Shalimar Girls

women-side-by-side

From the beginning their families thought they’d not ever end up friends. It might have been that way if they’d paid serious attention to differences. Lillian had dark hair with its own personality, was slight and wiry, easy with silence. Lana was all peaches and cream, spoke to adults with a polish that offered thoughts tinged with a supposition of authority. Lillian lived at the end of a dead-end road with her mother and father and larger family. Lana was in town, that corner blue and white Victorian; her uncle also housed his medical practice in an attached office. They’d known one another since childhood but from a distance. Then gradually they found each other. Both sang–rather, Lillian tried her best–in the Methodist youth choir. Before long they sat together in a back pew every Sunday.

On church bulletins they scribbled notes about everything–the new calf Lillian helped birth; Lana’s disagreement with her aunt about wearing her mother’s perfume; the fall school mixer neither could bear to attend; essays each would help the other finish; their first crushes. In the school hallways they often linked arms, headed to the restroom to catch up. At lunch time they’d sit together though other friends looked askance at first. The rest of the kids began to call them “The Two Ls”, or “L1” and “L2”–Lana being L1, never mind it was taken for granted she must be the first of the two. Lillian was used to that, even at home, where her older brothers and a sister overtook everything as if food, clothes, or attention were their birthrights, with Lillian apparently meant to fend for herself. Lana about made up for that, with her confidences, sparkling smile and good will. And Lana found her friend’s shyer yet stronger, trustworthy character terribly admirable in a friend.

They just got on well and that was that.

Before long they shared many week-end hours, too, except for times when Lillian couldn’t get away from farm chores or Lana had dance or art classes or other plans. It was as if they lived double lives sometimes, and they were a faint mystery. But Lana’s aunt and uncle had  money and status; her father garnered prestige as a private pilot who was gone most of the time. Lillian’s family was respected and her parents were hard workers, fair in church and the marketplace.

“Why do you think my dad is always on the go?” Lana asked one day after school.

They’d gone to Red’s Restaurant for lime and vanilla Cokes. Hunched over the table, they slurped the sugary fizz and took turns eating one French fry at a time, swirling each in a mound of ketchup.

“Because he loves to fly?” Lillian licked a couple of salty fingers, thought better of it and wiped them on her napkin.

Lana shook her head, wide grey eyes peering through a fringe of bangs. “Well, he does, but not that.”

“Because he’s good at what he does and is making a living? And he’s saving money up to move out of your uncle’s?”

“No, for sure, not the last. Dad likes being closer to Uncle Carter since Mom died. He loves that house and Aunt Margo’s heavy fat-filled meals.” She made a bad face. “Me being safe and sound when he flies.” She shook her bangs back and sat up straight. “He just doesn’t like to be home since Mom isn’t around. And he doesn’t like looking at me because I look like her.”

Lillian crammed another fry in, then considered. “Not so, Lana.”

“Yes so. He’s determined to erase her from his mind. The less he has to spend time with me, the more he can forget.”

She closed her eyes. Lillian couldn’t help noting again how long her lashes were. Her own were dark but stubby. She chewed and swallowed the fry. Lillian never knew what to say when Lana made such pronouncements. She didn’t really know Mrs. Danforth, Lana’s mother, except from afar, long ago. It had been four years since her car had slid across the county road and smashed into a tree after the historic ice storm. She and Lana became actual friends after all that; Lana  spoke very little of the accident. She had been in the back seat but emerged with a broken leg and whiplash and concussion; she apparently recalled nothing else. But it stayed deep within her, the smashing up and the losing a parent. Lillian felt it.

“He’s still sad. Maybe kinda lost?”

“Not a good excuse. I’m still here. I’m trying my best.”

“I know. I imagine it’s too hard, sometimes.”

Lana crossed her arms over her chest with a thump. A long fry dangled out of the side of her mouth. Every time she chewed a little more it bounced up and down. She took hold of it, put it between her fingers and blew out as if it was smoke, her nose in the air and eyes half-shut. A bit like her Aunt Margo.

“Lana!”

She laughed the tough feelings away and they ate the last few fries. Late afternoon light filtered through the slats that separated them from another booth, striping the table with skinny bars. Lana slid her fingers across the pattern. Lillian did the same and their hands made graceful dances, then silly shadow creatures, weaving in and out of the bright and dark. Lana thought how often it felt as if she lived behind invisible bars, a restless captive in a beautiful house where no one was allowed to fuss about things or smudge a centimeter of floor. Her aunt was determined to make her into someone she didn’t want to be, not anymore, too well-mannered and dull. Her uncle was looser. His intrinsic goodness spread like peace between her resistance and his wife’s insistence on her own way. So Lana gravitated to him and slid away from her meticulous ways. It was more miserable at times than she admitted to anyone but Lillian. She was supposed to be privileged, and that caused her to muffle scream now and then. No one whose mother died was remotely privileged.

They walked back to Lana’s house. Lillian’s oldest brother would pick up Lillian after his work at the garden center in a couple of hours.

“We’re here, Aunt Margo, going upstairs now!”

She could smell pork and potatoes roasting and her stomach lurched. She hated pork as much as she hated venison, which Lillian found baffling. Deer meat was needed in her family’s household many times and it tasted fine to her.

“Alright, please hang up your jackets,” her aunt called from somewhere, far enough.

In her pale yellow room, Lana was safe. That’s how she more and more felt. I was as if she’s been running all day long from one base to another with the ball being thrown hard and just missing her and she makes another dash for it and then waits, then another and then she takes her chances and she slides into home base, at last! She closes the door. Then nothing will happen to her that she doesn’t allow.

The girls bounced back on the big bed and sat with heads against the wall.

