He went to the park, early, to be alone while availing himself of the company of others; they trickled in as time passed. There was a bench he’d long ago chosen and managed to hold onto in winter–there were fewer grabs for seating then. His bulk settled into the generous curves of wood–newly replaced and varnished last summer–and thin light wrapped coolness about the cliffs of his shoulders. The warmth would come later as long as precipitation didn’t, or a wild wind. A woolen fedora covered his head, the large head his parents thought meant bad things but, in fact, meant nothing other than intimate his body type and stature. He kept it covered since he no longer sported luxurious waves of black. Pride is a thing quite useless and thus disposable, he told himself as he glanced in the morning mirror. His balding pate winked at him in the flourescent light.
It happened that he could be more at ease with himself at the park and occasionally cheery. Much more so than at his building on Northwest 32nd. Having less corwded conditions gave way to more comfort. Even when the days and nights warmed, groups came and went like human murmurations across grassy expanses. He could walk or not walk and without commentary; his clumsy leg jimmied with nuts and bolts made no difference to strangers. At Mistral Manor, occupants seemed beside themselves with eagerness to include him. Or cast looks his way that were questioning. Or questionable. He understood they were intimidated by 6 feet 5 inches coupled with significant girth. Some were unsettled by his misunderstood silences, the off-kilter gait. He preferred his charcoal grey tweed overcoat, the effect courtly perhaps when topped by his hat, a foreign garb to those who wore sweatshirts, sneakers and often shorts, even in the drenching winter. He was not from around there. And when he opened his mouth to respond politely, what a shock. It appeared difficult for people to be civil or perhaps kindly dismiss him and go on their way.
How could it be so different from Chicago? He ought to know better; he had travelled extensively, even other countries. But now he lived somewhere new, a far cry from visiting.
Ah, but the park. He pulled out his newspaper and began to read, squinting in winter’s skimpy sunlight. Beside him was a thermos of black coffee, strong, almost bitter, and steaming hot. In his pocket was a napkin-wrapped hard biscuit just in case he got hungry or, if not, the birds came begging as was likely. He was an easy mark. An hour or so on the bench and he might walk the park some, though the four block distance from the Manor was enough of a work out these days.
He considered himself a man visited by enough good fortune that the other times were significantly improved in his memory. And that would have to do. Sitting on a park bench like the old man he would before long become did satisfy something. He was relieved to be among collective humanity and not be daily affronted by confounding life matters. He’d grown less fond of the future during the last couple years, it was true. Living with a challenged body after having been plucked from disaster, he’d had to make choices and deal with society in whole new ways. Especially with those who barely knew him.
When the seagulls circled ’round he shared his biscuit. It was the right thing to do; he had more at the apartment. He could accomodate amiable, even bold birds.
It went on for him that way for a few months, as he’d hoped, though now and then there might be someone else sitting at his spot and he’d move on to another. He wasn’t proprietary about the bench; that is, he wished to be civilized about it as it was a public park. But when he spotted a red hat atop a young woman who wore two yellow rain boots, he halted on the sidewalk, his handsome walking stick rising then falling with a staccato double thunk on the cement.
He had not seen her there before. First impulse was to leave the area. He was not without other choices at seven-thirty in the morning. He liked to savor the park in solitude as long as feasible. She pulled up her legs and crossed them like a yogi with each foot at a hip so the marred boots soiled her baggy sweatpants, and leaned her head back and closed eyes, arms dangling at sides like a rag doll’s. Another warning sign that it best to move on. Still…she took up little space, and his leg had been gripped with pain all night and into morning. He continued a slow pace to the bench and sat as far as he could at the other end. He didn’t look at her but if he did he’d have noted her eyes fluttered though closed. As he unscrewed the thermos bottle’s top– a cup for his coffee–fragrant steam reached her nostrils. Eyes opened in a flash and she looked right at him. He blew across the cup, then sipped. He glimpsed the boots: a good half muddy. As if she had been tromping about in sludgy puddles on the way to the bench.
“Heavenly,” she said, gesturing at the coffee thermos.
He was forced to look up and quickly took in a narrow face with pointed chin, almond eyes. The handmade red knit hat snugged over hair and ears. An easy smile was offered but he looked at his large, well-heeled feet, the leather thoroughly-oiled against Oregon winter.
“I hope you don’t mind me sitting here. I’m waiting for a friend–she’ll come this way.” When he didn’t respond, she added hopefully, “It won’t be long. She’s at a dental appointment right down there–” she pointed east–“and hopefully she’ll be able to eat breakfast with me.” She sat up and stretched, legs and feet loosening; next she twisted her torso side to side, shook out her hands.
He hoped she wasn’t unhinged–to talk to a stranger so easily. Then he wondered if she was a gymnast or a yoga fanatic, but that was alright. The idea intrigued if also disconcerted as he imagined her in a pretzel shape. She was quite young, that was it. He’d once had full control of his own body, rather superbly so.
“How nice to be meeting a friend,” he said, then unfolded his paper.
She gawked at him, then was embarrassed by that startled response. It was his voice, of course, he surmised…the unexpected basso sounds rumbling and rising and released from cavernous chest. It always startled, one of a few reasons he tended to quietness around unknown people. He was the subject aof taunts as a young man–his size and voice, kids saying he was some weird monster, calling him names until they learned better. Until they admitted his talents.
Surely she would move on to another spot, he hoped, so he could sit in peace. But she half-turned to him, legs now relaxed.
“I’ve actually seen you here a long time. I used to catch the 73 bus on the way to work and since there’s a stoplight by it–” and she pointed to the very bus stop–“we’d wait and I’d notice you here, under the big oaks. You always come to this bench if you can, am I right?”
“Well.” He felt affronted by the fact that she had seen, even watched him for such a time and unbeknownst to him. He’d not given thought to the possibility that others might watch him as he watched them. Not seriously. And not from a passing bus each morning. “How odd…as you say, it is my established habit. You go to work; I come to the park.” he scowled at that truth.
“Makes sense to me,” she said and stretched out her legs, dangling them over the bench edge. Her booted toes, which she pointed the best she could, just touched the ground. “Anyway, when I saw you today I thought I’d wait here by you. I don’t care to be in the park alone for long or so early with few others around.”
He found this extraordinary. A little flattering, strangely. She didn’t even know him, after all. Or perhaps she did a bit since she’d observed him awhile– and yet. “How long have you been watching me?”
She let go a big laugh that belied the compactness from which it erupted. “Oh, not watching you as in stalking or something! Just casually, you know? I’d briefly observe that you come here, read your paper or drink coffee for about…” she put a finger to chin–“six months. For maybe five minutes each morning on the bus.” She blinked at him. “You’re kind of hard to miss.” Her smile dimmed. “But not the last month; I haven’t been on that bus much.” She saw him looking her way calmly, and sighed. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be coming. Much has changed lately.”
Now he felt himself drawn in despite his natural resistance to unplanned dialogues. Should he ask what changed? If she lost her job? No, far too personal. They were unknown quantitites sitting in the park. he rustled his paper as if to end the conversation.
“I often wondered what sort of work you did,” she continued, “what your life is like. You know, ordinary curioisity. People see each other all the time, sitting by each other, pausing on the same routes, but never ask what’s going on with someone else. I guess I might not have, either, before my life becasme interrupted.” Her hands were fidgety and reddened by the cold as she glanced down the street. Wishing her friend would come soon. Wondering if this was wise to continue.
He was suddenly compelled to answer so any concerns she had were allayed. She clearly took a chance and sat there in purpose, quite the surprise.
“Three years ago I retired from…the music industry. I remained in Chicago where I had friends and colleagues for thirty-five years. I was, to be frank, in a bad train accident accident right during an initial semi-retirement.” She might have heard of it, let it please be enough that he just stated the fact. He gently tapped his leg with the walking stick to emphasize its injury. “When my son, an only child, asked me to come and see if I liked it here, I reluctantly agreed. I came last spring. Only temporarily. I am not convinced it’s for me.”
That ought to cover it, he thought, shocked by all he’d revealed. But why not? They’d part ways soon.
“Oh, I see.” She stared at traffic beyond a row of trees, noting the old bus stop, thinking of old times. “We never know, right? I’m a dancer. But I have lupus. It took over my life finally so I can’t dance with my old modern dance company. It affects many aspects of my health. At least for now.”
He said nothing, not certain what was reasonable to say. He was not one to display emotions except on stage. She sat very still.
The pigeons and seagulls were crowding up to them. He took out a biscuit–he baked a dozen once a week–and crumbled it up, gave a chunk to the young woman, and then they tossed bits to the ravenous birds.
She said softly, “You might sing, or I imagine.”
His heart contracted hard; it trembled. His chest almost heaved as he struggled to gain control of himself. How could she know that? Why should she dare speak what she imagined? Hadn’t he said enough to occupy her attention while she waited?
And then out barked a laugh.”Well, that’s so much nicer to hear you say that a radio DJ or news announcer or a power-driven lawyer!”
“Why, I can imagine those, too!”
“But, yes, I sing. Sang. Opera. Classical art songs.”
“You are a singer, that doesn’t change. Like I’m a dancer forever.”
And with that they said no more as rain started to fall from thickening clouds, then pelt them with darts of wetness. No umbrellas. The day had started partly cloudy and dry, milder than usual; he’d left his behind.
“Do you want to duck into the coffee shop across the street?” she asked. She pulled a rain jacket out of her large carryall, yanked the hood up.
He might. But a man in his mid-sixties and a woman in her–perhaps–early thirties hunkering down in a coffee shop within a half hour of meeting? Who would know but themselves and why should he fuss over it? His face dampened, his fedora dumping rivulets.
“I get it if you can’t. My friend is delayed, she’s 20 minutes late already so I’ll wait it out there, text her my location. I’m getting hungry and need a nice hot latte.”
“I might eat a scone.”
They stood up with some difficulty, neither of them seeking aid nor offering it. They went to the corner–his heavy stumping along, her graceful movements hiding her pain– where her bus had stopped for so long, where she had gazed out a window. Noted the big man’s existence, constant and curious.
The burst of air as they entered was warm, redolent of pungence and sweetness. They found two stools facing the big front window after ordering. She texted her friend of her whereabouts.
The brightness that had teased at the park seemed suddenly swept away by a gusty wind. People hurried down sidewalks, embarked and disembarked from buses, taxis, cars. Few had umbrellas; this was the Northwest, and umbrellas were for tourists and those unused to rainy weather. He usually carried one since he was that visitor, unsure if this place might become home. He missed snow. Felt at such a loss being so far from his friends, his old invigorating lifestyle. Music with the stages, pressures and rewards–the applause. The singular fulfillment his passion enabled him to experience.
“How did you become a dancer” he asked, nibbling his maple scone as he waited for the drenching rain to let up. Then he’d go to his one bedroom apartment for the rest of the day. His books and music. Not a house like he’d shared with his wife until the divorce, not the townhouse he’d bought fifteen years ago on a coveted stretch of shoreline along wild, majestic Lake Michigan. No lake views to be lost in–only the city’s business, its madness.
“I learned the usual way–from an early age: study, study, practice, perform, audition over and over, then finally joining three different companies. I came to the Myra Duvall Dance Project seven years ago and I love it.” She sipped coffee, chewed on a portion of pumpkin bread. “I knew something was wrong off and on, but it took awhile to figure it out. It has been mostly affecting my joints and, just a bit, my kidneys. Not helpful when you’re a dancer. In fact it stinks.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. I have a dear friend who has it. She has flare ups then periods that are much better, so then she goes forward with her life. She’s been doing well for a couple of years. I understand it’s different for each person.”
“Yes..but every day I’m miserable since I can’t dance. My joints are too inflamed, the pain. I might have to resign.” She looked up at him a foot and a half above on a stool which seemed barely able to hold him. But he looked secure and steady. “And by the way, I’m Maya. Maya Kwan.”
He swivelled a little, held out a squared palm and shook hers. “Anthony Keating.”
“Okay, Anthony! Or Mr. Keating. Oh, yeah, I remember that catastrophic train wreck in Chicago…. I assume that was it? You lived through that! And so you didn’t sing after that?”
“Certainly it is next to impossible to practice, rehearse– much less hope to perform when you have multiple surgeries on a leg and internal injuries to heal….as you might, perhaps, understand. But I fully retired after crucial healing occurred. I simply felt it best to let things end at a good peak. I had a fine career, it was a joy. But the pleasure went out of it.” He put hand to heart, heavy with that truth.
“I still hope you will sing, you really must.”
“We shall see how things develop,” he said, touched that she’d suggest he might keep on with it, at all. If only his dignity was not at stake, if only he could embrace other possibilities. Time, more recouperation in every way. And practice, practice, practice–for goodness’ sake, it was critical to any movement forward musically. Particularly at his age. One had to build a way of living based on an envisioned design, didn’t one, and then trial and error. The rest was up to sheer chance. He leaned toward her a bit. “And perhaps there is still dancing in your future. Somehow you might make things work, if just differently.”
Their eyes–her wide dark ones, his pale crinkly ones–connected a moment. And in that breif span of time they recognized and understood one another: a giant of an aging, introspective white man with sonorous voice of a seasoned opera singer in transition; and a strong, graceful Chinese-American woman deeply yearning to keep dancing despite hurdles. Artists, creators, seekers. Human beings trying to do what they could with what they were given. It seemd so small a thing. And so daunting.
They were thrown off suddenly by the realization they’d barely met, then talked in this way, spoke truth. They retreated into thoughtful silence.
Outside the big coffee shop window a woman slowed, pushing sodden hair from eyes while peering inside.
“Oh, there’s Janelle!”
Maya stood to go greet the woman; Anthony stood, as well.
“This is where I say good-bye to you, Maya Kwan. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, despite not being thrilled that a bus passenger kept an eye on me!”
“Oh, let’s not say good-bye, let’s say until next time,” she said. She raised her hand above customers to beckon her friend. “I’m glad I finally got to meet you–a man I saw day in, day out. It meant something to me that you were always there–the man in a fedora feeding birds and reading his paper. Now it seems something better.”
“I’m glad,” he said, as they pushed past the coffee line.
As a harried Janelle came closer she stopped, mouth open.
Maya looked at her, then him. “Wait, you know each other?”
“Ah, yes, number 46, second floor, Ms. D’Angelo. A small world, indeed…” He touched the brim of his hat, nodded at them, and hurried out the door. Too small, he thought, then chuckled. At least she hadn’t gawked then made stupid jokes about his size or surprising voice. They’d exchanged niceities in the elevator a few times.
The first time I heard my mother’s bare feet pad down the hallway, I didn’t think too much of it. I was aware they descended the stairway. In the deep yawn of night, I was nodding over my journal, and my little solar powered, muti-colored lamp cast a rainbow of watery light. I’m a very light sleeper and Mom’s bedroom door’s hinges had needed oiling for months.
I half-waited for another bedroom door to swiftly open and Dad to call out her name, though that was silly of me. He has long slept in a diffrent room due to sleep apnea. He finally began using a CPAP machine to help him breathe correctly and–we all hoped– sleep well. Since it was working so far, I rarely heard him get up, anymore. So it was strange sitting propped against my pillows with pen in hand and hearing my mother’s footsteps. For years it was my father’s I might hear as he’d gotten up for a sandwich or shortbread cookies and chocolate milk, then to read in his kingly leather chair until he snored away. Luckily, we didn’t endure that annoyance from upstairs.
Since it was unusual for Mom to get up, I waited. But, of course, mothers and fathers can do as they please. And I was groggy–but questions bubbled up and I nearly tiptoed down to see what she was doing. I didn’t hear anything, but that wasn’t surprising since our house was big enough to accomodate twice as many people and still be about empty. The kitchen, for example, was on the far side of the glass, cement block and steel structure that was our house. Smelling the coffee in the morning required sleeping on a sofa that was a few hundred feet from it–food odors didn’t reach bedrooms. Part of my mom’s design.
The only thing I worried about was her leaving the house, but unless she was awake enough to use the security code, she’d set off the alarm.
Mom is not an ordinary person. I mean, she does all the things you’d hope or expect any parent would do–long days at her job, then domestic work at home. But she actually lives in another realm, and daily visits us on earth, I think. She’s dreamy and quirky, can be struck with sudden seemingly odd ideas. Like when she decided to build a custom treehouse in the gigantic oak that overlooks our back yard one way, the valley, the other. I was ten years old when she did that and was so excited. But it was for her idea and for her use. Didn’t she imagine I’d happily spend time there with my friends? But no, it was not to be for it was hers; not even Dad got to hang out on occasion, but he had his own space on the top floor. Seeing how upset I was, they built me a mini-dome clubhouse by the creek, complete with bright plastic furniture. Which was very cool–but it was a far cry from a treehouse.
The fact that she’s an architect–Ellie Harbinger and Associates– didn’t allow for forgiveness of her stinginess of spirit. I didn’t understand its importance until later. And eight years since it was built it’s still a top choice for her “think time” or “R and R”. I’ve been in it, sure; I just don’t stay long, not that I wanted to since getting older. The dome house came down before my fourteenth birthday. I found it embrarrassing to yet use a play house, though my friends were disappointed. We held a farewell party for it. Perhaps for our childhood, too.
So I was thinking of the treehouse and Mom as I sat in bed. I sure didn;t want her to go out decide to climb the rope ladder to her treehouse at nighttime. She’s fifty-two; she could work out and get stronger, she needs to practice yoga, get more agile. She’s attractive, and so tall she can’t help being the center of attention. But beauty and muscle strength are not priorities; brains are. In that area, she excels, if you wonder sometimes where it will lead her.
I lay down, unable to keep figting the need to sleep.
The next morning we were finishing a breakfast of blueberry waffles.
“Mom, did you have trouble sleeping last night? Is this going to be a thing now that Dad can finally sleep better?” I laughed, thinking that’d be a weird scenario, neither of them in sync yet. Didn’t they get lonely at night?
She did a full pivot, straight dark hair swinging at blue sweatered shoulders, and frowned at me. “What?No, I slept fine, dear.” Then she turned her attention back to the waffle maker, sipping her espresso.
Dad looked up from his phone. “Why do you ask, Dani?”
“I thought…well, I heard something….” I glanced at them both. Dad got up, then waited for me to finish. Mom popped a broken piece of waffle into her mouth before serving me a last one. “It’s nothing, only sounds in the night. Have a good day, Dad!”
He was already thinking of his work, and smiled at us before leaving.
“Love you–later, Erik,” Mom called out.
He lifted his travel mug in cheery salute, raced down the hallway to the foyer. He owns a construction company, but builds commercial buildings so he and Mom don’t talk business as much as you might think. In fact they are more like two different universes, and still coexist fine.
I got up and set my dishes in the sink as Mom wiped down the counter, humming to herself. I slipped by and afterr getting my backpack I turned toward her to say goodbye and when I did, caught her eye a moment. She was gazing at me or perhaps through me like when thinking hard, so I waved. She half-smiled.
“How can I convince them to finance an entire stable so I can get an equine therapy program going after college?” I asked Mel who was in the driver’s seat.
“Hold on, that’s in the far future. Just do incredibly well at university. They already know you can ride and love helping kids. Just stay passionate, they’ll get it.” She paused, then said as if lightning had struck, “Maybe you can get your own money, a small business loan for a smart woman!”
“An idea, I suppose,” I said, looking out the window at the rainy streets. And suddenly I saw my brother on a bicycle, grey hoodie loose on his slim body, face hidden as he passed in the other direction, legs pedaling hard, and I pressed my hands against the window.
“Quinn! Get over! Watch out for that car!”
But it wasn’t him, of course; he died six years ago.
“Oh, Dani,” Mel said, and she pulled over a few minutes so I could clear my brain.
Three nights later I was sketching an idea for a multi-purpose barn in my journal when I heard the telltale squeak of Mom’s bedrom door. I got up in a few minutes. Looking around the obscured rooms, I expected she’d hear me and say something. But she wasn’t in the living room or the library with its massive stone fireplace giving off that musky smoky scent I loved, nor the kitchen and dining room. Light leaked into spaces just enough as my eyes adjusted. I loved seeing the woods and creek beyond a wall made of glass in the living room so stood a moment, thinking how beautiful it was in the softness of moonlight. And then I felt her.
Mom was standing at the oppposite end of the room. She was looking out, too, so I began to walk toward her quietly so as not to startle her. But then she slowly backed away, turned and floated across the cool tile floor and ran up the stairs, her long ivory silk nightgown a fluid brightness. It was quintessential Mom.
“Mom?” I whispered, because to call to her, have her answer or come down suddenly seemed too risky.
There was some purpose to what she was up to and maybe I didn’t need to know what was going on. Right in the middle of the night, of all things. Nothing much, though, from what I could see. And what if she opened my bedroom door at night when I was journalling or maybe having a cry? It would feel intrusive. It would make me wonder why she didn’t trust me to either be alone or ask for her help. We all knew the temperature of things when we came home. Especially if one of us was alone. I mean the turned inward, dreadful alone. We knew to be there for each other.
When we lost Quinn after so long expecting things to get better–he recovered from a bad cycle accident, got cancer, went into remission twice, got it worse and died–all three of us feel into each other, got so close it felt like one breathing, aching human being sometimes. Survivors in a wilderness of loss. And then, gradually over the next couple years, we separated some. Went on. More or less. We were going forward or so we hoped. Yet we still think of him every day, we just don’t say it as often.
I looked in the distance at the treehouse, then at the hulking mountains beyond in black silhouette. I went to bed, fell asleep and dreamed of Gray. The one that rescued me from a kind of adolescent madness, the one that Quinn had said would become my favorite despite his unruliness. But that’s what I’d liked about Gray and my brother. I dreamed of Quinn, his horse Volt and me on Gray galloping all the way to the mountains. That’s as far as we ever get in that repeated dream–in reality, a very long way–but it’s far enough.
Mom was already leaving for work when I finally ran downstairs to grab two slices of cold toast.
“Is Mel picking you up as usual? Because I have a meeting with a client, pronto,” she said and scooped up her briefcase, high heels clicking brightly on the tile.
“Were you awake all night, Mom?”
Mom paused at the door leading to the garage. “What was that?”
“I just wondered if you were up late, too?”
“I slept as well as usual, and what a relief your dad finally is, too!” She blew me a kiss and was gone.
Mel arrived on time and hurried me out the door with one long blare of the horn on her ancient aqua Mustang. I settled in beside her and looked out my window.
“What’s up with you lately, Dani? You seem distracted.”
“I think it’s senior year ADHD or something. I can’t be focused, entertaining or joyful every single day!”
Mel gave a short laugh. “Well, you can, actually, if you try. And it’s only January, so we gotta stay on task, right?”
“Yeah, January…rain, sleet, rain, snow, rain. What I’d give for no mud when we ride!”
“True, but our beauties can handle anything, and it’ll be nicer in the woods.”
I sighed. She was right. But what about Mom? Was she becoming a sleep walker?
“Out with it,” Mel said.
“Okay–my mom is doing weird things at night. Like getting up when she’s always been a sound sleeper.”
Mel shrugged then made a U-turn too fast. “Stop it, Mel. I am being serious.”
“Look, she’s at that age, right? Men-o-pause and all that. You worry too much about everything!”
“Yeah, but she just wanders, stares at something I can’t see. I follow her but she never notices me.”
Mel waved that aside, then parked in St. Mary’s lot and we hopped out, running for the door to avoid being late.
She was probably right, I thought, but one more time and I might… just do something.
Everything went smoothly the rest of the week. Even the stony, rutted trails were good enough if a bit sludgey here and there; the meadow in the valley was manageable so Mel and I kept on. Gray and I were in our usual sync; I was comforted by the sturdy rhythm of his pace. I felt strong, and happiness welled up. Margot Henderson was quite interested in my help starting in spring. She suggested Mel help. too, out of politeness. Mel is not a kid person and working with anyone who has physical and mental issues requires patience. She just wants to ride– full throttle.
“Any more night adventures?” she asked later over turkey burgers and fries at Kat’s Corner.
“Not any for six nights. It must have been a fluke. Mom is consistent. Work and sleep, play on week-ends if work doesn’t interfere, daydream every minute in between. Spacey but highly efficient, you know?”
“It’s that she’s a creative type, that’s how they are. They still figure it out, sometimes they’re even spectacular. Like your mother. Mine whiles away the time with charity work and reads more books than I think is possible, but how do I know? She says she’s read four books already this new year!”
I chewed on that and my burger. Mel’s mother is a speed reader just like my mom is a speed thinker and worker–they both get their goals met.
“Mel, if my mom gets up one more time at night, I’m going to confront her. Something is on her mind, or she’s entered a sleepwalking phase. It just makes me nervous.”
“Oh leave it, Dani. Sometimes we don’t need to know what our parents are up to. I think we just need to deal with our own stuff, you know?”
I flipped a French fry at her. She caught it, then ate it. That’s Mel for you. But she doesn’t go as deep as I wish she would sometimes. She has three siblings she detests and adores, and very little weighs on her mind.
It had been unseasonably warm for two days. Even though I left the window open a couple inches at ten, I was radiating heat shortly after midnight so kicked off my blanket. Or was it a noise that awakened me? I sat up and listened, every fiber of my body coming awake. There was a heavy, muted strike on something. I looked out my windows into the side yard. A faint light fanned out from the house’s far corner. I made out very little. Voices, not alarming yet people talking. I got up, looked up and down the hallway, towards Mom’s room. Her door was open. So was Dad’s. I peeked into both; their wide beds were mussed and empty.
All the way down the stairs I was trembling, whether in anger or fear I wasn’t sure. Afraid of the peculiar density of night and unknown events, anger at my parents for doing things in secret that made no snese to me. My heart pummeling my chest, I slid across the slick tiles, opened and ran through a metal door that led onto our back acerage. Clearly the alarm had been disabled even as I felt it go off in me.
The ground was wet, my socks muddied as I ran around the house to them. They were standing on the deck of the treehouse, looking things over, talking or maybe arguing, as if it was nine in the morning and people could care less. Dad, I realized, held a sledge hammer; Mom, a flashlight and an ax which slipped out of her hands, and she was still in her nightgown, a coat over it.
I stood with my hands on hips and shouted at them as a few raindrops spattered on my face.
“What are you doing up there? What is going on here?”
They were startled by me, looked over the deck railing of the treehouse and gave me a look that seemed to say, We have this under control, go back to bed, stop bothering about things.
They stood in a mute solidarity that intimidated me a moment.
She swung the flashlight my way then held up a hand in a gesture of self defense. Both hands fell with a soft slap on her thighs. “Aw, Dani, not right now.”
“Dad!” I yelled.
He put down the sledge hammer and came to the deck railing, leaned over. “She’s finally had enough of it, Dani. She’s been thinking about it for a good year and is done with it.”
Mom rubbed her forehead wearily, entered the treehouse, lit a candle.
My mouth fell open. Her beloved treehouse that she designed, that they built to last a lifetime? And if not for me, then maybe a grandchild one day…
“I’m…struck dumb…” I said, a lump gathering in my throat.
Mom poked her head out from a window and said, “Come on up, dear, maybe it’s time to talk.”
There was the candle, there always is a candle that burns if anyone is there as the sun goes down. It’s for light and warmth of atmosphere, but it is also lit for Quinn. The long flame wavered in a breeze that carried more rain; it cast a yellowish light upon the walls in slinky shapes across our rounded shadows.
Mom pushed the dark auburn hair from her face and met my eyes with gentleness, her own brown ones a familiar hue of earthiness. “Yes, I saw you a few nights that you discovered me looking and thinking it all over…. I didn’t want to talk about any of it, Dani. I had to make a decision on my own, make my peace. The treehouse came to be in this place near the time our Quinn died. It has held great importance, necessary with its solace. I needed my own comforts. The solitude it afforded me, the refuge it offered. It has given me much for mourning and recovery. But now…I don’t need hideaways, do I…”
Dad linked his arm through hers and they sat closer together on the worn yellow and sage Ikat rug. I sat on alittle desk chair made of knotty branches, Mom’s design, their joint crafting. I glanced about at handmade cups and boxes, other items in their places on the built in desk. The blue glass pencil and pen holder. A small tapestry of birds and grouped botanical prints. They had done much for the interior, but that was long after its orginal build. Then it was sparse, empty of ornament. It had held only my mother’s sadness and dreams. Her prayers, likely, although she likely kept them inside herself. But in its past design and its present, it was radically unlike the clean sharp edges of the impressive house we lived in, which she’d designed and they’d built when I was two.
This was another sort of home. Sometimes I felt it had selaed her within it, taken her from me. But in time I saw it as her healing place. And it became a comfort to see it there, whether or not she was in it. It was part of our larger sanctuary of family though it held secrets. Part of my mother’s heart.
“Why would you be done with it now, though? Why not save it for the future?” I asked, trying to grasp what she really meant and wanted. It seemd too much.
“Now you’re leaving us. More change, another transition.” Her voice petered out as she looked down.
“As well you should, my girl,” Dad added.
“But only for a few years and I’ll come back home, I have a plan–“
“The point is, I really don’t need it any longer. It was selfish of me at the start to claim it as mine for meditation and fun–but then it became necessary. It became a monument to loss, to Quinn…It is past time to create new from old, or let the old be. We all have the urge to learn, take on greater projects. To live bigger, I think. And hopefully better. I want to be full of the present good times and tough ones. I need to stop dipping into the past, see where time takes me next. Open more doors. Close others.” She turned first to Dad then to me, eyes glistening. “I think we all should let go of this. My treehouse is a symbol and not needed now. We keep Quinn in our hearts. The treehouse must come down–and be repurposed elsewhere.”
I nodded as much to myself as her. Dad kissed the top of her head, hugged her. I saw the labor in her decision, how she had pondered it for long by herself. And I was on the verge of melting into a pool of emotion due to words amd feelings bursting open in rich damp air: their loving ways, marvelous peculiarities, their vision. Strength. My parents.
How lucky had we been? Quinn and me, ending up with these people as our guides. I’d always felt guilty that he had to go, my big brother who was always off and running but kept me in partial confidence, some corner of his life, in the beautiful hoop of his love. He’d lived almost as long as I had now, so far, I realized. And I could carry on with my life; he’d not be mad if I released some sadness, but pleased I didn’t hold back growing up.
“Well, are you satisfied now that you know what kept me awake? Are you alright with t his decision I am making?” Mom asked.
“Okay, so you’re dismantling it? But not with a sledge hammer or ax!” They laughed a bit. “Yeah, I will get okay with it.”
Dad said, “We’ll be careful taking it down, of course. Maybe we’ll hold a ceremony for its being put to….rest, huh, Ellie? Maybe we’ll save it in the pole barn until someone else needs it.”
Mom said, “Or maybe start over on another piece of land…?”
I immediately thought of the stables, equine therapy. How might I reuse the treehouse there? And then thought, Another house no longer needed. Will they build a new house for only themselves?
“Just put that idea aside, Elllie.”
“We can donate it to a park, Erik. I do have plans all figured out in my head. I want to create a garden out here, one with archways and secret doors, a place where grandchildren might roam. Though we might manage a tryst in the maze we design. Then there’s the glass house I’ve always longed for, with a few stained glass panels handmade by possibly me, so I will need topnotch instruction and….”
I drifted away. Stared at candle in the center of the treehouse, its brilliant flame casting a dancing golden light about the one room. On us. I had my own plans, yes. We had between us such dreaming and planning and hopes for the future. Quinn would approve.
The room was filled with my parents’ intimate laughter. I stood and impulsively bent down to kiss their cheeks. They pecked me back. I let myself down with the swaying rope ladder. They needed to enjoy the last days and nights in the treehouse. I would miss it. I hoped they waited until I had left for university. But Quinn had long departed. And I was in search of my own country of happiness, to make another sort of home for myself.
Rennie leans back against the lawn chair, clasps hands behind his sweaty neck, puts his feet up on the stump. Listens to cicadas buzz their overpowering song–it feels like they’ve taken up residence in his head.
This is the weekly question, asked one way or another. It flees their mouths with little effort, words soft or rough, as an aside out of nowhere, after another discussion. It is Jillian, his mother or Zach, his older brother– and on alternate days, Pops, his grandfather. Mia has been gone near three years; she is never going to take him to task. She would not have before.
Rennie at first took it all seriously and tried to answer–a thoughtful, embroidered statement to keep them satisfied awhile–but then he tried to lighten up, have fun with it. Which aggravated them so they came back at him two-fold. But he’d had enough after the first few months they started on him. After a year it was noxious, tiresome. It made his head want to explode or just take off, running to unknown territory.
This now makes him laugh: his head running away, tiny legs trying to balance with their heavy load all the way to Iceland or the Galapagos Islands or India. What might they think about that image?
To be fair, their emphasis on words changes now and then: why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant–and so on. It’s a refrain or a chant he hears as background noise. So he has different answers, if he answers.
“Resistant to Sal Rogers’ charms? Her hair is just too shiny brown.”
“Resistant to the colds you get? Lucky, I’d guess.”
“Resistant to snake venom? Well, it depends on what type, if I am in the mountains, hills, marshes or fields. If I make it out. So far, so good.”
“Resistant to your words? Repetition does the trick. I don’t hear them, anymore.”
“I’m not resistant to lots of things–let’s talk about those, alright?”
Jillian is hanging out the sheets on the line. She could dry them in the dryer but she likes how they flap and billow–lavender, white and beige with faded leaves–and the sun soaks them with its natural disinfectant properties. When she takes them down she presses them to her face and breathes in the fresh happiness that imbues them for awhile. She likes to hang dry her underwear, too, and the boys’ and Pop’s t-shirts. Makes them whiter, last longer. Makes her feel more secure to smell the sunshine when she hugs them.
Rennie appreciates that she does this. He likes the sun sweetness and roughness of the cotton sheets when he crawls into bed. That moment will endure as a favorite memory when he is old, he realizes: sheets like crazy sails in the world, like peace covering him in bed.
He picks a tiny daisy from dew-dropped grass and twirls it, touches his nose to it though it has no perfume, and looks about. He needs to clip more of the hedge, so he gets up, searches for the pruners.
“I don’t have a new answer yet, I’ll think on it.”
“You have to let the college know in a month or it is gone for good. They have lost their sympathy and very long patience.”
Jillian used to cry about it every single time he shot them a smart ass answer, every time he refused to share thoughts at a deeper level. It was hard beyond hard for awhile, what with Mia gone. Then Zach with a broken hip from the fall during a mountain hike. Rennie was there but couldn’t stop his brother’s sudden loss of footing right at the rocky, narrow path’s edge, of course. A pure accident, Zach said it was though Rennie felt to blame. It could have resulted in far worse. But Zach is good now, has re-started his HVAC trade apprenticeship. He’s lived at home to save money. And is about to move in with his girlfriend. She at least has Pops, he’s not leave her. Until he is done and gone one day… please God, not yet.
Sorrow and the clutch of stress has loosened its hold, though, year after year. They slowly got used to the way things were without her daughter…their granddaughter and sister.
Except for Rennie, they might move on a bit more. He is holding things up, she thinks often. He needs to go forward, too.
Pops says to ease up; he’ll just dig in his heels more if they don’t stop. But even he wonders why Rennie has about thrown away opportunity, that decent scholarship to Blue Ridge College. But he also thinks it is more complicated than they know. Might ever know. The boy–going on twenty, taller than he is and strong as an ox, both boys inherited their fool father’s strength and height–had been struck down by Mia’s illness as if it was his, too. And then she died. It might take a lifetime to get his head back together. She was his twin, yes. But being alive is right here and now; being dead is just gone, the past. It dims, despite what you think.
Rennie is different about things, they have to agree. He takes the raw of life into him and it carves out hollows or plants unexpected seeds or is churned into words that they rarely have gotten to read. Even though this is what got him the scholarship. Pops has lately for many nights seen him on the ramshackle back porch writing by candle light while the other two were to bed. It could be 1889 from the looks of him hunched over in baggy overalls and sweat-stained work shirt, face nearly to paper, the old fountain pen scratching away, his dark hair flopping forward, feet bare. His mind might be from a different time… maybe that is why he’s hard to reach at times. That, and the old visitor with havoc to unleash: the malingering of grief.
Pops gave him that pen as he turned thirteen, along with a new hunting knife. Why not? The boy always had such daydreams stuck in his head, may as well help him get them out. And the knife?–a good hunter when he puts his self to it. But like most things he does well–and there are quite a few–he seldom ever hunts now. He does what he does. Writes and works with his hands.
Why is he so resistant to college, bettering his lot? Though he can repair darned near any broken thing, so that’s good, It is Pops’ own fix-it gene passed to the boy. He learned–Zach, too, and Mia–right at Pops’ shoulder. Rennie can make a decent living with a repair business and that will make Pops feel calmer. Prouder than fancy words might do, if he’s entirely frank. But he wouldn’t stand in the way if the boy has to do his own calling. Too high a price to pay, his will versus the boy’s. They could lose him, too, and that would be impossible. Every man has to make a mark his own way.
Zach is moody lately; he wants his brother to make up his mind so they can all stop pushing and prodding. He isn’t as close as he may like but the several years difference and, well, he wasn’t part of the twindom, was he? But that’s how it goes, and he misses Mia, too…If only Rennie will face up to the next phase of life, get on with it, maybe they’ll be closer in time.
Rennie sees them. He hears them, pleasant creatures with deft mouths and mighty hands and good minds, with ways that are in his bones, too, as he lives on land his family has owned for one hundred-ten years. But he sees and hears as if they enter a stage, say their lines, do their bits and then saunter or dash off, taking their lives with them while he stands there in the middle, quietly observing, waiting for more, hands clenched by his sides, eyes straining at the dark swirling before him. What should he do? Even though he is tall and broad, owns any space in a manner he hasn’t quite realized, he feels invisible to them when it matters the most. It is not even his stage, not even his story–yet.
It takes an easy fifteen minutes to get there, through a wooded acre then down two hills, then following the music of tumbling water until he comes to Fielder and Backward Falls. The second name is due to the way the stream splits off there, around a boulder, and switches to the left. Most of the moving water goes its merry way forward as it should, over and down the earth and rock ledge in a cascade of clear liquid, pure enough to drink. But this is a small waterfall, diverted by a surprise route, and it pools in a natural dip in the land before seeping back to the main tributary eventually.
He settles on spongy dirt by a contortion of roots at pond’s edge. The falls splash and gurgle as it gathers, pools. He glances around to check for creatures, removes his sneakers, sticks feet into the warmish pond, plant debris floating on top. His toes stir up mud and it resettles. The odors of this spot are strong and reassuring, stones and rich dirt and mosses, waters carried from far away. Kudzu vines twist and reach, travel up trees in ownership. Birds call out and he calls back lightly with a thin whistling song that coincides enough with their chorus. The cicadas are relentless with urgent, rasping overtones.
Rennie falls silent. There, a stick cracking, a rustle. He waits. Another soft crackle, and a shushing among birds, their wings closing.
He feels her near, or does he only think it? There is a fine but penetrating charge in the air; his anticipation, yes, but it is their connection that re-makes this into a vibrant site he likes better than any other. It has always been their place. The one they disappeared to over and over. Where they found solitude, or found one another when no one else could or went to, together for a catch up. No one else knew for sure it was theirs, not in all their growing up years. Others might visit, but they alone claimed it at age nine and had a ceremony to mark it as such> Two poems were loudly intoned above the burning of wild grasses in a wide mouthed vase, and a song that Mia offered about trees’ eternal protection and the falls’ “most royal healing waters” and that was that. He closes his eyes.
It was a separate children’s time and place, and the moments made of simplicity in mind and heart. A true and perhaps holy place to Rennie. For she was there with him for everything that mattered all their shared lives.
His eyes blink open. The woods are unusually quiet; even the cicadas are talking in a dull buzzing note that descends into a lull.
“I’ve sure needed to talk to you,” he begins then pauses as his gaze sweeps the woods and water to check for anything or one else. “I miss sharing time and events with you. It doesn’t get easier, though I hear it will. It’s okay. I don’t expect it to be one way or another. I don’t expect you to come back. So I come here, you know.”
He waits; quietness enfolds him more densely.
“If I leave, then what? Will you still find me?”
He feels it, the sadness a net tossed about him and tightened, and he swallows hard, swipes a hand over forehead, stands in the pond. He looks again. It is only the woods, the moss-touched rocks and kudzu-encased trees. Mia is not now going to come out of the thickets and talk to him. He knows she never will, not really. But he wants it, anyway, yearns for the female reflection of his face to come forward, her being to offer words that make such good sense when spoken around his.
There is a distant call, perhaps deer or a bear on the move with a cub, or a grazing horse in fields even farther out. But suddenly he spots movement, a cottonmouth that slips into the pond at the other side, a younger one with light brown and banded scales, the telltale triangular head lifting as it swims. He sits down, scoots back, pulls up his feet and slips shoes on. Stands. He knows it will not harm him as long as he doesn’t threaten it but he backs up, instinct with a hold on him. The snake is placidly swimming into a murky spot and though for a moment it seems to eye Rennie squarely, it gracefully turns its thick body, silently moves across the pond.
It is the snake they saw most often, that semi-aquatic venomous creature at first scaring them, then just a part of the wild. At the falls they often stood on a rocky prominence and held contests, tossed stones into the pond or at any number of trees on the other side. Once Mia accidentally hit a cottonmouth and it raced across the pond and crawled out, searching for their heat. It was well-known for its often-deadly strike when disturbed; they knew better than to wait around. They fled as if for their lives, screaming then laughing all the way home.
He watches the snake now with keener eyes as it turns, swims back round to him, half-floating with head up as it again fixes on Rennie with it’s cat-eye pupils and opening its formidable white mouth. The young man freezes, heart throbbing, wonders if it will come to the ground…but just as quickly the three foot snake moves around the irregular edge of the pond in search of food, perhaps.
The cicadas start up again, unimpressed with his earlier speech or the snake; birds flap wings, chitchat among themselves, tend babies.
He rests at the rim of the woods before entering Tennessee sunshine that will beat on his skin and like a giant spotlight make him go blind a moment. He recalls the last time they came to Backward Falls. A bright blue and gold scarf was wrapped around her bald head; her eyes looked huge, turquoise in the light, her skin whiter than white, her full lips thinner then, slack. But they had read the poem in turns; they’d written together then buried it by the little waterfall. They knew it was their last time there. She leaned heavily on him as they made their way back, and they stopped often.
–Why you and not me? he asked her often. Why not both of us since we’re twins? And how will I manage, sister?
Finally, her answer came then.
–Because, you were meant to travel the world. To find its poetry. I was meant to make sure you did. I’ve been happy enough. I’ll pop up wherever you go. Don’t let us down, Rennie.”
The wind came up after that as a skirmish of storm clouds let rain down fast and hard, with lightning swift as jagged arrows piercing the dark sky. They’d walked as fast as they could hand in hand, drenched and unafraid. Jillian had been worried, waiting on the porch, but when she saw them together she just went in to heat up butter biscuits and make a pot of tea.
They always believed they were safer, better, smarter when closer to each other. Even near the end of the end, when they knew they’d not be in touch as they had all their lives. But the fact was, they weren’t really apart. Even when three days later she was gone.
He’s not disturbed the buried poem; it was a happy story of time together, and yet a stab in his center as they’d read it. Let the earth hold it close. Let their happiness be protected there.
They are done with dinner already, reading aloud the paper and chatting over coffee when Rennie comes in, panting some from running.
“So, family, I have an answer for you. I’m not going to college. I’m going to work at the hardware this year–already talked to Herb about it. I’ll continue small appliance and other repairs on the side for Herb and from home. I need to save a lot more. But then, by next June, I’m leaving.”
“Where to?” Zach asked, incredulous. He was on track to become a teacher but travelling sounded even better. Maybe he needed a road buddy? They hadn’t been all that close–he wasn’t in the Twindom, was he? But it was what it was. He’d like to know him better, it might happen before it was too late.
“First the West and Northwest, then Canada and Alaska, then…who knows. Might have to take a pause to work or come back now and then.”
“What about college? Your writing?” his mother asked, face gone softer with disappointment, her eyes damp, the barest amount. She managed a smile. “Though having you here longer will be nice.”
“I won’t stop. Have I ever? College won’t make me a writer. Writing will.”
Pops folded the newspaper and set it aside, stroked his beard in muted surprise. “Rennard Ames Collings: small appliances repairman. Traveler. Author. Good heavens, some life ahead of you.”
Rennie smiled at his grandfather and gave his mother a hug, his brother a quick tap on the shoulder. Then took a plate of potatoes, pork chops and fried okra and went to the porch. He settled on the top step to better see the dusky horizon, and Mia–it was what he felt so was what he believed–quietly sat down, too.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson