Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Garage Living

photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Hello readers. There were a few problems with WordPress yesterday so I’ve posted one written several years ago. Themes are somewhat timely, though without the virus impact…I hope you enjoy it.


As Clark opened the double doors to air things out, in rushed a gust of damp, dead leaf odor. He couldn’t win. He thought if he got busy with something his newly inflated misery would be deflated some. It had been six months since they had moved to this broad street with friendly looking houses but now all he could ever see was the rain. It had let up some in the last hour but it was still ever-present and irksome, like the projects he never got around to finishing. Like fixing the second-hand cabinet Mina wanted in their master bathroom. The door needed new hinges and a fresh coat of ivory paint–Milkweed White, she called it. Nothing taxing, so this chore was his goal for the day. But how can you be successful in such dampness? It’d take days to dry.

He reached a hand to the top of a door and stood there, the other in his left worn khaki pocket; a corner of his upper lip betrayed mild disgust. Anyone passing might think he was a well-bred fellow, a man who knew how to take charge–he was taller than many, for one thing, and moved or stood still as if he meant it–a man who had a decent job and was just taking a day off because he’d earned it and why not?

Instead, he was a man without a job, having been let go before they moved. They sold their house in California as soon as Mina got a far better job in Oregon. Life was supposed to be cheaper, more relaxed here, but he wasn’t so sure. The expectation, of course, was that he would get employment as soon as possible. But the insurance industry market seemed different here, though he frankly didn’t care about that line of work much. Yet he definitely was a resistant handyman/house husband. Mina went off to work as Nurse Midwife each morning, nearly whistling. But that was not different from before.

“Where is the stupid damned Phillips screwdriver?” He rifled through things on his creaky workbench; it was hiding under the previous owner’s old washer warranty and a handful of bent nails. He tossed it all into the wastebasket.

Clark could hear Mina tsk tsk over his language as he unscrewed four rusting hinges, cleaned the wood beneath them, then loaded the paintbrush from a newly opened can. She was quite proper in her speaking while he was tried to recall mannerly rules. But, then, they were so different in every way, it was a wonder that they had made it fifteen years.

Mina grew tired of the sunny palette of California while he had found himself utterly adapted after a month. She liked more variety while he liked the constancy so it followed that for him routine was appreciated and for her, spontaneity was needed. Clark liked essential orderliness and she liked a little mess in every room “to make the scene more interesting.” People were not his thing, other than for the sake of business but give Mina a chance to greet a stranger and she would have them gabbing up a storm in no time.

They had one main thing in common: they loved each other. So they tolerated things, supported each other, had plenty of laughs, survived the spats trying to figure out how to manage life together. It just worked.

Until he lost his job, they moved and he could not find another good job and she was adapting without him. He wondered when she’d get sick and tired of his moping but so far she had just stayed her usual positive self and let him be.

He slapped more paint on the cupboard but wiped up drips before they made a worse mess. he did want her to be happy. Didn’t he? She always said that no matter what difficulty they were facing, she got to help new humans enter the world and that was enough happiness to tide her over. She took care of people and loved life because she had a gift for it. Clark cautioned himself to not puncture that happiness but why was it so great being born into this place, anyway? But Mina was smart and she’d had a hardscrabble childhood in India. She well knew the costs of life daily lived, the value of the smallest, random joy.

The rain drummed harder on the roof of the garage. He ignored it and stepped back from the cupboard to examine his work. Looked acceptable, much better than before sans hinges, which he’d add when the Milkweed White dried. he checked his irrelevant watch. He had hours to go.

“Hey, Clark, how’s it going?”

Neal the mailman didn’t expect a reply as he dashed through puddles to hand off the mail but Clark wanted to talk.

“No change, still a handyman. Painted a cupboard,” he said, pointing at it with a small flourish.

“Looks good, enjoy the free time–you’ll find work soon!” and Neal was gone, splashing his way to the Hudson’s’, a retired couple he never saw.

This rain, it’s like a curse that’s never-ending, Clark thought as he noted his sneakers were damp from the puddle Neal agitated. And that’s when the cat raced in, sniffed the newly painted piece and sat himself down. Clark frowned at it, sat across from it on his three legged stool and wished it would disappear.


By the time Mina arrived home he’s gotten acquainted with the feline. There was no collar or bell, and nothing interesting about the cat other than it looked more like an oversized if sleeker rat with all that wet grey fur. In other words, ugly. Clark didn’t recall it being in the neighborhood and wondered if it would go its own way as cats do. It looked cold as it curled up on the cracked cement floor. He felt it, too, under his rain jacket, that icy damp that spread as cloud coverage got thicker and rain pummeled the earth like a beastly thing. No wonder the cat took a chance with him.

“Clark, you out there?”

Mina always parked at front of a house around the corner and came through the kitchen door to find them sitting quietly. He had closed the doors to warm the space up some and was contemplating how to make it even cozier.

“What happened to the poor creature and why is it here?”

She squatted before it, still dressed in her blue nursing uniform, ebony hair swept up in a fat bun with tendrils escaping, her eyes lit with interest.

“It dashed in, it can’t take this winter deluge, either. He’s been drying out some, along with your cupboard.”

She stood up, studied the piece, then clasped her hands. “Wonderful! That will look so good when it’s up, thank you, honey!” and she turned and planted a kiss on his lips. She was not a cheek kisser with her husband; that was one thing he loved.

“Well, he?–yes, it’s a he–deserves a safe place to dry out. Maybe we should give it some milk or tuna fish–he looks famished. As am I.”

She bustled out and the quiet two gents sat a moment longer before Clark got up and left the cat a few moments.

“Where are you going with that?” Mina called after him as he returned with his idea in hand.

“Right out here, we need it here.”

And he plugged in the portable electric fireplace unit into the extension cord and then turned it on. It emitted a nice hum as the phony flames leapt up and heat was dispelled.

When Mina came to call him in for reheated beef and bean casserole and to feed the cat, she found them both dozing before the pleasant representation of a fireplace. Clark’s head was leaning against his work bench; she noted how much his sandy beard had grown in. Was it a bit sexy or was it becoming concerning? She knew he would get another job; if only he believed it, too. She opted for sexy, placed her hand on his shoulder and shook it so his eyes flew open.

The cat became fully alert and dove right into the tuna.


That’s how it started. The rain, being out of work, the painting of a cupboard and a drenched stray cat.

Clark set about fixing up his small garage with a vengeance, letting his vintage Fiat remain sitting under the maple tree. He sorted and tossed bits and pieces left behind by previous folks and swept the floor well, then covered it with sealant and waterproof paint of blue to mimic the ocean’s color. He put up pegboard and hung his tools, then purchased a better utility lamp. Their bicycles were hung on the walls until spring. There was even a painting on the vacant wall between rakes and lawnmower. He had found it at a second hand store, a tropical landscape he still sorely missed, and there was a beach shack on the shore. He thought about hanging fish netting from the rafters but Mina frowned at that.

The cat–whose picture he had posted all over the neighborhood–mostly settled in before five days had gone by. He ventured once or twice inside the house but preferred the garage or the outdoors, much to Mina’s relief and Clark’s acceptance.

“Is there to be a name or do we simply cat him ‘Cat’?” Mina asked.

Clark thought it over, giving a stroke to the skittish creature. He’d dried and fluffed surprisingly well; the thick grey coat was handsome beneath green eyes.

“Captain,” he said quietly to the cat who looked up at him, blinked once and looked away, then back at him, whiskers seeming to twitch. They held each other’s gaze a couple of seconds and thus, it was decided.

“Well, Captain, you’ve managed a miraculous thing for Clark and his garage, so welcome.” She worried that someone would come looking for him, but for now she’d take it as it came as long as he stayed outdoors. She wasn’t such a cat person, and who even knew he liked cats? They’d had cocker spaniels until the last was hit crossing their busy street in California.

“Let’s see if the weather surprises us this morning,” he said to Captain as he opened his garage doors.

“See you two tonight!” Mina called as she closed the garage door.


Bernie Hudson liked to keep an eye on things from his living room window. When he saw there were colorful lights being strung on Clark’s garage, he decided to get out and watch more closely. He moved slowly among slippery leaves, using his cane for better purchase.

“Hello, Bernie.” Clark, startled since he had spoken with the older man maybe a half dozen times, greeted him from the ladder. He was about done with the lights and they draped about the doors like small exclamation marks, brightly welcoming. The cat was curled up on a big flat rock now that the rain had stopped. Weal sunlight eked through the clouds and rested on its green eyes and Clark’s congenial face.

“That looks real good, I have to say. Some people make such a show of wasting electricity but this will be tasteful.”

Clark chuckled –he didn’t think of holiday lights as being fine decor–and climbed down, then entered the garage and plugged them in. The brilliant colors glowed under the mostly bare black limbs of trees, seemed to spruce up the homely garage. They admired it together, noted the other houses people had lit up over the week-end.

“You got a new cat, eh? Fine looking animal.”

“Oh, he found us, a stray I guess. I advertised that he was here but no one has claimed him this week. I decided he could stay–well, he comes and goes but  likes to hang out in my garage.”

Bernie followed him inside the warm space, leaning on the cane as he gazed about. It looked almost like a makeshift den, he thought, with two old ladder back chairs and a humming electric fireplace and a painting on the wall. A well used oval rag rug was aid across the floor, to his surprise. Hardly a regular garage. But pleasant.

“Mind if I have a sit? This leg gives me grief.”

“Not at all. I’m about to put on new hinges on a repainted cupboard for our bathroom.”

“Nice job,” he said, and took out his pipe. “Mind if I smoke?”

Clark hesitated before answering. he disliked cigarette smoke and cigars were overwhelming but maybe a pipe would be okay. He didn’t mind the old guy visiting, so why not?

“I like best my Paladin Black Cherry, do you know it?”

“No sir, can’t say I do, not a smoker, but go ahead.”

Clark worked in silence after that while Bernie smoked and grunted a little at the cat or over his sore leg and captain took his spot on the big braded rug by the fireplace. The aromatic scent wafted about the room  and since the excess escaped through the open doors, it lent a peaceful atmosphere. As time went by, Clark shared some about his past work and how he wanted something different, he was a very good numbers man. Bernie talked about his wife’s weak heart and their seven grandchildren and how he could get tired of the dark, wet weather, too, but this was home until they were too old and then who knew? Best to enjoy the days as they came.

“Clark, what have you rigged up here? How enchanting.”

It was the neighborhood’s community mediation specialist, Julie, with daughter Carrie in a stroller. The three year old reached for the cat but he got up stretched and sauntered off.

“Oh, just a project while I keep applying for more jobs… the house can feel small all closed up in winter and well, I like garages.”

“Yes, Troy would admit to the same. He’ll want to come and see this!” She waved and kept on.

He hadn’t recalled her ever talking to him. Julie lived kitty-corner from them; Mina had run into her once in the store, she’d said.

As darkness began to fall and the little lights quietly blazed, Bernie waved to someone getting out of a BMW. It was Terry Hansen and his wife, Melba. Clark gritted his teeth; they were both younger and lawyers; they likely would sneer privately at his little project. They’d ask whether he was working or not. Clark got busy fiddling at the workbench but on they came and looked things over as they chatted with Bernie and then his wife, who had hobbled over to find her spouse.

Mina opened the garage door, then carefully backed out onto a landing atop three steps. As she turned, two mugs of coffee in her hands, she stopped. She was amazed to see Clark chatting with neighbors they barely had been able to recognize. Everyone was so busy with their lives. But the visitors greeted her warmly so she offered them coffee.

“Sure, why not?” Terry said. “It’s been a grueling day. Mind if we sit and chat?”

Melba helped with coffee and then the women joined in, opening two camp stools on which to sit. The rain had started up again and darkness was thickening about the streets and houses but the glow of the Christmas lights sparked up the homely scene. Clark looked on from his three legged stool and made a mental note to bring out their set of folding chairs, and to buy a tall stool for himself. But he was a little baffled by all these people, how much they liked his funky garage. Maybe no one here had thought of such a thing before but its wasn’t entirely unheard of, he was sure. On the other hand, garages not renovated for, say, an extra bedroom, were meant for cars and tools, not people.

Once more, rain started up, sweeping across the street, yards, bushes, into the garage. Clark pulled the doors to a little, enough to see the curtain of water and let out the pipe smoke. They grew quieter, each in his or her own thoughts. Dinner time was also past due.

Terry drank the last gulp of his coffee, stood up and stretched his compact frame. “You play cards at all, Clark? Poker or a hot game of rummy? I’m thinking this would be a great place to play on an occasional week-end night, open the doors some for fresh air, fire up the fireplace unit and have at it. What do you think?”

“Oh no, another ‘man cave’ plan being hatched!”  Melba said in mock horror but she seemed to not find it so appealing.

“Keeps him occupied for now,” Mina said, smiling tolerantly at the chic woman. “I kind of like what he’s done, and so does the cat.”

“Here, here,” Bernie said with a lift of his pipe. “Cards are sorely missing from my life.”

Clark thought it over and found it full of possibilities. “I might like that idea…”

“Good, we’ll figure out a couple more players. Quite a nice set-up you’ve created. Unique, I have to say. Just what the neighborhood needed.”

Melba moaned good-naturedly and reached for Mina; they swapped phone numbers. “We need to get our own thing started,” she suggested.

After all had left and Mina ordered Italian take out, Clark puttered around until Captain came back. When the cat yawned and he figured it was time to pick up their food, he closed the garage doors and turned off the electric fireplace. He petted him twice and went into the house, leaving one garage door ajar. He figured if Captain wanted to leave he’d come back sooner or later; he sure knew his way around places and people. This could be a decent life for them both, at least for the time being.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Iris and the Legend of Spirit Lake

The lake was not so close to the house you could throw a rock into it–something Iris had determined decades ago during each summer. It faintly glistened beyond a grove of birches and ubiquitous pines, and the half-fallen ones winter had damaged, one day to be seasoned and made into firewood. The ground was boggy beneath her feet, smelled strongly of rich mud. The sky blazed a hard blue above the whispering lake and the land about it.

“But the lake is there making its music,” she commented, surveying the property, arm outstretched.

“I suppose so, with complete indifference to us,” Elliot said, pushing fists deeper into his jacket pockets. It was cold despite it being on the cusp of spring, and his eyes burned from driving three and a half hours after a bad night’s sleep. “How about lunch and a strong cup of coffee? I’m beat.”

“You go ahead then,” Iris said and walked toward the woods, leaving him to take the luggage in as well as food for a three day week-end. Her suitcase, that is; he’d lightly packed a gym bag. She had wanted to make sure there were adequate clothes for the changeable spring.

It was too much to take in. The monstrous months of the virus, still going strong. A slowdown in their respective jobs. Then Grandpa Bolo’s death. He’d been expected to make good on his decree that he’d be a hundred and not a day less as he moved from this realm to the next. His health had been great for so long they believed him. His brain was snapping-quick, his outlook positive. Until he was fifty, he’d been a hardware store owner and sold it for a very good sum. Living in northwest woods for the latter part of his life, he was entirely content except for the loss of his wife too soon. But despite all those good things, a massive stroke snatched him at 94.

“Why was he called Grandpa Bolo?” Elliot had once asked after they married.

“Everyone called him ‘Bolo’. His mother’s maiden name was his a middle name–Bolonger–and he hated his first name, Horatio. He used a nickname form of his middle name since he was a kid. My sister and I decided to just call him Grandpa Bolo.”

“You grandmother’s name, wasn’t it a country type name? A folksy name…” He hoped he didn’t sound derisive.

“Nana Nell. A mentor all my youth, as you know…” She had been anything but ordinary. Iris smiled at the way her names rolled off the tongue. Her grandmother had died when Iris was twenty-four of cancer, seven years before she and Elliott married. And now, how quickly another ten years had passed.

Elliot sighed, almost rolled his eyes, then caught himself in time. How awfully folksy it all is, he thought, then saw her smile flush her skin with undeniable radiance. His initial response was submerged. His own single mother, Nancy, which he’d called her since he was young, was another sort of story.

Maybe that conversation–or what was left unsaid–ought to have told her more, though it would have been more than she could acknowledge then. And he might have known that whatever was kept subterranean was bound to resurface sooner or later, but he believed in control of his thoughts and feelings.

Iris and Elliot found the property untended, scrappy, but that was to be expected. Leave wild land to itself and you get more wildness. Of course, it wasn’t utter wilderness; there were more places dotting Spirit Lake’s waterfront and beyond. Grandpa Bolo’s property was built in 1920. It’d been renovated more than once by the two families who had owned it. The lake was also smaller than many in Washington, still with few year-round residents. The family place was big enough–two stories–to be called a proper house. But the cedar shakes were weathered, its wide porch long ago had sloped a bit, it welcome more a yawning nod…it appeared a worn out, oversized cottage. Which is what Nana Nell called it. But Iris could recall when it seemed like a woodland castle, a place beaming with color and delights and good will.

She felt her grandfather’s presence strongly and stood with eyes closed.

Iris had always thought of it as home, period. She was moved and excited that it had been passed down to her. Since their mother has died of the same cancerous disease, she and her sister Carrie were next in line. So she, too, was part owner. And settled long in Miami not far from their bridge-playing, golf-happy father. And neither was anxious to return except for a short visit. One day, after the pandemic had wound down, she’d come a few days. Father was more about visiting at his condo. So Iris was more than welcome to the house.

Elliot emerged from it with a sandwich in one hand, a mug in the other. He raised it toward her, full of steaming brew. “Are you having one, now?”

“Not yet! I’m off to look around.”

The path, though well overgrown, was not hidden from her. It had been created between brush and trees aeons ago; so many feet had pounded the dirt long and hard. She pushed away branches and bushes, sidestepped a clump of vines, wound her way through elegant birches, which she stopped to touch, face close to its white peeling parchment. Soon enough, lapping green-blue water greeted her.

Shielding her eyes, she scanned the barely moving water, found a few boats, people with fishing rods lowered. The lake’s surface sparked with sunlight. Across the expanse, she studied the cottages and cabins. Iris wondered if the Harris family was in, if the robust Peabody brothers were doing alright. She hadn’t seen the Harrises at the funeral (where the few that made it stayed distanced). She’d heard they were in Arizona, camping out with their wealthy son. Was Marietta Holmes still taking care of her granddaughter and unemployed daughter– or had those two moved on since November? There were many people she had missed a long while, and others that she might not yet know. The assembly of souls in the township of Garner totalled less than 125, she guessed.

Which was what Elliot hated–it’s insular smallness. Or, rather, strongly disliked–he’d not tell her he despised visiting there longer than three days, even if he felt that way. She already knew he got restless and stated strong opinions if she pled for any longer. There were plenty of things he said entirely free of constraint–but her family and this place…that was a different matter. Sacred ground, he’d termed it with a half-smirk once. And Iris did not correct him, for it was true for her. She did not understand why he didn’t feel the same about his own family history; he just wasn’t close to his few relatives.

“There is a reason it’s called Spirit Lake, and it’s a lovely one,” she’d once told him. But he hadn’t asked why so she hadn’t said.

But there it was, spreading out before her. She could see both distant ends of the lake and her eyes traced the squashed oval shoreline, pausing at bird sightings and noting a new paint job on a cottage, wondering who it was hauling out the canoe. The breath that she took filled her up with fresh air. Peace. Just beyond the treeline were far purplish peaks of mountains that shone whitely with snow in the thin light.

It was time to get back to Elliot. Though Iris could not think of many reasons why other than food and coffee.

