Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Roses, Perhaps, in the Morning

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Photo taken in the International Rose Test Gardens by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

(Note: I am inspired this week by roses and their magic. In Portland, we celebrate our annual Rose Festival; it has begun this week. The  Pacific Northwest is entirely hospitable for rose growing and we have the honor of having the International Rose Test Gardens here. The Peace rose is my favorite of all, the name, its beauty and intoxicating fragrance. The story is entirely made up, of course. Enjoy!)

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“Let me tell you about the back yard. Something strange is happening there.” Erika held her breath, considering how to begin. But too long a breath, it seemed. She coughed lightly with hand over the receiver.

“You need to get back out there, Mom, shape things up. It’s not like you’re bedridden now, and it used to be your favorite place. My yard is about four by four, made of that terrible, uneven pockmarked brick but you know it works for me. If only there was a fountain, that would make all the difference in reducing traffic noise at night. And give it some charm. My one chair and a fountain. Did I tell you I got really expensive ear plugs? They fit so well I feel deaf with them on. But I can still hear people or raccoons rummaging in garbage and the sirens, let me tell you.”

“It keeps changing. I mean, there is always something I didn’t notice before.”

“The seasons do that, Mom, really, you need to get out more in general, enough of this malaise following that vicious bronchial infection. It lingered so long your body has forgotten how to function on a reasonable basis, you know? Maybe your thinking…Anyway, I checked online for fountains and just need to see them in person, maybe Home Depot?”

Erika could see her daughter sucking on the end of a pen as she corrected students’ papers, one eye on a pot of simmering homemade soup. Multi-tasking, made possible by ear buds used to talk on her phone. Jen would use her feet, too, if she could, to accomplish more. Probably had. She used to clean up clothes from the floor as she sat on her tattered fuchsia armchair while leisurely reading sci fi, lifting items deftly with clenched toes and tossing it onto her bed.

“I woke up to something yellow out there today. Northeast corner. I thought it was gold sunlight flashing through leaves but it wasn’t.”

“Maybe it was Mrs. Rosselini’s canary that got loose.” She emitted her snorting laugh. That bird took off in 1999, when Jen was a kid. Everyone suspected it was Mr. Rossellini, who couldn’t bear its ridiculously cheerful singing as it only sang for his wife. For years people thought they had spotted that bird; they suspected he’d forced its freedom.

“Jen, don’t be ridiculous–that was so long ago. But it wasn’t any bird. It was a pot of lilies.”

“From last year, then? They grow from bulbs, right?”

“Calla lilies, they’re mini calla lilies. Mine are the other sort. Tiger lilies. They’re now opening up, too, it seems.”

“So are you getting out there to check on things, cut the grass, trim the bushes and so on? Or getting Joe Hanes to come by with his push mower? Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that, here. But I am thinking of getting a community garden plot. You should see those, the things people plant and successfully raise! Urban farming, a miracle. I could eat very well from a smallish garden.”

“Yes. Well, no, I’m not out there much and yes, Joe cut the grass last week-end.” Erika gazed across a shadow-splashed street as the creaky porch swing swung to and fro. It made a nice breeze and lifted the hair off her neck. The neighbors’ yards were bountiful with flowers, empty of people. Lights were turning on, soft blurs of life moving between window frames. She closed her eyes and hummed.

Jen found the humming alarming, It was what her mother did when she was spacing out, feeling low. She had been sick so long there was worry that she’d tip into critical illness but it was thankfully only four days in hospital, then back home. Still, four months that upended her usually active life. And Jen lived four hours away, only got to visit three times.

“Mom? The yard–you were saying?”

“Oh, nothing, Jen. The calla lilies have good company in that jungley mess. I’ll let you go now, but try lettuce and a tomato plant to start.”

“Fresh tomatoes…! I do have a ton to get done tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow…” She snorted again. So much to do, so much life to live, a surfeit of activities and goals–how could she complain? She would not, not to her mother, at least not yet. “You’ll call if you need me to come see you sooner than end of the month?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, good, such a relief. Love you.”

“Love back. Good night, dear.”

Erika left the front porch, walked around to the back yard’s fence with gate and unlatched it. In the corner sat a large green pot of sunny mini calla lilies. Gingerly, as if her footsteps might jar the earth and disturb the plants, she moved closer, then knelt to look them over. She pinched a stem to assure herself they weren’t fake. The blossoms glowed in the opalescent air of a mild June evening. She had no idea how they got there. She felt her yard was not quite her own this year, that her neglect had taken it out of her hands. It unnerved her enough that she sneezed three times then coughed, so left the outdoors to its own devices. Whatever those might be.

*******

“Fran? Sorry to bother you but I know you’re usually awake late…”

“Erika, that you? It’s 2 a.m. Insomnia again?” She patted her mound of unruly hair as if they were face- to-face. She could now be seen without warning–all this technology.

“I heard something outdoors.”

“Did you call Joe and ask him to bring his hatchet? Probably nasty raccoons again, he’ll make good work of them.”

“What a friend–you are too awful! I don’t want to disturb him this time of night. I went downstairs with both big flashlights. Looked out the back door. Nothing. I checked all the locks again. But it gave me a chill. I should make some chamomile tea.”

“Naw, get your book and start reading, You’ll be asleep before you know it.”

“That doesn’t work for you.”

“Nothing works for me but the serious will to sleep four fair hours or so a night.” She yawned. “The callas still shining out there?”

“Where else would they be? Sneaking off to the next yard?”

“You never know.” Fran reached for her tablet, switched it on. “We could watch a movie together. What your pick?”

Erika fell silent and leaned back on two pillows. Listened hard. Nothing to speak of but the chimes swaying in a gust, sonorous tones soothing to her tense mind. She was too tired to keep this up so hoped the raccoons visited Fran or Joe a couple nights for a change. She hummed a corny love song to calm herself.

“Erika? You humming?”

“I don’t want to watch a movie until 3, but thanks for your friendly offer. I want to sleep a deep blessed sleep. I want my back yard to stay the same until I get back to it.”

“Those calla lilies–I bet someone wanted to get rid of them so dumped the pot at your place when you were out. Say, Carol Whitaker? She usually puts her puny plants at the curb. She could start an entire nursery with her rejects.”

“A whole sad nursery of rejects, yeah. Poor Carol, she tries hard but her thumb is nowhere near green.”

They both laughed and Erika felt relief at last. She also felt Fran winding up, ready to talk gardening tall tales and she just wasn’t up for it. She didn’t even want to think about her garden yet. Couldn’t it just rest this year? Like her, take a leisurely summer break? She still felt so weary.

