They say sunlight is required to be happy, the more the healthier. I was not of that mind; I left the sun to its work, but lived beyond its searing touch when possible. It reveals far too much, demands my response. Barrow’s Forest removed yearnings for its direct reach when I was seventeen and was moved here from the city. From the other life.
It’s the usual story: child loses parents and is given to grandparents to continue on while everything is wrapped in fog, as if my body and mind were covered with a heavy scarf. Nothing was worth remembering for awhile, in any case. It was shock to everyone, a mad accident of fate as one lumbering, reckless car crossed the line and the other, a bright sporty thing booming with laughter, taken out of this reality. I know about the laughter because that’s how they were, especially when coming back from a tour. That time I was home, studying, ready to graduate. Which I did, barely. Then I was insistently removed and re-positioned in looming woods with two old people who knew me from afar. I was an obligation, if a not an altogether unpleasant one. Though they would and did tell it differently. But that is the gist of it. Out of the light and into shadows. But light can be unnerving, hard to dwell within. They were getting known, my parents, for their music, and for the last year the media was more and more at us.
So I was moved; I didn’t even resist after a day or two of loud protestations. What was there to hang onto without my parents? My grandparents, is all.
I took up residence on the cabin’s second floor. Stayed right there except to eat a bit for weeks. From my window I started to watch the woods, how it took over at the edge of the clearing. Those voluptuous greens turning black as I peered deeper and deeper until I felt blind with looking. There might be a rustle or flutter that I couldn’t name at all, the barest outline of something in motion. I felt drawn to the center except for that unknown thing or person. When I asked Gran she said pay no mind, someone from the other side, meaning other side of the forest, near the village, but it felt like another place altogether, perhaps where my parents were resting in limbo. Somewhere that finally held more meaning, or even a way into any sort of hope. That movement carried to me a respite of wishfulness that distracted me from sorrow.
Out my eastern window, though smaller, I could see a neat vegetable and flower patch, and past that chickens, a pig, two goats, two dogs, a cat that belonged to no one but took a liking to me because I paid no attention to it. In time, I grew to like the pig, its smart, odd expressions, but it was given away later that year. Or sold for meat, no one said. I liked best the birds that gathered and swooped about day and night, despite the cat. They sang and sang their hearts out.
It was, then, generally sunny on one side of the cabin while darker on the other. There was ample space. (Years later the cabin was encroached upon by bushes and underbrush, more Douglas firs and Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red cedar. No one beat it back but let it happen as nature wanted.) I was an oasis of shadowy light amid conifer-captured acreage.
I grew restless watching giant trees sway in dampening wind, coolness soothing my feet and neck as I leaned into my open window. I closed my eyes, heard the wind speak of ancient times as if it was the present, no beginning, no end. I did not speak much, only listened, and even to my grandparents as they grew less mournful. Eventually, Gran directed me to get moving, out and about, to help pick huckleberries and salmon berries. I don’t know how she figured it was time but she was right.
“Earn your keep now, Tally,” she said with sideways glance, “and learn where you live now, how to survive it all.”
PawPaw scratched his beard, winked at me. It was strange to actually look at them close up, their feelings hovering under the surface like fish that came up for air occasionally. But they were strong if also so worn. I didn’t smile in return. I just got ready to follow. In nubby navy sweater, ratty sweat pants and dirty sneakers, I trailed after her. And that was that.
Outside, the smells. I had once been surrounded by cigarettes, musky perfume, wine and pasta with sauces, overcooked beef. Here the cabin was imbued with woodstove’s tantalizing smokiness; the sweet, clean scents of vegetables right from the ground and waiting on the counter; a sharpness from fresh meat I could not often name. And beyond the door was a potpourri of tree bark and leaves that made me feel almost drunk in an hour.
The stained baskets swung on our arms, berries piling up in tender mounds. Gran quizzed me on salmon berries and huckleberries, others that were poisonous, which berries were ripest. I sampled, felt hunger surge in me. I sought sweet wood strawberry and tried to avoid blackberry brambles which caused itchy, painful scratches as discovered as a child. Gran carried a soft damp cloth to clean small wounds.
I was still alive, that’s what the pain told me and berries bursting on the tongue, an almost terrible wonder of happy juiciness–all, I felt, barely deserved. Great gulps of air were taken into my lungs, richness of forest and meadow life that egged me on, alongside birds, butterflies and bees as well as my grandmother far from and back to the cabin. A home that now included me. If I’d cried I would have known, wouldn’t I? But Gran’s rough fingers touched my cheek, wiped away wetness. I looked down and away from her grey-blue gaze. Her eyes were light and dark all at once and clear as water, a balance and rightness in a world off kilter, leaving me sad and grateful. Still adrift within that forest life…which pulled me like an earthly tide, right into its embrace.
I slowly relented; it was a relief. In time, I became known to the forest as it became known to me. I missed less and less of the old life as it was not a life at all without my parents–this was what I had left. My few friends had stopped contacting me. It mattered little. I had all I needed, or pretended it was so and then found it, more often, to be.
There was that shadowy figure that came and went in turn with the other creatures. It was as regular as any other happening. Once the person stepped out into a sun-filled meadow as I wandered at the other edge: lanky, gleaming blond, tanned, fleet of foot. An Irish Setter raced with him and they were that fast gone. I didn’t see them again but glimpsed them, knowing to look for that hair, their sounds and daydreamed of village life despite being well planted in my woodland refuge.
I was soon eighteen, nineteen, twenty and had started working at the nursery and garden supply. I had to adjust to relentless sunlight as best I could, took cover in shaded corners when I could. But I did not have a need to leave the general territory, run to the city to get lost and go wild. My parents had done all that for me when young. I rambled through my life with comfortable routines, counted the ways I loved the trees and my small family.
