Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Myrna at the Minthorn Camp

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The Minthorns had kept a house on the wooded rise beyond wildflower-overtaken Lazy Meadow for three generations. The big rambling domain, Minthorn Camp, had been the talk of the farmers and the town for the first two and part of the third. But it had lost much of its rough-hewn grace and prosperous sheen, sadly evident by the time Earl Minthorn, II, left behind all earthly toils and gains. Now it looked weary, as if it had a hard time trying to keep up mere appearances. But Myrna was working on it.

Garth said it was hopeless when he drove up the rutted road, looked far and wide over sun scoured land and when he ate breakfast in the breakfast room and remarked on a lack of fresh flowers at the table because they’d drooped their blooms in a gasp of surrender due to record heat. The sturdy roses folded into themselves sooner than they should have, only some regaling under a brief rain here and there. Watering properly got very expensive. The place had come to him disrespected, even damaged

“It’s going to waste, nothing I can do about it,” he mumbled. “Look at those tenacious weeds edge of even the yard. When is there enough time to tend to all those?”

Myrna looked past him and at a ridge where a shimmer of light seeped through trees, spread like honey along the grassy horizon. It gave her a shiver every morning she could see it, every dawn she walked the hill.

He was not even complaining to her, but Myrna somehow felt responsible, as if she should be getting out there on her knees and wrenching them up from 100 rolling acres. Of course she did plenty, besides which most all was leased now, which was a good thing. But that still left ten acres to keep up. Which affable Roger Dell did on week-ends, and after his own long days, to the chagrin of Terri, his wife. But they were given two good-sized plots on the meadow’s south side and grew the best strawberries, raspberries and many vegetables. It had kept them nicely fed, made them a little cash. Plus they now stabled their horse at Minthorn’s for free.

Myrna bit her lip, then retrieved the coffee carafe from the bright, high-ceilinged kitchen. She leaned on the counter, tucked sweaty hair behind her ears. It hadn’t changed so much in her view; when she’d married Garth it looked much the same. True, the pictures he’d early shown her depicted the wealth of previous generations–that freshly painted, proud exterior, the beautiful stone work, carefully tended gardens, a maid in the long formal dining room and cook in the pantry. Rich acreage that prospered so well it was legendary. It was so big and beautiful in those shots it scared her to think she might actually have to live there. Then Garth explained it’d declined and she felt relief and ready to try it. There was nothing in her background that prepared her for such a place, but she knew how to keep order. How to work hard as she had on her grandfather’s humble land in the summers. And, too, make improvements others didn’t notice until done, how to learn fast what was needed.

One thing was saying nothing when Garth was caught by the web of discouragement and remorse. Maybe if he’d been a lawyer like his father, or a horse breeder and trainer like his grandfather (a side business), or an investment banker who made a fortune to bring back home–then things could be different. The cancer had taken so much money, and so soon even the will from his father.

Instead, Garth taught at the state college both American history and world culture (he was still trying to get that right) classes, as well as one economics class he hated, driving 45 minutes each way. Earl, his father, had belly laughed when he’d told him he was going to be a professor. Surely, he wasn’t serious–but he made his own way. Later, he thought living at the old place would be better than college faculty housing. When Earl passed four years ago following a grievously long battle with cancer, Garth and Myrna moved in.

“I should sell it, just unload it. You’ve done a great job refreshing many rooms…we might make a little now.”

“Maybe not decide today,” she murmured. “Maybe walk with me tonight, find ways to enjoy the land.”

Myrna poured a second cup, a hand placed on his shoulder. He tugged at her fingers then touched his lips to them. Her hands were that rare combination of smooth and strong, hearty enough to split wood. They’d met at grad school, yet here she was, trying to make him happy as she labored to maintain a 5500 sf dwelling (counting the guest cottage, but not counting barn with stable, and sheds) when she might have been teaching, too. But art history classes weren’t available for her to teach there. She had plenty to do, she said and he witnessed. If she wasn’t removing old wall paper, she was pruning trees and shrubs; if she wasn’t stripping wood, she was deterring mice from nesting in the attic.

He should be there more. But there were not only classes but multiple meetings and student conferences and papers to grade. It was enough to keep him out of her way and the place out of his mind. Until he came home.

“Aren’t you lonely out here?” But he knew the answer. She loved it more than he did.

He finished the cup and grabbed his sweater. It sweltered in the house even with strong cross breezes and multiple fans, while his rooms at work were air conditioned to an icy chill. He turned back to ask something about the fence but wasn’t sure what it needed now. She gently pushed him toward the door.

“Stay cool as you can, don’t work so hard.” He kissed her on the cheek and lips, then left.

Was she lonely…she could not imagine being less so, she thought, as she cleaned up and banged the screen door to the back. There were chickens not far off that she’d insisted they buy when they moved in. But did she wish he felt about this place as she did? Yes–it was his! Perhaps living a life more privileged caused you take things for granted; maybe it was the good and not-so-good ghosts of his past life, family he’d loved more or less. But she was fully engaged in the plan; she wanted to see it prosper. If he’d just hang on and not sell but keep faith. If he was home a bit more to actually roll up his sleeves, not just criticize.

