfast, your blood sugar will go haywire.”

“What am I, your charge? Goodness, Genevieve, give your ailing auntie her chocolate. It is elixer for goddesses and humans. Then I have an errand for you.”

“Where?”

“To Dragon Alley. Right by the coffee shop, Fire and Water.”

I balanced a big plate with silver edging on sudsy hands. Pointed to chocolate bars at the end of counter with my jutted chin.

“Whatever is there? I saw it yesterday. A little sign above an alley.”

“Right. I need you to pick up a blend of herbs for me–there’s an herbalist in business there.”

I squinted at her, trying to discern more of the truth.

She laughed. “No, not that sort of herb! Justin is a certified herbalist, he makes natural medicines. He’s helped me so much, you have no idea, even the doctor was amazed how well I seemed the last visit. He doesn’t agree with it all, but he doesn’t forbid me–as well he should not.” Eyebrows wiggled up and down and she laughed again.

And her face slowly softened as if time was melting away despite stubborn cough and weakness. It was like seeing my mother come back to me, those expressive brown eyes, the same full bottom lip and slender top one that gave generous smiles, how her brown hair with bits of shining grey swirled around her thin cheeks.

I caught my breath but shrugged. “Anything to make you get better faster. When does his shop open?”

“He’ll have it waiting for you in an hour.”

******

I ordered a hot regular coffee at Fire and Water, then lingered a moment until Hanna the barista had a moment. There were two others helping customers so I caught her eye again.

“Can you tell me something about Dragon Alley?”

She snickered.”Oh, that’s just for the fun of it, but the herbalist is excellent. Even in uptight Pelton people have finally agreed some products are useful. I go for the skin care.”

I had to admit her skin was smooth and bright even in the shadowy shop. “So he can help sick people?”

“He has, from what I hear. He doesn’t do any harm…and he owns this coffee shop, too. He moved here from, hmm, maybe British Columbia? He has a little bit of accent.” Lynn leaned closer. “He’s nice looking, too–doesn’t hurt as far as some are concerned. He’s a very good boss.” She ooked at my wrist. “Cool tatoo.”

I glanced down at it. “Thanks.”

She was tapped on the shoulder by the young man, so got to work.

I marched to Dragon’s Alley to find out who this person was who was feeding my aunt herbs and flowers and likely other mysteriously contrived concoctions.

It was the door to the right, Hanna had said; the place to the left was his home. As I reached for the door handle, I spotted the narrow brass name plate on the building: Justin Q. Michel, Herbalist. She entered.

The rush of air was redolent of so many scents I couldn’t separate one from the other. The effect was less disorienting than enlivening though I felt momentarily faint. I grabbed a stool by a narrow window. Rows and rows of clear glass bottles were shelved around the room. Tins of teas and pretty packets of sachet lined the counter. When I heard footsteps, I turned and found myself caught off guard by the disarming gaze of Justin Q. Michel.

“Good morning! How may I help you this lovely day?”

His accent was a lilting, gentle French–perhaps French Canadian, I guessed. And he was at least her aunt’s age, rangy but sturdy, his strong boned face weathered by wind, sun and extreme temperatures. Falling over his lined forehead was a curve of steel grey and wavy hair; it reached his sweater collar. Was he an agrarian, an adventurer or what? Justin barely tilted his head at me.

“I’m here for my aunt’s herbal medicine, for her cough.”

“Ah.” Justine set his feet apart, placed fngers and thumbs together in a tent shape. “You must be Genevieve.” It was prounounced the French way, soft, pretty. His hand then extended over the counter top; she took it. “She told me all about you, and now you are dispatched on her errands. How good of you to help her.”

“Of course, I’m her niece. Her son lives in Europe.I’m five hours away. I worry about her here, alone, but she never gets sick. I mean, she did get sick and I was so busy that I…” I pressed my lips together. What was I going on about? I needed the medicine. “Is it ready?”

“Yes, surely you worry, not living close enough to watch over her. But she undertands.”

He already had the order waiting and rang me up. I took the package, hesitating.

“She is in good hands, you must not be stressed. She has fine friends, is strong, goodhearted, loves life greatly. Can’t miss with these! Cara will be well soon, up and going again, well, she has…elan…I will personally see to it.”

“Okay, thanks for the reassurance. ” I eyed him. “Say, why that name of the alley? Is it something you did? It is quite fantasical.”

Justin laughed. “Dragons. Well, they were powerfully majestic according to some, beasts of destruction according to others. Were they real or fantasy creatures dreamed up by those who needed to believe in them? Does it even matter? We believe what we need to believe, eh? I believe in what speaks to our health, may connect us to wisdom, to the heart and spirit of life.” He lifted his hands, palms up. “And a good name to remember, right? It helps point the way to something different, to the power of nature’s healing.”

“Good answer. I think. And Aunt Cara is a romantic, a dreamer deep down inside, no wonder she likes this place.”

“Yes, she is; our Cara is… a good woman. Send her my best wishes.”

I thanked him, left, got in the SUV and suddenly felt rudely awakened.

Our Cara.” It was Justin. It was he who helped, was there for her, was important in recovery from her loss, the pneumonia. Or maybe he was there before the divorce, I would never know. But I almost got it. Aunt Cara had been a woman often left to her own devices, someone who hoped to share a life more fully than Lars could ever manage. She was one to dance in the street, to try to count stars, to swing on the hammock while reading aloud the meaning of flowers. Who went the extra mile for her staff, still did for many others. Not because she had to. Because she cared and could not do otherwise. After my mother had died, Aunt Cara was there lifting me up with letters and  packages of pear jam and homemade brownies, phone calls to tell me I was going to make it, I was well-loved.

Now Cara was watched over by one Justin Q. Michel, herbalist. She was not lonely, anymore. Things were changing in Pelton, and even more for Aunt Cara.

When I arrived with the prescriptive plants, I held her close. Aunt Cara patted and rubbed my back then tapped it three times as she did when I was very small. Ravenous, we ate Thai leftovers on the couch, feet raised on Lazy-Boy foot rests.

“What is the tattoo, Genevieve?”

“A crow.” I pulled up my sleeve and she peered at it. “He kept watch at my building for three years. Sat in an old oak tree, watching all, and sometimes he flew down to squawk at me. At least, I thought he tried to talk to me or maybe fuss at me and I always looked for him, even named him Cyrus. He was a comfort during that last terrible job that made me dread each work day for years. And then one morning Cyrus wasn’t there. Not dead to my knowledge and not lame. Just gone. He had moved out, moved on, found a better spot. I took it as a sign. I quit my job, got this new one and moved to another place. Now all is well.” I smoothed the rendering of my bird’s feathers.

“And I thought you were the realist among us!” Aunt Cara chuckled.

“Aren’t I? Sometimes you have to interpret reality new ways.”

“That’s my girl, my Genevieve!”

“True, I am always and forever your girl.”

And that was the gist of the story in funny old Pelton, less me helping my aunt and more us helping each other. Sometimes, too, an old hometown is misunderstood or it changes, like magic.