At the edge of the piano bench, my feet dangling, I watch your hands fly across an orderly length of black and white keys. A whole story in sounds rolls over and through my smallness. Light filters though the living room windows and upon our arms and legs and faces. Your features are composed of sweetness and subtle strength. Full of the music. I am at ease, round with love for you. Music is added magic, creates a conduit that feeds me good things.
I am five years old but you, Marinell, my oldest sister, are eighteen. Grown up already. Our baby grand piano is a meeting place for the entire family but sometimes I get to claim a space by you, alone. Often I lie under the piano on taupe carpeting and lay my hands on the dark wood underside and the vibration fills me with pleasure. I see your feet work the brass pedals and sometimes sneak a hand there, a game of not getting caught by your shoe. I later try to play as you do, notes of intention and affection. The music comes out rough, unadorned.
When you play your cello, though, it is different for me as listener. I hide behind the big chair by the heat register. I already know this is an instrument I want to play–two sisters do so I will make the third. But your way with it sweeps me up in a storm of emotion that fills my insides too full. I cannot get enough of it even with a house full of string players.
The piano allows me to be closer to you. Observe. Sing along with my light voicing of notes. You don’t shush me, smile a little. When the songs are popular, not classical, I know some words. Sometimes the whole family finds its way around the piano. We sing in four part harmony. I have never known singing without harmony and find my place with a submerged melodic line. (At church we sing this way in a pew close to the pulpit and everyone turns to look at us: the Guenther family, singing as if in performance. It cannot be helped, this is our way.) You sing, too, but barely above piano’s voice, my offerings.
Your hands are an extension of who you are, capable, graceful, assured or so it seems. I see them type words fast and rhythmically as if it is just another musical instrument–around 120 words a minute I learn years later when you work for lawyers. Long fingers such a blur of energy. I try this myself, typing up a strange mess but when I slow down, each round letter key pressed slowly, it works though the small words mean less than what I want. But I most gravitate often to the roll top desk in the basement with its cubicles and drawers, pencils and paper, a hand me down that now fits just me.
I cannot keep up with you. You flit here and there on narrow feet and sometimes I pad after. You are somewhere “out there” so often. And you are already reaching some apex of typists and musicians without my knowing what this means. I hear it, see it, sense it. You even play softball well, running like a flash of wind. Then you are Homecoming Queen. What that means is that you are chosen as the special girl in your school. You doff a glittering crown and fancy dress and get to ride on a huge float around town, people waving and hollering. I am in awe of your beauty like the rest, how can one not be, a smile that dazzles, deep dimples, hazel eyes that hints at such depths and inner light?
You watch over me, youngest of your four siblings, like a parent ever aware of my presence, sometimes irritated with my frequent shadowing. I have come to expect you to be nearby even more than our mother despite your busy schedule. I wait near the doors of the house. Spy on you with boyfriends. Watch you get ready for school events or concerts. You work part time at a fine clothing store, manage to save money for several cashmere sweaters. I open your dresser drawer, smooth them carefully before I am caught and scolded.
When you leave for a faraway college on full music scholarship, I may not cry but it feels like weeping inside, as if you are pried from me. I have no way to follow. In two years when I spend time near you, it is utterly different. You marry unexpectedly, not to a good man. Are gone awhile, then back in town again for a couple of years. I still watch you, feel your glowing heart as your soft face is marred with worry. I try hard to avoid his reach, try to circle back to you. We are still sisters but apart; I miss you. Observe from afar, now wary, afraid. Then you pat my hand, put an arm around my shoulders, hug me briefly. You let me rummage through your velvet lined jewelry box, try on too-big rings with pretty stones and clip-on earrings that are like delicate flowers. I wait for the music to return. You are quieter than ever, surrounded by the family when you visit us. And then you move to Texas. Alone, for a new beginning, back to music, better work, better friends, our music professor uncle who helps you forge a different path.
Many years later after I’ve married too soon, perhaps as well, you generously open your door to me despite your busy life with family and everything else. Shelter is needed until my husband, children and I find a way to move out on our own. Two weeks becomes two months. You are rooted in Texas after marrying a musician/ computer guy, are raising two bright-eyed daughters who are as good and capable as you. You work in an office by day then play your cello for symphony, the opera, quartets and trios, and may be most at ease on stage. Your restless fingers have learned embroidery and crocheting for relaxation, the tidy beauty of it.
It is a hard time for me, not enough to stretch enough. A small, airless dwelling. A man who’s gone often, brings home too little money or patience. A man I yearn to be with but who has anger in his blood, words that hide or fall out in sudden fistfuls. Times of aching stitched together with dashes of wonder under a searing Texas sun. Rescuing my four year old daughter from fire ants and her own silence; terrified as when my toddler son jumps into the apartment pool, then dog paddling not drowning. I take a menial job scooping ice cream and at home I swim with the children through deep blue water, escaping heat of day and savoring cooling dark of evening. Our skin turns nearly brown as bark. I sing to them, tell stories, write terse surreal poetry that bruises me, wears out paper with dreams and secrets. You, sister, try to not weep, a finger pressed to your lips, when I at last tell you more of the truth. You bring food, alert the church during Christmas. It humiliates even as it nurtures. I long to deserve better.
By the summer, we say good bye. It feels again like a pulling apart from you. My family migrates back north to help with house building for my in-laws, one of whom is dying. And my husband and I try to fix fissures, span the canyons we cannot bound across, anymore. To rekindle passion, even tenderness that first brought my husband and me together. It is ice- and -storm-riven country, lonelier than ever despite other miracles of earth. We remain hungry for so much and it is not to be.
