Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: What a Woman Gives a Man

What is given by a woman to a man

cannot be returned or exchanged.

It’s no silvery-wrapped first edition book,

no amber jar of healing herbs,

or a magnifying glass that clarifies fine print.

Anything given is what is intended,

not what is imagined, longed for, misplaced.

Her laughter can be a caress over aching temples,

her kiss a great mystery of heat and cold.

A woman’s quietness may seem a retrieval of peace

or a withholding–she may be dreaming. Or emptied.

Her passionate rebuttal may sound as insult or denial;

but she is using skills to illuminate, navigate.

And her eyes locked on a man’s may glow like fires

in a dark wood–they are alight with more to be revealed.

All the years she offers up, receives, makes do, anchors family

may appear as bartering, doing duty if not deep affection.

But it is love that kindles everything in life;

she carries it, or not; you carry it, or not.

It lives inside each gesture and word or it is abandoned.

What she gives is wholly herself, in shards or repaired;

there is a critical point before there came that yes.

That said, it is abundance for you whether you find

it enough or worthy, or pronounce it something else.

What is given by a woman may even be overlooked

though she keeps doing and being as she can.

But all the rest–no matter how little or much–

she keeps close, is hers until the end.

Hair@2, Tailor@3:30, Reading@7

Moon-Flower2

As Eva stared at the cracked ceiling, her throat tightened but it was not her soft navy plaid scarf pulled too tight. She was feeling things. She’d so regretted that her very grown up children had never seen her act, specifically not in any role other than that of “mother.” And, of course, that was not an act but a daily devotion, a way of living, a tale made of scenes whose very genesis was unknown to any of them. They had not witnessed her life on any stage other than the most pedestrian, the household on Tremont Street. It had often worried her, that the three of them wouldn’t realize how she loved being an actress long before they came along. But now instead of regret, a chill along her spine telegraphed terror to her crowded consciousness.

Eva lay with neck against the cold curve of a shampoo sink at her favorite salon. The stylist’s gentle massage of hair follicles loosened a few memories, emotions she had kept at bay for weeks. It wasn’t meant to be so important. It had started out as a whim, this foray into drama, a silly bet between friends. She had seen the ad for auditions at the community theatre, then her best friend had challenged her and Eva had tried out. And gotten a small part. But no one knew about it except Nils and he thought it was just for fun, too. Until she ended up liking it far more than any of them had planned. Well, Eva knew better. She knew that once she got out there, the passion reignited as she felt the heat of the lights and heard that applause, it would be too late to turn back.

She remembered how the two boys, Dean and Todd, and their sister, Cam, had made up plays, dragging out her scarves, a box of old clothes kept readied for donations to charity, odds and ends they pulled from drawers and closets to design a set. It might be a remake of a fairy tell one week, a story of their own making, often confusing and lengthy, or a puppet show. Eva always jumped right in, trying to improve on their designs or themes, employing her sewing skills at times, showing them how to tweak a walk or speech until finally, when Cam was ten, they forbade her to take part. When Eva, astonished by their lack of gratitude, asked why, the answer was simple: “It’s our’s, mom. You get to watch, though.”

And they were right. It wasn’t her story or mini-production, nor her privilege. So she never told them she used to act, how she had left southwestern Michigan for Chicago and took acting lessons and began to get good parts. How she had been planning on succeeding as she knew well she had a strong will, even at twenty. And then she’d met their father’s eyes across a gleaming lobby, then across a dinner table at a restaurant, then… Well, in due course, Nils and she made changes they could not have foretold at that initial eye-to-eye rhapsodic moment.

Her head was swaddled in a fluffy white towel and she was led to a swivel chair. The wind rattled the building’s ancient windows and she imagined it might snow, luxurious, dangerous drifts of it covering roadways so no one could get to the theatre. It would be a reprieve if nature intervened. This was not feeling wonderful, not at all. What had she been thinking?