The forest boy disappeared for four years but though I missed our near- close encounters, the regularity of his passing through dim forest and farther off the wide meadow, there were just enough people in my life. I had a friend or two, when there was time to see them. And I had discovered clay and my generous grandparents gave me a potter’s wheel. I built a kiln with PawPaw and things changed.
In good weather, Pawpaw read while to each morning with a big mug of coffee, chair set on the splintery porch. The village has expanded farther but the woods even more, and overlapping shadows dominated. Milky dapples of light slipped in and out. Soon his eyes closed; he dozed there or later settled in a creaky rocker inside. I worked in my potter’s shed if not at the nursery.
Gran had not been around for two years now to keep us in order, give a bit of chatter, to direct each day and ease us towards night. I somehow found my way but she taught me well. Her love was an engine; it had empowered me again. It faltered, yes, but I knew how to keep on. Work and love, the same as she had done. PawPaw was a kind, decent if tough skinned man, often lost in his even more private thoughts. His presence reassured me as it always had, though I worried. He did not complain when I cooked with minimal enthusiasm or barely sorted animals’ needs. He pitched in as he could. We then had just one goat, a smattering of chickens and a half-lame terrier due to a coyote encounter which PawPaw ended with his shot gun. The cat had long ago left for better adventures, or so I imagined.
PawPaw did aright despite slowing way down. I could manage well enough, thanks to their training on all critical matters. I worked at the nursery and garden shop three to four days a week, labor that was good to me. Then I retreated to the wheel, creating, and sold ceramics in the village as tourism picked up more.
Before Gran passed she put a name to the mysterious flitting shadow figure when she pointed him out in town. She gave a shake of her head, let go a sudden short laugh.
“Lane Harold. Money there,” she said, “not a bad sort. They say he’s got talent, is an artist. Like you.” She tapped me on the shoulder to emphasize. “Your forest frolicker. They live right beyond the stands of red alders and firs, you know, that big place made of redwood and glass?”
Of course I knew, it was a village by us, everyone knew the Harolds. But I didn’t know it was him… I appraised him slyly: rangy, with a way of holding his head as if aloof and studying all, hands stuck in his pockets as he listened to a fawning young woman. As we passed he glanced at me, brow knitted. I thought he might say something, but it passed immediately, so on to the next errand. I did not look back but wondered often, of much.
Month melded into month. Gran woke up ill one day, passed without much suffering; winter arrived and then they both left us. The spring to summer transition was welcome–more work for me, more clement weather for PawPaw on our porch. It was a pace that spoke of reckoning with whatever came, one’s mind on one’s work or rest. No call for deep mourning then, we had each other and the land.
On a recent trip for supplies, I was frankly identified at Jack’s General Store.
“You’re Tally McBride, right?”
I nodded, knowing who he was already. “And you’re Lane Harold.”
He had a can of linseed oil as well as a box of gauze and bandages; I noted his hand was scraped. I had toothpaste, two bars of glycerin soap, tissues and coffee beans for PawPaw and a magazine that had newly arrived on the small rack. Surprised to see a periodical about crafts, I snatched it up.
He looked at the magazine and nodded. “I saw your ceramics at Moonstone Gifts. Good work.”
That touristy gift shop’s name uttered by him was embarrassing. I couldn’t say I saw his paintings because it would have sounded stupid. His art was everywhere in town and beyond, by then. He was making a very fine living, had his own place with a studio but it wasn’t like mine in a corner of our tumbledown shed, my handmade brick kiln at work outdoors. His was a whole building with glass walls and skylights, I had heard. He gave tours of it at times, it was that beautiful. I hadn’t seen it. The forest shadow had become other than what I had imagined, less magical, more flesh and blood –and profitable.
I paid for my items and started out when I felt a touch on my elbow.
“We should do a joint show at Pine Tree Gallery. I’ll talk to the owner, Madelyn, if you’re amenable.”
Was I amenable for an art show? I just made things to order, when a shop requested a few more. I enjoyed my hands in the tacky, malleable clay; the repetitive movements of palms and fingers molding and reshaping; the earthy glazes a series of chemical surprises. I was not an artiste, just a diligent potter. And I liked it that way.
“Really, a show?”
I turned toward him but leaned away like he did, ever so slightly, and stared almost unabashed for the first time. He met my eyes with a strange familiarity, surely aided by those years of not speaking while playing a sort of forest tag, not meeting directly but by way of random rustlings or swishes, grasses pressed to the side as any beast might do, twigs making arrows on a path, marsh marigolds trampled when leaping the spring and summer creeks. Faded blossoms left in a tree hollow.
My arms crossed over chest then uncrossed self consciously. Who was he? Just a childish shadow boy. A rich college guy, a townie who painted. But oh, so very well. “I make things for tourists now and then, not to exhibit. I am not in the business of showing cups and plates like art works. I can’t compete with your skill and talent.”
“It needn’t compete but complement one another. Paint and clay–a good combination.” The sales person awaited his purchase. “Think it over, we’ll talk.”
I bought my items and left. He was nowhere to be seen. My free hand clenched and unclenched as I walked off, irritated with myself. What was I thinking to turn him down right off? What was he thinking to accost me with that? Was it, perhaps, a little funny to him?
As I rounded a corner rapid steps rushed up behind me and I moved over to let the runner pass.
“Wait, Tally, let’s talk now.”
