Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Venus is a Planet/Feather on the Stoop, Part 2

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If it wasn’t for the drenching wind lashing windows and careening around corners, they both might have slept a little. Lydia changed position every time a rattling came. It was working itself up into a fury. She sprawled across the bed on her back, staring at the gaudy chandelier above her as it swayed ever so little, its glass pendeloques (her mother’s correct term or as she said, crystal drops) barely tinkling so her ears caught the sound. The train soon squealed by, unstoppable, and the drops shuddered with a more lively response. A kind of solace, that train. It was one reason she’d rented the place and why rent was low.

The twice daily train reminded her of the fall cross-country trip she’d taken with her father when she turned ten. It was his birthday present to them both; his birthday was four days later. They went from Virginia to the West coast and back in two weeks. She never missed her mother, who didn’t like trains and was busy selling houses, anyway. Lydia closed her eyes: wheels on the tracks through Southwest to California. Her father’s shoulder next to hers, faces beaming as they pointed at sights past the window.

Lydia thought of the homeless woman she called Feather. Sitting there on the stoop in the damp wind. Lying on it, hips and shoulders surely hurting. It made her ache. Which was ridiculous, but perhaps it was sympathetic…her bed was only two years old. It was an actual firm-with-pillowtop bed. Not concrete.

The rain pelted all outdoor surfaces, rat-a-tatted every window. She was not, then, to sleep much, harassed by stormy weather in every way. Lydia turned on the bedside light and grabbed a book to fend off her usual sad holiday memories– and new issues.

As winds sharpened, Feather crunched her long body against the abandoned shop’s brick façade. If she got any closer she might be holding the damned building up. Her knuckles got scraped when she turned over. She’d tried to pick the old watch repair shop door lock twice, but she had no talent for it and didn’t need criminals helping. She gave up; it was probably full of happy rodents. They got a dry home; she got the wintry street.

She had earlier stood at the entrance to the charity lady’s apartment building. Looked up at the rows of darkly glinting windows. It made her feel better for a second, knowing someone was up there. Even if it was a naïve woman who likely did good deeds to make her feel nicely superior. Feather then went back to the stoop to think. The shelters were claustrophobic, over-full. There was an alley a half- block down. It might offer cover from the wind. She bundled the now-grimy Native American blanket that lady left her–she knew what it was, she wasn’t stupid–into her arms and left. She had some Hopi in her, she heard, a great grandmother. She wasn’t enrolled so good did it do her? But the blanket, it gave her warmth. Maybe a sense of protection. Foolish girl, she scolded herself; protection was a dream.

The alley had a metal gate; it was ajar. The narrow area was pitch dark, quieter save for wind echoing. There was a short roof overhang; it was the part of town where business and residential mixed from way back. Garbage smells permeated the air but she was finally used to that. The big dumpster she stopped by wasn’t bad; the lid was down and it was shoved close to alley’s end–she could still see out to the sidewalk, in case she heard or saw something. She arranged her blanket and the fancy embroidered–was that that style called?–pillow she’d found in the bag with blanket on that stoop. Feather slumped against the wall as rain spattered down to her boots; she pulled them close to her chest. This spot would do until sunrise, even had potential for a few nights.

Tiny feet with a thick body and long tail charged past her and under the dumpster; she covered her face with both hands, squelched a cry. Disgusting rats. Monstrous night.

******

When Lydia got to work, the Head and Body Salon was hopping. Tony was so strapped for time that his usual patter was vastly shortened; he was listening to his clients talk for once. Alma was consulting with a younger woman whose beautiful long hair went prematurely grey hair. She wanted to chop it all off; Alma politely dissented but she’d cave soon. Whatever clients wanted, they got. She’d shave their heads if it suited. Changing times. She glanced at Lydia, and sighed. That girl was worn out today.

It was nearly a relief to be at work, for Lydia. Last night had been rough, unusually so. It was the holidays coming up, she guessed. Memories of past Christmases, missing a few people. He dad, gone nineteen years. She turned from her thoughts and noted the next walk-in customer whose tufts of dark blonde hair mimicked shards of butter brickle. Another came behind her, looking desperate for aid. Almost all appointment slots were booked up for days. Hair! Skin! Lydia had such simple needs that she daily strained to understand the urgency. She smoothed her own dark brown, chin-length hair, a small reassurance, and stayed on task.

Alma took a break and sauntered up to the reception desk.

“What you got going? You look tired today.”