Vi, her hairdresser, smiled at her in the mirror. Eva tried to avoid seeing herself; she looked like a cousin to a wet chicken. It was her eyes, looking too small, unblinking as mild shock registered and her public persona vanished. The washing always erased part of her protection and left her vulnerable to random pricks and pinches of life, she thought, and so she looked down. She felt too much, that’s what it was, and she couldn’t hide it without help. A lifelong problem.

“So, the usual?”

Eva nodded, tried on a smile.

“Even with the big to-do tonight? I thought you’d want elegant or daring. You still have pretty, long hair. How about an updo? It’s soon to be New Year’s Eve!”

Eva froze. “Grey hair, long or not, is still grey hair… don’t change anything, Vi. There’ll be enough for the family to contend with as I step on stage. They may slink out as soon as the lights go down as it is.”

Vi put hands on hips and cocked her own pink-haired head. “No way! They’ll at least be happy for you. I’m happy for you, girl. Not a bad move at all, you trying out for that play and now this–what is it? Some reading, you said?”

“Reader’s theatre. We read from scripts on stage, but not with scenery and all the frills. It’s…well, spare, which can make a story more intense.”

Vi snipped locks here and there, then turned the chair. “I never saw anything like that. Might be interesting. Like radio? You see it in your head? No, that’s not right, you’re on stage…well, the important thing is it’s you, their mother, up there.”

“It is rather like radio, how smart to think of it. But what is something is that my husband will be coming. He didn’t get to the play.”

“Really? Why not?”

“He was away on business.”

“Ah.” Snipsnipsnip. “He’s always on business, isn’t he? I mean, so you say, often.”

Eva was spun back around to face the mirror. She could barely see herself through long bangs she had grown out.

“Yes, nothing new.”

“Well, this will be a change, then.”

Eva thought, yes, that’s the problem, we are not about surprises, but gave a half-smile from beneath the fall of hair and fell silent.

After her hair was dried and Vi had convinced her to try the updo and Eva saw it suited her well, she left and headed to the tailor’s. The new dress she had splurged on didn’t fit quite right on the curve of the left hip, the curve that she found more generous than she had expected. She pushed open the door and a pleasant bell announced her arrival. Mr. Avanti rushed forward.

“Mrs. Wainright, hello. Your beautiful raspberry dress is ready. Let me get it so you can try it on.”

In the dressing room she shivered and held the fabric up close–her dress was burgundy, so why the dreadful comparison to a child’s crayon? But once she stepped into the flourescent light, she saw what he meant. It looked like a somewhat deeper raspberry sorbet that she sometimes indulged in. It wasn’t quite what she had wanted but it was unique.

As she stepped up and before the mirror, Mr. Avanti shook his small, neat head, a grin changing his face from merely lined and pallid with weariness to nearly incandescent.

“You see, it fits well now, just skims the body, and how right for you, this color!”

Eva looked at the three-view mirror, saw her left side (the seam corrected so it fell against her full thigh without any error), then her right (quite the same as the other), then full-on. Was she like an ice cream cone turned upside down, perhaps?

“The color, a little young? A little garish?” she asked.

“Lively, good drama, if you are asking, Mrs. Wainright.”

“I wonder…Nils likes me in classic clothing, you know, neutral shades. Mostly navy, grey, ivory, black. Or tweedy, even, if you recall his taste…” She made a little face, then laughed to herself.

“Yes, ma’am.” His own expression was replaced by a pensive look.

“But it’s for an event, did I tell you?”

“Yes, New Year’s Eve tonight. In an hour I go home to prepare for mine.”

“How lovely. You and Mrs. Avanti going out dancing?”

He blushed, enough so that Eva felt foolish being so personal.

“Yes, true, we are going to the ballroom, we love to dance all night.”

Eva studied him, then the dress and murmured, “Wonderful, you are probably very good at it.” She ran her fingers over the draping neckline, thought it a bit low. The jersey fabric was silky, graceful.