“It’s so good to hear you in more fighting form again, Erika. Let’s get back to our hikes this summer.”

“Well, wait–in time. Right now I want to sleep off the remains of this day. That worthless conversation with Jen.”

“Oh, Jen and her intentions. She’s got a good life.  But keep your phone bedside–you can call any time.”

“I know, my friend. Happy movie watching.”

She turned out a bedside lamp with the crafty pressed-flower shade. Lowered her eyelids. She just hadn’t recovered fully, her mind was jumpy after feeling so powerless, felled by illness last part of winter and into the spring. Turning over, she pulled the white coverlet up to her ears, then up to her forehead and dropped off into an abyss of fretful dreaming.

******

She shaded her eyes against sudden revelation of sunshine. When she’d risen, the air was moist and thickened with fogginess. Two mugs of strong coffee later, her mind and the sky were much clearer. Her tricky neck ached and she rubbed it with both hands, then stepped onto the stoop and descended steps into the back yard.

Then stumbled backwards.

There was a small palm tree in the northwest corner, its big spiky leaves greeting her, the fuzzy trunk straight and strong in a huge clay pot. Astonished but curious, she went to it. She had never observed a palm up close; how funny yet attractive it was. How out of place in this Northwest habitat. Unasked for and alien on her property. And how did this get to be in her yard? Who entered without her permission?

That was what she had heard last night. She felt her heart drum hard as she walked about the grassy perimeter. The latch on the gate, that was the little sound. Yet no one and nothing was out of the norm when she’d swept the brilliant beam of her flashlight over each bush, tree and plant the night before. There was without a doubt an intruder hiding from her, that was the issue beyond an undesired palm and surprise calla lilies. She’d install a sturdier lock on the gate today; she’d always left it open but no more. She’d have motion detection lights installed on the house. All these years living in an established neighborhood that was unremarkable, just friendly and quiet. Now this–this felonious trespasser!

Had he or she taken anything? She canvassed the area carefully, found nothing altered. Just a palm tree and lilies. What next? She ate a rushed breakfast and dressed and was almost out the door when Fran called.

“I thought I’d better check on you, make sure you are still with us! You sure were nervous last night.”

“Well, I was left another unwanted gift and I’ve had enough.”

“What? Something good, I hope.”

“Fran, it isn’t funny. I got up this morning hoping for the best and there it was– a damned useless palm tree!–a real California palm! Well, I think.”

Fran chortled as she lounged in a fluffy robe on her porch around the corner. She could just picture Erika–stern-faced, brushed out and dressed well as always, confronting that errant palm tree.

Erika held the phone away from her ear, looked at it with serious impatience. When Fran caught her breath, she said, “I have to see it.”

“I’m putting it out n the street. A firm message to the intruder.”

“No–they cost too much to set it out like ole Carol does! Just wait in that. I’ll take it if you have to dump it. But why not just see what’s next? I mean, this is not plant thief, Erika, it’s a plant giver! Someone who maybe even cares!”

But Erika took off for the hardware store to get a good lock for her gate and to inquire about flood light systems. She was going to catch this planter person, an invisible trespasser, and get things back to normal.

******

“A palm tree? That’s wild, Mom–though they do make hardy ones that do alright here. Why not plant it?”

“Oh my gosh, you, too. I don’t want the stupid tree. I don’t want the flowers. They aren’t mine, they don’t belong and someone is sneaking into my yard! Doesn’t that worry you a little?”

“I think it’s kind of cool. I might even defend the culprit. How exciting, a bona fide mystery!” She paused. “Mom? If you’re scared, call Joe next door tonight. He’s getting a bit decrepit but he’s a good neighbor, he’ll give you back up.”

Erika moaned–Joe could barely push the mower around– and mumbled a hasty goodbye. She found her gardening gloves and visor and bucket of gardening tools, then set to work in the yard. It was high time. She’d get weeding done and see what she had to do to salvage her once-beloved refuge. And dump those calla lilies– and drag that crazy palm tree to the curb. If she could move it after all the weeding, and if she had breath left that didn’t trigger new wheezing.

******

It was 1:07 when Erika’s eyes flew open. She knew she was not alone when the back of her sore neck tingled and hairs on her forearms stood up. She picked up the heavy duty flashlight and her cell phone. She did not switch on the light yet but peered between the muslin curtains of her window into the quasi-dark yard. A three-quarter moon cast a cool, clean glow across thick grass and huddled bushes.

The gate was closed but that meant nothing to her. Erika stilled herself, waited. Instinct dictated  she not barge out the back door but listen, feel things out, see what moved, what else was different. She wet her dry lips and tried to tune in. There it was. A rustle of a bush, ever so slight but where exactly? Were those footsteps?–were they of  man or beast?

She yanked on jeans and a hoodie, opened her bedroom door, slunk to the kitchen where the back door led to the stoop. She studied her faintly lit phone, with shaking fingers found the keypad, ready to call 911 when there came another sound, soft but unmistakable, a guttural clearing of a throat. She pressed back against the door, braced her feet. And froze.

She could hear the soft grating sound of metal against dirt and stones, like someone was digging up a part of her yard. That did it. She unbolted the door, rushed out, the torch beam bouncing its glare off every nook and cranny. And then off a face, then hands held high and in one of those hands was what appeared to be a rose bush. Pink and yellow roses. The person stood next to a small hole in the ground.

‘Stop where you are, you are illegally on my property and I’m calling the police right now!”

“Wait, wait! It’s me, Erika!”

“Who would even dare do all this? Speak your name now or I’m dialing the cops!”

“It’s just Antony, your old neighbor! Antony Rossellini!”

He was beating his chest now with smudgy hands, advancing toward her, dark eyes wide and desperate. She wanted to believe he was telling the truth. It was Antony, alright, in worn overalls that hung from his wiry frame over a dark t-shirt, with his Padres baseball cap and rubber flip flops slapping against his heels with eqch tentative step forward.

“Antony! What on earth…?” She aimed the beam downward so they could both see better as they met up in the middle of her yard. The one he was not supposed to be in whatever and not in the middle of night.

He wiped his perspiring forehead with a dirty palm and it left a streak so he took off his cap and used a forearm to wipe again, then smashed down his thick, damp salt and pepper hair. grooming in the midst of madness. Trying to present himself as less than trespasser, more as foolish but harmless neighbor.