Lane halted beside me and his hand pulled at my forearm. “You live at the Rollins’, right? Grandparents. So my mother said, she knew them. I’m sorry you lost your grandmother.”
I shielded my eyes. I rarely carried sunglasses and I was blinded trying to look at him as his back was to full sun. “That was some time ago, yes, and thanks. What’s so pressing you nearly ran me down?”
We resumed walking. “I remember, that’s all. You at the cabin’s upstairs window, both of us out there but never meeting in the Barrow’s Forest or the meadow. It was like you hid from me. From everyone. I often wondered about you–you didn’t grow up here. Your mother did…”
“Yes. We often played in parallel, true. I watched, you watched. But you looked up in my window? That is bold…”
He chuckled. “Occasionally, but don’t worry. My curiosity was harmless. I think.”
I stifled an urge to smack him on the shoulder but we didn’t even know each other. Did we? It felt more like walking and talking with an old acquaintance– at very the least–the longer they reminisced.
“Well, anyway, so you know, I tracked you like a dog, scouting out your direction, spying on your childish activities.”
“You didn’t, I would have realized! Or my dog.”
I shrugged, hands with palms up. Let him think about it. The dog was not always with him.
“The point is, you were sort of a part of my youth….an enigmatic part.”
“You’re an old man, now, is that it?”
“I’m pushing twenty-six–it has been a few years since our romping about.”
“I’d call it stealth practice, to pass the time.”
“And you the elusive object of interest.”
We both laughed at such foolishness, feet shuffling as if to go.
“Say, would you like coffee and a pastry or something? We’ll make art talk. ” He indicated the cafe behind them.
I imagined PawPaw snoring in his chair, Tim the terrier at his feet. They jaywalked to the cafe.
Two months later, nearly everything sold during the annual July holiday exhibit. This was was “Clay and Paint by Tally and Lane.” Tally was amazed Lane was listed second. But, then, everyone knew his fine, expensive oils and were barely familiar with her groupings of colorful dishes and vases, bird sculptures and bells. If at all.
But not after two weeks when the show closed. Tally McBride was “a refreshing talent worth admiring and supporting, and she held her own with Lane Harold’s fine nature renderings. May the pairing share offerings in the future.” That was per The Village Clarion, for starters. There was more good reviews elsewhere, many top notch about him.
Later, we sat on the cabin porch and PawPaw, who had attended proudly, chatted Lane up as if they all had been cozy forever and it was half-true. The families only a quarter mile from each other had been friends. So very long before Lane had come to be. Way back when Sylvie, my mother, was born a bit later in life, to their surprise. But the Harolds became more busy and prominent, had two sons of their own. There were other matters to attend to, different people to know. It all receded more each year, except for Sylvie and her gorgeous singing, and the marriage he shared and loved long and well. And the forest, their good little world. He ambled off with a contented sigh and a pat on Lane’s back.
We sat and looked into the heart of firs and alders and beyond. The sun’s last rays tinged treetops pink and coral, then vanished as if someone pulled the shade. Day birds settled. Creatures of the night hunted and romanced in their own language under soft cover of darkness. We were silent but our fingers found each others’. Summer’s eve glittered with cool pulses of starlight and the piney community exhaled, kept close the human secrets again.
Remember that from the start it was
one for all, all for one? An entire lifetime of this.
A sweep of arms that gather in all.
It may have been a fervent dream of hope,
an obstinate faith in unknowns, but still
our circle has looped and held even
when torn to nearly broken.
And repaired, each thread twined with
the next in tensile links of love,
defining a net that catches sustenance,
saves whatever falls and binds together our
disparate truths. And loosens to let you go your ways.
Will you remember when you are less sturdy?
When I am gone? Or if the ties unravel and
you wait at the window, hands reaching for more?
There will be rifts. Misplaced time. Miles flung far.
Yet it has been, remains and will be this:
all for one, one for all, heart overlaid with hearts.
He didn’t understand, he was right about that, she thought. To him it had to be glamorous with jewels as the commodities of her trade, all that gadding about with fancy people, seeing sights he’d not see now. There was truth to this but it was the only part he wanted to believe.
The rest of it he tried to hold at bay any way he could, sometimes blaming her. And there was good reason for that. Admitting he was not going to walk again, at least not right–never mind play his horn, dance at one a.m. with the last customer, drive like crazy along some back country road–was like admittance to hell. Well, that had already begun when he had the stroke. Forty-one, relentlessly alive and just like that, cut down by a vagrant piece of circulatory trash that got stuck in an artery. Now his legs were mostly useless for the best things. His left hand couldn’t hold his trumpet mouthpiece to lips for more than a moment if he tied it there and dictated those beautiful, once-muscle-memories of movements required for sound.
But Mirabel kept on. Of course she did, what else was she to do, watch the seconds of their lives tick on as the pantry was emptied? She’d been a jeweler by trade when they’d met–he’d been browsing for someone who became irrelevant that snowy day–and remained so. He was a musician, he had some regular gigs and even when he hit it bigger there were more bills than income at first. Her work tided them over and she kept at it. She got good, then better, and then she was managing the finest jewelry store in Detroit metro as well doing the best work around, as she’d often been told.
Now she traveled more. Okay, a lot, every month or more. She had trade shows to attend and consultations to carry out, gems with just finished settings (or the final designs to deliberate) to hand deliver so an out-of-town customer could see up close exactly what big money was paying for. A personal touch was how Mirabel preferred to do business. It cost a bit but it was worth it for connections and subsequent referrals. Success had arrived. If she had to go out of her way to keep things well oiled, she’d do it despite Hal being held hostage to the damnable wheelchair.