“When is your dad coming back this time?” Lillian asked. She grabbed a magazine from a pile on bedside table.

“Maybe before Thanksgiving, maybe not. He said he would…he has to fly back from Alaska to Washington to here. I picture him zigzagging over mountains and hope he stays up high.”

“All that snow. The clouds up there must look like fluffy, snowy mounds, too.” She looked at her friend, eyes round. “It sounds amazing.”

“It is, I guess. I hope you’ll fly with me sometime, get over your fear. But I don’t even know where he is right now. Are you just having the grandparents over for Thanksgiving?”

Lillian put down the magazine though her eye lingered on a picture. “I can’t see how they do that. I’m no good with make-up, I always look like I’m playing dress up.” Lillian grabbed her frothy hair and pulled it back in a misshapen ponytail.”Yeah, unless Mom isn’t talking to her mother, then it’ll be an empty table because Granddaddy isn’t about to come without Grandma.” She made a face of distaste.”I’d just as soon skip the whole thing.”

“Me, too. Let’s just go to Redmond’s that day instead.” She clucked at her. “Don’t put yourself down like that. You’ve got your own unique style.”

“So you say. Anyway, they’re closed and besides, I love our apple and pumpkin pies. You just should come to our place.”

“I wish! Please sneak me away!”

“You really don’t. Your dad, number one. My overwhelming family, number two.”

Lana sighed and put her arm through the crook of Lillian’s and they browsed the magazine, reacting with thumbs up or down or a choice criticism, depending on who and what it was.

Lillian knew what would happen at her house and Lana knew, too. Granddaddy would get into politics with her father and they’d first trade reasonable if rambling paragraphs. Then the beers would be brought out–Granddaddy kept them in a cooler in his truck despite her mother and Grandma forbidding it– and all their talk would get puffed up with their high and mighty principles and their tempers would threaten to burst. Her siblings would join in here and there with their smart-alecky ideas. Lillian and her mother would try to keep a lid on it. Grandma would shrink into herself, slink into the kitchen to make more coffee. And then her grandfather would make as if he’s going to throw a punch and her brothers would have to break it up and take him out for fresh air. Lillian and her mother and sister would clean up the table mess. Grandma would slice and plate the pies and when the men all returned, no one dared say a word except for how good dessert was. And that would be it. They’d watch the game and fall asleep.

She’d grab her jacket, slip out the back door and head to the pond. Lie down in the musky damp of brown and green grasses. The sky would wink at her. The sun would sink, paint the sky with watercolors that felt like life at peace, then longing. Tears would come as she thought of all she wished for–to go to college, to write for a newspaper or magazine– and all she believed she might be if only she could get out of there. At least she’d have the sky and birds and frogs to herself a few moments.

Lillian closed the magazine and faced her friend. “You know what? I’m going to ask everyone what they’re grateful for right from the start. Maybe that’ll help keep things right.”

“And what will you say when it’s your turn?”

“Easy. That we’re best friends. I don’t think I’d manage being fourteen if you weren’t here.”

Lana leaned her head on her shoulder. “Me, either, Lil.” She wriggled a bit to get more comfortable, then jumped up. “I just got an inspiration. Let’s find my mom’s Shalimar. It has to be in Aunt Margo’s room or in their bathroom.”

“Is that safe? I mean, will she come up to check on you–and then what?”

“Either she’s making her corny Christmas cards or she’s in the kitchen cooking–that’s all she’s been doing lately when I get home.”

“I’ve never been in your parents’ room. It’s an invasion of privacy, you know?”

“What do you think she did when she took my mother’s perfume from here? That’s a violation for sure!”

“Okay, Lana, pipe down, lead the way.”

The hallway felt like it went on forever, the red and gold Persian runner flowing down its length. On tiptoe they followed it to the end. The last door on the left was closed. Lana hesitated, then turned the glass doorknob and pushed it half-open, then pulled it to behind them.

It was the loftiest, loveliest room Lillian had ever seen. A canopy bed was against the pale blue wall to the right, so high off the hardwood floor she didn’t know how they got into or out of it. Two sets of luxe drapes were a soft blue with white sheer ones between them. The room was full of elegant old furniture that glowed in swaths of sunlight.. A big ivory chair with a needlework footstool sat between the tall double windows. It seemed all wrapped up in silky softness.

“I could sleep all day and night here, imagine the dreams you’d have,” Lillian breathed. The room smelled floral, fresh. Unlike the rooms in her house, which gave off a tired scent, one of old earthy air and faint sweat which, even with the windows open, never quite left.

“Think about the perfume now–where she’d hide it!” she commanded.

Lana was already into the chest of drawers carefully lifting items.

“I never knew she liked lacy stuff, drawers stink like lavender.” She wrinkled her nose, then pulled open three more and moved about more things, held up a pair of navy and green plaid socks. “His favorites!”

They snickered and went on, looking into a trunk at the end of the bed where blankets were stored, then to a desk; it had a neat fold-down writing surface like Lillian had only seen in an antique shop. Each drawer was wrenched open with some effort, then found wanting. Lana looked around and eyed the vanity with the huge round mirror. They walked toward it, their reflections showing their stealthy advance. Lillian was enchanted by its graceful lines, the vast mirror. They had one bathroom plus a full-length mirror attached to the front closet door in their house.

It suddenly felt as if this was one place they must not disturb with more pawing about. Lillian suggested a woman’s private things were in her vanity, meant for her special daily or nightly preparations.

“I feel like we’re trespassing.”

But Lana had no qualms and searched among fancy bottles, half-used unguents and lotions and containers of unknowns. In the last bottom drawer there it sat, a circular bottle with a pointed stopper. With its label of red and white, it shone in her hands.

