The Fine Art of Brady O’Connell

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What more could she say? It was how things were, wasn’t that right? Some had opportunity and with it, money, and some did not. Some had love and others had less than what they’d dreamed and hoped for, schemed over. Nicola was not the sort who nattered on and on about what she didn’t get. It was tiresome, even to her own ears. But this was harder to take that she’d expected. After  a couple of weeks it still reared up and kicked at her.

Brady hunched over the table. He leaned on his elbows, arms crossed against a massive chest. His shoulders about blotted out the window behind him. Nicola mused that he was beginning to look like one of those aging television wrestlers, still big on top, paunchy form there down. He was, in fact, a middle-aged academician who taught art history and drawing at the community college.  He was good at what he did; she ought to be more proud of him. But he had, it turned out, so little ambition that he hadn’t bothered after a certain point to ferret out a more prestigious position. Say, overseas. Or on one of the finer coastal campuses where you could escape it all, dawdling along an infinite beach. Brady said it himself: “I teach first for love of it, then for a small studio space, then for money.”

“They’ve earned it, this is a reward,” he offered once more.

Nicola stuck out her neck so she could better peer at his guileless eyes. She tried to keep the acid from her words. “We’ve earned it, too, in notable sweat and blood, but it doesn’t add up the same as persistent career ladder climbing. With resultant promotions.”

“We need to be happy for them,” he gently protested, arms opened in an expansive gesture.

“Right, I’m pleased for them. They’re our second best friends–well, maybe third–and they have always wanted to go to the Mediterranean. On a cruise. Not that I would go on a cruise. All those people adrift on a gigantic boat with nothing to see but endless water. Then docking and unloading, touristing about, eating your fill of who knows what, sun rays welcomed as if immune to damage, then just loading up again Ha.”

His considerable brow creased and smoothed as he stretched. “I thought you loved the idea or a boat trip.”

“I did until I heard the itinerary. And Trina is taking a huge basically empty suitcase she can cram full of trinkets and finds. Seems an excessive approach, how much can you buy that you need?” She glanced out the window: sheets of rain, granite sky, forlorn trees. “Still.”

Relived to hear her dismissal of a big trip, Brady’s mind calmed, then began to fill with images of Trina and his good friend Hans luxuriating on a tawny bluff overlooking a sapphire sea. He pictured how he’d pull out his sketchbook as if it was him not Hans going, and then opening his case of colored pencils. How wonderful to go somewhere mind boggling, experience fresh horizons. He could nearly feel Greek island warmth spread over his balding pate, onto his face and neck. Who knew what masterpiece he might be inspired to create there?

Nicola knew that dreamy, self referential look so got up. She carefully placed their cups in the sink. On the way to the laundry room, she muttered an uncivilized word. What was he thinking– that she would forever hold on for some small reward? All the years she had scrimped and made do and gone along with his plans and they were still barely ahead of the rising costs of living. Life too often felt like a ravenous bear that had to be kept well-fed, then tricked to avert its charging down a short trail to her door.

She’d worked, too, as a dental office manager. Until the highway car smash-up, leg breaking in two places, her right two middle fingers numb after hand injury and so-called reparative surgery. She was no longer fast or accurate on a keyboard, worked only two days a week answering the phone. It was almost humiliating to be there at all.

Nicola dropped things most of the time unless she immediately recalled her left hand was now meant to be dominant. More useful or prized items had been lost to that lapse of memory in two years than were lost in the previous twenty. Now she did lost of crossword puzzles–they didn’t require a fully legible scrawl–or played solitaire or read book after book or puttered in the yard. She took care of Brady. She waited until her fully employed friends were home from work to chat but they always rushed about –could they call her later?

There was a tomato-y spot on Brady’s newer, blue oxford button-down. She saturated it with stain remover, scrubbed until knuckles complained but it remained, a brown blot on an otherwise amenable expanse of blue. The tidy stacks of folded underwear, khakis, tops and towels on a bench gave her some relief. Such a dependable result of her effort was lovely. But as soon as she gazed on them, touching their smooth coolness, her lower lip trembled. The thought of clean laundry making her day right while Trina prepared for exotic shores and bliss–it was too much.

Brady checked his watch, got up and grabbed his jacket from the hall coat tree. He had two classes; time for reveries later. Maybe when he got out his paper, pastels and pencils before turning in. If Nicola didn’t require a lot of care. She had been rather moody of late. Well, since the accident she had, in truth, become more dauntlessly pessimistic. Before then she had allowed room for a gleam of hope here and there at least. That he could live with far better. Now she slipped away into a funk where he, groping, had trouble locating her. It wasn’t a die hard depression, exactly (she had gone through that right after the accident and surgery), just a lukewarm response. Recently it had begun to grow into a predatory resignation, tearing at any peace left.

Since Trina and Hans had informed them of their holiday cruise plans, he thought. All her envy, hurt and regret had come trickling back into their lives, weakening tenuous good will. Brady took his baseball cap from a hook and opened the door. He got half-way out and then stepped  back in.

“Bye Nic, love, see you tonight. It’s Tuesday so I’ll bring Chinese for late dinner.”

He waited as long as he could for her reply, a few beats, but nothing came.

 

******

Brady O’Connell enjoyed seeing the wavering line of colorful, often disheveled students file into his classroom. He loved the lively chatter, anticipating their very occupation of his time and that space. He admired their studied resistance to the banal for fifty minutes while with him. They weren’t entirely thrilled with drawing techniques or an assignment, perhaps, of filling a blank space with a collage of feeling they couldn’t verbalize, nor the history of porcelain or the rise and fall of impressionism. But they did come more than half-ready to attend to his words, ask a number of considered questions. On a good day, that is. The rest of the time, he got to elucidate his knowledge, then demonstrate his skills and wait from them to behave more adult, just catch on. He’d share stories of intrigue, trial and error and creative triumph throughout the centuries. It seemed to help some to utilize this enlarged context for their own aspirations and failures. Brady felt useful, happy when their eyes lit up and they leaned in to him, then got to work.

They asked him occasionally about his own work. He’d refer them to a handful of art journals and an upcoming exhibition. He excelled in detailed colored pencil drawings of nature and also rigorous, elegant architecture, the two intimately related in his mind regarding form and function. Yet it was never done, the demanding work of striving for further excellence. His job depended on it and he knew it was the basis of a vital sense of self-worth. Nicola felt he aimed too low; he felt he was stretching –and was stretched–rather far and high. He wondered how she’d feel if her well being depended on something as nebulous and fickle as creative input and output. How could you measure that? It wasn’t like billing for gold crowns or ordering drill bits. Or like tallying an amount coupons saved on a shopping trip. Or how many hands of solitaire were won out of fifteen. Fifteen in one day she’d confessed, for crying out loud! And that was random, not part of any daily, responsible agenda. That made it more terrible.

There now, this had to stop, he was becoming unkind. But she was becoming more unreachable.

It was the last week of classes until the new term. The students were lazier, missing, inattentive except for one or two motivated artists. Brady gave in their inertia as the afternoon went by. Let his mind go as they worked on a last assignment. They talked in low, chirpy tones of vacation plans. He found himself wandering down nostalgia’s byways, times he had gone skiing with his family over high school week-ends, college breaks. The northern peaks, the place he had perfected slalom skiing. Where he had broken his ankle. Where his parents had announced their separation after twenty years. And where he had met Nicola.

She’d been nineteen, a waitress at Broken Top Ski Resort where his family stayed.

“You going to stare at that menu all afternoon or what?” she’d asked sweetly, with an edge.

Brady had looked up, startled out of a bleary haze. He’d been on the slopes since early morning.

She gave him a grin that flashed teeth, a front tooth just overlapping another. It gave her an approachable look, for she was tall, fit and radiant in the empty dining room.

“You got any cheddar and spinach Quiche left? And more coffee. Please.”

“For you, we might,” she said and poured coffee in his cup, then hummed all the way to the kitchen. He was the most promising thing that had happened in many a day.

When he had finished she asked if he was going to the slopes again that night. He was wiped out, wanted to languish by the massive stone fireplace but curiosity prevailed. And that was the start of young love that became deeper than they expected. He closed his eyes and felt again the razor cold wind on his cheeks, a roaring fire enliven body and soul, her shoulder against his as they talked. Of what did they speak? It was so long ago.

“Mr. O’Connell? My drawing?”

He looked into the smooth brown face of his student and smiled. The work looked wonderful, as usual. She was good. “You’re going to be a fine artist one day, Aarati.”

“Thanks, so you keep telling me.” She smiled back. “Hey, you going anywhere fun for the holidays?”