******

“Are you awake?” he asked, touching her shoulder.

“Mmmm.”

“I keep hearing things out there.”

“Probably so.”

“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”

“Uh-huh.”

He wondered what else. Raccoons. Coyotes or a even wolf? No, wolves didn’t live here, did they? Bears were known to roam the mountains surrounding them. He’d seen tracks before. Mountain lions, for sure, those wily cougars.

Iris shifted, pulled her pillow closer under her head, sighed softly. She had been sleeping. Now she’d be listening, too. But only a moment. Hadn’t Elliot been a country boy until age fourteen? But that was Kansas. She yawned.

He blocked out the image of a cougar padding onto the porch, peering into the undraped living room and kitchen windows, sniffing about the door. He lay on his back, staring into a thicket of dark. In Kansas, he’d look out and see nothing for miles. The vacuous or storming sky. Fields of undulating corn, yes, but not an impenetrable density of trees, not bears on the hunt. He preferred open expanses. After ten years of marriage and living in Washington, it was still a challenge to get comfortable with endless forests, the sinuous mountain or valley roads. That is, if they must be in the country, at all. Why, he once said to his friend, Tom, did they keep planting trees all over when there were already so many you couldn’t see where you were going?

He and Nancy, his hard working, divorced mother, had left Kansas for Las Vegas and never looked back. If he had never gone to university, then taken that first financial consultant job in Seattle…but, then, he loved city life, the hustle. He couldn’t wait for the pandemic to wane, to get out there once more.

And if he’d not come to Seattle, he’d not have met the talented artist, Iris Merriman, his future wife.

No, he’d have not met Iris. Things would have been different. Easier, maybe. Lonelier, maybe.

There it was again, a rustling, a shaking sound–a bush tangling with an elk as it walked through? He could deal with that okay, just get a rifle. He knew a bit about hunting. Still, give him skittering lizards, even a rattlesnake. Elliot turned, balanced on his side, listening hard, finding shapes in the dark he was certain weren’t likely there. Thinking: two more days to endure in the weirdness of country.

******

At the dock things were happening. Birds rising up and falling across a cool curtain of air, their early morning songs skimming the lake, circling treetops. Squirrels rooting around and gossiping. Fish emitting bubbles that popped up at water’s surface. Little dark whirlpools that twirled, eddied, vanished to secret places below. Soft tangerine and candy pink-tinged branches of black-green pines. Color of many tones washed over the languishing body of the lake like slinky raiment.

It was a good breaking of dawn. The best way to greet life was to meet it as the sun did.

At the end of the dock–newer than recalled–Iris was wrapped in a nubby woolen blanket. She sat forward in a creaky folding chair. Opened her sketchbook, chose a colored pencil. She looked and looked, began to render what she saw, felt.

As she drew, she remembered. Sitting there with her grandmother at her side, each of them engrossed, the quietness a blessing.

Nana Nell had been an artist, making baskets, ceramics. Collages of nature’s treasures. Small watercolors of wildflowers and lake scenes, sometimes of tiny people melding into the landscape. She’d taught Iris how to hold a pencil and brush, to loosen her grip. How to daub different paint pots and make new colors. To make interesting things of yarn. To see with soul and heart, not only her eye. To render designs with thoughtfulness and care. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator and got her degree, then became good enough that in time she was able to freelance. She drew pictures for children’s stories, for magazine articles, if needed financially, even for ad campaigns. Her favorites jobs were books, though it could be taxing to come to an agreement with everyone about how to execute what moved her while complementing the story. The other jobs were just jobs, but she enjoyed all labors.

Here, though, she could let her hand tell any story it wanted. Or represent with no embellishment just what was noticed. It was as if her eyes and brain carried sensory input and a feel of a place, animal, person or any other thing, and with speed and glory: suddenly it would flow from the tips pencils or charcoal or brushes. A direct line of energy. A charge of clarity. A liberation of everything that mattered to her. She loved most the natural world’s magic. All she had to do was sit and wait for it to arrive from her body’s perception, then race into her being and back to her fingertips.

If only Elliot understood this. He failed to accept that she did not want to be a strictly commercial artist. He had at first encouraged her art shows but the galleries were small, the openings soft, the rewards not nearly as much money as he had hoped. Still, she’d developed a website; sales increased over time. And she kept getting contracts for the other work. In time, he stopped thinking about it, let her be. He made the greater contribution to their coffers and future. He worked hours she’d never withstand, he believed, with her artist ways and temperament and that was alright, he conceded, as long as it kept the peace. But it often was not the key that he’d wished. She was so….adrift in her own small world. As he was, he guessed, in his. And seldom the twain did meet in recent years.

He had just awakened before she appeared. He didn’t dress, but slouched into the porch swing with a fleece on, hungry and tired. He had taken a look about and found no sign of intruding creatures around the house perimeter. He deducted he’d conjured up the sounds. But wasn’t convinced.

Iris’ sketchbook and pencils were clutched close to her chest as she approached the house. She was often magnetic, her straight long hair drifting about narrow shoulders, long legs taking the dirt path with ease. As if she was meant to always walk briskly without ever tiring. Not a big woman, she could disappear as well as gradually command a space. It was her focus, the zeroing in on people in any setting that so captivated. She might be studying momentary light on the planes of their faces, but they appreciated her gentle attentiveness. They wondered what she saw. As he had.

Now Elliot frequently waited for her, patient at first, then frustrated as time went on. For her mind to come forward to meet his, for her gaze to lock with his in a signal of passion, for her work to take up less room and make more for his work, his day’s events and needs. Sometimes he felt like she’d long ago started a migration to another land. Had left him by the side of the road, free to join the trip or turn and go another way. She cared but she was missing, somehow. He couldn’t put his finger right on it. They had argued about their separateness more and harder lately. Ever since the Spirit Lake house had become hers.

Hers. Not theirs. He’d never thought it could be any other way.

“Had breakfast already?”

“I haven’t. I was waiting for you.”

She gave him that smile, the one that said all is well in my world and let’s have a good day. So he followed her inside, hopes lifted. He knew he had to make the best of things over the weekend. He wanted to and yet part of him pulled back, waiting again for her to fully see him. Anxious that this house meant more to her than he did. That they had come to a fork in the road.

Iris felt his worry rise from his body like the cold he needed to better dispel. She let it pass her by. She knew what made sense for them, and she knew she loved him. One way or another, their destinies would work out right.

******

In the afternoon they walked. Iris showed him again her favorite places. All those years she had come for the summers; she was a full Spirit Lake citizen by age five. The tiny store, run by the Hedlund clan, two miles down the road, where you got bait and most everything else in a pinch. Like a convenience shop, just less interesting in inventory than a city’s, Elliot noted. The hilltop view where you could see the mountain range more fully, their mighty breadth and height leaving them both struck by nature’s grandeur, as usual. The place where she found butterflies amid brightly bobbing wildflowers spring into summer. The best picnic spot under massive oak trees by the lake where her family laid out ham sandwiches and devilled eggs, veggie sticks with dill dip and sun brewed iced tea. And the family recipe, a dark chocolate cake with cinnamon. Elliot shared a couple of picnics like that; excepting the bees, flies and ants, it had been nice and tasty.

“Let’s get out the rowboat,” she said and tugged on his hand.

Before he could protest, she pulled him into a galloping run to the boathouse by the dock. It felt good to be there with him. He was calmer, more accessible than in the the city where he and everyone else seemed so compressed. Concentrated on matters of importance, the race to make money stack up. She felt he’d made a vow as a kid to be a Success before anything else could claim him. She’d known this from the start, but back then he was able to be vulnerable, too, more malleable under the engine of driving energy, curious about so much more.

“I’ll row, it’s in my blood, this boat thing,” she said teasingly, “and you always put us into a circular pattern to nowhere.”

“That’s true. We didn’t have boats in my part of Kansas…I still might learn.”

“What? No lakes of rivers in that state?”

“Well, not so I noticed. A sea of corn or grain, yes.”

“I wouldn’t have been the same person without water and boats. I’d have gone stir crazy being landlocked. There is something about skimming the water’s surface, being shown a panorama like this, watching life over and under the surface..it never fails to make me fall in love all over again.”

He had to agree it was pleasant, the rocking of water, the line of neat cottages and rustic cabins, others out in their boats. Like postcards you’d send to a buddy, proclaiming how much fun is being missed, a huge fish on a line prominently displayed. But he didn’t fish and the truth was after a half hour, he wished he was reading a newspaper or texting at a sidewalk table of The Merchant’s Coffee Shop. As he preferred to do on non-working Saturdays. Even if it rained–there were canopies and umbrellas set up, even in the pandemic.

Iris put up her oars, one on each side.

“Doesn’t it feel safe out here? I mean, from the world, from illness. And so many other sad events.”

“I suppose so. But I’d rather be in touch with that world, too. Live within it. I mean, we can’t run away from things. Or we just shouldn’t. We have the responsibility to do what we can, carrying on and planning for a changed future.”

“Yes, I know. But people manage the best ways they can, not always the same as each other, right? We all have different ways to achieve those goals.”

Oh, here it comes, he thought, our great divide. He looked toward the sound of a truck rumbling over some gravel road, likely a few ATVs or an earthmover to shove dirt around to make way for a new house. Garner was beginning to attract attention from city dwellers. That appealed to him, the investment aspect. But so much of the land was privately owned already, it was hard to get in. Except, they had an “in”, didn’t they? Or she did, anyway.

“So we have noted before,” he said. “I like to be in the mix; you like to step back and work from the edges.”

She grabbed the oars and rowed a little more to pass a couple fishing nearby. “Not fully stand back, just to get more or better perspectives. Use my talents the ways I feel work best.”

He looked at her quizzically. “What are you getting at?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Yes, I know. We keep beating around the bush, don’t we.”

“Well, much has happened this year. We feel so much less certain of anything, It takes thought.”