He nodded, then rechecked seams, hem, the fit of shoulders. “All perfect, and the color…may I say, he will like it.”

Eva turned to him. “It’s for a performance I am in. A sort of theatrical thing, you see. He hasn’t seen me in something quite like this, at least not for decades! And my children will even be there.” Eva felt the sudden pulsing pressure of tears against the rims of her eyes so turned back to the mirrors, then composed herself, stood taller, head up, lips pressed together until they were pale and thin.

“That is remarkable, performing! Very good, Mrs. Wainright, no worries, you are a vision!” He cleared his throat. “I mean, a good dress, very well-made for you.”

“Yes, perhaps.” She breathed in and out slowly, commanded the tears to recede. Her reflection nodded gratefully back at his reflection. “You did such a fine job. I must hurry now.”

“Indeed, big night. A new year!”

Eva changed back into black jeans and boots and sweater and sat on the little bench. Her heart was fluttering. Was she having stage fright before she even got there? No way was that going to get her. She exited fitting room, and paid for the alteration.

“Happy New year, Mr. Avanti!”

“Happy New Year, have a splendor night!”

Eva sat back in her car and chuckled at his kind error of speech. Splendid, not splendor, yet maybe that’s what he meant. It would be above and beyond her hopes to have any splendor happen, to feel like it was a risk worth taking, that her family would truly appreciate it. Even find her good enough to be proud.

But this performance was first and last not even for Nils, not for Todd and Dean and Cam. It was for herself. It was her desire to act, her dream reclaimed. She hoped it was a real thing, something she could pursue even now, in a small way. She had started off in the community theatre, down this acting path, a few months ago. Had said nothing to most people, not even her children. Until last week.

Of course, Nils had been informed early on, as he would notice her absences–when he was around. At first surprised and annoyed that she’d be gone much more often, he finally said it was a relief that she’d located an outlet for her “restless energy, for all those latent creative tendencies now that you are in retirement.” Which meant he’d missed the point, didn’t understand her so well as she thought, and had seemed to forget what real acting had meant to her long ago. But at least he hadn’t complained. He uncharacteristically held her close more than a moment and even kissed her before ambling off in search of his new pipe.

It was an early performance, as it was dinner theatre. There would be drinks and appetizers at the forty-odd scattered round tables as the actors gathered on the smallish but atmospherically-lit stage. They were reading an assemblage of poems about winter, the tendency towards rest, the hibernation that precedes transformation. Changes that cannot always be named until they are upon us. The new year rising up in the deep, wide wake of the old, the future unfolding even in the passage of this moment.

Eva had loved this idea from the start, even suggested a few poems and prose excerpts. Since she was on the board of All Girls to Women, the charity to which they were giving all donations, they had encouraged her to participate in the development of the program. At least she suspected that was it at first. But in time she heard some good words, even encouragement to pursue more acting possibilities. She had grown under her new friends’ tutelage and support. But that didn’t mean she felt perfectly prepared. Freed of queasiness that dogged her right up to the last minutes.

The boys were coming from the north end of town, Cam from the east and would meet Nils there. Eva left long before Nils, after he had admired her in the raspberry dress and new heels, an unusual purchase. She’d felt relieved, a little more confident. She could do this thing ahead of her, then maybe more. But she was happier leaving the house than she was upon entering the restaurant. It seemed insane that she could allow herself to be made a fool.

Any second thoughts were dispersed as she waved at her cheerful cohorts. They circled up and headed to the dressing room to do some relaxation exercises. Everything was set; she was as ready as she would be.

They soon gathered together back stage and waited for their cue. The crowd beyond coughed, chattered, sipped and ate while they tried to steady their heads and hands. Recessed lights dimmed above the tables and spots of blue and silver bloomed on the small stage. The MC introduced the group and the crowd welcomed them as the four of them walked on, then sat on stools set before podiums. After relative silence settled about them, the first reader, a man, stood and let his baritone voice tell of the strange richness of winter nights, the brittle brightness of its mornings, the way we wrap ourselves up in comforts and people and wait out the waiting, the lengthy and trying drear of the season.

