Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Sail Us Away

I finally rolled out of my comfortable cave of sleep and blindly slumped into the bathroom. And immediately noted remnants of a lingering presence. It wasn’t the foggy medicine cabinet mirror above the sink, damp towels hung or half-folded here and there–all seven of us used one bathroom in the bungalow. It was the fragrance. Spicy and warm, rich and uplifting. Dad had finished his daily routine, and left evidence of preparations for the new day.

Old Spice, the common man’s transformative…. after shave. Accessible and intensely itself. A moderate scent that was and remains admired by both genders–and the one that introduced generations to fragrances for men alone. Prior to 1938, fragrances–perfume, cologne, toilette water–were predominantly women’s domain (in the US, at least). It was a hit from the start (though it began a year before as a woman’s fragrance, then tweaked to telegraph more masculinity.)

It was as much Dad’s signature as anything else, whether it was his ridiculous puns or sonorous viola playing or singing in my mother’s ear with arms about her or researching his Bible for Sunday school class. It was present everywhere after he put it on, moving room to room in his haste to get going. Fragrance elicits many images and feelings, associated with things that are even wordless. Masculine, yes, he was that; strong of heart and body but also gentle and prone to fun as much as deep pondering. I studied him, at times baffled by the contradictions but admired him. Old Spice spoke to lighter sides. Yet he was always poised to move and start accomplishing something, at ease in the greater world, his inviting smile radiating to others as he listened and spoke carefully. He was a traditionalist in a core sense yet one who cared little for constraining imagination–or only enough to harness the energy of ideas.

But beyond his professional world, there was a side that appreciated and sought the outdoors. Water activities and boats, camping among twittering birds and scurrying critters, riding his bike through tree-lined streets, taking to winding back roads that led to interesting places. He enjoyed being in the elements and learning nature’s ways, though there was little enough time for it.

My father, then, was a fit for an Old Spice user. It trailed him out of the house, then hung around inside. I sometimes sneaked a whiff from the iconic white bottle when he was on work trips. Though I have to admit he also wore other aftershaves–Aqua Velva, perhaps, or English Leather, Royall Bay Rum and, to really change it up, Royall Lyme (which I particularly liked). But he usually returned to Old Spice, from what memory asserts.

Increasingly I was intent on unlocking the fascinating codes of scent from my mother, sisters, girlfriends and glossy ads. As I became a teen, things changed more in the perfume business. If a trend or two altered in the late thirties, then by a decade afterward colognes and perfumes were associated with men as well as women. And worn increasingly by youths as the ’50s and ’60s arrived. As with everything, I had to wait until I was fourteen or fifteen to officially use a light perfume, try a new way of being and venture bravely into the world. And I could enjoy fragrances of others. Including wafts of the boys’ experiments.

Today every fashion magazine or site appeals to anyone who has an interest—there are dramatic, expensive ad campaigns and atmospheric pages with little scent strips, hoping to spur a longing for something more and better, more enticing and unique. And, as usual with any olfactory trigger, those scents are associated with certain males I have known–quite other than my father. I dated guys who wore Brut (what a name and marketing!), Hai Karate, Musk by English Leather, 4711 and Jaguar. Hefty even exotic names meant to overstate, lionize the male image most teenaged and college boys could rarely actually impart. Some bowled me over– into a near faint. I probably liked musky scents the most and knew this was pretty bold of me to admit at 16, 17. But another kind might persuade me the young man who wore it had good taste and a fortuitous future. And it might include me.

All teen boys and girls aspiring to be attractive men and women reached for what was deemed more adult–yet not the same; we needed our own signature styles. We spritzed, splashed, dabbed and slapped it on. And not always to increase our favor in the eyes–and through noses–of others. We just enjoyed it. Later in life, different scents helped shape images of boyfriends, then husbands, a few co-workers and friends. When those waft my way, a memory comes to the fore. Like Jade East and later Hugo Boss which resonate with long ago love that was lost. Like patchouli (more considered gender neutral even then), worn by quintessential hippie boys who captivated my attention. Or Aramis, which Marc wore for some years after we married, though he generally didn’t care for a fancy scent preceding him in in his professional life. And I think his favorite these days, despite approving of Atelier Cologne’s pungent Cedre Atlas (which I sometimes wear), is Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint liquid soap. He uses it daily and might wash his clothes with it if he could. Good thing I don’t mind the fragrance as it travels right my way after he washes face or hands.

Recently I was at a large grocery store with a daughter when she said she had to pick up something for her partner. His favorite body wash. Body wash…I followed, curious. She went right to a giant display of Old Spice and chose his favorite one. While I nearly fell backward, stunned as I gazed upon the overwhelming choices of…everything. I was not prepared for this, a wall of shelves stocked to the brim with Old Spice products–and not just after shave or anti-perspirant. There were air fresheners (really?), anti-chafe emollient (for a tad relief, I guess) and body washes and beard products and shampoos and conditioners. I probably have left something out. There were dozens of eye-catching new designs of packaging, and unusual scents galore despite the brand still trumpeting: “Old Spice.” At least there was still a ship–well, a yacht, if I saw it right, replacing the old standby of a colonial-type tall ship. One of my favorite sorts of boats. But now–a yacht!

It had apparently been rebranded over the years I had forgotten about it. It had begun by addressing the image long taken for granted, which had slowly become “an old man’s aftershave.” I mean, it was true that I didn’t know younger guys who’d worn Old Spice. Or only the musk-laced one which, if you consider it, makes sense. By 2008, though, the brand was growing more rapidly as they worked on the image. Then a few years later a smart, playful commercial was conceived and produced, and it successfully portrayed a buff male touting its masculine but fun virtues. I looked it up and you can, too. It absolutely was a different image they were going for, at last. It worked.

Old Spice had evolved to meet the expectations of more media-savvy, younger generations. As I gazed upon the choices before me, I was bedazzled–though I also laughed a bit. How could any man find all these surprising iterations that attractive? Coconut Old Spice? The packaging, scent variations, graphics. I was surprised that some sported an old red color or white with an additional flare–an attempt at reflecting the original style. But it was too much to study further and my daughter was ready. I started to walk away.

Then I turned back. Where was that regular Old Spice deodorant? I reached high and snagged one, put it in my basket. I was taking it home to Marc. Because he’d told me long ago that even though his father hadn’t been around after his parents divorced, his taciturn but steadying grandfather had been. And he wore only simple, trusty Old Spice. And was he delighted I bought it for him? Of course. The comfortable, pleasantly warm and bright scent is back again. And Marc smells pretty nice when we have a good hug.

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

What is given by a woman to a man

cannot be returned or exchanged.

It’s no silvery-wrapped first edition book,

no amber jar of healing herbs,

or a magnifying glass that clarifies fine print.

Anything given is what is intended,

not what is imagined, longed for, misplaced.

Her laughter can be a caress over aching temples,

her kiss a great mystery of heat and cold.

A woman’s quietness may seem a retrieval of peace

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

Her passionate rebuttal may sound as insult or denial;

but she is using skills to illuminate, navigate.

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

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

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

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

But it is love that kindles everything in life;

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

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

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

there is a critical point before there came that yes.

That said, it is abundance for you whether you find

it enough or worthy, or pronounce it something else.

What is given by a woman may even be overlooked

though she keeps doing and being as she can.

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

she keeps close, is hers until the end.

Running Late at the Jolie Cafe

He was at long last good and tired of waiting for her. Not just the past 22 minutes, but all the times he had sat in restaurants even if mediocre, on benches at parks in a spectrum of weather, at charming cafes tucked away in a district like Little Paris where he was waiting, or even at home with take-out cooling on the wobbly table they’d spotted in a thrift shop. It was his habit to wait, he’d been good at it ever since being a contemplative child in the country, where all around him things took their own time, quite apart from what his battered pocket watch stated. It was her habit to keep people waiting as she did one last thing, booked two appointments at once or was compelled to stop on the street to save the rabbit that got loose from somewhere and was about to mowed down by a skateboarder. So it wasn’t just Timothy who paid for her lateness; each person had stories to add. But it felt like it when it happened again. She knew this was unacceptable, surely.

Madeline was flat-out in a rush, energetic about everything but over-engaged with life, that was the problem. It had been one of the issues when he’d interviewed her for the vacant spot as apartment mate. The first being she was female which, when she proffered full cash for the first month, he promptly forgot. It was a large vintage-style apartment close to city center; Timothy had lived there two years and did not want to give it up after his original roommate exited for the paradise of New Zealand. Most people he’d talked to couldn’t part with the hefty sum despite their excitement over wonderful views of the river from the front windows and from a small balcony at back, colorful storefronts and ongoing activities.

“I like to quiet things down by eleven at the latest.”

“Even on week-ends?” Madeline had asked, shocked.

“I sometimes work on week-ends.”

“Yes, but I hold on all week long for Friday and Saturday nights, like most people.”

“I’m a web designer on the side, if you recall. I work on week-ends often, just as when I’m at the office being a cog in the techie world during the week.”

She half-frowned, more a vague, acquiescent look of knitting together her eyebrows and tightening her lips, which were brilliantly glossed. He couldn’t quite stop looking at her lips. They were like two bright flags waving under the pier of her nose, rather too long for her face. He found her a bit funny but kept his face empty of telltale ripples.

He considered the bathroom sharing, how much space she might take up. His vanishing friend, Evan, had used half of one drawer for all his essentials. They had never tripped over each other’s stuff unless there  had been a big sports night with friends, beer and crunchy snacks.

“Are you saying you have restrictions on when I can be up or make any sort of noise? Do you snore?”

He looked away, narrowed his eyes at the wood floor. Who was she, questioning him? But yes, he did snore, that had irked Evan until he’d found good ear plugs. And also, he was a periodic insomniac so could get up a few times.

“I see how this is, my friend, so good luck with finding someone who fits all your needs.” She started to rise form her chair.

“No, wait, we’ve just begun. I really need an apartment mate. Tell me more. Basic info about your own lifestyle, is that okay?”

“I work as noted in the county building handling building permit requests and such, go out with friends often enough but am not a raging drunk or pitiful drug abuser and have no pets at the moment; I do have one stuffed dog from years ago–don’t ask–named Goldie who will stay put on my bed. I like classic movies and cook some but prefer take out. I am tolerant of most tunes and love world music. I run each morning around six–well, I used to have access to a stinky gym in my other building but now I’ll run again, along the river, that should be fun! I’m a hiker and a dragon boat team racer. I have no boyfriend now and won’t be looking. I’m neat enough.”

“Dragon boat teammate, nice,” he murmured.

She studied him as he jotted notes and laughed. “You’re writing this all down?”

Timothy put aside the note pad and pen. “I took info on the other three, too. I’m sharing a home with a stranger, right?” He tried to make himself look at ease, took a breath, let it seep out. “Look, I’ll check your references and get back to you in a few days.”

“Come on, Timothy, I have the money right now and if you need a security deposit, that’s fine, too. I have to get into a place ASAP–they’re tearing the three-story down to put up one hundred-sixty condo units that will rent for some crazy price.” She looked about. ” I can afford this, it’s a wonderful place–even near my work. And I think you’re a nice enough guy, a far better sort than the third roommate we had a short time who was a bona fide slob and kept a few scary reptiles caged in his room. You’re just a little rigid…we’re workable, right? Or do you have some nutty habits I’ll run from, screaming  in fright? Because I don’t need all that.”

He cleared his throat to cover his surprise over the money as well as her dwelling circumstances and the snake handler. “Well, I’ve got my ways, but I’m not an intolerant person, just organized. Quiet by nature.  I’m a kind of studious sort of guy except for some sports on TV. I don’t get too wild, no–that’s a serious understatement…so, guess that’s it, then. When will you move in?”

It took her over two weeks to haul in possessions–not so many, just one piece at a time, it seemed to him– despite her emphatic statement that it’d be five days, max. This was his first clue about her lateness.

But she ended up being a fine roommate, paid her rent ahead of time, kept her things picked up, was cordial and lively without being intrusive. They’d found they had a few things in common, despite her opinionated frankness and his more neutral philosophizing. Despite her terribly long hot baths and his fast cool showers. Despite the contrast between her chatty friends–one of whom slept on the couch after concerts or films or drinking a few and dancing at a monthly ceili, of all things–and his two very good friends who he met out somewhere else excepting baseball and basketball season on television and playing golf a couple times a month in good weather.

And Madeline liked baseball a lot, it turned out. And thrift store shopping, going to see travelogues, volunteering for park clean ups, sitting by the river with a book and music. They had, day by day and activity by activity, just become friends. Timothy suspected this meant more to him. She had an interesting and busy life compared to his and the more she went out, the more he stayed in it seemed. He worked hard on his side jobs and saved up–he wanted to buy his own place one day. It was a relief, his solitary immersion in silence so the high ceilings echoed only with the click-click of his computer keyboard, the bright clink of ice against the sides of a tall glass of minty green tea. He nearly forgot she lived there when she was gone a couple of days, then he realized he waited for her to show up when she said she’d be home.

But she kept him waiting no matter the plans. It had irritated him so long that he felt he might blow up the minute she walked in this time. Timothy had to tell her in no uncertain terms that such lack of consideration was unacceptable. Either they should not plan things together often or she had to promise to be on time.

He settled in with an espresso and a notebook for recording ideas for his next projects. But he did love Little Paris district and the Jolie Cafe. They’d discovered it when thirsting for a great cup of coffee. That day they’d bought an antique gilded mirror for the foyer. And they’d taken home delicate apricot croissants for late night snacks and two bear claws for breakfast the next morning–though she’d been late for work so rushed off without hers. But it was that day when there was a switching of tracks in his brain, when something appeared at the edges of his sight, even though they’d said and done nothing different. She’d turned to laugh her belly laugh at something he’d quipped, long hair whipping about the planes of noteworthy cheekbones, and he saw all that light welling up inside her and haphazardly spilling over, and he felt a rush of warmth, even in the lines of his palms and fingertips, along the back of his neck, and then it paused and bloomed in the center of his chest.

He didn’t think she noticed. He was so unsure of himself with women. Even of their friendship after that.

******

He looked at his pocket watch given to him by his grandfather, a dairy man who also bred fine horses. The old man would be happy to know it stayed with him all these years, that he’d taken care to keep it running. What would he think of his work, he often wondered, of the way he’d turned his back on the family legacy and toward this city life? He’d have been pleased after he thought it over awhile, just like his dad, Timothy imagined. He checked the time once more, sighed in a rush of caffeinated breath.

Both of them would have appreciated Madeline–her respect for nature, exuberance, how she handled herself with confidence and humor. Grandpa wouldn’t worry so much about her penchant for forgetting time and he’d take Timothy aside to say, Have to go with the natural rhythm and order of things, no matter who or what, be patient with women, too.

Thirty-five minutes now, no, forty. He checked his phone–no messages–then slammed back the rest of the espresso and gathered up his things. He wasn’t waiting any longer.

At the cafe’s heavy front door was an explosion of motion as it was shoved open. In rushed Madeline and a waitress looked up in surprise, reached out to slow her down then stepped back, hand to mouth. Timothy’s back was turned but when Madeline uttered his name in a strange voice and grabbed his shoulders, he pivoted. He took her by the arms, lead her to his table, sat her down. He leaned forward as he took her all in, trembling knees touching hers, her jeans dirtied, torn. Words were useless but customers had begun to whisper. The waitress had run off and fast returned with wet towel in hand, the manager right behind her, both white-faced.

Madeline’s own face was a ghastly study in pain, of raw gashes and swollen pink areas that were already darkening to bruises. Blood seeped and flowed, the worst from a large cut two inches beneath her right eye. Her neck was splotchy and her hands dangling at her sides were marred by scrapes, broken fingernails that bled, too. Her rain jacket was torn and stained. Her whole body, her expression held the feel and look of horror but no tears fell. She tried to slow down her breathing and making little headway despite encouragement from the waitress, Carol, and Timothy. The manager hovered, asking repeatedly if he should call 911, then he just dialed.

“What happened, how did you get hurt–who did this?” Timothy said as he gently dabbed at blood and grime and soon giving up. He had to get her to help.

“From the bus stop I took a shortcut–I was so late!–ran through an alley I’ve taken before oh my god Timothy, two guys, a woman they grabbed and tripped me– I was–tried to fight, got up, was hit again, dragged me back down, took my purse, everything, oh no this really hurts–”

Tears then, great heaves, her hurt cheeks streaming as people gathered about or quietly exited the cafe. A siren wailed in the distance and Carol knelt down, put an arm around her but Madeline reached for Timothy so he pulled her slowly onto his lap and held her there. She buried her damaged face into his sweater-soft shoulder, wept hard. All he wanted was to carry her out of there, pick her up and take her to medical care and then home, far away from police reports and gawkers. Far from her burgeoning fear as adrenaline subsided so that the nightmare and pain came forward to assault mind and body again and again.

******

They lay in her bed as the long white curtains with tiny green ferns billowed at a half-open window. Late morning sunlight spilled over exposed skin, illuminated their eyes as he stared beyond the window into an unreal new day and she, at the most ordinary comfort of a textured ceiling. A robin sang its loud, repetitive song; cars and buses and trucks  honked and made their way to the next stop.

Madeline rolled awkwardly toward him, trying not to emit a moan but finally letting go a whimper. Her neck, head and face; arms and hands; hips and knees had been x-rayed, prodded, disinfected, stitched, butterfly band-aid patched, swathed in gauze as needed. Antibiotics had been administered since she’d been taken down in the alley. Nearly beaten. Nothing was broken; she’d sport such big bruises. Scars that might be fixed later. She’d had a mild concussion; doctors had kept her in hospital for twelve hours. The police had followed, taken her complete report, then seemed to have an idea who the attacking thieves might be. No comfort, that, not then and not in the morning. It had happened to her, it was an event no one could have foreseen, and the damage had been sustained and would remain for some time. Long after flesh and sinew healed.

“Timothy?” she whispered, one bandaged hand lain crumpled on his chest.

His face turned to hers and he held her loosely so as not to jostle or squeeze one wounded spot. He ached for her aching but had found few words.

“Can we stay right here… a long, long, long time?”

He blinked back sudden dampness at the corner of his eyes, raised his head to barely brush her quivering lips with his own.

“Forever if you like.” He put a hand lightly atop her arm, felt her warmth and his mingle. “But maybe we could work on time issues, and then there’s safety…”

“Mmm, um, good,” she mumbled then slowly draped a leg over his. “Glad that’s at least settled.”

Madeline drifted off again. Timothy knew she might mean the matter of time or safety as well as staying there forever but all the same, he had to clench his teeth to keep from shouting out in sorrow and in joy.

 

Hammer and Saw: A Concerto

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Every time the sharp whirr of a power saw was heard, she lingered there, felt its power and intent, heard the industry behind the hand that held such a tool. Its stops and starts were like depressions of the soft pedal on her baby grand piano, interruptions that made her desire the music to resume. Reshaping rich woods, coaxing them into new creations–this mimicked the making of an exquisite composition.

Rita beamed at the second story window, glad it was open; iut was her ready connection to the world. As the saw labored she breathed a fragrance of wood separating from itself, fine sawdust floating upward. The carpenter was in the driveway below, at Mr. Bellingham’s. If only she could see what he was doing. It wasn’t Mr. B.; he was just able to keep up his garden now, his back bowed and fingers crooked with pain.

She shook her head to clear it, lay her own strong hands upon ten ivory and ebony piano keys. Her eyelids half-closed so they blurred pleasantly. Building things was a declaration of purpose with a revelation of incremental changes. She admired that, and so told her hands to play like that, impress upon the silence something substantial. For once. They moved each keys. A predetermined chord came alive. A whimper of a chord.

It had been seven months since the accident. The car in the twilit fog with no lights, pavement and tires colluding with disaster, brakes useless as two cars skidded across the road, crashed past the barrier and down the embankment. She had been sleeping until those moments; Aaron was wide awake but it was no use. As their car rammed into a tree, it seemed a violent dream.

The middle-aged driver, whose blood alcohol level should have killed him even before he drove, died instantly.

Later, after Aaron admitted he couldn’t form a bridge from his barely harmed body to Rita’s, they parted. It was more than that; he wasn’t good at adapting to life’s suddenness. Whatever circumstances he found uncontrollable, he abandoned. Just as the car was left and a new, fancier one replaced it, he found someone else better fit for him. Rita felt it less than disheartening that he left; she was rid of his random rancor, his impatience, the attempts at true decency. His pun-filled humor had annoyed her, as well.

Not that she wouldn’t rebuild wholeness, sooner than he’d thought. Each leg had been broken, an ankle less ruined. Surgeries commenced. Muscle became flaccid, bone held the pain. Rita was at first resistant to walking. There were many failures. Her face was redesigned a bit–angry scar under her eye, jaw broken then repaired. They said; it felt and loked otherwise.

But her hands had been safe. Without knowing it, she had tucked them under the sides of her thighs, an old habit to keep them warm due to poor circulation. They had not flown up or out at first, didn’t connect with anything dangerous. It was as if  God had known to save them as her body slammed back and forth.

As a pianist, Rita had to have hands that operated without thinking, each finger fully aligned with the others and the instrument. They were still capable. She exercised them, using small rubber balls even when she could not get up. When she at long last could, piano practice resumed, up to a couple of hours if she could stand sitting in the wheelchair her mother insisted still be used there.

But as a composer, she didn’t need special accommodation, not even a certain room or the smooth keys beneath fingers. The notes unfurled as if etheric winds blew them to her. Now more than ever. The accident and new physical limitations had seemed to reroute, perhaps excavate more neurological connections. Rita was charged with sensations and energy she hadn’t felt before. The core of creativity was broken open. Her industry, though, was greater than her stamina. And still she heard the music within and resumed the tasks of scribe with a new devotion, pen speeding across staffed paper.

And yet.

The music sounded, when voiced on the piano, remarkably less than what was ensconced in her brain. There was a similarity that plagued her, meter too repetitive, movements less than intriguing. She couldn’t pinpoint what was meant by the fervor that spilled over the keys, then how it weakened in the final soundings.

“Take a break, dear,” her mother insisted. Maybe because it was her house, partly–she lived in the newer annex–and she was irked by the chaotic attempts. Maybe because she worried her daughter was being worn out.

“I’m resting in between things,” Rita murmured to reassure.

“You don’t rest; you incubate.”

“Yes, mother, I am hatching something grand even now,” she said and executed a complicated run with trills and then a resounding trio of minor chords before abruptly stopping to stare out the window.

“And it may flee your insolence,” her mother retorted as if Rita was twelve instead of twenty-nine. But she left her daughter to her work, fighting back tears that rose unbidden too often since the fateful crash.

Her mother was right, of course, incubation was generally occurring, more so now. What else could even happen at this time? She couldn’t dance the music, shake them out, send them gliding to her hands. “Before” she might have done that. “After”, rest had been indulged–between daunting sessions of physical therapy. There was ever something on the edge of consciousness that needed to be written and played. Her mother had always believed she was a genius–and so needed infinitesimal care–when Rita knew she was just plain possessed. Terribly, gloriously. By music and whatever powers it commanded. By sound and its feelings set free, whatever vibrations and emanations it gave off.

Take the electric saw. Rita had listened to it for two days and every time it started its gentle whine she followed it as if a trail to somewhere mysterious. When it quit so did she, and turned back to her manuscript. But it struck her that a laborer’s machines sent distinctive voices careening through the atmosphere. The hammer and nails triggered a new part: staccato points of sound, was hearty and clean.

By the third day she wondered who was at it all those hours, how did they do it, hands and arms moving back and forth, muscles reacting to a plan, objects being built a testament to stamina. There was enthusiasm. She wheeled herself to the window and peered through mini-grids of screen.

The carpenter was in the driveway, his back to her as he hammered together boards into seeming walls. Maybe. It was beginning to resemble a roomy dog house. Chicken wire leaned against saw horses along with more pieces of wood. Was it a sort of fence for the small garden? Was Mr. B. getting a dog? The structure was taller than she imagined any dog would be.

The man wore a red plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves, a baseball cap pulled low. He was compact and wiry, medium height, maybe a decade older than she. He walked into the garage, moving with confidence and efficiency. When he came back he lay a large piece of plywood–was that what it was?–across saw horses and started up the saw again.

It arose and stuck in her throat, the old residue of anger. How easily he moved and lived! Her stationary life, the time it took to walk from her bed to bathroom, the way her legs felt as if they were made of aged wax and could buckle with undue stress. She’d had a ramp built so she could get downstairs and outdoors but she felt like a prisoner. Rita wheeled over to the piano and listened to him before she put her hands to piano keys once more.

And before long it came to her: mechanical or natural or human, a myriad insistent signs of life, fractious or joyous, cacophony of steel, wood and electric collisions, all a bonfire of activity. It cleared away her mind, rendered it bright and humming. She gave her hands to it, let fragments of music absolve her of burdens, let it find purchase on precarious ledges of memory and then set all free into a cosmos like an infinite net, gathering life music together into one entire symphony of songs. She let it crash and splinter in space, re-merge in new forms, melodies challenging one another, chord structures shifting and reconnecting measure after measure. Rhythm suffused each measure with complication and relief. Rita was engulfed by a shapeshifter music. And body and soul were pulsating with it.

Her mother stood in the corner, hand to throat. She was afraid for her daughter. That renewed power being released! The indicators of a life that was only now being better revealed, the journey to come. But she was moved even as she was confused by music so strangely wild, and left Rita to her work.

The carpenter stopped erecting the little house in the yard and listened. How could he not? Her playing had insisted he listen whenever he was between tasks or during lunch break. He didn’t know about classical music, what it meant. How people could abide it for long. But it had started to work on him. He heard things and when she paused he got back to work, tried to make up for lost time. He suspected he would pay attention to more tomorrow and the next day, as long as he was working beneath that window. And it gave him chills to hear her play, he couldn’t say why, it was just how she worked at it. No fear. The sounds she created, the excitement and nerve. He thought it remarkable, even if foreign. He was glad of being there.

When Rita awakened on the sofa the next day she felt empty. She had written as much as she could long into the night, paper and pen and piano engaged in deep discussion. Now it was afternoon. The relentless hammering had brought her to consciousness but now it seemed over and done. Silence. She pushed herself out of bed without aid of walker and stumbled to the window. The carpenter was talking to Mr. Bellingham. They were excited, hands expressive, arms flung open, looking back and forth across the half-hidden back lawn.

“Afternoon, Rita.”

“Mother–hello.” She turned to watch her carry a tray laden with a steaming mug of mint tea, a croissant with butter and jam, a sliced banana. Such unerring care touched her. “Thank you. Sorry if I kept you up. I’ll nibble while I play a bit.”

“Yes, I suppose you will. And you didn’t, not really. I’ll be next door.” She set it on a folding table close to the baby grand.

“Mr. B.’s?”

“I have to see what he’s up to with all that racket. Will we have a barking mad dog next door now? I’ll update you later.”

Rita spent the next few hours reworking what was dissatisfactory, trying out measures one by one, stopping to erase and notate once again, humming and playing, changing keys, revising again. As the afternoon waned–she realized coffee was needed to stay alert–a surprising set of noises shook the room.

She put her face to the window, uncertain she heard correctly but yes, it was ducks, good-sized, white restless quacking ducks. She could see two as they waddled from Mr. B. and her mother, then beyond line of sight.

A duck house and duck pen?

“What are you doing down there?” she called out when she saw her mother wave at her. “Opening up a mini-farm?”

The carpenter looked up and grinned. “What are you doing with that piano?”

She had been heard, it seemed. But those ducks! She liked the idea of ducks’ lovely feathers and blather, but wondered how they’d take to her music and it, to them. Rita walked back to the piano, sat a bit and flexed her fingers. They were tired; her piece could take a break.

The carpenter–what was she supposed to say back to him? Writing a concerto. Playing my fantastic baby grand, as usual. Using your work as a springboard for something I didn’t even know was inside me…? How about: Come on up and find out?  That might even be goodm, worth a cheap laugh for both.

It was time for coffee, a little stroll with the blasted walker. Then more work to be done.

When she carefully eased her way down the ramps to the kitchen they were all there, talking about the perils and pleasures of ducks in an urban setting, the enclosed runway that was built to keep them from eating everything, the palatial two-story duck house. Rita’s mother had fixed coffee and was setting out chocolate mint cookies.

The carpenter looked up, gaze falling on her walker.

“This is Will; Will, Rita, my daughter the pianist you hear.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said with a lift of his mug.

Rita straightened up her back and lifted her chin, winced despite herself. She tried to look congenial as she took herself to the table. He pulled out a chair and she sat without grace, her long legs encouraged under the table with a little shove of her palm.

“Your sawing and hammering–” she began.

“Sorry if it was too noisy but then, it’s my work and–”

“I found it arresting. It started up something, a host of new ideas. Industrial.”

“–then I heard you playing and it was distracting, but not a bad thing, pretty good thing. I mean, it was…different. Really something.”

“Okay, then.” She sipped her coffee. “Your work is just fine, sounds good, too.” He was taller than she thought as he leaned against the kitchen door jamb, but not tall in that way some men can be, lording over everyone. He was tan and had a friendly face. His hands were cupped about the mug, embedded with dirt.

“Mighty fine music, Rita,” Mr. B. said and nodded. “Loud but real good. You know I love your piano.”

“Thanks. But owning ducks, Mr. B., really?”

“Always wanted them. You’ll see. Good company.”

When they left, Will, looked back, touched the bill of his hat. Her eyes followed him as he entered the driveway, his certain stride a long line of sound only she can hear.

That night she was up late rewriting once more. Will’s face floated through her mind and she wondered if she could find him a place in it, then saw that it was his work, that was who he was, callouses and blood and sweat put into finely crafted things, hard labor–the weariness and satisfaction of it. It was what made the world go around, in part, Will and those of his trade being critical to much that mattered: shelter of all sorts, successful operation of commerce, innovation and repair of brokeness (you name it), helping dreams get built. Even Mr. Bellingham’s ducks need a place. The pedestrian nature of such interesting things pleased her.

Rita played the outlined first movement in full, felt it hold together better, then was drawn to work on the second of three she hoped would complete a robust piece. A beginning, a small act of bravery. Her hands led her.

*******

One year later Rita Harkness walks onto the bright, wide stage, unaccompanied by even a cane. There is a cheerful burst of applause. She is stunning in a simple sapphire gown. It is a full house, buzzing with anticipation. No one expected she’d come back strong, not so soon after that accident, not after so long a public silence. But this is thought to be her best composition yet. Would she come through? They want so much to believe.

The lights dim, speech ceases and all rustling quiets. Rita sits at the gleaming black piano, adjusts the piano bench, then lifts her arms and hands. She lets fingers hover above keys that await an enlivening. And they descend with a force that makes her breath rush out, a sound like many wings taking flight. The audience sits up, leans forward, begins to surrender. Still wondering. Rita loses herself, finds herself sailing on eighth and sixteenth notes, their cascades and crests, rising upward and released. Boldness, now a playful vigor surging across the stage to those who can hear. As she created it. Or the muse created, with her help.

It will be well lived, this life, and her music shouting it out heals.

She has finally come back and then some, her mother thinks, tears sliding down soft, lined cheeks–and now what?

Will stands in the back, closes his eyes. Feels her all about. Some of the  music does sound like his soul filled out in so many notes he cannot name so that he hears his life call back to him. In ways he never knew existed, but which now seem natural. And then his life calls out to her. She doesn’t yet realize. He’ll wait. Until she recognizes him not only in this thrilling, even honorable music, but just as he is. Just a man. One who can help build whatever it is they might need. It could happen: against all odds he’s here. Rita Harkness, too.

 

The Loft

Image form The Fugitive
Image from The Fugitive

After the taxi dropped him off, he’d washed up and unpacked, then tossed his gym attire into a bag and shut the front door behind him. Cal Rutgers should instantly recognize this neighborhood like the back of his capable hands, but it never failed to throw him off kilter the first day. Hence the walk to the gym, taking in every window and lamppost and sign, his feet hurrying along the trash-free sidewalks on Holman Street.

The storefronts were pleasing in a reserved way on the deserted Sunday afternoon. An unexpected wistfulness visited him as he passed rooms that had kept him company over the years. Marionville was unlike most other places he visited, suitable, staid, conducive to passing time while preserving the best of a number of old-fashioned ideals. Best of all, it helped order his mind and body as he readjusted between trips. It decreased toxicity of endless travel, made less vivid the dangers of his work. More manageable. The familiarity beckoned him with its soothing commoness. It cheered him even as the threat of exhaustion hovered like a low-flying helicopter.

Cal pushed aside the sense of displacement, feeling lost. Odd for a man who was a rover, used to adapting moment-to-moment, adept at charting a course in unknown environments. This was the immutable spot on which he hung his hat–not in actual fact, he didn’t have one he’d hang on any hook–a town he had called home for over eight years. He’d figured it was as good as any, centrally located in the country, with friendly folks who’d mind their own business if that was better appreciated. Oh, they thought of him as their own local celebrity, sure–a published photographer!  a world traveller!– and it tickled him when they hesitated on the edges of The Clock restaurant, say, glancing his way with curiosity. Such easily impressed citizens.

“Cal! Hi!”

He’d look up from his plate of eggs and hash, nod with a lift of his chin and fork if it was someone he cared to talk with. Then he’d share a few tales and listen to theirs, and it would be a good visit for both. Something more to tuck away for another time. Perhaps a storyline when he ran dry.

Cal pushed open a metal-clad door. Mike’s Gym, homely hole in the wall, was the only one (of two) open on Sunday but even then it closed early at eight p.m. The space held no more than a handful now. Cal was greeted with a high-five by Mike and a few grunts from other men.

“What’s going on, Rutgers?”

Cal surveyed the warm, sweaty rooms, noted everything as it was before he left. “Just the usual, interesting craziness out there. What about here?”

Mike shifted from one foot to another like a fighter getting ready to lock into position, his forehead limned with perspiration, breathing a little hard. He’d been working out long before Cal had flagged a taxi at the airport an hour away.

“Same ole, same ole. Well, Greta’s pregnant again. A better profit this month, the coupons bring ’em in.”

“Good work. Tell Greta I said congrats–again.”

“Now where you been?”

“Just out of Columbia. Jungle assignment.”

Mike shook his head. “Yeah, that’s right. Catch any monster snakes or get caught?”

Cal laughed as he entered the dim locker room. He stretched, did twenty quick sit-ups that tired him after the “red-eye” and a couple of more flights home. He found his spot by the free weights, prepared to empty his brain of images formed, filed and dissected. An hour or so here and he’d free up life once more, settle into his loft apartment with a new point of reference.

As he lifted the dumbbells he saw his housekeeper Emma run past the smudged picture window, hair flying. He made a note to talk to Mike and Greta about her, then set to it with mighty effort.

********

He got annoyed with hotels and other drop-in places so the loft was a gift to himself, situated on a gentle incline above town center. He’d found it one week-end after visiting an old college friend, a lawyer–since moved on to bigger places and cases–and took possession of it after he’d returned from India. The fourth floor of a converted, mixed use warehouse, its spartan expanses appealed more than the Technicolor view of the valley. He liked moving about open spaces; it was the best he could do here. But, too, the loft was so unlike many places he had bunked, whether a tiny, dark bedstead or a one-man tent or makeshift accommodations involving thickets of bushes and his backpack. As a travel photographer, emphasis on wild, hidden or unusual places, he was used to curling up and falling asleep without much fuss.

This purchase was a welcome respite from that, as well as far-flung locales. Countless inconvenient, dangerous, stunning moments. Boredom or sore limbs that invaded the hours of patient waiting, the odd contortions it might take to witness, then capture shots.

But it confused him, still, at times–where he was, what he was really doing, why he was immersed in another culture or landscape that did not always welcome his enthusiasm and precise documentation.

When Cal got out of the shower at the loft after the work out, his fingers paused. The towel was a luxe, thirsty blue item that had been perfectly folded over the heated rack. Not the ivory towels he always used to keep it simple.

Wait, did he order these at a front desk? Did someone else on the team he travelled with bring them in? Was he in the right room? In an actual three-piece bathroom?

His eyelids fluttered. He was back in Amazonia with its pressing growth of greenery, the air dripping onto his skin, the most rudimentary facilities shared with insects, reptiles and any others in the area.

He opened his eyes and then the fluffy towel, tossed it over him. No, he was home.

It had to be the housekeeper, the gal Greta had suggested. She thought he needed someone to thoroughly clean up when he was away. Cal didn’t require much, he’d told her the day before he left six weeks ago. He maintained a habit of tidiness out of necessity, didn’t need much for his work there other than basics and his camera equipment and computer and other technological aids. Seldom left behind a mess. He had a habit of minimalism.

The loft was larger than required. There was a part of him that worried he’d start filling it with possessions not needed like large furniture or wrought iron candelabras or matched cookware. Or useless objects that attracted him on trips (he had a few but mostly gave them away), more irrelevant books he’d have to stack on the floor like teettering sculptures.

As far as housekeeping, yes, there were socks cast off and forgotten, stray hairs in the sink after he finally shaved a few times, wrappers of frozen ice cream treats that sometimes didn’t make it to the trash. He suspected dust accumulated like microscopic confetti without his help. It was an old building and he liked it that way.

********

He’d invited the young woman in, then told her housekeeping was not truly what he needed.

“The less I have to deal with, the better. I love my peace as well as a comfortable austerity. I’m a loner when at home, lean towards feral, nearly, fallout from my work.” He’d raised his eyebrowns at her placidity. “So, just how much would you have to do with all this, anyway?”

She’d looked at him as if he was speaking a peculiar language but she knew how to translate.

“I can take care of it all.” She looked over at the kitchen, which appeared untouched, then around the cavernous living areas. “I don’t think it will take me more than an hour or two after you leave if this is any indication. I’m efficient.” She pushed long hair away from her eyes, and pulled it back to make a quick bun of dark honey-colored strands.

Her eyes were orbs of green with dabs of amber in a face fashioned of fine bones. They sat above a prominent but classic nose. Expressive mouth. Androgynous at a certain angle. Captivating. Greta had confided that Emma had been a model once, then had suffered a tragedy, never mind what but she was a great housekeeper. She’d be around for a few months. Needed some easy cash is all.

“You’ve done this work before, I guess. I’ll pay seventy-five an hour. I’ll trust you to clock in and out on a schedule I’ll leave on the kitchen island. Get the keys from Greta and return them each time.”

He was anxious to catch his plane. Greta had reassured him but still, it was his home, his refuge. Here he wasn’t much keen on sharing it in general.

“I’m developing a creative arts website, well, fashion to start but yes, I clean and organize well. It doesn’t take brilliance to accomplish. I know who you are, and I know you’d like things done right.” She showed her teeth in a brief smile, then pressed her lips together.

“Yes, good.  I have my own cleaners in the laundry area. I’m afraid I have to rush, thanks for coming. Just don’t change up anything.”

But she’d had other ideas.

******

When he’d returned after a shorter trip there had been a clear rectangular vase filled with black-eyed Susans on the metal and teak dining table. They were an unwanted anomaly and he felt irritated initially. As he crossed the room they did look lively against white walls, the wide window and the scene it framed. He left them a few days, then tossed them; rinsed and put her vase atop the refrigerator.

The second time he came back there had been an unscented, sage-hued candle in a small filgreed golden holder by his bed. He almost lit it, then hid it in a drawer. He thought that he didn’t want Emma in his bedroom, then reasoned that she had to do her chores. She was feeling creative about a very routine job, he guessed. Maybe she had lingered here imagining the ways it might be refreshed and chosen this candle as the least invasive.

But, still, he had told her to not change things. It prickled him then was soon forgotten. The night before he left he happened to look in the bedside drawer for something and there it was. He finally lit it, watched its flame evoke shadow dances on every surface. Remembered sweet hours of circling ’round fires in wilderness, so sat awhile with it in his hands.

Next time Emma had left on a living room lamp, as if she had just been there, wanted enough light to allow them both to better make their way. Which he did not need; the light of the moon was enough. His vision was excellent. He noted the bulb cast a dimmer light; perhaps a lower wattage. Maybe the other had burned out and she was eco-conscientious.

But it struck Cal that she left something of herself, a feeling both quiet and definite. It was nearly two in the morning and his every bone was aching from an arduous journey across mountains, then deserts, then a fourteen hour flight. But he slipped through each room cautiously, called out her name once. He stood in the middle of the loft and looked out over the slumbring town, hillttops ridges meeting starlit sky. Did she come here more often than she was expected? Why did she leave things differently?

Cal fell across smooth, crisp, foreign sheets of his downturned bed and slept thirteen hours.

He was home just eight days that time and never got around to calling Emma. He had first been concerned that she found it impossible to help herself, changing his perfectly good loft. It mattered less as time went on. When he ran into Mike and Greta, he didn’t even bring her up. Neither did Greta, he mused.

After that, he began to expect something different. The months passed and he sought out a small surprise, to his chagrin, as if he was a small child, even made a game of trying to guess what it would be, where it might turn up. He couldn’t bring himself to call her. And he mentioned it to no one. Candied orange slices in a dish. A butterfly wing set into a piece of glass on the desk. A tiny red bird hanging from a piece of string from the bright globe in the bathroom. A fanciful alphabet on silvery paper–made by her own hand?–left in one of his books as a marker.

He kept them all.

Then after a trip to Patagonia he arrived home mid-day to find a photograph housed in an ordinary black frame. Of Emma.

She was striding along a bank of stony beach shot through with wild grass, the lake beside it calm and silvery-blue. Her long tweedy skirt was lifting a little from boot-shod legs, the wind evident in her wild hair, face turned to him. She wasn’t quite smiling. Eyes were lit up beneath hooded lids. Emma had on an ivory Aran cardigan, one hand in a pocket. But the other held a lantern aloft, orange light casting a small halo before her and over the grasses. The sky above dark, backlit trees was imbued with deepening twilight.

It was beautifully wrought, incandescent with her presence. He searched for the photographer but none was noted. She seemed so real in that frame that Cal for an instant believed she was stepping into the room, would speak to him. It caused his mind to whirl and his fingers to itch for his own cameras. And his heart started to thrum more deeply.

Why herself presented but not a word to go with it? A gift of sorts, perhaps because he was a photographer. And she was the photographed. Likely it was from an old modelling shoot. But was there more going on here? He placed his fingers on her face.

Cal stepped away from it, turned off the lights, entered his room and collapsed on the bed where he dreamed of savannahs and zebras with Emma sitting tall upon one, his camera put aside, his tent then blown away by a stormy wind. She lifted her hand to him and rode off.

When he awakened, he had a need to meet with her, take her to lunch, ask her what was  going on. Who she was. Sit with her, listen to her story. Get his own pictures. Learn her ways.

He called the number Greta had left him in the beginning. Months ago.

“You have reached Emmaline Hathaway. Please leave a clear message.”

He hung up, then slammed down the cell, picked it up, dialed Mike.

“Oh, yeah, sorry but she’s left town.”

“What? Left for where?”

“Yeah, she got some modelling gig. I don’t know much about it, you’d have to ask Greta. I guess they offered her really good money so off she went. But she was just here for her grandma, you knew that, right?”

“Grandmother? I thought she had a house here, shared it with a roommate.”

“Right, with her grandma at the house, not Emma’s, well, it’s hers now. The old lady had pancreatic cancer. Gone now, too, sad to say. Nice woman, too. Greta will find you another housekeeper.”

Cal thanked him and rang off.

He sat before the photograph. The lighting in the picture was lustrous even as it was shaped by shadows. He resisted the impulse to critique it and studied her, instead. Her face was a country of peaks and valleys and vulunerable points, her eyes wide. Glimmering. Watchful, attentive. Amusement, or was that joy wrapped up inside? Her mouth was still but he felt something was about to fall forward, a telltale sound, another clue that indicated more of who she was and what she meant by her fearless, open look. What was on the path she walked? What could she see as she surveyed the scene ahead of her?

And now–what did she see and do now?

Leaning back, he kneaded the grooves that lodged between his eyes. She had been telling him something, hadn’t she? She had maybe even been staying here from time to time. She had wanted to give it something more, a certain touch, a bit of whimsy, objects to bolster or amuse him. But she had left him mementos of herself when he did not object.

“Did you find refuge here, then?” Cal moved through the sunny, high-ceilinged volumes of space. “Did it help any? As much as it did me?”

Away from sadness, hours she spent with a dying grandmother. Maybe she had come here and let her eyes sting with tears, let them caress the slumbering town. And like he often did, wondering how long, how long did he have there. When would she have to move on. When her grandmother would pass on, yes, and then Emma’s very aliveness would be indelibly wounded. How long before she was squeezed back into the haphazard milieu of the world.

He understood the need to be here and also to go. It was a closing and opening of passageways, the realignment of points from which one departed one life and then resumed the other. It was his way, too. They had crossed paths but only just barely, and she had given to him almost imperceptibly yet so willingly. Cal felt her like a surreptious warmth spreading across his skin, then his soul. He knew any time he could reach inside to hold that seedling of generosity close.

But he’d find her. Or she’d find him.

Cal grabbed his gym bag and headed to Mike’s, his feet running along the aging sidewalks, the blue and sunny afternoon trumpeting possibilities, Marionville a salve upon his soreness. For now, he was back home.