Time is bargained with, lived in and through. I embark on each day as if it is transport to purgatory or a glimpse of heaven. I write some and drink more; you send me cards with birds and flowers. I love my children more as they grow taller and I grow thinner. College calls me back to a way of thinking that can welcome opportunity.
The drumming of time moves us on and we jump to its demands.
You also make big changes, move to Seattle area while I marry again and live almost like a nomad with my second husband, going where each next promotion takes us. I find work a fine balm, writing a salvation, my children a beloved cause I would die for. For many years we were not often enough in touch–we let the space billow. I worked to survive; you lived a far better sort of life and that discrepancy was widening. But events conspire so that I at last move nearer to where you reside (as well as two other siblings). It is the place I have dreamed of since youth, having lived there for a time at nineteen: the great Pacific Northwest.
When I visit you and your new husband– your ever-quipping, old high school sweetheart, a pilot–in the redwood house on a slope of Cougar Mountain, I am struck by your laughter, its volume and frequency. You are different, softer but sunnier; I haven’t yet dissipated my somber ways, am still too thin. We wander from room to room. This house suits you despite shady, towering evergreens which make you sneeze. Contemporary, it sprawls with its many windows and a huge back yard that is half deck and pine needles, half pickle court (who has even heard of that?). Your bedroom has an attached spa room with sauna that I am invited to enjoy. The fire in the hearth warms us all.
The piano is in the formal living room and I again watch your lithe hands play as I sing old standards, rusty and embarrassed, happy to be making music with you. I no longer sing for anyone else but you nod at me, smile. I can never tell you what this means to me, but you know. Eventually you play your cello; you remain a consummate professional, paid with money and admiration. I am still moved. My own cello waits in its sealed case at home; I vow to play it more. But what could be envy is this loosening inside, a deep relief that we live close to one another.
We sit on the expansive deck, gab as we eat breakfast or lunch, sip iced teas. We hew out a trail through our thorny pasts, find one another again. I find myself laughing with you as if human life is brimming with goodness and feel more convinced it is so. I breathe tangy breezes, we putter about; there is such gratitude that you reap joy here. That I can witness it, a beautiful thing. That we have time to know one another more again, to cover lost ground.
Over the next twenty-some years we grow closer than I imagined. This, even though we have divergent philosophies on a few big topics, inhabit different lifestyles. I visit you often as is possible on the mountain; sometimes you visit my city. We take good walks, shop like goofy girlfriends, go to a few concerts, catch up on our separate events. Toss about ideas, build more camaraderie with our husbands. You are like a bright bird who has traversed faraway lands. I have been a few interesting places you’d never have found even with compass in hand. We talk of men past and present, how being women is a burden and a gift. We share news of family, gossip some, swap favorite books and films and music, tell each other interesting stories. Look out at all that greenness and clear light. Laugh.
You and I also share woundedness, scars that qualify us as at least minor warrior women, just two among so many warrior women. There is forgiveness of the past and easy retrieval of blessings. We offer hope when at times it seems stretched to its tearing point. We share similar health issues so call each other: “Hi Sis, one more crazy/tough/unexpected thing has happened. It’s always something, such is this life,” and can make light of such mortality as we commiserate.
We can request, “Pray for me (or this situation)” and know it will get done. We each recognize prayer as an indestructible raft that carries us through tamed and wild waters, that infuses us with peace and courage. We are as certain of God’s Presence in this life and our own selves as we are of love of our children or our healers, the arts and nature. We can find it in the resonance of colors like turquoise and iris, in a filigreed shadow cast across land, a common bird on the wing.
I can call you anytime and know you will answer that call; you know I will answer yours. This is how much I trust you and care, big sister. A lifetime of this. More than many get.
But now you are not here.
You called me nearly three years ago, right after Easter to tell me you were so happy to know that life–the soul’s life, our true life, as we said– is eternal. I heard the stark foretelling in your voice. You were going to leave. Two days later and you were in the hospital. A week later you were gone.
This is a very short history. I could add how you tended the flowers in the last house (one with few trees, more brilliant light): as if they were needing your protection and affection, as you offered all. How–though you spoke more frankly and emitted a heartier laugh as you got older–your voice was still shaped by that rich quietude that had drawn me even as a child. When you looked at me, you discerned much more. When you listened, you heard what was not spoken. When you reached out to me it was always just enough. I hope I was enough, too, for you. No longer a kid or only a sister by blood but a loving friend by happy choice.
Your birth date is coming up, early March during more unveiling of springtime. I suspect you are happily ever after as you thought you’d finally be. I feel the radiance of your smile and I know it’s so, Marinell. Save me a place on a phantom bench. One day I’ll be finding you again.
When she settled on the swing
a barreling wind lifted
the edges of her breath
and green gingham dress,
rocked her as if her mother
came to push and catch
so she did not dive
right into autumn’s magic
on each staggering rise and fall.
That sweet fire of swinging faded,
became winter’s crystalline water
but the swing did not forget,
nor the leaves that danced
and gathered at her feet,
tree gifts rusty, tarnished bronze
until like her mother
they left her with a taste
for all dying beauty-
dry sponge of moss
and fermenting apple,
broken leaves, prophetic rain
and love that bargains-
“I sure don’t know how I ended up like this…oh, never mind, I’m just in a mood today. It will pass.”