“I don’t rightly know how to explain, Erika. I was just seized by this idea of doing something anonymously…of making things nicer. I sure didn’t meant to upset you…”

He shrank away from her with embarrassment, hung his head with hat in hand, and went mute.

Erika considered this man she had known for about twenty years now. He was older or perhaps only seemed older in his manner, and had been married to a woman who shuffled about as though she carried a hard burden, which she had, being a refugee from Cambodia. Then she died of cancer not long after Erika’s divorce, when Jen was fifteen. he lived down the street from her house; they had chatted in passing, during summer block parties. But when she had died Erika taken him fresh bread and her homemade strawberry jam. Had sat awhile with him. He’d seemed quite nice even after that but a man to himself, working long hours as a manufacturing manager. Keeping a tidy yard with its blossoms bright and abundant.

“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” she asked.

“They’re Peace roses, Erika! My favorite. Tea? Well. Sure.”

******

The two mugs steamed so they blew on it, sitting across from each other at the breakfast nook. She realized she had never had him in her house before. Very few neighbors, come to think of it. Now that she worked part time–not her own choice, a downsizing of sorts at the health clinic–she had become more aware of her neighbors comings and goings. But she rarely saw him out and about and heard little about him. Nothing had likely changed for years. Or she imagined.

“I wanted to do something nice for you,” he repeated. “I knew you had been ill–we all learn of each others’ crises sooner or later on this block– and I know you love yard work. I got this idea of a surprise. I didn’t want any thanks or refusal, not anything.” He toyed with his cap, his voice nearly a whisper. “You were so kind when Channay died. Not just your great bread and jam but your hug and words.”

“My words?”

“You just said: ‘I’m sorry. You were good to her; she will always love you. I’ll say a prayer for you.'” He looked at her with far-off eyes. “I believed you; it felt genuine for a change. You know some people just do things out of courtesy. So it sure helped me.”

“So little to do, really, Antony.”

She recalled sitting with him, making a small pot of coffee in his overloaded, messy kitchen, cutting bread for him and spreading a piece with jam. He had left it on the plate but sipped the coffee while she did hers. They had talked about nothing much, winter rains, their yards flooding, when Channay’s service was to be, her nearly non-existent family–long ago murdered by Pol Pot’s regime. They had just sat and listened to the storm beat upon the roof, the wind rattling branches like bones. He lit an amber candle, saying it reminded him of her. After a half hour or more she had left him to himself, and much later they chatted amiably now and then. She had wondered, though, how he had managed afterwards. If the smile given her way was mere civility as he’d said if others or if he did feel happier again. If he maybe felt friendly towards her. But time was packed with pressures and needs and years passed.

“No, it’s never too little to be considerate. And I never got over to see if I could help out when I knew you were so ill. So, one day a couple weeks ago I thought how you love your yard and garden. I decided to just add a couple new plants–for variety, I guess. But I didn’t want any thanks or issues, you know, I didn’t want you to think…anyway, it was impulsive of me, I know that. Foolish!”

Erika sighed, took a drink as did he. “Impulsive, yes. Unusual, I would say! But not really foolish. I think it’s good of you to think of cheering me up, of helping me out. In fact, I could really use someone to help me weed and plant anew… I am way behind.”

His black and white eyebrows lifted and his eyes sparked with hope. “Easy deal. To make up for my errors.”

She lifted her mug to his. “How about to starting a proper friendship?”

He clinked his mug against hers. They shared a smile, relaxed, congenial.

“I guess I should go, though. It’s late.”

“It is. Hey, thanks for those roses…”

“I’ll come back, alright? Properly plant the bush tomorrow evening if you’d like.”

“Please come to the front door this time, and before so late.”

He gave a quiet laugh that was almost a sigh of relief, waved good bye at the door. Erika locked it behind him, then laid her hand  on it a moment.

******

Jen called on her lunch hour.

“Mom, did your intruder leave anything new?”

“Not exactly, a few tracks in the dirt and palm and lilies remain. We’ll see what happens from here on out.”

“Well, that’s it? All the fun has ended just like that? Rather sad.”

“Yes, I guess. What are you up to, dear?”

Erika called Fran after she lay awake well past 1:00, thinking of pros and cons to beginning a friendship with an older man, a widower who loved gardens but had also gate-crashed her life. Maybe in the best possible way.

“Are you waiting for more shenanigans?”

“You could say that.”

“Ah. Wait, what do you mean, Erika? Out with it.”

“It was Antony.”

“Antony Rossellini? He left the lilies and palm? Oh, my. What is that about, do you think?”

“Not sure. Guess I’ll find out. He said he had a kindly impulse…”

“Huh! Kind of weird, but downright intriguing.”

Erika checked beyond the open window after she hung up. She looked for a sign of something but there was none she could find so she lay down, rolled over, resigned to a return to normal and stared hard at her blank blue wall. There was a swell of silence in her house, waves of it, and she had begun to drown in it the past winter. Sickness makes some things more obvious. It stripped things down to the truth. She felt cleaner and edged toward freedom even now, slowly resurrecting a more goodly life. But she occupied these roomy spaces that were most often constrained by daily continuity and predictability. Time shaped by common tasks and expected comforts– and a forgetting of the extraordinary. As she watched shadows knit themselves along tiny cracks and in corners, she became drowsy, let herself give in to rest but she w wondered over what her life might become–and what was too late to search for and find.

Then from a distance she heard the metallic jostling, a small rustling of leaves or pant legs, perhaps the sound of the latch being jimmied and a man stealing across her yard. She pressed eyelids tightly closed, hugged herself: Peace roses, perhaps, come the morning.

 

 

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Projects

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What Ellen Tate ever intended to do with all that unruly front yard was anyone’s guess. And she had recently been hauling more bits and pieces from her station wagon after she backed it into her driveway, each item disappearing into the back yard. They couldn’t imagine what she was up to and strained to see just what it was she had in her arms this time–was that a peculiar table or another hunk of driftwood? Ellen liked beachy things, or at least she and Alec did some time ago.

The view from their porch was imperfect and Ellen was not just across from them but a house down to the left. And this ivy that crawled up one side of their brick bungalow and sometimes dangled over the roof edge needed a thorough whacking before the wisteria got strangled. A yearly dilemma and task.

“I suspect she’s only adding more stuff here and there, decorative touches or whatever it is that she calls it. The last time we saw that back yard was in 2011 when she had the block over for Annabelle’s graduation party. Pity.”

Clare blew her nose loudly. Simon looked away. He’d never gotten used to that alarming honking sound. Her spring allergies were kicking up already so this was just the start.