He understood this much: they now lived in a beautiful spacious condo with a fine river view and he had good help. Alma came to care for him every day, and she had a fair for it. She had expansive congenial feelings for him which she could dispense lavishly; she went home each night to a good humored, healthy husband.
Mirabel meanwhile speculated what a warm bed would feel like as someone sidled up close, held her all night. Those days felt over for her, to her sorrow. Not that Hal yet believed it but he was more a dreamer, not so accepting of gritty details.
“You must stay at nice places. And stay occupied,” he said. “Don’t tell me ‘no’.”
“Right, occupied by my usual historical novel or a sitcom on T.V. It’s a blast. I do find most people I meet are interesting, you know that, and thank goodness. It’s not all diamonds and rubies and money.”
“Oh, come on, there are many men in this business who’d be happy to hold your hand, your waist, then–”
“Right, those men are older by far than you and gassy and balding, or baby-faced and ambitious, or very married with two kids. And what do I care? The others circle like hawks, I know how to put them off. How many times do I have to remind you? I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I’m more likely to meet up with business women for a late dinner. But none of us love travelling. We’re flat out whipped at the end of the day so it’s no party. It’s not a great way to see the country, either. No, it’s not great fun…”
Hal grunted. “Yeah, it’s so hard to be free, on your own out there.” He turned up the music, checked out.
The anger never quite quit, it just went underground. It abated if there was something good, like his musician friends coming by for dinner and talk. Then Hal was all affable bluster as ever he’d been. He applauded his friends’ recording contracts or tours or the latest band they’d put together. Never moaned on and on that he wasn’t with them. He wouldn’t consider doing that to them or himself. They missed him. They also saw him as man of steel despite extraordinary ways with his instrument. Well, once extraordinary, once on the high road. He was a guy who could take punches over and over and still come up chirping about this surprising and wild life. How thankful he was he wasn’t a Benny who’d died of an overdose at the apex of his career, or a Margo who literally went over the edge from too many bad breaks. He’d had it pretty good since he was nineteen, overall. Now he could again read some (the stroke rattled that piece of his brain), listen to music all day, compose in his head all he wanted. Sit the terrace and breathe pungent city air without worrying, planning the next big gig. Maybe he’d take up electronic music in the end. He was working on bettering hand strength and dexterity.
And then Mirabel was one of a kind, she stepped in, took care of things, they knew how steady she’d always been. She never once hinted she’d leave him. Besides, there was now Alma with the short blonde bob and so-so jokes–she was such a cheerleader and they got on well. Maybe he would be okay.
Hal was a braver person than any of them but it was so sad to witness his demise that they couldn’t speak of it later. They put on his recordings now and then and raised a bottle.
Hal’s anger spilled over after they returned to making music and he to useless days and nights. Mirabel gave him enveloping hugs and good words then stepped aside, worked longer hours. Loneliness might bash him any time. He’d feel it burrow into his sleep and his waking when she left for a three day trip or worse, a long week. He’d think himself into exhaustion wondering what she was doing, who she was doing it with, even though nothing telegraphed that she was disloyal. It was his humiliation, the teeth-gnashing depression that ran his mind in circles like a mad dog. But she was a person others gravitated to, that was the thing, eyes sparking with intelligence, a listening ear that put you center stage, a soft laugh that rolled into body and mind. She was attuned to life’s nuances as he was to music’s dynamics. He’d also seen her operate in a competitive, male-dominated trade that centered on obdurate, cool, magnificent gemstones with people to match. Mirabel had the right touch for so much.
But now more than ever there were things they did not know about each other.
When she went on work trips, after she was done for another day or evening, Mirabel wandered. If she had been successful or not, it was the same. After she window shopped and consumed a juicy steak, fish and chips or street burrito, she walked as if she was going somewhere, stride confident, footfall secure. But she was just moving fast from corner to corner, street to street, waiting for lights to change, people to pass without making eye contact, feeling breathless. Waiting for her life to stop blurring, as if she was on a runaway train and had to hang on for life.
Sometimes she ended up in a bar. The first times is was a shock, she was not a bar person, but they weren’t fancy or suspect, just any neighborhood place when regulars swiveled their heads as she slipped onto a stool. They knew she was passing through, she had the look of a visitor, hair neatly swept up at the sides neatly, her good leather bag full of things like scarves and elegant sunglasses, glossy pamphlets and who knows what else that made it bulge. She kept it close to her body.
The women who tended bar wondered if she was looking over their men but saw the plain gold band (her right hand wore a large single contemporary-set topaz) and her distant look. (Mirabel never wore her wedding diamond with two sapphires on either side when on trips, it was vintage and worth a good figure.) So they got her the simple mixed drink to get her started, minded their own business unless she stayed late for one too many. Which happened too often on trips, never at home since she rarely drank otherwise.
They’d pause at her spot, one hand on hip, brushing back unruly wisps of hair with the other. Tired out but always curious.
“BBQ sandwich? Pretzels? We’ve got a pile of garlic fries.”
“No, thank you very much.” She jiggled the ice in her glass full of rum and coke. “I suppose I need my husband… but he’s home and I’m–” she looked around as if surprised–“here.”
“Visiting someone then, huh?”
She shook her thick brown hair with white gleaming at the part and leaned into her glass. “Work only, I’m a jeweler. I’m on business.” She slurped the last of that drink.
Then they’d talk about jewelry and the bartender would show off shiny earrings or a dainty necklace from a boyfriend and ask if they were worth anything. One thing would lead to another until Mirabel would put an end to the questions with another drink, then a third and she’d start to slump. She was an amateur, they noted.