“Not that I know of, just the usual. You?”

“Snowboarding on the mountain.”

“Mt. Hood?”

She nodded, her whole body emanating excitement. “The snowfall has been amazing. Well, I gotta catch Suzanne and Joe. Have a good one, Mr. O’Connell!”

He beamed at her the best he could but she had already left. As the final student slipped away, Brady stuffed papers, notebooks, pens and pencils into his aging leather briefcase and turned out the lights. Trudged to his office.

“Have a good one.” What does that mean? Have a nice time not a crummy time? Have a decent moment or two with my increasingly morose wife? Root out good stuff from the morass? Is it really all up to me?

The warmth and ease of his day evaporated from his mind. He straightened his aching fullback shoulders that never had done the game enough justice–he was not the player his father had expected. Seemed at times he replayed the same ole game everywhere. Brady put on his hat, tidied up his desk, took off for Ying’s to get dinner.

******

Nicola was sick of Chinese on Tuesdays but she finished every last bite because she was hungry and she hadn’t wanted to dissuade him. She was a decent cook but often disinterested; but she had come to lean on their routines as had he. Brady finished, then cleaned the containers to recycle.

“You do anything fun today? I thought you were going to meet Jude for coffee.”

Nicola pushed back from the table. “She changed plans, said she had to meet with a co-worker for drinks to discuss a new strategy. You know our daughter. Her work is never done, her star is not yet risen high enough.”

He laughed despite himself. It was true, the kid had tenacity and ambition, put them both to shame. Give her time, he thought ruefully.

“Well, I have some things to do. I’ll see you upstairs later.”

Nicola shrugged and opened her crossword puzzle book. What was another word for antelope, nine letters, with the letter “h”?

The wind picked up and sang through a window crack. She moved to the living room, added wood to the low fire and settled into the couch. The flare of flames swirled and danced, released of entrapment. Nicola puzzled over the blanks in her book. What did antelopes look like up close? Why were they fabled for gracefulness? How did they live and die? They had lovely horns.

She faded and dozed, head full of springing creatures in a dazzling desert.

Brady stood behind her, touching the silky ends of her light hair shining in firelight, wondering whether to wake her or wait until morning to talk. About how they had let things get away from them. How they were becoming old prematurely. How he had been neglectful and felt badly about it and knew she deserved much more than he had given her. How he was terribly sorry she still couldn’t well use her hand, that it would have been the end of him if the same occurred. It couldn’t be much easier for her, as much as she enjoyed writing letters and cards to family and friends, doing her crosswords, playing cards.

He sat beside her and her eyelids fluttered.

“It’s pretty late, Nic.”

“Hmm.” She let her head flop against his shoulder. “Pronghorn…is the word…”

“What’s that? I’d hoped we could talk a little.”

“Now? Why?” Her eyes flew open.

Brady took her hands in his. Her long face with crinkles about the eyes; lips under which was etched a tiny scar where she’d fallen as a child; the changing color of her eyes, two oceans that reflected every feeling. He wanted to make things right. He could at least start.

“I found us a cabin.”

“A cabin? Whatever for?”

“Time away.”

Nicola eyed him suspiciously. “For what? Where?”

“Just to be together. Do things we haven’t done in a long time. Have some fun, damn it. It looks a bit run down on the website, don’t get too thrilled. But it has a wood stove, a nice big bed, homey living space. In the Cascades, near a smaller, out of the way ski resort. For five days following Christmas.”

Nicola’s anxious eyes grew large with disbelief. Deep longing and remnants of sadness showing themselves as the chill, too long  a wedge, began to ease. It was love that graced her heart. She half-wanted to be cynical but fell into him, face buried in chest, arms wrapped around his bulk. He held on as if she might yet take her leave. Kissed her hair and neck, breathed her in. Envisioned their life together rampant with possibilities, a hope made of reclaimed kindness.

Unexpected Gains of Losing Control

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It didn’t even come close to being the most challenging hike we’ve taken. The woods in southwestern hills, five-minutes from city center, are so familiar they seem like an expansive back yard. On perfect Saturday we were enjoying a fairly small portion of Forest Park, the name almost an oxymoron. It is, after all, over 5000 acres of northwest forest and home to all manner of bird and beast. The trails are earthen, trees tower. It is the largest urban forest in the country. To me, it’s more evidence of the genius of nature’s design.

We’ve traversed that particular area a hundred times, though it was the first time since early winter had begun. A glorious mix of scents sailed along on gentling air. Streams of light shone golden among the trees and bushes, bounced across creek and stones. It was so warm I shed a light jacket. Adrenalin pumped through me as we started down the first trail.

If not the most daring of hikers I do have decent stamina and strength, even with a beta blocker that slows my heart and keeps the beats more measured. So I tend to take off, camera readied, eyes absorbing the sights. My spouse, M., is usually nearby though he might stop to closely inspect an astonishing range of fungi. Myself, not so much–that is his special interest. But I kept looking over my shoulder, as this time he was not kneeling to inspect his finds. Was not nearby. He was standing still. Catching his breath.

He lagged as we continued; he was more tired than I had realized. I felt guilty that I had pressed for a forest afternoon. He had just returned from a long business trip the night before. But he was looking forward to being outdoors, as well–until he had some shortness of breath. Well, we both knew he was prone to some huffing and puffing when ascending inclines–he was not as fit as he wished (but hadn’t made time to address). I kept slowing down, doubling back and finally suggested we sit a few. He plopped down.

“I’m exhausted. My legs feel heavy. Flying must be getting to me as I get older. I’ve logged so many miles this year already!”

I scanned his face and watched his chest heave up and down. Even talking seemed an effort. M.’s usually ruddy face had emptied of color; his grey-blue eyes were not clear.

“Are you having chest pain or pressure? Jaw or arm hurt?”

“No.” He shot me a look that said I was fussing too much when I had just begun.

“Nauseous? Light headed?”

“No, just tired, Cynthia–maybe I should have stayed home and been a couch potato.”

“This isn’t like you–you’re far more winded than usual. Something doesn’t feel right.”

“I’ll be fine. I just need a few nights of real sleep.”

I’m not a medical professional but I do have good reason to know signs of the heart’s warning signals, since I personally have experienced them. But I wanted to believe him…halfway did. We continued hiking up, down, around easier trails. Noted frogs, a garter snake, woodpeckers, a scattering of trillium, paused at the spot we had once been entranced by deer a few yards away. But I knew we should be going home sooner than later.

M. was still pale, paused to catch his breath with difficulty. He lacked a sense of ease and that concentrated attention like a microscope when spotting something good. He wasn’t even noting the various bird songs, which we liked to try to mimic.

As if it was being telegraphed to me, I knew he was very unwell.

But we had to finish the hike, there was no way around that, so we continued and as if by silent agreement did not linger, did not even stop at creekside to look for rocks or listen to the water’s litany of delights. At the top of the last hill there was a conveniently placed bench. He sat on it. I waited and observed, saw him check his pulse. And it was then that we looked at each other.

I said, “This is a bit too much like the hike that put my heart into attack mode fifteen years ago. We were just deeper into wilderness then. But you had to nearly carry me back. So I’m asking you, do you think you need to go to emergency now? Maybe I should get help; I am very worried.”

After a survey of his internal operations (he is an engineer, he loves data, numbers) he said, “No. Let’s just get home so I can rest.”

And so, against my instincts, we went home. M. lay on the couch and fitfully slept. I had that bad, angry sexist thought: why do men find it so incredibly hard to let themselves admit to being ill?

For that matter, why do we all have such a strong impulse to deny health issues, emotional problems or life circumstances that are demanding, complex and painful? Because these are life altering and it is tough to accept a strong possibility of bad news. And denial helps us cope by putting it off, keeping it at the far edge of consciousness. If it stays at a distant horizon, we can assure ourselves there is more time to prepare for whatever takes clear form and then becomes unavoidable. Undeniable.

M. would not consider anything more than perhaps a phone call to the doctor. So on Monday after I insisted, he went to his doctor. Then he went on to work. After tests and lab work results came in that afternoon and they made calls to him which he never answered, the nurse called me frantically.

“We can’t reach him–he needs to go to the hospital now!”

On the way to the hospital he couldn’t breath well; he admitted it had gotten harder at work, had been about to call me. He looked pasty. I’d wanted to call the ambulance but since he had refused I drove too fast. And arrived so he could get the CT scan and chest x-rays. End up in an emergency cubicle so they could blast several pulmonary embolisms–blood clots in both lungs–with blood thinning injections in his belly. He was found severely anemic as well; a blood transfusion was discussed as a possibility. He was put on a ferrous sulfate (iron) IV for three days.