“Well, things have changed. Alec passed away way too soon. Annabelle got successful fast and hightailed it out of the country. Ellen still works too hard and you said she seems out a lot, just not around here.”

Simon stared at Ellen and Alec’s house, suddenly stirred, remembering things. Alec and he had swapped information about stocks, watched many a car race on TV and in the flesh, tried to out-do each other on their high performance grills several times a year. Even went fly fishing a few times, though Simon had little talent for it and needed repeated instruction. But Alec was naturally a man of patience, something Simon had come into far too late in life, not without considerable resistance. How had he really helped his friend? Maybe he’d been a good listener; Alec had things to get off his chest from time to time. Ellen’s love of knick-knacks, for one. He wondered if she still had that group of trolls from all over the world atop the fireplace mantle or the miniature dogs and cats on a bookshelf. He rather liked those but Alex disliked them greatly–though he never complained to her, only to friends.

Clare smoothed the heavy grey braid hanging over a shoulder. Before too long she’d have to wear her long hair up; the increased heat could fester the air and her neck. “I never knew anyone wanting to be a nurse so long. She could have retired five years ago. What if she can’t read the small print on medications and makes a fatal mistake? What is she gets tired out and doesn’t answer a call bell fast enough? She can’t need the money. Don’t her bunions hurt like heck by now?”

“Who doesn’t need more cash flow? Plus she likes it, keeps her engaged with life.” And death, he supposed, but she was aware of that probability when she took up the career. He didn’t know about any bunions, did she have such achy lumps like Clare? He’d admired her bright pink toenails in summer, he did recall that.

“I disengaged from that sort of hard work without a backward glance.” Clare stood up from her creaky rattan chair and peered at Ellen as she once more pulled something from the back of the station wagon. “Maybe Annabelle is moving back home? No, surely not, she’s in Lisbon…”

Simon swatted away the first fuzzy, noisy bee he’d seen in their yard thus far and that meant there were lots more moving in the neighborhood. Good for them; they had important work to get done. He admired their industrious, proscribed motions. How little he found to do some days. His last office responsibilities ended one year and eighteen days ago. He’d had all sorts of projects lined up and managed to get quite a few completed the first twelve months. This year he’d found himself spending more time being more still than not. Lazing around with an outdoors magazine or a crossword puzzle. A Ulysses S. Grant biography opened on his lap, trying to not doze off. Watching Clare neatly fold colorful laundry–he liked to watch her do this, he couldn’t say why–waiting until she told him for the third time that pots and pans needed drying and putting away. He fixed things, they took circuitous walks, he still met Herb and Morris once a month for breakfast, he was adept at keeping their property attractive. Some days, though, he didn’t feel like moving from the gentle warmth of their bed even after Clare had long been up and prattling about.

For her, retirement had been a breeze, transitioning from full time craft store manager to part time and now to on-call help which could amount to a couple days a week even. And she had plenty of artsy projects in the room next to the garage. Clare would have bought that crafts store if he felt they could swing it. “Clare’s Craft Haven,” that was what she’d dreamed of calling it (rather than “A to Z Craft Supply”). A place to shop but also meet others of the same ilk and a space for creating objects of useful attractiveness. Or rather, useless nonsense as Simon privately thought of it when she yet again had paste and felt and sequins and pins strewn about. But harmless enough; he had his own interests, after all.

She sank back into the chair. “Why not let her be? Either that or go on over and ask her what she’s up to?”

“Oh, I’d never intrude, you know she’s not open to idle chat, anymore, much less sharing private activities with others. I wish she was. I miss her. I’d like to figure out how to break through, make it like old times again.”

Simon knew what she meant, but he’d determined that old times were just that–done and gone. Everyone had to move on. But it was proving a challenge for himself like it was for Ellen, if for different reasons. Clare often had a pep talk about hobbies since she had more than enough but he thought the very word was indicative of their triviality. He wanted something meaty to dig into again.

“Well, we can walk by sometime when she’d out in front, start a conversation about any ole thing.”

Clare put a hand on his forearm. “Like now…she’s out there now. We can offer to help her with whatever she’d doing.”

So they got up and crossed the street when Ellen reappeared at the station wagon. Her head jerked up when she heard them call her name. The expression was neither welcoming or discouraging. She nodded at them and paused, one hand on the car as if her arm was a polite barrier to further progress toward her.

“How’s it going, Ellen? Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

She smiled, friendly enough if a bit tight around the edges. “That’s true, I’m still working and have plenty to do.” She ticked things off on her fingers. “Church meetings, book club, a capella choir, hospice training, fitness club.”

“Hospice training?” Clare tried to keep her tone ordinary but the words came out too loud. Alec had died of pancreatic cancer, and rather fast.

Clare touched her prominent chin with a forefinger, was quiet a second. “I know, seems a bit late for that but they helped us so much, so it’s now my turn.” She smiled again, took her hand from the vehicle and reached in and grabbed a box.

“That’s quite wonderful of you,” Clare murmured.

“Can we be of any help with the stuff you’re getting out?” Simon asked. he had to admit she looked strong enough to handle it all on her own. She’d changed shape– from more of an apple shape to a pleasant pear, arms and legs quite strong. He wondered if he had changed, not for the better.

“No, I’m good. Well, on second thought, this is quite heavy, thanks.”

Simon took the box, awkwardly moved around her. The three of them entered the back yard, Clare filling with anticipation. At last, maybe the spell made of grief and loss was broken and she and Ellen could be real friends again, not just neighbors who waved at each other. They rounded the corner of the house and she stopped. The grassy expanse was nearly covered with what appeared to be household goods. Blue painted chairs, a table made of driftwood and perhaps an oak plank, lamps tall and small, a box of linens, another of dishes, a big rug with an ocean motif and things that could not be fully discerned due to be wrapped or bagged.

“What if it rains? Can we get this stuff inside for you?” Simon put down the box.

“Oh, I’m not worried, I’ve been covering it up at night with tarps and the sunny season is upon us. Besides, the plumber is coming tomorrow  to finish and when the bathroom is done soon, I’ll move it all in.”

“Wait, you have a new bathroom? And all this is being added to ….?”

“Well, Clare, that’s her business, not ours.”

Ellen put hands on hips and laughed as if Clare had made her day.

“Yes, that’s right, a new bathroom! In Alec’s old study. Remember?” She turned toward the small outbuilding several feet away to the right of the driveway. “Come on, you two, have a look.”

“What on earth can you mean?”

“I know–it’s an ADU.” Simon crossed in front of his wife to follow Ellen inside.