Eva was ready for her turn in the sequence of poems and prose. She saw nothing, no one beyond the stage. She leaned forward into the faceless space, spoke deliberately, then let emotion mold each phrase as she surrendered to the poetry: a prophecy of new beginnings amid tenacious remnants of the past, every syllable a promise of more enchantments, the soul of each stanza a fragrant balm. She closed her eyes and it was as if her powerful voice rose from a place too long forgotten, from a life that was bigger and far better than she was. And she again fell in love with this, the longing to act, even as it fell for her.

And so it went, forty-five minutes of readings, the audience responding, clapping and whistling, then again silent and breathless, then erupting once more.

Backstage, Eva found herself not wanting to emerge from the tiny room where they had prepared. The others rushed off after congratulating each other, gone to loved ones and other special affairs. But then a sharp rap landed on the door and she opened it.

“Mother, that was lovely, really good!” Cam hugged her quickly and tightly.

“Great stuff, I had no idea!” Todd, more reticent, patted her on the back, then put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed a second.

“Mom, why have you hidden such talents from us all these years?” Dean lifted her nearly off her feet with his bear hug, then stood back a few paces. “Is that why you were so attentive to our make-believe?”

Eva felt herself unwind under their fondness and laughed and talked with them readily. It was good, such appreciation, their coming to witness her efforts and finding them acceptable. She knew they wouldn’t have hurt her for the world, good work or not.

And then she caught sight of Nils at the door.

He stood motionless, not watching their family, not speaking, but simply staring at her as if she was a rarity, a ruby throated hummingbird right next to him, a night-blooming moon flower, an exotic jewel. Eva stopped talking, let their three lively adult children chatter on. She crossed the room and stood before him, just a foot between them, warm breath mixing with his. He took her forearms in his hands and slowly pulled her to him.

“Hello, Eva,” he whispered in her ear. “Dear, darling Eva, so glad to have you back.”

“Yes,” she whispered back, “hello, Nils, here I am.”

It seemed they stood together with eyes closed an eternity in that embrace, and it must have been, for when they looked around they saw the room held no children, and the dim hallway was empty. Eva put her arm around Nils’ waist and he, hers, and they walked out, closing the door firmly behind them.

Moon-Flower-in-Full-Bloom

Ava’s Running Late

 

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The years had breezed by but it wasn’t long enough. Ava came because Aunt Lou had called, her voice husky with cigarette smoke. She agreed they had seen one another in Chicago three years ago but she wanted her niece to visit “before I head out to the store and never return”. It was their private joke that Aunt Lou would likely drop dead when walking home with two bags of groceries, nothing dignified. Milk and prune juice spilled everywhere. She was down-to-earth, her only close aunt. Before the joke had made Ava laugh. This time the bronzed skin on her forearms prickled. Aunt Lou was aging faster than Ava.

“Your ten-year high school reunion will be going on. You have to come!”

Ava, in fact, had taken her name off the Middleton High School Alumni notification list six months ago. She didn’t care to be reminded she was from Garver with its clusters of uniform trees and rows of square houses. Her life there had begun to fade the day she left town. Once Ava’s mother, trying to keep her abreast of news, had sent her a news clipping of Ava’s oldest, best friend. He was the same man, yet so different in a Navy uniform. Ava had left it on the dining room table several days, trying hard to discern the person she had once known, then she had thrown it away. But the image remained, a mark on her memory that refused to be erased.