Yes, admitted to inpatient hospital. M. was stunned, a reasonable reaction to a sudden health crisis. He is almost never ill, has not ever had a significant  health crisis. I was disquieted, mouth dry and mind curiously blank at times. The only thing for it was to trust strangers with his well being. His life, it turned out: multiple blood clots in lungs are not tolerated; the body’s efficient homeostasis is disrupted, oxygen delivery is severely impaired. It means lung tissue dies if they are not dissolved in time.

I’ll spare you the details, small and larger discoveries resulting from investigation of causative factors. There was other surprising information to absorb. So extra tests, more waiting. You know how that is in those stuffy little, too-warm corridors and rooms where germs float about looking for hosts. There were uncertain nights and days, free floating worry shelved in order to be present, alert. The rounds of calls (more often texts, blast it, fingertips worn down) to and from five children and others with frequent updates.

You know how it all goes if you have lived even a decade or two because these things…Just. Happen. We don’t get to forecast them. We only hope they don’t happen to us.

I recall one daughter asking if I was controlling hysteria for her sake or if I was actually feeling calm. I was taken aback. I was not feeling intense emotions. Stillness had unfolded within–a faint sense of shock at first, then a gradual transformation into simply…a deeper stillness. Quietude. Feeling frayed at moments, of course. The rawness was felt nightly as weariness vied with a need to process things.

But prayer came and went unbidden as if woven into my own breathing. Saying aloud, Oh Lord, may Your Presence bring to him healing and right balance, may his body repair itself, may the Light of Love dominate all systems, bring him to wholeness. Saying things without thought, reaching for solace and guidance.

All our children know how to call upon God’s healing. Their words and voices were a soothing balm. I felt them in the room although most do not live nearby.  One daughter could be there to sit with us awhile, silent and attentive.

Who cannot find a prayer when shadows fall, when not one inch forward can be discerned?

I didn’t feel fear much. It was like being held up, a sort of tall tree or a pillar, or like a lighting rod so my husband would not lose sight of the comfort of my love, nor his weakened grasp loosen, nor the storms inside his body strike him dead. I wanted to be unwavering for him. This is a man who overcame difficult beginnings, gave up an interrupted college education to make a living and yet became expert in his field; who has traveled our country and other parts of the world; who dedicated himself to helping raise a large, blended family. And he did it. So he might well be forgiven if he thought he could avoid health crises via perseverance and faith alone.

There was the exquisite potency of small touches, the ones that sometimes are forgotten but that can salvage almost anything. My hand to his, my cheek to his, the smoothing of a sheet atop his aching chest, the wiping of his brow. The adjustment of the miserable hospital gown that disregards dignity. A glass of water given. A talk with that nurse who never came. His half-smiles in return. And through each exchange flowed peace, care and loving kindness like a current that hummed so softly no one else might guess its power but the two of us. Or perhaps it showed.

I have reverence for the sanctity and power of life that fights for us even if we are unable to intervene, ourselves. Maybe especially when we are weak. We felt the greater medicine in those rooms and it was God; regardless of the outcome, there would remain so. I believe if we are stumbling and shaken we can and will be lifted, held steady. Carried, even, through whatever comes. And over many decades, we have been.

A long time habit of mine is preparing myself for life’s twists and turns the best I can, for even devastating events that may or may not come. But not by anticipating the worst–being shored up by gratitude and the hope that it plants. With spiritual sustenance.  The awareness of grace amidst troubles. We are all vulnerable, subject to hardships, and sometimes it may seem pain is the one constant in various forms. So why not gather up soul and heart strength long before the day arrives when we must call upon our best reserves?

M. came home after three days and nights, then rested for about four more, then returned to work. He has some flexibility so he can work from home at times as needed. But he loves his work, likes being in the mix, wants to move on.

There are a few more tests ordered, new medications. But his energy is returning. We can take a leisurely twenty minute walk. It’s amazing, he keeps saying, I can breathe, nothing feels alarming and set to undo me. He also made an offhand comment tonight about oranges–as he held one close to his nose–being “utterly cheerful, both in fragrance and flavor”. How could I not be happy when he said that? M. seems once more the man I know so well, though his challenges are not completely over. But he was civil and patient and gracefully surrendered to care when knocked down and that confirmed my view of him, too. I have reminded him often he is my oldest and dearest friend, squabbles and mishaps and all.

We perhaps need reminders. That is the gift difficulty can offer: insights, the chance to stand back and survey the whole picture, regroup. Give lots more authentic, mighty hugs.

Today I felt a little teary as I walked in a neighborhood park. Bone-tired all of a sudden. Sad even as gladness jumped up. I told another daughter all I wanted for my upcoming birthday is health, peace, love to receive, to give. And then I realized this is the day my oldest sister passed last year. I have been missing her and other family members I have lost to the other realm. We are much closer than we think to no longer experiencing all the magic and mystery and madness of walking about in our fleshly attire. It’s just one last breath away. So inhale the vibrant air, acknowledge its irrefutable power. Claim your life with honor, treat it as rare, valuable, one of a kind. It is. Yes, my husband, breathe deeply, for you know it truly is.

 

(NOTE: Pulmonary embolisms can be caused by sitting still for long periods, such as in a car or plane–particularly from flying, as it is believed to be in M’s. case. One out of five victims is killed by PEs. Find out how to reduce your risk if you may be a candidate.)

 

More Hocus Pocus

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Everything was fine, overall exceptional in fact, until it wasn’t. And Roxie had to fix it.

Phillip had left for West Africa on another medical humanitarian posting–he’d said something about tending to the burn epidemic once more, all that open fire cooking that injured so many vulnerable women and children who gathered round the flames. He was a dedicated doctor, and she had early on adapted to his leave taking. He was fortunate to have married her and said so. Roxie was no clinging vine in addition to having unusual empathy for others. Phillip knew he could trust her to take care of their daughter, house and bills while away, and also suffer little from the loneliness he’d heard colleagues note of their wives.

“Oh, not Roxie. You know her–she’s more capable of entertaining herself than I am. Or she’s on some sort of field trip with Marta or working on the latest home improvement scheme. Or taking some kind of class–remember her flamenco phase?”

He laughed with delight, eyes looking in the distance as if imagining her dancing. The others understood he was perhaps luckier than they could imagine, and envy skirted their consciousness. They did wonder about her. Their wives thought she was a bit of an odd duck if one with impeccable taste. But most saw Roxie as a kind of free spirit who was as dedicated to her responsibilities as Phillip was to his.

She, on the other hand, found her husband sexier, brighter and more thoughtful than any man she’d expected to engage in a lifelong partnership. Other women could honestly agree, in private if not in public. They were like two lovely but mismatched socks that somehow looked and worked very well together.

Phillip had been gone two months last winter; this time it might be three weeks or four. Roxie knew to be flexible. Marta was so used to kissing her father goodbye as they idled at the airport curb that she’d have been alarmed if he had always stayed home.

“Dad texted yet that he got there?”

Marta had stopped by to get her tennis racket. Her friend waited at the door.

“Hmm?” Roxie looked up from the pile of mail. She waved at Ginny and studied Marta’s outfit of leggings and a blousy cotton shirt. “It’s not that warm, get a jacket. No, he hasn’t yet. Time zones, you know, immigration authorities, exhaustion.” She turned the corners of her mouth down and her eyebrows rose in a mock show of dismay. They both knew how it went per his descriptions.

“Okay, tell him I said ‘hi’. Tonight I have that group project at Ginny’s, remember? After we play tennis. And oh, I got invited for dinner before the project.”

Roxie looked from Marta’s to Ginny’s open faces and was satisfied. They were twelve. They were not the same as last year. Even their eyes were different, as if they saw things in a whole new light, or in more shadow, hard to say which. But so far, so good, she most often surmised. Marta kissed her mother on the cheek and bounded out with tennis racket and backpack.

Roxie finished sorting mail, then stowed it in cubbyholes of her desk by the sunroom. She fed the fish in the aquarium, petted Wiley the cat who was curled on the window ledge catching the last heat of day. She saw what Wiley might see, neighbors arriving home, dogs chasing kids versa across emerald lawns, skateboarders whizzing down the sidewalk. It was all so orderly. Predictable. She reached toward the ceiling, stretching.

Roxie couldn’t think what to eat now–she had planned on pizza before hearing Marta was leaving–so grabbed a banana and iced tea and took two steps at a time to the second floor.

Their bedroom was vast. High ceilings, many windows encouraging light to bathe the space. It was so accommodating there was a floral loveseat, another desk (antique one she’d refurbished), the king sized bed, a caramel-colored leather chair with footstool, a small lamp table and two dressers. She pulled several bronze sheers closed, then ate in the chair with feet up. A free night, unfolding like a dream.

Chilled tea slipped down her throat as she closed her eyes. It was nice the first nights he left, shaped by silken quietness if Marta was gone or in her room. Roxie luxuriated in their home, felt as if it expanded with Phillip’s absence. Not necessarily a good thing. But sometimes. Her breathing slowed while the rhythm of the day changed its time signature as the sun hovered above the tree line beyond. A subtle excitement infused her body and mind.

Roxie admitted she at times felt as if her real life leapt up and did a brazen little dance when she was left alone. She might actually sway about the rooms and hallways, humming away. Feelings welled up within the emptiness: relief, restlessness, curiosity, acute awareness of her senses, a desire to reach outward or inward to something else. She had a good and decent life day in, day out, a metronome life in a sense: orderly. Fruitful, too. Even Marta was all she might have ordered for a child. But when they were here, when Phillip was about, there was little time to attend to her other life.

She changed out of navy pants and white shirt, then into a loose aqua caftan and long sweater. Her long straw-colored hair was unbraided, rippling over her shoulders and down her back. She took banana peel and glass down the stairs, feet bare, quick.

In her most used desk, a bottom drawer held among other things a bundle of papers secured with a rubber band. She took it out, picked up her slim, silver-cylindered mechanical pencil and entered the sun room to settle in, tea close at hand.

They were unbound. She first fanned out the correspondence on the glass-topped coffee table before her. Which to choose? It was a group of eight letters received over the last few weeks that she hadn’t had time to address. The freedom to re-read, to study, to respond succinctly.

Roxie was a certified graphologist. She studied people’s handwriting to learn of their assets and liabilities, their public and private lives, their health and hopes. If there was one thing Phillip abhorred it was attempting to label something as exacting, even scientific, when it was all just hocus pocus to his thinking. Phillip disapproved, thought it was a waste of valuable time and attention. They had argued about it when they had become serious so long ago. She had grudgingly agreed to stop “playing around with it” then. But gradually Roxie had begun secretly taking the esoteric (he: “hogwash”) coursework, practicing the art and science of it and finally passed a difficult national certification exam.

She had not told him of it until he had discovered her triumphant notification letter folded up in a drawer of her jewelry box. Six months ago Phillip had been looking for a necklace he’d given her to adorn a dress she was wearing to a formal dinner. She forgot it was there, her little private spot not private anymore.

“You have to be kidding me!” He’d sputtered and gasped. “I can’t believe you did this!”

“But it’s not nonsense, Phillip. Graphologists are engaged in useful, meaningful ways! Police departments use us, employments agencies and human resources departments and psychologists utilize us. I could make money using my skills. I could have a career doing this!”

“Don’t say ‘us’, you’re not one of them yet, Roxanne. Some fortune telling fool. I don’t want my wife pretending this is anything but a game, an entertainment. Certainly it is not science.” His upper lip almost curled. “And you don’t need to make any money. If you really want something more to do, use that good economics degree, volunteer more, take up another hobby.”

Roxie thought he was a misaligned copy of her husband for those moments. She had never felt anything but his equal even though she’d stayed at home rather than work in some high-rise. She knew she had a worthy mind; she knew he respected her. This life had been one she chose in part because he believed her capable of so much and encouraged her to enjoy even imaginative leanings, reach beyond comfort zones, learn new things. But graphology? It was just ridiculous to him. As it seemed to be others who didn’t understand its nature and applications.

“But it helps catch criminals, it can decipher hidden talents or liabilities that make one fit for a certain job. It can help determine if one person is a better mate than another.”

“Oh, save me from your impassioned attempt at persuasion, Roxie. I’m not going to change my mind. It was one thing when you messed around with it for fun, another that you now take it this seriously. I still can’t believe you secretly finished coursework–how much did that cost? how did you manage it?–and now you expect me to praise you for it? You know better.”

She watched his forehead furrow in a deeper scowl. His gaze of clear judgment was close to intolerable. Roxie found his masculinity and beauty revolting at that moment and turned away. Left their room. As far as he was concerned his intelligence was marred by egotism–that fabulous mind of his, that command of reality– run amok. What could he be thinking, that he would call her accomplishment ridiculous?

It was a long week of separate bedrooms and by the time he’d left again, she’d determined to carry on with her passionate involvement in handwriting analysis. But he would not be the wiser as long as he felt her foolish. Their marriage didn’t feel as neat and clean after that, but they staunched the rupture with greater good will and their healthy, continued chemistry.

There was a post office box rented for her new Interpretive Analysis Enterprises (IAE). She advertised online at sites he would never look at. She offered cogent evaluations of personality types and offered input on problems with relationships based on samples of handwriting. Roxie opened a savings account in her name at a credit union. What felt at first like deception began to seem more like a tandem life that was well designed and pivotal to her happiness. One day he might come around; one day she would tell him the whole story, yes. Meanwhile, her work was starting to flourish and she found it harder to get it done without him knowing.

Marta knew about IAE and didn’t have to be told to keep it to herself–she had heard their noisy differing opinions on it. She thought her mother was cool to do this if also risky to do it. But Marta didn’t feel it was any of her business so really didn’t care.

Roxie’s eye now caught sight of handwriting that was elegant yet sharply drawn. She held it close, scanned the loops above and below each invisible line, each dotted “i”, every crossed “t”. The handwriting was rapid, almost thready. Intelligent, steady of hand but jarring–slashed “t” crossings and quickly dashed “dots” above letter “i”s. There was a compressed quality to script and a pressure that belied irritation. Roxie moved her fingertips over the inky page and then under it. There was more than irritation, there was anger as each word left progressively deeper indentations. Handwriting that was beautiful at first glance became an instrument of vehemence and displeasure.

She had seen anger before, of course, but it was the fine quality of the paper took her aback. Most used notebook paper or simple computer paper, as not many people had in their possession much, if any, stationary. This page was written with rich blue ink, a micro fine point. Roxie preferred a basic black ballpoint pen to be used as it was easier to read. She could garner different insights due to the sort of writing implement they used. Others sent inquiries written with felt tips or boldly flowing, perhaps pink or purple ink. Some sent penciled letters. The problem with that was that such writers tended to erase often (perfectionism perhaps a trait) and start over–that interrupted the natural flow of letters, spaces and so on. And if the lead was dull it could skew the entire effect.

Frowning at the aggrieved words, she held it at a distance to properly read through. Then she read it two more times.

Dear Roxanne Stannis,

You won’t recognize my name–it is an alias–but I know yours because I know about your husband. Who doesn’t, in the medical center? He’s outstanding in every way, as we all have heard. Gifted diagnostician, reassuring in manner. Generous of time and clear in every intention (more on that later). I could write a well-informed biopic of Dr. Phillip Stannis and his work at Grand Isle Medical Center and Silvertin Hospice. But if I did I would have to include the other side of Dr. Stannis.

I think you should know the rest of the story. Oh, yes, he’s a selfless workhorse and so altruistic he helps the neediest of the lot. He sacrifices precious time and money to travel to dangerous places whenever he’s called to use his skills. He’s the go-to as far as the horrific burn unit, for certain. I am not writing to cast aspersions on his medical abilities. I am not truly able to ascertain his level of expertise as doctor, to even understand some of his methods. So bear with me. This is not professional in a typical manner.
No, it is personal even if within a professional context.

Roxie put the letter down and put hand to throat. Who on earth was this? The name, Cassie Weaks–was to be an alias so it didn’t really help to study a fake signature. She felt like she was going to choke from her own anxiety. She took a long gulp of iced tea and continued.

I’ll simplify, Mrs. Stannis. He’s a dictator to the underlings. He can be boorish, blunt and critical to the point of some wanting to slap him. He finds flaws and then picks, loosening ends until they come undone. If one does the thing instructed but lags a second, then it isn’t done fast enough. His looks can scald when displeased and he doesn’t know the meaning of a genuine compliment. Never have I met anyone so difficult to please–and my parents were despotic commanders of excellence so I should find him manageable in comparison.
Is this the underside of moderate genius? I think not. He is just dismissive and unpleasant to those who have so much less power, who are at his beck and call. And for this, I loathe him.

So I just wanted you to know the rest of the story of your husband. We work so hard and he gives so little to those who are helpless to do anything but take it. We need our jobs. I think we should have trophies for putting up with him. I don’t know how you manage it–you deserve a trophy, too, or maybe you just deserve each other…

He will have no idea who I am. Because I’m just a nobody while he’s a wonder of wonders, a most valiant human being, a handsome paragon of men who deserves all and more. Right? You can have him!

Sincerely,

Cassie Weaks

Roxie felt her insides scrunch up and turn over but she peered at the words, each letter formation, the spacing, the pressure and rhythm. She studied it all; as if they were written of someone other than Phillip.

She could not imagine who this was but after twenty minutes noting all the details and adding them up, there were some things that came through: the writer, likely female from the choice of words and their formation, was completely disgruntled with her job as well as her self-image. She was run ragged by her own miserable perfectionist tendencies. Smart–perhaps smarter than her position encouraged–she was taking the upper hand and protesting rather than feel powerless one more day. Greatly offended by what she perceived as Phillip’s critical responses, she felt it as a far deeper wound than it should have been. She was a person of neediness who was not feeling fulfilled in many ways at home, not just at work. Lonely, if her lack of trust was noted correctly in how the truncated endings of words and the too-close spacing, protective of self. Perhaps even enamored of said doctor for whom she reportedly held contempt; romantically satisfied, she was not. But her anger was certain. She could even snap one of these days, create some havoc.

Roxie looked at a small stack of envelopes but one that matched her handwriting had no return address, of course. She worked on the sample an hour more. After she concluded it was a letter of complaint, one that was to distress Roxie, she determined she might have to turn it over to Phillip or the hospital’s human resources unless she could solve the mystery. She might visit his work space more often, meet for lunch if possible, check out employees he was around, sneak looks at written memos on his desk to compare handwriting. Maybe they could resolve this together–well, that might be a stretch. But maybe he would even suspect who she was.

But did Roxie believe her husband was all that? No. Not one minute. She knew him warts and all, and yet she knew he was a man of principle. Could he pressure others at times? Yes, in more subtle ways than mentioned. Was he liable to ask a lot of the staff? Yes, as he did himself. Was his brilliance difficult at random times, his ego likely to show up as annoying pride? Again, no denying she had seen that. But she could not believe he would be so unkind deliberately or even remotely unfair in his professional interchanges. He believed strongly in the his own as well as the medical code of ethics. Phillip loved his work and his patients, held staff in generally high regard. He sacrificed a great deal to care, to heal, to try to make life better for others. Roxie believed in him even if they were not always in agreement.

Even if he did think her graphology was smoke and mirrors.
So it would be worked out somehow. It might mean telling Phillip what she was up to a gain; her little business was a success so far, after all. But this one letter only served to expose the writer’s personhood, to open up her secret anger and pain, to share her misguided desires for more in her life. Roxie felt a little sad.

She stood on the back steps and looked out over the rolling lawn. The sun was setting making the puffy clouds pink and coral at the edges. Her mind roamed and recalled women she’d met who worked with him or near him. One after another was eliminated until…Anne? An RN. The night shift head nurse who had blatantly looked at him with a changing combination of admiration, desire, coyness and rage? Roxie had noticed her when she’d picked him up three times that winter due to his ancient Volvo having issues. Her coppery hair was pushed back impatiently when he asked her to do something out of the ordinary so he could finally go home. Her eyes flashing, then lingering on his face. My oh my, Anne. Well, Roxie would have to get a handwriting sample and compare. It couldn’t be that hard. She could be wrong. Work to do, for certain.

Her phone rang. She took it from her caftan pocket, put it to her ear without looking.

“Yes, sweetie? Coming home soon?”

“Oh, Roxie, how I wish, just to hold you for a good, long moment,” Phillip responded, his resonant voice laden with weariness. Tender with affection.

They checked in briefly. Hung up. Roxie wandered into the yard, admired tulips, daffodils, hyacinths in their glory. How she loved to hear Phillip’s voice when he was gone. If she wasn’t already married to the man, she would have to fall smack dab in love with him, herself.

Travelling Companions

Photo by Alex Prager
Photo by Alex Prager

Travel. That’s what they did with free time, took every bus and train and boat for cheap, for as long as they could. Her mother said they were “almost sophisticated, worldly if not yet wise” for twenty-four and twenty-six, as if they were jet setting transcontinental travelers. Tara laughed at such a notion, though secretly proud of having seen twelve of the states so far. Ott’s smile was acquiescent, thinking his mother-in-law had no idea how much they had gained from their trips, and was a little sorry to admit she never would. She was just too…provincial. But one day he would go to Europe and beyond, for certain. Rather, they would. He and his breathtakingly smart, often vivacious and, of course, good looking wife: Tara.

They decided to start out on a Greyhound bus from St. Louis to Detroit that year. Why not? It would be a different kind of romp.

“Detroit?” Mrs. Barnett had shrieked, “why on earth would you go to the murder capital of the world? Please sit this one out, Tara.”

The data about Detroit wasn’t strictly true. Sometimes it had held the top spot, other times it hovered between ranking 3 and 5–this year it took 2nd place. But Ott had family there, a cousin who helped run a deli in the suburbs, and he hadn’t visited in almost ten years. So off he and Tara went, and survived to tell a paltry number of tales.

The bus station was teeming and fetid that late June. Detroit-hot, sweaty and heaving with fumes. Ott located his cousin’s truck at the curb and they clamored into the cab amid back slapping and salutations. Tara wedged between them, her sleepy head aching from the one and a half days’ trip up north. She was woken up yet intimidated by the frenetic pace. Everyone seemed pursued by or pursuant of something. They gawked out the windows as cousin Dale yakked, taking in the densely aligned streets inhabited by tenements and gleaming skyscrapers, not much different from any metropolis yet more imperturbable and gritty. But the packed, diabolically fast traffic! They would have been killed by insane drivers if Dale hadn’t kept things under control, weaving in and out like a pro, honking his horn and swearing back at drivers with various hand signals. In time more leafy suburbs ran one into the other.

Rochester was a one square mile, outlying village that tried to bill itself as a suburb. There were fancy stores and restaurants along Main Street. There were grandfather oaks and spritely maples that shaded rather downcast two-story houses nudged by new builds of brick, behemoths that took their prosperous stand. Wakowski’s Butcher Shop and Deli had been across a neighborhood baseball diamond for two generations. They sold rows of meats made of parts Tara preferred not to think hard about, with names she hadn’t heard of, so that was one experience to tell her mother.

Ott was glad to be with his cousin, the next generation in line for the store management. They stayed at Dale’s fancy apartment nearby. The guys drank a quite a lot of beer while Tara sat by a creek behind the store’s deck and nursed her own or walked down a fragrant, woodsy trail out back. Bushes and thickets of trees hid residential blocks behind the store. It was prime real estate, she thought, and knew Otto’s family had some money if his folks did not. But the store was inviting. Customers could take food outside, enjoy their repasts at picnic tables. She thought how her mother would revel in common leisurely activities, the sharp sunlight roasting her legs pink, the rippling waters meandering by at a carefree pace, people gabbing and eating as if they had all day long to do nothing else. It was a comfortable, quiet neighborhood, not unlike the ones in which she and Ott had grown up.

But she nonetheless grew restless–time was wasting and there were other places to see–and was glad they left after four days. Tara did not want to be lulled any longer and thought of how her mother said she was born wanting to run. She had wanted to see the Detroit Institute of Arts but Ott said there wouldn’t be time this trip. As if she would ever come back. The last night she felt quite alone as the cousins took off down the trail like jack rabbits, letting her catch up if she could. Tara could and did, then felt extraneous as they talked of their childhoods, then their passions. It was the blood tie. It was their shared obsession with hunting and fishing, which she was slow to consider much less attempt. She had more liking for tidy rooms and in-room coffee makers and a hot bath, not pup tents and snakes and storms that convulsed the night. She would have liked to book a quaint houseboat along the Mississippi River, though.

As she walked at a brisk pace and they murmured about their wishes and wants, she missed her best friend. Her mother would do, as well.

Mrs. Barnett was the full-time housekeeper–hardly a handful of days off, mostly for illness or visiting her daughter–at Eldred Deeds’ home in St. Louis. She had never been anywhere, just the same old destinations within thirty miles of his stately house. She had once calculated the figures. It hadn’t bothered her, just made her wonder. She had been born only fifteen blocks from Deeds’ house, another world altogether. She had not even ventured far when married; her husband had been a shoe store manager near their apartment until he passed away. It was all alright with her, or so she said. But she said very little of what she really thought. Like the fact that her daughter and son-in-law were wasting money going all those places, cheap tickets or not. What was there to see that was so much different from where they all came from? She could only imagine. Alright, she ruminated on how life was out there, but she kept her mind on her tasks and her ears attuned to Mr. Deeds’ calls.

Mrs. Barnett was joyous and relieved Tara had gotten college scholarships; she wouldn’t be able to bear her only child stuck in a job like hers even if it did pay bills. her own work never surprised her, nor gave her much of a laugh or a boost. She didn’t get to test the truth or foolishness of ideas she’d had over the years. Thanks to her daughter’s recommendations, she read good books at night and fell asleep dreaming of people and places so unlike her world that she awakened mystified and out of sorts.

Ott and Tara had gotten hired as teachers at a Jefferson City high school and middle school, respectively. They could enjoy the summers as they chose. They saved up all other months just for these trips. They had invited her once or twice but of course she couldn’t go. It was unthinkable,  not only time-wise. She would be out of her element, entirely. Instead, she waited to hear the stories her daughter shared on the road.

After Detroit, Ott and Tara took the bus to Denver for five days, then from there a train to Boise in August for twelve more. They were pulled out west, felt another presence in this city close to the borders of Oregon and Nevada. There was the hint of wildness, of a history of mountain men and fur trappers. The foothills of the Rocky Mountains were a magnetic backdrop as they hiked and explored the semi-arid land. The sun scalded Tara and tanned Ott and he was more chipper than usual. Tara had to admit it was stupendous land.

“I’d like to go to British Columbia,” Ott said as he eased into bed one night in Boise. “Camp awhile.”

They were staying at a cheap motel, and they checked the bedding twice every night to make sure there weren’t any bedbugs thriving. They would have to find great hostels or…camp more.

“I’d like to go anywhere cool, where the sun kisses not saturates, beats or ignites,” Tara said as she turned over, the springs squeaking, “so that’s fine with me, I guess. Next year?”

He traced the gentle, alluring slope of her shoulder with his fingertips but her breathing was already a shiver of soft sound. The demanding heat sucked all energy from her normally active body. Her face shone white in the grey of the room. For a long time he stared at the ceiling cracks and wondered if she’d be willing to camp more, primitive camping. Ott was tired of so many cities and longed for the different sounds of the untamed. He hadn’t yet told her, but he was getting sick of teaching already and thought perhaps he had made a mistake. He wanted to travel more off the beaten track. In fact he had a surging drive to travel every day of the rest of his life, not be stuck inside an airless classroom teaching geometry to a bunch of mouthy kids who found it worthless. Dan understood; he didn’t want to run the butcher shop and deli. They had talked about heading out together somewhere remote. Like South America, the Amazon or Patagonia.

Ott knew Tara wouldn’t go for it. They had the money; they were both so frugal by nature it wasn’t hard to save. But she wanted more security than he did, even though she was a good sport and did enjoy their trips. But traversing their country and exploring the wild, wide world were two different things. Ott feared she would bring up having a child again as she had last fall. He wasn’t ready for fatherhood and he didn’t know if he ever could be, at least not until they had expanded the radius of their journeys.

In August they drove, for once, and entered the wilderness of Sangre de Cristo within the Rio Grande National Forest in Colorado. Ott had talked Tara into it; she put forth a spirited effort and camped without significant complaint. She found the wilderness life affirming if difficult. Ott knew this was not the highlight of her summer, whereas for himself it was a mere scratch of an itch for more extreme adventure. They returned home. Tara was satiated, weary, bug bitten and ecstatic to shower, then see her friends and mother. Ott felt he was just catching his breath, was in between destinations, and at long last admitted to himself he felt repugnance when he considered returning to a classroom jammed with yawning. cell phone sneaking students again. They demonstrated a weird passive corrosion, both in manner and mind.

“I’m not going back to teaching,” he told her three weeks before classes started. “I can’t do it, anymore.”

“What’s that? Teaching is now a travesty, you say?” She let go a silken sigh, then looked up from the book she was underlining, something she might use in class. Her eyebrows rose as lips compressed, eyes wide with teasing laughter–held back. Now she saw his high forehead furrowed, his eyes dark and closed. She put down the red pencil.

“You’re serious.”

“I have to travel more. I need to push my limits–find them maybe. You knew teaching was convenient, not the path I really wanted.”

“Right you are, you wanted to be a pilot but your vision isn’t good enough. So teaching math was a decent choice since you are smart in math and sciences.”

He touched the glasses atop his head but held her eyes with a fearless gaze. “I am quitting teaching. I will take my resignation letter in to Harold tomorrow. It’s been three years and it’s worse for me, not like for you–you love what you do, the kids, the atmosphere of barely controlled chaos–”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t just quit! And do what? I can’t carry us both–the responsibilities, the debts–while you live a wanderer’s life.”

“I know, I do know….” He looked at his palms as if the fine lines might hold some clue to what was next. “I have a plan. For me, anyway…”

Tara leaned forward to better see him in the afternoon sheen of grey left over by rain. She  could not believe him; he was joking. She knew this man, finished college with him, had been married to him for four fine years. Well, at least thought-provoking! Overall fulfilling and packed with sensual moments. He was her friend, her partner. He was a good if uninspired teacher. Did he think he could abandon her, too, just as they were becoming more adept at building a life together?

“A plan–for you? What do you mean?” Maybe he needed another career direction–yes, that was it, that’s all.

“Yes.” He clasped one hand with the other and felt dizziness sweep over him. He sat up taller. “Dan and I are going to travel for a year and then see if we can somehow make a living as guides… somewhere.” He took a deep breath. “He has money, you know. He inherited last year after his grandfather passed. He’s taking time off from the family business and…well, that’s it, I suppose, we’re off in a couple of months if all goes well.”

“I heard you say you were thinking of leaving me–for a year at least, with your cousin? Quitting your good job to traipse around the world–is that right?” Her heart was crashing against her thin chest, stomach was aflutter.

She looked at him, stricken, as if he’d morphed into an utter stranger and maybe that was true, he was no longer who she imagined, at all. or perhaps this was the man she had avoided seeing. He appeared so certain, stronger than ever even if anxious and sad. Relieved, perhaps, even as she was thrown into an abyss of shock. He looked just enough sad that she held back a torrent of accusations and horrendous feeling  but had to say something.

“You are separating from me, aren’t you, a little now, more later–aren’t you?”

Ott nodded his head in such a small way she wanted to hope he had not. But he had.

“Alright then, be selfish, just go, chase a crazy new dream, have a happy life, be the man you were meant to be and so on. Just go on!” She stood and went to him, leaned close to his startled face. “You are leaving me for the world, Otto James? Is that it? Yes, you’ve known you can’t have both so you’ve made your choice. I suggest you pack now. Next stop, unknown–have at it.”

She began to laugh and knew it was the leaking of this new hysteria that might explode if he stood near her any longer. She laughed and laughed as tears gathered at the corners of her eyes and then fell shamelessly, while he dared to hold out his arms to her. She turned her back, walked away just like he had left her already. She never wanted to see him again.

“Adventure!” she shouted as he left the room. “Is that the only true love you know?”

But she knew the answer and realized she always had.

*******

It was spring already and how sweet were breezes that swept across the mammoth spaces of the train station. Tara was standing in the middle of the floor clutching her red bag, looking for her mother. They were to meet a half hour ago; the train was leaving in another hour. Where was she? Perhaps it was complete idiocy to have invited her own mother on a train ride for the very first time all the way to Portland, to Seattle, then to Vancouver, B.C. She tapped her foot, but it was excitement that gave her the jitters. Tara felt this trip was right, even perfect. Her mother had been there for her all year, had held her close when she cried Ott out of her system–not entirely successfully, not yet. And this woman of fifty-five had worked alone and in a humdrum job for her only child, for her own survival so very long. There had to be more for her, but Tara had asked with some trepidation.

Her mother had dropped the robust bunch of flowers she was set to arrange, her mouth flying open. “When? Where?” she had asked and that was that.

Yes, it was true her mother was one of her trusted friends, one who would not judge her nor forsake her, or ever just ditch her. They might bare their teeth at one another now and then but that could be worked out. Yes, her mother would soon arrive and then they could begin the fun, too long put off.

Mrs. Barnett could just then see Tara  from the second floor railing, Tara with her mass of enhanced if originally strawberry blond hair and her big fire engine red bag stuffed with books, passport and sweater, a water bottle and snacks. Tara with her sensible clothing and that fierce look as she worried about being late to the gate. They were going on a trip, at last, a real train trip and she was going to see new things, experience such different people, share an unbelievable adventure with her Tara. She could now have, quite possibly even at this late date, the time of her life!

“Tara!” she called out and waved like a madwoman, her new yellow blouse flapping about. “Tara, look up here, I’m coming, we’re set to go!”

Tara looked up, seriousness erased by a big, welcoming smile. Which assured her mother that all would be better, then well, soon enough.

Their Way Through Wildness

Photo by Garry Winogrand 1954
Photo by Garry Winogrand 1954

She was the daughter of her first and only husband and Lil Thiesson was trudging through the neighborhood the longest way possible before meeting her. So she could shake out the nerves that roused, then scrambled in alarm when she’d gotten the letter. She hadn’t thought very often of that girl in well over twenty-nine years. It had been that long since Everly had passed from a shocking, early heart attack.

They had been married for almost ten years but they had tied the knot only after Lil had let go her passive resistance. She got tired of waiting for someone who met all her and her parents’ qualifications. She hadn’t much luck on her own, two dissolved (one highly attractive if ill-conceived) engagements by age twenty-three. The neighbor, Miss Farnham, had called her attention to Everly Thiesson.

He still worked the corner newstand then, having taken over for his uncle. Lil had barely noticed Everly except he was new, having moved from the Midwest. She could hear it in his flat, unimaginative vowels when he noted her presence with a tip of his cap, a sentence or two. She hadn’t answered him more than twice but apparently that was enough since he confided in Miss Farnham, their mutual neighbor, that he had to meet her. They were introduced formally at a late August block party. Everly, known as “just Ev” he’d insisted, was conversational in a deferential way, had no bad teeth, and placid grey eyes that looked deep. They were calm enough that Lil wanted to dive in and splash around, see what unknowns rose to the surface. Ev was several years older; she found she didn’t care. They began to spend time together shortly afterwards and got married twelve months later in a small, tasteful ceremony at St. Christopher’s Chapel.

And there was a daughter he parented, about school age. Freida was bright-eyed, given to bursts of colorful speech but non-committal about Lil for the first weeks.

Lil stopped at her favorite ginkgo tree and sat on a peeling green bench. Her leg had been bothering her again, the sciatica that woke her at three in the morning. By the time she’d awakened, pain trickled in a thin stream down the back of her thigh and pooled in her calf. Walking erased it or at times stitched it into her no longer lithe tissues. She wasn’t sure which this was going to be. She had over four miles to manage, not impossible. Or she might take a train to D Street, then walk a last block. To see the girl.

Well, her ex-stepdaughter (ex? is that what she was?) was a full-grown woman now and then some. But back then she had been five, wild haired and fierce, a miniature sometimes gleeful tyrant with a smile that could take you to the edge of terror or tender tears. Now she was embarking on middle age and all its conundrums, its surprising pleasures. Maybe Frieda Marten (mother’s last name? husband’s?) was a whole other person now. Anything could happen.

Ev once had told Lil that his daughter was “an unwilling human being.” She’d told him often she’d rather be an animal, “a red fox or a calico cat or a wild painted pony”.

“–something that lives only by nature’s whims and designs, it seems.” He nodded at Frieda like she was to be commended, perhaps because he had some knowledge of the great outdoors. He had wanted to be an etymologist as a boy, still liked to briefly capture and show them to his wife and daughter, explain odd, minute characteristics before freeing them.

“That right, a fox?” Lil felt a mixture of intrigue and worry. The girl was always up to something.

Frieda stomped her feet and galloped off then came to a full stop before her stepmother. “I don’t like two legs and feet. It slows me up. And I need a tail to swish and make dance like the wind, okay?”

Lil found this amazingly poetic and found herself staring at the child for long periods. Was she special? Was she a little genius or something? It was true she was quick; she knew how to read well enough before kindergarten. But Lil was so busy keeping her in tow that she didn’t have much time to test the girl’s mental prowess.

Ev tried to be democratic about all things. He gave his attention to them both in ways they needed, or so he thought. It was not easy losing one wife to the theater’s garish allure and gaining another who had partly snagged him with her good nature but now worried him with its slow corrosion. But Lil persevered in all she did. He admired her for it. He knew she would keep working at this business of parenting with him.

To Lil, the truth of it was this: she and Frieda in the same room was too often like opposing ends of a magnet forced to occupy space. They often repelled each other with powerful energies. The girl had unique ideas and high spirits but she often acted recklessly, her emotions overriding Lil’s reason, her need for freedom running Lil’s morale into the ground.

Ev didn’t quite see what she did. He saw disorder in his home. Though his daughter had always had a wild streak (like his ex-wife, he admitted) he felt it was flaring more now. But he adored Lil. If only they were companionable or at least could be placated. He didn’t realize his wife was already deemed an impediment to Frieda’s place in the hierarchy. He did realize it wasn’t any more easy for her than it was for his child. She was new to this, and his daughter had been another woman’s offering before she exited. And they had not seemed a fertile match yet. He could live with this.

Lil kept many thoughts to herself. She wondered if the true crux of the unruly currents in their home were due to there being two unaccommodating species. They seemed intent on determining who was predator, who was prey. If Frieda was akin to a beautiful feral cat, though, Lil was more like a watchful wolf. This didn’t bode well.

“That’s a terrible thing to say!” That night Ev had stormed off, too, and later her kisses did nothing to erase the tension in his jaw and shoulders.

He was right, she’d thought as she was left alone.

“It is terrible…and at least half-true. Which of us will best survive in this small den?” She addressed the empty room. Tears overcame her recently avowed composure. In truth, she wanted to sit back on her slim haunches, let loose and howl, too, if it so pleased her. This thought astounded Lil but it was a relief to admit it.

One time after another useless fuss whereupon Frieda was sent to her room before dinner, Lil sat on the edge of the sofa, flummoxed and weary. The comforting smells of a boiled dinner wended its way through the flat. If only her good food made things right, there would be no more arguments. If only she was a real fairy godmother. If only.

As he bounded through the side door, Ev saw her reflection in the mirror, and he felt relief and happiness even as he noted her arms folded tight against her chest. He hung his hat on its hook. It was getting harder, not easier. Three years into the marriage and the battle of his two favorites had not resolved.

“Frieda misses her mother, what else can be said?” He sat beside her, hand smoothing her back and she turned to face him. “In time, she’ll adjust, be nicer.”

“You might say to her that I am now the mother figure, that she is to be more respectful, follow my rules at the very least. Give me a chance here!”

“But you’re not that, not quite, are you?” He’d averted his gaze from her dismay. “She will always miss her, no use denying it. You are perfect for me, not to her.”

“Marion Carpenter just left–abandoned her! Frieda is surely better off now…”

“Well, yes, all things considered.” He took a deep breath and his chest quivered as air was let out inch by inch. “I know, Lil–I do know it is a daily strain.”

The way he said it made Lil ache all over. Ev was a man who needed to act out of integrity: he wanted to do the morally correct thing, be a responsible husband, a most loving father. But even he had his hands full with Frieda. He’d had to work like mad to transform his inherited newstand into a storefront business and it had happened. It was starting to thrive. He counted on Lil to be there, to be strong, to be compassionate. And she tried so hard it hurt.

That night she knew, finally, she could count on no one. Not for this one thing, maybe more. Not when it mattered most, beyond good intentions and careful words, beyond hard work. But she put her arms around him and he gave her a squeeze back, then got up to wash for dinner.

******

The bench pressed against her thigh to send more pain coursing down her leg. She adjusted her tennis shoe laces and stood, chin up so a cooling breeze fanned her soft, lined face. Daylight slanted, then thinned at her feet strode along the sidewalk. To her left were new apartment buildings, one with full-length windows–were they the walls, she wondered?–and another with a reflective bronze glass. Such changes about her. To her right, a new park where there had an auto body shop and two small, struggling restuarants. It was alive with fountains and surrounded by cement slab seating. People congregated nonetheless, sandwiches and coffees in tow, pidgeons and seagulls on patrol.

Her own home was a sweetly shabby, rambling house shared with six women. Six bedrooms with a conservatory and large living room and several more rooms. A wide back porch, screened. It wasn’t impressive as it once was, but beloved as well as manageable in every way.

Last week the mail had been delivered late. Lil often brought it in but time she had been shopping. When she got home just in time for dinner–her turn to clean up, she was reminded–it was on the wooden tray set upon the round foyer table. The letter was in a sturdy pale blue envelope, the kind you would buy at a stationer’s. Good, rapid handwriting. She’d glanced at the return address but didn’t recognize it. The meal was rosemary chicken with risotto and green beans and she took her time. As she scrubbed and cleaned afterwards she realized there was still the letter to read.

With excitement–how often had she had a real letter from anyone in the last five years?– not once!–she slit open the envelope with her nail file and released the page from its sheath.

Dear Lil,

I doubt you expected to hear from me again; I find it surprising I am writing now, myself. But I ran across Miss Farnham’s niece and she said you were still here. I’m back in town after all these years. Not for so long, likely, but still, it is a bit strange! A lot of life has happened to us both, no doubt.

I wonder if you would meet with me next week, say the third at one pm? I’m on Hewson Boulevard near the train station, in a place on the top floor. Number 1712. There’s a doorman to let you in, tell him your name.

If not this time, just leave a message with the concierge by then. I’ll understand, of course. 

Sincerely,

Frieda Thiesson Marten

It wasn’t a surprise to Lil. It was more like a blow to the back of the knees; she struggled to stay on her feet.

The last time they had seen one another had been the day of Ev’s funeral. Lil and Frieda sat face to face in the living room. Silence loomed like a mean cloud. But they knew what was to happen next. Ev’s daughter, now fifteen, was going to live with her maternal grandmother who had materialized from Manhattan. Apparently they had been talking on the phone for years. Lil was going to go back to work, stay here. Alone.

There was no use pretending, anymore.

“I will miss you, Frieda, despite our differences.” Her voice sounded formal and still, an echo of someone she didn’t know. Could she say I love you and it mean the right thing to the girl? No.

The clock on the fireplace mantle ticked with a steadiness neither of them felt. The teen-ager smoothed back unkempt chestnut hair and adjusted a looping paisley scarf.

“I cannot imagine life without your father,” Lil offered. A sudden hold of breath that would not budged but when it did dragged between her ribs like the tip of a blade. “I’ll find the rooms so empty…you gone, too.”

Frieda let out her own noisy stream of air between her teeth, as if she was bored with this, as if she needed to be done with everything. She kicked at the frayed Persian rug beneath the coffee table, the one that she had spilled candle wax on but never told her stepmother about, the one a half pint of beer had dumped onto so she’d scrubbed and scrubbed until the smell came out to avoid a grounding. The rug that kept her feet warm when the first autumn chill crept into the pockmarked hardwood floor. She liked the rug, it was true. She loved her father more than any words she’d found.

But Lil? Please.

“I’m not sorry for anything. I wish Dad had hung on until I got a lot older. I love him, he was too good!” Weeping erupted like a tidal wave but then it was done. She pulled herself into a taut figure, a stiff shell, really. “But I’m not sorry I’m leaving here. And you.”

Frieda looked up at her stepmother from clear hazel eyes and held her gaze as long as she could stand it. She hoped the look was telling her everything she had no energy to say, like how she was shattered when her father remarried, how she still waited every night for her real mother to come in and smooth her brow, how she believed Lil was just a dim, self-righteous woman who no one else would have bothered with except her father was just so kind he rescued her from her foolishess.

Lil saw and knew what was there. It didn’t bleed her as it used to; Ev was gone. Now this child, too. It was too late to alter the course.

Frieda scrunched her shoulders up, let them go and took from her purse an old necklace. The one that belonged to Lil, a wedding gift that had been so long lost.

“What? My locket! You found it! Or–?”

Frieda dropped it into Lil’s cupped palms, its fine chain broken, the scratched locket swinging open to display nothing at all.

“But, wait…where is our little wedding picture?”

She looked up at Frieda to see if there was an explanation, hear words that could change this moment into something cleaner, an apology, even a peaceable lie, anything that would be better than her ruined wedding locket relinquished at last.

“That’s all you have left, Lil. Bye!”

Frieda crossed the living, ran through dining room and kitchen and slammed the side door hard, the affronted reverberation echoing, the wind of her passing stirring up old dust so it spun, lifted, fell again like a fine veil, resting on the sun-striped floor around Lil’s stocking feet.

******

Lil climbed up the hill after getting off the train. Of course she made it, of course this day would happen, and she huffed only the last few feet. She wouldn’t have missed this for anything. It wasn’t that she had anything more to say to her dead husband’s daughter. She had forgotten how she looked, even, just the vaguest memory of Frieda with much brown hair, eyes that crackled. But it was like a specter passing beyond the frail recesses of dream. She was sixty-three now; Frieda was forty, maybe more. What was there to say after all was said and done? It was for Ev that she made the journey to the high-rise.

After Ev had passed, she had begun to work full-time at their (her) store. “Ev & Lil’s News-to-Go”. She wasn’t a natural as he had been but she was good at hiring a couple of people who were smart and out of need she developed a sense for the business. She had a genuine fondness for chatting with customers, many of whom were old friends, but increasingly, newcomers and tourists. She learned how to supply their needs.

The boarding house was her’s, an investment after Ev had died. She had always rented a home. Now she shared hers for nominal payments. It had worked out well. If she was lonely, she didn’t show it. One husband had been enough. He was an old-fashioned decent man, the sort she would have loved even more deeply and comfortably as the years passed. Except for Frieda, she had been happy. Except for Frieda’s and her warring, he might have also left this world content if even too young, she used to think. But she knew she knew nothing much. All she had was a handful of memories and a soft glow left from his kindnesses, his nudging, sweet kisses on her neck, the crossword puzzles they shared in bed each Saturday morning, the sound of his off-key whistle as he ran up the back steps. And he so loved his daughter, something not every man could have done as well throughout a decade of his “best girls” hissing and scratching like two cats in a cage.

Yes, Lil had been more than fortunate, all told.

She gave the doorman her name, then Frieda’s, chuckling at all steps she had to take to get in, then waited for him to hold open heavy glass doors and finally presented herself to the concierge.

“I’m to see Frieda Marten, room 1712.”

“Mrs. Thiesson.” He nodded, then reached below the sparkly black granite counter. “This is for you.”

She took the small package, a rectangular, padded envelope sealed shut.

“Oh, Frieda is to meet me. Am I to go up or wait?”

The concierge smiled at her patiently, his front teeth set against each another. “She wanted me to offer you her apologies. I’m afraid she’s gone. She had an unexpected and early flight to Rome.”

Lil’s hand went to her chest, then fell away as she stood up taller. “I see.” She scanned the opulent reception area, then looked at her tennis shoes. Her leg hurt more than when she had started. “I guess she’s a busy woman. Did she leave a phone number?”

“I’m sorry, no. Yes, Ms. Marten is a well-known singer. She did say she’ll be in touch.”

Lil felt her skin flush from chest to face and willed her cheeks to not turn red. “I see, very good, thank you.” She opened her purse and dropped in the package, then turned away. Before she moved she turned back to the young man to ask, “So what genre of music?”

“Rock, Mrs. Thiessen. ‘Blazing Mad Cow’ is her group with a number one song just this week.”

“Huh, right, thanks.” She managed to stifle a laugh and left.

It seemed right that this would be her end, a mad, glamorous, creative life. It meant little to Lil, a new fact to turn around at odd tmes, perhaps with a recollection of its merest inception when they were all together. She wondered if Freida’s youthful years were only a trial conduit for all that inate wildness.

Lil perservered all the way to the train station, then watched life flash by as she rode to her neighborhood, then stumped her way back home. She went upstairs with a wave at her housemates and entered her spacious room, shut the door firmly.

The package was torn open and a small box became visible. Her hands did not want to take off the lid. She set it in her lap, a foreign object, looked at it until the setting sun cast a tangerine hue in her airy room. It had to be faced. She lifted off the top.

It was a necklace. A necklace not so unlike the one Ev had given her their wedding day but far more expensive, perhaps 24k gold. The locket was round like the old one but larger, with fine viney lines scrolling around its edges. There was no perfect, tiny heart in the center like her old one. She pressed a miniscule latch to open it. And there they were.

Not Ev and herself pressed close together in their wedding finery as before. Nor Ev on one side of the locket and herself on the other. But Ev and Frieda and Lil. Sitting before the fireplace, tipped up faces nearly smiling. A second of peace captured Was it Miss Farnham who had come by as often happened, the camera aimed by her? It was a moment held onto by an angry, imaginative, complicated girl who had wanted nothing of Lil in her life.

The room darkened. It was tempting to lie down on the quilt. To lie down and remember. To weep over all that was given and all that was lost, the bad times and exquisite times, the hard words and the harsher silences. She loved them both, that’s all. Lil felt her heart contract hard just once, followed by a miniscule explosion that dissipated. Then the next beats got right back on track.

She bent to knead tender spots on her aging leg, got an increment of relief. The locket was laid on her bedside stand. Lil tapped it once with her pale fingernail and added a soft two-finger pat. Then left the room, closing the door behind her.