“What’s that?” Clare said, close behind.

“Accessory Dwelling Unit.”

The door opened and Ellen led them in, arms opening wide. The old space was looking new. Not completely altered but emptied of Alec’s things, freshly painted a warm blush color. The four small windows finally had repaired screens; the sashes were pushed up so fresh air wafted about, the floral ivory with coral curtains fluttering. Signs of progress on the new bathroom were apparent and they peeked inside. It was spare but tasteful with a sleek glassed shower stall in the far corner.

Ellen beamed at them. “I’m going to make additional money so I can retire and be comfortable, see?”

“Fantastic,”  Simon murmured as he walked about the living area. He imagined Alec at his desk, scribbling away and thought he’d like it.

“Oh gosh, you’re going to rent this out?”

“That’s the idea. Like an efficiency apartment, maybe just for travelers. They’ll have to use a microwave, eat with me or go out. I don’t want to spend more money yet for a kitchenette. Besides, it’d take up quite a bit of room.”

“Fantastic idea,” Simon said, arms folded across his broad chest, eyes gleaming.”Alec’s place for others to enjoy.”

“I never thought of it until I cleaned it all out. Took me forever. You know how he loved to write and read out here, enjoy alone time. And then I had to consider if I wanted anyone else in his  special place, you know? But he’d like this. Me being more secure and self sufficient, while having more company of sorts.”

“Well, I’m impressed. You really did all this?” Clare grabbed Ellen’s forearm without thinking of it–they’d been close friends once– and Ellen didn’t step away.

“Except the bathroom, that was Gerard and Sons’s responsibility.” She ushered them out and locked the door. “I have more to get done tonight, then a shift to work tomorrow, early.” She shook out her tired arms and hands. “I can’t tell you how relieved I’ll be when I leave that hospital. Two more months.”

“What good news, at last you’ll be free! Well, now this…but far freer.”

They lingered by the station wagon a moment.

“You know, I think it’s high time for another backyard party –to celebrate my retirement. Are you interested in helping me some with that, Clare?”

“You know I am, I’ll wait for details and direction.”

Simon smiled warmly at Ellen. “And if we can help you with anything before that, let us know. I’d like to pick your brain some, too.”

Clare frowned at him ever so slightly.

“Well, I likely do need to clean up my front yard, and then my collections ought to be sorted. One thing just leads to another…never ending, really. Yes, we have to chat more, you guys. And nice that you stopped by.”

She looked comforted by it all. The brooding sorrow over Alec’s death was now a residual feeling peeking from the far edge of her deep brown eyes.

******

When the two of them climbed into bed, Clare eased toward her husband and admired his scratchy square in the soft light of the bedside lamp.

“I wonder about you sometimes, Simon, even at this time of our lives.”

“How’s that?” He looked at her narrowed eyes, admired how the deep blue sparked through the slits.

“I saw how you became engaged by her.” She poked his belly.

His unruly eyebrows shot up and he grunted. “I was engaged by her ADU, that’s what you saw.” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly, then cleared his throat. “Clare, I have found a new goal again, a worthy task! A kind of calling, even, in a humble form.”

“What now?”

“It’s a great idea and we need to steal it, make our own ADU. Maybe build on top of the garage. Or build a tiny house behind the apple tree. In the southwest corner, isn’t that a good spot? And think of it, we’ll get to meet new people, won’t that be interesting?”

Clare turned her head and stared at the tiny crack snaking into the ceiling from a far corner. Imagined being always at a stranger’s beck and call. More housework. Meals at certain times. It was one thing to admire Ellen’s initiative; she lived alone, she had no one else to tend to and share time with day in and out. But for them it would mean a third person about, in the way.

“I have so been needing this, a good project! Think of it, Clare, the money, yes, but the opportunity to learn about other people, stretch ourselves.”

She felt stretched plenty between her on-call work and hobbies and him. She wondered if he’d just crank that enthusiasm down a bit. And learn to automatically wash and dry the pots and pans. Maybe do some of his laundry, at last. Would he be making breakfast with her if they took on a, well, what did they call this person, a renter, a guest? Or was it going to be her load to carry, as ever? She was not the least bit fond of housework. She’d rather make nifty–even nonfunctional–things, create for the pleasure of it. And she recently sold some at an arts and crafts fair, to her surprise.

He pulled her into his still firm arms, fingers woven in her unbraided hair. “This is something we can plan and do on our own time frame, Clare. It will be great to have extra cash and we can choose who we want here and when. It could be a good time shared, my sweet darling, don’t you think? A whole new adventure!”

Maybe this could be his own project. She’d approach that later. She let herself fold into him, closer and closer. How could she refuse a man who called her “my sweet darling” after forty-six years? She realized how much they had–their storied past, the limited years ahead–and she would not spoil them with doubt or hesitation. He might go any time. Alec did, after all.

“Yes,” she said to it all and kissed him firmly, turned out the light.

 

This Broken House

Columbia Gorge, Cascade Locks, misc 050
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

They had spotted it from the first hilltop. Ed was breathless from another climb followed by a steep descent. His shoulders were hunched forward in muted excitement. Layla had fallen behind though she was supposed to lead the way. She knew how to get to her own house, didn’t she? The vicinity, overgrown as it was, became more familiar with each step. The trouble was, her legs didn’t want to carry her further, nor did her mind. What they had seen was both so familiar and foreign that she balked at the idea, after all. In fact, her entire being recoiled.

It had come up at the twenty year class reunion last night, of course. Miller had accosted Layla with two drinks in hand, waving them at her as if he was selling something she needed. Perhaps she did; Ed was preoccupied at another table, easy Ed, always a friend to anyone who talked back. She appreciated his outgoing nature–it had made the reunion easier so far–but now she wished he’d look her way.

It was not an event she had willingly attended. They’d been getting ready to have a real vacation in the mountains when he’d convinced her it would be a good thing to do this year.

“For me to see what your roots were. For you to wish old friends good stuff and share a couple of laughs. And put it all of it behind you once and for all.”

Why had she listened to him?

******

Miller bent over her (had he been so tall in high school? sweaty? and had they really dated a whole six months?); his cologne and the alcohol draped over her. Layla coughed.

He muttered, “Not what you’d expect, eh, Layla? All of us much older and more tired than we’d planned! Present company excluded, of course.” He’d handed her a glass and grinned at her in the same way he had in tenth grade, all teeth and rotten heart. “Have you anything to say for yourself, girl?”

Of course she did but she held her tongue. “Well, this was a stopover, soon we’ll be languishing in a mountain lodge eating salmon and strawberries and all will be forgotten. You?”