“Sleep issues? Holiday blues? Sometimes I just sleep less? You and your ten second breaks. You manage to pack a lot into those.”

“I surely do! Well, you tell me, kiddo. I think you’ve got more going on than that, but I’m not one to pry. And breaks are what save me…all of us.”

Lydia looked at her ringing phone, then at Alma with wide eyes. But you are still prying, she mouthed. “Hello, Head and Body Salon, how can I help you?”

Tony sidled up close to Alma as she went back to her station; he threw a look over his shoulder at Lydia. “Maybe it is an actual man, after all. Love can steamroller you…”

“Says the man with a kid already and another on the way…She won’t say a peep. Our potluck’s not more than a week away. Maybe a few drinks to loosen her up…”

“Dubious. She seems to prefer Perrier with lime, barely drank a beer that time we went out. But we’ll get the truth out of her, girl.”

They high-fived and got back to work.

Three women lounged in tawny vintage leather chairs around a coffee table. They mused aloud about gifting issues, dinner plans, family squabbles. How they wished new hairdos could solve it all–if only! But Lydia mused about Feather. She wondered about her jet setting mother and Grant, the latest adoring male, one more too many. Counted minutes until she was off work.

At seven o’clock she waved to her co-workers and rushed down the few blocks to her building. She didn’t see Feather anywhere. How could she give her food again if the woman wasn’t there? Last time this happened, it had disappeared, to who knew where.

An hour later: delivery of a covered storage bowl with still-warm chili with plastic spoon, a thick piece of sourdough bread with butter, and a bottle of water. She wanted to leave coffee again, but her thermos had been left with Feather and was gone for good, maybe. A take-out coffee, next time.

Lydia turned in a circle to look better as the rain got more oomph. Blasted December rain. She wished it was still sunnier fall. How could anyone live outdoors in the cold Northwest damp? She stuck her hands deep into her raincoat pockets, hunched a bit.

“Hello Feather!–I don’t know your real name…you out here?” She scanned areas across the street, squinted at deeply shadowed sidewalks. A girl on a bicycle whizzed by, its headlight jumping as she went over bumps. A man hurried on the other side, briefcase clutched to chest. “It’s Lydia here! Helloooo? I left food here!”

Nothing. She scurried to her apartment building entrance, punched in her code, looked back a last time, shut the door behind her.

Feather whimpered softly where she leaned in a doorway across the street. Her ankle hurt–it had turned as she stepped off a curb downtown too fast without looking in the early morning dark. She had wrapped a scarf she had worn too long around it. Not that it made any difference. She stood, wobbled, took a few steps and winced. But she’d heard her, the lady. There was decent food over there. There was someone named Lydia.

******

“I told you, Lydia, I will do my best to get back but it’s not looking good. Heaven knows, Lydia, I try to cram as much into each work day as possible. This week’s executive management training, however, is absolutely not what I thought it was. Rather rudimentary, but still, I make contacts. I find new contacts, leads. Connect with old ones–that’s worth the trip. More properties to move as soon as I get back…but it’s New York in all its gritty, glamorous glory.” There was a languorous pause as she sipped her brandy. “How are you doing, my dear?”

“I’m perfect. I do what I do–you know, scheduling impatient clients to get hair done is a terribly difficult job.”

Her mother sighed as Grant rearranged pillows behind her back. “Beyond that, of course. Any new men moving into your building? Any leads on other job opportunities?”

Lydia laughed. “Not looking before Christmas, mother–I really like it there for now. Men? Wouldn’t know, I’m busier than you think.”

“Try me.”

“I’m studying train travel packages for next summer. Working on a montage to frame for my very beige bedroom. Reading three books off and on. And we have a work potluck soon.” She shook her wet hair out, combed tangles with fingers. “I’m well over thirty, Mother–just living my life.” There was a long silence. “And how is it with Grant?”

“Oh, well enough.”

“If he’s moving in, don’t tell me now. Wait till…the New Year.”

Her mother cleared her throat. “I’m glad you’re having a dinner gathering…. You aren’t by any chance still doing things for that street person, are you…not safe!”

“All is well.”

“Alright, then–see you on Christmas Eve, at least. Ciao.”

Lydia tossed her cell phone on the sofa and paced a little. No reason to be upset. They never had much of a Christmas together–there was always an urgent someone or something else. They didn’t buy each other much. They didn’t get trees. Well, Lydia put a small ceramic tree on the non-working fireplace mantel. The tree looked lovely all lit up. She went to look at it– a secondhand store treasure. She’d have someone over, she wasn’t sure who, maybe Diane from her last job, recently divorced. A good meal and large goblet of wine.

