Castoffs

Every morning they are already on the train and if I haven’t had my two cups of black coffee to wake me up, I find myself sitting across the aisle from them by default. I try to avoid them because I don’t think much of the dog.

It’s a couple in their sixties or more plus their dog. The woman wears those glasses that change with light conditions, big black frames. I like her purple bag. The man wears glasses, too, and somehow he looks like he has had good jobs. He always has that brown hat and leather jacket on. Their yipping, scrappy mongrel dog acts energized and whiney if I look at it very long. I want to say it’s a boy, I don’t know why, females can be scrappy, too–I’m one of them. The four-legged is maybe a terrier mix. My Great-uncle Ken had one once. I never liked it; it’s fur got knotted and it smelled bad like he did. It was too friendly, if you know what I mean, I had to give him a push, kick him away. Uncle Ken would laugh then pick him up then like he was the most adorable kid who did a cute trick.

So maybe that’s why I took an instant if minor dislike at the start. The couple is okay, chats to themselves very little; the woman hugs the little beast. I wonder when it will get kicked off the train. When has it been okay to bring animals onto public transit? No one looks blind, no one seems out of it. But she dotes on it more than necessary so I guess it’s her dog, a creature who helps people who’ve got trouble out in the world. A mental health dog. She mumbles to it at times, poor old gal.

I suppose you can say I was one of those people, though. That is, I got into trouble for years, used to make wrong decisions, not the reasonable ones. Like stealing stuff I could sell and hanging out with older criminal types and driving without a license and getting into a fight here and there.  But after a long vacation in “juvie”, that was enough. Now I’m twenty-two, go to work every day cleaning an old, once-fancy apartment building with thirty large units, thanks to my cousin’s friend who manages it. I don’t mind being paid to clean as I’m an orderly and clean-cut person now, you couldn’t spot me as anything else unless you were savvy. Anyway, I like to leave things better than when I arrive. One week-ends there are a few offices to clean. I make ends meet, barely, and live in a studio apartment twenty blocks from work.

One morning this dog lady and her husband or boyfriend, they’re directly across from me. I have a headache and don’t want that dog near me. But there’s nowhere else to sit so I plop down with a canvas bag full of my own special cleaning aids. The lady looks up, big eyes startled, as if I look weird or she recalled something serious or had sudden pain. And she hangs on tight to the dog who has gotten an interest in the bag I just dropped. I have a bologna sandwich in a paper bag in there, too, so pull it onto my lap.

The hungry pooch settles down a bit. The man glances my way, stares through me as if he is thinking hard and the woman follows his gaze. I look away, turn my body a bit, but when I look back she is still gazing at me. I tend to get a little paranoid. Do I know them from the past? Did I steal something of theirs? I doubt that’s the reason she’s looking at me, that was five years ago, but ignore her as usual without much luck.

“You a cleaner?” she asks, eying the bag which has a spray bottle or two sticking out.

Her voice sounds rusty and quiet; her eyes stay with my bag, her dog squirmy. I nod, look out a window.

“We got a place you could clean. We pay decent. See you here all the time, you seem okay.”

Her husband looks at me then, checking me out. I stare back, give a hint of smile, an acknowledgment.

“I’m pretty busy, thanks, though.”

The lady shakes her head, that bleached blond hair bouncing a bit. “Shame. We need somebody.” She hugs the dog.

But the man sits forward, leans forearms on his bony thighs. “I have a store. Pawn shop. Too dusty these days but the old help I had to fire, stole things.” His language sounds distinctive, like he was raised elsewhere and can’t shake the accent.

My head involuntarily turns to him and I try to be nicer “I’m sorry.”

He nods, slumps back, puts an arm around his lady. I’m surprised to see him act fond of her as she gives more attention to that half-cute, half-annoying dog than to him. It yaps at me but not meanly. I get off the next stop.

******

I think about the pawn shop all week. I like to collect things. Legitimately now. A powerful draw to a store full of odds and ends, of old stuff and junk. It must be good if they are still running it at their ages. But I’m busy already, tired of cleaning by Saturday.

One night I wake up and lie there in pitch black. I have been dreaming of a dog trotting and prancing about, and then I’m trying to catch him, rushing past aisles of towering shelves that teeter and fall about us as we start to run toward the exit, his tail disappearing out the bright door. He barks with joy; he does not attack my legs.

It is a sign of something.

******

This time I look for them. It takes me a couple of minutes to spot them down the way and find a small space to sit. They glance my way, say nothing. I don’t want to jumpstart a conversation when they got the message I wasn’t interested, but I’d like info, anyway.

“Hey, morning.”

The lady looks disinterested but politely. The dog is snoozing or pretending on her big lap.

“Do I have to apply for it? I might get a day free now and again.”

The man turns; the lady smiles down at her dog.

He says, “You could stop by tonight at five and fill out an application if you want. But we need someone soon and more than now and then…There’s a guy, he might take it.”

“Oh.” I think that over. “Okay, give me the address.”

It’s not so far from the apartment building I clean, two stops after mine. I try to recall if I have seen it but don’t think  so.

The lady pipes up. “Nice you’re thinking it over. You never know.”  She let the dog down. It was on a leash but manages to sniff my boots all over then sits up tall, looking me over. “That’s Kristoff.  He’s five.”

“Okay, so I’m Jamie Marsh,” I say.

“Cheslav and Mel Krakov. ”

We relax a little as if relieved for that much to be over.