“Girls! Dinner!”

Aunt Margo’s high voice rang out like a muffled bell, a warning. The reality of what they were doing was enough an alarm. They hurried out, into the hallway and to Lana’s refuge.

“Be there soon!” she called out as they skidded into her room.

“What are we going to do now?”

“Smell it! It’s heavenly, you must know.”

She held up the glass bottle. The golden liquid glimmered in the fading light. Once the bottle was unstopped, scent escaped and filled the room with a richness that suffused their nostrils and heads with happiness.

Lana placed a finger over the opening and turned the bottle upside down, dabbed her neck and then Lillian’s as Lillian, too late, shrank back.

“What are you doing? She’ll know now!”

“I don’t care! It’s mine. It was my mom’s and it’s meant for me, she can’t have it, not now or ever.” Her eyes glistened as she pressed the bottle between clasped hands, a possession of such value that one would have to pry it from her with a fierce grip to get it. Then she secured the stopper and put it under her mattress.

Lillian inhaled the delicious perfume. “Okay, then. Let’s go down.”

They descended the stairs together, acting brave the way they usually did, then seated themselves at the table.

Uncle Carter was there, done for the day. He looked up and lifted an eyebrow, his nose catching a whiff of a something odd but familiar.

“Lana, did you…?”

She looked at her uncle, then glanced at Lillian who just squeezed her hand tight under the table.

“Ah,” he said, his head to one side, then unfolded his napkin.

When Aunt Margo entered the room with the pork roast she froze and narrowed her eyes at her niece, then started again, and stumbled on the heavy rug. The steaming roast slid off its fine white platter and hit the rug, bounced once and came to a rest against the table legs. Aunt Margo shrieked. Lana bit her lip and held her breath to keep from laughing; Lillian squeezed her hand tighter. Uncle Carter’s eyebrows shot up and stayed put.

Aunt Margo turned on them. “You girls have gotten up to no good! Now look!”

Uncle Carter rose and then bent down to pick up the roast. “Now, Margo, we’ll just wash it off. Good as new.”

“Carter, that’s absurd, it will taste awful!”

He disappeared through the kitchen doors, holding it in his hands like a baby.

Aunt Margo put her fists to hips. Her eyes blazed but her voice was a near-whisper that hurtled each word. “You had no right to enter and go through our bedroom, that is private and off-limits and you know it, Miss Lana Danforth. And I was only trying to protect you.”

Lana rose, holding onto Lillian’s hand so that she had to go along with it.

“That is my mother’s bottle of perfume. You have no right to take it from me. It is my choice to wear it, I’m not a little kid and she left it for me.” She swallowed the words that wanted to come out hard and loud. “It’s all I have left of her except for a few bits and pieces. It…just…” She covered her face with her hands.

“Shalimar smells like her mom, Mrs. Danforth, that’s what she means…” Lillian said. “She just has to have it.”

“I…you…oh…!” Aunt Margo clutched her throat, then left the room.

The girls grabbed a roll each, pushed away from the table and went out to the porch. Huddled  in the chilly early evening. They drew in sharp November air with hints of rain on it again, smelled leaves that were fallen and soon crumbling into the dirt, sniffed the heavenly Shalimar as it settled and made itself at home on their skin. They crafted a necessary apology for Lana to say to her aunt and Lillian to add to when she came by. They counted the days until Christmas Eve and listed wishes. Talked of Lana’s mother death, yet somehow let out of that bottle and her father flying in soon. They mused over where they might be in five years. The way science fascinated Lana and how she imagined being a doctor, too. The ancient English teacher who predicted Lana would make a decent journalist one day.

If they would still call on one another, trust each other, stay in sync.

“That’s one thing we know for sure,” Lillian said as her oldest brother pulled up in his rattling truck.

Lana hugged her until it almost hurt, but it was a good thing. “Tomorrow, Shalimar Girl.”

They waved until each disappeared. Being called that, a Shalimar Girl–divinely lovely, smart, grown up, even–reminded Lillian to keep her head up no matter what, even feeling a bit different, adrift from her family. It also told her she had been given access to something vitally important to her closest friend. She went home content.

But Lana lay down in her bed, arms clutching her pillow, face hidden under covers, and mourned her mother as the night opened its velvet infinity. Lost herself there until she succumbed to slumber in a deeper realm of love.

vintage-guerlain-shalimar-perfume-bottle-cologne-6

The Cat that Changed the Rest

 Hollywood California, 1961 Photographer- Ralph Crane Time Inc owned merlin- 1201638
Hollywood, California, 1961;
Photographer- Ralph Crane

He found cats unbearable to be near, so when Alice informed Tate she now not only owned one but was bringing it by “for a visit”, the very idea almost did him in. Tate locked the front door, went out back with an icy lemonade and a mystery book he’d been putting off starting. The air registered a degree of hotness that any smart person would avoid. Grabbing his stained, misshapen fishing hat, he patted it down and called it good.

He had no intention of answering the door and would hide out a long while if needed. It was unlikely she would come around back in her high heels after work. The ground was a bit spongy after last night’s drizzle. Curls of steam arose from the rich earth as sun’s heat settled into it.

Alice had been around for awhile. They had met at one of those useless parties at the start of the university’s year. They’d shared the end of a couch. She’d talked enough to save him from the onset of sleep. It turned out she was a new office person in his department–Geology was his domain. He had become lazy about meeting women. Proximity often had something to do with his relationships. That, and a shared interest in second-hand stores and antiques. Fishing helped but he’d not found a woman who fished willingly in over two years, a grave disappointment. Passion for desserts helped; he liked women who loved dessert as much as he did. Tate baked sometimes. She was into making homemade ice cream. It seemed a decent match. They went to movies, discussed cooking, ate many a good meal and listened to music. They had scoured the city for an Arts and Crafts sideboard recently. Tate said it was too pricey, though Alice was for it. She was good company, in general, and he did appreciate that.