“I make these every ten years. There are cousins and old buddies to drink with, there are basketball trophies to recall, there are some very lovely women.” He lifted his glass to her and drank. “I got out, you got out–among a half dozen others. Who has the better tale?”

“Please tell me, Miller, I always knew you had a mini-spark of genius…”

“Well, what could I do with a lawyer father and an author mother? Fail? Indeed not. I own a tech company, TorchWare .”

“Sounds like a program for arson. Good for you, gives an outlet for that wayward bent.”

“Yes, it illuminates everything simply and well for those in dire need. And I reap fine benefits. And you? You got into Seattle University, didn’t you? English major, was it?”

His small teeth glinted at her. He breathed heavily; she recalled that he’d always had an inhaler at the ready. Or was that ill-placed lust?

“Funny you’d recall that. Yes, and also met Ed.” She pointed at her chatty husband at a nearby table. You’d have thought it was his reunion. “But I turned into a ceramicist and am unexpectedly good at it, while he teaches engineering at U of W.”

Miller lifted scraggly eyebrows and sipped. “How’s all that working out for you–I mean, as a pretty but shy daughter of a rather derelict lumberjack father and a nurse, fortunately, for a mother? Though you sure speak up now! Don’t get me wrong, my own parents weren’t all that honorable despite impeccable appearances…”

“You know, I think I’ll use my big new voice to finally let you know–”

“Quite well, I’d say, it is all working perfectly. Wouldn’t you agree, Layla?” Ed said as he took her elbow and started to steer her away.

“He wasn’t derelict, you fool, he was ill–now dead from MS complications, Miller. Haven’t you learned basic human decency or even good manners yet?”

Miller snorted. “Everyone said he accidentally burned down the house to collect on insurance. It didn’t work as you well know. In fact, it’s still standing. Barely, I suppose.”

“Not worth it, darlin’.” Ed grabbed her wrist just as she lifted her half-full glass to douse Miller who, shaking his head as if in pity, walked away.

The drink spilled on her new navy pumps and she glared at him.

“The house, he had to mention Dad and the house. Do you see now why I never come to these? The villains still wait around to attack the unsuspecting and weaker.”

“Except you are not weak. You’re a bit tipsy, I think, and tired of being here. Let’s say goodbye to the ones we do like before I go punch the fool–then let’s make a run for it.”

Layla put her drink on a table, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. “Good plan, smart guy.”

“You and all the smart guys…I see them looking your way.”

“Yeah, but you won out and you’re a good guy, too, so lucky me.”

******

“Ed, this is not a great idea.”

He turned to her, held out his hand. “You’re the one who says that if there’s a noise in the dark you need to get up to check it out. This has been bumping every night in your adult life. Time to take a look.”

She grabbed the proffered hand but pulled him back a little. “There’s nothing much to see, just rotting wood. You know I came back for Dad’s funeral before we got married. Mom left town that very night. No one was interested in the property, not even to tear it down. I took a quick look from the hilltop then. It just emanated all their miserable life. Our life.”

Ed studied her face, how tight the petal soft jaw, how pale her pressed lips, eyes narrowed against whatever might be seen. His throat constricted; he had to look into treetops, reassure himself the blue sky was up there; they’d get done with this. Maybe he had made a mistake insisting they come. But then she started to walk and he right along with her, down another hill, across the gravel road, right to the property line, if there was one. The lot was so overgrown with tangles of blackberries, spindly weeds and hulking bushes that nothing could have made its way to the front door except for the creatures. Foxes, mice, snakes or insects, whatever had claimed it and moved in.

The front door was torn away under the sagging roof, she could see this through the brush and wondered where it was. Perhaps someone long ago needed a door. She remembered how she and her mother painted it fern green, the radio blaring from the living room, paint dripping, getting on them, her father in his wheel chair that day but directing them. The dirty white of the house seemed less an affront with that new door. The door might have burned. All windows were agape, of course, the fire ruined them, too. The moss overtook the shingles, weakening them, and the insects, took, must have lunched on many seedlings and the birds must have pecked away the bits they could. All like vultures tearing at a carcass. It looked hideous.

“I don’t like seeing all this, Ed.” She released him, though, and put up her hand to indicate she wanted to  proceed a ways without him. He shifted from foot to foot as she waded through high grasses.

Layla worried that she’d be able to smell the smoke still, even after all the years. She’d been in college when she got the news from her mother, that the house had burned enough that it was not salvageable. So they had moved to an apartment right on Main Street, a better place than the house had been but small. It was an ancient kerosene lantern that toppled in the living room–her father had a thing for old stuff collected in younger years and he’d lit it and somehow knocked it off the table. Then he panicked and rolled his wheel chair into the yard.

It was pure luck that her mother had gotten home before the fire engines came, applied the fire extinguisher to wide swaths of area. But people talked because her father was not the most open or pleasant man, not even a reasonable man, they’d decided. He was hard on his wife and his daughter since MS had finally taken his legs and made things so taxing for them all. The truth was, he was never an easy man, one who could move through life on good will and a sense of hope. He had a hard edge to him that just got sharper as he got sicker.

But as Layla walked around the falling-down house she heard his voice wind through the place with a beckoning tone and stepped in at the back, the screen door hinges rusted and wrenched, the door nearly hanging to the dry dirt and brittle grass. Beer bottles and soda cans lay about, a torn and faded girlie magazine, a dirty plastic spoon and fork by a rank container, a torn up tennis shoe half chewed by perhaps a passing dog. Layla wished she had a trash bag but to what purpose? No one cared. Not even, really, herself.

But she stepped around the mess and indoors. She saw the living room, desolate, still filthy with fire’s carbon from so long ago, the wooden stairs having fallen down so she couldn’t go up to her room even if she had wanted to take a look. There was no parental bedroom; the wall had burned. The one third-charred kitchen with its stained farm sink was ruined, counters scratched and torn, even the walls though smudged by the fire seemed to be moldering in winter rains and summer heat. The appliances were long taken, maybe even sold as is. Fire had swirled through most of the lower level like a storm, then was defeated. But it was a bad omen. What was to come for her parents was worse than they’d known before.

But as she lingered she knew what lay beneath the rubble. Once this room had been almost cheery, yellow curtains with tiny green ferns on them; a ceramic rooster on the counter for cookies; a small oak table by a wall with convenient folding ends. They had enjoyed breakfast there, even Dad when he was up to it though he said little more than “Another day, damn it.” Each morning, before school and her mother’s work at the hospital, they had that half hour or more just to sit together, talk about the headlines or drink coffee without words uttered but the radio playing something tuneful and easy. It helped them, that music.