“Our store is Cheslav’s Castoffs.”

How corny, I think, but my stop is coming up and I stand. “Later, then.”

******

From the outside it looks sort of haunted, mysterious, a set for a Hitchcock movie, all that heavy grey stone so darkly wet now it is raining. A small gargoyle above the door. There are offices in the stories above, and at least their rooms look brighter. The store front windows are a jumble of objects arrayed on too-dark flowing cloth. Dusty looking. Immediately I think how it can be more eye-catching and I am unbalanced by eagerness. I’m just a cleaning woman and a good one.

I pull open the black metal door and a jangling bell rings. Kristoff runs forward, tail wagging, then sits with tongue out and waits. His face looks happy, like he’s had a good day. I feel like talking to him, not his humans, but of course say nothing. The low lighting casts a somber sheen on the tables and shelves full of shadowy items, and a display of shined up musical instruments and a pieces of furniture that look worth something.

“So, you came,” Cheslav strides forward, hand extended.

I shake it. I hadn’t suspected he had such energy, while Mel takes halting steps behind him. She has a paper in her hand that I am to fill out, which I do while sitting on a stool at a black metal cafe table in one corner. Afterwards, they take me on a quick tour. I am shocked that it looks a lot like it did in my dream, but aging pawn or junk shops just look this way, I realize: groaning with tools to watches and clocks to inlaid or otherwise exotic boxes to fancy lamps to roll top desks to a couple old-fashioned phones to brass candlesticks to glass bowls to…. I feel dizzy looking up, it’s not organized in any way that makes sense to me. Lots of hidden corners behind shelving, high ceilings rather cobwebby and making me sneeze several times. Mel hands me a tissue and also blows her own nose.

“What do you think?” she asks, wiping her nose dry. “Do you find it interesting, Jamie? Like odd stuff?”

I feel myself starting to shrug but that’s my old way so I offer, “I think I do.”

“Good, then we’ll check out the application,” Cheslav chimes in.

“Why bother?” Mel picks up Kristoff, who has been following us everywhere. “That other guy never came, after all,” she says glancing at me. “When would you start, say, once or twice a week at first?”

“What do you pay?”

Cheslav walks over to the front counter as I look at the sparkly earrings in the glass case between us. “What do you need?”

“Eighteen an hour, at least six hours a day, Saturday and Sunday. Your place needs a lot of help and I work hard.”

Cheslav rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll get back to you.”

Mel walks me to the door, fuzzy dog in her arms but reaching to lick my hand as I grab a door handle. “It’ll work out. Kristoff likes you.”

When Mel truly smiles her whole face changes, beams. I like how that happens, though clearly she doesn’t feel all that well with bum legs.

******

So, my adult work record and personal recommendations (a cousin and a friend of his) satisfies them and soon I work there every week-end. My friend Louise says I’m nuts, the offices are less taxing and more money if I work overtime. But they’re boring and Cheslav’s Castoffs is not, I tell her. Which is better, a good environment or just money? She doesn’t argue; she cleans bathrooms and more at two big gyms and a massage joint.

When I get done with the cleaning which is never-ending, really, taxing and requires me to wear a respirator, I start to order things a bit. Front windows are first. I find and shake out some bright red and yellow fabrics to replace the dirty velveteen cloths. I clean up and better situate fine tea sets and a violin, trumpets and two kinds of flutes and elegant vases with fake flowers and plants (need to talk to them about trying out real flowers now and then) and so on. I worry that I am too aggressive in my desire to fix up the appearance but after they tentatively agree, Cheslav and Mel take turns strolling by, checking things out yet say little after two weeks. I keep at it.

Kristoff finds me a few times a day though Mel calls after him. I don’t want to get too friendly, he’s her prized possession, I get it so I just acknowledge him with a short pat on his little head, let him look over my work, too. He likes the giant feather duster I use so I have to watch that but avoids the cleaners so it is okay, overall. I like his pep.

I begin to feel at home there, with the customers who notice me as they leave with their money or something they like. All sorts of strange things come in–embellished saddle for a small pony, a drum kit that has been bashed half to bits, a groups of so-called Native American rings that Cheslav insists are fake turquoise and what is the woman trying to pull? I steal looks at them, some from sketchy places and some from uptown, some desperate and others just passing time. But most often I’m cleaning, polishing, rearranging. And I find that although I admire most of the objects, I am not the least bit interested in pilfering them. I oddly like my work more, just being there.

After six weeks, Mel and Cheslav corner me by the five grandfather clocks.

“How is it going for you now? You’re pretty good.” Cheslav says this as if moderately interested and being nice.

“Do you like it enough to work here full-time?” Mel gets straight to the point, one hand holding the small of her sore back, lined face excited. Kindly.

“Going good. And yes.” I’m as surprised as they by my easy response. But I’d far rather be here than cleaning apartments. “Can you afford me, though? I have bills, you know, and my studio isn’t so cheap.”

“We have a house with much room–” She clutches Kristoff tightly and he yelps.

Cheslav takes the dog from her carefully, sets him down so he could explore. “We pay you well enough, Jamie, and if things work out well, we’ll talk more.”

“Give me two weeks to hand in notices.”

At closing time about three weeks later, Cheslav finds me in the kitchenette where we took breaks and ate lunch.

“I want to tell you something. So you understand things.”