Saturday evening and it was getting late. She took leftover spaghetti and plopped it with its sauce into another disposable storage container, added now-cold peas, taped a fork on the lid. Got a bottle of pear juice.

On the way down the elevator, Lydia thought: why am I still doing this after over two weeks? Feather may not like pear juice or marinara sauce. She might hate that she was giving her food and throw it away. Maybe her mother was right–she should contribute in another way. Donation of money was so easy.

Feather sat cross-legged on the shop’s stoop. Her purple hat–the owl feather was missing– and coat were stained and damp. She looked up at Lydia. Their eyes met long enough that Lydia felt the force of her–strong, suspicious, intelligent, hurting. It was as if some weird electricity set on low hum connected the looks. Feather’s eyes flashed wide then looked away but not before Lydia saw their golden brown irises, the narrow pupils. Red-rimmed, dark circled, alert. She held out the food offering. Feather came closer, took it into both tanned, thin hands.

“Why all this? Again?” Feather asked as she eyed the contents and the woman who stood below the steps.

“Because you’re hungry, that’s all.”

“Okay. ” And she pried the fork off the lid, opened it, began to eat ravenously. “Thank you, then,” she said with mouth full.

Lydia went home. She stayed up late watching old movies, trying to guess Feather’s real name, munching a couple of rice cakes with strawberry cream cheese.

******

She heard it from the swirling center of her dream, a crying out as she awakened in a sweat. She waited for it to vanish, heart pounding. Looked at her phone: 2:34. It was still there, yelling, then the buzzer punched over and over for her apartment. She got out of bed, answered the intercom. But first she looked out the window, down three stories.

Feather on the sidewalk below.

Lydia pushed up the window sash a couple inches. “Feather? What’s going on?” Lydia asked, the cold air catching in her throat.

“I got beat up, can I come up a little?”

Lydia hesitated. Then pushed the button to unlock the front entry. Got a robe and padded to the elevator. The young woman came up with Lydia, shaking for the short ride. Her face was smeared with dirt and tears and blood. All she could do was mumble something about the alley, woman with a bad eye; then a dog scared her. Lydia put her arm around her, unwashed body odor nearly overpowering, Feather shaking hard.

They entered the apartment and Lydia turned on lights. Feather barely looked about but sank into the sofa, rubbing her hands together, swiping her face carefully.

“Shall I call the police? Take you to emergency?” She had never had to deal with a situation like this. What was best?

Feather shook her head “no”.

“You’re bleeding, you can wash your face in the bathroom…”

Feather didn’t move, just sat rigidly looking at her hands then the floor, then Lydia. Her eyes were dark in the dim living room. Blood trickled from her nose, a red lump rose under one eye, a split lower lip bled.

“Would you like some tea after you check your face? And I–I maybe could help you with a soft washcloth.”

Feather nodded, stood a little off-kilter. “Okay.”

Lydia pointed to the bathroom and followed with her hand on her elbow, took a fresh wash cloth from a shelf.

Standing so close felt rude, presumptuous–two strangers– as she wet the washcloth with a mild olive soap and gingerly dabbed wounded areas. Feather grabbed the cloth and ran it under hot water, then pressed it onto her face, breathing in the steamy heat. This she did several times, then added soap and moved the cloth in small circles about her face. Lydia stepped toward the door. Let her have space alone.

“Since I’m here now, can I ask….I’m sorry…but can I take a shower? It’s been over…it’s been so long. My body hurts so much tonight. If not it’s okay, I’ll go in a few minutes. Just wanted to see what she did to me.”

The punches she must have gotten. The painful swellings and cuts. Lydia wanted to ask who, where they went, get the police. But got a thick yellow bath towel, a matching hand towel and new wash cloth. Set them on the toilet seat.

“As long a long shower as you like.”

When she closed the door, she leaned against it and let tears run hot down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around her body. She put on the tea kettle and laid out clean clothing for sleeping.

******

Feather woke up with sunrise, as usual. She could not for the life of her figure out where she was. She wore a clean t-shirt and sweat pants, and lay on a vine-patterned sofa. She stood up too fast; every facet of her muscles and skin hurt.