Evangeline pushed the stroller along without a hitch despite her girth and tired feet. They moved arm-in-arm at a good pace through the green lit spaceship of the park. Rita always felt they were walking into a fantasy world after leaving her grey office made uglier with its fluorescent lights, odd odors snaking in the doorway, phones jangling her brain. Here it was shimmery with color, shaped by sunlight, shadows and reflections. Sweetness.
Rita checked her companion, someone she trusted with her infant son, Riley. She wasn’t sure if the older woman meant how she ended up as a caretaker of Riley twice a week or something else. It was usually something other than what she imagined. Rita didn’t always get her, felt there was much more than she’d ever know about her white-haired friend.
“And maybe I’ll tell you how, but for now we’ll enjoy the walk with the little one. You catch me up on work. How was fussy Mr. Reynolds today?”
Rita tucked the light blanket about Riley’s baby fists, two pale flower buds that one day would open and grab and never let go of her. Evangeline pushed an arm through the crook of hers and Rita felt her weight shift, wondered if her feet hurt. She’d never say so.
“Mr. Reynolds is on vacation for a week. All of us women in billing are celebrating with wine at lunch. We sit on our desks, share our food and what we really think and drink until we get goofy.”
Evangeline kept pushing the stroller as she studied her from under thick silver eyebrows. “No, you don’t.”
“Yeah, but we should. We do share lunches from our desks sometimes. Then some of us go to the courtyard and share leftovers with birds. You should come sometime; we could have a little picnic on my lunch hour, you, me and Riley.”
“No thanks. Hospitals are like giant vacuums; they pull you in and you might not ever get back out. Let me waste away at home.”
“Evangeline, you have a dark viewpoint, a real deficit of faith in modern medicine among other things. Healing happens, too.”
“So you say. Best to stay well and alive.”
Riley opened his round eyes and let out a squawk that seemed like surprise inside distress, clenched hands flailing.
“See, Riley knows.” She slowed. “There’s a bench. Let’s get out of the sun.”
They sat above the pond where there was good view of turtles on a log, ducks floating in tandem with their partners, and a handful of people on the other side. Rita took out Riley and let him sniff the piney, flowery breeze, eye the treetops and water. He looked startled, his sweet mouth dripping drool, soft brown eyes wide.
“So has Neal been by this week?”
Rita shrugged as if to say it was no big deal. Evangeline knew better. Neal was a chef on his way to somewhere–this city seemed a stopping off spot. He had paused at Rita’s way too long, she thought–and now seemed to have a lackadaisical interest in son and beleaguered mother. He was one of those handsome talented rats but she didn’t dare say it. Rita thought of her as a good-natured, grandmotherly type when in fact she had a heart like a pinball more and more lately. It hit all the right points some days but others it jammed up and stalled out. Literally and figuratively. Well, it was getting close to the anniversary date she wanted to ignore.
“He called twice, is coming by Thursday morning. Maybe Wednesday night and then, well, I don’t know. He helps out financially. Neal adores Riley, he finds him perfectly lovable. He’s just busy a lot.” She saw the scowl of disapproval on Evangeline’s face.”You just aren’t around him much.”
Evangeline placed her knobby hands upon ample thighs, leaned forward. Held her tongue. The water was shot through with streaks of turquoise. She liked the turtles and blue heron best, they sat still and that rested her mind.
She had become fond of Riley and liked being there with Rita. The hours felt longer when she didn’t have baby duty. Rita had her sister across town take care of him, mostly. Certainly not Neal. Their apartment building, Mistral Manor Apartments, emptied out early in the day except for the new tenant in his wheelchair on the first floor. Evangeline hadn’t met him yet. He was not likely her type of person, she could tell by the way he often dressed in a shiny burgundy sport coat from nineteen fifty–the man had to be around sixty–and how he sang to himself often, as if everyone in the world wanted to be entertained by that nasally voice. He never removed his tweedy grey hat. He would leave at night and no one would see him til two in the afternoon. Rita said he was a musician, which confirmed Evangeline’s worst suspicions. She didn’t ask what he played; she didn’t want to know. She said he couldn’t possibly sing on stage, too, could he? And Rita laughed as if she was kidding, it was very likely he did.
“I’m thinking of having some people in the building over for dinner. Want to come?” She turned and smiled, as if to ensure her sincerity.
Evangeline patted Riley’s back although he was snuggled in Rita’s arms. He got hiccups a lot, she noticed, too much air gulped down when he ate, maybe, and she resolved to pay better attention when she gave him his bottles.
“If that so-called musician isn’t coming.”
“Well, he might. And maybe four or five others. Neal, too–he’ll cook, actually.”
“I might help you get ready, but don’t know if I’ll stay. Though it’d be interesting to sample your son’s father’s cuisine. Maybe.”
Rita almost told her to not bother then, but suspected the old lady–was she 69? 75?–she’d never asked and it was hard to tell– would come, even arrive early to set the table and bounce Riley on her lap. There was a good person inside that dour countenance. Maybe she’d actually enjoy herself if she got to know the neighbors better. Riley burrowed his face into her shoulder and burped.
“Must you?” she called down from her balcony overhanging the courtyard.
He was down there, that man in the wheelchair, with the rusty vocal chords, and he was singing as if the birds were his privileged audience. “Spring is Here” was the name of the old tune; she recognized it. She preferred the robins with their repetitious eruptions. He’d fallen down a ravine when hiking, she’d heard. She ought to be kinder; she’d try harder but it would take more than practice.
He lifted his hat to her. It made her think of her ex-husband’s–well, he was dead, also–though his was always straw, elegant. Panama hat. Evangeline could see the neighbor was bald, head round and speckled like a giant egg.