“I do miss the guy…”
“Have you called tonight to let him know you’re thinking of him?”
“Oh, no, he’s surely asleep. Alma the Nurse usually puts him to bed before she’s done for the day.”
“Oh?” Both hands on hips. Quizzical looks shared with those who’d been listening in.
“Hal’s paralyzed. Stroke.” She’d press fingers to lips–she hadn’t meant to tell these strangers, never anyone—would get up, hurry out the door unsteadily, hail a cab.
They were sure to watch her climb in okay, then regulars shook their heads, regulars frowned at their beers, muttered about fate and its misfortunes. The bartender slapped her rag hard once on the counter and got busy. Lots of pain in this place.
Back at her small, too bright room, the cheapest one available that didn’t cause worry about bedbugs or neighbors shouting all night. Why spend money where it didn’t help business, after all?
Mirabel somehow got off her clothes. Sat on the edge of her bed awhile, listening to the traffic below, the night a meaningless void. Where would she find some comfort for the night if she didn’t collapse under the influence of alcohol? Her five hundred page book or the same shows again? She stood motionless in the inadequate shower, shivering even in the hot spray. Then came the ache of longing, the gaping depths so empty where rich love had flourished. Her music man, crackling wit and loyal partner. Struck down. She wanted to hold his hands in hers, feel him squeeze hers three times like a young man: “I”, “love”, “you.” She wanted to hear that music had not been the one and only love of his life. That he still had room for her. For them. If his heart might still pull out the old joy–she could help if he’d let her–one day. She didn’t need him to be this strong. Or this sorrowful. It would end, wouldn’t it?
The steam billowed, suffocating her. Mirabel opened her eyes, turned off the water and slid back the curtain. Grabbed a towel, readied body and mind for one more vast, chilly bed in the drone of the dark.
Hal watched Alma clean up the living room, her muscular arms and square hands moving with efficiency as she picked up things, dusted a little, took the tray with his dinner leftovers to the kitchen. She hummed to herself much of the time. He’d never commented despite his flinching; she was always off key and it pleased her. She spent all day taking care of him except when Mirabel could be there so he tried to be generous. To encourage her when she had trouble getting him moved, to laugh at her silly jokes, to not make more of a mess than possible.
She’d lasted ten months now. The others lasted two or four months. The stroke had terrorized him into submission close to two years ago. It was hard work to help him; he was not a short man, no longer toned, lithe, quick to respond. Alma was possessed of broad hips and shoulders and moved with such grace that he marveled at it. She had good muscle in those biceps. Mirabel though lovely, sleek, inhabited her body as if she had to command her limbs to act natural. She was confident while working, her hands so deft, but otherwise she might stumble, ram into corners, drop glasses–about which he used to tease her. Not now; he envied she could rise up, move alone.
Alma’s dishwater blond hair was spiky and bright. She wore black stretch pants and a long, loose pink shirt. Hal found her attractive if he was honest but made sure she didn’t know it. Her company was priceless, she had to know that by now. She hummed and chatted as she labored, and never lost her patience. He guessed that’s why they paid her a hefty wage. Well, mostly Mirabel’s health insurance did but Alma got bonuses. For such aid and company he’d give up other things if needed. She read murder mysteries to him. She cooked well enough. And never made a face when he needed more help in the bathroom, unlike Mirabel, whose dismay could not be hidden, nor deep frustration over her limitations.
Alma was interesting to contemplate. She’d be one of those women who stood right up in a nightclub and swayed to the jazz, arms raised, ample form mimicking the beat, high on his acrobatic trumpet. Livening up the crowd. This imagined scenario as she worked dovetailed with his sadness, shaping it into a lighter, prettier thing. She’d glance at him as if feeling his gaze, eyebrows flitting above cheery eyes as she hummed louder to make him chortle–surely she knew she couldn’t carry a tune but just didn’t care. She stirred things up a little as she watched over him. Perhaps that was her best way to help people. Distracting them from any self pity.
“Mirabel back tomorrow?” she asked since her work was done. She took off her pinafore type apron with its big bright flowers. Old fashioned, pretty, a fun touch.
“I suppose, wasn’t sure about this tran–trans–I mean, deal. I thought she’d call tonight.” His language use had returned bit by bit a year after the stroke but he still spoke with care, had to simplify some days. He gestured to the table. “Phone charged yet? She call or text?”
Alma picked it up, brought it to him. “No, Hal, nothing the last hour.” She handed it to him and then sat in the armchair across from him.”I was thinking lately. You ever consider going with her on a short trip? I know it’d be tiring but just for a change of pace.”
“No, no, that’d never work! She couldn’t help me. Even the airport would be a nightmare–can you imagine it? Everyone staring, too.”
She leaned forward, hands on knees. “They have wheelchairs there and those electric carts that whisk people about–they’re many places. You might get a portable wheelchair or find a hotel where they have extra aids.”
“Naw, not a plan of mine.”
“What if I came? I mean, a little trip, one that wouldn’t cost too much.”
Hal shook his head, glared at her. “What are you getting at?”
Puzzled, she took her time answering. “I was just thinking, if it was me, I’d want you to come along some times. See a couple of sights. Be there when I got back to the room. Share a nice dinner with me.”
“But you’re you, not Mirabel. She’s a busy pro with people to see, things to do. I doubt she thinks much about me when she’s out there. She calls out of duty. I mean, she escapes!”
“I’m busy, too. You’re not my only patient, I work at night sometimes. But if I could–”
“You work at night?” The idea seemed absurd, no one could do this another eight hours. “When do you sleep or see your husband?”