Her strong slim arms pulled on the oars in a rhythmical manner, a slow but steady power so that they crossed over the lake toward the house with the slightest lurches, then more gliding, each stroke moving through the chilly water almost soundlessly. She was good at this, had a way with the lake no matter the manner in which she approached it. She had such a feel for lake life.

Iris could swim across it; he couldn’t swim well even in a pool though he could almost dive well. Iris could sail the green Sunfish very well; he never had and then when he tried, they’d capsized. Iris could tell the weather by the direction, speed and shape of waves against the shore, the sound of wind in trees. She had grown up near Seattle in a smaller, woodsy suburb, but she had learned about most important things in and on Spirit Lake, it seemed. Elliot had learned on the fly as his mother worked as a blackjack dealer in casinos. But he knew things, too. They just were not in her knowledge pool–as his were not in hers.

She let the oars drag a bit in the water and looked right at him. “I want to stay, Elliot.”

“Of course you do, you say this every time we come here. And you lost your beloved grandfather and you miss the old times…”

“No, I mean, yes, that is true. But I meant that rather than rent out the house by summer and for a long while as we discussed, I want to just live here. To keep it for us to use.”

“You can’t be serious. Alone, you mean? I have to go back to the city. What about your own work? Friends? What about us?”

“I have figured it out. You’ll drive over all the weekends you can. I’ll come to the city, too. I can freelance anywhere– you know that. My friends? They can visit eventually, when it is safe, and vice versa. I have a few old friends around here, too. We could make it work, Elliot! It seems so perfect–we each get what we want and still have each other.”

Her expression was so intense, she looked like a giddy teenager. It seemed suddenly absurd, the whole thing. Was this what she’d imagined when the will was read? How had he failed to miss it?

“The whole time–you had this planned, didn’t you Iris?”

She shook her head and started to row hard again. “I didn’t, truly, Elliot. But ever since we drove down the private road to the house I felt like it was where I most belong. Once and for all. I might discover otherwise, I guess. But I want to try it for six months, at least, see how it works out.”

“You can’t mean this.” It was sinking in with a feeling akin to horror. She wanted to leave him then, essentially–end up living here? They’d made a sound plan, they would keep but lease the house, then someday perhaps build a tidy cabin of their own on the lake. For holidays. For investment purposes. And the land was worth something.

Once more she let the oars dangle in placid water, dragging and leaving barest wakes on either side.

“Don’t you see that it’s what Grandpa Bolo wanted for me? He gifted the place to me–and Carrie, who doesn’t even want it. He knew how I loved Spirit Lake and the forest and mountains, its people, the way of life. He knew it’d be good for me to still love and watch over it. I don’t really trust others to do that right…” He had turned away, hands holding tightly to the boat’s sides. “Elliot– I can paint and make things so happily here. There’s much to inspire me. I can do really good work here again, I know it–I’ve been stuck, almost bored lately as you know. This might be the answer to it all.”

“Yes, your selfish answer to our situation, our being out of sync, your artsy world versus my commerce world..it is such a mess, isn’t it?” He stood, angily gesturing toward shore, at her, and rocking the rowboat. “I can’t accept this, it isn’t good enough for us both!”

The boat began to tilt and sway side to side.

“Elliot, be careful sit down now!” she called out.

But he was off balance, falling fast, and as he grazed the edge going over, he thought, this is how it ends? Iris dove in deeply and the cold shocked her hard but there he was sinking, arms waving, legs flailing, and she breast stroked her way to him, grabbed him around the waist and pushed upward with all her strength, her legs beating the water, her free shoving the stunning water away, reaching and straining toward light and air. He was heavy, heavier than he should be, and she realized he was pushing against her, fighting, afraid of drowning, afraid of taking her with him, perhaps. She clamped him with her arm around his chest, held his back to her front, plowed ahead, up and up before her lungs burst. They broke through, bobbed upward with the force of it.

“Elliot,” she sputtered, “stop fighting, we’re safe!”

He was gasping hard, coughing and choking, and grabbing the side of the rowboat when a motor boat came up fast.

“You need help? Oh, Iris! My gosh, let us help!”

The big bearded Peabody brothers, still hearty at sixty and sixty-two, hauled him complaining and gasping over the side of their boat, checked him over, threw their jackets over them. Then the older brother joined Iris in her boat and rowed her back. The younger one whisked Elliott over in the motorboat.

Chattering teeth made her clench her jaw. They’d nebeen in not more then two or three minutes, that was good, but still, so cold. “Never could keep you straight, look like twins.”

“I’m Adam, that’s Mike,” he said, and laughed as if it was a joke. “Good thing you can swim.” He cleared his throat. “Might be good to teach your husband.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Grateful for your help.”

“Anything for Bolo’s folks, rest his soul–any time.”

Iris blinked back tears. Her hair streamed, her jacket and shirt clung to her chest. She’d lost both loosely tied tennis shoes. The ones she had left there a few years, just for the lake.

“Long, warm shower now, or a bath, both of you,” Mike said as he dropped off Elliot with a nod–and a tip of his hat to Iris.

******

“I don’t get it, but I see there’s no changing your mind. If I had my way, I might never see this place again. Or any other silty, weedy, stinking lake, for that matter!”

“I know.” Iris poured coffee into his thermos for the drive back to Seattle, placed the sandwich and apple in the lunch bag. If only he really was just going to leave for a day’s work and then coming back shortly. “But we will give a good try, and thank you for that. You won’t decide to throw me over in a divorce action?…”

“No.” Saying it made it a more clear and certain decision, through he’d had a niggling doubt overnight.

Iris walked him to the car. “So, you’ll be back with Tom and my car next Saturday, right? He loves the outdoors, especially fishing if I recall.”

“He does,” he said grudgingly. “Yes, and I’ll cart over more clothes and whatever else you decide. Make that list and text or email me by Thursday.”

“Yes.” When he got in and shut the door, Iris leaned at the window he rolled down. “You know it’ll all be alright if we look at it as mutually beneficial. Right? We’ve been at odds a long while, and I’ve been restless with much and you have felt neglected. You want to work longer and later hours even at home. I like early rising and early to bed. You like running every day and I like yoga…we both need some time to regroup. It isn’t just me wanting this place, it’s more, I believe.”

“I agree, Iris, it’s just not easy. And less so in these crazy times.”

“We can be in touch every day. We’ll see each other as often as possible. It will be a small adventure.” She leaned close, kissed him tenderly. It felt good, the kiss–and their farewell for the time being.

He began to back up, then stopped. “I never learned after all this time why the lake is called Spirit Lake.”

“Oh, that.” She smiled, gazed past him, to the shore beyond the trees. “I might tell you someday. We’ll see.”

He shook his head, waved at her, then left.

Nana Nell had told her one summery day when Iris was ten. They’d been drawing together the shore, the blanket covering the stones and lumpy earth, August green trees dancing in the wind.

“I make art better outside, Nana Nell.”

“Of course you do. It’s the lake.”

Iris squinted at her. “Why?”

“Because once there was a woman who ran away from home to find her heart’s desire. She didn’t want to live an ordinary life. She wanted to do something special and good for the world, but she didn’t know what until she arrived at this jewel of a lake.”

Nana Nell paused as she added color here and there to her sketch.

“Nana, what next?”

“She became a well-known artist. She also donated much of her money to help build an orphan’s home in Garner. But then, at too young an age she drowned in a terrific thunderstorm that came up while she was in her boat, drawing nature’s beauties.”

“That’s terrible.”

“But that’s not the full ending, child. They never found her. But she finds those who come here. Every morning at sunrise she skims the lake. Well, her spirit does, and she watches over the rest of us if we belong here. And if anyone falls overboard, she brings them back up to safety.”

Iris said nothing a long while. Then: “So those people live?”

Nana Nell nodded.

“When was this, Nana Nell? Did she have a name?”

“Oh my, it was Mary something…Mary Murray…Mary Millay…Well, it was before I was born, before Grandpa or even my parents came to be. It was before anyone can exactly recall, anyway. But the lake does not forget. And she still calls out to some, you know. She called to me, and Grandpa Bolo, and now to you.”

Iris smiled so hard her face felt it might freeze that way. “Because we’re artists!….and Grandpa Bolo loves the lake and earth, too!”

Nana Nell smiled back, patted her hand and bid her keep drawing.

“Maybe she was part of our family,” Iris said impulsively as she shaded a mountain peak.

But Nana Nell did not reply. She was busy creating.

When she had thought enough of Elliot and his leaving and her staying, Iris got her sketchbook and colored pencils and sat on the dock. A damp wind fragrant with a herald of spring on its tail came by, and warm sun soothed her sadness, and music of the lake awakened a dormant joy. Before too long, there would be sweeter rains and softer days rife with wildflowers. Creatures would venture out more, stop at her door. She would go swimming and boating. She would make beautiful things. She might just sit and attend to the water and sky. She had not felt so comforted and right in her own skin in a long while. But Elliot would call it home one day, too. He just hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Or, at least, she kept a small hope of it.

Wednesday’s Words/Flash Fiction: Dangerous Life

“You’ll break your neck!”

That’s what she said when informed he was taking windsurfing lessons for his 59th birthday.

She nearly wept; his legs, badly injured in the war. She got him cargo shorts, a fly fishing guide. Neither was what he needed: a major jolt. The old ways no longer satisfied. He’d watched the windsurfers; they inspired him as nothing else in years. It was his turn out there.

“What do you know of that river, its winds?”

He knew some things and wanted more. Trouble was, her adrenaline had been waylaid, passions dampened by defeatist views.

Still, friends cautioned him: age, dangers.

His strength and resolve grew.

When he at last hit water, then sailed, freedom from years of her worry and his subterranean fear arrived. Not easy; not disappointing. He fully awakened.

Finally, he turned back.