“Yeah, I must, I admit it! I wake up singing even if it is midday, don’t you know? I have tunes running where thoughts line up in other people’s heads.” He rapidly turned the wheelchair wheels and came to a halt beneath her third floor balcony. “You don’t ever sing, my dear?”
Evangeline put down the cup of tea she had been nursing. It was cold now. Did he say dear? “No, the thought doesn’t occur to me, thankfully.”
“See, that’s the problem–people need to think less, sing more.”
“Imbecile,” she muttered to herself but grinned down at him.”Well, have a pleasant day, off with you and your songs. Please.”
He had to shout above the sudden rattle and roar of a truck on their street. “Now this is problematic! But I know we can come to an amicable resolution. I make music a lot. I come outside here to exercise a bit and get fresh air.” The truck moved on but his volume remained. “It’s one reason why I rented this place! Okay, I’ll bring it down a notch.” He paused to readjust his volume. “But I think the outdoor space galore is great not to mention vintage interiors. And I have a patio, too.”
“Vintage? Is that what you call it? Cheap, that’s how I call it, but it suits me. Well, then, Mr.–”
“Van. Van Garner. I’m ‘that blasted musician’–a trumpeter by the way– I’ve heard you try to avoid.”
“–Mr. Garner, I will certainly try to respect your needs if you will try to respect mine. A softer sound might do the trick.”
“Alright, I’ll try for your sake…” He spun away from her, then spun back. “Coming to Rita’s and Neal’s dinner Saturday? I hear he’s quite the master of his trade.’
She sniffed, put finger to nose, then sneezed hard, twice. The creeping roses had burst into bloom last night. Or it was Van’s presence. People could make her feel allergic. “I may.”
“Guess I’ll see you there. Rita says you’re great with Riley. A mighty fine boy!” And he wheeled through the courtyard, out the gate, was gone in search of a decent newspaper and magazine stand.
Evangeline closed the book she had been reading. Stared into the trees until the fine new leaves blurred. Wasn’t it enough that she had been reduced to staying at this place? Three years it was, now. But she had to be friendly with people she often preferred to avoid. She might have to reconsider the senior housing as her daughter in New York had urged. She hadn’t wanted that, not yet. She was only 71. Had good health or rather her ticker got a bit tricky but otherwise she was strong–she still took a walk an hour each day–she was apparently lucid, she had decent sleep and appetite. She could lose a few inches and pounds but ach, it was too late, too much work.
Her old house, too, had far more than required for her own good. Dusty things and memories and unused rooms. She had retired, finally, from the county library system. She’d made the reasonable decision and found smaller was better, cheaper was best, and as long as she could climb stairs–there was an antiquated elevator she rarely took, it was creaky and cranky and threatened to drop them all–this place was it.
She returned to the conversation with that wheel-chaired musician with a blasted musician’s kind of name to boot: “Van Garner.” That Van had said Rita thought she did a good job with Riley. No, ‘great,” he’d said. A rare happiness spread through her body and moved among a number of synapses in her brain. She recalled raising Natalie-in-New-York–now so successful, very out of reach. It had been fun for a long time, mothering. Now there was Riley and he was even better; she could return him but she could anticipate seeing him regularly. She knew he didn’t have a thought for or against her, she was a squashy, toasty hug, she was an expert with a milk bottle, a way to while the day away and inhabit safe haven for until his mother rejoined him once more. Riley was so curious and cheerful and untainted that his beauty could remediate the world. Slay dragons with a guileless gurgle. Babies were powerful, she was sure of it. Evangeline must tell him the next time he blew a bubble with his spit.
And Rita said it out loud, that she did a great job? Well. She took out her tissue and pressed it to her nose so as not to sneeze again, not to sniffle. That was a little something, wasn’t it? It was some comfort to count, a feeling of being worthwhile that she’d recall in a stretch of unremarkable days and gently emptied nights.
She wondered what she might find in her closet to wear to dinner. Did folks still dress up for dinner parties? She wondered if Van would keep his hat on at the dinner table like her once-husband used to until she pinched his thigh under the table. Would he sing and if he did, could she just leave? And maybe chef Neal would prove he deserved Rita’s loyalty and caring with a demonstration of cooking prowess, then give them all one fool-proof sign of his love.
“He really shouldn’t do that,” Mike stated as the expert he was, a therapist whose practice was small but growing and included families. His wife, Ellie, another expert, shook her head. They had no children of their own yet.
They were observing Riley gnawing and sucking on a chicken drumstick bone Neal had offered him. The meaty well-seasoned main course was being arranged with the rest for serving. Rita was fine with it. Evangeline was, too. She had given her own Natalie interesting things to mush or nibble, even play with. They were having an Indian dish called Tandoori Chicken and Evangeline had missed the preparation since she was helping out with Rile. It smelled delectable, she had to admit. She didn’t often explore cuisine nowadays, but Indian was a favorite. She watched Riley in his automated swing and babbled back at him without restraint when Van arrived.
He had taken the elevator. Perhaps never again.
“It sputtered and took a time out for something twice. I thought it was stuck and I’d have to shake the iron grating to get it moving or holler for help. I whistled a little. Then it roused itself from its sloth and got us back on track. An adventure to the fifth floor of Mistral Manor! With a name like that what do I expect? It felt like some old ‘Twilight Zone’ outtake and was worth the trouble. Ah, smells heavenly.” He tipped his hat at everyone. “And a hello to you, Evangeline. You got all gussied up, I see.”