Tate also liked the way her hair cascaded over her collarbone and that slow smile starting in her eyes. He wasn’t so sure what she liked about him. Perhaps his lake cottage; they had gone up for the holidays and she’d asked if they could return this summer. He was waiting to see. Or it was his easy-going attitude that encouraged students and faculty to interact with him, like it or not sometimes. He was more a man to himself than not. Alice had popped up and was already influencing his well-run, quiet life, like dill weed and lemon influenced the walleye he brought home.

But Tate didn’t have room, time or inclination for pets in his life. And not cats, certainly.

“Why ever not?” Alice asked a couple of months after they met. “Pets keep things interesting. They create friendly feelings yet are neutral, sometimes sympathetic listeners and give you reason to get out and roam.”

“That’s what actual friends are for. Pets can’t converse to any significant degree. They expect things–treats and regular meals, scratches around the ears, play time outside. They make a mess that they don’t even have to clean up! I may as well have a human child–which I do not yet have, as you noticed right off, and may never… and, anyway, four-legged animals deserve a life outdoors, not holed up with us.”

Alice gave him a look of mild disgust. “So, you never even had a dog to call your own?”

“No. Wait, yes. In my fraternity we had a mascot, called Barker for obvious reasons, and we all took turns dealing with him. I did like him. He was a shaggy rescue dog and did well by us. I enjoyed tossing him things. When we graduated, Barker was adopted by a dog-crazy guy–so it ended well for all.”

“What about cats?”

Tate shrank back, stared at her, eyes full of horror.

“You aren’t a cat person? Are you allergic?”

“No, not allergic. Who is really and truly ‘a cat person’? I don’t know many, maybe one or two. Cats are not intrinsically wired to appreciate humans. Tolerate is even a rather strong word in my opinion. They don’t even like each other that much after infancy. They do like hunting rodents and birds. Barn cats would be a good example of a useful type of cat.”

“Well, I adore cats.” Alice threw her hands up in defeat and headed to the kitchen. “For someone so easy to get along with, you sure are a surprise. Who on earth doesn’t like pets? That’s a first for me!” The refrigerator door opened, then shut hard. “Where are last week’s cookies? Oh, there they are.”

Tate got up, hands pressed deep into pants pockets. Stood rocking a little on the balls of his bare feet in front of the bay window. He liked creatures just fine. He stared at a distant tree line near a pond. Early Saturday mornings he sometimes walked there to meditate on herons and ducks and such. He’d not yet gone with Alice; it was his private routine. He thought of his brother, Alan, how they’d go to the lake after their parents passed and fished without talking, yet understood enough. How they’d weathered the hardest things and managed to remain as brothers should be, available–from a distance–trustworthy. Comfortable with an intimacy nothing could sever. He should call him again soon. Try to get the whole family out. There’d be no pets, as Alan had none, either.

“Cats,” he muttered under his breath, then forced a congenial smile as Alice brought out a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He could smell coffee percolating and was suddenly grateful.

“Let’s listen to that Chet Atkins album,” she suggested. She set her head at an angle and narrowed her eyes as if trying get a better read on him, then her features lit up with good humor. “Maybe light a fire later?”

Cats, he thought again as got the album out, put it on, and turned up the stereo. Maybe Alice and I will get closer, maybe not.

“Yes, a fire. November is upon us.”

The cat topic never came up again. Until today. She’d gotten a cat and wanted to show it to him.

He could hear the gravel crunching under the SUV’s tires and panicked, then told himself to just remain at ease, she would go away when he didn’t answer the door. He’d said something to her about picking up dinner supplies so might not be home. His Jeep was in the garage. She wouldn’t bother to look in dusty garage windows. Still, he put the book down and slipped into shadows alongside the house where the juniper bushes were. Flattened inside shadow. He felt his chest tighten, heart jump.

“Pepper, you’d better stay put. Stop wiggling and behave. How will you ever audition? Wait a minute!”

Pepper, really? Tate was starting to perspire heavily but he pressed himself against the house, tried to slow respiration. He deeply wished he had a dog for the first time since that ole frat brother, Barker. It’d be one sorry cat, a cat held hostage on a tree branch. Why ever did Alice have to bring it over here?

And there it was, at his feet, sniffing about, then mewing. The whiskers of a cat on a man’s exposed shins is about the last straw when feeling contrary about the entire situation. It took considerable will power to not let his foot strike out. A midnight-black cat sat confidently, demurely, and appraised Tate. Unimpressed, it then began to clean a paw with delicate care.  It was enough to take his heart rate up a notch. He noticed a tiny rhinestone collar at its neck as he stepped around it and took off for the gate in a parody of power walking.

“Alice, aren’t you missing something? Why are you back here?”

“I am–but what are you doing outside? It’s too hot for man or beast and now Pepper has run off…”

“The beast part is debatable. Your very own, a large black cat is–” he pointed–“over there. In the cool of the shadows doing fine. Please don’t bring it any closer to me.”

Alice crept up on Pepper and deftly attached the leash to its collar. “There we go, all set now. I just wanted to introduce you to her, Tate. To show you my prize, to prove there’s not one thing unpleasant about this cat. I’d like you to be on good terms because she’s sticking around.”

Alice cautiously advanced, Pepper following behind her but with eyes on tree branches wherein perched robins. A cat is never a tame thing, Tate thought, and fought an impulse to grab the leash from his girlfriend’s hand, fling the cat out of the fenced yard in a graceful arc of farewell. But he did know this was irrational. Very wrong. Also impossible. She had a tight grasp on its leash and that cat had a clear intention of standing guard by the tree.