They could also see out the south side yard all the flowers her mother and she had planted and tended. Rose, irises and tulips, a few gladiolas, later the zinnias, geraniums and marigolds, three types of lavender, petunias and pansies, too, and more, so much she could not recall. They came to her as if someone threw back a curtain and she could see them: flashy and happy to be growing there. For the family of three. Even her father loved that garden, messy and simple as it was. But sometimes he became morose, lamented that he’d once been such a lumberman, how he missed the scents and feel of wood and dirt on his hands, the outdoors in his veins. Layla recalled him as he was once: standing so straight, barrel chest high and arms muscled. She had often wondered over his loss. And how it had hurt them all. How he felt so diminished it was a burrowing beast that dug deeper in him each year.

She decided one time–despite her mother’s warning look–to put into his unwilling palms a little pile of fresh soil and tender roots for him to close his big fist over and hold. He had wept a long moment. But it passed and he shook his head at her when she tried it another time. He just sat there each day he could manage it, after they rolled him out and let him be, and he read or drowsed or watched squirrels race about or listened to birds calling. Stellar jays, a favorite, and he always watched for deer at the far edge of the woods at dusk and called to his wife and daughter to see how they stood graceful, proud.

Did he long to be free like the creatures were? Did it anger him to see them work the garden? He was silent much of the time he wasn’t gritting his teeth or snarling. Her mother said once, “He loves me most, you know, when I am deep into gardening, my hair a mess, sweat ruining my shirt, my hands full of bugs and blossoms. I see it in his eyes. ”

And Layla could understand this, knew it meant more than most things to her, even his rough hug or kiss. He was not easy to love, and he was not gifted at it himself though her mother tried to show him and she, too, offered him her hugs that wanted to soothe him. Which he often pushed away. Maybe he knew things he taught her mother, too. They made what they had work; she stayed until he passed. But Layla wanted happiness, not just partnership.

He taught Layla that if helplessness and disappointment seem like the toughest enemies, family and nature are balm. And she wished she could lay her head on his shoulder one more time. She might call her mother, set up a visit but she now lived in Boise with a man Layla found wanting.

She wandered out and around the corner of the house.

“Ed! Come here!”

He ran to find her, glad she called him, praying she had not found things to pain her more. He found her staring , mouth agape, at the end of the lot. Inside the leaning, towering trees, past broken branches and bushes out of control and wild grasses and blackberry vines, there was something more.

Layla pointed straight ahead. “Look!”

“What on earth…?”

The garden was still alive, and it was in summer’s peak bloom.

“It’s me,” said a small voice. “I done it when I could, hope that’s okay with you.”

She was bent over, nearly the size of a child, with wrinkled face and white hair that was piled atop her head with a pencil. A hunched back, as it always had been but worse.

“Mrs. Stanish!” Layla went to her and, bending over, put her arms about her. “You! But why? You and dad never got along too well, as I recall, he didn’t like your dogs getting into our yard and such.”

“Well, that’s so.” She patted Layla’s hand and nodded at Ed. “Your husband, I see. I saw the newspaper notice all those years ago. And your mother, she told me, too.”

He took her hand into both of his. “This is wonderful, really amazing.”

Mrs. Stanish walked into the garden with them. “Oh, he now and then could be sour. I understood sourness with my bad scoliosis. How much pain tries to ruin you, how nosey people think they know things they don’t. I said I’d tend their garden after the fire. If it survived, and it mostly has. Sorta.  But never  break a promise if you can help it.” She smiled up at them, deep blue eyes wreathed in folds of flesh.

They caught up some then shared brief hugs.

“Thank you for keeping it going, It means a great deal to me.”

Mrs. Stanish gave them a once over. “You see, life does as good as it can, we just got to help it along. You two be nice to each other.” And off she shuffled to her equally aged husband.

“I suspect they’re in their late eighties or early nineties now. Incredible,” Layla remarked.

Ed and she climbed back up the hill. She turned back a last time and he did, too.

“Incredible that they are still alive, married or maintaining the garden as promised? Or that you found a few good memories there?”

“Yes,” was all she said and waved goodbye to that old broken-down house, where once her family had worked, suffered, loved as they could. “Let’s get to the mountain paradise before the sun goes down.”

 

Life in Lizbeth’s Garden

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It wasn’t that she couldn’t stop, she just wouldn’t, and if she did everyone would be much happier. That’s what Michael told her about once a day, more if he could manage it. But the words had begun to morph into a string of syllables that were almost lulling, waves revisiting a shoreline along the back of her brain.

Maybe what he said was true, she wasn’t yet certain.

Lizbeth was dead-heading a group of violently orange marigolds even though she knew she didn’t need to, such was her sudden desire to scatter seeds to far lands. She watched them drift in an sweep of breeze, satisfied and a little wistful. Sweat bathed her forehead to neck and a number of  bees kept close quarters. Her floppy straw hat was a comfort, shielding her from fiery sun rays. She liked the hat most of all her gardening accouterments; it had served her best, right after the dirt-stained cloth gloves. Lizbeth sat on her haunches and gazed about the back yard. Most of the flowers bloomed as if they would never get to bloom again; other parts were struggling. Rapacious weeds thrived in that hot weather.

She, however, needed a drink. It was after noon judging by sun’s angle. This was a record wait for her the past few months. Mostly she managed until eleven–an early pre-lunchtime snack of cheese and wine, a picker upper. Or  more like late morning tonic to move her right along the slowly following hours. A glass or two of pinot noir, that was all, it wasn’t like she lugged a bottle around with her, room to room. Alright, she may have thought of it but she had never actually done it. Or not often.

Lizbeth struggled to her feet, removed the hat and wiped her forehead with back of her wrist. Her knees had been more crunchy; she’d found even with a cushy mat it wasn’t easy to kneel and garden as long as last year. Well, one more thing. Add that to the list, along with Daisy their loyal and lovely Dalmatian getting sick and dying; their Martha’s oldest son Gene smoking pot like it was a full time job; her husband going in earlier and staying later at his office; and her good friend and neighbor Jill moving to Rhode Island of all places. Who moved from a good Oregonian home to the Northeast when you were almost sixty? Jill did. She’d found a coastal village with a very small cottage she liked better. Found it online, no less.

The past six months had been one surprise after another. Lizbeth wasn’t so good with surprises. Her youth had been punctuated with a few doozies but things weren’t necessarily easier due to experience. She found she needed a tranquility boost to manage and re-balance things.