I respect him and I like to hear his accent–faintly Russian– but I feel a frisson of fear. He is going to get personal about things. I hate personal in general. Can’t we just be a good employee and two good employers and call it good?

“Mel has slowly changed since you came. She had two hip surgeries and didn’t much want to get back to the store. But I won’t yet retire. And when our son was killed last year…”

“Oh.”

“A war correspondent. Afghanistan.” His right fingers and thumb press closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“He was so good in every way. But he paid the price of such work. Our Kristoff…blasted away at forty-five.”

A chill runs through me; I feel a little sick. I don’t know what to say, how to comfort an old man, a father. The dog creeps up to my ankles, panting as if he’s made a last round of the store and is reporting in.

“Kristoff…” I pick up the dog. He licks me on nose and cheek before I can fend him off.

Cheslav gets a hold of himself. “Glad we found each other, Jamie, hope you can stick around.” He gave her a rare gap-toothed grin, then waved at his wife. “Here she comes. Don’t say anything, eh? Things take their time.”

“There you are, Kristoff! Found a new buddy, have you? Such a fine dog you are.” She takes him gently, pulls him close. “Another day comes, another goes, Jamie. Time to get home and rest.”

I turn away. I’m not ready to feel all this, I’m only a grown up delinquent who became a good cleaning woman to survive, and I’m grateful for this curious job. And they find me more than acceptable. That simple realization settling in my head is priceless.

 

The Snow House

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Anya was sitting at her desk, ostensibly corresponding with her daughter. She had also been watching activity across the street for the better part of an hour. It was possible Karolina might no longer grace their neighborhood with her presence. A Lincoln had pulled up at the curb. A woman in navy and ivory attire and carrying a briefcase emerged. She walked briskly to Karolina’s door and was allowed in without hesitation.

If that was all there was to it, Anya might not have looked up again. But as she began her next sentence on the second page of pale blue stationary, movement caught her eye. Karolina and the other woman were walking the property, pointing and talking with what Anya saw as restrained animation. Karolina didn’t typically emote. Being effusive was forbidden from what Anya could tell. This lack of responsiveness determined all else about her neighbor, she thought, pen tapping pressed lips–except for only one time.

The two women beyond were deep in discussion along the eastern property line, then disappeared behind the house. She imagined them heading down the side steps, pretty shoes landing firmly on each deep step as they descended to that broad forested view. The breathtaking royal blue tiled pool. It was an oval pool. Who could appreciate an oval pool, neither suitable for laps nor comfortable enough for a good number to enjoy at once? It was like a mirror image of sky as one plunged in. As Anya had done a few times, once unintentionally. All that was before they stopped speaking ten months ago.

Anya turned back to her desk in the book-lined study and re-read page one of the letter. She was trying to not give advice to Tricia about her love life or career. She was instead sharing a little of her own experiences, hoping they’d demonstrate the value of both prudence and spontaneity. So far she’d not done so well but it was only eleven, plenty of time to shape tone and intent. It was worth the effort. Thoughts shared with someone you loved ought be indelible, not allowed the flippant, temporal nature of electronic words. One had to be careful on paper as in living, but not withholding. The balance was delicate.

She heard someone laugh through the study’s second story window. Not Karolina, surely. They were half out the front door, then the stranger turned, went to the street, got in her car and departed. The front door–heavy steel painted white to match the rest–was shut like an exclamation point in the surrounding silence.

The sound jarred her; she put down the ink pen. Anya stood and stared at that house of serious angles, its blank, clean materials lending a fine severity that suited Karolina. A house that Anya had once coveted–she’d first found its structure organic yet imaginative–but hadn’t been able to afford when in the market for a good house. Her husband’s medical practice had barely gotten started fifteen years ago. She’d gazed out her window enough while still dreaming of it to have redesigned the landscape, changed the door color and re-thought the interior a hundred times. That house was stone cold inside. It would protest at a barest twitter of vivacity, then relent happily if it was her hand on it.

But now, the white door, a barricade not to be breached, remained shut. It had been that way more often than not since Karolina took it into her possession. Now she would fully vacate it.

Anya had known this might happen sooner or later at the start. From the time they met and established they were both from St. Petersburg, there had been something about Karolina, a restlessness and emptiness that seemed at odds with her career success. The new neighbor had noted she was born and mostly raised in Prague. She had only stayed in St. Petersburg when her father was an unemployed professor; they had lived–he’d found a bit of work–with distant cousins for a year or so when she was twelve. So she said. Anya wondered over such abbreviated history–was it a short time in Russia? she knew quite a bit about it–but was pleased to meet her.

They had not gone to the same school or known the same people, Anya being four years older, her parents chemist and nurse, respectively. They had later  both attended university but Karolina had moved back to Prague, eventually worked and lived many places. Anya had become a medical researcher. Karolina  lilsted some of her emplyment on her long fingers: “journalist for a Czech news service; taught four languages in a Greek program, then in England; then there was my horse training business in the U.S. and other things”, all of which made her money. Her checkerboard past was put away after that. When she bought the gleaming white house, she was overseeing a travel agency.

Still, they had a few memories to share. Aya felt a swell of pleasure over the serendipity. But Karolina did not, though at first she noted that humble, famous bakery and museums of history and art so intimidating and beautiful, the parks for all, and of course the snow, the blazing snow. The deep ache of winters as well as blinding beauty, waiting in warmth and safety until spring broke apart all the frozen parts. It made you thrive with strength or it made you weak, Anya mused. Karolina was quiet. So few understood how Anya felt, what she missed, not even her husband when he took her there. He got cold fast, stayed cold. So they were hers, the memories, as she and Carl returned to their rain-blessed house.

