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.

 

Here I am Without You

He didn’t understand, he was right about that, she thought. To him it had to be glamorous with jewels as the commodities of her trade, all that gadding about with fancy people, seeing sights he’d not see now. There was truth to this but it was the only part he wanted to believe.

The rest of it he tried to hold at bay any way he could, sometimes blaming her. And there was good reason for that. Admitting he was not going to walk again, at least not right–never mind play his horn, dance at one a.m. with the last customer, drive like crazy along some back country road–was like admittance to hell. Well, that had already begun when he had the stroke. Forty-one, relentlessly alive and just like that, cut down by a vagrant piece of circulatory trash that got stuck in an artery. Now his legs were mostly useless for the best things. His left hand couldn’t hold his trumpet mouthpiece to lips for more than a moment if he tied it there and dictated those beautiful, once-muscle-memories of movements required for sound.

But Mirabel kept on. Of course she did, what else was she to do, watch the seconds of their lives tick on as the pantry was emptied? She’d been a jeweler by trade when they’d met–he’d been browsing for someone who became irrelevant that snowy day–and remained so. He was a musician, he had some regular gigs and even when he hit it bigger there were more bills than income at first. Her work tided them over and she kept at it. She got good, then better, and then she was managing the finest jewelry store in Detroit metro as well doing the best work around, as she’d often been told.

Now she traveled more. Okay, a lot, every month or more. She had trade shows to attend and consultations to carry out, gems with just finished settings (or the final designs to deliberate) to hand deliver so an out-of-town customer could see up close exactly what big money was paying for. A personal touch was how Mirabel preferred to do business. It cost a bit but it was worth it for connections and subsequent referrals. Success had arrived. If she had to go out of her way to keep things well oiled, she’d do it despite Hal being held hostage to the damnable wheelchair.

He understood this much: they now lived in a beautiful spacious condo with a fine river view and he had good help. Alma came to care for him every day, and she had a fair for it. She had expansive congenial feelings for him which she could dispense lavishly; she went home each night to a good humored, healthy husband.

Mirabel meanwhile speculated what a warm bed would feel like as someone sidled up close, held her all night. Those days felt over for her, to her sorrow. Not that Hal yet believed it but he was more a dreamer, not so accepting of gritty details.

“You must stay at nice places. And stay occupied,” he said. “Don’t tell me ‘no’.”

“Right, occupied by my usual historical novel or a sitcom on T.V. It’s a blast. I do find most people I meet are interesting, you know that, and thank goodness. It’s not all diamonds and rubies and money.”

“Oh, come on, there are many men in this business who’d be happy to hold your hand, your waist, then–”

“Right, those men are older by far than you and gassy and balding, or baby-faced and ambitious, or very married with two kids. And what do I care? The others circle like hawks, I know how to put them off. How many times do I have to remind you? I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I’m more likely to meet up with business women for a late dinner. But none of us love travelling. We’re flat out whipped at the end of the day so it’s no party. It’s not a great way to see the country, either. No, it’s not great fun…”

Hal grunted. “Yeah, it’s so hard to be free, on your own out there.” He turned up the music, checked out.

The anger never quite quit, it just went underground. It abated if there was something good, like his musician friends coming by for dinner and talk. Then Hal was all affable bluster as ever he’d been. He applauded his friends’ recording contracts or tours or the latest band they’d put together. Never moaned on and on that he wasn’t with them. He wouldn’t consider doing that to them or himself. They missed him. They also saw him as man of steel despite extraordinary ways with his instrument. Well, once extraordinary, once on the high road. He was a guy who could take punches over and over and still come up chirping about this surprising and wild life. How thankful he was he wasn’t a Benny who’d died of an overdose at the apex of his career, or a Margo who literally went over the edge from too many bad breaks. He’d had it pretty good since he was nineteen, overall. Now he could again read some (the stroke rattled that piece of his brain), listen to music all day, compose in his head all he wanted. Sit the terrace and breathe pungent city air without worrying, planning the next big gig. Maybe he’d take up electronic music in the end. He was working on bettering hand strength and dexterity.

And then Mirabel was one of a kind, she stepped in, took care of things, they knew how steady she’d always been. She never once hinted she’d leave him. Besides, there was now Alma with the short blonde bob and so-so jokes–she was such a cheerleader and they got on well. Maybe he would be okay.

Hal was a braver person than any of them but it was so sad to witness his demise that they couldn’t speak of it later. They put on his recordings now and then and raised a bottle.

Hal’s anger spilled over after they returned to making music and he to useless days and nights. Mirabel gave him enveloping hugs and good words then stepped aside, worked longer hours. Loneliness might bash him any time. He’d feel it burrow into his sleep and his waking when she left for a three day trip or worse, a long week. He’d think himself into exhaustion wondering what she was doing, who she was doing it with, even though nothing telegraphed that she was  disloyal. It was his humiliation, the teeth-gnashing depression that ran his mind in circles like a mad dog. But she was a person others gravitated to, that was the thing, eyes sparking with intelligence, a listening ear that put you center stage, a soft laugh that rolled into body and mind. She was attuned to life’s nuances as he was to music’s dynamics. He’d also seen her operate in a competitive, male-dominated trade that centered on obdurate, cool, magnificent gemstones with people to match. Mirabel had the right touch for so much.

But now more than ever there were things they did not know about each other.

******

When she went on work trips, after she was done for another day or evening, Mirabel wandered. If she had been successful or not, it was the same. After she window shopped and consumed a juicy steak, fish and chips or street burrito, she walked as if she was going somewhere, stride confident, footfall secure. But she was just moving fast from corner to corner, street to street, waiting for lights to change, people to pass without making eye contact, feeling breathless. Waiting for her life to stop blurring, as if she was on a runaway train and had to hang on for life.

Sometimes she ended up in a bar. The first times is was a shock, she was not a bar person, but they weren’t fancy or suspect, just any neighborhood place when regulars swiveled their heads as she slipped onto a stool. They knew she was passing through, she had the look of a visitor, hair neatly swept up at the sides neatly, her good leather bag full of things like scarves and elegant sunglasses, glossy pamphlets and who knows what else that made it bulge. She kept it close to her body.

