Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Rosewater Cafe Knife

I slipped it into the narrow cotton envelope, its heft and shape sagging in my pants pocket, and wove my way through the public gardens. I had my eye on the huge wrought iron gate at walkway’s end and sped up to close the gap between us. Also, Monroe and me–and the stocky security guard who had been watching us. If I could make the gate I’d be free to hop on my powder blue Vespa and speed away. As I held back from running, I imagined myself as seen by the guard–nearing middle age, slim, with curly hair yanked into a messy ponytail, my exercise clothing dark: nondescript. What might he say if calling in his suspicions?

“An older gal moving at a fast clip, and she hid something in her pocket–no, didn’t see her take anything but she talked to this kinda shady guy, then took something small from him and–huh? No, not sure. Well, anyway, going after her.”

How innocuous a thing, a woman meeting a man and exchanging something–might it be drugs, keys, maybe a rose cutting, even a hot diamond necklace? I laughed as I approached the gate but it was more a gasp of barely subdued hysteria.

And then I felt a hand on my forearm.

“Miss, please stop.”

I stopped, waited, breathing harder than desired. He circled me, wide face marked by a crooked half-smile, a friendly accoster, then stood back a few feet as I wasn’t moving. I did consider if I could make a dash for it but he was between me and open space. My pocket was laden with evidence, my jacket barely covering it at hip length.

I looked at him, eyebrows raised in faint surprise. “Yes?”

“Step aside so I can ask you a few questions.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m on my way to an appointment. Is there a good reason you are trying to detain me?” I tried to suppress irritation and fear bubbling beneath my words and started to smile right back but didn’t quite manage it

“Step aside, we’ll see, Miss.”

Miss, is that we get called no matter our age? I wanted to inform him I was old enough to be his great aunt but sniffed and stepped toward deep pink rhododendron bushes.

I knew Monroe was long gone, ordering a coffee and croissant and feeling relieved. He was good at that, here one moment, gone the next–story of our nebulous relationship for twenty years. We were not a couple but we seemed never entirely free of each other. It was like sharing a vast broken web where one or the other of us dangled awhile, then spun odd threads that guaranteed we’d climb back on and cross paths every few years. But what would you expect, we were sort of blood-tied, a family member being his wife once upon a time.

“Would you empty your pockets, please?”

I was incredulous. What would I take from a garden? It made no sense that he’d stop me; he had to be bored, a rookie or plain mean-spirited. I knew what I had but he didn’t, and besides, what true harm was there if he did? I made an impulsive decision to pull it out, slowly, the black cloth covering it wrapped snugly.

“Please slowly hand that to me, Miss,” the security guard said.

But I unwrapped it first, gingerly, so that he could see the ornately carved leather sheath that covered the 7 inch blade, and the leather wrapped steel handle darkened by years and years of being held. The knife was handmade by my father, Val, back in 1982 and that Monroe stole many times. Val’s daughter was its inheritor. Monroe’s ex-wife. My half-sister, Riley.

“Whoa there,” he said, and stepped back.

He picked up his walkie talkie, then studied me. What did he see? My anxiety that it would be taken again? Old memories evoked? I would not break down. But maybe run if he took it. Be done with it all just like that.

“This may need some sort of carry permit, I think, let me look at it,” he said with a grunt and a sigh. He turned the sheathed knife over and over in his hand, studying the intricate leather tooling, its wide loop almost cracked apart that used to slip onto an owner’s belt. Val’s and Davey’s until Davey went into the Army and didn’t return, and then Riley’s, until Monroe got a hold of it.

“What?” I stared at him, hard enough that my eyes were yelling at him. Absurd. But I’d felt Monroe and I meeting meeting in public was not so wise, times being what they unfortunately were, but Monroe is bolder than smart, which accounts for trouble he has generated. It took us all of less than a minute, we didn’t actually chat. I have no excuse other than I don’t trust him, don’t like him anymore, so always meet him in public. We’d talked on the phone–that led to this moment.

The return of the knife.

“It’s family owned and finally returned to me. A genuine Cosenti knife. I’m Lilly Cosenti.” As if that meant anything to this guy with the belly and the sweaty brow, hands belonging to a plumber not a security guard, who was handling my knife with keen interest.

The guard looked at me skeptically, shifted on tired wide feet, weighed the knife in his broad palm as if it was a possible piece of gold. Which it was to some people. One of the first knives fashioned by Valentino Cosenti.

He jutted his lower lip as if impressed, and angled his head at me. “Okay, maybe it’s all good, but it should not be here. Not these days, you know. Your ID.” He looked me up and down, memorizing my ordinariness. The mole above my lip to the left. The sunspots across my chest. My roughened skin from a lifetime of ranch work.

“Sure.”

I gave him my driver’s license, wondering who trained this guy. Was he taking my knife and calling cops or just passing time? He had no idea what this was about and I was not about to tell him. I had to get going. My cool Vespa was on loan; I had to return it to the hotel, call a cab, catch a train.

He handed the license back, rubbed his neck contemplatively as he studied my knife once more, then indicated a bench close by.

“Let’s talk.”

I moaned, followed him, sat. I had just come over three hours to climb aboard that plane. I eyed the gate once more, but gave up.

“Tell me about it, Miss Cosenti. ”

He said this like it was an order and if I didn’t obey, I’d be sorry. Oh, to be at the mercy of an aimless security guard who had nothing better to do than suspect a woman like me. Who had some fancy, worrisome knife. Weren’t there a few truly lurking about that he could interrogate, then escort out? He watched me as I took off my baseball cap, smoothed stray curls away from my damp face.

“Alright, then, it was like this…”

I settled and so did he, his feet crossed at the ankles as he leaned his bulk way back, ready for my explanation. As much as I’d tell.

******

“We lived in Wyoming,” I began. “My mother’s family has always had a big ranch, so when my dad married her it also was his. They loved training horses and we had cattle, lots. Anyway, by the time I was ten they were doing better than my grandparents had, more horse breeding and training, but my mother also had a passion for cooking and what I’d call hospitality. She pleaded for the run down cafe in town, and though he told her it wasn’t a good bet and we needed her at the ranch, she won the argument. Named it the Rosewater Cafe. Her name was Rose and she said it’d be a refreshing stop along our lonely road. I often helped out there, though I’d sure rather deal with the horses, work outside. My dad, meanwhile, was getting good at his hobby, turning out more and more knives, then selling some. It was a little extra income and he liked that. All seemed to be working out real good for them–for us.

“Then one day–I was fifteen–this foreign car pulls up in a swirl of dust and out steps a tall, large woman with short white-blonde hair and a girl some older than me. My dad rushed to meet her–Mom was at the cafe–and soon they argued. I waited to see what it was about–he was not an arguing sort of man–or when he’d introduce me. But it didn’t happen. The girl stood with hands on hips as though she was too fancy for the ranch and was disgusted–I distrusted her immediately.

I knew my dad was better than average to look at, and he had a way with people; women liked him more than necessary. So it occurred to me what it might be about, a past that had caught up with him. I went to the stables, saddled my horse and took off, didn’t go back til dark.

“When I returned they were, of course, gone. But not for long. In another week, after my parents chewed on the topic a few times, the girl was brought back. Riley was her name, and she was staying for the last few years of school. Whether or not Mom and I liked it. Dad seemed resigned but encouraged us all to try to be nice.”

I scrunched my shoulders up and looked at my watch. Time was wasting.

“When do you get to the part about the knife?” the guard asked. “And who was that girl?”

I frowned at him and took a deep breath. “Riley was my father’s earlier daughter, due to an error of judgement, he told Mom, and she was a spit fire–that was why her mother brought her there, so he could get her in line, I guess. It was true the ranch taught her good things. But it only half-worked. She learned to ride and groom horses okay. But she could get mouthy; also, distracted. And it was clear to me from the start she was a big deal to boys in town and from the ranches. I have to admit she couldn’t help it; she wasn’t so much gorgeous as she had charm like clover honey, the boys buzzed about her. Some are like that….my dad and she just had it. I was the other kind, the one behind the scenes, the one on the range, free and alone…”

The guard nodded; he was hooked by curiosity. I wanted to give him a shove and go. But my story was true and it turned out I enjoyed telling it–and he’d asked for it.

“Then Monroe came along.”

I recalled him in full technicolor. He had been–still was, of course–a few years older, easy to laugh, brawny, impressed with himself, testosterone like a flare that lit up everything. He moved like a mountain lion, stealth and grace. Another one that baffled. Intrigued me, okay, but I was busy working.

“He and Riley, though, made a match, nothing anyone could do or say would change that. As soon as she graduated that was it, they got hitched despite our dad wanting to run Monroe off. But Riley settled down, so did Monroe, it seemed. The problem was, there were still others who wanted to get close to her…like Monroe never existed. I guess ’cause he was an outsider from Arizona and so didn’t quite count..”

I shrugged in mild sympathy for Monroe, then stretched, raising arms high, twisting side to side. It was getting late. I saw my so-called guard gripping the knife as he waited to hear the punch line. It irked me that he had taken it, that I needed to tell him all this.

“The knife, miss– what about that part?”

I shook my head to clear it, stared beyond the gate. I never could stop a story once started, yet time was slipping by.

“Well, that knife you have that’s mine–it used to be in a wooden case with a glass pane in it so it was just visible, and kept under the counter at Rosewater Cafe. Dad put it there for Mom’s protection–you just never knew, he said. But as his name circulated due to his skills, customers wanted to study it, even made good offers on it. Eventually, though, it was locked and displayed from a high shelf above the coffee bar. It was like free advertising; his knife business got hot.

“Riley and I both worked at Rosewater. By ages twenty and eighteen we had made a truce, had found ways to get along as we got older. Then, one day Monroe was just finishing a three eggs sunny-side up with beef sausage breakfast when this guy walks in and asks for Riley, eyes cloudy with anger and hurt. I won’t bore you with whys and wherefores but just say that Monroe took great offense over it all. There was a bad fight and then Riley got the knife case down and smashed it open with a hammer and…and…I can tell you my mother fell down in a dead faint–it took her a long time to get over things.”

I gulped, heart banging. I had not once told the truth of that morning twenty-four years ago to anyone outside the family.

“Yeah, then what?’ the guard said, leaning heavily toward me, eyes popping. “Someone die…?”

“Of course not.” It occurred to me this was what the guard waited for, some bloody end, the thrill of arresting me. “But the guy got hurt between fists and that knife.He ran out the door but threatened revenge. But there was no next time. Monroe left Riley the next day, went back to Arizona… though he kept in touch–they had that need of each other that never really ended despite remarriages. The wounded lovelorn guy had vanished, had a few scars. And no one called police; it just wasn’t what you did. The stranger shouldn’t have barged in, said his piece….

“Dad kept his proud if deadly creation under lock and key in a secret place until he died. He had willed it to her. I guess he felt Riley was the one who deserved to live with its history or maybe he was saying she was a tough nut and there was her reminder. It was valued at about $5800 then, ten years ago. Yeah, it is that beautiful a thing…”

The uniformed man pulled the knife out of its sheath a little and examined it, the quickly put it away. Just him doing that sort of scared me but I understood his desire to see it. It was so finely wrought it seemed a work of art, more than a weapon. So many had wanted it in their collections. But it had been used for harm.

“Monroe wrenched it from Riley, took it to get rid of evidence–it was meant to be gone forever. But then dad got it back from Monroe with a bribe…stupid, huh, family feud like that. But it was worth so much, too. Riley finally told Monroe, you’ve gotta lay off, it’s a family heirloom, hers when dad died.”

“So how did Monroe get it once more? What a mess.”

“Yeah. He stole it from Riley after she refused to talk to him again, don’t know how. She suspected him, of course, but was sick of the whole thing. I kept out of it. Then all of a sudden last month he decided to tell me he did it and felt guilty, said he was ready to let go, stop the craziness. He’s made a decent living buying and selling antiques and other stuff; I figured he’d finally sold dad’s knife.” I shivered in a gust of wind. “But he didn’t. Now I have it.”

The guard slapped his thighs.”But why didn’t he just give it back to Riley, ask forgiveness and all?”

I scrunched my face in mock horror. “No way. They are sort of sworn enemies, despite still being soul mates. And she likely saved his life with her intervention–I didn’t tell you, the guy had a handgun back of his jeans that was never drawn once she got him, he was hurt pretty bad…But no, they don’t even talk now.” I looked at my hands in my lap. “Besides, it is really part of my dad’s and mom’s legacy–way before Riley had in in her grasp.”

“Oh…so Riley was the one, how about that.”

And he handed it back to me, just like that. Stood up to his full five feet, six inches. He was about to say more when his walkie talkie crackled and a muffled voice was unintelligible so he talked back and brought it close to an ear.

“I gotta get going,” he said, “someone’s messing up the flowers along with their dog.”

“That’s it, I can go now?” I tucked the leather-encased knife into its cloth, shoved it back in my pocket.

He raised a hand. “Thanks for the tall tale–that was interesting–but I have work to do–good luck, Miss Cosenti!”

He ambled off like a slow bear on the run.

I stood slowly, blinked in honeyed sunlight.

From yesteryear to the present moment was a long way to leap. But I strode through the gate, found the pretty blue Vespa, took off, my knife secretly gleaming. Riley would be happy to have it back. If it ever got to her.

Our Secrets, Our Stories

Spring signs 054

I have a secret and so, my cohorts or neighbors, do you. We may have known each other for decades and shared breakfast once a month. Perhaps lived across the hall from one another and picked up each other’s mail as a favor when one or the other was gone. Celebrated our children’s milestones. Participated in a support group, noting small nuances of our lives. Been related by blood or marriage–ample opportunities to get personal. But there is ever something kept to yourself, an experience, a feeling, a person, time or place set aside from the rest. It resides in a part unknown to anyone else. And the reality is that it is not singular but exists in multiples. We have so many secrets it is unlikely we could name them all if it was demanded of us. For some we have briefly acknowledged only to manage to hide forever–perhaps even from ourselves.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that definitions for the noun “secret” include:

1) information kept hidden from others

2)  an uncommon way of doing something to achieve good results  (and unknown to most others)

3) something mysterious, inexplicable

The evolution from the Latin secretus: to separate, distinguish, sift, keep apart.

This covers a fair amount of territory. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot in a time where it is getting harder to maintain privacy in our world. Everyone is concerned about having personal information kept that way, yet we are obliged to share critical details in order to manage our lived in multiple ways. For many of the younger generations it is so pervasive a condition that they often don’t blink an eye when asked for minute details to establish identity. And social media provides easier access each year to whoever puts information out there. Want some attention? Post something on YouTube or Instagram. For that matter, post anything on the internet at our own risk, as the virtual ticker tape of our lives may unspool before us. It seems to me the illusory fame some seek makes one’s identity more fluid–and rather indistinguishable.

And of course I see the irony as I write a post for WordPress, a platform for many millions around the world. Writers, after all, write from what they know or want/need to know and then tend to share it, and a reader gets to know much about the person who is penning the epistle.

Or do you? Do I?

Secrets–odds and ends as well as dramatic moments–naturally accumulate as the years accordion. There seems to be room for all despite one more item being added, pressed closer and denser, our minds and memories akin to striated rock. What surprises us at times is that secrets appear to have as big a role in creating our identities as obvious known factors do. Perhaps more so, at times. Who we are may not be who we appear to be, which seems rather ominous. The reality is, few if any of us are strictly as we appear because everyone has something kept private, held at bay. For one thing, there are too many moments lived, a glut of informative tidbits, each making an impression that is discarded or given closer examination. Our brains are ceaseless workhorses twenty-four hours a day to manage it all. So from a generalized view, it’s not surprising we don’t share close to all of what we experience–much may hardly reach awareness. Until perhaps a dream reveals it to us or a sudden thought leaps awake in the middle of some mundane activity. That aha moment–which we often tuck away.

There are those events we felt/knew/wondered/observed, then receded. But the real secrets are pieces of knowledge we are apt to be acutely conscious of but decide are better left alone. It is likely to our advantage when we choose to close the door to outside probing. The private fact, if given light of day, might compromise the secret holder’s principles, or diminish his or her efficacy. Render the person too emotionally vulnerable. Spark a conflict with another that will have onerous or at least unintended results. Or maybe it is about protecting another and keeping one’s word. And so one’s observation, a feeling or a nighttime dream may remain under wraps for awhile or forever. Details can undo us, we think, and there seems to be some truth in it.

The problem is the tendency to believe that unleashing a secret might end up taking something from someone. Ourselves, usually. We’re each born a (generally) separate human and have ownership of who we are–what we think, how we feel, why we act–until we do not. Until we give ourselves freedom to come forward with the entire, unadulterated truth of whatever it is. Until we take a risk and take someone into our confidence. And in this day and age, how many are willing to do that when it is so easy to live in subterfuge, masks switched at whim, a persona for each situation? It seems easier to do without the backdrop included–the real facts that uphold our individuality. And as human beings, we are undeniably versatile. We can keep secrets as well as divulge them; it only takes words or actions to set either in motion. How much could we lose or gain by not saying what we are so loathe to expose?

There’s a time for honesty and vulnerability, as well as maintaining that golden silence. It can get quite tricky.

The dictionary’s second definition seems reaonable while interesting. It refers to keeping hidden a special method or idea that has had a good outcome. Anyone can relate to that. If there is an arcane ingredient of a recipe or a revolutionary manufacturing technique a company uses, one is not about to spill the beans. There may be a provisional solution to a thorny problem and when it becomes verifiably tried and true, the minds behind that solution may choose to keep it closer for all posterity. Maybe it comes down to greed. But it could also be wise management of resources, depending on the personalities and circumstance. I would tend to go for the greater good, if it came to that–but even that could end up meaning sharing information or keeping it under lock and key.

I opt for both a privacy determined by self counsel as well as a more trusting openness. I want transparency in my living because it is authentic. Complete in a way that layers of diverting signals can never attain no matter how smart or intriguing. It is, however, a surprise to family that when I write I am willing to say so much about who I am. I have been perceived as a primarily pensive, calm, reserved person much of the time, especially in my career. True, all a significant part of who I am, having been raised to be circumspect. It was good manners if nothing else, and often a deciding factor in success and failure or happiness or misery. We take into our beings what we gleaned from earliest years. But there was also a fire within, a strong need to speak out, and so openness flowed more naturally as I grew up. I had discovered, too, that some secrets could do irreparable damage and why allow that if there was another way? Armed with questions for the world, I asked them of myself first and the one I loved the most was: What is the truth? I have never been one to accept a glib answer as the final say. It can make me a bit insufferable. I am not a good small talker, all that easy breezy stuff.

I might have made a better reporter, detective or spy. Let me at the innards of the object of my interest. Spy craft is another thing altogether but if there were no secrets, there would be no spies–real or created– and what would we do without those ramifications to engage and entertain or offend us? Secrets have played a significant part in the world’s history, I gather.

But there are vast amounts to uncover when evaluating the entirety of a person, a place, an experience. The truth, it turns out, tends to be complicated. The beauty of this is in the unmaking and remaking of it as well as the sheer existence of it. Each is a kaleidoscope to turn around, a puzzle to decipher. And memory alters it, as well.

If my impulse is more toward rooting out the gist of a matter, the unvarnished core, it may seem that secrets are not my preferred domain. But poetry can arise from secrets glimpsed within one moment. This is true of fiction, too, a story gathering shape from threads and the snags as its design is gradually woven. A writer develops tools from an array of generous offerings from mind and heart as well as strict information. And so it is the third definition of the word “secret” that draws me most of the three: the mystery of all things.

It matters to me, the numinous nature of mystery. Even more than it did decades ago, because of greater permeability of societal boundaries and the wider reach computers have brought. So much is far more than I want to see or hear. I have to block those distractions to give serious attention to what is going on inside and out.

I find there remains the same evidence of mystery I had as a child. Pulsing star maps of sky and undulating oceans emblazoned with sunrise. The give of grass beneath tender feet in summer. Songs of cicadas and loons; the calls of coyotes and a bear cub. The transitory radiance of fireflies on summer’s eve. The opening of one hand by another. Tears that ease a formidable grief. Victory that arrives in a moment after years of relentless work and the bitterness of failures. Love, how it can bless those downcast or those rising up.

Mystery in all honesty rules me. The secrets of God’s ineffable presence have illuminated my journey, the seeking and finding, bewilderment and awe. I stand here now only because of a power I can barely begin to identify with such small, poor language. I know I am impacted beyond all reason when I feel God-moving-here, and yet it is the lofty reason of science that reveals to me God’s business in the physics of our universe. I cannot get enough of this gorgeous, messy living, not even on tough days, not even when I feel my own secrets are the worse for wear yet make me foolish.

Why do we even need secrets? Why do we not? Such contradictions seem commonplace and that, too, is not wholly understood. There is so little we can well account for when we come to the end of the road. Why not take in and hold those set aside moments, our own secret knowledge close enough that it shakes us up so we break open to more jubilant life? There are times we have to rend our egoistic cloaks of darkness and let go the shame or fear, let it stir in the air. Shake out spasms of anger, of regret. Pronounce our liberation when our dream looms close–grab it before it passes. Say aloud the hesitant words as if everything depends on it: I love you, let me help, I honor your life, God’s peace to you.

If there is an experience that persists like a steady lamp along the way, a certain person who was a gift or a season in life that meant more than can be told, cherish it. It will nurture you. If there is something that dissipates your energy and shadows your soul, perhaps now is a time to speak or you may remain captive by its presence. What we decide to keep is ours and ours alone if we choose. Let it be a secret for the best of purposes. Otherwise, let it go and let the greater mysteries reign.