Even Roger wondered if his old friend had given up, and said so one day as they’d shared a beer on the back veranda. Then he’d apologized.

“Sorry, Myrna. A Minthorn has deep pride in place. His father would have done more if he could have. I don’t think Garth will abandon it.”

He didn’t say, “And won’t abandon you, either,” but he thought it and wondered why. He shook off a ripple of unease as they gazed at the sheer blue prelude to twilight. She was smiling; that was good.

“See you tomorrow night to check on those fruit trees.”

“Thanks, Rog–what would I ever do without your help?”

He shrugged and tilted his hat at her, then turned on scuffed toes of his boots. “You’d learn, you’d be alright,” he said over his shoulder.

******

Her husband brought the young woman by one Saturday morning when a class had been cancelled due to air conditioning repairs. Myrna had forgotten they were coming by as she painted the cottage’s second bedroom. The ramshackle but appealing 1200 sf house was a quarter acre east of the house and she had walked there early to finish the task, naming birds as she went. It was true she’d had the idea to rent it out. Garth had mentioned he might have a potential renter. And then they were in the open doorway.

Garth smiled broadly as he flung wide his arms in the bedroom.

“Myrna, Sherrie Evans. Sherrie, my wife Myrna.”

Myrna wiped trickling sweat from her brow and stood to face a woman taller and younger than she, with a mane of streaked blonde-red-brown hair, a pale hand (with topaz ring on a finger) thrust at Myrna.

“Good to meet you–this is gorgeous!” She breathed in deeply, despite the prevalence of paint fumes

“Well, come on in– I guess you’re looking to rent awhile?”

“The rest of the school year, at least, and as soon as possible.”

The student–so Myrna deducted–swiftly apprised each room with enthusiastic commentary–“Great color and designs for rugs, walls and curtains, you must be a decorator!” –and in ten minutes said, “I can use one room for a studio, yes. When can I move in?” Her toothsome smile was a thousand watts.

What? Myrna thought. An artist?

And so it was done. The rent money was reliable because she was not a student, after all, but taught at the college. Fundamentals of Art and ceramics. Myrna looked at the woman sharply then; she did admit she missed teaching. Also, time to create more than restored houses and chicken coops and middling flower borders. She tried to not think of it because she enjoyed most she was learning and accomplishing.

But now Sherrie would be using their home to make whatever she wanted while Myrna scrubbed dirt stains from her fingernails and got up to tend hens in early morning.

Furthermore, she thought as the woman left, she didn’t like her laugh. It was brittle, could cut glass if she pushed it a bit more, her gaiety underscored by a recklessness. Also, what was with all that hair half-obscuring her eyes–was she hiding something? Or just into over-dyed long hair? And why did that matter–why was Myrna bothering with her? A tenant was what they wanted. The cottage was not that close to the house; she could be avoided.

“Well, she needed a place and will pay good money!” Garth hotly protested as she raised questions. “I checked around, she’s responsible, has taught there three years, is quite pleasant–look, you don’t have to be best friends! ” He gave her a thoughtful look. “I thought you’d like the fact that she’s an artist, too. It might be nice.”

“I know, I should be grateful. I am. It was so unexpected, just like that! Did you put up a notice up? How did she know about it?”

“I mentioned it at lunch when she complained of her roommates.” Then he glanced up at her quickly. “Well, it was an impromptu birthday lunch for four college staff, she was one of them, and I was invited by a guy in my department so I went–we started talking about rentals–“

“Okay. It’s done. We can use the money so I–we–can keep improving things.” She picked at a nubby spot on her light sweater and her torn fingernail caught at it. The temperature had cooled considerably since a hard rain the day before; lingering clouds yet kept the heat at bay. She wanted to leave and take a walk. “Just so I don’t have to be that friendly with her. I have work to do. She seems so extroverted–for an artist…”

She released a tight laugh. She wasn’t going to whine about not being able to work on her massive paintings or research about 18th century silk weavers or study her students’ critique sessions. She lived at the Minthorn Camp, it was where she needed to be now. And wanted to be. Here with Garth, after all.

If Sherrie Evans’ money could keep things running better, why not? She just needed to stay out of Myrna’s way. And yet her chest tightened a bit and her mind felt murky as a stirred up pond.

******

“If he’d talked to me more about it, I’d have felt better prepared to turn over the cottage soon.”

“That it?” Roger was dragging a birch branch to the side of a shed. There was always more to do but he was getting hungry. “Or don’t you like the idea of that cottage being someone else’s good spot?”

“What do you mean? That was the whole idea when I started fixing it up.”

“You said you might use it down the road. A refuge, was that it? And for your art work.”