The women who tended bar wondered if she was looking over their men but saw the plain gold band (her right hand wore a large single contemporary-set topaz) and her distant look. (Mirabel never wore her wedding diamond with two sapphires on either side when on trips, it was vintage and worth a good figure.) So they got her the simple mixed drink to get her started, minded their own business unless she stayed late for one too many. Which happened too often on trips, never at home since she rarely drank otherwise.

They’d pause at her spot, one hand on hip, brushing back unruly wisps of hair with the other. Tired out but always curious.

“BBQ sandwich? Pretzels? We’ve got a pile of garlic fries.”

“No, thank you very much.” She jiggled the ice in her glass full of rum and coke. “I suppose I need my husband… but he’s home and I’m–” she looked around as if surprised–“here.”

“Visiting someone then, huh?”

She shook her thick brown hair with white gleaming at the part and leaned into her glass. “Work only, I’m a jeweler. I’m on business.” She slurped the last of that drink.

Then they’d talk about jewelry and the bartender would show off shiny earrings or a dainty necklace from a boyfriend and ask if they were worth anything. One thing would lead to another until Mirabel would put an end to the questions with another drink, then a third and she’d start to slump. She was an amateur, they noted.

“I do miss the guy…”

“Have you called tonight to let him know you’re thinking of him?”

“Oh, no, he’s surely asleep. Alma the Nurse usually puts him to bed before she’s done for the day.”

“Oh?” Both hands on hips. Quizzical looks shared with those who’d been listening in.

“Hal’s paralyzed. Stroke.” She’d press fingers to lips–she hadn’t meant to tell these strangers, never anyone—would get up, hurry out the door unsteadily, hail a cab.

They were sure to watch her climb in okay, then regulars shook their heads, regulars frowned at their beers, muttered about fate and its misfortunes. The bartender slapped her rag hard once on the counter and got busy. Lots of pain in this place.

Back at her small, too bright room, the cheapest one available that didn’t cause worry about bedbugs or neighbors shouting all night. Why spend money where it didn’t help business, after all?

Mirabel somehow got off her clothes. Sat on the edge of her bed awhile, listening to the traffic below, the night a meaningless void. Where would she find some comfort for the night if she didn’t collapse under the influence of alcohol? Her five hundred page book or the same shows again? She stood motionless in the inadequate shower, shivering even in the hot spray. Then came the ache of longing, the gaping depths so empty where rich love had flourished. Her music man, crackling wit and loyal partner. Struck down. She wanted to hold his hands in hers, feel him squeeze hers three times like a young man: “I”, “love”, “you.” She wanted to hear that music had not been the one and only love of his life. That he still had room for her. For them. If his heart might still pull out the old joy–she could help if he’d let her–one day.  She didn’t need him to be this strong. Or this sorrowful. It would end, wouldn’t it?

The steam billowed, suffocating her. Mirabel opened her eyes, turned off the water and slid back the curtain. Grabbed a towel, readied body and mind for one more vast, chilly bed in the drone of the dark.

******

Hal watched Alma clean up the living room, her muscular arms and square hands moving with efficiency as she picked up things, dusted a little, took the tray with his dinner leftovers to the kitchen. She hummed to herself much of the time. He’d never commented despite his flinching; she was always off key and it pleased her. She spent all day taking care of him except when Mirabel could be there so he tried to be generous. To encourage her when she had trouble getting him moved, to laugh at her silly jokes, to not make more of a mess than possible.

She’d lasted ten months now. The others lasted two or four months. The stroke had terrorized him into submission close to two years ago. It was hard work to help him; he was not a short man, no longer toned, lithe, quick to respond. Alma was possessed of broad hips and shoulders and moved with such grace that he marveled at it. She had good muscle in those biceps. Mirabel though lovely, sleek, inhabited her body as if she had to command her limbs to act natural. She was confident while working, her hands so deft, but otherwise she might stumble, ram into corners, drop glasses–about which he used to tease her. Not now; he envied she could rise up, move alone.

Alma’s dishwater blond hair was spiky and bright. She wore black stretch pants and a long, loose pink shirt. Hal found her attractive if he was honest but made sure she didn’t know it. Her company was priceless, she had to know that by now. She hummed and chatted as she labored, and never lost her patience. He guessed that’s why they paid her a hefty wage. Well, mostly Mirabel’s health insurance did but Alma got bonuses. For such aid and company he’d give up other things if needed. She read murder mysteries to him. She cooked well enough. And never made a face when he needed more help in the bathroom, unlike Mirabel, whose dismay could not be hidden, nor deep frustration over her limitations.

Alma was interesting to contemplate. She’d be one of those women who stood right up in a nightclub and swayed to the jazz, arms raised, ample form mimicking the beat, high on his acrobatic trumpet. Livening up the crowd. This imagined scenario as she worked dovetailed with his sadness, shaping it into a lighter, prettier thing. She’d glance at him as if feeling his gaze, eyebrows flitting above cheery eyes as she hummed louder to make him chortle–surely she knew she couldn’t carry a tune but just didn’t care. She stirred things up a little as she watched over him. Perhaps that was her best way to help people. Distracting them from any self pity.

“Mirabel back tomorrow?” she asked since her work was done. She took off her pinafore type apron with its big bright flowers. Old fashioned, pretty, a fun touch.

“I suppose, wasn’t sure about this tran–trans–I mean, deal. I thought she’d call tonight.” His language use had returned bit by bit a year after the stroke but he still spoke with care, had to simplify some days. He gestured to the table. “Phone charged yet? She call or text?”

Alma picked it up, brought it to him. “No, Hal, nothing the last hour.” She handed it to him and then sat in the armchair across from him.”I was thinking lately. You ever consider going with her on a short trip? I know it’d be tiring but just for a change of pace.”

“No, no, that’d never work! She couldn’t help me. Even the airport would be a nightmare–can you imagine it? Everyone staring, too.”

She leaned forward, hands on knees. “They have wheelchairs there and those electric carts that whisk people about–they’re many places. You might get a portable wheelchair or find a hotel where they have extra aids.”

“Naw, not a plan of mine.”

“What if I came? I mean, a little trip, one that wouldn’t cost too much.”

Hal shook his head, glared at her. “What are you getting at?”

Puzzled, she took her time answering. “I was just thinking, if it was me, I’d want you to come along some times. See a couple of sights. Be there when I got back to the room. Share a nice dinner with me.”