Tate took a step back. “Oh, no, that isn’t in the plan, sorry. I’m happy for you and so on but she will not be visiting further. I one hundred percent don’t like cats, Alice. I love many things, many sorts of people and do rather enjoy most animals–especially wild ones. But I just don’t appreciate cats. That is not going to change.”

He opened the gate and exited and she followed. Pepper came along; the birds had flown far off. The cat ran closer to him, stretched her neck out as if to rub her fuzzy head against Tate’s legs. He stepped aside and rushed on, Alice trotting after him.

“Alright, then, I give up for now! I’ll put her in the car, but it’s warm so I can’t stay. Hot cars are so dangerous for pets. It’s the A/C on or it’s a no go, lately.”

She picked up Pepper and placed her in a cushiony pet lounge on the back seat. The bed-lounge had built-in feed and water bowls attached. She rolled down car windows and closed the doors again. Then Alice joined Tate on the front porch steps.

“It’s like this, Tate, I have a cat who is trained for show business and I sure hope she makes me money.”

“What?Show business?’ He half-laugh came out in a  sputtering spray. “You can train a cat?”

“Well, not in the same way as dogs, of course, not exactly. Anyway, the training part is done. She’s my aunt’s project. She was diagnosed with skin cancer so can’t handle dealing with another need right now. Since I know Pepper and her talents, I stepped in. I learned with Aunt Lavonne.”

“You never mentioned this.”

“No, it seemed safer not to before. But now she’s in my life.”

“I thought I was, too.” He rubbed his bony shin. There was a phantom sensation there, a replay of those stiff whiskers sliding across his skin. It made his head feel like a vibrating high wire. “I’m starting to wonder.”

Alice grasped his forearm. “But Tate, you should see how she can act! Pepper looks so fine on film. She’s been in six commercials in three years and many magazine ads and has won some contests. She still has good years left, Aunt Lavonne says, and she’s made good money, too.” She released his arm; he’d tried to free himself of her emphatic grip. “Besides, I can’t let down my aunt. I’m the only one she trusts with Pepper. And there’s a movie audition next week. I have to get her in it. It’d make Aunt Lavonne so happy.”

She sighed. It was so delicate and tremulous that Tate put his arms about her. He felt something release his bunched up core, leaving it supine again. Pepper meowed loudly and poked her pink nose out the window but he chose to ignore her.

“I get the idea. I’m sorry about your aunt–a tough situation. You’re kind to help. I’m not going to ask you what the, uh, cat role is, though.”

“Yeah, well.” She fiddled with a straggling lock of hair. “I have to get Pepper into air conditioning. Also need to look at the script again–it’s a mystery story–and see what I have to make her do.” She smoothed Tate’s lined cheek., Kissed it. “I don’t get you about cats, it seems a phobia, even. But it’s okay for now. I’m doing what I need to do and I’ll call you after the audition.”

He went to the car, hugged her briefly, and as she got in he gave the cat a good sizing up. Pepper huddled down into the lounging bed again. She was as attractive as a cat might be, he supposed, glossy, well fed yet lithe in that dancerly cat way. Eyes so green the creature belonged to another place, not in a little bed in a car. He couldn’t imagine an acting cat, a real credit line in a movie, getting paid. Not a movie he’d go see without a major bribe.

Alice gave him a doleful look, eyes half-closed a moment, then tossed him a last kiss. He was surprised she still felt affection after his display of hostility, even when she’d explained such an important matter as illness and family. He felt a stab of shame. He ought to have better sympathized. He guessed Pepper would manage a better job of it, in her view.

But she’d stumbled upon his secret. Maybe he should have told her. Maybe it was time he let her know more of who he was. He shivered in the high noon sun.

******

Tate cast his line and looked out over the placid lake. Sunrise spread about tree limbs like a tangerine scarf opened wide. The boat rocked gently as he adjusted his position. He didn’t expect to catch much of anything. It was a good time of day but the summer saw less walleye activity. Trolling was one of his favorite things, the boat moving at a little over one mile per hour across the water, the line calm until it wasn’t. There were other ways to do this, other seasons–better waters, even–but when he awakened in the last of the dark he was relieved to be here, fish or no fish. He had to be in his boat.

He had called his brother but they had said the same old things, how the weather was getting weirder, how work was something that should be less bloodletting and more fun, how he should should catch a flight and share more time. Maybe August? Alan was 1800 miles away, his two kids were about to be teens, his wife was working more, not less. The brothers were rarely together, anymore, though they were never apart as kids.

He and Alan…and Rae. The triumphant trio that ruled the waterfront on Foxtail Lake. Or so it was for years, until more places sprang up and with them came kids to play with or avoid. They were wild and dirty and reckless with the happiness that comes from living close to the marrow and soul of nature. Their parents never argued there; the food tasted better; the water called them morning ’til night with its depth and shine.

Until the summer it all got torn apart.

Tate shook his head, blinked twice to better see the quiet sky lighting up a pale translucent blue. He loved this place more than anything. He owned it with his brother but it was more his than Alan’s due to the distance apart, the years he’d spent without his brother. Alan deserved to be here, too, and lately they had talked of growing old together at the cottage, then snickering at the thought. Just as they had grown up together, why not? But there would come that moment when they could talk no more of any of it. As a flashing red light dictated they had to stop, turn around, go elsewhere.