She blushed in spite of her irritation. She had put on a long navy linen skirt, a warm weather favorite plus a white voile blouse with a ruffle along the V-neck. She had put on pearl earrings, discreet ones. Her long hair had been carefully washed, air-dried half the day, then reassembled into its heavy chignon. After all that her arms nearly ached. A hint of perfume, something Natalie had sent her for Christmas. It had an amber note to it, exotic, she thought. She seldom used more than an herbal blend talcum.
“And you smell good,” whispered Rita. “You look pretty.”
“Oh,” she replied, a bit overcome by such nonsense.
“Shall we gather at table?” Neal called out.
There were seven of them altogether, eight if you counted Riley, and they filled the long modern glass and steel table. The place settings were white and blue ceramic. Fran, the seventh guest and Rita’s youngest sister, had set it and it sparkled with a bouquet of pink and red peonies. The sisters each in their 30s, and the older woman in her 70s, had chatted at their leisure. Evangeline marveled at the young women’s poise and eloquence. Confidence. She wondered for a split second if Natalie was thought of that way, and hoped so, and felt a sharp pang for her.
Dinner was enchanting and lingered over. The offerings were delicious with seasonings both correct and just enough, not so strong as to drag you into an uncomfortable night. And there was Pino Gris, a wine she had drunk rarely. In fact, she didn’t really drink but this was an exception. Everyone talked about politics, abut upcoming city festivals and concerts, the building repairs needed and the cost of real estate, a real crime these days. Their needs and wants and aspirations. Evangeline chimed in on some topics but it was books that hooked her–and them. Her knowledge was diverse and well honed since she was a librarian her entire working life.
“Poets?” She responded to Van’s question about naming favorites. “Well, no one can disagree that Rilke is one of the finest of all time! And Blake, Merton, Whitman. Neruda. And I rather love Denise Levertov and there is Theodore Roethke… There’s a whole slew of interesting poets. Have you read Joy Harjo, a Native American poet? Mislosz. Mary Oliver. Well, I could bore you all night, and I have yet to catch up on the newest, not since my library days…”
They were enrapt but confessed ignorance of most, how was it that she could read so much? She felt a little foolish after the gush of enthusiasm so she started on her third glass of wine. Then invited them to peruse her personal bookshelves any time.
Evangeline gave it one last shot, leaning into the animated group. “Give poetry a good try. It seems to me it’s necessary to the development of incisive thought, health of the soul. Even young Riley should hear poetry, at least as soon as he can speak a little. Try Shel Silverstein, for one.”
Mike and Ellie agreed with this statement. They had heard from friends that he was a beloved children’s author, so placed a couple of books in their waiting room along nature and sports magazines. They played classical music, too, for their patients–was that going a bit too far, did anyone think?
Neal looked exasperated. “Do whatever you want, they’re captive–yours for an hour!”
“I still have my favorites from when I was a kid,” Rita said, rocking her tired and cranky son to sleep in the kitchen.
Neal gave the boy a kiss on the forehead. “I don’t read poetry, didn’t as a kid, but give me a book of recipes, and I’m in heaven. ‘Ode to Mangoes’ or ‘Salad Days of the Young and Hungry’ might get and keep my attention. I may well have to write a volume of food poems for our son– for a proper introduction to literature and food, a primer of good taste pairings.”
They all laughed and raised their glasses to him. Evangeline was heartened that this man had turned out to be smarter and kinder than she had imagined.
Van had listened without much commentary on the poetry topic, studying Evangeline as she spoke. He removed his hat now that he was anticipating a small cup of tea and a French macaroon. He ran his hands over his bare, freckled pate. Then he set the hat on a side table behind him, gave it a pat.
“And then there’s music,” he said.”Everyone loves music, there’s something for all, and it’s as essential as any other creative form. More so, it runs way deep into our most primitive being. What about your musical tastes, Evangeline? Shall I sing to encourage your response”
“Heavens, no! And I suspect story runs deeper still–it is entwined with song,” she demurred, “but alright, I suppose there may be some truth in it. There are certain sorts of music I like. But I don’t listen much. I like silence more often than not–unless I’m with superior company.”
Again they laughed, agreed, raised their glasses, and then more wine was poured. She had the vague sensation that she had come close to her limit, that three glasses was quite enough for a quite occasional drinker. She had become loquacious and far too open already. It was fortunate she had only to descend two floors to collapse into bed after farewells. Yet her own hand-blown, sapphire-colored glass was held aloft, too. She liked that they used such glasses, not the fancy cut-crystal goblets she had noted in a rustic china cabinet. They had a unique way of doing things, dear Rita and that Neal, and somehow their gracious dinner had become a portal into a more fortuitous future. A happier passage that had space and time for her aging as well as their eager youth.
“And that would be what music choices?” Van pressed. He sipped from his sea green glass with a careful pleasure, as if it was the elixir of the wise. His eyes telegraphed his new lady friend–was she going to be that? was he really getting that old, too? or was he just drunk?–a firm encouragement for her to continue.
Evangeline raised her shoulders, then squared them above her considerable chest. But everyone took notice of her beautiful hair in the candlelight. She pursed her lips. Once full-mouthed, a feature men’s eyes used to linger over, her lips were now visible only due to a ghostly outline of a raspberry lipstick she had slicked on hours ago. It had been fun yet she didn’t want to speak of music. But it seemed to want to be spoken of since she had intuited in Van a person who might understand some things, without too much fuss. She could be wrong, though.