“But you’re you, not Mirabel. She’s a busy pro with people to see, things to do. I doubt she thinks much about me when she’s out there. She calls out of duty. I mean, she escapes!”

“I’m busy, too. You’re not my only patient, I work at night sometimes. But if I could–”

“You work at night?” The idea seemed absurd, no one could do this another eight hours. “When do you sleep or see your husband?”

“That’s neither here or there but yes, on week-ends I do overnight work.” She sat up straight and sighed. “Hal, you are starting to look at me like your best friend or your mother or something… it’s time to get you out more, not just to the park. You should ask if you can go with her.”

His face flushed as he turned wheelchair away. “I see. So, are you done here?”

“Yep, all done. Your chili is in the frig if you want to microwave more. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”

“I can do the necessary things better now, thanks.”

“I know, but I’m here.”

“You can go, thanks, Alma.”

She came around to face him. “It was just a suggestion, Hal! It might make you both happier.”

He looked into her eyes, saw compassion. Her soft face was so close, her skin radiating a scent slightly sour but even more sweet. He looked down at his knobby knees, the near-useless hand. His wife was so far away. It almost lured him, this closeness that wasn’t even Mirabel’s.

“Maybe so.” He managed a wan smile. “I’m alright, never mind.”

Here was a woman who knew all his needs, frailties, moods. He tried to think of himself in a bland room with Mirabel in a strange place, greeting a morning together, sipping a cup of coffee, chatting softly and then he’d realize they weren’t even home with some comforts. Did he even want that? But maybe it could happen; likely not. And she’d have to leave him once more. Of course, he’d also been gone every night when she came home, for years and years. Did she feel abandoned? No, she had had two legs and arms working, a resolute mind.

He felt confused by all this, saw Alma study him.

His phone rang. Alma got her sweater, opened the front door. She almost waited to see who it was then waved at him and glided outside.

Hal looked at the caller ID, answered. “Mirabel. It’s late in Boston. All okay?”

“I miss you,” Mirabel’s voice wafted to him, weary.

She missed him. “That’s nice to hear…tell me about your day.”

“Hal, I drank too much at a corner bar and feel so lonely. When I got to my room I desperately wanted to just hold your hand. To press forehead to forehead like we used to do, remember?”

A crummy Boston dive of all things, his wife alone! But the timbre of her voice reached in. His body–all parts that still could be swept up in feelings, so many places–tingled, and his mind’s usual fog lifted just enough that he knew this was real, his wife was speaking truth.

“Are you there, Hal?”

His good hand holding the phone shook a little. “Baby, when you come home, let’s figure out how to take me with you next time, okay? I want to be with you more, hear me? I need you.”

There came the ease of relief, then he heard her snuffling. She hadn’t cried around him since the first days after his stroke. He had become the weeper too often. He put the phone to his chest, his heart as she caught her breath. Because she would. She always regained footing even when he had no purchase, himself. But he saw it was possible she could use help, too. Hal felt her head against his shoulder, her warmth melding with his, soul opening a little like a flower to the light.

 

Garage Living

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 enjoyed. 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 with her 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 it. There was no collar or bell, ad nothing interesting about the cat other than it looked more like an oversized sleeked down 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 the house around the corner. She came through the kitchen door and found 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 clothes, 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.

“Were 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 sire, 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.

 

This Broken House

Columbia Gorge, Cascade Locks, misc 050
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

They had spotted it from the first hilltop. Ed was breathless from another climb followed by a steep descent. His shoulders were hunched forward in muted excitement. Layla had fallen behind though she was supposed to lead the way. She knew how to get to her own house, didn’t she? The vicinity, overgrown as it was, became more familiar with each step. The trouble was, her legs didn’t want to carry her further, nor did her mind. What they had seen was both so familiar and foreign that she balked at the idea, after all. In fact, her entire being recoiled.

It had come up at the twenty year class reunion last night, of course. Miller had accosted Layla with two drinks in hand, waving them at her as if he was selling something she needed. Perhaps she did; Ed was preoccupied at another table, easy Ed, always a friend to anyone who talked back. She appreciated his outgoing nature–it had made the reunion easier so far–but now she wished he’d look her way.

It was not an event she had willingly attended. They’d been getting ready to have a real vacation in the mountains when he’d convinced her it would be a good thing to do this year.

“For me to see what your roots were. For you to wish old friends good stuff and share a couple of laughs. And put it all of it behind you once and for all.”

Why had she listened to him?

******

Miller bent over her (had he been so tall in high school? sweaty? and had they really dated a whole six months?); his cologne and the alcohol draped over her. Layla coughed.

He muttered, “Not what you’d expect, eh, Layla? All of us much older and more tired than we’d planned! Present company excluded, of course.” He’d handed her a glass and grinned at her in the same way he had in tenth grade, all teeth and rotten heart. “Have you anything to say for yourself, girl?”

Of course she did but she held her tongue. “Well, this was a stopover, soon we’ll be languishing in a mountain lodge eating salmon and strawberries and all will be forgotten. You?”

“I make these every ten years. There are cousins and old buddies to drink with, there are basketball trophies to recall, there are some very lovely women.” He lifted his glass to her and drank. “I got out, you got out–among a half dozen others. Who has the better tale?”

“Please tell me, Miller, I always knew you had a mini-spark of genius…”

“Well, what could I do with a lawyer father and an author mother? Fail? Indeed not. I own a tech company, TorchWare .”

“Sounds like a program for arson. Good for you, gives an outlet for that wayward bent.”

“Yes, it illuminates everything simply and well for those in dire need. And I reap fine benefits. And you? You got into Seattle University, didn’t you? English major, was it?”

His small teeth glinted at her. He breathed heavily; she recalled that he’d always had an inhaler at the ready. Or was that ill-placed lust?

“Funny you’d recall that. Yes, and also met Ed.” She pointed at her chatty husband at a nearby table. You’d have thought it was his reunion. “But I turned into a ceramicist and am unexpectedly good at it, while he teaches engineering at U of W.”

Miller lifted scraggly eyebrows and sipped. “How’s all that working out for you–I mean, as a pretty but shy daughter of a rather derelict lumberjack father and a nurse, fortunately, for a mother? Though you sure speak up now! Don’t get me wrong, my own parents weren’t all that honorable despite impeccable appearances…”

“You know, I think I’ll use my big new voice to finally let you know–”

“Quite well, I’d say, it is all working perfectly. Wouldn’t you agree, Layla?” Ed said as he took her elbow and started to steer her away.

“He wasn’t derelict, you fool, he was ill–now dead from MS complications, Miller. Haven’t you learned basic human decency or even good manners yet?”

Miller snorted. “Everyone said he accidentally burned down the house to collect on insurance. It didn’t work as you well know. In fact, it’s still standing. Barely, I suppose.”

“Not worth it, darlin’.” Ed grabbed her wrist just as she lifted her half-full glass to douse Miller who, shaking his head as if in pity, walked away.

The drink spilled on her new navy pumps and she glared at him.

“The house, he had to mention Dad and the house. Do you see now why I never come to these? The villains still wait around to attack the unsuspecting and weaker.”

“Except you are not weak. You’re a bit tipsy, I think, and tired of being here. Let’s say goodbye to the ones we do like before I go punch the fool–then let’s make a run for it.”

Layla put her drink on a table, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. “Good plan, smart guy.”

“You and all the smart guys…I see them looking your way.”

“Yeah, but you won out and you’re a good guy, too, so lucky me.”

******

“Ed, this is not a great idea.”

He turned to her, held out his hand. “You’re the one who says that if there’s a noise in the dark you need to get up to check it out. This has been bumping every night in your adult life. Time to take a look.”

She grabbed the proffered hand but pulled him back a little. “There’s nothing much to see, just rotting wood. You know I came back for Dad’s funeral before we got married. Mom left town that very night. No one was interested in the property, not even to tear it down. I took a quick look from the hilltop then. It just emanated all their miserable life. Our life.”

Ed studied her face, how tight the petal soft jaw, how pale her pressed lips, eyes narrowed against whatever might be seen. His throat constricted; he had to look into treetops, reassure himself the blue sky was up there; they’d get done with this. Maybe he had made a mistake insisting they come. But then she started to walk and he right along with her, down another hill, across the gravel road, right to the property line, if there was one. The lot was so overgrown with tangles of blackberries, spindly weeds and hulking bushes that nothing could have made its way to the front door except for the creatures. Foxes, mice, snakes or insects, whatever had claimed it and moved in.

The front door was torn away under the sagging roof, she could see this through the brush and wondered where it was. Perhaps someone long ago needed a door. She remembered how she and her mother painted it fern green, the radio blaring from the living room, paint dripping, getting on them, her father in his wheel chair that day but directing them. The dirty white of the house seemed less an affront with that new door. The door might have burned. All windows were agape, of course, the fire ruined them, too. The moss overtook the shingles, weakening them, and the insects, took, must have lunched on many seedlings and the birds must have pecked away the bits they could. All like vultures tearing at a carcass. It looked hideous.

“I don’t like seeing all this, Ed.” She released him, though, and put up her hand to indicate she wanted to  proceed a ways without him. He shifted from foot to foot as she waded through high grasses.

Layla worried that she’d be able to smell the smoke still, even after all the years. She’d been in college when she got the news from her mother, that the house had burned enough that it was not salvageable. So they had moved to an apartment right on Main Street, a better place than the house had been but small. It was an ancient kerosene lantern that toppled in the living room–her father had a thing for old stuff collected in younger years and he’d lit it and somehow knocked it off the table. Then he panicked and rolled his wheel chair into the yard.

It was pure luck that her mother had gotten home before the fire engines came, applied the fire extinguisher to wide swaths of area. But people talked because her father was not the most open or pleasant man, not even a reasonable man, they’d decided. He was hard on his wife and his daughter since MS had finally taken his legs and made things so taxing for them all. The truth was, he was never an easy man, one who could move through life on good will and a sense of hope. He had a hard edge to him that just got sharper as he got sicker.

But as Layla walked around the falling-down house she heard his voice wind through the place with a beckoning tone and stepped in at the back, the screen door hinges rusted and wrenched, the door nearly hanging to the dry dirt and brittle grass. Beer bottles and soda cans lay about, a torn and faded girlie magazine, a dirty plastic spoon and fork by a rank container, a torn up tennis shoe half chewed by perhaps a passing dog. Layla wished she had a trash bag but to what purpose? No one cared. Not even, really, herself.

But she stepped around the mess and indoors. She saw the living room, desolate, still filthy with fire’s carbon from so long ago, the wooden stairs having fallen down so she couldn’t go up to her room even if she had wanted to take a look. There was no parental bedroom; the wall had burned. The one third-charred kitchen with its stained farm sink was ruined, counters scratched and torn, even the walls though smudged by the fire seemed to be moldering in winter rains and summer heat. The appliances were long taken, maybe even sold as is. Fire had swirled through most of the lower level like a storm, then was defeated. But it was a bad omen. What was to come for her parents was worse than they’d known before.

But as she lingered she knew what lay beneath the rubble. Once this room had been almost cheery, yellow curtains with tiny green ferns on them; a ceramic rooster on the counter for cookies; a small oak table by a wall with convenient folding ends. They had enjoyed breakfast there, even Dad when he was up to it though he said little more than “Another day, damn it.” Each morning, before school and her mother’s work at the hospital, they had that half hour or more just to sit together, talk about the headlines or drink coffee without words uttered but the radio playing something tuneful and easy. It helped them, that music.

They could also see out the south side yard all the flowers her mother and she had planted and tended. Rose, irises and tulips, a few gladiolas, later the zinnias, geraniums and marigolds, three types of lavender, petunias and pansies, too, and more, so much she could not recall. They came to her as if someone threw back a curtain and she could see them: flashy and happy to be growing there. For the family of three. Even her father loved that garden, messy and simple as it was. But sometimes he became morose, lamented that he’d once been such a lumberman, how he missed the scents and feel of wood and dirt on his hands, the outdoors in his veins. Layla recalled him as he was once: standing so straight, barrel chest high and arms muscled. She had often wondered over his loss. And how it had hurt them all. How he felt so diminished it was a burrowing beast that dug deeper in him each year.