Only then did he see her with fists raised in victory.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Her Oasis on a Tilt

It was very late afternoon, light sifting through treetops in a shower of gold, a slight pause before hearty or unusual fragrances of culinary works began sailing across one emerald, expansive yard to another. Songbirds, entertaining and costumed with fine feathers, rested. Heat had finally been turned up by the invisible hand of nature. The pool shimmered as if diamonds had been tossed across its surface, and for a moment Bella found herself blinded.

Her damp, straight hair hung about pale shoulders. She was a swimmer but not a sunbather and shade of the mountain ash, though patchy, soothed her drying skin. She didn’t want to move under great overhanging maples; her body was in repose. Nothing stirred her. Not even Remy, her golden doodle, snuffling about edges of things. Not even the phone ringing from the dining table where she had left it.

She was almost dreaming while awake. Images of her drawings bled through the pale orange to pink screen behind her eyelids and she saw their flaws and potential, meanings not noticed before. This was one reason she swam every day she could: mind released its contents as body unclenched its knotty parts. It was a feast of ideas, and Bella let them arrive and depart as if a click of old fashioned slides. Decades, now, of work. The actual, salable art was often removed from her faster than anticipated. Or desired. That was success, she mourned, and turned her face from the light that blared on all.

There was no reason to get up soon. No dinner to create. Antonio was gone, this time for perhaps a month. This was not unexpected; he was a corporate financial consultant and traveled widely. He conducted business she had only an inkling about and that suited her. If he was challenged enough… that was the tipping point– from bored to enthused, stressed to invigorated, irritable to expansive and more attentive when he returned. Otherwise, they could be more like two cautious partners fielding questions and flinging looks despite reaching for each other, and then suddenly there might come sparks that flared. But vanished, too soon. They both resisted an undertow of discontent for long. It damaged the landscape of their lives so had to be repaired. Bella learned to find her own way, to let Anthony realign himself. To nurture her own soul as needed.

It was mysteriousness, being married. Who was trained in the requisite skills? It was instinct and risk, or nothing. For them, a hoped for oneness was everything when together, even during trials. And the best way to survive in the wider world.

On the breeze came an almost acrid if rich odor that made her mouth water: choice beef on the grill. She turned over and glanced at the high fence, thought of Nance, wondered if she was home from work or, no, it was the chef they had in four evenings a week. Ridiculous. Nance, too, was one of just a couple over there–their son left for university, never quite returned. It was as if she and Rollie, her spouse, needed some sort of reward after their labors, their many sacrifices for success which Nance always referred to with a sigh, gaze lowering in a small show of self-pity.

What sacrifices, she wondered. What was lost or left behind, what had been given up or ripped away? Nance never said. There was something, maybe one day they would talk. Or not. Life was a private affair in that neighborhood.

Bella ran afoul of the norm lived around her: an art maker, not a professional woman in a business suit, not a mother hen gathering and exhibiting her chicks proudly. Married to a man she cared deeply about. She was not a scholar or any sort of teacher, nor a gallery director or curator. And never a commercial artist. Not close to becoming a mother, that was how it worked out for her body. Only an artist thinking, sketching, drawing, examining, transforming day after day. Her choice was made long ago to create. Antonio did not truly understand. But he loved her. It worked well enough.

He was in Spain again. Basking in the poetic sunlight, seeing family, working, working, an engine that never stopped until vague far off destination.

Her skin perspired under the last of the day’s deep rays. She lightly pressed her forehead with a palm so not to disturb the sun block, then tousled the dark drier strands that fell over her brow. She would work more after she ate, sit on the upper terrace with sketchbook. See if he called her.

Now, a cool shower. Candlelight with Remy at her side.

******

After she had showered off chlorine and sweat, dressed in a caftan and padded about the kitchen thinking of salad, Bella remembered the mail.

The small pile lay in a black lacquered tray; it was on a small entry table against the wall. The mail slot beside the massive door neatly released its contents into the tray. It was one of the things she loved about the house: it was efficient in design. Too showy for her but practical in its ways.

The mail was usually dull. Perhaps an invitation to a wedding now that it was summer–yes, there it was–advertising circulars (a waste that maddened her), thick or thin art magazines she wouldn’t give up as they felt so happy in her hands, a small order of something, oh, that lip gloss she found online (she’d use it only if they went out).

Then a plain white envelope. The white security kind you might have used to pay bills. Handwritten address, to Mr. Antonio Alvarado. The handwriting sloped downward a bit but was firm, even bold in a way that seemed studied: this address must look serious, confident. Unadorned, not quite printing, but close. She turned it over. Blank. Just a brownish smudge, as if dropped on the ground en route to a mailbox. Bella studied the front once more, frowning. Was that young or old handwriting? Male, female? Perhaps the second, something in an exaggerated curve or tail here and there. A personal letter, not business. No return address.

The postmark was San Francisco, CA. They were in New Mexico.

Eyebrows rose to high arches. Who might he know there? When had he been last? Two or more years, she thought. She stared hard at the front door as if Antonio was going to bound in so she might put an end to speculation.

She replaced it in the lacquered tray. Decided on salad with chopped smoky ham, the vegetables left she could scavenge. And iced black tea with a lemon slice. Her head was a tad swimmy until she sat and ate slowly, trying to not think of it further.

******

It didn’t make that much difference when her leg snapped as she hit the ground all those years ago. Though everyone cast pity her way, worried about her too long. She barely could keep her seat for longer than a half hour, they all knew that, but Antonio loved riding so she went along, and elegant beasts were wonderful. She had a dancer’s body, used it well but it was only another passion and though reined in, not quite dampened despite the leg. Of course, she didn’t publicly dance after that, not even for charity events or arts festivals or flamenco classes she’d attended. She was left with a limp, not so terrible that a stranger would gawk over two seconds. But everyone who knew her, saw her altered and looked away so they wouldn’t embarrass her. Or themselves.

It impacted her sense of self but Antonio was shaken–by the accident, her terrible broken bones, the difficult surgeries and rehabilitation. His guilt. If he hadn’t persuaded her to ride so often. Or at all. But she’d tried to reassure him.

“This doesn’t change so much–just my childish wish to perform. Well, it changes my gait, it might slow me down awhile. Does that disturb you?”

They suspected it would last indefinitely, the uneven walk, the chronic pain and nerve damage. And so he hesitated ever so little but it was there, a flicker of his eyes, and it was then she knew it did. Perhaps enough to change his view of her in an essential way.

“No. I love that you’re so positive about this, that you stand up to seeming defeat and take matters in hand. You can well temper you romantic side with your realistic attitude. You know how to make the best of things, can recreate the design of your living.”

“Really, what things do you mean? I can walk, I will one day hike again, I can swim–and there is making art, which if you recall requires little to no movement of my legs, right? I–“

He clasped her forearms, then slid fingertips over her face and smiled. She shivered, moved in closer, his warmth a magnet for her growing coolness. He kissed the tip of her nose, stepped away, looked at his phone as he replied.

“Bella, you inspire me…I’m proud of your hard work. A limp is nothing, we are grateful you can walk! But please excuse me, I have a call coming in.” He looked back as he left the living room. “Don’t forget I have to leave on Sunday for London. We’ll call that physical therapist- Stan? Steve?-back in–okay?” He held up a finger as he answered the clarion call to business and put ear to cell.

His back receded to a shadow beyond the doorway. She thought again that he admired too entirely her body, when she spent much of the time unaware of it. Creating, for her, took her out of flesh and bones in many ways. For Antonio, physicality brought him to a place where he felt most at home, felt elevated even by her presence, and there were times of jubilation. He was a person of action first and last. She admired and was pulled to this, too.

There was another hunger she sought to satisfy more: creating. And how graciously he deferred–usually. It was that or get less of her.

Still, it worried her a little as she struggled to heal. But nothing much did change. Oh, the nagging or lightning pains even after seventeen years. Bella had donated her collection of high heels. She gave up any desire for superficial perfection. She stopped dreaming of marathons. She worked on more secure, critical balance. Her endurance and strength improved as she swam, undertook vigorous exercise regimens, began short hikes with a custom made staff to keep her steadier and went with or without him–but always with Remy if possible. He was her look-out and her buddy.

The limp did not disappear. It was a part of her, like the brush of pale freckles across chest and cheeks. Irrelevant in the end.

Anyway, she still danced on their long, deep terraces at back of the house in dry weather. Nance, Rollie and few others about occasionally noticed her swaying, turning in less than perfect circles across space to soft music and murmuring to each other, what a shame, once such a graceful woman, an asset to Antonio –but a fine artist, thank god for that.

Now before she began brainstorming for the latest project she danced, no music, just movement like licks of wind, flicks of a paintbrush, a ringing of glass chimes a call for more beauty in the world as she turned, turned, reached and at last sat down with her tools for art.

Nance watched her from her patio and said to Rollie, “She’s become more of a ghost over the years, don’t you think? Secluded and pale, even with all the swimming. He’s gone so much and she draws, swims. Flutters about. In her own dream world.” She felt a proximity to envy, as if she wanted to join into those moments and see what it was she had. It was a moment gone as soon as it began.

Rollie laughed. “What do you expect? She’s an artiste, my dear. They don’t have an inclination for much else. Anthony could be a saint– or at least loyal as heck. Though she’s a fine person, but who could imagine that she would end up with him?”

“Come on, a saint– Antonio? You think so? She’s fascinating, but he’s as good looking and charming as they get after forty-five. And he’s all over the world, alone…Idle hands, they say. No saint, I wager.”

“Mmmm, yes.” He grimaced. “Well, now–a steak, dear? Thank you, Brett, you always do such a royal job on a rare chunk of meat!”

“Rollie, your manners. Just a smidgen, Brett, I’ve got to keep my health on the straight and narrow.”

Bella worked long after Nance and Rollie went indoors. The night air was light and cool, feathers drifting against arms and legs. And the quietness a balm, though their voices had been muted and even if she’d desired to, it wasn’t possible to eavesdrop readily. The residences were built to insure separateness.