“Well, I used to like, no adore might be the better word, my husband’s music. He was.. a musician, you see, played bossa nova in a band from South America. We took risks, were crazy in love as they say. His band was called –you likely haven’t heard of it–Laguna Azul, translation being Blue Lagoon. He was a–”
“Laguna Azul? Are you kidding me? You mean with band leader Eladio Barella? Then there was Fredric Gavion on sweet guitar, and Carter Templeton, the great vibraphonist! He was in that Brazilian band?”
Her heart dropped as if it had been on their faulty elevator. It hadn’t occurred to her that Van might know of them, it was twenty years now. A lifetime. But there it was, her past brought up in Technicolor, as if it all took place last week.
“Yes, Carter. That was my husband. For thirty years. We loved to dance, you see, tango, samba and the bossa nova, all that. I met him in a club on a random side street while on vacation. It was Rio and I was only 21. I traveled courtesy of my wealthy, tres chic aunt who chaperoned me, in her way. Carter was older. I heard him play and then there was a second band and for some reason I got up and marched right to him and said brazenly, ‘That was the most perfect music I have ever heard’ and he asked me to dance. That was it. We got married six months later on a ship headed to Greece. The honeymoon lasted for years…”
“Evangeline, that’s awesome!” Rita said, sitting on Neal’s lap, her arms wrapped about him. Even Mike and Ellie were sitting hand in hand while Fran looked on from the kitchen after putting Riley to bed. She sighed loudly, filled her glass, threw back the wine.
“Carter Templeton, that is amazing,” Van breathed. “I can’t wait to hear the stories you have about him.”
And then it all hit her, the spices and herbs and wine, the strange and voluminous openness she was offering to all. The truth of what had happened to her all that time ago. The anniversary of his death was tonight. Her eyelids lowered until she could just see a soft luminescence from the candles’ light; her voice lowered.
“He’s dead. You know that, surely, Van. It happened this very date. He went down, down, down into the sea in a chartered plane, an accident while on tour…the whole band and pilots drowned in the Caribbean. Terrible–and their band’s name, and then that…” She slid a glance toward him. His sudden unease was as sad as her own. “We had divorced two months earlier. And then he had to die, can you imagine?”
The room emptied of movement, of talk and a silence came that was so deep, a sensation so dizzying, Evangeline thought she had perhaps fallen asleep, was leaving that convivial room, leaving the earth or she had been dreaming, and it was a dream she wanted to wake up from and then forget once and for all. Carter’s being there, and their taking leave of one another after too much time apart and distance and then came misplaced longings with terrible errors made. His dying as if to further spite her, to avoid what he might have had to face, their love tossed aside, as did she. But it was Evangeline who had carried the wonder and burden of his musical legacy, along with memories of their happiness finally ruined by a failure to start anew.
She fell forward, then sideways, that soft, lined face meeting up with metal. A thud with cries that shook the room.
Evangeline sat on the hill at the park, Riley slumbering beside her. He had just turned ten months old. It was late afternoon, and soon she would take him back to his mother–and his father. They were already packing, would be heading to Seattle to further Neal’s career as a rising chef. It would be hard to say farewell. Always there were farewells to be made, more than ever this decade, she imagined. But they had told Evangeline that she could visit any time. She’d have a spot even if it meant sharing it with Riley at first. That thought was a pleasant one.
The heron was perched on top of a tree that was dead. He often was there. From that vantage point he could see things coming. She thought that was not so desirable when all was said and done.
The whistling came to her on the breeze. She recognized the song–“Stairway to the Stars”–and when Van plopped down beside her she didn’t turn to look at him but continued to watch the heron.
“I brought lunch. Did you bring the wine? ” He handed her a container of noodles and chopsticks.
“Ha! You know better than that. I brought carrot cake slices. Baked it yesterday.”
“It’ll still be tasty.” He looked her over. “You look good in red. And your nose looks fine again. It took awhile, huh?”
“Well, that night was a shock to all my systems. A broken nose was the least of it, I had hidden our lives–his fame and tragedy– so long after he passed. Now stay tuned for part three.”
“All of us felt it. Thank goodness you hit my wheelchair and my knees before you broke anything more.”
Evangeline’s laugh made her jiggle and she dropped noodles on her lap. “Yes, you sort of saved me. And I never thought I’d even talk to another musician.”
“Never thought I’d be hanging out with an older woman. Sharing some tunes and stories.”
He touched her arm lightly and she turned her head and smiled at him. They ate noodles and watched the heron until he slipped off the branch, swooped down, around and then floated on an updraft into brighter sky.
Tissane isn’t afraid of her mother yet she feels as if she still could be. Melinda has always had power, cutting a swath through life with the incisive edge of her words, her intelligence an army of rebuttals. The fury of her routine inquisitions could pierce three layers of winter clothing and locate the tender spot where the mighty heart shuddered. Her amber eyes were like lasers set to short circuit Tissane’s own ideas. She was formidable. Until the last couple years.
She’s getting carried away. It was perhaps not so traumatic as all that. Those sentences arise from memories of being thirteen until maybe seventeen, when the sound of her mother’s voice at six a.m or p.m. often landed like a smack. Dangerous days then, her great need of adventure bypassing curfew and other rules. Beyond her mother’s grasp and her father’s burden of sighs. Her father was so absent that they were all they had, and Jonny, of course, for awhile. Then only Pill, the scrappy little mutt Tissane got her mother after she graduated college. A gift for putting up with her until she managed to grow up and succeed. That name was reasonable. Her mother had ingested tranquilizers like they were jelly beans. Instead of taking another pill she had that fussy, bouncy dog to focus on. Melinda’s true nature was revealed day by day. It was some better. And some worse. Nothing was the same in every way, though. Not after Jonny, then dad.