She decided one time–despite her mother’s warning look–to put into his unwilling palms a little pile of fresh soil and tender roots for him to close his big fist over and hold. He had wept a long moment. But it passed and he shook his head at her when she tried it another time. He just sat there each day he could manage it, after they rolled him out and let him be, and he read or drowsed or watched squirrels race about or listened to birds calling. Stellar jays, a favorite, and he always watched for deer at the far edge of the woods at dusk and called to his wife and daughter to see how they stood graceful, proud.

Did he long to be free like the creatures were? Did it anger him to see them work the garden? He was silent much of the time he wasn’t gritting his teeth or snarling. Her mother said once, “He loves me most, you know, when I am deep into gardening, my hair a mess, sweat ruining my shirt, my hands full of bugs and blossoms. I see it in his eyes. ”

And Layla could understand this, knew it meant more than most things to her, even his rough hug or kiss. He was not easy to love, and he was not gifted at it himself though her mother tried to show him and she, too, offered him her hugs that wanted to soothe him. Which he often pushed away. Maybe he knew things he taught her mother, too. They made what they had work; she stayed until he passed. But Layla wanted happiness, not just partnership.

He taught Layla that if helplessness and disappointment seem like the toughest enemies, family and nature are balm. And she wished she could lay her head on his shoulder one more time. She might call her mother, set up a visit but she now lived in Boise with a man Layla found wanting.

She wandered out and around the corner of the house.

“Ed! Come here!”

He ran to find her, glad she called him, praying she had not found things to pain her more. He found her staring , mouth agape, at the end of the lot. Inside the leaning, towering trees, past broken branches and bushes out of control and wild grasses and blackberry vines, there was something more.

Layla pointed straight ahead. “Look!”

“What on earth…?”

The garden was still alive, and it was in summer’s peak bloom.

“It’s me,” said a small voice. “I done it when I could, hope that’s okay with you.”

She was bent over, nearly the size of a child, with wrinkled face and white hair that was piled atop her head with a pencil. A hunched back, as it always had been but worse.

“Mrs. Stanish!” Layla went to her and, bending over, put her arms about her. “You! But why? You and dad never got along too well, as I recall, he didn’t like your dogs getting into our yard and such.”

“Well, that’s so.” She patted Layla’s hand and nodded at Ed. “Your husband, I see. I saw the newspaper notice all those years ago. And your mother, she told me, too.”

He took her hand into both of his. “This is wonderful, really amazing.”

Mrs. Stanish walked into the garden with them. “Oh, he now and then could be sour. I understood sourness with my bad scoliosis. How much pain tries to ruin you, how nosey people think they know things they don’t. I said I’d tend their garden after the fire. If it survived, and it mostly has. Sorta.  But never  break a promise if you can help it.” She smiled up at them, deep blue eyes wreathed in folds of flesh.

They caught up some then shared brief hugs.

“Thank you for keeping it going, It means a great deal to me.”

Mrs. Stanish gave them a once over. “You see, life does as good as it can, we just got to help it along. You two be nice to each other.” And off she shuffled to her equally aged husband.

“I suspect they’re in their late eighties or early nineties now. Incredible,” Layla remarked.

Ed and she climbed back up the hill. She turned back a last time and he did, too.

“Incredible that they are still alive, married or maintaining the garden as promised? Or that you found a few good memories there?”

“Yes,” was all she said and waved goodbye to that old broken-down house, where once her family had worked, suffered, loved as they could. “Let’s get to the mountain paradise before the sun goes down.”

 

Unexpected Beasts

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

She did not desire to visit the country much less live there, with its hidden creatures and ominpresent dirt. Nor anywhere other than their condo with a glass walled view of colorful, heaving throngs on streets below and a daily, even hourly variance of traffic patterns that created soothing and lively background for her work. And the ships leaving with horns blowing and trains trundling down more distant tracks.

Vera drew and painted just a few feet from that view so she wouldn’t be unduly distracted. Though her work was mostly cityscapes, this framed scene was hers and somehow intimate. Thus, not for sharing with strangers. Possessiveness was part of her; she held on to what she needed, was loathe to part with certain things and certainly persons.

The condo was one of them. They had lived there for over ten years, Vera and Putnam (“Put”) Rawlings, and it was the haven they had hoped it would be. He wrote and she made art and they were happier than imagined when meeting twelve years ago at an artists’ residency. Faster than expected–they worked taxing hours, doing even more than they had to but then they made their way into galleries and two museums and onto bookshelves and in libraries and into a fine spot on the tenth floor.

So why did Put want to move now? Unless to another floor above them, a bigger place, perhaps. But her erudite husband could be capricious. And single-minded when he had a wish to fulfill.

“Not entirely move, just acquire a little week-end place, a summer place.”

“How bourgeois of you, a quaint summer cottage,” she laughed, and dabbed a wash of purple and smidge of black then pearly grey onto the damp watercolor paper. “We’d miss so much in the city, week-ends are teeming with things to encounter and do.”

“It’s Chicago, there’ll not be a lack of cultural events if we go away for week-ends now and again. And summer is not the peak performance season in some areas, anyway. Come on…”

“You can’t be serious.” Vera looked him full face to discern the intent of these statements and felt a frisson of anxiety. “I won’t do it. I can barely stand dirt, the way it clings to everything. Me. You know I don’t like bugs up close and personal. I don’t even like to put my feet underneath a picnic table in the park, you never know.” She swished her brushes about in a big plastic cup of water and turned around. “Why are you even thinking of it?”

“I need inspiration. More quiet. I need to step outside and put my feet on ground, not pavement.”

“Your new book drafts are not going as well hoped, I know…but really, the countryside will not further your creative flow, believe me, it will only disturb your focus–all those mice and snakes, wasps and bees.”

She sidled up to him, put arms about his neck and drew him close, put her forehead to his and closed her eyes, beaming her will at him. But Put lifted her arms, let them drop.

“I’ve looked awhile now, sorry to inform you and I found one online that seems perfect. Not so much money and a companionable size. I’m going up this week-end to have a look around. I hope you’ll come along.”

With that he turned and retreated to his study. Vera padded after him, long coral dress billowing in an air conditioned draft. She leaned against the door jamb. She didn’t enter his study unless invited, generally. One thing she wanted was her own good studio space, not just the high-ceilinged living room by windows. It meant she had to put her art supplies in boxes at bottom of their closet each time they entertained. She felt second class with the arrangement but his study had poor light and was too small for her liking, anyway. And he didn’t like to look at any views when writing–“too many odds and ends of stories played out there,” he’d said.

“What on earth are you doing? Making unilateral decisions about something you know I am against…”

Put remained facing the desk. “I had to take charge of this situation and do what makes sense to me for once. I need a change. This may be it. Besides, I love the country, you already knew that. It’s near a lake, you do like water.”

“I do not, there are blood suckers there. Snakes that wrap around your legs and fish that bite your toes and lake muck.”

And with that he started to type again, murmuring, “I’m leaving Friday around three. Takes two hours, I’m told.”

“But…!”

He kept plunking one word after another onto the glimmering screen. She felt like slapping the doorjamb in a fit but left him to his work, pulling the door closed.

Put knew she expected they live in the city. As an urban artist that made the most sense–he could write anywhere–and he’d also concluded she was a little OCD about dirt and wildness. He hadn’t questioned it much. Should he?

Vera put her face close to the window pane, palms pressed alongside and making warm, damp outlines on the glass. Her heart was charging past her thoughts; she was dizzy when she glanced down ten stories. All those decent people and cars and trucks and shops. They were tiny as miniatures, she could scoop them up if she was only a giantess but she felt she, too, was shrinking by the second. Her world was being altered by Put’s whims masked as serious needs, and she had that sinking feeling: powerlessness.

She squeezed eyes tightly to block it all out, but the past took its place. Running, galloping into the present.

The country. She deeply and irrevocably did not want to go to that country.

******

All the way there she slept or was on the verge of sleep. Vera had not slumbered much the night before so drank a large glass of wine after breakfast. Put frowned at that b ut didn’t chastise her. He knew this was hard for her. His main objective was to get to the lakeside village of Callaway before dark. Hers was to stop him from making a foolish decision and she felt wine might fortify her.

A burgeoning community of trees enveloped them. Put whistled tunelessly. Vera opened one eye to see them encroach upon the state highway, their sedan. The sun got brighter, air became clearer and her breathing, faster. She rolled her window up, then down, then up, twisted in her seat.

“I think you’re going to like the house if it is anything what it appears to be. Alright, a cottage, a very old one but it has character, I can tell.” His spritely mood grated on her.

“‘Character’  means rundown, Put, not attractive and desirable. Likely nobody else will have it.”

Why was she being so resistant, verging on insensitive, even mean? he wondered. Was it because he’d gotten a hefty advance for his third book while she’d had trouble with her last series of paintings? Well, another reason he’d wanted to look at the place was to provide both with new environs, a set of unknowns to engage them in different ways.

Or was it simply because she hadn’t lived in the country since she was ten? After her father left her mother and she, with him. It had not been a good time of her life, he knew that but divorces happen,  and she’d grown up happier with him in Chicago. The man wremained a fine florist and she by all accounts was a developing artist and a happy helper. Yet, she did not now favor a spectrum of plants, seldom added flowers to their minimalist decor. He thought she even suffered from a paucity of nature’s delights, and he was not the most outdoorsy man. A thinker, a better spectator than doer– well, a writer of philosophical matters, darker than light-filled, subtly ironic literature. But he was a nature nut when he was a kid. It was their city attitude he hoped to challenge, to loosen with a part time stay in the country. He did like to sit on their balcony, watch the seasons play out their dramas.

He might even cut some wood if they wintered there. He accelerated, dodged in and out of swift shadows.

Vera was sound asleep by the time they arrived at a tiny real estate office at village edge. He left her in her seat and met with Darlene Howe.

“It just came on the market; you’re only the second person to view it,” Darlene informed him with a gregarious smile and handshake. “Follow me.”

“Are we at the end of the road yet? The dead end, I might note,” she murmured. “Can I just view it from the comfort of our Volvo?”

“No, Vera, time to get out and face the future with me.” He touched her nose and lips with index fingertip, then kissed her on a pale cheek. “Be brave, we’re only taking a look at it.”

She felt welded to the seat, so unwilling was she to join in, but Darlene was waiting for her, Put was staring at rustling treetops with a show of childlike pleasure. What did he know about trees and other green matter with roots that grew like tentacles into dense earth and took hold with wretched tenacity? Yes, it was magical. But whether good or not, well, she was of two minds–the florist’s and the wood nymph’s.

Her mother had floated around with butterflies, light as air and as erratic, too, though Mother would have said that butterflies did have a path they followed, we just couldn’t map it. Vera had wondered why her mother had acted like she was an interpreter of such things but now knew why.

The single story, dingy white cottage with blue trim had a blue door that was opening. If she went through it she might be swallowed up, but Vera yanked herself back from twenty years ago, she was not a child, this was now. Put was dear to her and would not leave her alone to bear the vicious pounce of an unknown fate. She was watchful, nonetheless. The trees and birds and scrabbling squirrels possibly watched back.

There were hydrangeas restrained by a peeling white picket fence and though it was almost too quaint in effect, they were encouraging. She had put together many an extravagant bouquet with the showy blue-to-purple flowers. As Put and Darlene entered the cottage, she lingered until a group of squirrels started to harangue each other. She gazed down the road; there were a handful of places, all undisturbed, most in need of some upkeep. She longed to see an older, smiling woman pop out, a regular cottage dweller who might share some gravity, tell her how wonderful it was and safe, full of community cohesion. Because Vera knew Put would buy this cottage if he liked it well enough. He’d had that look the moment he’d mentioned it: as if his life would was paused at a crossroads, ready to charge into happy fullness of a country gentleman’s life. So it was necessary. He needed her to be happy with him, too.

But Vera’s mother had told her father that, as well, and they’d moved to Escanaba. And then she’d meandered away, submerged herself in a dream world since she had a husband who was rock solid, a gardener and florist.  But it was for her a darker kingdom of shadows and hard river rocks and many challenging times obscured by her need for escape. They waited for her return. Her conspiring friends said she was only coming into her own, her own gifts, but what they were, Vera had no clue.  The woman knew wild plants and animal ways. She had a sense of unusual things. Her father said nothing of his grief but they both felt the sharpness of abandonment, he like the call to a strange battle, and he lost. They lost.

She shuddered as Put disappeared inside, and then ran up the few creaky wooden steps, into the cottage and with relief found both feet more firmly planted indoors.

“Vera, come into the living room, it faces the water.”

She left the modest foyer’s faded and cracked linoleum, moved past dining nook and small kitchen to find Put in a nearly spacious living room with fireplace as he’d required. He was nosing about and when seeing her broke into his lopsided smile and pointed out the picture window. There was another house across another dirt road. It, however, was sited on a large plot so it afforded an almost unobstructed view of the lake. The barest waves carried a golden glow from the receding sun.

Vera felt her diaphragm relax as Darlene showed them three bedrooms, “cozy” was the word she used, and the outdated bathroom with claw-foot tub and no shower, “vintage, of course, just like the cute kitchen.” Then she took them to the newer deck outside the back of the house which oversaw the very close water.

Put walked the deck, noted the railing as sturdy, stepped down into uneven yard, examined trees and bushes, the Gerber daisies, leggy zinnias, more hydrangeas and many weeds not vanquished. Vera almost wanted to get on hands and knees and start pulling when she recalled she hated the dirt, how it stuck to her skin, how it would not come out of her pores after playing in the forest making hapless camps. Digging a trench around her for protection and then–

“Vera? Sweetheart? What do you really think?”

“It’s an old place, true country lake cottage style, and not even dressed up to be enticing. I appreciate its long history–built in the nineteen thirties, maybe? But it is not for us.”

Darlene put a hand to chest, took in a long breath.

“Sorry, Darlene, she’s a city gal, it might take time for her to adapt but I like it, all of it. I so loved those summers in the Berkshires when I was a boy.”

Darlene offered him a cheery look but raised an eyebrow at the woman she found odd at best, disconcerting at worst.

“I know about country life, Darlene. I grew up in the forests of the Upper Peninsula, a few miles outside Escanaba, Michigan. On the wild shores of Lake Michigan…”

“Lovely up there,” Darlene felt encouraged again. She needed this commission and he was a nice man, maybe he’d be famous one day.

“It’s been years and she’s adapted to the city so well, this seems almost new to her, not easy to consider again.”

Darlene looked sympathetically at Vera. She’d had all the country taken out of her, clearly.

Vera knew better than to contradict him in front of Darlene. This was his adventure, she was also in it so just went along a bit. But she recoiled at the possibility that he was serious about this foray into unfathomable, unassailable forest.

“Your husband says you’re a painter and he’s a writer from Chicago. That’s exciting! I imagine there’d be so much to inspire you. We have a good potter down the road, sells things online mostly.”

Vera smiled obediently as Put held her in his gaze, but she could see the tumbling of his reasonable mind. She was no match for his new thrill. She walked around the cottage, left the other two sliding into business talk.

She wanted to be fair. It was his book advance; he could do whatever he wanted, within limits. Was this reasonable or reckless? He romanticized his family’s summer house but did regale her with funny and good-hearted stories. Put had thought they’d had that in common, experiences in deep, cold lakes and fast, fish-laden rivers., woods. Bonfires late into night and everyone singing, joking and telling ghost stories. Like it was camp night every night and no one wanted to go home.

But for Vera, it was not like that, certainly not after just one afternoon and night. She had shivered among looming trees as darkness dropped like a heavy cloak about her and she had waited for the sound of her name called out. She was nine years old. She knew a great deal about the woods. It had been her playground, her school, her home. But not then. And not after.

Vera shook her head, roused herself at the sound of footsteps and voices.

“Well, you and your wife should think it over and get a good night’s rest. Give me a call tomorrow, I’ll be around.”

Vera stood up from the rickety front steps where she’d waited. They shook hands all around and she made effort to show the woman she was a person who was civilized and could be amenable.

“Let’s get dinner and talk,” Put said, arm slung about her shoulders.

“No,” she said, shrugging him off. “Let’s first go by the water. I have my input for you.”

******

They sat on a bench made of rough-hewn oak. Vera pulled her knees up to her chin to avoid the bugs that certainly crawled about. For a time they watched motor boats head for the docks jutting from steely blue water, commenting on lingering hues of a soft sunset. It was a big lake, bigger than she’d thought but nothing like the inimitable Lake Michigan. Put leaned back, chatted about getting a sailboat if they bought the place. He’d been taught at an early age the happy ways of boating but he’d had very little opportunity to enjoy it with Chicago friends.

“It’s a smallish place but so is the price.”

Vera hugged her knees closer. “Put, hold that thought. There is a whole part of my life you do not know about. It’s time.”

He looked at her but didn’t change his easy stance. Her quieter voice stirred him yet this was not the time to let anything ruffle him. He wanted to be clear and steady about any real estate decisions. He would be steady about any new confessions, too.

“Okay, shoot.”

Vera kept her eyes on the water; she felt safe there with the water’s rhythmic motion, its song. That much was still good.

“You never met my mother because she died when I was twenty, but she was, as I’ve said, very quirky. Too smart, dreamy, rebellious, according to my dad, for that town in that time. He loved her, I loved her, that’s a fact. Did she love him, me? I don’t know. She was fascinated by the idea of having a child. She thought children were closer to the heavens, to earth’s mysteries, too. She was likely right but I was more like a human charm to her, a secret transport to other worlds … like the land of pixies or something nuttier, I never was clear. She may have been emotionally ill, I know, but I am not entirely convince. Just an unusual person and mother, a bit wild, beautiful in deed and appearance. She could be such fun, though. Impractical. Eventually she seemed too in the beyond, not truly connected to us. My father took care of me mostly even when I was younger. I’m grateful for it.”

“I know all this, Vera. But I still don’t know why you’re so repelled by the country you also admit you adored.”

“So I am telling you, if you’ll listen well.”

Would she really just tell him everything? She stood up with back to him, vision still of the water as darkness gathered, as moon’s light began to skim all surfaces and lend a silver sheen to easy waves. He was now alert and stood closer, not touching her.

“I had been playing in the woods that afternoon, as I did every day. Mother was nearby picking berries, plopping them into the metal bucket with a pleasing sound and also singing her made up songs, voice bright and pretty. I had picked my bucketful so kept moving on with a stick in hand, batting at tree branches and brambles and mosquitoes, leaping like a deer, going deeper into the trees and shadows where there was less sunlight illuminating all. I lost the phrases of mother’s songs but heard all the birds and scurrying animals and buzzing bees, saw an owl sleeping upright, of course, and a snake slithering through brush. This was all as usual. I was running, jumping about, stoking the air with my stick, becoming a ninja girl, something I believed might be possible. I remember looking back a few times. Noting sunlight through treetops, deciding the house was still in a certain direction. I had never gotten lost. I was never afraid out there. But then the light began to fade and I was tired of wandering, getting hungry. It would soon be full sunset, then twilight, then dark.”

Put saw her enrapt face, tried to take her hand but she shook him off as if he were a fly or a bee.

“I had half a homemade granola bar in my pocket so sat at the base of a big old white pine and ate, looking around, trying to figure it out. The way back. I’d always been told to not panic if I wasn’t sure of directions, find sun’s direction, listen and locate the lake shore then follow along it. Soon I would find something or someone or be found–we had not been deep into the wilderness. I listened to the blueish evening, and the bird song was less familiar. Twigs snapping, underbrush rustling. Wings overhead that sliced the air, bats careening. I rummaged in my jeans pockets and found a rubber band, a favorite Petoskey stone and one of my father’s lighters, borrowed for no good reason. I liked to see the flame flick on and off, that’s all, I knew to not light anything and supposed I’d get in trouble. But now I reconsidered the fire part. I was no longer sure of my way nor so secure in the gathering closeness of night.”

Put reached for her but she stepped close to water’s edge as evening sky began to scatter it’s jewels above. He ached for her but was restless with questions.

“I recalled my mother once taking me into the woods and digging a deep circular trench around her as she stood in the middle of it. She was talking in that special away as if reciting a poem though I was never sure what she meant. Years later I’d recognize it as chanting, in perhaps Romanian as her grandmother was from there. When she was done with the trench she put pieces of brush into it and cleared away all other areas. And then she lit the torn dry stuff and various twigs and they caught fire. I jumped back, warned her to get out but she was swaying a little, smiling at me as she spoke on and on. Afterwards, she seemed calm. She told me that would protect me if I needed help–to make a trench and light a fire in it, go to the center area but clear the spot of all else. And sing a song for courage.”

Vera closed her eyes, opened them again.

“So that’s what I did. I lit the smallest fire and it ran around the ring, then I remained in the center hoping and praying someone would see the firelight or a waft of smoke before it got much later.”

She walked a few paces from him, then turned back. But she was looking into that flame. Not at him.

“I must have gotten drowsy, as I jerked awake. There came a very soft, low growl, more a quiet guttural sound, right behind me. I turned my body, saw nothing. My heart was galloping, legs hurting from being cross-legged and I carefully straightened them but did not get up. A shiny beetle crawled over my ankle, and I saw a large spider following. The ring of fire burned low but steady. What did my mother chant? Why did she not give me words that would help, wasn’t she supposed to share such things? My senses sharpened; eyes penetrated deep into darkness, ears opened to small animal mutterings, whirs of wings, hoots of owls. Then silence. I was afraid I’d cry out and startle the unknown.”

Vera knelt by the lake and smoothed the cold lapping water with flattened fingers. Put watched her squat on her haunches and saw her anew, strangely like a creature deeply at home within woods and waters yet tethered by a terror of it. Somehow she remained aligned with the good even in that  very moment. He sat beside her.

“Then from the corner of my eye there was a movement, hot flash of amber eyes, a huge sleek body leaping toward me over fallen limbs and I screamed but no sound came out, I couldn’t move  so sat paralyzed in the center of a tiny circle of failing fire. I could do nothing to save myself. And no one coming… The beast’s great head came closer, mammoth paws trod earth carefully, those glowing eyes locked with mine. I stopped breathing. Everything in the whole world stopped. I blacked out.”

She was trembling from sudden chill of night, and memory’s loosed burden. He wrapped his arms around her and she wept. He bit his lip to keep from crying with her. Then she calmed some.

“I came to as soon as there were shouting voices, my father’s and his friends who searched for me. Discovered me, at last. It was a cougar!– that was what I met up with, that’s what the men said the next morning after examining the area. A cougar found me but somehow left me unharmed, alive… ”

Putnam Rawlings was dumbfounded. He held his wife so tightly she could not have have left his arms but he was right there with her that night and now this night, and he also was bursting with outrage. And her anguish. Where had that madwoman gone? Why ever had Vera been left to her own devices?

“My mother, she was gone most of the night, Dad said. Didn’t come home from our outing. She sometimes disappeared but never had left me alone like that. Oh, she threw her arms around me when we got home, made a fuss but I couldn’t bear to look at her. I’d lost basic trust in her. I soon despised her as much as loved her. But worse…” Vera took Put’s face into her hands and sputtered out words. “Worse, yes, even worse…a part of me wondered if maybe she had come to me as that cougar. I know it sounds absurd, but I was nine years old, left to roam deep into forest and she didn’t even call my name out, and something in that cougar’s manner–its wildness and yet curious gentleness…It’s how I felt. So awed. So scared. Of her, the forested land, then all country with its shadowy places and its roaming, unexpected beasts…but she did teach me of the fire ring.”

She began to shake violently so he rocked her, rocked her until she grew limp. So long to hold in such misery. So long to keep from him this story he found amazing and treacherous. How it had damaged her. And them, he imagined, in certain secret ways.

They stood and he held her upright; they left behind lake and cottage, the stars and moon, which winked and glowed benignly.

******

Vera holds her painting into a broadening stream of light. A picture is truly forming, beguiling her with uncharted territory, water and sky and richness of light with its twin, shadow, that show her each design as it comes alive from her fingers, her mind. She follows its calls. No more city sights, people mashed together on the buses, trucks and bicycles vying for space on endless streets, skyscrapers creating all manner of blinding light, graffiti scrawled across every blank spot. The noise and gritty smog and sudden sirens and its garish beauty: all gone. Her success, more than a little uncertain now.

“Vera” Put calls from across the hall, “I could use a break from this tiresome second draft. Ready for a stroll by the lake?”

Vera sets her rinsed brushes down. The painting will be very good in time. She glances out her studio window, through the thicket of trees and across a road to the shining expanse of water, now warmed by late summer sun. Inclines her head at the vivid scenes.

“More than ready.”

She still often shivers inwardly as she leaves the cottage and glances about to discern what may be there, if yet unseen. Then Vera moves forward, doesn’t look back. But keeps a lighter in her pocket just in case.