Anya touched fingertips to the warm glass of her window; it appeared she was touching roof of the alluring house across from her. She was jarred by a thought. She would be able to get inside again when the Open House allowed potential buyers to troop through. She could see what had been changed or not, how Karolina had retained her austere mark or erased it. Was it possible for a personality to be more bloodless than she’d appeared during the last months? Like ice. Even as it slowly melts it will disappear into the vast thirst of the earth: Karolina had become invisible.

It had always looked like a a snow house to Anya, cool and warm at once, given to the magic of light’s variations, subtle yet obvious in its beauty. Karolina kept it cold and remote as her personality dictated.

Perhaps that was unfair of her to think of her neighbor, once more friendly. She was clearly more often gone as verified by the voiceless house, the many cabs that retrieved and returned her again. It was said she found another business opportunity, was moving fast.

She returned to her desk, mind cluttered with more than she could sort. The blue page awaited its next lines.

My dearest Tricia, having friends is far more important than you might realize, so I do hope you’ll consider this when factoring in attributes of your new love interest, as well. Will he be a loyal friend of yours no matter what? One who embraces your other ones as being good for you? Or will he be an intrusion on your circle, an impediment to good times shared? Will he, Tricia, turn closeness into a precarious thing with one word or look thrown in a surprising direction? He must trust you and you, him.

******

The definitive waning afternoon on a Saturday when Anya and her husband, Carl, were invited for drinks started like any other. Perhaps sunnier; it was just June but heat had imbued the air more deeply that typical for Oregon. There were also Ellen and Milt (Carl’s older medical practice partner), their happy sidekicks. Karolina was single. It had been a non-issue. Sometimes there was a male friend, sometimes not.

She sat with her arms resting on metal arm rests, thin hands dangling, a silver bangle loose atop prominent wrist bones. They encircled a sea foam green glass tabletop. It was smooth on the surface, rippled underneath. Anya liked this piece, it reminded her of a river that had been dammed. Karolina had drawn her eyebrows together at the observation: well, Anya, it’s only ordinary heavy glass.

“Well, it’s that time again,” Milt began and they all knew he’d be talking about his boat. Ellen smiled absently; she also loved boating. “Day trips, a few long week-ends if I can finagle them from Carl.” He wriggled his eyebrows at Ellen. “My wife has to break in her new swim suit before Corfu in October.”

“The boat, always that boat,” Carl said , then quaffed his drink. “She rivals Ellen in allure– and after all these years, both romances still going strong!”

Ellen raised her goblet, then nudged Anya, lowered her voice. “He’s thinking of heading somewhere gorgeous, within a stone’s throw. Wait for it.”

“Corfu? What happened to Santorini?” Karolina’s words came out languid but edgy, as if miffed by hearing herself speak of something so boring. “Why not try something else this time? I can get you exactly what you need. Better yet, something you didn’t even know you wanted until you get there.”

“Sorry, Karolina. The best rates at that hotel we liked before– it has become a tradition, as you know. For our anniversary.” Ellen pushed back a longish fringe of graying hair and her eyes warmed. “I wish we could skip summer and go straight to Corfu.”

“But first, another treat,” Milt said. He leaned forward,  palms flat on the table, his eyes dancing with delight.

They were more than fond of Milt. His moon-shaped face was noteworthy, pockmarked by youthful acne and a broad smile, eyes that revealed kindness. He could talk you into anything. And Ellen was a friend you could count on, a partner who knew more about her husband’s work than most would care about, while her own career as a computer programmer had flourished. She’d just left  it “in favor of general fun.”

“Tell us before we die of suspense, Milt,” Anya said.

“I’m taking you all to the Channel Islands, we’ll hang out around Catalina Island a couple days– as soon as we can clear our calendars for ten days. What do you say to that?”

They all whooped. Except Karolina.

“I can’t possibly, it’s such a hectic season. But thanks.”

She frowned at no one in particular, threw an irritated look toward the pool, as if not in the mood for talk, or perhaps she thought it foolish to even consider her. Light sparked the pool’s quiet water as a breeze ran over its surface; she blinked twice and her gaze fell.

“Bring it on, I’m ready to be another passenger on your legendary boating trips!” Anya clapped her hands in excitement. “I know you love and care for that boat like you would your neediest patient. Oh, by the way, I get a bit seasick…as you know. I’ll need meds and good care, Doc.”

“Oh, watch it, Anya took a shine to you long ago, Milt and now she’s playing helpless!” Ellen chortled. “I know for a fact that you are a good sailor, anyway, my dear.”

They talked about the possibilities, if they could manage it fast. How to get the boat down there with time left. What Carl and Anya would pitch in, to help with costs. They could likely make it by early September. Karolina was quiet, but she knew about boating. She had co-owned a small yacht, she’d mentioned, in her Mediterranean period before Martha’s Vineyard, before Chicago, and the Northwest. It was resoundingly not the Pacific Ocean. She showed some interest in their plans, she just didn’t share in their pleasure.

“Well, I’m thrilled. But it won’t be the same without you, Karolina,” Carl said, his eyes falling on her face, then pausing a beat longer than usual, as if he saw her anew. “We’ll send you photos of the fun you’re missing.” He emptied his goblet of wine again, eyes not moving off her.