The day Ava arrived a  passing thunderstorm had spread a sheen on Garver. The worn-out town sparkled like a wallflower dressed up for a summer party. Its familiar simplicity gave rise to a rush of nostalgia as she drove down Mallard Street. It frightened her a bit. She saw ancient Mrs. Jesson at a window of Jesson’s Hardware. The woman stopped polishing the glass and eyed the yellow Miata that Ava drove. She crept along; this week-end the cops would be prowling. The pavement steamed in the heat. Ava put her window up and cranked the air conditioner. 

Aunt  Lou’s house was painted teal now instead of tan. It looked good enough to eat with flower baskets hanging from the porch and two rockers set out, the same ones they all had enjoyed before but brick red. Her throat felt as if it was closing up. She gulped chill air, then parked and got out.

“Ava, Ava Lillian Huntley!” Aunt Lou called as she rushed to her niece. They collided in an embrace. “I can’t believe you’ve come home, at long last!”

Their skin stuck to each other’s as they linked arms, the sweat releasing Lou’s natural sweetness, something Ava hadn’t noticed from anyone else. On the porch Uncle Travis waved from his wheelchair. She bent down to embrace him.

“Ava,” he said, “you’re ever punctual. Still, this day is overdue. But you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“Uncle, you were always gracious. You thankfully haven’t changed.”

“You must be exhausted! Wash up, Ava, and then come sit. I’ll fetch drinks and start dinner as we gab.”

********

The next day, the air held a promise of cooler temperatures. Even the birds were energized as they trilled and flitted here to there. Aunt Lou gave Ava a short list and sent her off.

“Don’t hurry! I’m sure you’ll want to look around. Call some friends, dear, get a coffee.”

It was one thing to have a family tree whose branches are sturdy and bear pretty good fruit, but another to wander among the others. She felt a need to sneak about. Ava had little desire to attend the reunion though it seemed a foregone conclusion.

She posted some bills for Aunt Lou at the post office when a woman with pimply cheeks and ash blond hair rushed up.

“Ava? That you? My gosh, you look even better than you did at eighteen! I’m Fran Cullin, now Ritter–oh, you remember? You’re coming tonight, of course, dinner and dance at Embers Lodge?”

With a wave, Ava shifted into first and headed to the grocery. Without being further waylaid, she made it to a parking spot, then sat looking about.

Someone let loose a flirtatious whistle. Ava clenched the steering wheel.

“Fancy car! A little small for my taste but cute.”

A voluminous man held out a broad paw and helped her out, then re-settled his baseball cap. “You remember me, right? Tom Duluth? I was a friend of–”

Ava kept moving as she glanced at him. “Yes, I do know you! ” She smiled as though pleased. “Nice to see you. I’m doing some errands…”

“Sorry your mother passed.”

He took off his cap and folded it in his hands. His courtesy stopped her.

“I read about it. We all knew she moved to Farwell after you left. Tough, the cancer.”

“Yes, thank you.” Ava felt perspiration pause halfway down her back and wished she had worn the linen top, not a dress. The sun was unforgiving despite the cool start of day. She wiped her brow. “That was five years ago, yes, she’s long gone.” She smiled wider, teeth bared just enough. “I’m so sorry, Tom, I have stuff to do for my aunt but perhaps later.”

“Lou and Travis, good people. Okay. See you tonight then. I hope.” His gaze burrowed into her chest, then he shifted his bulky frame and lumbered off.

On the way back she idled at a stop sign. Her eye was drawn to shadowy patterns on the park grass, a glint of river beyond. She loved water, lived on the lakeshore in Chicago. She wanted to sit at a picnic table and breathe small town air, really more rural than town. She hesitated, wondering about nearby Bathwell House, but felt it must have been torn down by now. After seeing new wooden benches she parked and sat close to Keep’s River. Listened to it tripping and twirling over rocks.

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For some, the soundtrack of their youth was made of a certain band or hit song they’d saved up to purchase. For Ava it was the river. They had lived on a quarter acre by Keep’s River in a bungalow her mother inherited from her grandparents. It made their lives easier since Cass Huntley was a single mom. But it was the river that made the difference to Ava. She had spent much of her childhood and youth at its banks, exploring the woods, making friends of birds and rabbits, turtles and frogs.