They fought out of the need to not love each other too much, she has thought since then. There was so much that could be lost.
Now it’s just the two of them. Not even that. Most of the time Melinda is alone. Tissane lives three hours away by plane. But it’s Thanksgiving week and Melinda had heart valve surgery three weeks ago. Tissane couldn’t come then; she was in Bali. Melinda’s recovery seems to inch along. She called to ask her to come to spend the whole week, help her out.
“Yes, mom, I likely can. I’ll check.”
But should she? They hadn’t talked much in the last few years. Tissane had a high pressure job in aquisitions in a big hotel conglomerate. Two new ones opening up in the next three months. There were meetings wedged between others, plans to execute, sites to visit. Travel afforded her independence she had craved her whole life.
And distance. She thought she had more in common with her father, long gone and now a retired pilot, than she liked to admit.
“Four days. Mom, I can’t spare more unless you don’t have decent help. If it’s critical.”
“Of course I have help; I’m in a swanky place that guarantees it. But is it even par? Is it worth the money I pay out? Not likely. And how can it remotely be critical? It was only a heart valve, Tissane. They replace them like rubber tubing, in, out, a couple neat stitches and done!”
Tissane bit her lip to squelch a retort. At least she sounded more like herself. She made arrangements and got there fast.
Now she has been listing things she needs at the store. No lukewarm Thanksgiving dinner to be delivered to the door. Tissane will make something good.
“I don’t want you to go to a lot of bother, dear. I’m not the ravenous type, you know. We can have canned pears well-chilled, a dash of cinnamon, and one of those handy pre-roasted chickens.”
“Is that what you prefer? Or my Rock Cornish hens? You used to like those.”
“There’s so little meat on those delicate bones. Is that what you eat? No wonder you’re so thin, dear.” She sniffs several messy sniffs. “Hand me a tissue will you? And a mint. The chocolate mints in that ghastly pumpkin dish. Saralee–I know, what a name– gave it to me. She has good taste but it took a hiatus. She shops at flea markets with her son now once a month. Dreadful.”
Tissane watches as she chooses three mints, then dabs her nose. She is propped up with two pillows and frequently requires readjusting. Her hair, though, looks as if it has been freshly washed and set. It hasn’t been done since Tissane arrived yesterday morning. She sleeps on satin pillow cases.
She’s beautiful at seventy-four. Maybe more than before, with a relaxing of tension that used to make her look severe at times. Her silvery white hair waves around her sallow face, etched with lines around mouth and eyes. Her golden brown eyes are at odds with the swoop of her hair. Their liveliness draws people but her powers of observation too quickly deducts who they really are. Tissane would not be surprised if her mother is both loved and resented, perhaps even hated, now as in the past.
“I will buy the birds, red potatoes or rice pilaf, fresh green beans, salad fixings–add stuffing if you like.”
“Leave the stuffing. Pilaf preferred. I’ll benefit from Saralee’s stuffing artistry later.”
Her mother painfully raises her shoulders a quarter-inch. Tissane rearranges the pillows until she is more comfortable.
“Are you good, mom? I’ll head to the store unless you need something.”
“Another pain pill. Please.”
Tissane raises her eyebrows, hesitates with list in hand. It has barely been four hours. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, mom.”
“Now would be good! My dear, I don’t have patience or time to be polite. Let’s get on with it. This was not a fun surgery.”
“I think they broke every single chest bone getting in, getting out. I am not convinced even breathing is recommended. Much less talking. But. Being mute is no option. The thought of leaving this bed is less enticing than expected, I can tell you. Yet I don’t feel like reading much. What can I do but lie here? Perhaps chat with you.”
She seems exhusted–all those words. She smiles at Tissane. Her eyes warm enough that her daughter thinks of tiger eye stones and honey. Of caramel, yes. Perhaps that oddly bitter and sweet marmalade of her youth. It makes her feel like she’s ten and that triggers shakiness, to her alarm.
“I’ll take your word on the pain. Yes, we’ll definitely chat more.”
She studies Melinda; Melinda gazes back but with flagging interest. Then Tissane gets the bottle of narcotics, shakes out a pill, hands her mother the water glass. Watches her swallow, and then her eyes lower to half-mast.
As she leaves the bedroom, Tissane waves but her mother doesn’t see her. She is already moving toward a place where pain will recede like waves at the seashore.
The rain started yesterday and has not let up an instant. Tissane is on her way back with two bags. She has turned the wipers on full force. Treetops bend this way and that like muscular dancers. The temperature has dropped greatly and she wonders if her mother is warm enough under two blankets.
The light seems to have been red a long time as her mind wanders. It’s so much nicer in San Francisco. She cannot imagine why her mother chose to remain in Oregon. But, then, she has never liked to move about. Even leaving the couch or a chair by a table after she completed her chores seemed a bother. She read alot or wrote poetry (Tissane saw a few but doesn’t know much for sure) for hours. People came to her. None of that traditional greeting-the-family-at-the-door. Children and husband searched for her when they came home. And then she opened her arms.
They played croquet or badminton or bean nag toss with dad ten times to every one with her. She sat on a white wrought iron bench in the shade, bare feet tucked under her. Looked up from the magazine to emit a sound that might be mistaken for a faint bleat of acknowledgement if you listened hard enough. Then came the critiques of their form or foul play, as she did seem to know about games even as a spectator.