Karolina opened her mouth, made a little circle with her lips and a simple “Ooh…” was emitted. Then, “Mmm…” The she looked to Milt and asked for more details about his boat, her hand smoothing the skin of her throat.

It was the angle of the light, Ellen said later as if that was all there was to it, nothing more. Her long brunette hair shone in an elongated patch that slid across her chest and neck, full lips, then lingered on the slant and rise of her cheekbones. They made her face, far more than her eyes which were wide-set and grey with something else. That mighty bone structure made her seriousness dominant, yet it hinted at more, a sensuality underplayed but ever present.

Anya had never seen her husband look at another woman that way, as if he was awakened suddenly, then on full alert. Even though he’d drunk how many goblets of wine? That’s what she thought when she went into the house to grab the new bottle of wine from the cement slab counter. Ellen followed.

“What on earth was that?” Anya asked. “Some sort of flirty maritime code between those two? He’s never done that around her. No one. His eyes locked with hers, Ellen! It’s–weird!”

“Never mind, let it go,” her friend advised. “Be at peace, dear, she casts a shadow as fast as that beam. He’s a very good man, but he isn’t perfect…neither is Milt. A glance is nothing.”

Karolina gazed at Anya on her way back; in it was a rebuke or a warning. It morphed into a half-smile. But late afternoon became early evening as it tended to, and then they ordered pizza as small ground lights around the pool’s area illuminated well enough. That pool was bold and bright. So, by then, were they.

How can a person know for sure what will happen with a few drinks,  a clear and promising sky above, perfect water and easy chatter? But Anya saw it once more, that telegraph of information from Karolina to her her, then to Carl, the moment’s smallness exuding a power she hadn’t expected. A chill.

Carl was a solid husband, she knew that. He was also magnetic. He couldn’t help himself, it was in his sinew and joints–that way he moved like a wild cat. It was in his voice, a dash of lemon in a sea of sweet tea, the way he kidded. He complained in the early days that all this was an nuisance and impediment, that he was taken less seriously and women didn’t hear him, they saw him and what good was it when you had to teach people self-are or tried to save a life? Anya found him to be her best friend from the start. She wasn’t that keen on fancy looks–that kind of man was risky– but was all over his kindness and intelligence. They had fallen in love. After the first few years, she stopped thinking of it. It had been nearly twenty together now.

Karolina had decided to swim. She had dressed in a white silk caftan scattered with salmon pink petals. She pulled it over her head and revealed the modest white-and-grey striped suit that hid nothing. Anya knew it well, they sometimes swam together.

“I will let you talk on–I need to get in that pool.”

“Why didn’t you tell us to bring our suits?” Ellen was disappointed, considered going back home for hers.

“Glad you didn’t mention it, not up to it,” Milt said.

“Ditto,” Carl agreed.

“I just always like an evening swim…”

Carl stood and sauntered around the pool. Paused to watch her, then walked a bit again, his fourth or fifth drink in hand, navy polo shirt rumpled, unbuttoned. He took off his sandals and decided to dangle his feet in the water. He sat and kicked the water, stole a glance at Anya, then Karolina.

Karolina looked unperturbed, which was how she usually was except for the show of irritation earlier. Her arms spread out about her, she was a cool white flower rotating in blue water, legs moving like they were at home, body wafting to and fro,  in a slow circle about the pool. A lotus, Anya thought, lovely, untouchable. At the far edge of the pool, Anya saw her husband think about slipping into that inviting water, hands tugging on his shirt, khakis darkening where water crept up the legs. Karolina changed herself from a lotus to dolphin and upended herself in a dive, sinous arms and legs propelling her deeper and deeper until she touched the bottom.

“What’s going on over here?” Ellen asked, Milt right behind her.

“Don’t ruin all your good clothes, buddy,” Milt called out sharply, warning Carl, telling him he saw things, too. “Too much to drink, right, my right hand man?”

Carl shrugged oh so nonchalantly, began to lower himself into the dazzling pool.

“Carl! Here I come, honey, ready or not!”

Anya jumped in and swam a mean stroke, shorts hiking up, linen blouse billowing. Just as he was chest deep, she reached for and grabbed  him.

He looked up, eyes blurry with confusion. His breath stank of souring wine. “Going swimming tonight, Anya? Everyone in!”

“Too much to drink like Milt said. Not a good idea. Besides, you’re not exactly the best swimmer even sober, remember?”

He put his arms about her and held tight. She struggled to keep him afloat. “Help…” she said but Ellen was throwing daggers at Karolina.

Milt was watching his wife, then Carl, back to Ellen, torn.”Ellen, don’t consider anything foolish, we can just leave.”

“I love you,” Carl gurgled drunkenly.

“Sure, honey, I know that, could you dog paddle or something, move with me to the side of the pool?”

But Karolina had resurfaced nearby, was treading water as if she were dancing, then floated closer, her cheekbones gleaming silver in the underwater lights. Hair slicked back against her head and back. Wide hungry eyes settled on him.

She’s not a dolphin or a lotus, Anya thought, she’s a shark, as she dragged her husband with her, water sneaking in and making her cough and spit.

“I got him,” Milt pulled Carl with a yank on both arms and Ellen held onto Milt. “Damn.”

“Just a refresher swim,” Carl announced as Anya hoisted herself over pool’s edge.