It struck her as it often did what a peculiar twist of fate had made her a junior executive in the fragrance business. Knee-deep in muck and rocky waters she had been happy. Now she was financially secure and, if not happy, at least felt good about her future, pleased with her independence.

Ava scrutinized a muddy pathway, then got up and walked at its edges toward Bathwell House. Despite her anxiety, she’d wanted to see it ever since she’d arrived. Find out if it was even there or if they had built a concrete block apartment complex in its place or a new house. If so, what a relief. She’d take a peek, then go.

The muddy spots slowed her but she came upon it so fast she thought it couldn’t be the same place. It had been a long walk as a kid. It had stood on a quiet corner with pride even as it began to corrode from neglect. The town mayor’s home in the early twentieth century, it had been abandoned by the family when he was ousted and sent off to jail for bribery. No one wanted it then.

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Now it looked as though someone had tried to destroy it but was just short of failing. As if years of hard weather had worked its terrible magic on it, only to miserably hang on, crumbling amid weeds. Ava walked around the corner to see the rest. Her chest tightened; breathing quickened. Maybe it wouldn’t be intact, just obscured by time and rot. She would leave Garver without any more thought of it.

A rock rolled down the side gravel road and she startled. There was no one afoot, only a car pulling out of the road. She could see two stories better here. The pitch of roof was irrevocably damaged as the roof itself threatened a descent. Moss clung to shingles. Windows were bleak holes. Doors had no doorways. Ava looked up at a second story window. There was something, a flash of movement as it fell into darkness. A bird, she decided.

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And then she saw the barest path to the sign.

Steven and she had been there ten years earlier, after the graduation party. The empty house had long hosted keggers and make out sessions. There had been three other couples but one by one they left. Steven and Ava sat in a glassless window and scanned the sky. There was a slice of moon bright as a smile, and the Big Dipper spilled more star-studded darkness. They imagined Orion’s strength and decided a shooting star was really an S.O.S. They talked of nothing and anything. Steven and she had been friends since they were eight.

“I wondered if you’ll still call me.” He sounded odd. Uncertain.

Ava laughed and pushed her shoulder into his. “Of course. How else will I deal with all the grueling work and snooty clicks?”

Steven nudged her back. “You have nothing to worry about. I’m the one with dyslexia. Ill need to lay off weed. Want a hit?”

Ava shook her head. She wanted to etch the night onto her mind. One more week and they would be gone, in pursuit of something else. They’d write, talk, meet up on holidays–how could they not after all these years?

She laid her head on his shoulder. He smelled of tangy sweat and a hint of Zest soap (“Really, why Zest? No one buys Zest!” she’d told him but he’d shrugged) and green things. Dirt. Nothing mattered but that moment, the peace they shared, immersed in rudimentary astronomy. Ava felt as if she was passing into a timeless zone where she and Steven moved among stars. She knew she had to hold it close. Nothing would be the same when they left. It hurt her to know it.

And then Steven turned her face to his, grasped her shoulders and kissed her so hard her teeth started to ache.

Ava fell backwards and hit her shoulder first, then her chin as she rolled. His hand was pressing her back, then her hip as he leaned over her.

“Ava, are you okay? Man, I didn’t think a kiss would do that! But I felt it, too….”

She sat up. “What? No, of course I’m not okay! What do you think you’re doing? Since when do you try that on me? Aren’t we best friends?”

He bent down and helped her up, then enfolded her in his arms.

“Ava, please–it’s me here, Steven!”

He held her too tightly, her round breasts flattened against his damp, broad chest, her legs half-tangled in his. His lips grazed her neck, nose, forehead.

Ava planted her hands on his chest and pushed with all her might. He resisted, then loosened his grip. She tore away, stood several feet from him, hands clenched at her sides.

“What, Ava? Huh?” he asked. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you know?”

She shook her head over and over. He then saw her become very still then, a statue that could have been a ghost. It unnerved him. Her face disappeared in the dark but he knew it was crimson.

“Really? You, of all people! Haven’t I had to fight too many off? You, the person I trust more than anyone! That’s why we’re best friends, Steven. We know each other, care about each other.”

“Exactly! Ava, please.”

She emitted a low growl of anger and frustration. “Then why did you have to screw everything up? You’re scaring me, Steven…”

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And before she completely lost it and yelled and cried, she ran down the sagging, creaking stairs, out the door, and into the road.

It was a bitter night with no sleep. And in the morning she did not answer his calls. Not the next day or week. She packed for college. But before she left she listened to his last message on her phone.

“Go to the spot where there’s that piece of wood that was a sign, nailed to the tree. Please do that much. Miss you. Forever.”

But there was no time. She never saw the sign. They hadn’t spoken since.

Now she parted weeds, walked around poison oak and laden blackberry bushes until she came to the place where she thought the sign must have been, might be now. And it was there. Ava’s hands crossed her chest, then she folded her arms about her and despite her intentions, despite time passing and success and losses huge and insignificant and things learned the hardest ways, her heart pulsed hard, then folded into a deep ache she didn’t know was still there.

“I’m sry” the sign read in his truncated sentence.

“I am stupidly, completely sorry, too,” she cried out, then ran back to the park, got in her car and drove fast down the streets, vision blurred, not caring in the least that a siren wailed behind her, the police car flashing its lights as if she was some fugitive, a woman running for her life. Ava hated being late, especially ten long years late. She was going to make this right.

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??????????

 

 

 

 

In Good Time

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We had been talking as we walked near the edge of a cliff, catching glimpses of the Columbia River muscling its way through rocky landscape below. It was hotter in the mountains than I’d expected, and there was a steady stripe of sweat from my neck to my waist, a rim of damp on my upper lip and forehead. Carissa seemed cool as can be, walking briskly, her white flats clicking on the asphalt. I couldn’t believe she had worn a dress, a pretty one at that, as though she was attending a garden party. Well, I could believe it. She’d be perfect at a table set for tea and scones. It was just her. I wondered if she had another set of clothing in her trunk for the hike.

I was anxious to get off the walkway and tackle the trail to the waterfalls. We had waited a more than reasonable, red-hot hour. I’d shared my water bottle since she had forgotten hers. Matt and Grant had said they’d join us for a little prayer, a good work-out on the trail and refreshments. I’d packed four peanut butter sandwiches and Fuji apples and was getting hungry already. Carissa had brought trail mix just in case but the chocolate drops had started to melt all over the almonds. Still, it took a strong will to not grab the baggie with the mix from her and scarf down a couple handfuls.

She frowned and wriggled as I swatted a spider from her shoulder.

“I wish I knew why they weren’t here, Margo. I tried hard to accommodate their schedules. I know Matt worked this morning but Grant…well, he always wants to see me.” She turned to me with the smallest smile, like she was embarrassed. “It’s almost a problem.”

I shrugged. “Grant can be a nuisance but he’s okay. I think it’s all that wavy blond hair accented by baby blue eyes. He likes attention and you just give it to him.”

“Well, I didn’t say it was a bad problem. Just an inconvenience at times. But you would think the least he’d do is be here on time.” She looked around. “Just be here with me, us…”

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I sat under an ancient, gargantuan tree and fanned myself with a trail map. After a big gulp of water, I handed it to Carissa but she declined, leaning back on her hands, ankles crossed. Tiny scratches crisscrossed her feet and calves. They looked mean on her ivory skin.

It was Matt, Grant’s twin, I tried not to think about. He was as much like Grant as a plum was like a pickle. Broad of shoulder and big of spirit, he had what my mother called color. Everything he did was either fun or verging on sly. Carissa said he was a scamp. I thought he was a bit like a bee, flitting flower to flower, but hopefully no pollination was going on. That would have disappointed me. But you never knew with Matt what the consequences of his choices would be. It kept it interesting as far as I was concerned.

We had all been schooled in what was important in life, what was right and wrong. Even I didn’t always know what it all meant and my uncle was a minister. If truth be told, I was inclined toward very human thoughts and doings yet I never doubted my security in the good Lord’s arms. Uncle Travis said it best: I had an understanding with God from birth. That meant I felt close to God and tried hard to live up to expectations but I had questions and ideas. If I failed anyone, so be it. God kept the door open from what I could tell. I wasn’t prone to much rugged worry.

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Carissa, though, she had a fear of things, of spiders and eating too much and sneezing loud, or giggling in the middle of church. She feared not getting on the honor roll, wearing one item of clothing twice in the same week. Once she was upset she had left out the butter so it began to liquefy. I didn’t understand it and I had known her most of our lives. Still, she was a good kid. I was older by ten months and bigger so naturally I felt protective.

So when she started to fuss as time hemmed and hawed and stretched into an hour and fifteen minutes but still no boys, I took her cool hands in mine and said, “Look, let’s hit the trail. It’ll be cooler down in the trees and we can sit by the waterfall and eat. They couldn’t make it, I guess. We could try calling them, but…”

“No, let’s go.”

She smoothed back her wispy bangs and lifted her chin. I worried about her flats and told her so but she was unconcerned. We started down the incline gingerly, the gravel rolling off the dirt. I was in front and twice she grabbed me as she slipped. I hesitated. All we needed was an accident, her dress ruined, shins fully bloodied. The path soon leveled off and was beaten hard so we kept on. My t-shirt was soaked in back and my chest felt prickly. A mess is what I was, but the woods were thick with greenness and everything glowed in the afternoon light. The ferns, slugs and mushrooms, the lichen clinging to nurse logs, the breeze sweetening: I was in heaven. I fell into a pleasing rhythm and forgot to watch over Carissa.

It was a good trek into the dappled cool of the forest. As we descended towards the snaky creek and rounded a curve, waterfalls seemingly dropped from the brilliant sky, parting the rocks. They called out to us with happy music. I could see one fall mixing with another and wished I could slide right down them into the sapphire pool below.

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At the bridge I turned to Carissa. She was leaning against the railing, staring into the creek.

“I came here to celebrate another day with the Lord, but nobody’s here…” she said in a near-whisper.

Really, I thought I heard her wrong. I studied her perspiring face, the corners of her downturned mouth, her chest heaving as she tried not to cry. What I saw shook me up.

“What?”

“No one came.”

“I’m here, Carissa. I’m always here, if you think about it.”

She propped her chin in her hands, then squeezed her eyes tight. “Yes, but…”

“And God’s here, right under your nose. ”

“I guess. Yes, of course. Still.”

The water roared like a playful creature. I found I couldn’t hear Carissa anymore. I crossed the bridge, climbed up thirty-two railroad ties with muscles straining so hard I thought I’d have to stop, but didn’t. I had to keep going. Finally I arrived at the top platform overlooking Bridal Veil falls. My heart was banging but I felt strong, good, like I had gained stamina along the way. I stood alone but it didn’t bother me at all. Here was creation and it was amazing to behold. It hit me that I was at home, where I belonged.

When I finally turned to see if Carissa was joining me, I heard my name called. There came Matt running down the trail, just Matt, his hands waving like crazy at me. Carissa stood alone at the bridge, her mouth open, arms wide, palms up as he passed her by. It made me sad to see her there in that pretty aqua dress and dusty flats. But I guess the right time is when things happen of their own accord. That’s how God sends us a little message. At least, that’s how I see it. Carissa–she’ll find her own faith sooner or later. I’ll likely be around to offer her a hand if she wants it.

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