“That’s neither here or there but yes, on week-ends I do overnight work.” She sat up straight and sighed. “Hal, you are starting to look at me like your best friend or your mother or something… it’s time to get you out more, not just to the park. You should ask if you can go with her.”
His face flushed as he turned wheelchair away. “I see. So, are you done here?”
“Yep, all done. Your chili is in the frig if you want to microwave more. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”
“I can do the necessary things better now, thanks.”
“I know, but I’m here.”
“You can go, thanks, Alma.”
She came around to face him. “It was just a suggestion, Hal! It might make you both happier.”
He looked into her eyes, saw compassion. Her soft face was so close, her skin radiating a scent slightly sour but even more sweet. He looked down at his knobby knees, the near-useless hand. His wife was so far away. It almost lured him, this closeness that wasn’t even Mirabel’s.
“Maybe so.” He managed a wan smile. “I’m alright, never mind.”
Here was a woman who knew all his needs, frailties, moods. He tried to think of himself in a bland room with Mirabel in a strange place, greeting a morning together, sipping a cup of coffee, chatting softly and then he’d realize they weren’t even home with some comforts. Did he even want that? But maybe it could happen; likely not. And she’d have to leave him once more. Of course, he’d also been gone every night when she came home, for years and years. Did she feel abandoned? No, she had had two legs and arms working, a resolute mind.
He felt confused by all this, saw Alma study him.
His phone rang. Alma got her sweater, opened the front door. She almost waited to see who it was then waved at him and glided outside.
Hal looked at the caller ID, answered. “Mirabel. It’s late in Boston. All okay?”
“I miss you,” Mirabel’s voice wafted to him, weary.
She missed him. “That’s nice to hear…tell me about your day.”
“Hal, I drank too much at a corner bar and feel so lonely. When I got to my room I desperately wanted to just hold your hand. To press forehead to forehead like we used to do, remember?”
A crummy Boston dive of all things, his wife alone! But the timbre of her voice reached in. His body–all parts that still could be swept up in feelings, so many places–tingled, and his mind’s usual fog lifted just enough that he knew this was real, his wife was speaking truth.
“Are you there, Hal?”
His good hand holding the phone shook a little. “Baby, when you come home, let’s figure out how to take me with you next time, okay? I want to be with you more, hear me? I need you.”
There came the ease of relief, then he heard her snuffling. She hadn’t cried around him since the first days after his stroke. He had become the weeper too often. He put the phone to his chest, his heart as she caught her breath. Because she would. She always regained footing even when he had no purchase, himself. But he saw it was possible she could use help, too. Hal felt her head against his shoulder, her warmth melding with his, soul opening a little like a flower to the light.
The crowd wasn’t holiday-large, not jam-packed in corridors, just impossibly thick with kinetic energy, bodies propelled from the mall storefronts like party favors tossed into the electric air, mouths chattering about nothing, eyes alight with the thrill of the hunt.
Nell didn’t much like crowds. She observed from her perch in Madrigal’s Mementos, her workplace. Her store, in a way, since her mother, Rona, was semi-retired and hightailed it to Santorini with a new companion. She wasn’t surprised Rona left her to deal with problems actual and imagined, as well as their thriving trade in “fancy this and that”, as her mother called the wares. She was more like a good older friend and seasoned business partner than a mother in most ways, she admitted. That was how it had always been.
The store was tastefully arrayed with small stone animals, elegant glass paper weights, fine pens and papers, hand crafted jewelry, silk screened scarves, hand bound books of poems and wisdom to live by, bright woven baskets and so on. In other words, an expensive gift shop for those who are used to the best or those who want to indulge once a year.
She felt less like a snappy sales person than a rag doll who had been propped up on her stool and directed to come alive. This was not what Nell had planned on doing right after college, yet here she was grinning at three customers who likely had little extra cash to spend and another two who did, each of them absorbed in examining the interesting pieces, wondering aloud if one person or another would enjoy an item. Nell could care less even though she was proud of Rona’s business acumen–she had two more stores–and glad of a decent paycheck. But she would rather be studying for her Masters in Ethnomusicology, doing musical and cultural field work in the Ozarks, say, or on Prince Edward island, in India or Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia would suit her better than all this.
The two women she thought would purchase something left the store arm in arm. But two of the other three lined up, items in hand. Stone elephants, a stone eagle, a bracelet of silver and good turquoise. As each was carefully wrapped, she thought how this business was partly responsible for Nell’s interest in other cultures since much of their inventory came from worldwide markets and crafts people.
“Such a great shop,” one woman breathed, hands gesturing toward displays and making coppery bangles clink. “Is Rona not here anymore?”
“Ah, yes, and no. She’s considering retirement, meanwhile just travels.”
“To locate more neat stuff, no doubt.” She dug in an enormous shoulder bag for her wallet, bangles jangling more. She looked at her friend. “Rona has such an eye, is so interesting, I could go out for coffee with that woman once a day and never be bored, she’s quite a talker.” She found her debit card and handed it to Nell. “You’re new here, right? You know her well?”
“For quite a few years. She’s my mother–I’m Nell Madrigal.”
“Oh! I should have known since you have her thick black hair, so pretty, I guess we’ve never met.”
“Likely not, I come and go. I’m not here for good; she’ll be back in time for holiday shoppers.”
“Lovely, I’ll be back then!”
They finished their transactions and left. Stillness billowed in the room, a relief. Nell watched more people stream by, a monotonous blur, a mass of colors and shapes, a telegraphic signal from another world that she didn’t understand. That she wished fervently was not her domain. She’d rather be on a mountain, in a holler, by the sea. But last year at her East coast university had brought a defining moment that left its mark. She turned on a CD of benign spa music and settled into the exorbitant but beloved “clam chair” covered in sheep’s wool near the counter’s end. It was for Nell the safe place in the store where she would watch and not be seen, could rest and the ache in her back and shoulders would ease.