A driver behind her lays on the horn several times. The light is now green. On a quick take off her rental car slips, slides sideways and for a minute she thinks she’ll cross the lane and smash into the oncoming truck. She recovers at the last minute, heart in her throat. Sleet is now assaulting everything. It takes her fifteen extra minutes to get back to her mother’s, shoulders knotted with tension.
“Tissane? You back, dear?” Melinda’s voice is a taffeta curl of sound, words drawled out.
“Yes, just now. It’s mad weather out there!”
Tissane sloughs off her wet coat, rubs her hair with a teatowel. She puts away the vegetables and Cornish hens. She is skittish, anxious after the slippery road, and chilled. Her mother sounds drugged. Tissane needs a hot shower and a steaming latte. She needs to be on her own balcony watching the city lights wink on and off. With her cat, Domino.
“Do you want some tea, mom? I’m putting the kettle on.”
There is no answer. She enters the bedroom and watches Melinda’s chest rise and fall rhythmically but shallowly. She wonders what it feels like after something has broken into your chest and meddled with the organ that keeps the body humming. That feels everything first and last. It terrifies her, takes her breath so she sits on the end of the bed, gently so her mother can’t sense her there. She wants to lie down beside her.
She whispers to herself as much as to Melinda. “Remember when Jonny used to draw houses inside houses inside houses? Like those old Russian dolls… And she said it was for protection from the world but also like a maze? We thought she’d be an artist, a first in the family. She always had an idea that was better than mine. Even yours sometimes. She was so…curious.”
Tissane’s voice hurts even in a whisper. Something grabs her larnyx. Melinda rests, eyelids delicate as shells that cover her soul.
“Remember when she told us she saw fairies by the rock behind the oak tree? I thought of that the other day when I saw a pewter one, only pewter but still…she reclined on a shelf at a bookstore. I wondered if Jonny’s fairies were fair or olive-skinned, if they looked like dad or you or no one. I never asked. Did you? Maybe fairies have skin you can see through. I bet she knew.” She swallows the angry crush of tears. “Who would she be now? With us?”
It is true she cannot control herself and she is crying but she doesn’t want to think about it. Nor let it damage things. She is here to help her mother, not herself. Tissane wants to be a strong woman, the grown up daughter she truly is. To take care of everything she needs to take care of even a few days. But her mother looks very small in the aqua-blanketed bed. An exotic fish the size of two hands in a big ocean. She looks very pale beneath the olive tones, as if foreign forces are leaching the vibrance. Like thieves of pain and loss and illness and time have won out.
“But she got hit, that car…ice storm, ’86…” Tears snake down one cheek then the other only to join the green-blue bed, water lost within cottony water. “It was so icy cold, mom. I was scared, she was smarter, older, I couldn’t make her come back…”
She is afraid if she closes her eyes she will see Jonny tossed onto the side of the road. She will yell Jonny’s name. Make a mess of things when she came to aid healing, to be courageous this time. For them both. Tissane keeps them open, stands up, enters the spare kitchen to retrieve the tea kettle. Outside the window she sees the night is blue-black. Quieter. She gets out mugs, tea bags. Dips them a few times. Watches them float, then sink. Blows her nose and splashes kitchen faucet water on her face–she’s startled by its deep chill. She carries the tea drinks, then sits on a bedside chair.
“Tissane. Dear.” He mother’s eyes blink at her a few times so their fading sheen eyes goes off and on, off, on. “Is it snowing? I thought…the wind, how it sounds when it gets snowy. Not likely, I know. Anything can happen in Novemember, right?”
Her daughter places each mug on the lamp table, then turns up the lamp one notch so the room pulses with a faint shimmer.
“Well, it was nasty out when I went to the store. I skidded…it was, I was…”
Melinda turns her head to better see her, surmise the intention of her words, discern her mood. Tissane makes herself glance back. Those eyes the color of hard amber agates they hunted once, up and down Oregon beaches. Her skin, imbued with richer hue after her nap. Since the snag of pain has been unravelled by a pill.
Arched eyebrows rise a little in anticipation of what will next be said. “Yes, Tiss? Then what?”
Tissane reaches for a mug. “It was so windy! A bit slippery. And the snow swirled about so prettily and all I could do was sit and stare at it as I waited at the light. Enchanted. So lovely, how it drifts and dives through the air. It makes me think of little winged things, I don’t know, like the snowflakes have angel wings, or maybe it’s all fairy dust, know what I mean? There is something about the snow that visits here. It’s softer, finer, brighter than any I’ve seen. It won’t last, though. But yes, you do have your snow.”
Tissane hopes so much her mother cannot, will not, read her face or thoughts tonight.
Melinda lifts her mug and breathes in sweetness of orange and spice. “Ah, I can imagine it entirely. Don’t you so appreciate a mystical snow before Thanksgiving? I have to tell you. I do like you being here. In early winter. Fancy Cornish hens. And your kind stories. I-” she sits up a bit, winces, then the pain falls away a moment–“do! Love you! Now I have a story as well. If my will holds out.”
She huffs a bit as she tries to blow across the surface of tea, then sets it down. Her daughter is blinking away memories, eyes lowered. A sure sign of shielding the heart. A shadow of sadness seeks the room. Melinda will need to make it rise over them, transitory as breath. Release them.
“Don’t worry. I’ve only the best tonight, too. Help me get comfortable, Tiss. It may take some work to tell it…you might need to add a few words here and there…”