She lit a lavender-scented pillar candle, sketched away. Antonio didn’t call–but he often did not for a week or so.

When she was done, she found trails of nonsensical writing across white pages, shapes at odds with each other, and objects from faraway places she had once visited floating across the expanse… yet at the edges were darkly shaded spaces with nothing to show. Like a graphite collage of random bits and worn out pieces of her past. Where was cohesiveness, a central idea? Why could she not get her brain and muse on the right track with this?

Not a good night, after all. Remy had nuzzled her leg more than once, then gave up and stretched out by her feet, soon snoring. The stars had come out. The yard was shaped by gradations of grey and black and treetops cut a fading filigreed silhouette again a lighter navy sky. All seemed calm in their home despite her angst.

Bella stood abruptly. It was that damned letter, it was just sitting there, waiting. Dizziness visited her, then she reoriented herself and went to bed.

******

In the morning after breakfast, Remy and Bella took a walk, then trotted inside, threw open the french doors and jumped into the pool’s silky, turquoise water. He liked to swim, too, if only a few minutes, while she swam easy laps for a half hour. She stopped when her left leg twinged. Some days it felt worse, some better. Sometimes she had to pull herself up by only the force of her arms; below her waist then it was as if much got heavier with a slow-aging lameness. Antonio hadn’t seen that yet.

As she dried off, she recalled a book on the kitchen island. Once inside, she dawdled, drinking remains of tepid coffee, then looked toward the foyer. Put the book down.

The letter was the only thing there. Should she take it to his study, lay it on his desk? Prop it up on his dresser? Casually leave it on the island or the dining table or…Why did it matter to her? It could sit there. It could wait for its recipient just as she could.

The book was more of a bore than she expected–an academic treatise from an old professor friend on how art creates smarter children and youth. Nothing new. But it had primarily made her feel different than her peers, as if she had x-ray vision while they were nearly blind. She still didn’t quite fit in many places. But it was no longer a problem she felt any desire to solve.

She swam more: backstroke, sidestroke, breaststroke, crawl. She dove deep and moved along the bottom like another creature, then shot back up for air.

It is only a letter, a letter, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.

After sun’s heat roasted her–she’d fallen into a light sleep–she startled at a sports car roaring by. Stretched. She gathered up Remy, pushed her face into luxuriant fur, inhaled his good doggy scent, gave him a rub and compliments. More tea, a snack for them both, then back to the drawings.

They were for a new exhibit in three short months. This time, pastels and colored pencils. And more clarity, letting the unexpected move to the fore, accept it for what it was, transition, a sorting out. Alterations. All afternoon she worked and considered, made small progress. An imagined travelogue of a woman moving between places, people, stages. A map– of the verdant oasis of body and soul within which she lived. Then, a lure of more exotic unknowns. And how to make peace or encourage change, how to shape it to her, her to it.

She was a woman of deepening ideas and impulses, and nearing middle age she’d again realized that so much more was unknown. Like an infinity before her. Antonio didn’t seem to feel nit as acutely. He mastered what he could, let the rest slough off.

She got out of the pool, shook out her bundled hair.

Inside it waited, nearly glowed–a warning or an illumination?– it was inert in the tray’s glazed darkness when she checked for mail later. Bella, of course, got letters from those who had bought her work, or from her niece in fourth grade and sometimes her brother, a journalist. Anyone, she supposed, might send a letter to Anthony, it was nothing of such interest. Only a small thing, then. So why did she return to it and feel unnerved?

******

The fourth day after the letter had arrived–ninth since he’d left– he called. It came after a late dinner of salmon with rice and green beans on the patio.

“Darling, you answered–a quick hello from Madrid–I thought you’d be in your studio at work, no phone on, but glad you did.”

“Hello, Anthony, no, I made good progress today so am slacking off tonight.” She glanced at the orange kitchen wall clock–five a.m tomorrow over there.

“As well you should. The exhibit is not yet tomorrow.”

“You’re up early, as usual. How is your work going? Are you enjoying being with your uncle?”

“He misses seeing you, sends love. Work is work, going well enough, making money for all. Anything thrilling there?”

She updated him on the water bill–skyrocketing with all those sprinklers–and the boulevard repaving work begun and walks Remy and she had been taking on a long path in the woods. For the salvation of coolness, she said, but also for the birds. “We heard the calls and saw two Cooper’s hawks today, Remy nearly took chase.”

Antonio laughed. “Good, all sounds right. It’s sweltering here, already my shirt feels damp, of course. Bella, the reason for the call is I’m coming home sooner than anticipated, early next week.’

“Glad to hear it! But all goes well, you said?”

“It has, but there are changes in plans, another meeting will be held after a quick trip to L.A. So I will be home for a week between. Arrival is sometime next” -he tapped on his computer- “next Tuesday afternoon. I’ll send details. Get my car, then home for a late meal. It’ll be restful to have a week off for once.”

“Sounds wonderful. Maybe go to the lake a few days?”

“We’ll see, darling, that might be just the thing.” He sighed: days of simpler pleasures. Bella held close to him. “I should get something to eat and prepare more for my meetings. I just wanted to check in with you, inform of my earlier return. Te amo, Bella.” He offered last intimately, a whisper.

“Love you, too… Antonio, wait…ah, I…”

“Yes? What is it?”

Impatience book-ended his words; he had made the loving but dutiful call, had business to address.

“Nothing, it will wait.”

“Until next Tuesday, then.”

******

The next days and nights were like mud and molasses, Bella slogging her way through them. Yet loose sketches still were executed rapidly, then a few good drawings. The engagement truly buoyed her–discerning shapes and movement and meanings in her work. Remy pestered her less, romped more on his own after daily swims but she always scooped him up after her work, loyal companions.

Only once did she look at the letter. It seemed to have cooled down, was less intriguing to her, as if it was in stasis after too long untouched and unregarded. It seemed almost a frivolous thing the more she burrowed into work, aware of less time left for herself. She had not expected his return so soon, and so sought the greater and better sum of her artistic efforts.

She started to swim at night again, something she had not done for months, but lazily. Remy drowsed on the first floor terrace. The air was redolent of a rosiness freshened yet dimming as nightfall came, and the moon sat in its throne to survey lawns and inhabitants.

And what in Madrid? Was he staying out late with his uncle? Was he looking upward for a propitious sign, even rain? He could be superstitious. Maybe he had made plans for their jaunt to the lake resort–he was good at that–or did he puzzle over what he would do with himself every day?

Everything around her offered the usual magic but her eyes closed, ears were underwater. She floated, floated, keeping the revelations due on Tuesday out of mind.

******

Nance on the other side of the fence leaned toward Rollie.

“Why didn’t we get a pool? I can hear her swimming at night sometimes. It sounds so relaxing. For years I’ve asked for a pool. I know you don’t swim much and it costs, but we’ll get a big raft for you to float about.”

“It might be nice. Remember, she’s still young, strong, she’s…well, she has a lot of time, don’t you think?”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes at him. “So do we, now that we’re retiring soon. Think of that.” She listened for Bella’s strokes, the water making a gentle shusssh when she resumed.

“Let’s go to Barbados, instead, before fall,” he said and lit his cigar. “Just wait until Tony gets back, they always have us over for a meal so you can have your swim then.”

“We can only hope. Or why not just put in a pool, Rollie, just do it.”

He studied the brilliant slip of moon and then the glow of the cigar’s end. Retirement might not be all he had hoped, or it might be more, time would tell.

******

She had made an effort to shine up the place, adding small bouquets here and there–they both liked that. He had long ago wanted her to get cleaning help, the house was so big, but she resisted. Instead, she spiffed it up well once a week and in between could care less. Neither did he–he barely noticed between trips. But this time it seemed important.

In the mirror’s reflection, she examined her face, found it acceptable. The fine lines about her eyes had deepened since working longer hours; she needed readers to better aid her focus. She had chosen flaxen-colored linen pants with a sleeveless white tunic, turquoise at ear lobes and neck. Unadorned, bare feet, the norm all summer. It was Antonio, not a guest, anyhow.

He arrived nearly on time for once, and when he unpacked and put on shorts and old polo shirt they chatted about this and that, then settled into the upper terrace chairs, cold drinks in hand–he, a beer, she, iced tea.

He looked good, burnished by the Spanish sunshine; he seemed pleased with the trip, seeing his uncle again. His kiss was long, almost spicy-fruity as if he’d consumed peaches with ginger. He always looked well even if crinkling about the edges, as if travel became him rather than wore him out, unlike herself. More importantly, his work was satisfactory; next steps were in place for clients. Bella liked how he’d mastered his career, knew his way in greater arenas and came right back to her, still. With the unseemly limp and all.

They were a pair, alright.

“Antonio, I held back something for you. It came in the mail last week.”

“Nothing of interest in the pile you handed me…something more?”

She pulled out the creased letter from her pants pocket, offered it to him. “It has felt a bit of a mystery…I will leave the room if you prefer.”

Antonio took the envelope, gazed at it, turned it over and back again as had she. “No return address? Ah, I see-California?”

“You don’t recognize the handwriting?”

“Not at all. Stay, Bella, it is only a letter!”

He tore it open without hesitation and read. He lay two pages on his thigh and then read it again, more slowly. His face betrayed puzzlement, then a dawning distress.

She leaned closer to him. “What is it? Who?”

He looked up at her, his mouth agape, eyes wide, and shook his head.

“Bella.” He wet his lips, took a frail breath. “I may have a daughter and she may have found me.”

******

“How old, Antonio, and who is she? When did this happen? Where? Answer me!”

She was standing above him, yelling as quietly as she could when her insides wanted to shriek. Her hand went to her mouth, before she did let out a harridan screech. He rose from his chair and his eyes swept over the vibrant garden and sparkling pool, then walked into their bedroom, letter in hand, and then he struck the door jamb with it three times.

She followed and they sat on the bed; her heart was running, running away from her. This was not what she expected, not what he ever imagined, she felt by his response. She’d long ago considered he might not be entirely faithful. She ignored the possibility, however. Her mother–so unbending yet certain of herself and well readied to corral the messiness of life– had taught her this was more or less the norm: how else could ambitious men manage for long periods out there? Bella’s own father may have strayed–“Too much, too much, stop!” she’d yelled at her mother when just a new wife–but one just gets on with it. It could be worse–gambling, drugs addiction abuse. She had to be at ease with men if they would be at ease with her.

She hated that advice. She’d struck out in her own direction, hadn’t she? Her needs mattered, too, it was an egalitarian marriage. Wasn’t it?

He folded the letter, slid it back into the envelope. Laid it on the dresser. She wanted to snatch it and read a loud.

“It was in Italy. That summer we were thinking of separating.” he rubbed his face with both hands. “So long ago, Bella! Such craziness then.”

“When were we thinking of that? You mean, during my long recovery?”

But she knew what he referred to, that she retreated, how long it was before she let him come closer, then even blamed him. Most days and nights she despaired in private, smiled in public. It was that it should not ever have happened, a ruined leg at age 28, a life unbalanced by pain.

“After the riding accident you became depressed about progress… and not being able to have kids, a last blow…we fought so much, remember?” He looked at her, brown eyes glassy, unfocused. “I was in Italy for two months, maybe more, working and staying with an old friend.”

“What friend? A woman friend?” Her words sliced the air. How could he simply roll out this story, hide his face?

“No, no, with Ian–who was with Trevor then. I told you where I stayed.”

“Apparently not all the time! And, who was the woman, Antonio? Who and why, dammit…”

“It doesn’t matter now. It was once, that is all…she was a friend of a business colleague. We all went out. I never dreamed it might happen, felt like hell about it, please Bella, believe me, it has haunted me ever since.”

She covered her face with her hands and lay back on the bed. “It has now come back in the shape of a daughter,” she mumbled. “How can you know for sure?”

He continued, voice quiet, trembling. “This…girl is seventeen. Adelina. The facts line up, she says she has a birth certificate copy with her. Here for college. Somehow she managed to get my name–and address. Through work contacts of her mother?” He made a sharp sound, bark of a laugh, once. “I don’t recall her name, her mother…”

Bella could not stop tears even if proffered a life of fame and a happily forever after. She would not believe him easily ever again–she also could not glibly accept this as truth.

“Bella, please forgive me, forgive me.” He lay down beside her. She didn’t move but wept soundlessly, then in gulps. Antonio’s eyes filled, too, as he stared at the shadowy ceiling, then let himself cry.

“What an idiot, what a fool and a failure I was that summer, Bella!”

She threw a hand out and smacked his chest once, twice. Then rolled halfway to him. Put an arm about him which he pressed close. They wept together, tried to speak but gave up and finally, silenced by hurts and regrets, they fell into a restless sleep.

Remy sat outside their door, whimpering, but no one came to him.

******

She swam three times the next day. Hid in her studio.

He moved to a guest room.

Remy looked from one to the other all day, and finally left for a breezy hallway, lay down, head on paws.

******

She swam and sat under the biggest maple with her sketchbooks and scanned each page, looking for direction, inspiration. Peace.

He swam. Drank chilled wine as he sat on the terrace. Nothing to do but wait. And think about Adelina more than he wanted.

Remy swam, too, caught the ball he threw him a few times.

******

Repeat.

In the middle of the night Antonio looked at their favorite lake spot, dreamed of a different reality.

Remy ate, chased his tail, ran in circles. Lay under the bushes until he joined first one, then the other.

******

She swam and he swam at the same time finally, though they didn’t come close or toss out words. A pantomime of a slow duel, a silent confab. Her eyes were clear beneath thick wet lashes. Her gaze held a simmering anger and it bored into him several times; even when he didn’t see her, he felt it. His own eyes, bloodshot in the high summer spotlight, did not look away.

That night they made a meal together, commenting on the tenderness of parsley and ripeness of the avocado, the smokiness of the turkey. They ate outdoors together by the pool. They sat at its edge, feet dangling in the water. Remy waited long enough, then bounded up to them.

“So. This girl. She wants to meet you, then.”

“Yes.”

“Her mother know?”

“No, she wrote. Her mother never spoke of me until Adelina pleaded with her a long time…her mother is long married, she likes her father. No one cares to talk about the unfortunate past…” He opened his hands up to the sky.

Bella kicked at the water, splashing him. She felt like she could dive in and maybe not resurface…or she could dive in and come back up and just try swimming with him. Her husband. The secret keeper, that fool. The man she loved, and deeply hurt long ago.

She had turned away from him. It wasn’t right, his impulsive diversion, no. But she’d left him with only his work, friends, no promise of better times ahead. She had forgotten those soul battered days and pain wracked nights. The well of loss. She had thought she’d been alright at first. She’d survived and overcome and kept on. A bit heroic perhaps–see how she learned to walk? To become a a more well known artist? See how she managed to beam at Antonio’s side, and that she was acceptable to him, still?

Until he left that summer. She no longer could face the scrutinizing realms within which they resided, any time in the world a reminder and her leg stealing her attention with roaring pain. Her awkwardness and weakness commandeering a life she had lived intensely, body, mind and soul. She had suffered, it was true. As had he, helpless. They made wrong choices–she with pain pills and isolation, he with a stranger. But they came round to one another again by that autumn, didn’t they. And that was a choice, too, but of a greater, not a lesser, love.

“She wrote that she is studying theater arts…costume design, maybe.”

Bella stared ahead. Then burst out laughing. “Her mother must have a few good genes.”

He inhaled a huge breath, let it slide out in a soft whistle so that Remy came running, barking, with tail a-wag.

“Oh, Antonio… what needs to be done, that’s the next question. Perhaps tell her to come–when you are ready,” Bella said as she slipped into the water. The half moon glowed, a pearl in night’s velvet hands. “I will help figure things out with you.”

he had hoped but was not expecting it. “Thank you.”

Antonio wiped his eyes. Never had he wept so much as the last three days.

“You see what kind of person she is, Remy? Do we deserve her? No. But she is still with us, she always perseveres, so we shall love her even better, and more.”

Remy licked his face of sadness. Bella embraced them both.

******

Rollie stood by the fence and tried to jump up to peek over it, but he wasn’t that tall and he got nothing even bouncing up and down. His wife smirked as she weeded.

“Nance, it’s just that I know he’s home already, I saw his car. Kinda miss the guy when he’s been gone long. Want to hear about those trips, the deals. Shouldn’t we stop over, say hi?”

Nance stood and shook her head as he gave up and sauntered over, hands in pockets.

“If they want us about, we’ll hear, Rollie. They’re still young and lovely, and interesting people. Her art really is wonderful. And he’s got that spark that makes a man reach farther. They aren’t half-bored out of their minds like we get. I suspect they could use more time alone, with each other.”

“You often have a nose about people. But we could ask them over here soon, too. And I was thinking about that pool. It might be fun. Our son might visit more, too.”

“Now you’re talking. Our son might or might not come, but it’ll be great. Drinks on a floating swan, imagine it.”

******

Bella and Antonio spread three comforters on the upper terrace that night. They watched the sky offer minuscule blooms of light, talked about the lake. They slept well, and Remy, too.

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Projects

Variety of pics 033
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What Ellen Tate ever intended to do with all that unruly front yard was anyone’s guess. And she had recently been hauling more bits and pieces from her station wagon after she backed it into her driveway, each item disappearing into the back yard. They couldn’t imagine what she was up to and strained to see just what it was she had in her arms this time–was that a peculiar table or another hunk of driftwood? Ellen liked beachy things, or at least she and Alec did some time ago.

The view from their porch was imperfect and Ellen was not just across from them but a house down to the left. And this ivy that crawled up one side of their brick bungalow and sometimes dangled over the roof edge needed a thorough whacking before the wisteria got strangled. A yearly dilemma and task.

“I suspect she’s only adding more stuff here and there, decorative touches or whatever it is that she calls it. The last time we saw that back yard was in 2011 when she had the block over for Annabelle’s graduation party. Pity.”

Clare blew her nose loudly. Simon looked away. He’d never gotten used to that alarming honking sound. Her spring allergies were kicking up already so this was just the start.

“Well, things have changed. Alec passed away way too soon. Annabelle got successful fast and hightailed it out of the country. Ellen still works too hard and you said she seems out a lot, just not around here.”

Simon stared at Ellen and Alec’s house, suddenly stirred, remembering things. Alec and he had swapped information about stocks, watched many a car race on TV and in the flesh, tried to out-do each other on their high performance grills several times a year. Even went fly fishing a few times, though Simon had little talent for it and needed repeated instruction. But Alec was naturally a man of patience, something Simon had come into far too late in life, not without considerable resistance. How had he really helped his friend? Maybe he’d been a good listener; Alec had things to get off his chest from time to time. Ellen’s love of knick-knacks, for one. He wondered if she still had that group of trolls from all over the world atop the fireplace mantle or the miniature dogs and cats on a bookshelf. He rather liked those but Alex disliked them greatly–though he never complained to her, only to friends.

Clare smoothed the heavy grey braid hanging over a shoulder. Before too long she’d have to wear her long hair up; the increased heat could fester the air and her neck. “I never knew anyone wanting to be a nurse so long. She could have retired five years ago. What if she can’t read the small print on medications and makes a fatal mistake? What is she gets tired out and doesn’t answer a call bell fast enough? She can’t need the money. Don’t her bunions hurt like heck by now?”

“Who doesn’t need more cash flow? Plus she likes it, keeps her engaged with life.” And death, he supposed, but she was aware of that probability when she took up the career. He didn’t know about any bunions, did she have such achy lumps like Clare? He’d admired her bright pink toenails in summer, he did recall that.