Ah, Lydia’s…a heavenly shower for so long, cup of tea and sleep. Oh, blessed sleep in a warm place on a long sofa with snug, sweet-smelling blankets. She had an odd sense of unreality, as if she was not really there at all, but breathed slowly, evenly, and felt stronger. She had been so desperate last night. Now, more sore yet still better.

She didn’t know if she should bolt the smartest action, or wait. She waited, thinking of tea, of fresh toast despite her feeling this was all stupid, even sketchy, an unknown woman helping her for what? But Lydia was likely more worried than she was. She got up on tiptoe to use the bathroom. Her face looked like hell; her chest displayed a few raw lines from scratches. On the way back, she passed a closed door. Lydia’s room, she thought. She ought to explain more…but then Feather sank down on the sofa, pulled the blanket over her head, slept four hours more.

When she awakened once more there were fragrances long forgotten. The small dining table was set with mugs, real plates and silverware, and an aloe plant was at center, and a burning candle, cinnamon and orange. Like the old life, an ordinary table set in a simple way. Or the life before the last life…She felt a sweep of dizziness as longing threaten to grab hold and take her down the rabbit hole to the time and place she had vacated.

“Good morning, time for breakfast. Coffee?” Lydia stood in the kitchen, hand on coffeepot.

“Real breakfast? For free– or…? I can find food somewhere else!”

“Of course. Eggs? Toast with jam and peanut butter? Cereal, hot or cold?”

“You’re kidding–I can choose?”

“Feather…just a nice Sunday morning breakfast that I already ate as you slept.” She poured a mug of pungent coffee as the startled young woman sat down. “What is your name, anyway?”

Feather was at the table, the paper napkin put in her lap. Biting her lip and looking at the candle flame she shrugged. “Okay, I’m Genevieve. Called Gen. But being Feather has been nice in a weird way.”

“Gen… now order, please?”

She ate in silence, and though her split lip and cheeks hurt with each bite, she kept chewing fried eggs and toast and sipping fresh coffee. She didn’t want to be rude but there had been so many times of hunger. Days of it, even with Lydia’s food the grinding gnawed at her as a day fell toward night or night slid into day.

Lydia left her to it, got to work cleaning up.

After the food came the talking. Lydia glimpsed Gen’s face and demeanor as often as she could without being rude. The young woman had utterly changed with a shower, rest, decent food. Hair was shoulder length and auburn brown. Even with bruising along high cheekbones and swollen lip and abrasions and cuts–an open face touched with inquisitiveness and a latent softness. Her eyes were large, brighter. Yet striking features betrayed less feeling than she expected. She supposed it was the toll of the street. Having to be on guard, be tough. But Gen spoke carefully. Thoughtfully.

“Lydia, I’m homeless now for over three months but not for reasons you think.”

“What do I think?”

Gen put down her mug, breathed in heavily, let air out slowly. “What every one decides is true. Drugs, alcohol, can’t work because of mental illness and not being on meds. Well, I did lose my job and I guess I was struggling. ” She reached for the mug of coffee, tracing the cardinal on it, then took a drink. “I was working at a corner store across the river and had no place to live. I couldn’t find a spot to stay for long. Or always make it to work on time. On and on.”

“But you had a home, once?”

“Sure. An apartment.” She studied the folds of her napkin, shredded it to bits. “He was mean, you see, he drank, too, but he was just…too harsh. I reached my limit.”

Lydia felt herself lurch. “Domestic violence?”

“Why do they call it that? Like some neat label on a file?” Gen stood up, pushed back her chair, walked to the kitchen and back. “Why not get to the point: monstrous days or nights of cruelty, things you can’t figure out how to stop– emotionally or bodily, they just keep happening…?” She stopped. Sat. “I’m sorry, sorry…yes, he hit me, worse. Anyway, I had to go, so I did, and thought I’d be alright since I had a job, friends. Friends! No. They dried up when he came calling. Besides, no one really wants to get involved, they have their own lives to deal with. So I did what was necessary to survive. But then, you–why you?”

Lydia was riveted. This woman, ten years younger than she was–she had lived all that yet taken a great risk. Left but maybe ended up worse off, who could say this worked out at all? Violence and loneliness on the street or at home. Death, maybe. And she shared her life without embellishment as she rested with coffee and Lydia.

“I…I don’t know. I kept thinking about you every day I passed you. I thought it might help to feed you, that’s all. A small thing, when you consider the scope of your trouble.”

“No.” Gen placed her hands palms down on the table between them. “You saw me. Cared to stop.”