If she dared close her eyes while still awake, she would still recall it and anymore it seemed better to let it come, rather than fight it. She had no desire to go into battle with old demons. She was tired, as always. Nell let her eyelids lower.
Back at Hartford School of Music he’d fast become her first love. Quinn: excellent oboe player, a composer of abstracted woodwind quartets and trios. They made her think of watercolors, layers of morphing shapes–yet these belied a greater intensity of feelings she didn’t recognize on first listens. The music could have been a clue but for her it was then all surge and flow; seeking, giving and taking and waiting for more; following less trod trails into a wilderness of surprise. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been in love before, just that she hadn’t ever known a man like Quinn before. Hadn’t found the proverbial rabbit hole so enticing as to willingly tumble into it and risk being lost. Which soon, she was, then she sailed right into his arms, out of her life, into his.
Was it his amped up adoration of her, even as her own ardor had begun to settle? Was it the way he had of subtly and frequently chiding and correcting her when he insisted she was wrong about something, no matter how small? Was it how he needed to know all her friends’ names, where she was going–then that he preferred she spend her free time with only him? Even then she saw it as signage of his enveloping and rock-steady love for her–the way he attended to her every need, how he graced her apartment with armloads of flowers when they’d had a spat, how he’d serenaded her at her window one night.
His mellow oboe sweetly filled the night air, calling other women to their windows, as well. But it was only her for whom he made music, no one else.
Nell flicked open her eyes, checked to see if anyone had slunk into the shop and was trying to nab anything but no, it had been a mostly quiet afternoon so far. She glanced at the shoppers then shuttered her vision once more.
Quinn was not handsome, not even quirkily so. That is, his features were not noteworthy and his torso was long and gave off a hint of natural athleticism but not one blazing with prowess. Still, his presence sooner or later filled the space of any place he went. It was his eyes, for Nell. Not the shape or color–though they were a warm brown, caramel-tinged in the right light–but the force they exerted, and his honeyed voice. Yes, a delectable force, that was the word Nell came to identify with him. His eyes on others exuded the demand that one pay attention and if one did, a rapid and intense response was forthcoming. Nell succumbed the first time they met. She saw him; he saw her. They talked of music and how it enabled people to become more attuned to nature’s complex notations and each other. There was nothing to be done but give in to such lively energy.
“Hello there…?” A male voice rang out.
Nell startled in her chair, stood up as if commanded.
“I was hoping you could show me some possibilities for my fiancée’s birthday.”
“Of course, tell me a little about her if you don’t mind.” Tell me you want her to be delighted not indebted, that you want to grace her with a token of your caring not your ownership, Nell thought as she listened, then led him to a display of pens–since she had beautiful handwriting.
They spent a few minutes perusing his options and then he wandered, returned to choose the flowing ink pen with a green and gold barrel, then silken paper with a tasteful ivy design along its left edge. He added delicate earrings with tiny sapphires. As she gift-wrapped them, they spoke of the weather–bright and warm, still–then he was gone, loping beside the others into the outer realms.
Easy and at ease: Quinn was not these, never could be. He was smart and talented, given to flights of fancy that ended in wakeful nights of composing, revising each measure as he found more gaping chasms of error in the music and himself. It was the one vulnerable spot inside him, this part that privately did not feel good enough, and it seeped into other parts of his life though especially composing.
“I’m not meant to do this, have no gift for it!” he’d cry out and she would wrap her arms around him and he would shake her off. “Father was right, I didn’t catch the right genes, I can only conjure the right things in my mind but not execute, never fulfill my desires!”
His father, it was true, was a renowned composer of choral works, Terrence Carlton, he said proudly. Then he complained of it, how he lived in Spain, out of reach, unable to help and had little interest in woodwinds. He was far out of Quinn’s league. Only Nell could soothe him after the anger had been lit, then it subsided a bit. That is what he told her, only she seemed to understand him, no one else. It was not hard for her to be there for him. All he asked was devotion and she loved him, didn’t she, this is how it felt, to belong entirely to one person and be there for them always?
Nell sat back down and stayed put even though a couple came in, picked up a few stone animals and then left. A wave of panic had welled up in her, then slowly receded as she dusted the glass counter tops, rearranged elegant necklaces that lay on colored sand. She paused at the animal totems. She had given a stone creature to Quinn last Christmas, before he left for Spain and she, for Arizona. A coyote. She had liked to watch them in and around Tucson and he found it enchanting, said, “Thank you, that’s an animal I do admire.” And even that might have informed her better but it did not, not soon enough, not until they had returned to Hartford and studies resumed.
One snowy week-end in February they ate at Tango in Bridgeton Village, a funky shopping district.
“I don’t want to see him again soon, but he wants me to spend a couple weeks at spring break. He and his new wife at their new house. A villa, really.” He eyed her ruefully over his burrito, eyes suddenly a deeper brown as if a shadow had fallen over them. Then he smiled shyly. “He asked to meet you, said he’d even buy your ticket. I agreed I’d go if you come along. How about it, Nell?”
She put down her fork. Studied him. “I think that might be a little…too soon?”
He was chewing so didn’t speak a moment but his face changed nonetheless, from hopeful to irritated to a precarious cliff of anger that she saw in his narrowed eyes. “Why?”
“I mean, it’s been seven months, hardly as if we’re, well, betrothed!” She said it lightly, as if the whole idea was absurd, truly.
“What if I was thinking of the future? Our future?”
“I am, too. Getting our Masters degrees, finding good jobs. I’m not anywhere ready to have parents reintroduced into my world–our world. Certainly not marriage…surely you aren’t, either?”
He got very quiet, leaned over the center of the worn table top. Put fingers on her fork, then a knife, then drummed both sets of fingers beside her.
“I must be thinking of it, to agree with my father’s wishes. He has the right to meet you if I am imagining you in my future life.”
Appetite gone, Nell leaned into her chair, saw his index finger fiddle with the knife, saw him look her over as if he wasn’t clear–or happy–about who sat opposite him. Hr fixed his gaze upon her and did not blink.
His throat was cleared and when he spoke his words were hard and loud. “Don’t you agree, Nell? That meeting my father soon is best?” He grabbed her wrists in both hands, and applied pressure until her fingers started to feel odd, then numb. His face was a mask of someone else, a man she’d glimpsed lately yet not known face to-face.
“I don’t think so. We haven’t even talked about things past graduation much. I can’t go to Spain this spring, Quinn, I have the store and Rona.” She dabbed at her lips with a napkin, hands shaking, unsure of what to do. She needed to leave, give him a day or two to rethink things and calm down but knew in her gut she could not leave without arousing a worse response.
He reached up, slapped her across the cheek, then grabbed her burning wrist again.
“Are you entirely sure, my love?”
She looked down, shocked, heard whispering, felt the humiliation of it. She could not get out of this! Or could she? Why not just go?
Nell stood up and doing so her hands were yanked so hard Quinn was pulled forward into the table so she she spun around, her wrists freed and pushed her way through tables, pressed the entrance door open, and ran. She wanted to be to just walk away, hail a cab and not look back but heart and legs would not do as she told them and she was moving fast. She ran one block, crossed a street, her booted feet striking slushy pavement and uneven sidewalks, hair whipping in the wind, wrists aching, arms freezing–she had left her coat behind.
“Nell, come back! Stop!”
Nell glanced over her shoulder, just streaked past a moving car with its horn blaring, then she crossed again, ran between quaint shops, barreled into startled pedestrians, pushed her way through a more languorous group that stood smoking outside a bar. They shouted at her, then turned at Quinn’s yelling.
“Nell, stop right now. STOP or you’ll be sorry!”
She stumbled and fell, got up again and ran into an alley. A door to the bar opened as if by magic and she rushed in past the shaken kitchen help.
“Shut that door tight, he’s chasing me!”
The door closed with a bang. She could hear raised voices, Quinn pounding on the door but she kept on, raced through the cafe with apologies flung out, into the street again and running the other direction. Her chest hurt, throat stung, eyes watered–was she crying?– and face and hands were chilled as fat snowflakes fell.
Nell did not stop until she was crouched behind a dumpster in the alley four blocks down and her breathless voice came roaring back as a piercing scream, hands over ears to dampen the sound of her own fear.
Someone came, called the police. People talked to her, reached for her. An APB was put out on Quinn. She was taken to the police station to give a written report. Her mother was called. She went home for a week until Quinn was in jail. Only when she was sure he had left, was back in Spain–Rona had called his father to make things even clearer–did she return to finish the year. She could not believe she had still graduated, if barely. She had made it, was safe again at home in Arizona. If only her mother was here more. But Rona felt Nell had to find her own way, regain confidence. And she was right, of course.
At Madrigal’s Mementos, a familiar place, even like home.
An elderly, soft-bodied woman hobbled in.
“Hello,” Nell said, hand at forehead, smoothing away the memories. “Can I help you with something special?”
The woman readjusted a hand knitted orange beret, white hair spilling out of it and curving about her lined face. “I so hope you can–Nell, is it?” She pointed to Nell’s name tag. “My granddaughter is graduating from nursing school. I want a gift that’s different, something she can take wherever she goes but useful, too. Something to represent a milestone. She’s a wonderful girl, let me tell you. She waited so long to get to where she wanted to go and it was tough, school can seem tougher as time goes by. But she did it. Now she’s to be an RN.”
The woman smiled warmly at the thought and began to consider possibilities, picking up objects and looking them over with care. Nell suggested a few items.
“Is this your store? It’s quite good. I see a few things I’d like for myself, drat!”
Nell laughed. “Oh, no, my mother owns three stores. I’m just the sales person.”
“I doubt that,” she said, holding a hand-blown paperweight’s bright colors up to the light.
“Well, I want to be an ethnomusicologist but life is unpredictable.”
“So it is, but that’s a great field. I’m an historian myself, taught forever at City College, now I get to relax.” A ready smile sparked blue droopy eyes as she chose another paperweight. “Mandy would love this one. She has a nice study at home to manage her bills and to read and such. The turquoise with green are her colors, so soothing. Just look at that.” The paperweight glowed in a stream of recessed lighting.
She wandered as Nell worked on inventory online. In a few moments a purchase was made. They chatted a bit more about the granddaughter’s plans. The older woman waved good bye, then turned back, came back to the counter.
“Don’t let life derail you for long. Take hold of your dream and pursue it doggedly, it’s the only way to go. You will not regret it, believe me.”
She patted her hand and left. Nell watched her disappear into the crowd. As she returned to the computer, she noticed something white on the counter.
“Harriet Millsand, PhD., Retired Educator and Historian,” it noted, then further stated, “History is our own story: the past intersects present while the present anticipates future.”
She turned it over and read aloud: “A memento has been defined as a warning or a reminder of what has come before. But one can create new mementos of a life, Nell. Best wishes, Harriet.”