Tate was oldest, then Alan came three years after, then Rae the next year. Somehow they fit together like a handmade wood puzzle, seamless. Rae was the one most in trouble, not the boys, so that they felt compelled to try to outdo her at times. She emptied the tall change jar for dozens of packets of sweets, brought home worms to sneak into salad and sometimes scared the fish when their dad took them out, rocking the boat just to see wavelets gather and spread. She tried things that were dangerous, like try to swing by her hands from a tree branch over the lake. She would land in shallow water there so their dad grabbed her as she fell. Grounded her from the outdoors a whole day. Alan and Tate reeled her in a little, kept an eye out, as Rae was always laughing, her ideas were nutty and they were older and bigger.

And she was just theirs. The third voice in their trio.

Tate cast his line again, watching the lure sink. The birds were more talkative and he heard, then spotted other boats. He looked over his shoulder at the cottage light burning at the door, safe among the pines. He heard rumbling of a truck in the distance and turned back to the water, replaced that brash noise with a soliloquy of waves, more bright birdsong. If Alan was there they’d grill out later, enjoy a couple of beers at the fire pit later. Talk or not, remembrance a thing without language.

It had been just this sort of day. Clear as crystal but later in summer and an amber afternoon. Rae had been swimming with them–she could reach the far floating raft without tiring at age nine as she was wiry strong–but then went next door to her best friend’s, Jenny Molson’s. The boys weren’t ready to come in. They ignored their dad’s call to help him clean up some dead and downed wood and knew they’d have to make up for it the next day. Their mother had left for the market. Alan was determined to make more and fancier dives than Tate and so they kept at it as if they were training for the Olympics. Eventually they dragged themselves to shore, dried off inside the screened porch. Tate located Rae by her boisterous command.

“You dummy, come here!”

Jenny piped in. “Oh come on Rae, Red isn’t going to listen to you and, anyway, let’s get that broken tire swing by the shed so Dad will fix it for us.”

“I have to get Red into this carryall, then I’ll put him into the house!”

“It’s okay! Red likes being outdoors, that’s why we bring him.”

“He could get lost. I lost a gerbil once when I let it out.”

Tate grabbed a towel. He dried his hair and walked to the back of the house, which faced the road.

“Rae, what are you up to now? Leave that Red alone; he’s fine.”

Alan ran up behind him. “My gosh, is she really going to try to put him into that bag? That kid is goofy.” He guffawed at the sight of Rae with a grimy Army issue bag held wide open.

“Yeah, nothing like a mad cat in a bag!” Tate thought it hilarious right along with him.

“Come here, Red, come away from the road, here kitty, I’ve got something good for you, a big old smelly fish! We’ll swing in the tire swing, great fun!”

“Awww, geez,” Alan said, shaking his head.

“Rae come here, leave ole Red alone!” Tate called.

But Rae wanted to grab hold of that orange tabby cat. She had really taken to it. She stalked him as he sat by the side of the road. The boys watched to see who would win out and bet on Rae.

They could hear a vehicle coming down the road and thought it must be their mother. Rae glanced that way, too, then crept up to Red on tiptoe, the wide-mouthed bag held close. And Red jumped straight up when he saw it, eluded her as he dashed across the road like he was five years younger.

“No, you don’t!” she yelled and dashed after as the cat disappeared in weedy underbrush.

Tate saw the truck close in. A rusty, rattling truck that braked fast and hard full force. The driver’s face went slack, a kid not much older than they, racing down a country road on a perfect summer day, music blaring. But he saw her late.

Too late. Too late. She flew up a little, thin arms raised in surprise like a tossed rag doll’s, head thrown back with that sun bleached hair flying off her narrow, tanned back. Then she fell out of sight.

“Rae!” the brothers screamed in one terrible voice and ran.

The driver jumped from his truck. They pushed him aside, bent over her crumpled body. Blood came from somewhere they couldn’t identify and it spread into dirt and weeds as if it was only spilled juice, some bottle she’d held in her hand and dropped. It couldn’t be Rae’s. It couldn’t be her head cracked, her legs twisted. It had to be a nightmare. But she lay with her face to the side and her flesh was all so harmed. Emptied, even. Tate took the sunflower beach towel and lay it over her legs and touched her bleeding forehead, cried out without human sound and Alan got up and screamed for their father to come. But he was already there, he was falling into the road and as he scooped her up in his shaking arms, Rae was already leaving them.

******

The lake speaks to him like a wise one. It tells him to give himself up to the beauty, stay entirely alive. But the shore is lined with ghosts, not just Rae’s and their parents but Jenny Molson’s–she died at twenty-nine, haunted by that first death, while serving in the Army–and another playmate who had a heart attack at forty. This place holds things in the guts of the earth that he cannot name much less share. He thinks of the hearts of lake stones, how strong they must be to live on at the bottom, to endure the seasons and the errors of humans. He thinks of the ancient reeds that wave as his boat passes, how they know to lure fish and keep much more hidden. He thinks of the loons who infuse the waters and woods with a magic that cannot be stolen. All this is powerful balm every time he  comes, despite the stubborn ache.

Tate watches the cottage to make sure it is still there, that place they loved, played, were a family. The seam that held it all together came undone when Rae left them. The boys felt the emptiness like a sentence the rest of their growing up, and they had trouble carrying it even as they could not refuse its weight. But he thought Rae still ran along that shore, slipped in and out of the summer gilded water, flew with the passage of the sun. He can see her there sometimes, when afternoon light glints and beguiles, when other children are laughing as if nothing will ever be as good as that moment. And often this will be true in some way they cannot yet discern.

It may be time to tell Alice, if she is that much to him that her black cat could make him hurt again, want to flee in fear. But it was something he never could get over: that damned cat got away to safety, while their Rae died with her arms open–for nothing at all.