“I’m so sorry you’ve endured all this, Gen.”

Gen looked at her ragged fingernails, then at Lydia and gave a small smile, her eyes brimming. They stayed quiet then, drinking coffee, looking out the window at people rushing or sauntering by. Much had been said and left unsaid.

It was a Sunday. Laundry day in the basement laundry room. Lydia got up. “I can wash your clothes and give you some of mine to wear. The jeans might be short on you, but we’re both sort of tall and slim.”

“You’d do that?”

“You can stay all day if you like–talk things over tonight. Just rest. But if you have to go, then go.”

Gen got up and stretched. “It’s like I woke up in heaven.”

“It’s not all that much, really. I’m glad you took a chance to reach out.”

“I guess I am, too, but it’s pretty bizarre, too.”

Lydia had to agree. But why not trust her instincts, take a chance? Let life leave its telltale trails on hers; let herself be willing to accept this stranger named Gen.

******

They talked that night, the day and night after, and the next. More than either had talked in a long while. Nothing seemed too crazy to state as time rolled by. Lydia grasped Gen’s situation as well as she could. They defined boundaries each day. In the final agreement, Gen could stay until she got another job. Lydia would point her in the right direction for further help regarding housing. And counseling. They would take it a day at a time–that was the best way to approach the situation: practically. Carefully. Kindly. Gen was traumatized, Lydia saw that, but she wanted to be better and was persistent.

When the potluck rolled around a few days later, Lydia was ready, She was to host it at her apartment–she had leaves for the round table, it could seat all of them fine. When Gen suggested she just disappear, Lydia would not hear of it.

“No, you should know my co-workers and they ought to know you since you live here, for now.”

“But I don’t think I can do it. I don’t want to answer questions, have them look me over.”

“You face looks good now.”

“I don’t mean that, Lydia…I don’t want top be paraded out…”

Lydia was about to argue but only nodded.

So she left for the night and Lydia, Alma and Tony all got a bit tipsy, ate very well, played silly Charades and had fun getting a bit closer. But Alma and Tony didn’t know Lydia’s secret, still. As the three guests left the building, they passed Gen in the foyer and greeted her cheerfully as they would anyone after a pleasant evening. Gen waved at them, smiled back, her lips no longer hurting.

******

When her mother came back to town earlier than expected, there was no plan at all.

“Yes, well, here I am, flowers and food in hand! Why didn’t you answer you buzzer at first? I know I’m back four days early, but I wanted to see you, dear. Is this a good time?”

Lydia embraced her mother and her heady perfume, took the pink and red roses, sniffing them closely to get the fine rose fragrance in her nose, then arranged them in a vase. “Why the roses?”

“Oh, you know, Christmas.”

“That’s poinsettias, Mother, or red amaryllis.”

“I just felt like it, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” She looked around. “It looks good in here, what I’d call…homier. What did you do?” She took the Chinese take-out and plated it to heat in the microwave. “I meant to get you a great new scatter rug ordered for Christmas but ran out of time. There’s always something, I know, but it might slack off a couple weeks now.”

“Mother, it’s fine, but–“

“I’ll do it tomorrow, alright? Yes, and I have the reservation for Bartles, not to worry. A few days to go, then we’re done with it for another year. What did you get me this year, Lydia? ” She laughed her cascading laugh. “You know you’ll get money.”

“Mother, hold on. What’s up?” She took in her mother, a long, hard appraisal. Pale skin, sad droopy eyelids, tense mouth, a clenching and unclenching left hand. “He left… Grant is gone.”

“Well, so what if he is? They come, they go, nothing so terrible, he had a weak ego, anyway, and he makes less than I do as VP and, too, he has the most annoying–“

Lydia put her an arm around her mother’s silk-clad shoulder and led her to an armchair. “You sit down. I’m getting tea started. Then I have something to tell you, too. Let’s eat right here.”

The older woman sat, took off her black high heels and rubbed both insteps. She was full of curiosity but she was tired. A long, bad argument with Grant echoed in her ears. Done with that!

After the meal Lydia sat across from her mother.

“Mother, I have a roommate now.”

“Oh!” She lit up. “What’s he like? Is he hiding out in your room?”

“No, Mother, not that sort of roommate. I mean, a young woman who–“

“Lydia, you’re now leaning that way…?”