“That was an escape from pirate waters,” Anya said. Ellen put hands on her ample hips, then looked at Karolina, anger tightening her softly lined face.

And they all three left, only Milt thanking their hostess.

“Thanks for drinks and nibbles, we’re off!”

Karolina’s hand came up from the water in a small salute of acknowledgement, then she dove under.

The last Anya saw of her was this: Karolina floating, her lithe ivory body relaxed but strong, eyes closed, mouth slightly open, that blue pool like a watery cave going dark as the underwater lights suddenly failed. Karolina kept on floating; she was quite undisturbed. Unfathomable.

******

That “For Sale” sign had gloated at her every day; she had moved her desk away from the window and wondered why she hadn’t before. It had been a week and the open house was happening. The white was radiant in early afternoon light. She stood by an open window in the living room, watching.

“Don’t go,” Carl said flatly. “There is no reason for it, we’ve been there and it was not anything we wanted to repeat, remember?”

“I want to know something.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know, I just feel I need to go see it.”

“Don’t even think about buying it. We have a fine home.”

“No…” But the thought had entered her mind more the past week. “It’s a beautiful place. My snow house, I once thought of it as that.” She snickered in embarrassment.

“Snow house. Well.” He brought her close, smelled what he thought was wind and a touch of cinnamon in her hair. “I’ll build you a snow house up the mountain.”

She gave him a squeeze. “But a real one?” They had talked about it once.

He looked down at her, then kissed her forehead. “Yes, if you must have it, you must have it before we get way too old. I have thought so myself. We can have snow up there and our usual permutations of rain and sun down here.”

“A little bit of my Russia in good American mountains.”

She let out a contented sigh. They had had a moment after Karolina’s gathering; it was like a thread pulled and rewoven. They liked to live forward.

******

Anya walked through each finely appointed room and found the entirety of it unattractive. She had worried she would feel nervous, as if she might meet Karolina in a corner. She wondered what she’d been thinking all those years. Maybe she had glimpsed its potential in the beginning. And it was there, still, the contemporary beauty of clean lines and open spaces unburdened by a plethora of objects or disorder. It remained grey, white, grey, black, white everywhere you turned. The light was stark and unrelenting; the house nearly leaned into it with expectations of more. Anya could feel the need for color in every room, just a stem of scarlet flowers or a big green pillow, a few brass or ceramic items amid steel and boundless walls. Had she really hoped for such change?

It was still wintry. Not in voluptuous or prismatic ways she recalled of the season. It was winter used up and discarded, void of hope, one long seductive loneliness that would not accept or acknowledge abundance. What had happened here? What had Karolina brought with her from places she had left? What poisoned her when she could grab more happiness?

She had been inside two times. Karolina had preferred they meet outdoors, even swim since that was her “sacred R and R.” When it rained they didn’t see each other much (she came to two dinners at their house), as Karolina didn’t entertain in the strict sense of the word–she didn’t cook or make effort to engage people much. But by the pool with drinks they could all hang out. It was good enough, if it felt a little off-filter beginning to end (the rest later agreed).

Until that night when any more social possibilities vanished. No more reminiscences, either, about Russia. They had just had enough of her.

Anya had enough of the house, too. People were milling about; Anya threaded her  way between them. She did not want to see the pool and backyard. Not even the forest rising regally above all. She had her own trees.

Once out the door, she felt the need to run but walked, briskly.

“Anya! Here!”

She turned to see Karolina leaning through the open window of her car. She must have been sitting there, watching people enter and leave. Had seen her.

Anya walked closer but not too close. “Yes?”

Anya’s eyes squinted in the sheer sunshine and her face bloomed with fury.

“I hated that blinding snow in Russia! I hated being dragged to St. Petersburg, left alone in an alien place, my mother gone. You have no right to know my life but that time and place meant nothing to me, hear me? Nothing.”

Anya’s hand flew to her chest. “I don’t understand, Karolina, I’m sorry, but what are you–”

“Stop!” Karolina pointed at her. “You are so like all the others, belonging to no one. My soul is Czechoslovakian, my life waits in Prague!”

She pulled in her hand, tucked in her sleek head, sped away.

Anya sat on their front steps, watched people trickle in and out of the Open House, tears thickening in her throat. She thought of her parents and brother, all gone. She thought of her beautiful ancestors. Longing passed over and stung her afresh like swirling snowflakes. She closed her eyes tight. She would call her daughter, tell Tricia about the vacation house they’d finally have on the mountain. How they could all go cross country skiing, she’d teach them.

Carl came out and said he’d heard, then seen Karolina drive off too fast. Anya leaned against his warm shoulder. She was exactly where she belonged.

 

A Garden of Dissent and Dreams

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Tully and Freda followed the couple on a sinuous walkway that led from one sprawling garden to another. It wasn’t exactly intentional, only in the way you decide someone else’s idea is better than yours so avail yourself of it. Without other intentions it was easy to find their way stepping into someone else’s scenario.

They–Tully and Freda–had gotten up arguing about the heat. She said the light sheet entangled her like a tenacious blanket all night and she may as well skip her shower, she was already drenched. Tully said they needed a big new fan, that’s all, but then he could hear her slamming the frig door closed, rankled by what was available for breakfast. He scrambled eggs for her, which helped only long enough for her to swallow the second bite, then she complained about the sunlight torching her legs and feet under the table.

“Summer! I’ve had enough. Bring back autumn’s rain!”

