Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: Masquerade

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Don’t tell me about loneliness, that fiendish friend.
We all well know its ways, how it arrives
and vanishes, and hollows a sinuous
trail inside density of life like
a worm or a beetle into greenness.
And then unbidden, you follow, track
it with eye of hawk, root out damage
of its work, you howling and quaking,
trying to snatch all up, take it away.

The trickery is that loneliness is a masquerade,
and it seeks to beckon you into places
where the wearied self must seek truth
blooming inside each perilous, solitary ache.
But God sits there, the One you forgot,
God Who flings stars that will forever net you,
Who prunes sorrow with a stubborn mercy.
Then brings forth a mirror, reveals how beloved
are we who somehow imagine abandonment.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Small Pastorale

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There were such open April skies then,
air gone silky in green crystalline light,
flowers that shimmied at a touch,
rivers rolling on, past good talk, past life.
What did not shine and wink, expecting more?
Measures of joy in us stood up, sang out,
grasped hands, linked arms, trusted time.

We can act easy, can care much but lightly.
We cannot believe what is yet to come:
bodies will loosen from our souls.
Ties between us may appear torn, broken
yet we’re woven tight with invisible thread.
Stitches seem frailer some days, need more

strength as I seek wisdom amid worldly loneliness.
Evening surrounds me like God’s whispering
beyond star dark and dazzling space,
offering bountiful nets to be filled
in spite of my paucity, asking for hallelujahs
freed up while so many anguished bow low,
hearts to earth to hope to saving Love.

A Trail to Somewhere

It was a little like following a trail of beautiful blood, Percy thought as he stared at carefully dropped blossoms and then wondered what was wrong with him, anyway. They were lovely camellias yet surprising, somehow a bit shocking as he plodded along. He did hope no one just plucked them off the branches willy nilly.

He had decided to get out since his miserable cold had abated but he hadn’t gotten too far. Buster Keaton, his lame Jack Russell terrier, was more eager to walk him than the other way around. He gave a firm command; his dog heeled. The red petals seemed to interest the dog very little, while Percy found them by far the most intriguing event of his day. But it was only noon, no telling what was next, he had the rest of the day ahead of him to look for something, anything, of interest.

This was the trouble with the aptly yet oddly named “sunset years.” He’d been warned that unless he rediscovered or developed new hobbies, took a couple of classes or an exotic trip, he could end up bored beyond tears. He waved off the suggestions; he was a homebody at heart. He liked to cook, he liked to read and write meandering letters, he liked to listen to opera while tending his vegetable garden. And he went out on (very easy) hikes now and again in good weather. He had Buster Keaton and some human friends.

Although being bored to tears was a silly saying and an overstatement, there was something to be said for at least having a fine dog that engaged attention. If you could call taking him for brief walks twice a day and explaining to him the finer points of antique and flea market treasure hunting during favorite t.v. shows–as Buster gazed at him with barest interest–actual attention for either of them. His well-behaved dog was amenable; he was a quieter canine, being twelve and sort of gimpy (a broken leg had not healed correctly). He liked to snuggle beside him on the sofa, but not too much. The truth was, they were both a bit humdrum these days. The sunsets they witnessed had not been so utterly wonderful as what the later life forecasts had insisted.

But this flower trail was interesting. Percy gently poked at the first flower with his walking stick. It had been plucked or gathered a couple of days, he ascertained, as it was not quite browning about the edges but more wilty than fresh should be. They were placed in a deliberate pattern, each one set upon the intersections of sidewalk slab lines. It was puzzling out red dots with occasional dashes, a sort of code. Every now and then one was off-mark. Percy wondered if this was due to walkers or creatures kicking aside a few. Or perhaps the flower dropper got distracted.

Percy sighed. This sad little activity he was undertaking! It was a relevant summation of his life since leaving his active position. He was the founding half, the Rowell  of the co-owned Rowell and Randall Interiors. So little to get excited about yet his doctor had warned that peace was essential for a long lived heart. It was only himself at home, he affirmed when inquisitive people pelted him with questions about his private life–except for good Buster Keaton. He had never been deeply moved to marry. He had frankly not really met a singular woman–oh, he’d known a few, if he only could have melded them into one–more interesting than his four best friends. And his varied dogs, let’s face it, they were the most loyal of all.

Perhaps this had resulted from staying too close to home. He’d worked long hours, sometimes arriving home around ten at night, exhausted. His business partner, Wilkie Randall, still found plenty to do with a wife and three kids and now those grandkids he never stopped talking about. And they traveled and they entertained a slew of relatives and friends and so on. Percy had been to a good many dinners, was quite fond of the colorful family. It was all well and good for Wilkie but it usually left Percy desperate for fresh air and resounding silence after two hours. They had people coming and going all day long at the store, wasn’t that ever enough? But Wilkie was nearly twelve years younger, he had yet more steam.

And now every day Percy had all this substantive, variable… quietness.

Good grief, the blossom trail kept on. Buster sniffed here and there after he completed his task. Absolutely no one was about–no, wait, there was a fully grown up skateboarder cruising along with purple helmet and plaid Bermuda shorts, for goodness’ sake, and the trusty mailman was scurrying from house to house. But no person was strolling about with a basket of camellias on her arm. It might be a girl of perhaps seven or eight who’d been playing the evening before, he had about decided. Sunlight brightened sky and streets longer since spring. Children were often outdoors past seven-thirty, about when he was sitting down to dinner.

It might have been created with a friend or for a parent close behind or for her own simple entertainment, he thought. To intrigue people like Percy, the ones who had nothing better to do than look about and dawdle. But it seemed intentional, as if it meant something more. He and Buster Keaton kept on, following until they rounded a corner and the trail changed. It got more flowery, small groupings of white as well as red in a pleasant if quite artless design. Now it curved at a driveway, made its way to the base of a tree. Percy gawked and recalled the attractive contemporary house belonged to the Saransons. They had additionally built a well proportioned, two-roomed tree house. It perched in an ancient chestnut tree in the side yard near the garage. It was built when their sons were born. He stepped onto the grass. What were their names?

Something fell onto Buster’s head; he shook it vigorously and the tiny twig somehow caught on his collar, bounced off. He then barked right up the tree. Another object struck him on the back, this time a green plastic cap off a drink bottle; it slipped off Buster’s back, then rolled down the driveway.

Percy was worried about what might be next so stepped back into the driveway, yanking at Buster.

“Ahoy, there! My dog doesn’t like being thunked. Show yourself.”

“This isn’t a boat in a tree, it’s a very small house if you take a good look.” The disembodied, irritated voice was not easily identifiable as male or female. More branches rattled for emphasis and ensured movement was being made to likely disembark. Or climb down, more realistically.

“Well, Captain, I can see that, home interiors is my business!” Percy tried again, this time lowering his voice. “Sorry for the misnomer. I’m Percy Rowell of Taylor Street”–he gestured in the direction from which he came–“and this is Buster Keaton, said dog. Which of the Saransons are you?”

“Oh, hey Mr. Rowell, I know you. It’s Jeremy.” There was a creaking of wooden limbs, a jiggle of more branches. “Sorry to bother Buster. It wasn’t on purpose. Really.”

There was a pause, then a thud as the boy’s weight made contact with decking around the tree house. Percy could just see flashy tennis shoes, then frayed hems of jeans. Jeremy bent down, poked his head between bright green leaves and put on a fair smile through which very white, slightly crooked front teeth showed. The boy turned around, backed down a handmade ladder nailed to the old tree.

When Jeremy touched ground, he plunged his hands into back pockets, long arms now all jutting elbows. Nodded his head. “Mr. Rowell.” He bent down and slowly reached to Buster, then patted his smooth head. “Hey Buster you survive, little buddy? I was just cleaning up junk.”

“Don’t you have school?” Percy asked, eyeing both houses suspiciously. His parents worked, he knew.

“I had a cold. One more day to recuperate.” With his sneaker toe he pushed a rock onto a hole in the concrete driveway, then gave it a swift kick.

Percy thought he looked well enough, hair tufted and unclean, perhaps. A gangling boy on verge of growing up. Nothing at all like he, himself, appeared when he’d hazarded a glance in bathroom mirror a couple of days ago between sneezes: drawn, sallow face with reddened bulb of a nose smack in the middle of a saggy mess. But Jeremy was all of maybe thirteen or fourteen. Kids bounced back from most everything.

“Going around. Just had it myself.”

He studied the tree house now he was up close. It had screened windows, green shutters. Two folding camp chairs were on the deck. Peaked roof with a circular window at the point. Compact, made of redwood like the grown up version next to it.

But he thought about the flowers, how they’d petered out at the driveway; this was why he’d stopped.

“Impressive–it must’ve been fun for you and your brother.”

“Me and Todd. He graduated last year.” He shifted his weight, as if deciding whether to take off now or keep chatting with the neighborhood retiree. “I still escape there sometimes. Like last night, then today.”

“I recall he’s at Notre Dame.  Say, Jeremy, I was wondering…” His eyes turned toward the camellias, a few bunched up flowers here and there, some crushed by the tires that ran over them as the boy’s parents left for work. “Do you know who dropped these around the neighborhood? They put effort into making a pretty trail. Maybe it led to you…?”

When he looked up, the boy’s head was hanging. “Uh, yeah.”

Percy’s eyebrows shot up but spoke with nonchalance. “Oh, I see.”

“Yeah, I was making a fun thing for a friend of mine, you know, wondering if she’d notice it, then–well, I was just fooling around, that’s all, it was actually stupid to do. Dad said to clean it up today since I’m basically playing hooky as my cold is actually gone.” His cheeks pinked up  and he sounded almost angry as he bent down to rub Buster’s ears, who playfully barked twice. “They were mostly fallen, so I was moving them out of our yard!”

Percy picked up a couple of deep pink blossoms, smoothed their silken thick petals. Curious flower, luxuriant, strikingly vivid for a short time and then a fading, slippery mess as they plopped to the ground. And with nary a fragrance.

Curious thing for Jeremy to do.

“I have to walk Buster back home and get him a treat. Want to walk with me as you pick them up? I sort of wish you didn’t have to, they make the sidewalk more attractive.”

“I can do that, I guess. They were supposed to look nice–to get her attention.” He threw Percy a half-smile as they started off. “But it didn’t work out.” He folded inward a little, loped along beside the rotund older man and a re-energized, limping dog, then began to pick up blossoms and put them on the side of the walk.

“Here’s an extra doggy bag to put them into. Less mess by the sidewalk as they decay.” Jeremy took the bag and stuffed more flowers in it.”I can’t imagine what was wrong with that girl you mentioned. It seems a good idea, following flowers to a nice boy who has an interest. She live around here so she could see even the trail?” He glanced at the boy, who looked sullen. “None of my business, sorry.”

“It’s okay, I don’t care. It’s Loreena, on your street here, across and down a few houses from you.”

Percy strained his memory to bring up a picture of Loreena and could only get the barest hint of a tow-headed child on a small red two-wheeler. He had no idea who she was now. He saw all the kids at the annual summer block party and on the street at times, but their faces apparently had either blurred or never evolved as they aged.

“I’m sorry. I do remember a blond child of maybe eight or ten? Always racing her red bike with the rest of you up and down the streets?”

“Yeah, she’s still athletic. Anyway, she’s fourteen now, like me and I thought, I mean, we’d always been really good friends, and at school we talk sometimes and then…” He smashed more blossoms into the plastic bag then stopped. “Dumb ideas I get! That maybe she liked me, too, you know?”

“I see. Well, it was a thoughtful thing to do, I’d think anyone should like it. Maybe she was just not around?”

They were close to Percy’s house and he wondered if he should ask Jeremy to sit on the porch with an iced tea, would that be an awkward thing to do? Buster was starting to tug at the leash.

“She was out, alright, with her girlfriends. They sat on her porch talking and laughing–they saw me– and when I got halfway up the block with the camellias they went inside. I just tossed the rest and went back home. I’d left a note in her locker to follow the trail…” He kicked at the blossoms before him. “I saw a movie once, there were rose petals that led the girl to, well, bed, but that wasn’t what I was trying to do, I just really like her. You know? She’s special. I thought.”

The hurt had surfaced now, was spilling out despite a small shred of dignity left, and bottled up outrage. Percy didn’t know what to say to him. It was such a romantic thing to do that Percy wondered it Jeremy had the heart of an artist or poet.

Well, yes, his father had mentioned he played piano and guitar, and said he was quite good. He must have true leanings of a dreamer. How hard it was to be fourteen.

Jeremy had gone on to gather the rest of the flowers and now turned back to Percy, face blotchy and eyes half closed, downcast.

“I’m just so glad she’s at school so she can’t see me doing this! It was bad enough that she knew I was outdoors, all those lying there for her!”

Percy reined in Buster who barked impatiently. It was time for his treat. Percy would read the historical novel he had just begun, then they might doze a little. Still, something nudged him.

“You like an iced tea? It’s so nice I thought I’d sit on the porch a bit.”

“What?” Jeremy looked at the man he’d been talking with so openly as if he saw him for the first time. “Oh, Mr. Rowell, I have to, well, I should–” He rubbed his messy hair with a knuckly fist then let his whole trunk go slack. “Yeah, why not? I’m sort of thirsty.  Not much else happening.”

Percy arranged two medium-sized glasses–he didn’t want Jeremy to feel trapped there by a full taller glass– with a bowl of sugar and a spoon on the small metal table. He set down a plate of Girl Scout chocolate mint cookies as well. Jeremy took a seat in a matching chair, then Percy sat opposite. They sipped and ate cookies, watched the cars go by. There was a decent view of the house where Loreena lived, Jeremy said and pointed it out. They talked about the warming spring weather and all the dogs taking over the neighborhood and then a little about his school.

“You married, Mr. Rowell? I think you live alone here, right? Sorry if I shouldn’t ask.”

Percy looked down at his glass in hand. He shook the ice cubes around, felt the wet chill of the tumblerin his warm hand, how it meant summer was coming, too. “It’s alright, everyone asks. No, I never married any gal, Jeremy. No, I’m not gay.”

“I didn’t mean that–I wouldn’t care.  To each their own.”

Percy lifted his glass and Jeremy lifted his as well in a gesture of solidarity.

“No, I never found the right one, so to speak. They say there is a someone for everyone but I’m not entirely convinced. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. I was driven by my work, I’ve really loved interior designing. Then there was the store’s solid and growing success. I guess I dedicated my life energy to making things look and feel aesthetically balanced and exceptional–to following an artistic sensibility.” He looked at the boy, who nodded.”I dated some when I was young.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, there was one girl.” He took a quaff of tea. “She was always on the arm of another college man, a football player, of course, right? We had been in classes together a couple of times. I got her attention by painting a watercolor of public gardens she said she liked. She loved it, fell all over herself with appreciation and gave me a kiss… on the cheek. Though she liked me, I was not him, not the right guy, it was that simple.”

They sat in silence a few moments.

Jeremy turned in his seat. “Was she smart and cute? Loreena really is… But you just let her go, huh?”

“Oh, she was more than cute and smart, she was elegant and brilliant and sporty all in one. I thought she was about perfect. No, there was no hope. We both became interior designers, remained friendly after college. She married someone else entirely. But except for our paths crossing now and again, that was that.”

Percy felt emptied. Felt sweaty, a bit breathless, as if telling that nearly forgotten story had hollowed him out. But he remained calm and waited for Jeremy to say something.

“Yep, I could about see Loreena come and go if I sat here. Well, not a good idea, either.” He turned to the aging gentleman. “I guess we all have this stuff happen. I’m sorry for us both, kinda, you know?”

“Jeremy, just give things in your life a chance, some patience. You might see her in the future or you might find another girl. Or you might end up with just your music and be entirely happy.” He glanced at the boy, who looked surprised. “You dad told me you’re a musician.”

“Yes I am, Mr. Rowell, or sure hope to be.”

“Good.”

Percy fidgeted. He was feeling a smidgen self-conscious now and restless. He longed to go in, jjust read that next chapter in his book. Buster Keaton was scratching now and then at the screened door.

“Well, I should get back home. I’ve got more cleaning up and honestly, I’m sorta tired out by the mess I made of things.”

Jeremy finished off the tea and one more cookie then stood up. It was clear he’d be a taller man, likely gaunt like his dad, perhaps a good thing as a moody musician. But he had honest and quick brown eyes, a good way about him. He held out his hand to the much older man.

“It was nice talking to you. Really, thanks.”

Percy grasped the strong hand. “I’m glad I was curious about your camellia trail. I’d like to hear your music one day. I’m a quite good cook. I need to invite the three of you over for a meal. And by the way, if you ever want to make some cash doing lawn work…” He gestured at his grass and bushes, in need of help.

“Both sound good, catch you later!” Jeremy ran down the steps, waving.

Percy watched a fine boy, a soon-to-be-young-man, a decent human being in the making. He felt quietly happy.  Entered his house, scooped up Buster Keaton who put his damp, cool nose on his double chin. Found a treat for the creature and then his book. They settled in for who knew how long. Percy knew they had just the right amount of time left in the day and any others to come.

 

 

This Rain of Solitude

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The subtly greyed and matted clouds release fat drops and with it, its brief burden. Vast tangles of plants drink up, leaves dancing. The earth is an ancient darkened sponge, its green and multicolored varietals like personal attendants caring for its wellness. I want to disturb nothing, be only welcomed. Each stone and seed and bit of dirt, every worm and insect has been waiting for another rain and I, with them.

Sunshine presses against the drear; the day won’t let it in, or only so the air is gauzy with its brief pearlescence. Distant chimes vocalize in the sodden breeze as if heralding this gathering of moisture. Fragrances are released around my feet as I pause on a woodland pathway. My chest opens to inhale the primeval perfume of Noble firs. The damp expands in my lungs, courses to my face and fills my eyes with tears that detour to lodge in my throat. The rain covers me lightly and I am released into its favor.

I cannot walk far. The hard boot on my foot protects a broken toe and hinders exploration, but I persist. September’s argent air is transformed by an alchemy of ribbon of golden light; witnesses include myself and birds making note. Their voices are ebullient, soon half-tamed by more seepage from the sky. My hood goes up and I plod on.

The sturdiness of the day is apparent. I see it in the faces of those who pass with eager dogs in hand, children chortling as they play “catch and be caught” with a parent. But for me an almost tender solitude awakens inside the ashen quiet. It pulls me further into the woods as if we, too, play some devious game, pursued and pursuant. The air is a soft jostle on my skin. Trees whisper incantations only they can interpret though I listen deeply. I want to see what they see from their green glistening crowns but cannot scurry there.

Once, as a child, I did. Not here but elsewhere. Desire for another place and time folds me into a thousand paper cranes. What wish can be granted? Nostalgia makes me pull my jacket closer as rain seeks skin. But wishes are not real and my prayers are for something else. For stamina. For the gratitude and care that will keep it afloat. At this thought, my sister’s face somehow finds me, the one who passed in spring. My eyes close. Is this solitude made of a sheaf of tenderness, of grief, or foolish yearning? How alone we are, yes, unto loneliness when we do not suspect it.

A phantom–not my sister, no; something never bodied yet recognizable–is shadowing me. It wraps itself around my shoulders like a comfortable but holey shawl, one that’s woven with losses and longings. More, a spectral thing that has no voice but those found inside dreaming and imagining, no words but those uttered without sound. It’s name is melancholy.

It is an old companion. It will not desert me even now when nearer the denouement of my adventures rather than beginnings. There may be reasons why it comes upon me in this rain-blessed wood or any other moment but they matter less and less. A knowledge of sadness arrives with us as we exit the refuge of our mothers. Humans are made to manage its shifting weight alongside lightness of elation. It’s counterbalance, acceptance. At times I hold this sadness close like a lost thing, its vulnerable ache a plea not refusable.

I am seized by a restless longing and the desire to weep. I cannot run with foot impaired and so I wait.

The power of the trees, bold and tall amid the drenching rain, is the power of time, of being tested and found mighty, so now remaining. They incorporate a mystery we cannot know enough with mind but with our blood, in the dormant spheres of soul. In the gleaming, darkening wood there is this reminder: at the heart of sorrow is a beauty; in the center of beauty is infinite renewal.

I breathe in the piney air, let my being rest.

Melancholia is a remembering and a forgetting. It lets me see backwards to all the times I knew what love was, and all the times I did not. It takes me to innocence and slow shredding of it. It hears the keening of the world and gathers in my small voice. But it urges me to believe in something finer than all that has been misplaced or traded or lost. For my heart to be offered to the world as if it was indestructible.

The touch of all this is enough to hurl me right back to God. I ask how does one person make a difference but the woods are silent and watchful of my species. Kind, yes, the grand old firs, but unwilling to tell me more than what they already have. It must be enough. And I, as well, within this lonliness. And so I leave.

Melancholia plunges me into deeper waters of place and people, of body and soul. And so the rain today has carried me along. I have learned that to surge against its movement will result in a price I do not want to pay. I heed this and give in. It is one more feeling only, another bit of evidence that reveals that I am alive upon this earth.

At home again, I am listening to Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, “Romantic”. It takes me to that part of life where music has ever spoken to me with vivid promises. Where sweetness evolves from sour, good blooms from maligned or discarded seed.

As a teen during too brief a season in my life–those ectstatic youthful times–the one in which I was making music daily, I found treasures that stay with me. Though impetuous I was kept moving forward with ongoing lessons in self-discipline, gaining strength for the years to come. I thrived on nourishment of my innermost being and could not imagine otherwise.

I recall one summer, perhaps age fourteen. I would stand apart from other arts campers, shoulders back, spine so straight then (that age giving me a glimpse of sensual perfection) as forest breath mingled with mine. I surveyed the wide indigo lake nestled between black-green northern pines and knew it was going to be alright, all of it, Hurts and yearnings. Tenuous hope and intense, mind-boggling wonder. Knew that there would never be any other choice but to give way to a passionate devotion to life, come what may. I felt it as God’s presence, mysterious and potent. There was a true point of balance within reach if I released my fears. In reality it became so, later. But a tinge of sadness–that what we adore can be taken from us and this includes everything– remained like a secret, buried deep, indelible as the color of my eyes.

I am writing in the midst of a softer, quieter September afternoon, as if the rainfall has removed brittleness from the last vestiges of summer. As if the land is made fecund with different bounties. Wet winds have ceased to sweep across the city while throngs of clouds float by, their vaporous innards aglimmer with autumn light. There is a richness stirring within me. I stay very still.

He Walks, She Walks, the Sea Sings

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It’s hot, like the sun developed a sudden passion for the sea and sand. Unrelenting, it wraps around me like a scarf afire, covering me head to foot with blatant disregard. It has found me watching again, waiting for a moment when I will endure less speculation and gain more first-hand knowledge of something, anything better than what I know already. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, I reach for the sunblock and add protection to my long legs and freckled arms and face.

The guy I see daily runs or walks back and forth across the same stretch of sand with his two Irish Setters. I might guess he is either obsessive-compulsive or just unimaginative, even bored with his life despite the constancy of his dogs and an overall tendency to look better than anyone else around here. From the porch I can’t quite make out his features. It’s irrelevant, since he has not once looked my way and I’m not a photographer or artist yearning to immortalize him. Just passing time here, a would-be singer resting her voice until discovered. Or until I can book another lousy Thursday night gig.

This whole plan, spending time with my aunt and uncle while my mother again traipses around Europe with the string trio that has made her famous, with her small but devoted entourage, is an agreement I made with her. For her, not me, soon after she declared me unfit to stay alone one more day or night. I’d worked three nights in two months and my rent was overdue; she had to pay it again. Then she called her sister and brother-in-law.

Not that I don’t care about Jean and Albert, mind you. They’re my only living aunt and uncle and live a pleasant if more pedestrian life than my mother, and, luckily, reside at the beach. They cleaned an upstairs room for me and made it more than adequate, though it wasn’t necessary. All I need is a bed and lamp, a small table and perhaps a wooden chair. It is one of three rooms (a third is for Albert’s lawyer son when he visits, a grey and white room with framed maps on the wall, unchanged since he left) that was stacked with boxes of mementos of Mom and Jean, extra beading supplies and gemstones to create jewelry, innumerable books both read and unopened that they intend to some day donate, and the shoe and costume collection Jean has amassed over the decades she was a well-remunerated ballroom dancer. I have seen her pictures and awards all my life and could never understand why she gave it up at forty-eight, as she was still winning trophies, getting standing ovations. Her dancing is what a child like me believed was happiness incarnate, an entrancing perfection. I often tried on her shoes, spinning like a crazed top until I toppled.

“Best to bow out when you’re at your peak,” she’d said, tilting her head to one side, small teeth even and bright between full ruby lips. “And Albert had had enough.”

“It was me or the dancing, and that was doing her back and feet in, not good at her age,” he agreed, as if it was nothing to ask of his wife. He owned this rambling house, he had been lonely after many years of widowhood. Jean had found him at his jewelry shop when she was on a leave with foot troubles, buying more earrings. Everyone thought he was a bit old for her but she declared him her compadre, as if she handpicked him from a raft of flamenco back-up dancers, mutual need and want at first sight.

“He’ll be around for me forever, dancing will not. I’ve had a great run but I’m less than enamored of the sweat, pulled muscles, fickle audiences and unbearably arrogant judges.”

“Simply put, I loved her far more.”

Jean was nothing if not confident of herself and even life. That was a hallmark of her personality and of her sister’s, aka Mom’s, as well. Ambitious, charismatic, bold sisters from Syracuse, New York. Performers sprung from exceptional musical genes, the daughters of a music arranger and a musical theater actress, both of whom had enjoyed very good runs on Broadway.

“Speaking of which–when are you going to resume voice lessons, Gemma?”

This was the big question posed to me after dinner the night I arrived. I looked to the ocean, pulled by its rhythmic waves, light riding each foamy crest, and the sand left smooth, almost delicate as water receded once more. There is no sufficient hiding spot that protects me from this family inquisition, I thought, and the drive to succeed that infects it. My brother is also on the road with his band Ardent Revenge, making good money, gaining fans. I sang with him in early days, then found my own way. Well, found I loved jazz and also that there was limited need of one more girl singer in the teeming morass of hopefuls.

“She’s taking a break, no shop talk for a while, eh? Let the young lady enjoy restorative peace a couple of weeks, right?”

Albert has a way of understanding things that Jean does not, perhaps because he has no expectations, no need of control over me or anyone else. And he knows to keep suggestions gentle, open-ended, so she feels she has a final say. Even though I have only known him five years, I believe my aunt picked a keeper.

I turned my assertive self on her. “I’m resting and re-evaluating my next move. I’m generating musical ideas.” We held each other’s eyes, she contemplating delving deeper, me forbidding it. “I’m here because mom suggested it,” I added, “that’s all. Well, and I love you, too.”

“And we adore you, Gemma,”Albert tossed out as I excused myself, put on my sandals and left.

“Yes, you know I do, dear,'” Jean squeaked out as if he was twisting her arm. I knew she’d expected much more of me; it hindered her unfettered approval at times.

Beyond their walls the landscape was being overlaid with a deepening coral sheen, an elegant body of undulating water and still sand, tufts of grasses scattered about the edges. No one but a man with two rollicking dogs was visible. He held himself as if entirely alone despite his handsome pets, his gaze directed at the horizon as the sun was stowed away like an opulent fan folded for the night. I was riveted, too, until the dogs started to bark at seagulls and a venturesome cormorant. I headed the other direction, entering a softening darkness, seeking release from months of worry and work to survive. But each step underscored that my dilemma was a toss-up between what it would take to continue singing and make money from it and what had to happen if I was going to find joy in it again.

Time soon became a routine of sleeping, walking or running many sandy miles to keep my breathing and stamina in good shape, eating, playing cards or chess with my aunt and uncle, reading books from their staggering stacks. The water coalesced into that magnanimous being I wanted it to be, its urgent repetitions a reminder of nature’s sweet potency, the roaring voice a sacred healer. I fell asleep to its ancient lullaby, music that unfettered my sleep and took me on strange dream journeys. My mind became a bowl of silvery waves, my heart a drum that found its accompaniment in the sea’s breadth and depth. I awakened a bit stunned and more aware than I had been in a long while. But I remained silent more often than not. Singing longed for nothing from me yet.

The man with his dogs came and went on the same stretch of beach, yet we didn’t cross paths more than a couple of times. He seemed as engrossed by the elements as was I. We respected the mutual need of privacy. Dogs are rambunctious creatures not much restrained by human codes, so greeted me freely. I called them Red I and II.

No one spoke further of the future, and they were kind, even Jean was gentle, and Albert made me laugh with vignettes about his shop and the tourists. Jean and I tried on her old costumes. As we did when I was a kid, she took me in her arms and taught me dance steps. On the beach I tried the steps on hard sand, chasing waves out, leaping into them. The dancing produced a feeling lightness and freedom, and I began to see what drew her to it and not to making music. I wondered how she could be done with her passion. And I, possibly, mine, when only thirty-one. The thought pierced me.

Then, near the end of this third week I notice I am humming when I see the man with the Reds. It happens a couple more times. I have gotten so used to his presence that I barely see him, anymore, but when I hear the notes move in my chest and throat, I look up intentionally and locate him a yard away from me. He has stopped and is looking my way, hands locked on muscular shoulders as if in the act of massaging sore spots, his bare feet planted as tumultuous blue-green waves rush forward. With honeyed light falling over his flesh he looks nothing short of a statue, a paean to a bronzed Greek mini-god set upon on the beach. I stifle a yelp that is really a slip of nervous laughter.

I pivot and start walking the other way.

“Wait.”

I think this is not purposely directed at me–perhaps he is thinking I am some other woman–so speed up. But when I hear the thudding of running feet behind me, I take off, too, I don’t know why, perhaps I am embarrassed he saw me watching him, maybe I want to be left alone, but it is possible I am up for a game of chase, want to be pursued. I run fast, I was built for it, and I want to see if he catches up. I give it another burst of effort but striding up beside me now are the dogs, Red I and Red II and they are emitting enthusiastic barks every few lopes. I rein in my speed, then stop. Bending down, I rough up their large, furry noggins, catch my breath. I am licked on knees and hands. The man is running now, late but with verve.

“Hey,” I offer as he nears, “your dogs are fast.”

“Not so fast as you, I suspect. I can’t seem to get your attention, while they find it easy.” He calls them.”Titan, Helly, down!” They sit as he steps forward, hand outstretched to me. “Harlan Wills.”

“Gemma. Gemma Everson.” I take his hand. It’s damp and a little gritty as if he has been digging out rocks and shells. The dogs are panting and looking at the sea, impatient. I rock a little from side to side, a habit I have when anxious. Why did he call me? Is he safe enough?

He swipes hands on his shorts as if reading my mind. “I noticed you have been around every day for a while. Like me. Vacationing?”

“Visiting.” I am thinking his voice is remarkable, one I could close my eyes to, and it strikes me as brazen to think it and even ridiculous. Maybe he’s a public speaker or radio deejay or a politician. I balk at the last so settle on the first, then second. “You come here often?”

He takes forward steps as do I. Red I and II–Titan and Helly, what absurd names–follow along as a casual pace now. “Yeah, I have a summer place not far from here. You, too, or staying at a hotel?”

I shake my head and start to answer but feel encumbered by his interest. The last thing I want here is a nosey stranger, someone who needs explanations. All good-looking men seem this way, I think, makers of easy talk that avoids best intentions. “Family,” I offer.

We walk quietly a few feet when the dogs are off chasing more birds and whatever else they hear and see that we cannot. He stops to observe them, then turns to me.

“You don’t want to be bothered, am I right?”

My mouth opens to affirm his insight, but the truth is I want to hear him talk more. “It’s not that. I am…busy resting my voice, you might say. Taking a break.”

“Oh, you’re a singer?” His even-features register greater curiosity and delight, eyebrows rising.

I’m involuntarily speechless now. How can he know this? I gulp, stutter. “W-Well, uh, okay then, yes.” My brow furrows as there is a tinge of distaste for his astuteness despite his melodious voice. Who does this guy think he is? I pull up the hood on my light sweatshirt and start walking again. I am not going to speak more of it.

Harlan falls in step. “I’m a composer. Well, lately more of a song writer which I also like.”

“A composer? Really, of what? Symphonies?” The sarcasm is obvious so I try again. “I mean, classical or pop or what?” I am nearly shouting because the wind has picked up and clouds are zooming in, spreading a cushiony layer along the northerly horizon.

He half-yells back. “I was working on a cycle of songs for chorus but cannot seem to finish up right. It’s commissioned work but that doesn’t motivate me, it annoys the heck out of me. So lately I’ve been writing more melodic stuff, working on lyrics. Just for me.” He comes to a halt. “I’m sorry, so all about me. I’ve been here for a month, alone, and I guess I…well. Just what is it you sing?”

I take in a chest full of salt sea air and feel it inhabit and soothe my lungs, then agitate my mind. What do I sing? Yes, what? Is it jazz or is it alternative? Has it most recently been pop or soul? What is it I am doing with my waning voice when I open my mouth on a crowded or dingy stage? Whatever is expedient, whatever pays the bills. What causes people to stop and listen, perhaps cheer me on. Lately, nothing at all.

“I’m flexible.” I smile at him because he is smiling at me, his face opening up, a golden shell with perhaps something more inside.  I want to impress him, make him happy he knows found me. Why not? I’m lost at the beach, so is he. “Lately, very little. Nothing, in fact.”

“Ah.”

We wait for Red I and II, then set off at a more brisk pace. The wind settles with a whisper and I let the hood fall away from my face.

“Why are they named Helly and Titan?”

“An opera I tried to write after graduate school. The main protagonists were Helvetia and Titan.” He sees me smirk. “I know, okay, pretentious. It failed. But I got the two puppies around then, after a bad relationship that coincided with my worthless masterpiece.”

He shrugs as if that is so ancient history his dogs don’t recall it and he would rather not. I inhale the ocean’s tangy freshness, and feel heady.

“I’m a jazz singer who can’t find a decent band so I’m reduced to singing on the ‘off’ nights, just opening sets in stinking little dives, while my diva mother is off in Europe with her string trio and moneyed friends. I got sent here to recoup with my dancing aunt and sweet uncle and I’m just trying to sort things out….do I give up? Do I go back to school and become an X-ray technician or legal assistant? Terrifying.” I turn to him and without thinking reach for his arm. “I mean, really, Harlan Wills, must I give it up?”

His large eyes widen as he finds my hands, and they are almost like mirrors, deeper set than mine, pewter and navy like the sea now, but they are sending out something real. Pain or tenderness or fear. Vulnerability. Two strangers, but of the same ilk.

He knows just what I mean. I hang onto his hands, feel the wind come up and whip my hair across my eyes. He moves the strands from my face and I step back, acutely aware of his touch, those long tanned fingers on my own sun-pinkened skin. We look at each other, then away. Separate, the moment hanging between us like a portent or a warning, something unexpected and unavoidable.

The dogs don’t care. They are wet now and charging us and Harlan takes their muzzles in his palms and talks to them and they talk back. We turn to trace a return route.

“Do you want to have a glass of wine? I might be able to dig up some cheese and bread or even yesterday’s spaghetti.”

“I don’t know.” I look at him but his eyes are turned to the incoming tide. I see we are walking in sync, our lanky steps easy but metered.”Do you have a piano?”

The sky is striated blue and silver, sunlight a thin bright band travelling across the far horizon. Rain is coming. I might have to sleep with my window partially opened so I can hear it ping against the window glass, locate its fine notes among the sea’s throaty intonations. Seek out its fine and freeing power, and make it somehow mine, as well.

“Yes, a beat up baby grand, a Steinway,” Harlan says.

“Well, let’s go, then.”

Helly and Titan lead the way, challenging a last time the tide’s magnetic pull, then come ’round to us. Waves release a resounding boom and we move faster as the summer sky releases glittering raindrops. Two rootless, uninspired musicians begin to fly across a sea-shaped land, to just where I don’t know but back to the music, to that mad, transcendent intersection of sound and soul, the only home we know.