“Oh, stop for a minute! Let me explain. She’s–well, she’s the homeless woman. She got badly hurt out there, so I took her in, and it’s a long story but she needs a place to stay, she’s nice and respectable as you might say, just fell on hard times and–“

Her mother put up a hand. “Oh, Lydia. Whatever will become of you?”

Lydia had no answer for that. It was what her mother said when she ran out of words about her daughter, an old refrain.

“Where is she? How long will she be here? How do you know she isn’t dangerous?”

“She went to an interview awhile ago. She’ll be back shortly. It’s a good time to talk about that duplex you bought recently…”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Can’t we keep this simpler? And focus on us now? I lost my guy and the training was awful. I actullay booked an earlier flight because it all went to hell. I realized how much I miss you, Lydia…”

Lydia felt the impact of those words, and leaned into the sofa. “Missing me? I’m always here.”

“I have been, really. It was dreary sitting alone on the plane for hours, thinking of all the years we had more time together. Work and men always dominate my life.”

True, but now all this talk was getting to be too much; it wasn’t like her mother. It almost worried her. “Well, I think of all that, too. And now you’re home. So we’ll have our dinner, we can gather round a real tree, if you like. I, for one, would like that.”

“Done. A good change. I’ll see where I can find a lovely tree for my living room–they cost so much, but– yes.” She tilted her head, narrowed her eyes. “What about the duplex?”

“Maybe she can rent one when she gets a job? Or before. I’ll help with rent awhile, if needed.”

“What, your own money? You must have a lot of faith in this person! Take a minute to evaluate, Lydia.” She clasped her hands, then relaxed a bit. “We will see… she needs a decent job. I’d need to get references, not just from you.”

“Mother, she’s a domestic violence victim, just give her a break!”

“True. Men can be such beasts. Except for your too soon-departed father.”

“Yes, Mother, I know. Oh, please don’t cry–I have enough tears around here.”

The door swung open and in walked Gen who went straight to Lydia, clapping her hands like an excited school girl.

“I got the job–I think! She liked me–and may soon hire me if my work references pan out.”

That Genevieve was changing was clear, Lydia thought. For one, she looked amazing all clean and hair shining and dressed nicely. But even more she was standing taller, looked at her in the eye but not too hard; shoulders back, chin up a tad. She smiled enough as she shook Lydia’s mother, then sat and chatted, nothing too personal, just job hunting, her bookkeeping skills. And Lydia helping her out. She was not much intimidated by Lydia’s finely mannered, impeccably dressed mother, Leslie Settlefield, or did not reveal it. Gen knew how to cope, it seemed, to face life as required. She could figure out solutions–how to survive, start over.

Leslie thought, she had a spark, that girl, spunk. She’d manage alright. Past trials wouldn’t stop her if she could help it.

But it was Lydia who Leslie Settlefield wondered over. Her daughter had people skills, and an ability to believe in them when many did not. She had seen that when she was very young, how she defended the taunted kids in school, and sold friendship bracelets as a fund raiser for a little friend’s cancer treatment; how she stubbornly refused to stop being friends with a boy whose father had been to alcohol rehabilitation many times. She had faith in humans, unlike Leslie, who far more often had faith in property and the currency it generated.

Leslie, though, knew the man whose home goods store Gen applied at; she knew without asking that Lydia had called him ahead of time. It occurred to her than she should talk to her daughter again about a job opening in the real estate company. She’d be great at finding and welcoming new clients, connecting people with one another.

As Leslie prepared to leave, she held out a bejeweled hand to Gen.

“I have a property that may suit you– if you get and keep that job for a couple months. I’m renovating it but it will be ready by then.” She gave her a business card and looked back at her daughter. “See you for tree trimming–I’ll call you.” Turning back to Gen, she added, “You’re welcome to come, too, of course.”

Lydia and Gen made popcorn and watched surprising, fine snow drift past the window. Lydia was thinking that she might bring in Gen to work tomorrow. Introduce her, if she was okay with that. And they both could use a haircut for Christmas.

“It’s been a month since I first saw you out there,” Lydia mused.

“Too much to take in…I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes already,” Gen said, “and have more to go. I was never lucky before…thank you, did I say it enough?” She popped a handful of buttery goodness in her mouth. “Gads, isn’t it just something beautiful out there?”

“You did. And I know only a little of what it feels to live more than you expect. Still learning.” Lydia peered into the glimmering snowfall. “Yes, beautiful.”

She knew that Venus–her planet that shone like a star–was up there under dark layers, beaming its light about, still listening in on their hopes.

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.