Tully put his hand on her shoulder but she shrugged it off. “What are we to do with ourselves if you already find today so repugnant?”

“Away from heat-radiating concrete, into nature might help.”

“Despite offensive sunshine blaring away on everything?”

She slurped her orange juice. “Yes, despite. I love flowers, as you well know. Let’s go see what they have to offer.” She got up, left her dishes and climbed the narrow stairway to get dressed in as little as possible, this being short cut-offs and a worn black tank.

Tully felt his own mood dip as he wiped up bread crumbs, soaked the frying pan. Freda was usually far sweeter in the mornings. But things had changed overnight. Her job was deleted; she was suffering from deflated self-esteem. Plus, he wondered if she was having withdrawal from the air conditioning in her old office. He had been raised in the desert, usually wore a hat and long sleeves, and felt fine.

They had chosen gardens as their Saturday escape. Freda could mosey about and absorb floral fragrances. Tully could be happy moving in any manner, anywhere, to avoid congealing on the fake leather loveseat.

After a tranquil Japanese garden tour which left them with a smattering of higher thoughts and fewer snappish words, they spotted a striking couple strolling hand in hand. She wore a flowing red and white-flowered sundress, quite exquisite, they agreed, with her black hair flowing. He appeared attractive enough, displaying impressive shoulders. Then Freda heard the man correct the woman’s language usage–she was speaking uncertain English. The woman turned her head from him but he tugged her hand until she looked back.

“You hear that? He has the nerve to correct her. She’s probably trying her best.”

“Keep it down. Maybe he’s her tutor.”

“Awfully friendly for that. Likely her boyfriend or husband. He seems to believe she requires his expertise to communicate.”

“It would seem she could use his help, as I said,” Tully nodded.

“Can’t you be more generous with empathy?” Freda shot at him and hurried ahead.

“What? Apparently not…”

Tully let her gain a few feet ahead before he closed the gap. He kept his eyes on the lush landscaping, the treetops reveling in glowy breezes. He knew his wife was still reeling from being laid off almost three weeks prior, but felt she was overdoing moodiness. She just wasn’t any less expendable than the rest, but she took it personally. They had first argued after she said he had not thought of her feelings, only of her job prospects. He had plenty of thoughts, her feelings being one if not always the top pick. He cared for her, but he also knew Freda could get another position at a better company before the month came to a close. She had never been unemployed; she was a technology whiz. For now they could manage on his teacher’s pay.

The attractive strangers striding ahead of them took a turn, descended steep stone steps and entered the rose gardens. The woman moved as if she floated, torso erect, head high but not too high. Her partner walked heavy on his heels. He bent down close to speak to her.

“Shall we?” Freda pointed at them.

“You mean trail them? That’s your game. I’m all for smelling roses, though, that’s the point of being here.”

All Tully could see from where they stood deliberating was the glare of light skipping across people’s heads or hats and onto a few rose bushes. It all shone as if with celestial stage lighting. He had forgotten his sunglasses and squeezed his eyes shut a moment. Shade trees were sparse in this part.

Freda started down another set of steps.

“Let’s go in. We’ve not seen this garden blooming in a year.”

But the roses were thirsty and not so soft to nose or fingers. Most had passed their prime, a peak experience missed. Freda was disappointed but kept marching up and down rows of bushes, sniffing away, taking mobile pictures. At the end of a row of elegantly colored Peace roses, she turned to beckon Tully. He was examining a bee in the blossom next to her, keeping safe distance, thinking a tall glass of iced coffee would do them both good after this.

“Where are they now?”

“Over there, last I saw.”

He indicated with his head where the couple had gone. They had stopped under an arched trellis and seemed in deep discussion. Freda took ger husband’s arm and steered him toward that area.

“I really don’t feel like stalking people today, honey, maybe tomorrow,” he said, hoping to get a smile.

She blinked twice. “I’m not stalking, just observing. We can sit in a patch of shade near the summer concert stage. I just want to see if she’s okay. There’s something tough about him, don’t you think? I sure wonder what they’re about.”

As they made a wide sweep around the dark-haired couple, Tully thought she might have a point. It did seem as though they were arguing, though quietly. Well, beautiful people had issues, too. Not surprising these days, climate problems and warring and money shortages. People got mad sometimes, yet this was a sign of life in his opinion. He shook the thoughts off.

As Freda walked closer to the couple, he let a groan escape. She wanted to interfere, he could see that. He believed that people generally made right choices. And if not, were capable of mammoth change for the better when put to the test. She was far more skeptical.

Tully eyed the shady places to sit in the terraced hill above a semi-circle cement stage and wished there was music. He’d like to lean back, rest under a gentle dome of soothing sounds but he heard his wife’s bold whispering.

“That guy is insisting she stand still and listen to him. He’s practically pulling her into place, why is he doing that? She looks so passive, her face is showing nothing of what she must feel. No, no, she’s…scowling, or maybe smiling, trying to pacify him, yes. Well, he’s backing off now, he must have come to his senses. You can’t boss someone around like that, not in this public garden. Huh, she’s waiting for him to do something now.”

“Freda, sit with me.”

“What if she doesn’t want to be with him? What if she’s….made to be with him and can’t get away? We might need to help her!”

A passerby glanced her way and hurried on. He had heard the rise of agitation, too, anxiety trumping mere curiosity, her imagination running away from reason. She had been so up and down since she lost her job, she had nothing but worry to consume her and skew things. It made him nervous lately but didn’t show it. One of them had to be steady until they got over the hurdle.

“She’s fine, she’s standing there with him, not running off, she’s out for a nice afternoon with her man. Please come and sit down. It’s nothing to us, anyway.” He walked over to her and put an arm around her shoulders. She resisted. “It’s weird, Freda, to keep such close watch on folks we don’t know. Come away, okay?”

She walked, feet dragging, to the hillside and took a spot beside him.

“I’m sorry. I’m so out of sorts. I let my imagination take over me, don’t I? Well, I do like to know what people are about.”

“I know you do. But why not let strangers keep to themselves and hope for the best? Or at least be more dsirceet about it.”

She pulled her knees up to her chin. “In case you didn’t notice, I’m more aggravated with life, less inclined to be generous with hope, lately.”

How to salvage this outing that had started so well? He put his hand on hers. “Look at all the people having a good time, sunbathing, even! Having picnics, Freda. We’ll have to do that again sometime, right? The air is so dry with no rain in three weeks but things sort of…sparkle, don’t you think? Colors are brilliant.”

“It makes things droop, get brown and prickly. I am not good in this weather, not one bit.”

She turned to better study the couple under the arch. The man was taking the woman’s hand in his, now she was shaking her head but not pulling back. Who was she? Was she family or friend? What was so important under the climbing roses? Were they maybe hiding from someone? Or just having more words, the JUly heat driving them mad? Freda did this when she was upset, made up things about strangers. Tully sometimes found it entertaining, sometimes tolerated it. It had started long before he came into her life, an odd coping mechanism. But other people’s lives sometimes seemed to hold more or better things than hers. She even tried to foresee their fate, pronounce it happier or safer or more exciting. She supposed many people did the same but didn’t admit it. Who could not help wondering about each other, social creatures that humans were? Or being nosey, at the worst. She didn’t want to end up like that, a misguided busybody.

“Freda. About your unemployment.”

She pulled at the grass and left bare spots of earth.

“It will work out. You got laid off, not fired: repeat this daily. You’re getting unemployment. Keep looking for a better job–someone will spot your value soon enough. You never liked your boss, anyway!”

Her head snapped up and she looked him in the eyes. “Dan? Of course I liked him…at least when he was on beam, doing his job. He was funny, that much I’ll give him, when he was happy with us.” She patted his hand, which she then removed. “It’s my friends I miss, not the job. Paycheck, too, naturally. Well, and the routine, of course. I suspect I’ll find work. I’m just not used to being tossed out like that, as if eight and a half years is nothing. It hurts.”

“It’s longer than many people remain at a job. You’re so good at what you do.”

“I was up for promotion! Now I have to start over.” She wiped at a tear that slipped out. “I know, I’m quite beside myself. I must get a firm grip.” She lay back on the grass. “I’ll call an office mate who got the boot, too. We’ll hash it out.”

This pleased Tully, her about-face. It was clear she had to move on after all the moping and grumbling, staying up half the night. She had made the decision to start anew and so she would, that was her style. He was chagrined about not having more faith in her. She was always a surprise.

But right now he wanted to shield her from the sun. Her skin was so smooth and fair. Hold her. Maybe recite a poem he had been re-working this summer. Cook tasty clams, whip up a chocolate tort. Just take her home, spread about peace, instill joy. It would be such a relief to get on with things.

Freda rolled over so she could frame the pretty couple under the rose-covered trellis with her flattened hands.

“Oh.”

“What?”

“Look. He’s taking pictures of her. Maybe she didn’t want to or maybe…wait, is she pregnant? That’s why she’s so voluptuous, maybe. If not, she’s still a young Venus, what genes.”

He raised his head and studied her, too. “That might be it. Maybe she was fussy about being photographed when pregnant or, well, something?”

“Not fussy,” Freda said propping chin in hands. “Just…sensitive. She looks wonderful, don’t you agree? Lush. Full of miraculous things! I have to be wrong about them. They seem alright, I guess. I just had a lapse, of imagination and, I admit, small-mindedness. What do I know?” She laughed her throaty laugh then was still a moent. “Gosh, what a lucky woman, look at her smile…”

He heard her but there was something more, a wistfulness, a desire. Was she…? No, couldn’t be. She wanted her career, too. They were responsible people despite harboring streaks of zaniness.

Smoldering warmth found its way into the grassy shade. They found each other’s fingers and laced them together, grew languorous at last in the July afternoon, on an edge of the garden of roses. They were together in this wonderful muddle of living. Tully thought how they had labored hard to get this far, had fallen through hidden trap doors and climbed back out, had secured a home at last that they loved, had made progress in fledgling careers. They had enough things and far more of love.

“Are you…?”

“No,” she said, “but I now see I might like to be.”

Tully touched the tip of her nose and her eyes opened, hazel irises encircled with gold, a smile taking over her lightly freckled face. His longish dark-blonde hair fell forward along with sweat, which slipped off him and onto her tank top and chest. He kissed her forehead, chin and then her lips, hoping this was answer enough, as he wasn’t up to talking, only dreaming, now. Greenery’s perfume mixed with an array of roses settled on them so that they fell under summer’s spell.

The photogenic couple under the trellis started up rows of nodding red and yellow and peach roses. They entered that haze of blood-deep heat, hands just grazing as they sauntered through the grass, up stone steps, then disappeared under a canopy of hickory trees.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson