The View from There

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Jo looked out the kitchen window and suppressed a voluminous gasp in deference to Matthew, who was just settling into position with his New Carrington News, a steaming mug of coffee and a whole wheat bagel.

He’d grunted at her upon entering the kitchen; she’d nodded and brewed a big pot. They often reheated leftover from the previous day, but this morning required the bright aroma and rich acidity of fresh caffeine. Jo knew from the many times floorboards creaked and their mattress dipped and bounced that he’d had a “kangaroo night”, up and down, here and there and everywhere. That’s what she called it; he called it “old age purgatory.” After the third time he’d pulled on his robe, jammed an old fishing magazine from a pile he kept bedside into his pocket, holed up in the empty room across the hall. The goal was to read until he dozed off. Her hope was he’d alleviate any night demons and aggravations so the next day wouldn’t be ruined for both of them.

“What is he doing?” She muttered to herself, craning her neck to better see outside. “Seems to be cleaning up…is it worth plunging to your death, though?”

Matthew typically didn’t talk for the first hour following a bad night; the newspaper emphatically rustled. Jo topped off his favorite mug from their Alaska trip. It had a homely moose on it, but it granted him happier memories. She returned to the window. The roof-scaling neighbor was still there, his leg slung out a small window, half his torso as well. He wielded a broom with some power, scrubbing and flicking off leaves and perhaps moss, though everyone knew that moss was loath to leave shingle, wood or rock once at home. She put a finger to curling lips, shook her head. That Van Tolliver, full of surprises.

He’d been a good neighbor for twenty years, waving whenever he caught a glimpse of them, at times sharing his tools and more often, anecdotes, taking in their mail hwen they were gone–and vice versa. They’d enjoyed three or four meals together each year–grilled and easy fare, various holiday spreads. Then Francia, his wife, passed. There one day with her arms full of groceries and a chipper “hello” to Jo, then felled by a fatal stroke the next. It happened so fast the neighborhood felt she still must roam the back garden or the living room where she taught small children piano. But that was that and in time they forgot her voice and face. She had been a lovely and rather benign sort except for her enthused piano playing overwhelming the street off and on. Jo was one who liked to hear it and found it sad she would not play another note.

Van, she could see, was scrubbing away with a long push broom, an awkward and perilous endeavor. His large foot was braced on the slanted roof. It looked clean enough to Jo. People generally hired others to take care of such tasks. Van had been gone a lot, though, since Francia’s death so maybe he just wanted to tidy up his place. He’d gone to Italy, France, Spain and Greece and who knows where else. An investment consultant, he’d told them he’d been tied to a desk so long he’d forgotten how to ambulate through the world and it was high time. He’d seemed rather cheerful despite his wife being gone only six months his first time out. But then, he always was more upbeat than most.

“What were you mumbling about?” The paper was lowered enough for Matthew’s bloodshot eyes to appraise his wife.

“It’s just Van. He’s sweeping his roof off, half way out that little upstairs window..”

He furrowed his brow. “Well, sensible or not, he’ll get ‘er done.” The paper flipped back up. “Coffee could use more sugar. Please.”

She was amazed Matthew had spoken, not barked at her so she got the sugar bowl and spooned it in for him. Then Jo took her white porcelain cup, grabbed her navy sweater from the coat tree and stepped onto the covered porch. Van was so intent it was as if he was executing an important duty. He didn’t notice her across the street.

It was true Van got things done. He seemed to have a knack for fixing broken mixer and fan motors and faulty toasters (he’d fixed theirs’); painting his house despite being seventy (with his son’s help he got it done); tuning up the older cars he preferred; landscaping as needed. It seemed to Jo he’d missed his calling being a sort of gambler who made magic with people’s money. Francia was proud of him, said he’d grown up on a Kansas farm and was the first one in his family to get a college degree. She liked being the wife of someone well-positioned; she liked being a stay-at-home wife and mother. Jo couldn’t imagine it. Jo had worked for a power company for thirty-five years and only retired last year. Matthew was gone for weeks at times on field trips.

“Your husband is such a thinker, isn’t he?” Fannie had noted one of the few times they’d gone out for lunch. “That’s amazing, being a naturalist plus reading two to three books a week.”

“Yes, that high school speed reading course did the trick. He cogitates a lot, but I can’t say I know what he thinks of what he reads or much else. He’s never been a gabber, not like Van. Not like I can be at times.”

Francia smiled a faint smile, head tilted, then her eyes darted away.”He does go on, doesn’t he? You’d think a numbers nut wouldn’t carry on with words so much. Honestly.”

But Jo hadn’t meant it that way. She liked to hear his (and others’) opinions, ideas, stories. Van had a way of making things interesting even when they weren’t. He laughed deeply; it was pleasure to hear. They weren’t quite real friends, though, but sociable neighbors. It wasn’t as if they spent much time together. They didn’t confide in each other, not even when their second son. Tom, was seriously injured in the Iraq war, not even when Matthew got pneumonia and it took nearly two months to get well. They’d drop off a casserole or a get well card with flowers and go one with their own business. Who they really were remained a future topic that never came up. She found Van and Francia a curious pair: she with her lacquered fingertips, classic tastes and doting motherhood; he a bit disheveled even in good suits, his tinkering and mending, his charms more intangible, less reliant on status. Jo thought she and Van might have been good friends in another time and circumstance; they had been at ease with each other in an instant.

Van was ducking back in. Jo waited, sipping. A few moments passed and he emerged again, changing position. Jo imagined it killed his back–or would tomorrow–to reach and bend and scrub like that. She wished she could carry over a ladder, climb up to help with her own broom. She could do that if she wanted; she was strong and steady. If he’d like her company and help–wouldn’t he find that strange? Wasn’t it odd she even thought of it? She wriggled her shoulders to slough off the image just as Van raised his head and looked at her. He beckoned with a momentarily free hand. She looked back into the house. Matthew was still likely reading and then he’d take his shower, get semi-dressed and fall asleep in the easy chair as he read or watched a show.

She crossed the street, drawn into the radiance of final colors of dignified trees. She located him in a shaft of clean light.

“I know, you think I’ve lost my mind, but it needs to happen.”

She pushed her floppy grey bangs to the side, shielded her eyes from a splash of sunshine. “I do not. Okay, you could do yourself in. I have to suppose this is for a good purpose.”

“Yes, I hope so.” He leaned lightly on the broom handle. “But I can’t say what.” He lifted his eyebrows above his glasses, grinned at her as if he’d captured the proverbial canary and not letting it out.

“That so? Must be illegal or virtually impossible.”

“Some might say so. I’ve long wanted to do it, but first had to finish this chore. Drier weather helps. It looks better, right? Oak and maple leaves were matted up along here.” He pointed with his chin. “The moss has gotten ahead of things, it can’t help itself. I’m torn between wanting to leave it and thinking it must be relieved of my roof. A big job for another time. Such a primitive life form that enchants me…”

“I agree. We have it inching over the walkways again. I don’t like to step on it which Matthew says is silly, it will never give up. If there’s a torn piece, I always put it back in place and pat it down with a few encouraging words.”

Van laughed and straightened up a bit, then rested the broom on the roof. His clear eyes found hers.

“How are you, Jo? Still writing haiku?”

She took her hand away from her eyes and lost vision to the dazzling light then glanced, half-blind, back up. “You remember? Is that what you call it? I don’t know.”

“Maybe. Let me see if I can find it in the ole memory bank.” He cleared his throat.”‘Night waters shift to welcome twin flower of moon.'”

“My. That was awhile back, yours and Francia’s 40th anniversary. My silly handmade card. I can’t draw much. But if something comes to me I just give a poem a try. Not often, not for awhile, either.”

“I’ve always meant to say it really struck me. I still have it on the shelf above the dresser in our–my–room.”

She felt heat pink up her cheeks. “Oh, thanks. I’m glad you liked it.”

“Jo? Where did you get to?” Matthew called from the driveway. He appeared freshly showered but his mood hadn’t altered.

“Here, talking to Van!”

“Hey Matt! A fine morning to you!” He grabbed hold of the broom again to sweep and scrub away nature’s debris. “Keep your eyes peeled later, Jo,” he said.

And then he winked, slowly, one grey eye, magnified by the lens and focused on her, the other slipping under a shutter of flesh. Jo thought it might have been a malfunction, that flickering eyelid. It wasn’t always easy to control one’s body as age worked itself into every sinew and bone. But when she looked closer, he was smiling wide as he brushed more leaves off. He seemed good, happy.

“What the heck is he up to now?” Matthew said, a scowl arising from bleariness as she joined her husband.

“Let’s get another cup. He’s cleaning up a mess of leaves and moss.”

“He ought to hire someone. I’m going to watch my fishing show. I’m not up for much more today, Jo.”

“It’s alright, honey.”

She placed her hand against his back, not to nudge him, just to let him know she was still right behind him. She was always behind or beside him or soon to be there. It was how it was. He wasn’t sick, really, not incompetent; he was just stuck in a rut and expected her to stay there, too.

Jo climbed upstairs to the third bedroom that she used for an all-purpose area since their daughter, Maggie, had grown up to work in the Netherlands. The heavy desk was against the back wall so she could look out over the yard as she paid bills or signed various cards, wrote a few letters which she loved despite having a PC. She worked open the sluggish second drawer and searched the hanging folders. There it was: “Odd Jottings.”

Scrunched up to the desk, she thumbed through the contents. Paragraphs on napkins. Quick sketches on memo paper. Little bits of poems on index cards. She had once planned on decorating a metal index box and putting in a poem-card each week. But even as she’d thought of it she knew it wouldn’t happen, not in any deliberate way. They were just passing thoughts, dreamy visions. Why should she even keep them? Maggie didn’t even know she did such things, neither did Matthew. That is, he knew but it didn’t register as anything to remember about her. It made her impatient with herself. How often had she told herself she’d take a writing class at the community center or even the college? She read a few and felt the words warm her, then put them back into the folder and away. Then she set to work on chores. But she thought how Van liked her offering enough to keep it out in view. To recite it.

As the day came and went, she thought of many things she preferred to not think about. But after lunch and doing laundry and going through a pile of mail with Matthew; after white bean soup for dinner and cleaning up and watching a series they both liked, Matthew ascended the stairs to the spare bedroom. He carried the latest library tome about depletion of natural resources in North America. He desperately hoped to fall sleep, stay asleep all night. Jo bid him good luck and looked at reflection in the half bath mirror with bland acceptance. She brushed her hair out, then drew the living room drapes, pausing halfway to look across the street. She saw the light on in the room where Van had leaned out to brush the roof.  But not him. The street was blanched silver-white as a nearly full moon rested high above.

Jo exited through the front door. Sat on the top step. Early darkness lay softly about her. She liked being outdoors as much as Matthew used to and often still did. But to him it was first a laboratory, a universe to document and conspire with or against depending on research and objectives. Secondly it was a pleasurable environment of one sort or another. For her it was a powerful mystery she lived within. That was enough.

Up on Van’s roof something was going on. He was present now, appeared to unfold something rectangular over the window ledge, worked with it beyond the window, then he was climbing out slowly, one long leg at a time. He wasn’t a compact man. Jo stood, started to the street. He’d hurt himself, might fall and how would she help him? No one else was around except for a lone dog walker moving down the sidewalk.

Now he was patting something down and out.

She hurried across the street, into his yard. Looked up at him.

“Van,” she called in a raspy whisper, “have you lost all common sense? What are you up to?”

“Jo!” he relied with equally quiet voice. “Come on up!”

“What? I haven’t walked on roofs in a long time if ever, and what’s the point?”

“Oh my, does there always need to be a major point to make?”

He stopped talking to scan the sky above trees and other roof peaks. She looked up high, too. It was a sheer night, budding with beauty as stars took their places all over.

“How do I get up there?”

“Back door, up two stairways, last room at end of the hall.”

Jo followed his directions and in a short time was standing inside a sparsely furnished room, noted a screen on the floor. Her hands gripped the smaller window ledge; she looked out and about. There were stretchy cords strung from window to something that looked like a rug.

“Wait, what keeps you from sliding down over the edge?”

“Nice jute rug I had in the basement, it grabs hold well. I tried it out first. You see it’s also attached to the window sill with bungee cords? I got it all rigged up.”

She took his extended hand, surprisingly strong grip but so was hers. They managed to get her out through the window one part at a time. Once settled beside him, her heart about dropped to her stomach. She had to cover her eyes, removing one finger at a time.

Van appeared to be in a state bliss.

The street was limned with silver and gold emanating from two street lamps and a cool drift of moonlight. The town was trying to be at rest. A teenager’s broken down car as it shimmied by, radio blaring, and then all stilled except for the murmur of the state highway beyond and far off, a train taking its load to the next stop. Trees chimed in with a brief shuddering of leaves; Jo’s hair lifted and fell about her neck. Her two-story bungalow looked bigger than she expected– it felt so small sometimes–and pretty, she admitted. She took a long breath of night air and tasted wood and leaf, moss and old shingle, and the faint but not terrible pungency of the tall man next to her.

He spoke as if far away. “I did this once before. When we moved in. No one knew, I thought, until Francia found me and gave me a tongue lashing for being so irresponsible. I didn’t think I was, but I felt guilty, anyway, for scaring her. Then the boys tried it a couple of times–this was Scotty’s room in high school– and we all kept it mum.” He hugged one knee against his chest, but she kept both of hers laid out for increased purchase. “Anyway, it’s taken me all this time to get back up here.”

Jo didn’t feel afraid as she looked over the neighbors’ homes, through the treetops. The massive moon glimmered. “I sure see why you like it. The moon feels closer, all looks better from here.”

He turned his head to her. “Where’s Matthew?”

She pressed back alarm with hand to chest. “He’s upstairs reading, hoping to fall sleep and not wake up until morning. I hope he doesn’t come looking for me…this would be hard to explain!”

Van made a huh sound, then: “He’s welcome, too.”

But they knew he’d never be do such a thing; almost no one they knew would. They watched as sweet gum branches swayed over the house. Jo felt a little like she was on a slow ship, sitting in a crow’s nest uncertain of coordinates but finding the view excellent: land in sight, heavens within reach. The breadth and width of the inky sky caught her off guard with its majesty. Her head jerked backward and she almost lost balance. It was a lot to look at up there.

“Hey, careful,” Van said and put an arm around her back. Then removed it. “So what about your poems?”

“I had forgotten about all that until you mentioned it.”

“Now you might make more?”

“Why should I?”

“It’s good to reach beyond ourselves, discover something different. Often something better.” He blinked. “Why not? Sometimes you have to move with an intuition, a feeling, Jo. You know that. It’s not all about what you can line up in columns, sort out in assessments.”

His words floated through air that soothed, found a place in her mind. “I do know.. how did you find that a part of your world view?”

“It’s not a new thought, after all. But the past week I’ve cleaned and sorted a bunch of stuff I don’t need or want. I found myself at this window, realizing I hadn’t done much that was spontaneous for a long time. It’s easy to find excuses, isn’t it?”

Jo closed her eyes, felt a breeze move across hands, face, neck, ankles. a living touch. They sat there several minutes. The silence wasn’t strained but like moving through another time and space, half-dazzled by moonlight, the different altitude.

She sighed, content. “How’s this?” She faced him and said it a bit fast. “Time floats on long wings of night, brings eternity from deep wells of stars.”

Van leaned over to her and his nose bumped hers.”See? Just like that.” He snapped his fingers and it sparked something in the darkness.

They both felt it, a rumble of warning, then an incipient delight. It was almost like the air carried magic dust like in a movie and they breathed it in. Everything looked good and interesting; they felt good and something–maybe special or smart for a bit. They just sat there a little longer until her hipbones started to cringe and he felt a stiffening ache in his back. First she entered the window, stepping down to a chair beside it and then off. Van followed, more clumsily, with her hand on his elbow. They went downstairs; he let her out the side door.

“Van, that was wonderful and just nuts.”

“I should have done it sooner. And you’re welcome on my roof anytime, Jo, and I always suspected so.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll keep it in mind, old roof walker.”

Their laughter somersualted across the ordinary street, dove into the earth.

She crept up to the bedroom where Matthew had taken refuge. His book was open on his belly and he snored for all he was worth. She turned out the bedside lamp.

Then she went down the hallway to the space that housed her second-hand desk. She rooted around for a squat candle in the bottom drawer and lit it with matches she’d filched from somewhere she and Matthew had travelled long ago. The light flickered, then caught and filled the room with hope.

There was much more she needed to do in the days, months and years ahead. She wanted Matthew to agree and come along but if he didn’t she’d manage alright. Home would always be home. Still, life was not only resting and waiting, or boarding the right train to the correct place, it was also about just getting on and going. She had forgotten the crux of that until she sat on Van’s roof.

Jo cracked the window enough to allow the barest waft of a stony-sweet scent. Winter was coming. She felt ready for the endless rain. She pulled out a fresh piece of paper, uncapped her pen, let images and words lift her into landscapes of the moving night.

Ward’s Mailbox

026

At the end of tree-canopied, winding Renwick Street, Ward Hughes waited for mail. He dearly wanted mail. Not the sort of mail your eyes gloss over because you can see by the envelope it’s meant to be useless. He didn’t understand why mailboxes had to accommodate dull circulars or advertisements with two pages of fake cheery notes about a bobble head prize for your dashboard if you just ordered a subscription to Monster Truck Enthusiasts magazine. He had a sedan that he didn’t drive often (he took the bus), so why was he getting this?

The grocery and hardware store coupons were helpful. He held a low-level appreciation for the seasonal clothing catalog where he’d order T-shirts or chinos on sale. But overall, except for seed catalogs and a gourmet cooking magazine Ella used to get, he got very little of interest in the mailbox. And he ought to toss Ella’s magazine–it was a two year subscription that had another four months of life. Ward found himself studying each issue as if it held secret ingredients that might bring her back, like magic  spell recipes. Which was ridiculous. For one thing (and two), she was teaching English in China with her new husband, the entrepreneur. That’s what he got for marrying someone younger and better all ’round, and he accepted it most of the time. But then her magazine came again and he was at it again, though he certainly didn’t intend on trying fancy recipes.

Of course, as far as communication was concerned, there was the option of virtual mail. The email alternative and texting, both of which he found mildly aggrieving. But you could pick and choose who and what you wanted to write or read. There was a place for junk to be sorted. Everyone else seemed to think this was good enough, so why not Ward? Because there was still too much junk, that was the problem, and precious little in the preferred inbox.

He’d  been thinking about it and come to a conclusion. He wished to re-institute paper letters that arrived via snail mail, as many called it with a heckling tone. He wished for the hand of his mailman, Tom, to reach into his vast leather pouch and slip a tidy bundle right into his mailbox, some of which were addressed to Ward Hughes by someone who cared. It would liven up the evening when he returned home from his job at the state employment office. The job that threw at him much of the woe of the world some days.

Ward would finger the mail in the box, then tuck it under his arm as he worked a key in the front door lock, then entered the living room. He kept a lamp on; it always cast a honeyed shaft of light across the entryway. He’d put his hat on a hook and coat on another and set down his briefcase, all the while wondering what was in that pile. He’d put it on the breakfast nook table and sort it into yes and no, happy to see an envelope addressed to him in blue inky penmanship. He might know at once who the letter was from, or he would scrutinize it with anticipation.

It seemed a small thing, he knew. He’d mentioned it to a couple of neighbors after the mailman left one Saturday and they engaged in a brief foray into the business of mail. They’d responded with very different views.

Frank the tax man said, “I’d rather abolish the postal service, it is a limping relic, an unwieldy system. Who really needs it unless there is a package? And there are more efficient ways to manage those–they have special stores for things like that and now, I hear, lockers for pick up. I miss my parcels most of the time, and how can it be helped? I’m not even home in the daytime, don’t they get that?”

Then Aaron the lawyer, considerably older than both of them, piped in. He seemed genuinely distraught by the state of postal affairs.

“It’s a sad and sorry day, that so few want to bother with real correspondence, isn’t that just how things are anymore! People take the easy way instead of the interesting way. It’s all about me me me and how fast can I become gratified? I do miss the birthday cards I used to get when I was a kid and even not all that many years ago. On the other hand, I’m gone so much as we seek out our soon-to-be retirement home in Mexico, it seems foolish to keep the service going here. We are set to leave again soon. By the way, might either of you pick up packages that may come in my absence? I do worry about theft. I’d be much obliged, Ward, if you might check on things when I’m not here.”

Ward considered a second, then agreed. “Yes, that’d be fine. I seldom travel. I don’t myself order much online. Maybe I should start doing that–it would be like getting presents left on my doorstep!”

Jenny, Ward’s neighbor on the left of Ward happened to be walking by with her little girl, Adrianna, and heard their talk. “Well, Ward, you can have some of my mail stash. It just piles up on the side table all week long, maybe longer, until I get the courage to attack it on week-ends after a stiff espresso and a danish.”

“It falls off the table onto the floor and then Tally gets into it and has lots of fun,” Adrianna offered with a smile, brown eyes wide with glee.

“Yes, he turns it into confetti sometimes….Oh, Tally, our new Lab puppy,” Jenny explained.

“Ah, right. Tally the mad little barker,” Frank tossed in as he waved goodbye and jogged across the street.

“Does she keep you up, Ward?” Jenny hoped this wasn’t so; they loved that dog already and had been happy neighbors with Ward for eight years.

“Oh, no, I wear earplugs and a mask–no light or sound disturbs me.” He liked Jenny and her family; he wasn’t going to tell her Tally sometimes provided a ghostly howl right past his custom silicone plugs.

Harriet studied Ward with an index fingernail caught between her tiny teeth though her mother tugged at her. “What mask? Like a bunny or fox or a skeleton head?”

Ward smiled at her indulgently. Harriet was thoughtful six-year-old and interested in everything. He imagined she was thinking how he’d look as a rabbit, his balding head adorned with long floppy ears, stiff whiskers sprouting from his cheeks. He suddenly wondered, too.

“No, just a regular mask, like Zorro–oh, well, wait, you wouldn’t know about him. Like Batman’s friend–that Robin’s mask? But no eye holes in it.”

“Ohhh, that’s funny! Well, eyes are closed at night. Except Tally’s can be a little bit open, I noticed that once!”

“Smart cookie,”Aaron noted, then said good-bye.

“Adrianna, time to make dinner, don’t keep bothering Mr. Hughes.”

They headed down the sidewalk when Adrianna called out, “I’ll put some things on your porch when Mommy throws stuff out.”

Jenny yanked on her sweater and waved at him with a twist of her hand without turning around.

So Ward resolved to not think about the mail issue anymore. Adrianna’s offer of their (even more useless) mail was a kindness harboring a vaguely pathetic streak though the child, of course, couldn’t know that.

Two weeks later Ward shared lunch with a co-worker on the corner park outside their massive grey work place. Spring was showing off, and they sat sunning their faces, blinded by brilliance after too many months of rain-soaked clouds. Titus, an office mate who preferred his last name to first, always brought a peanut butter and jam sandwich and a piece of fruit. He now wadded up his paper lunch bag to toss into the trash can, a signal it was time to return. They hoisted their bored, tired selves off the bench when Ward noted a new grey and lavender striped awning above a shop across the street. The space had been deserted for months.

“Curious,” Ward said and hesitated.

“I think it’s an art, no, someone said it’s  a stationary store, how weird is that? I can’t think why someone would gamble their money away on that venture,” Titus said.

Ward felt a rush of pleasure. “Really? That’s quite unique, isn’t it?”

The rest of the afternoon flew by. He checked the store’s progress each day after lunch, taking Titus’ ribbing. There was something enchanting about a stationer, he always thought so, even as a kid when his parents needed some nice cards. His days proved much swifter now that he knew the store would open soon and he could go in it.

The day came when he could spare fifteen minutes after a quick bite. He examined leather-bound journals with smooth, empty pages and turned over artistic greeting cards to see who had designed them. He ogled substantial pens and pencils in fancy cases. Memos pads that were decorated with flora and fauna or abstract shapes. But the real treat was along the back where many shelves held colored papers, several weights and sizes, with matching envelopes. They were a consortium of watercolors, some delicate, others rich as gemstones. Those delicious colors dressing fine papers were waiting for his hand to take a pen to them, that was all there was to it. As Ward left, he vowed to return after work on Friday and buy several colors to mix and match. To use for…something. Someone. He didn’t quite know the why of it other than it was mail in the making for others. He certainly wasn’t going to mention it to Titus, nor anyone else.

The next Sunday afternoon, after he had mowed the lawn and washed breakfast dishes, he sat at his desk with his acquired array of stationary papers with corresponding envelopes. He tried different pairings of the six sheets and envelopes: aqua and coral, grey and rose, creamy white and sage green and then he changed it up. It was a puzzle, which papers and for whom they were meant. He had the idea to send birthday notes to a couple of family members, a letter to an old college buddy, Grant, who had recently contacted him via social media (they had exchanged  addresses for a future visits), and then maybe a couple very short notes to neighbors for some reason or other. Like invitations for dinner, perhaps.

The task gave him a charge of gusto, a sense of purpose that was also fun, a good way to while away an empty hour or two. He snickered at the thought of Ella seeing him do such a thing, something almost refined, even careful–she would not believe it of this man who preferred garden work, had a neutral and polite response more often than not to a gourmet meal she’d labored over. A man who frankly could wear a favorite sweatshirt for a long while before noting any untoward aroma. But he did like to write, she would have given him that, and enjoyed some art. Ward wrote little pieces, a few paragraphs of insights with doodle along the edges. A short poem that he kept to himself.

He began with an ordinary ballpoint in hand, and kept them brief. After a good hour, letters and notes were finished. They were stacked on his desk, stamps affixed, ready to mail.

He went to his job each day feeling as if he kept an funny secret, or had done something good without any prompting. But he also now knew he had expectations. If only there was a response, if one piece of mail came back to him from a sender of good cheer, he would be pleased. The week passed, and then another began. The mailbox was full of the usual detritus, nothing of note. Ward did, however, get two emails from a nephew and a cousin thanking him for the well wishes for their respective birthdays. And those included checks, most appreciated.

Then, near the end of the second week when he wondered if he was a complete idiot to undertake such an endeavor, he found tucked among the neighborhood newspaper, advertisements and a bill from the dentist: two white, standard envelopes. One was written by someone who scrawled Ward’s name and address (how did the post office decipher that?) and then didn’t bother with a return address. Well, it had no stamp, either, so Ward saw it had to have been put into his mailbox. The other had poorly formed yet carefully placed letters due to age, he determined. He hurried indoors and sat down at his desk.

He opened the messy one with no return address.

Ward,

Good of you to think of Mary and me for your spring dinner get together in two weeks but we’re off to Los Cabos–might have found a great house at last! I think we’ll be back after midnight the evening after, if all goes well. I’ll stop by then.

I have to say I liked getting your handwritten invitation in the mail! The green and ivory were good to look at and the paper high quality. I was surprised by your neat handwriting–you can see mine is a mess. I rely on typing, of course, or other people to do the job.

But now you have gotten some actual mail of a sort–smart thinking! I will send you some postcards from Mexico now and then and you can update us on nice stationary stock. So, a win-win!

Best,

Aaron

He found this a relief and also humorous, that Aaron would finally send him postcards after all these years of being such good neighbors. But he was happy with it.

The next mail was carefully opened and he unfolded a picture of a rabbit that looked suspiciously like a man. With no hair but funny long ears.

Dear Mister Hughes.

Mommy says you like art and lettres. Here’s 2 for yer pile. Of mail. I hope oyu like yer rabit!

Adri

His hand rested on his heart as he sat a few minutes re-reading them both. He propped them up on the counter, under the calendar. His first personal mail in a long while. It felt humanizing somehow.

The next week he got a long letter from his old college friend. Ward learned more about Grant than he’d thought to ask. He wrote about his work as a wildlife photographer and his family, about his tennis passion, how he created handmade canoes and loved being at his cottage with his gang more than anything else in the world. And he had traveled the world and found it little compared to his cottage spot with his four kids and wife of twenty-two years.

And by the way, I was so glad to get your letter, an actual letter! What a novel idea and how good of you to take the time to write a page. You’ve started a conversation I hope we can continue. It will be good to catch up, so write back soon.

Regards,

Grant

And that did it. Ward was so happy, he got out his typewriter and started on a poem. It wasn’t grand; it was about connecting with others, how good it was to have many voices in his life. He thought about his earplugs, how they blocked out everything so well that a puppy having a good howl in the night caught him off guard. It needn’t be like that. He could try to be friendly even with Tally. He might ask Jenny and her family over for a simple meal when it got warmer. That Adrianna was a kid to reckon with, a fledgling letter writer.

It was time to be more of whom he’d hoped to become, not just a middle-aged man yearning for a letter in the mail. Ella was long gone and that was that. He had a career that wrenched more from him than he’d realized but it was a good position; he’d stay with it. Still, Ward wanted a variety of people-filled experiences, poetry now and then, wildflowers strewn around the hearty veggies. A few honest and eloquent letter exchanges. He felt writing thoughts on paper brought people to the truth faster and he was off to a decent start. Now he just needed an attractive new mailbox. The old one sported residue from a label emblazoned with Ella’s and his names. It needed only a house number. He did want to repaint it canary yellow or maybe fire engine red. Surely it–and he–deserved that modest upgrade in dignity.

 

Enter Stage Right. Again.

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The day was met with my favorite floral china cup of strong Oolong tea, the newspaper and Arthur, my unkempt miniature labradoodle. Though the hour was often marred by the rushing of cars carrying workers to important positions in the world, I persisted. Before long things would settle into a companionable quietness rounded out by bird song or squirrel chatter or the occasional barking, all of which Arthur offered commentary on. I could hear all this from my kitchen window, Arthur having exited through the side doggie door to do his daily and sniff about the flowers and trees. The light fell in such a way at seven a.m. that I was neither too wrongly awakened or kept lagging in that leftover daze of slumber. It caressed the deepening lines in my face and warmed my cool fingers. The tea was quite good, the cranberry orange scones I got by the half dozen, better, and the paper fell somewhere below par.

When he came back inside, I took us both out to the front porch. Arthur got to romp about the yard up to our white fence. I got the rocker and a decent view of everything my eye could find. The lumpy but firm green and gold pillow was stuffed behind my back; otherwise, the sitting would have been hampered by a spine that has had too much stress for too many years. As a ballet and later a modern dancer for twenty-seven years, I had felt the strain of a body’s glory as well as the wonder. Now things–connective tissue, the spots between joints, the arches and toes of feet overused so long–they hurt me if I moved too much or too little. There is a more happy medium but it had eluded me recently. I still danced once a week, if you could call it that, at a local studio. And Arthur and I took to the neighborhood park as often as we could and what a good time we had there, myself on the swing as he met up with his buddies. One of the appreciated features of the park is that people with dogs like to chat, so I got my own socializing in for a few days. We both ended up feeling well enough satisfied.

But I did dislike being one of two who appear over seventy. The other one, Mr. Carney, was disagreeable at best, ear flaps pulled down from his red and grey plaid woolen cap–yes, even in warmer weather– and his subsequent complaint that I spoke quite unintelligibly. If he could understand more than five words in a half hour I felt victorious about my ability to shout without seeming idiotic or rude. But he really didn’t want to converse. He whined about things, not just my speech, which he said often resembles that of a child with cookies caught in her mouth.

So I tended to keep watch from my swing while Arthur bounded here and there and Mr. Carney shuffled along the path with his waddling corgi. I have feared for them both, their weight and lack of cordial interchange. They frankly seemed happier with each other. As for me, I have remained thin and if my doctor has cautioned that I could benefit from more fat, I have liked the lightness and ease of a body not carrying unnecessary cargo. I’ve imagined it’s due to being a dancer so long. One is loathe to disturb what has served one well for decades.

But who am I to ever make a point of it? I have not been the most generous with my own time and attention in the more recent past. There was a time for all that, when I didn’t mind being called upon, when I was needed and not at all bothered. Appreciated, too. But as the years went by even my children came armed with many demands or needs but with little else–either to offer or to say. It’s the way of things, I suppose. They with the complicated lives which I have already inhabited and shed, like a snake of its useless skin. I now fit in yet another one and will get rid of that, too, and more, in time. My granddaughter laughed when I said that but she, too, will hopefully live to see the truth of the analogy.

This morning Arthur started barking before I even got the kettle to a boil. I felt out of sorts, as if I couldn’t quite see the point in the sun rising to shine. I fiddled with my crooked glasses–I stepped on them a few days back–and swept up my long hair into a topknot and stuck a decorative chop stick in the wispy mass to secure it. The last scone was dried out. There was s sliver of butter left so I spread it on, then a thick layer of peach preserves to see if that helped. The first bite was not a delight but I continued masticating until I could manage a swallow. Arthur kept barking, not ferociously, but with an emphasis that drew me away from my paper. I could see him jumping against the fence a few times, so stuck my head out the door.

“Get your mad, noisy self in here, Arthur! Now.”

He turned to assess my intention, then kept on barking. I frowned at him and swung my gaze over the driveway next door. Nothing. There wouldn’t be. The Bellsons had moved three months ago, the empty windows and driveway finally seeming normal to me. But as I looked farther down the drive, I could make out something, a truck and maybe a car or even more. And three people waiting on the patch of overgrown grass that separated sidewalk from street.

Had the real estate sign been taken down and I not even noticed it? Well, I had stopped thinking about who might come there or if it would be torn down for a new monster of a house, if a renter with uncertain origins or intentions would take up residence and the poor house surrendering itself. I guess it didn’t matter in the end. I was on the corner, a boon. My back yard yielded some privacy. And no matter who took over the neighboring house, I would be in the same spot until I wasn’t.

Arthur came back in and headed to his food and water as I made tea. I spread open my paper and scanned the usual dreadful headlines about politics, car wrecks, a fire in the next county, yet the weather would remain fair. We could hear the sounds of things nearby, doors opening and closing, squeaky wheels, masculine voices directing one thing or another. After my scone was finished by force of habit and appreciation of the jam, we took ourselves out to the porch. Whereupon Arthur resumed barking until I was sharp in my reprimand. But I could see why he was flustered. Something was certainly changing next door and we had little idea just what it would bring.

There were a husband and wife, they appeared to be Asian, on the front lawn talking with restraint while gesturing at the furniture and boxes being hauled inside. Then I spotted who I guessed was a daughter of teenage years. She was slight, compact. She wore her hair blue-tinged and short. I glimpsed bright bangles on her wrists. Misgiving rose up in me even though I liked young people, if largely from a distance. The Bellsons had not yet had children if they ever would; they were eager to advance and moved off to New Zealand. Nothing had been complicated about their lifestyle and I missed them, at the very least for that. I wondered how this teenager would conduct her life, if that meant my sleep would be jarred by exuberant pop music, if the street would be lined with her friends cars, if there would be antics of all sorts. I hoped for better.

Arthur lay down with head on paws, watching with me. I got up to pour more tea and then returned. The sunlight made its way through the latticework that was on each end of my porch and set its pattern upon the wooden planks. My pink-slippered feet rose of their own accord to dance in the streaming light, then landed by Arthur and stretched, toes pointing and flexing back, pointing again. The motion gave me twinges of discomfort and pleasure in equal amounts, as always.

And then I saw it, a massive irregular shape all swaddled and tied up neatly as it was rolled up to the front door. I slunk over to peer through the lattice just as three men removed it from the big rolling carrier and got the bulk turned sideways and lifted with effort. Then they slid it through the front door and out of my sight, the three newcomers following.

“Arthur”, I whispered, “that was a grand piano! We may have a piano player. Oh, please let there be music.”

*******

Days later the sun brightened my dingy kitchen and the tea kettle let loose a steamy whistle as Arthur had his foray into the back yard. And I waited to hear the now daily piano scales. Up and down the piano keyboard, playing in major or minor keys, the girl worked her way with an expert touch. I knew it was only she  who played since a week had gone by and we saw the father leave for work, then the mother. That left the girl at home alone for a half hour. Each morning she played exercises. My window was open enough that on a breeze rode every single note, firmly sounded. Arthur cocked his head back and forth, ears pricked, and I awaited his comment about it, perhaps dislike. But he, adapted already, went on about his business as I read my paper. Sometimes we got to the porch before she left but usually she had since left for the bus stop at the corner. I found myself stepping slowly about the floor of the porch, stretching this way and that, arms held aloft, then sitting with legs raised and scissored, slippers dangling, then discarded as the weather leaned more toward spring. The daffodils were shooting forth from the dark earth as if in grateful response to live music in their territory. I wouldn’t be surprised if my garden just up and blossomed in a frenzy.

The Musgraves across the street waved at me one Thursday as I exercised-arms in and out, stretch side to side– in sweetening breezes. I hadn’t seen them for months except huddled in their cars, on their way downtown to their offices. I waved back, then pulled my soft blue shawl about me as I stood on the porch looking at the now-empty bus shelter. They were not the friendliest neighbors, but they were civil and we exchanged good wishes and general inquiries when we all emerged from behind the barrier of wintery rains. Could they have heard the piano, as well? Or were they just feeling more friendly with more sunshine, I wondered. I had also noticed the Engers had lingered at their door one afternoon when the grand piano had flung its notes into the street with some vigor.

In the late afternoons, the girl came home alone and after a short time, sat again at her piano. I could see her from my side living room windows. I put down my hobbies or my work–the crocheting or a large book of collages I was making from photographs and mementos. Or the tedious polishing of silver place settings taken from a red-velvet-lined, teak silverware case. I was thinking of giving it to my daughter-in-law for her upcoming birthday, as she liked to entertain. I had been thinking I had too many things I didn’t even like, anymore. But music wasn’t one of them. I still maintained a large collection of records and CDs that I listened to off and on.

Now this new family and with their arrival, piano music slipped out their walls and windows every day. As early spring turned up its heat bit by bit, it got so Arthur and I would settle ourselves on the porch even before the girl–Japanese, I’d decided, though I was no expert on such matters–got home. She walked fast and ran up the front steps and disappeared inside her house. I imagined she got a snack, something light, and set her books out on a desk for later study. The she pulled the piano bench up to the mammoth instrument, Lifted her lithe hands above the keys and placed fingers on each white or black key and began the sonata, the concerto, the specific measures she sought to master. And oh, the music produced with each touch of the keys.

And I remembered. I was sent back to that room with the wall of full length mirrors, the other wall of rectangular windows casting such light caught beyond the historic brick building. We were lined up along the barre. The standard ballet positions began, and plies ensued as the accompanist played the songs that gave us rhythm, that steady, encouraging practice music for our warm up. The common score of the dancer starting work. I remembered how my muscles pulled and lengthened, how feet found their places and held fast, then responded to the spoken and clapped commands, pushed from the floor for airy spaces. Strove for perfection, created beauty. Delved deep for disciplined and rich expressions of life. Such pain and sweat, that homely exchange of energy for minute or grand movements. And even elegance beneath each exacting motion. Leaping and bounding, then tattooing the old wood floor with a hundred tiny changes in step, in balance and form, in center of gravity as the body whirled and rose and fell, lengthened softly, and speaking with limbs and emoting with face, hands, feet. The neck and chin. All.

Art was wrought from primal animal life and a vigorous athleticism that pushed and prodded me until I found the needed connection as bone and muscle and tendon synchronized at last with mind, heart, soul. Heaven opened up for me as the rest of the world turned and tossed. The most ordinary paths of being and doing released me every hour I danced. It had gone on to carry me and I, it, into a lifetime of fulfillment.

But, of course, then the neighborhood piano would stop and silence would shock me back. I would refocus my eyes on the yard, our porch. Arthur would get restless. The night then began to gather in corners of sky. We we would go indoors. In awhile Arthur and I heard the girls’ parents’ car pull in and their voices using a language that confounded.

Then one night as the temperature rose to a balmy record-breaking high the girl opened wide her living room windows. Arthur and I stepped onto the porch again. There came music that was flashier, a semblance of jazzy notes that caught fire. I heard every note; each chord was insistent. I slipped off my woven flats, left my chair, and started to sway and turn and execute a few little steps, my knees resistant at first while my head filled with visions of stages from long ago. Arthur pawed at my long skirt as I swept about, wanting to join in, so we descended the steps and bobbed about the yard, the piano music swelling, cascading. My old flesh and bones answering with each feeling, the beckoning notes weaving and rising inside the measures.

And I was happy! I twirled about, feet feeling soft prickles of new grass, my skin slipping through tender air, a fragrance of flowers and green growing things a veil of perfume that forever entranced young and old. I was dancing and Arthur was singing along in his way and prancing about and all that was upside down was righted again, my solitude of widowhood; strangeness of finding my way inside a thinner, looser skin; the odd reality that everyone was on a fast train, thundering by without so much as a wave or my agreement.

I was dancing, I was still that dancer and no one and nothing would change that. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned and turned in the swirl of mysterious, life-giving music, felt my body transport from this time to another, I gave it my respect and permission to do what it wanted. Unfettered again.

Then bit by bit, I reigned myself in, slowed to a stop. My breath tore through my  lungs and it felt good. All was still. I opened my eyes.

In the faint sheer blueness of that time between dusk and twilight, outside my fence but right in front of my house, there stood the Musgraves and Carsons, the Engers and even the Harolds from way down the street and several others I barely knew anymore. They were staring at me, hands to mouths, arms linked with their mates’, their eyes so wide. I felt a sudden horror that they believed I had lost my mind, that I had finally succumbed to the threats of advancing old age and would never be the same. How could they even know anything of who I had been and was?

Unsettled and embarrassed, I stepped back, saw Arthur licking the new neighbor girl’s hand. She patted him, then advanced toward me. I stood my ground as she entered the yard, her small, quick steps bringing her closer and closer until she stopped and carefully put her hands together before her as if praying and gave a little bob of her head.

“I am Miyoko. Thank you for appreciating my music enough to feel like dancing.”

I said, “Oh. Yes…well, I’m Daphne. Thank you so much for sharing your fine gift, Miyoko.”

She gave me a good smile as her parents came forward, the faces made friendly with kind eyes. Then my old and new neighbors started to clap, the light, sharp sounds a lovely syncopation, filling the evening like bright confetti. Arthur barked in glee, I suspected, and raced about in circles.

And I bowed, almost full of grace now, nice and easy, head low so a vagrant tear would fall away, my trembling arms high above my head, heart and hands to sky.

Eben Waiting

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On the morning he left there was a gathering across the street. Four women and two men sat in a circle by the fountain in front of The Manor apartments. He watched them talk and drink coffee, thinking about his trip. Annie had been cold on the phone when she said good-bye last night. They had argued, same old things, money, their future. He was currently working the counter at a deli while he looked for a better job. She wasn’t thrilled about that.

He was standing outside his place waiting for the taxi. Early, he was always early. To be late was to toy with the outcome of things and that was not a good idea, he’d found. You had to have a plan and stick to it whenever possible. Besides, if he’d stayed in his apartment Uncle Josef would talk him senseless. He’d welcomed Eben after he lost his good legal assistant job to downsizing. Now that his nephew was back on his feet the decision had to be made whether or not he was going to stay or move out. Annie was in Portland; Eben in Seattle.

“Well, you could marry her,” Uncle Josef had advised. “The girl has a career going, she’s pleasant. You won’t regret marriage–it’s said to mellow into a very comfortable thing. With the right one, of course. It’s pitiful that it’s just you and me here. Should have married Jane Hartner back in 1980. Do you think we could find her on the Internet?” He sat back and eyed Eben. “Your trip may sort this out.”

Eben pondered the situation. Annie had a way with words that could split him into little pieces, then put them back again before he knew what was happening. It made his head spin. He wondered if she was trained to do that in her therapy work or if it was just a defect. He couldn’t be sure; she was generally nicer although she seemed to find him annoying more and more. Not that he had an altogether sterling character. He tended toward introspection and that could be excluding of others. Of her, she noted often. He was particular. He liked documentaries primarily and hated anything made with eggs, beans or pork. He lined up his books as though they were on exhibit. Right up until June he wore cotton socks to bed. He also liked to play bocce once a week or so in good weather which he saw as an asset but she hadn’t decided.

Eben leaned against the wall. He tried to not think about the visit and watched the neighbors across the road. He only waved at them occasionally. They appeared to be an extended family.

A child popped up from the group. He was maybe seven, eight, a wild one– you could tell that from the way he looked: like a wind up toy that never unwound. He was alert to everything the adults were saying, leaning forward, climbing on one lap, then another, popping up between legs and elbows. He was wanting more attention though the adults were engaged in serious chatting. One man yelled at the boy to slow down, so he stood stock still a few seconds. The woman next to him lay her hand on his head, then he zoomed toward the street and zigzagged back to the fountain. He jumped right in; it was a hot day for fall.

“Marty, what are you thinking, getting your new shoes and pants wet?” the man berated him, scooping him up. He took him inside before he could wriggle away.

Eben could hear him screeching and he flinched. Loud, unhappy sounds were not to his liking. He enjoyed his aging painted turtle and Uncle Josef’s aquarium full of fish, silent, fascinating creatures that enjoyed lives of unimpeded ease. Eben did not look forward to the two Yorkshire terriers Annie had gotten when he’d moved out. They liked to bark at nothing, claimed her lap and snapped at him when he tried to be friendly. She said Eben wasn’t around enough to expect friendship but the truth was, he didn’t look forward to adding them to his small social circle.

The taxi was late. He was about to call when Marty came flying down the stairs again. Red shorts now, no shoes. At the edge of the fountain he dangled his hands in the water. The adults were laughing and sharing food, muffins Eben thought, mouth watering.  They took out cards and moved under the shade of a giant black walnut tree. The man who had yelled dealt them swiftly and they all concentrated on their hands. The boy was whipping up the fountain water with his hands. Then he looked across the street at Eben.

Eben looked down the road. No taxi. Marty looked both ways, then walked up to him, dripping.

“Hey, you going on a trip?”

Eben didn’t look at him. “Yes.”

“Family? Work?”

“No.”

The boy fiddled with the suitcase tag and read his name.

“Eben Hanson.” But he said it like “eebean”, drawing out the vowel. “E-bean?’

“Eben. Short ‘e.’ And you’re getting my things wet.”

“It’s just water, Eebean.”

Eben looked at Marty then. He had striking hazel eyes and freckles tossed across his nose. He was grinning and there was a blank spot where a front tooth should be.

“Well, who? A girl?” He giggled and poked Eben’s side with his wet index finger, making him jump.

“Shouldn’t you be with them?” He pointed at the group.

“They can see me. They know Josef. I see you come and go.”

“Really?” This surprised and irked Eben, that a child would know details of his schedule.

“If you have a girl she ain’t heeere!”

Eben sighed. Maybe if he just told the kid his itinerary he would get lost. “Well, I’m off to see her in Portland for four days.”

“Marty! Don’t bother our neighbor!” The big guy waved the boy back.

Eben pulled his suitcase to the street. “That man your dad?”

“Naw. Uncle. Don’t have a dad. I have a big family, though.”

Eben could hear the taxi. Marty tapped the suitcase, then Eben,  damp fingers cool on his arm.

“When you come back, you should play cards with us. You don’t have to be alone.”

“Thanks.” Eben imagined himself playing cards with them and smiled.

Eben nodded to the taxi driver. Marty looked back at him when he got to the other side of the street and waved hard and fast, as though all his energy was exploding from his small hands. Eben got into the back seat, then waved back. Marty climbed into the circle of adults, disrupting the card game.

On the way to the airport Eben thought about Annie and her intelligent insults and his quieter ways and he knew already. He was not moving back in, ever. There was time to find the right one. Someone he might have a family with one day. He wondered if Uncle Josef figured that out. Josef and Marty, they both knew a couple things.

Morning Walk

Irvington walk 2-12 042Benjamin had resolved to not look at the sidewalks and ground so much. His mother reminded him daily. He had the habit of examining a tiny alteration in the sidewalk or the curve of downy feather, a twig that had been snapped by others’ feet and now lay forlorn. He admired stones. He saw things others did  not, in fact, whether it was a last starling gathering up steam for the group gossip or the muddy tip of a grey cat’s tail as it slunk home after a night of stealth and thrills.

He wanted to keep the neighborhood clean, too. It was like a hobby, picking up shards of broken glass or a dropped business card, the pamphlet that never made it into a mailbox, the lost sock of a toddler. He thought about the sock a bit. It was late September and he imagined a chubby pink foot turning pale then bluish as the parent, innocent but carelessly so, rushed the stroller back home. Only then would the loss become apparent. So the blue and white striped sock went into a box, one of many where he stored all finds until his mother sneaked in and tossed some of it. She didn’t fully support Benjamin’s need to collect oddities, remnants and cast-offs. He didn’t like her invasion of his space.

“Why do you think nature casts them off?” his sister, Vi, asked impatiently. “Nature sheds feathers, leaves, dandelion fluff and so on when they aren’t useful. They aren’t special! People do the same, of course, but no, you have to pick up what they just let go.”

Benjamin gave her his best superior look which wasn’t hard since she was just eleven and he was going to be thirteen in two days. He knew he was not like other kids. How could he not? He carried a toad around in his jacket pocket when he was four and named it T. Troll. The preschool teacher who discovered T. Troll (T. for Ted but no one asked) found Benjamin smart and sweet, but thought it alarming that he had this relationship with a toad. Talked to named toad often, and knew many things about it she did not. His father told him this story when Benjamin skipped second grade. He was appreciated by a handful but bullied or tolerated more often. Ninth grade was not likely to be any more pleasant than all the others. Perhaps less.

Meantime, it was an ordinary Wednesday morning. He was passing the Gunderson house on his route to the bus stop when he first spotted the beer bottle. He stopped and examined it but didn’t touch it. It was a brand his parents didn’t drink, likely one of the local microbrews the city loved to boast about. He didn’t, as a general rule, take home bottles unless they were unusual or he planned on throwing them away. He had only ten minutes to get to the bus. He glanced at the big house. It took up the whole corner on the south side of the street. Mr. Gunderson was a doctor and he was fussy about his yard. Benjamin found it disconcerting to let it clutter up the grass but he went on.

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On Thursday morning he was studying a slug making its painstaking way to the Gunderson’s fence when he stole a glance at the spot where the bottle had been. It was undisturbed. He bent over it, admired the colorful label and wondered if there might be a way to peel it off but the bottle was none too clean. That was going too far. He readjusted his backpack and ran to the bus stop. He thought about that bottle all day, why it was still there, who had dropped it, if it had beer in it. Who in the neighborhood enjoyed a beer only to toss the empty on grass? Well, moss to be technically correct. It had to be a passerby but not a homeless one; they found and kept them.

Friday was his birthday and arrived sunny and clear; leaving for school felt like good for once. He had tentatively made a friend the day before, a new guy from England who liked math as he did and cycling and, best of all, amphibians and insects. Benjamin didn’t cycle much but he was willing to if needed. He had hope for the first time that the year might be okay.

As he neared the Gunderson’s he hurried, the paused. The bottle had not budged. No one else had thought to remove it. He thought it was time to take action so he picked it up and peered inside, the sour smell of beer wafting up his nose, His upper lip curled. This was what kids at school often talked about, how alcohol made all the difference. He had even been asked to a beer party by the joker behind him in biology but he’d declined. The kid laughed, relieved. The being asked was what counted he supposed; he was the youngest in ninth grade.

But what if? Benjamin wondered. What if he went and a beer was offered and he was the only one who had never drunk a beer? Not even tasted one? They would be able to tell by the way he hesitated. And then they would make him drink it and the nasty stuff would spill on his shirt, maybe make him sick. He didn’t drink because he was not allowed. It wasn’t that he always did what he was told. But it seemed reasonable to him. He could have a drink when twenty-one. He had other things to do until then.

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But he stood there and felt the morning sunshine and heard the wind in the high branches so he wiped the mouth of the bottle, put the bottle to his lips, let cool drops of beer roll onto his tongue. He spit it out. It tasted ten percent less than terrible and nothing to be excited about. He was about to toss the bottle when he caught sight of someone at the brick wall of the Gunderson place.

“Benjamin, I can’t believe you drank that.” Mr. Gunderson cast a large shadow with his six foot, two-inch frame.

“Oh, no sir,  just found the bottle, and then, well…”

“Not so good, huh?”

Benjamin stood up taller and lifted his eyes to the man’s head. “No. Not good at all.”

“That’s what I like to hear. You may learn to appreciate it as an adult. Or not. Hand that over so I can get rid of it. I’ve been meaning to put it in the trash. And better eat a mint on your way to school.”

Benjamin picked up the bottle and gave it a toss; it landed right in Mr. Gunderson’s hands and he smiled.

“Have a good year, Benjamin. I expect great things from you one day. Tell your dad I said so. Don’t worry, I won’t tell. You all should come for dinner.”

“Yes, sir.”

Benjamin watched him amble across the yard and disappear. He wondered if it was possible to retrieve the bottle later. Keep it as a souvenir. If his potentially new friend asked him if he had ever tasted beer, he could say yes. He would pull it out of his closet and show him. On the other hand, it sure stunk. Benjamin took off down the street at a gallop. He didn’t want to be late.

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