She swiped at the air with her hands. “Oh, that, just a fantasy. Like a getaway for when I had time to read or draw or sit, listen to mice dance about and watch leaves drift to the ground in autumn. Right.” She looked at him more closely. “And we get along fine, don’t you worry about things. We just need our space at times. Or, I do.”

“I’m not worried about you and Garth. But now this Sherrie gal has put her mitts on it while you have all that extra space everywhere else– but you feel cramped? Go figure, Myrn! ”

She tried to punch his shoulder but he took ax to branch, then she piled up the cut pieces until they were done.

“I can use this pile if you don’t want it. Or should I ask Garth?”

“Go ahead, you know he won’t care. But it’s more psychic space, not literal space, I need sometimes, you know? Away from Minthorn energy, but also constant household chores and the yard’s mess. The cottage was a hidden treasure when we moved in–neglected and forgotten but waiting to be shined up and loved–by me.”

“Ah, she speaks her truth.”

“Oh, Roger, give me a break. I just like my solitude.”

“I know, now you won’t have the cottage for sure. I’m sorry but nice that rent will be coming in.”

“Yeah. I have one week.”

He took his handkerchief and wiped damp brow and face, then his neck and chest where a chambray shirt was unbuttoned a few inches. She gazed at the spot, then past him at the fence that required repair, then her eyes returned to him. He folded up the handkerchief, resettled his baseball cap and hitched up his jeans. Roger was six foot three and if he didn’t work outside so much he’d be thin as a willow branch. He was a telecommunications lineman all day, then often came to help. This had gone on the last three years. He never griped about it.

“You got anything to eat? I haven’t had sustenance since after noon and my stomach is howling.”

“Salami and cheese okay? Just salad and sandwich today, I didn’t go to the store. Garth will be home by ten.”

They tromped through swaying wild grasses, crossed over Kills Creek where a man was attacked by a cougar years ago, past the barn where Roger stopped to check on Pal, his (really, his daughter, Lou’s) horse and finally past the cottage.

With its lights on.

“Why are those blazing right now?” They climbed up five new steps to the back door.

Sherrie was inside evaluating square footage.

“Hi there, I’m just measuring rooms since I move in next weekend.” Sherrie ushered them in.

“Sherrie, this is Roger, a friend who works for us. Garth gave you a key already?”

“Hello! Yes, today.” Hands on hips, she surveyed the living room. “I was thinking of my couch size, and then chairs over there and my buffet here and the dining table might be big for this area and what about my drawing table?…”

She nearly glided in low golden sandals to the other side of the room.

“Well, please don’t move in before the lease start date. I still have work to do in the kitchen and out back.”

“Sure, sure.” She turned back to her surmising of furniture and placed one foot delicately in front of the other, like a ballet dancer.

“Okay, just checking. I know you’re signing the lease tomorrow. So… just please lock up.”

Sherrie murmured something agreeable, flipped the surfeit of hair over her shoulders with both hands, stretched her arms up high and returned to inspection.

Myrna and Roger continued to the house.

“I see what you mean.”

“About what?”

“Not much caring for her….maybe not trusting her, either.”

“Did I say that, Rog?”

“More or less.”

“Sometimes I think you know me better than Garth.”

Roger stuck both hands in his pockets, sped up so that she had to run a bit to catch up. It was true, he probably did.

“Wait up, the sandwiches won’t be all that good!”

“Like fine cuisine to me!”

From behind he was outlined against the vibrant sunset, and how confident the set of his shoulders, how natural and easy in the landscape as he pointed to Venus suddenly sparking at them. She’d occasionally thought they might have more in common than she and Garth but what did that mean? They had become good fiends, perhaps best friends. They were both nicely married. He had a lovely child, a good horse, a job he liked, a pleasant home: it was a good, full life. And so was hers. Minus child and horse, both of which which mattered less to her than an art studio, she admitted. Minus husband rather too often, which also mattered somewhat less than she’d once imagined.

******

When she was considering getting ready for bed the next night, Myrna did not look at the clock. Nor check the driveway and peer down the long road that ran circuitous like a snake unwinding its tough, attractive length through their land. His and hers, Minthorn Camp.

Garth was to have been home for dinner but he called and said he was meeting Sherrie to sign the lease–he’d be home before long. It was far too late but she didn’t care when he got there–she knew all she had to know.

She was putting away his T-shirts in the dresser drawer earlier. They weren’t lying nice and flat and socks were bunched up, so she took them all out to organize. There at the back was a folded receipt, then one more, then another, and more. Garth saved receipts for work so she tossed them in the wastebasket, reordered the underwear but as she did so kept eyeing the receipts until her hand followed gaze. He filed such receipts in his desk drawer, not in a dresser.

They–eight of them–were from Palatini’s Food and Spirits. She’d heard of it, but they’d never been there; she wasn’t fond of Italian food. When she studied the credit card, she realized it was not a regular debit card but his credit card. The one he used for emergencies or big purchases. These purchases were meals, two meals each time and dated over the last four months.

Myrna lost her breath, time and space fell away; she grabbed the bedpost to keep from sliding to the floor. She put head in her hands, leaned toward her lap, took in slower breaths. She was not going to faint over this. She’d already sensed it: Garth was meeting someone and it was not for work.

She slipped on her Teva sandals and ran outside, leaned against the nearest tree, body going soft as if defenseless, and searched the sky. Nothing but a wash of soft blue-black, stars and ever more stars and a three quarter moon that glowed so bright she could see dry, brown grasses bending against the weathered fence. She felt relief: to know the truth, not be afraid, to know her gut was right despite rational excuses. Two tears slid down her face but that was all, and they dried fast in the heat of the wind.

Then she got mad.

She reached for her phone.

“Hello?” He sounded a bit annoyed but resigned.

“I know it’s getting late, but can we talk, Rog? Or will Terri be mad? I could use your help–I’d be glad to explain to her, too.”

“Terri and Lou are at her sister’s in Utah for two weeks, remember? It’s kinda late so what’s this about, buddy?” He wiped his face of sleep and got out of bed.

******

They shouldn’t have done it, of course, and if they’d have thought about it a few days and Myrna had let her mind settle and clear, heart becoming quiet as it tended to be, they might not have. But they went ahead with it, changed the locks on the cottage front and back doors. They could barely stop laughing on the way way back to his truck, then said good-bye with somber faces. It was no laughing matter. Roger wondered what on earth Garth was thinking and Myrna, was dumbfounded by a deep sadness.

When Sherrie arrived with her lovely possessions in a rental truck, she couldn’t get in. She called Garth and proceeded to yell, fuming like a child who has been denied. Roger and Myrna watched her carry on from their vantage point in a wooded stretch by Kills Creek. The not-to-be tenant waited for her–Myrna said it right out loud– lover. They couldn’t hear much but the activity–or lack thereof–said it all. Garth came to a a roaring, dust-swirling stop at the once-hoped-for-trysting spot and took Sherrie into his arms, then stomped around the place, trying all windows and doors. Then they were gone, each in a car, one after the other. The rental truck sat as evidence.

Myrna had seen far more than she’d desired; they skulked deeper into woods, then parted. Nothing was said, though Roger had reached for her and maybe she wanted more than anything to fall into someone’s arms–no, his arms–but she did not. Instead she returned home to wait for her husband.

Roger Dell drove all the way home singing loudly with the radio, not a song he even liked. It was better than the feelings he felt, heart pounding like wild hooves against the dirt.

******

The two of them, Garth and Myrna, dug for and found enough love and good sense to recover. It was also the pleasure and grip of Minthorn Camp, one place that belonged to Garth, and he to it. And the woman he married was not someone he cared to harm or lose again, and he told her he’d spend his life proving it. He knew that place had become part of her, as well. He found himself teaching better, returning earlier and in search of Myrna.

But Myrna didn’t believe or care if Garth proved it; she was simply there despite the pain. It had become her home. That was the half-answer answer she had for him; any more would take loads of time. So she finished up the cottage. She moved in and turned two rooms into one airy studio space. There she captured time enough to make large acrylic paintings that were a wilderness of colors, and to refine new skills in botanical drawings, their lushness made more potent by exacting lines. There was the research for articles she was determined to publish again. She went back to the big house only after she sold an article months later.

Roger stayed on part time at Minthorn Camp. He needed to work the challenging acreage; he had grown up roaming it with Garth and their friends. He liked the extra money he now was paid for his labors. It accrued over time for a second horse for Terri (as expert a rider as was he) and himself to share. He hoped one day for a third, maybe more. The Minthorns weren’t the only ones with a respectable history with horses.

And there was Myrna, wasn’t there. She was learning to ride–Garth didn’t enjoy it after he’d fallen as a kid and badly broken his an arm– and it was taking much effort and time. She was not quite at ease on the back of an animal that knew its own mind better than did she. Myrna needed extra help, they both knew it, and Roger was careful as she got better–and gained back ground. Before too long they rode together now and again, sharing a beer and a sandwich after each comforting, victorious ride.

These Clues to a Hidden Life

Roxie was at it again despite Phillip throwing her a sidelong glance. Her eyes swept over the name cards on the long crystal-and-china-dressed table, the mail stacked on an inlaid tray in the hallway. Books in the library called to her with possible personal notations right inside the covers. She knew she should mind her own business but it was difficult to ignore her passionate interest in handwriting.

The party’s voluminous conviviality and scents of beer, wine and mixed drinks swirled about her like gladly deranged toxins. She sneaked past them, into the back garden. No one would notice. Phillip was again caught up in a mesmerizing narrative of his latest humanitarian medical trip, this time to the Colombian jungle.

Roxie was a fan of Phillip’s; he was her husband. She was not a fan of dinner parties but went to a minimum of four a year, maximum of six. It was part of their recent negotiation whereupon he agreed to no longer fret and fume about her graphology business, Interpretive Analysis Enterprises (IAE), and she pledged to put on a good front for his increasingly public medical career. More precisely, humanitarian medical work’s fundraising. Once a year she threw the party, which required significant expense for catering services. She was at best a turkey meatloaf with boiled potatoes and steamed asparagus sort of cook. Meanwhile, they had never specifically addressed snooping around in random places and taking a peek at “graphology samples”, as she called all writing on personal or business envelopes, guest books at weddings, email or address request sheets at shops and galleries, etc.

She had noticed a pale sage green envelope with interesting writing. It had spirit, a decided intelligence. It lay on top of a small pile of papers in the tray set upon the hall table in Ella’s house. The woman was a remarkable party-thrower and good neighbor, but not truly tidy despite having a housekeeper in twice a week. Roxie could get writing samples here anytime if she kept her eyes open.

It wasn’t that she actually needed any, she just enjoyed them. Her business was going well, she had roughly ten new inquiries per week, most resulting in a new graphoanalysis client. She would have to put a cap on it soon if it kept up this rate of growth. It felt more like a full time job and less like a fun experiment, which is what it originally was a year ago. Roxie had wanted to see where her newly acquired skills could take her. She had gotten dull, too sluggish-minded as her twelve year old daughter seemed always busy and too fussy for much chat or even shopping and lunch–plus a husband who was an in-demand doctor. So she got quietly certified for graphology on her own. He had first seemed amused, then annoyed, then angry that she chose “to actually in fact pursue foolish hocus pocus”–despite her offering evidence to the contrary. But in time he’d softened just barely enough. It did make money; there was virtually no overhead.

Ella’s landscaped garden looked almost animated, a high moon shining like a silver dollar, flowers glowing beneath fairy lights that marked the lawn’s edges and two pathways. Ever deepening, color-tinged shadows were affecting. A few couples stood about in quiet groups, as if nature’s lushness lent a gentling effect. Roxie’s eyes roamed over the landscape and registered a flash of yellow amid greenery. She watched the woman wearing the sunny dress sink to a bench beneath purple azaleas. Her hands went to her face, and then she looked blankly into a narrow pathway bordered by hyacinths and tulips. It was Ella. She must have slipped away, too. Roxie was torn between restfulness of taking in fragrant spring air as she waited for Phillip to find her and wanting to thank her for the delicious dinner. Ella turned her head, then saw her neighbor friend on the patio by the double French doors. After a small pause, she gestured at her so Roxie joined her in the sheltered area.

After settling on the bench and thanking Ella for the grilled salmon dinner, Ella laid a hand on her forearm.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something. A favor, of sorts, a bit of advice.”

“What? I might be able to help. No promises, though.”

Ella’s strong features were made more dramatic in moonlight, her thick black hair in a loose bun at her neck, an aquiline nose a statement of pedigree, her usually pouty lips thinned as she pressed them together. She smiled nervously at Roxie, then looked down the pathway once more.

“I got a letter a couple of months ago from someone I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear from…but after some detective work I decided the person was likely the person indicated and so I replied. I wasn’t too encouraging, however. It’s…a difficult matter….but this person wrote back again! I got a second letter today, in fact. I didn’t even open it yet–gosh, I forgot to put it away with all the activity around the party. I’d better do that right after we talk.”

Her voice was inflected with the slightest reveal of anxiety. She looked about to check the immediate area was clear of eavesdroppers. Roxie was calmly listening, having already deduced the favor and decided that naturally she would analyze the writing of whomever had written Ella.

“Is it someone who, well, scares you a little? You seem unnerved.”

“I am. Scared? Well, the person is not someone I’d expected to hear from, not now. No, not ever. It was a visitation from the past…a reminder of decisions made out of utter disregard for the future. I was eighteen and now here I am nearly middle aged and one might hope that the past stayed in its place rather than sneak up on you, a cunning snake.”

“I see. Look, Ella, I understand what you mean but I can’t know who or what this is about, exactly. Can you clue me in more?”

“There you are, gorgeous!”

The women, startled, surveyed the area beyond their inadequate refuge.

“We’ve looked all over for our fabulous but errant ladies!”

The women gave one another a raised eyebrow, then surveyed the two bodies that gave forth those voices. Phillip and Tag peered at them, sloshing glasses carried with a lack of grace, arms about each other’s shoulders. Their husbands were more than a little loosened up, it seemed.

“The hostess always need be about for adoring guests, my darling…so why run off into these unattendant azaleas? A party headache crept up? Oh, sorry, Roxie, you’re there, that’s better. Or more than usual, different.”

His loosely connected speech made Tag seem someone quite other than who he was, Theodore Taggert “Tag” Huntley, esteemed lawyer and sought-after master of ceremonies at numerous events. He tended to be sober when everyone else was not. Phillip had a couple of traditional holiday drunk fests in him each year but Tag had had his way with alcohol–or it, with him– long ago and now rarely drank much, if at all.  They were such good friends that the women wondered how Tag had gotten so into his cups without being checked by Phillip.

“Here we come to gather you up from said flowers, in any case,” laughed Phillip.

They both had thrown caution to the wind, now found it funny joke they were all hiding in the bushes.

Roxie patted Ella’s hand; she gave it a squeeze in response.

“We’ll talk more soon, Roxie. It’s been good to sit with you.” She got up and took her husband’s arm. “Yes, Tag, I’m the dutiful hostess and you’re the more charming host and here we go back to the party. Perhaps it has gone on long enough, do you think?”

“What’s that about?” Roxie asked Phillip. “Isn’t he sticking to the straighter and narrower road?”

“It appears he slipped up, enjoyed himself a mite too much.”

“I must say the same goes for you. You almost sound poetic. Let’s head home, shall we, Mr. Stannis?”

Phillip put his good face close to hers, noses touching, and gave her an off-center kiss that she found delicious if messy.

******

“I’m  glad you were able to come by today. I have two hours totally free.”

Roxie ushered Ella into the solarium where she had her desk, a comfortable setting for clients.

“I really had to–it was that or enter a useless depression which doesn’t suit me at all. I’ve enough on my hands lately and need to keep my wits about me.”

Roxie wanted to know if the “enough” included Tag’s alcohol use, but kept quiet. Her usually social friend looked beleaguered. It had been three days since the dinner party.

“I brought them with me, both letters from Philadelphia.” She rooted around in her enormous soft blue leather handbag until she found them at the bottom. “Here you are…”

Roxie took them and set them on the side table. “Tell me a little more before we start. What am I going to be looking at, Ella? All you said during the phone call was a rehash of what you noted before and a request for my services.”

Ella pulled her thin shoulders back. “You’re so right, I became alarmed enough to let loose some concerns and you don’t even know what or why yet. This will not be easy, Roxie, please know how daunting, even embarrassing it is.” She smoothed the floral fabric on both arms of the sumptuous chair, then clasped her hands in her lap. “I was eighteen. It was the summer before I went to Mills College. I was a camp counselor for the second year in a row and I valued that job. I’d always enjoyed kids, and it felt like the last time I’d be able to have fun while making a little money. I might have gone to Tuscany as my parents had planned a vacation, but I’d been to Europe the year before–and who wanted to go with parents at eighteen?– so I felt inclined to stay home. They went off for two months. I went to camp, so to speak, for the entire summer.”

She reached for a glass of iced water on the glass topped coffee table, next to a plate of apple slices and cheese. Roxie had missed lunch so grabbed a slice of both, then leaned close in.

“That was so independent of you–to turn down a cushy trip to work with rascally kids!”

“I know it doesn’t seem like the reasonable decision, but I also had another agenda. I knew there was freedom there–I had a day off once a week and a couple of evenings as well. Beyond the 8 to 6 routines and activities, I could be free as a second year counselor to other activities with a few co-workers We were on a pretty lake for sailing and swims, and Camp Clearwater was two miles from a small town. I had my car. There were things to do–a pool hall, a cafe where they had great BLT sandwiches– or at least it felt like there were interesting options then.”

Ella’s eyes warmed as she talked on, hands moving expressively with words. Roxie was distracted by the redundant buzzing of a captive fly and watched Wiley the cat’s tail switch as he stalked the insect. She let imagination take her to a lakefront with its hoards of bugs, simmering summer air. She imagined Ella as more captivating than even presently, already tall and willowy and tanned (Roxie had then felt like a cookie cutter girl, and was barely five foot five). There were boats zooming about the lake, kids swimming and diving, male counselors splashing female counselors, and all glittered in brazen summer light or glistened in that otherworldly manner of moon’s opalescent light.

Heavenly. And she got paid for all that? Roxie was washing and waxing cars at her uncle’s car wash her last summer at home.

“And there was Rod.”

Roxie shook off her reverie, attended to at her friend.

“Rod? Another counselor or a townie?”

“Oh, he was a counselor. I knew he’d be there again; we had written off and on during our senior year.”

“I see. So you two were… in love?”

“I didn’t really think so until I saw him again. He had bright auburn hair, freckles scattered over his nose and cheekbones and the deepest blue eyes…I mean, none of this had changed from before. But it was how he wore those freckles that summer, how he carried himself, how he talked to people. To me. As if he had something to say that I–we–might want to hear. A natural leader had started to form. The kids loved him, he was fun as well as just strict enough. And I certainly heard him loud and clear.” Ella turned to study Roxie, eyes squinted as if trying to ascertain more than she could see. “Didn’t you have a first love like that?”

“Sure. I married him.”

“Oh.” She seemed disappointed. “Well, this was something entirely unexpected. I was going to college in a couple of months and I just meant to have some fun but Rod was so, he was just …too much… for me. I fell in love, hard. But he entirely disappeared from my life after camp ended.”

Roxie frowned at the idea of heartbreak. Waited as Ella collected herself. It had to have been something pretty fantastic. Roxie helped herself to another cheddar and apple slice then settled into her matching floral love seat, two sage green envelopes now in hand.

“This is intriguing. Also tough. But I’m wondering who these letters are from. I look forward to studying the handwriting but my question is: who are they from, Ella? is it Rod? Did he reach out to you after all this time?”

Ella suddenly covered her face, then peered out from between gaping fingers, trying to steady her voice. “No. They are from…from, uh, our daughter. The one I gave birth to, then gave up for adoption the year I was supposed to be a college freshman! She’s now twenty four! And she’s tracked me down…”

Roxie nodded as Ella revealed her misery. She had about decided it was something like that. It had happened to too many girls. Abortion wasn’t necessarily a desired much less legal answer then. She could never have done it. But she was taken aback by the effect giving birth so young was having on Ella even now. She wasn’t just thrown off guard by the proffered letters–she assumed they’d arrived out of the blue–but Ella seemed fearful, as she had the night of the party.

“I understand, this is not an easy thing to assimilate after so long with such a lack of information available to you, I assume. Do you want to keep corresponding, find out more about her? Meet, perhaps?”

Ella’s face was slack with sorrow, marred by uncertainty. “I just don’t know. What I would like now is your very appreciated help. I need to know what you see in her handwriting, what you can tell me  about her. You will still do that?”

“Yes, of course.” She pulled out the letters, opened them up.

Roxie didn’t read for content at all the first few times. What sentences told meant far less to her than the actual means to the end product. So she rapidly scanned first, then studied diligently. The flow of the words told a story, the shapes of them and their separate letters, spaces between both, the pressure of pen or pencil or felt tip, the endings and beginnings of letters and loops above and below a central line. The slants of the writing, if and where it was cursive or printed. The rhythm of it and its size, the uniformity or the lack of it. How were the “ts” crossed, with a light line or a slashing one, a sturdy crossing or a bare half-line? Was the bottom loop athletic and sensual, thwarted, independent, efficient, angry? There was so much to take in that Roxie savored and noted and studied again, then memos were sent to her brain and she looked over things again. By the end of the writer’s second page, the script had relaxed a little, not surprisingly. And the signature was altogether different than the rest–as often it was: public persona versus private human being.

“Well? What do you see?” Ella was on the edge of her seat.

“It will take time, Ella, quite a bit of it. I can take an hour now and give you a very cursory evaluation or take several hours and get back to you.”

“Take your time, please. I need to know the truth, as much of it as you can possibly gather.”

“Alright. Give me a couple of days. I have another job or two ahead of this.”

“Of course. I’ll pay your rate, don’t say no.  But please don’t say anything to Phillip– or anyone.”

“I wouldn’t think of it; there are ethics involved.”

Roxie led her out to the front door and then got back to work.

******

It wasn’t hard to determine that Frances Reynolds was a bright, rather circumspect, hard working, emotionally sensitive person. She was an empathetic person but she was also likely to get prickly, was  given to dependence on others, ambitious in spite of that yet also self doubting. Given to excesses emotionally at times and perhaps behaviorally, likely not terrible things. The pronoun “I” was very small compared to the rest of the capital letters, nearly protectively enclosed in a circular stroke. Roxie mused over the young woman’s intense desire to meet her biological mother, over how much her being adopted might have impacted her sense of self worth. It might have been something else that created a sense of identity lacking in sturdy confidence. The sizable, even spacing indicated a more cautious nature despite her taking the chance to reach out to Ella. Full lower loops on letters “y” and “g” for two appeared to indicate Frances’ physicality, strong physical needs as well as a likely imaginative tendency, well supported by other indicators.

Roxie spent two afternoons going over the letters with singular concentration. She did not want to disappoint her friend with a sloppy review of personal characteristics belonging to someone this important. Rarely had anyone who requested her services done so as a mere lark. It was always serious business but if so. Roxie had noted on her website that she strongly advised against it (no “gag” gift certificates, please). Graphology could make a significant difference in a person’s view of another, for good or ill. It could ferret out tendencies if not also clear-cut behaviors that might be heretofore unknown to the requester. For police or psychological aid, this was entirely useful.

In the wrong hands, it could be devastating.

Ella had never even met the young woman who was likely her lost daughter, a pregnancy the result of a youthful, passionate and all too brief love affair. Roxie did not want to form a picture that would irrevocably influence a mother’s decision, even if she saw her once and that was that. It had to be an  addendum to Ella’s carefully wrought determination. Meeting the girl would tell the greater story.

She called Ella to set up another appointment.

******

When Roxie was finished the results of her analysis, Ella asked her if she thought Frances Reynolds was, after all was said and done, “the sort of person I truly should allow into my life. She seems to be!”

Roxie was taken aback by this. Frances was, after all, her daughter and despite the trauma adoption may or may not have incited, she had gone this far, replying to Frances’ letter once and asking for Roxie’s graphological insights.

“Is that the reason you actually brought the letters to me? I can’t decide for you, Ella, it has to be what you feel is right, how your see her presence in your life and what it means to your family. You have two grown sons, you have a husband. How do you see all this affecting the big picture?”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not only meeting Frances, having a serious cry and perhaps trying to make a kind of bridge–or perhaps just parting ways. She may want to enter our greater lives. I may even want her there.” She twisted a tissue in her hands. So far she had not wept. “But Tag will not, I can assure you…”

“Ah, I’d thought of that. But why assume this to be true?”

“He would find it entirely inconvenient right now since he’s running for the city council– and very embarrassing. Disappointing on one level or another. I worry every day he’ll find out she even wrote me. If I actually meet up with her…he would be so upset with me. With us.”

Roxie thought about Tag, his inherent sense of justice, his accolades in his field, a generous nature and seeming good humor. It was hard for her to believe he would turn his back on her at such a time. Unless she did not have a good idea of who he was. Or he was drinking heavily again–then things got messy. But Phillip had assured her it was not the case. So maybe she was too ashamed or conflicted, herself.

“Maybe that deduction allows you to feel…protected somehow. Like you have an automatic ‘out’…?”

“I think not, Roxie! I can make my own decisions but I DO have a family already, don’t I? We have a life, a future.”

Roxie looked out the window at the waning sun, a light rain spattering the flowers. “I think Frances–who also has a life– just wants to meet you, the woman who gave her life. You don’t have to decide anything much right off the bat, do you?” She cleared her throat, hesitantly asked, “Is Tag going at the booze again?”

Ella looked up sharply at her neighborly friend. Her new and only support. “No. But I worry he might again, especially after the party. Especially if I tell him this news, the big truth I omitted from the start…”

They sat in silence awhile. Wiley the cat got up from the floor, front paws stretched out long, back end in the air, then sauntered out the room, rubbing against Roxie’s leg as he went. How simple a life to live, sunning, eating, chasing more flies, sniffing flowers and yet another nap.

“Well, I do thank you, Roxie. Frances seems like a decent and lovely human being, a young woman who is making her own way after college. Who just wants to see if I am even worth knowing. I don’t blame her a bit after what I did, leaving her behind.” Her voice lapsed into a quiet rasp and one, then another tear trickled down.

Roxie let her be. She didn’t want to intrude on those innermost feelings and her private space. They were not that close though closer now. Keeping such secrets was a demanding part of her work. Anyway, she couldn’t pretend to know how this would all play out. It might become very rough.  Nor did she know how Ella felt in the middle of the night with memories breaking open, likely regrets of one kind or another, and Tag lying beside her with cozy with an innocent snore. She didn’t always have good news to offer people who came to her with the driving need to know the truth.

Did they really? she often speculated. Did people want the truth, after all, if it was not what was suspected or desired? Or did they want only confirmation of the best or worst of someone they loved or hated, or hoped to know or were trying like crazy to forget? The story was never exactly as it appeared, not even as Roxie discerned it on the page. She knew that. But people came to her hoping it would eliminate fear or worry or misgivings; bolster dreams or goals or arguments or clarify life when they could not clarify it themselves. She was not an oracle, not a soothsayer. She could only find the complex clues and offer what she thought would help. Not even all the clues. There was such depth of uniqueness, that layered singularity of a person, so that such shadows and secrets could be at times clouded by the hand that scrawled across the page. Did we even know ourselves, Roxie wondered?

So she was careful with the information that could make a needed difference. And was she right to determine which she told and which she held back? No, her work was getting harder the more she understood, the more she talked with her clients, and people had begun to seem more mysterious.

Ella pressed the tissue against her pale cheeks and stood up, life-altering letters pushed into the depths of her blue bag, the other hand protectively pressing it close to her side.

“Thank you for your help, your patience with all this,” she said and held Rosie’s warm hand in both of her cool ones. “I’ll let you know what happens. If anything happens.”

And she smiled that sunny welcoming smile that must have pulled Rod closer. But it was a mad hormone-fueled summer they got caught up in while trying on more freedom. A powerful trickery of summered water and earth, a time shared in delight and surprise. And then let go.

But Ella would look into her daughter’s eyes and discover a great deal more. Pain, yes, but also a chance at happiness she would not otherwise get to experience: the presence of her own blood and bone designed into an exquisitely new female human being. One of her own.

Roxie closed the heavy door, leaned on it a moment. She sighed deeply and wound her way through the quiet rambling house, out the back way to her damp and sweetly beckoning garden, Wiley, too, but dashing off.

 

Note to readers: This is the second of short stories about graphology and Roxie. The first may be read here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/more-hocus-pocus/