“I disengaged from that sort of hard work without a backward glance.” Clare stood up from her creaky rattan chair and peered at Ellen as she once more pulled something from the back of the station wagon. “Maybe Annabelle is moving back home? No, surely not, she’s in Lisbon…”

Simon swatted away the first fuzzy, noisy bee he’d seen in their yard thus far and that meant there were lots more moving in the neighborhood. Good for them; they had important work to get done. He admired their industrious, proscribed motions. How little he found to do some days. His last office responsibilities ended one year and eighteen days ago. He’d had all sorts of projects lined up and managed to get quite a few completed the first twelve months. This year he’d found himself spending more time being more still than not. Lazing around with an outdoors magazine or a crossword puzzle. A Ulysses S. Grant biography opened on his lap, trying to not doze off. Watching Clare neatly fold colorful laundry–he liked to watch her do this, he couldn’t say why–waiting until she told him for the third time that pots and pans needed drying and putting away. He fixed things, they took circuitous walks, he still met Herb and Morris once a month for breakfast, he was adept at keeping their property attractive. Some days, though, he didn’t feel like moving from the gentle warmth of their bed even after Clare had long been up and prattling about.

For her, retirement had been a breeze, transitioning from full time craft store manager to part time and now to on-call help which could amount to a couple days a week even. And she had plenty of artsy projects in the room next to the garage. Clare would have bought that crafts store if he felt they could swing it. “Clare’s Craft Haven,” that was what she’d dreamed of calling it (rather than “A to Z Craft Supply”). A place to shop but also meet others of the same ilk and a space for creating objects of useful attractiveness. Or rather, useless nonsense as Simon privately thought of it when she yet again had paste and felt and sequins and pins strewn about. But harmless enough; he had his own interests, after all.

She sank back into the chair. “Why not let her be? Either that or go on over and ask her what she’s up to?”

“Oh, I’d never intrude, you know she’s not open to idle chat, anymore, much less sharing private activities with others. I wish she was. I miss her. I’d like to figure out how to break through, make it like old times again.”

Simon knew what she meant, but he’d determined that old times were just that–done and gone. Everyone had to move on. But it was proving a challenge for himself like it was for Ellen, if for different reasons. Clare often had a pep talk about hobbies since she had more than enough but he thought the very word was indicative of their triviality. He wanted something meaty to dig into again.

“Well, we can walk by sometime when she’d out in front, start a conversation about any ole thing.”

Clare put a hand on his forearm. “Like now…she’s out there now. We can offer to help her with whatever she’d doing.”

So they got up and crossed the street when Ellen reappeared at the station wagon. Her head jerked up when she heard them call her name. The expression was neither welcoming or discouraging. She nodded at them and paused, one hand on the car as if her arm was a polite barrier to further progress toward her.

“How’s it going, Ellen? Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

She smiled, friendly enough if a bit tight around the edges. “That’s true, I’m still working and have plenty to do.” She ticked things off on her fingers. “Church meetings, book club, a capella choir, hospice training, fitness club.”

“Hospice training?” Clare tried to keep her tone ordinary but the words came out too loud. Alec had died of pancreatic cancer, and rather fast.

Clare touched her prominent chin with a forefinger, was quiet a second. “I know, seems a bit late for that but they helped us so much, so it’s now my turn.” She smiled again, took her hand from the vehicle and reached in and grabbed a box.

“That’s quite wonderful of you,” Clare murmured.

“Can we be of any help with the stuff you’re getting out?” Simon asked. he had to admit she looked strong enough to handle it all on her own. She’d changed shape– from more of an apple shape to a pleasant pear, arms and legs quite strong. He wondered if he had changed, not for the better.

“No, I’m good. Well, on second thought, this is quite heavy, thanks.”

Simon took the box, awkwardly moved around her. The three of them entered the back yard, Clare filling with anticipation. At last, maybe the spell made of grief and loss was broken and she and Ellen could be real friends again, not just neighbors who waved at each other. They rounded the corner of the house and she stopped. The grassy expanse was nearly covered with what appeared to be household goods. Blue painted chairs, a table made of driftwood and perhaps an oak plank, lamps tall and small, a box of linens, another of dishes, a big rug with an ocean motif and things that could not be fully discerned due to be wrapped or bagged.

“What if it rains? Can we get this stuff inside for you?” Simon put down the box.

“Oh, I’m not worried, I’ve been covering it up at night with tarps and the sunny season is upon us. Besides, the plumber is coming tomorrow  to finish and when the bathroom is done soon, I’ll move it all in.”

“Wait, you have a new bathroom? And all this is being added to ….?”

“Well, Clare, that’s her business, not ours.”

Ellen put hands on hips and laughed as if Clare had made her day.

“Yes, that’s right, a new bathroom! In Alec’s old study. Remember?” She turned toward the small outbuilding several feet away to the right of the driveway. “Come on, you two, have a look.”

“What on earth can you mean?”

“I know–it’s an ADU.” Simon crossed in front of his wife to follow Ellen inside.

“What’s that?” Clare said, close behind.

“Accessory Dwelling Unit.”

The door opened and Ellen led them in, arms opening wide. The old space was looking new. Not completely altered but emptied of Alec’s things, freshly painted a warm blush color. The four small windows finally had repaired screens; the sashes were pushed up so fresh air wafted about, the floral ivory with coral curtains fluttering. Signs of progress on the new bathroom were apparent and they peeked inside. It was spare but tasteful with a sleek glassed shower stall in the far corner.

Ellen beamed at them. “I’m going to make additional money so I can retire and be comfortable, see?”

“Fantastic,”  Simon murmured as he walked about the living area. He imagined Alec at his desk, scribbling away and thought he’d like it.

“Oh gosh, you’re going to rent this out?”

“That’s the idea. Like an efficiency apartment, maybe just for travelers. They’ll have to use a microwave, eat with me or go out. I don’t want to spend more money yet for a kitchenette. Besides, it’d take up quite a bit of room.”

“Fantastic idea,” Simon said, arms folded across his broad chest, eyes gleaming.”Alec’s place for others to enjoy.”

“I never thought of it until I cleaned it all out. Took me forever. You know how he loved to write and read out here, enjoy alone time. And then I had to consider if I wanted anyone else in his  special place, you know? But he’d like this. Me being more secure and self sufficient, while having more company of sorts.”

“Well, I’m impressed. You really did all this?” Clare grabbed Ellen’s forearm without thinking of it–they’d been close friends once– and Ellen didn’t step away.

“Except the bathroom, that was Gerard and Sons’s responsibility.” She ushered them out and locked the door. “I have more to get done tonight, then a shift to work tomorrow, early.” She shook out her tired arms and hands. “I can’t tell you how relieved I’ll be when I leave that hospital. Two more months.”

“What good news, at last you’ll be free! Well, now this…but far freer.”

They lingered by the station wagon a moment.

“You know, I think it’s high time for another backyard party –to celebrate my retirement. Are you interested in helping me some with that, Clare?”

“You know I am, I’ll wait for details and direction.”

Simon smiled warmly at Ellen. “And if we can help you with anything before that, let us know. I’d like to pick your brain some, too.”

Clare frowned at him ever so slightly.

“Well, I likely do need to clean up my front yard, and then my collections ought to be sorted. One thing just leads to another…never ending, really. Yes, we have to chat more, you guys. And nice that you stopped by.”

She looked comforted by it all. The brooding sorrow over Alec’s death was now a residual feeling peeking from the far edge of her deep brown eyes.

******

When the two of them climbed into bed, Clare eased toward her husband and admired his scratchy square in the soft light of the bedside lamp.

“I wonder about you sometimes, Simon, even at this time of our lives.”

“How’s that?” He looked at her narrowed eyes, admired how the deep blue sparked through the slits.

“I saw how you became engaged by her.” She poked his belly.

His unruly eyebrows shot up and he grunted. “I was engaged by her ADU, that’s what you saw.” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly, then cleared his throat. “Clare, I have found a new goal again, a worthy task! A kind of calling, even, in a humble form.”

“What now?”

“It’s a great idea and we need to steal it, make our own ADU. Maybe build on top of the garage. Or build a tiny house behind the apple tree. In the southwest corner, isn’t that a good spot? And think of it, we’ll get to meet new people, won’t that be interesting?”

Clare turned her head and stared at the tiny crack snaking into the ceiling from a far corner. Imagined being always at a stranger’s beck and call. More housework. Meals at certain times. It was one thing to admire Ellen’s initiative; she lived alone, she had no one else to tend to and share time with day in and out. But for them it would mean a third person about, in the way.

“I have so been needing this, a good project! Think of it, Clare, the money, yes, but the opportunity to learn about other people, stretch ourselves.”

She felt stretched plenty between her on-call work and hobbies and him. She wondered if he’d just crank that enthusiasm down a bit. And learn to automatically wash and dry the pots and pans. Maybe do some of his laundry, at last. Would he be making breakfast with her if they took on a, well, what did they call this person, a renter, a guest? Or was it going to be her load to carry, as ever? She was not the least bit fond of housework. She’d rather make nifty–even nonfunctional–things, create for the pleasure of it. And she recently sold some at an arts and crafts fair, to her surprise.

He pulled her into his still firm arms, fingers woven in her unbraided hair. “This is something we can plan and do on our own time frame, Clare. It will be great to have extra cash and we can choose who we want here and when. It could be a good time shared, my sweet darling, don’t you think? A whole new adventure!”

Maybe this could be his own project. She’d approach that later. She let herself fold into him, closer and closer. How could she refuse a man who called her “my sweet darling” after forty-six years? She realized how much they had–their storied past, the limited years ahead–and she would not spoil them with doubt or hesitation. He might go any time. Alec did, after all.

“Yes,” she said to it all and kissed him firmly, turned out the light.