Her spirit lingered in their cottage, on the lake, among the trees and they told him to be still, wait. For her happy amazement to shake loose, be free. To unmoor himself (and Alan) from the long gone.

Maybe that was it, he thought, as he looked at his vibrating cell phone. Maybe joyous wonder was what she had to give–even to the last, even trying to catch a cat for a ride in a swing–and that’s what he had to remember. And let her be now. Release all cats of his insane blame. Forgive himself for not saving her. Somehow.

“Hello? Alice?…”

“Tate, Pepper got a part! Not the lead cat part but a fair part, at least.”

He laughed so softly she could barely hear him.

“I know, it’s minor in the real world of events, I get that, but–”

“No, no, good for you. Pepper…”

“It was something else, at least a hundred cats, can you imagine? It sort of creeped me out, too, but then we went in and–”

“Alice? Can you come up to the cottage? Right now. For the week-end?”

“Oh, I, well, I have Pepper, I’d love that but…”

“No, I mean with your movie star cat. We can get better acquainted, maybe, and she might like the country.”

The line was silent. Tate thought she’d hung up.

“Alright, we will! I’ll pack some things, get Pepper car-ready and we’ll be up in an hour. I’ll bring the cake I made yesterday. German Chocolate. Anything else?”

“Perfect. No, I’m good now.”

Tate hung up, reeled in nothing and headed back to the dock. June’s warm illumination slid across rippling water, over his face and body until he was giddy with it.

“Later, Rae,” he whispered and set a course for shore.

 

Welcome: A Coming Together

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As the days creep toward the holidays, there seems to be a cluster of fluttering moths convening in my center, nervy wings that startle and annoy. I am not usually an anxious person so could find no reason why it was happening. It took days to decipher but I’m onto the root cause: family. You might imagine I’d be sharp enough to understand this from the get-go, i.e. holidays and family equals love/wants/needs/complications. They arrive as a package deal. But I will have to face again the reality that all is seldom plummy perfection within hallowed halls of tradition and (most earnest) good will.

I have a decent-sized family, notable for its combinations of five: I am one among four other siblings (now three, as my oldest sister passed in April). Parent of five grown children. Grandparent of five grandchildren. There are more–nieces, nephews, in-laws, cousins too far away and so on. It’s like many constellations of relatives. Not all reside in my city, which is a shame, because I happen to like my family very much, most all the time.

But there are those particular moments that have come and gone, even likely to surface again. Or newly develop. Everyone is spectacularly themselves. Every person has traits beloved and others less pleasurable. Any room outfitted with persons who share a well-defined gene pool and/or personal histories can become a stage. And the many players get to suss out connected or opposing themes, elucidate unique thoughts. It gets sticky. It can get painful if one dwells on a snide remark. Perhaps even dislocating as a sad or embarrassing event is revisited by several–as if such times require detailed recall. But wait, holidays are supposed to be fun or at least congenial. Affectionately shared.

So is that what’s going on in there, this jumble of restlessness like bouncing balls looking for a target? It’s not simple but neither is the feeling impenetrable. The sudden flashes of uncertainty are emitted from a deeper source. I’ve turned this thought over and beneath it is the source: my own fears. They live within the gauzy, clinging mythology of family ties.

We grow up despite ourselves, I suspect, and when we get closer to a sense of personal cohesion we find there are still more loose ends. For years I nurtured a vision of my life and extended family built on ground I imagined as above a flood zone. Deep in the center of me resides a powerful belief that despite any difficulty life will prevail and do so beautifully. No one would drown if my will was involved. I was taught to maintain this regard for family. And always to show our best sides. But it hasn’t always been a rock solid or as fine a unit as I want to contend. Let’s face it: we all–meaning homo sapiens– have issues.

Another person who is pulled to family connectedness is a brother’s daughter, a fine amateur genealogist. She has excavated curious, fascinating bits and pieces over decades. Like my maternal grandfather Kelly, a farmer, being an enthusiastic inventor albeit with a hot temper that could alienate. Or a paternal distant cousin who was an opera singer and another, a travelling faith healer. Our blood ties us to stalwart, innovative German and poetic, resilient Irish-Scotch-English stock (if I may generalize a moment)–that is, all viewed in the best light. I claim my heritage, despite the anomalies. I have claimed myself as more or less acceptable despite spiritual trials, impulsive adventures and a few life and death scenarios. The tough stuff has been a not very honorable contribution to the family schemata. There are a few tales of those distanced or lost to our family, as well. We have absorbed tragedy and triumph as families do, with occasions of fanfare but often in quietness, with due respect.

Which brings me back to those pesky moments of anxiety about family. I mean to interrupt or allay them here–and hereafter.

I have a habit of daily taking stock of my thoughts and actions. I know my spiritual routine depends upon honesty, at least all I can summon. This arose somewhat from decades of life embedded in the landscape of recovery from alcoholism, but also from a childhood instilled with the ways of faith. No, rather sprung from faith, for I cannot recall a time when I did not feel responsible for the quality of my life and the impact it might have on others. I take my daily review seriously, yet know I am not alone in the inventorying. God’s wisdom shores me up; compassion rescues me from the rubble of errors. I can even laugh at my follies. One cannot upbraid one’s self without a dose of humor–lest we become self-flagellating and ego-intensive (a bore to even myself).

And yet… as I review all this, I root out that niggling of worry: will I hold up well enough, ensconced in peace during the annual gatherings, amid the  spectacle and sacredness and sumptuous feasts? I admit I am not a jolly cook (check the debit box); I mean all the rest which is, as you know, considerable.

The holidays are arriving, anyway, despite a sudden desire to hold them off. (Okay, we considered taking vacation but rejected the idea fast.) I am now just busy adapting to the dynamic mix of falling leaves, our deluges and November winds. I power walk daily for as long as desired. Languish in ordinary passages of time fraught with nothing more than the next story’s opening paragraph, a movie with a friend or a short grocery trip. I feel wistful already for the hours of writing and solitary mornings, the evenings during which my husband and I dissect TV commercials and show scripts, share music discovered on radio or a few lines in a book. There is comfort in knowing what’s coming each day. There is comfort in not having to explain myself much. Or tick off endless items on a list.

Oh, why can’t I get to the point? The anxiety comes from wondering if I have, in actual fact, built a life on whole truth or not: have I been a good enough mother? Have I been kind to others, not just at holidays but most days? There, it is said. Have I been enough. A good grandmother and sister? I think of our children who will be here and wonder if there will be what they need and want. Will they still be reasonably pleased with our home and food, the gifts chosen, the conversations embraced, the events I want to include them in? And what of those not here? I think of them all year, in specific ways during holidays, and wonder if they truly miss us. (One is a chaplain. Is she also a bit frayed at Christmas?)

Or will I be found… wanting? And why, at sixty-five, does it matter much what my children think? Well, I’m a mother who loves her own wildly yet steadfastly. But I have also been an individual who has not always pleased them.

Years ago, so long that these events are close to forgotten (if my reaction was not), I got a couple of letters at different times from a biological child and a child brought to me by marriage. They had decided to clue me in. On my errors. Page after page informed me of their displeasure, how my faults had impacted them and a couple of bigger decisions caused insecurity or hurt. How my drinking (a few years off and on, toxic times despite my being “high functioning”, as my profession calls it) had caused heartache. Disbelief and a torrent of sorrow scooped me up. I couldn’t imagine that children to whom I gave so much, whom I loved beyond measure, could pronounce seeming judgement. They had held onto anger, and asked me to listen to their personal baggage, their hard work of growth. Apparently part of the journey included their viewpoints  of me delineated, then held up like mirrors into which I was to unblinkingly gaze.

It worked. I registered their pain. I closed dreamed of their childhoods: wonders and crises, mountains of laundry finished at midnight, the emergency room visits. And awake, I berated myself–and then, them. I sank a couple inches into that swamp of mothering misery. Until my merciful sisters responded to my calls.

The first sister: “They were being quite brave and expecting you to be, too. Remarkably, they trust you enough to speak and be heard. I don’t think they intended to so hurt you…they know how you love them; you know they love you.”

I balked. “Do they? Love me? Do they really know I would do anything for them and have? Can they imagine my life at all or must I just witness theirs?” I wiped away tears, regaining a bit of dignity. “Because I don’t get this brand of honesty. Do they take such measure of their lives?”

The other sister: “No, kids don’t know how much a parent has to manage until they become one… and no, they cannot imagine your life. We can’t fully know theirs, either…and thank goodness. But they’re responsible and caring; they want to live right. You sure helped teach them all that.”

Thank God for my sisters. It took awhile to staunch the seepage from sharp words. Those which held me so responsible, asked me to be more aware, showed me they were working to find their places in our family and even within my embrace. And as citizens of a greater and harsher world. I searched myself and gained insight. I had to let the rest go. And lest you suspect my children ghoulish or at least seriously insensitive, let me give full disclosure. They did and still do offer me deep care and tenderness, joy and affection. Heck, they call me, text me, hug me! I yet find them all wondrous, worthy in and of themselves. It’s part of this mothering job, but it is also a privilege and blessing.

I recall when my mother died shortly after I turned fifty-one. The loss was unfathomable, a grief beyond my ken. I realized I was basically an orphan (my father had died years before). There was much we hadn’t experienced together, told each other, come to better terms with or understood well. I had questions. But we may never have been done, of course. There is only a certain amount we can know of another’s life, even family members. And who is to say we must know much less understand everything, anyway? Our words fall from our mouths and land where they like. Our actions are well-considered, or not. It all gets interpreted. Our lives entwine with many; a number are our historical, blood family. And we can choose to let certain things be or make them more complicated. Difficult. The mystery of love is that it exists, even thrives despite mistakes or demands, separations or regrets.

It seems I entered earth’s atmosphere with a drive to do more, be better. Yet I have floundered and stumbled, fallen far many times. The hope that I have held onto is that I can make amends, repair downed bridges, learn how to make stronger the points of stress within me that weaken. I have it on good authority I am not alone in this seeking. It is a human dilemma. We all are in the same fix, creating a whole life from many parts we are given. I want still to be a useful, compassionate person. A good woman made of vibrant colors and designs.

A very good mother who is a constant. The caring goes without saying–as do disagreements that may come along. If I still sometimes fear letting my family down, it is part of the territory. I accept I am miles from flawless. I am full of spirit, too, which originates in the eternal Light of God. I am tethered to this magnificent love; it keeps me grounded, even overflows. It is a fortunate thing, as I’ve found it takes a certain courage to consciously hold one’s place in a family whatever it consists of–to take the knocks, mishaps, other gaps in stride. We are part of one another, after all, through the thick and thin of it. And we  never know when it will be our last celebration, as it was for my adored oldest sister.

So bring on the holidays, after all. I’ll be alright and better. I already long for those who will not be here, those passed over or just absent. I’ll light clusters of white candles, hold them up in prayer. But I am preparing for the good times as I start to plan. This quivering I feel is also anticipation, a growing excitement. It indicates a rising up of my soul as it accumulates energy. It will leap up, embrace others as it has before. Dare to be present among them, just as I am. My holidays will be well come, then soon gone again. I hope you, kind reader, find many ways to share your times of abundant heart and soul. 

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