Lizbeth entered the kitchen, took out the chilled bottle of wine and poured a glass full. Michael enjoyed his wine in a good goblet but a plain water glass did her just fine. A first sip was savored and then a good gulp followed, then another. She was done with gardening for the day. She must at last plan their usual family Fourth of July gathering since it was tomorrow.

She waited for a moving van to pull up any time now next door and dreaded it. She had seen a caramel skinned, younger–maybe under forty– woman in jeans and tank top disembark her SUV yesterday, enter the house and leave a few hours later. Jill had told her about the new owner, Myra somebody, a new Executive Director at Biller -Koin Gallery. That was enough to know. Lizbeth didn’t put much on her walls–she liked all those blank spaces–and hired someone to help minimally decorate their home long ago. Not much had been changed and that was how she liked it. The last thing she needed was a snooty neighbor critiquing her home and offering advice. Lizbeth did not want advice of any sort.

She wanted a second drink. The first glass had barely whetted her appetite. She had promised Michael to go easy this week. Last week they’d had a fight before dinner; she had left a chicken casserole burning on the stove and tottered off with drink to the garden. As she saw it, she could never time her meals according to his arrival, he’d gotten so sporadic–he said he was seeking perhaps a last advancement so was much busier. She didn’t care, she was done with making full meals, they’d have to get by on sandwiches and soup or she’d order out. Finally, drinks had kicked in, gotten hold of her and she’d lost her temper and he lost his, too. They were quite the loud duo and she was glad Jill had already moved so she didn’t pester her with later phone calls. But then she had cried herself to sleep in a spare bedroom. The next day they were civil, but there was the variation of his usual remark.

“See if you can’t wait until after I get home to have a glass. Then we might sit in the garden and enjoy ourselves for once.  Even talk.”

“I’ll do that, sure,” she’d nodded blearily and he’d given her a peck on the cheek.

But of course she hadn’t. They’d eaten Thai take out and went their separate ways, he to the study and she to the sun room, as usual.

Lizbeth poured the second drink up to the top, took a slurp then padded to the sun room, put her feet up. Jotting down a list of needed groceries on her memo pad and sipping her wine, the low growl of the moving van almost escaped her attention until she saw the furniture being hauled out and then into the house. She moved to the front windows. A long, curved, orange sofa; two vine patterned–green, brown and white– chairs; matching brass lamps that were in the shape of some kind of bird; well wrapped paintings that Lizbeth didn’t want to imagine; a vanity that looked like it had could have been used by Marilyn Monroe. Or a flea market aficionado.

Hardly bearable, having a new person move in.

She sat back down and finished her list. Most of the food was coming from the deli this year. She had not returned to cooking since the smoking chicken. She thought of a third glass, decided to wait awhile, do a load of laundry instead, then tidy up the patio. Then she could have a third if she sipped it slowly, ate a little something. She wanted to be able to sit in the garden with Michael when he got home. They could share thoughts about the family BBQ as they enjoyed a cool, gentling breeze and beautiful flowers. The Family, there was a rich topic! That thought gave her pep as she trotted upstairs to get the laundry sorted–they were bound first and last by family, that was right and good.

******

“This is more like it.”

Michael leaned back in the rattan patio chair, arms up, hands interlocked behind his head. He gave a quick smile. “I am so glad to have a day off. Well, there’s our usual family thing. But, still.” He looked at her closely. “You doing alright today?”

Lizbeth yawned; she was a little sleepy and wanted to pour a glass but he hadn’t seemed interested in getting his goblet yet.

“I’m good. I do have the potato salad made and am getting the rest from the store. You just have meat duty. I’ll go shopping in the morning.”

“I’ll go tonight. Is their turkey for sandwiches for our dinner?”

“Yeah… I’ll resume cooking sometime, I suppose.”

Michael unlocked his hands and leaned forward to study the crow that had flown in. Michael was fond of crows unless they hung around too long or were too loud, kind of how he felt about extended family at times. “Right, that’s fine. But I do want to figure out what to do about Gene.”

“Nothing is to be done, he’ll be high when he comes, eat everything and leave and Tess won’t make a scene, either. They’re well behaved young adults, overall.”

“She’s not bringing that so-called male friend, is she?”

“I think there’s a new one.”

“At fourteen? Is she dating?”

Lizbeth rolled her eyes. Michael could be oblivious of the times. “Anyway, I think Leslie is bringing that Barry Geniston–she was truly trying to think of him as her fiancé but there was white hair creeping in there–and his son, what’s his name? Neal. He’s six feet tall at fifteen, she says, of course he plays basketball.  Maybe the three or four kids can team up for fun.”

“Another teen-ager, gads, careful what you wish for! You know I won’t abide Gene smoking pot in or around my home, legal or not. And Tess could leave her friends to their own families not always drag them here. Can’t we have a regular cozy family barbeque? With nothing obnoxious going on, no one to keep an eye on. Nothing too long, 5-7 right? I mean, a whole extra day off…I have waited so long for one day.”

“You need a real vacation, not a national holiday. Like we are planning.”

Michael observed a crow pecking hard at something on the patio flagstones, then looked at her sideways. “How are you doing, anyway? You seem good, no glass in hand.”

“Are you waiting for me to quit drinking before we go on a vacation, is that it?” Her voice was quiet but irritation charged her words. “That week-end we had at the coast was different. We’d lost Daisy, had just found out about Gene’s school performance. And oh right, Leslie getting engaged to someone who owns membership-only billiards clubs with cigar smoking rooms! Who ever heard of such a thing? Not small things. And then Jill leaving! Michael, it’s been a real challenge, that’s all.”

The crow started to caw and Michael shooed it away.

“Yes, you said all this many times, far too many. But you about got swept out to sea, you were so drunk you didn’t pay attention–that’s what you fail to include. To deal with. If I hadn’t been nearby, watching…” He turned to her. “There’s always something, Lizbeth, life does as it does and we adapt or gain more skills. Yes! I’m waiting for you to stop drinking before we for sure embark on that trip to the Caribbean. That is exactly right.”

“Well, go alone. I can guarantee nothing, certainly not if I will have a couple glasses of wine or not while we languish in a resort spa in a tropical paradise.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it. She studied his profile, that proud nose, a jaw to be envied, eyes a flinty grey that lit up blue when light was right. A man women admired and men seemed to enjoy. What was wrong with her after thirty-six years? To Michael, it was the alcohol. To her, it was life’s gritty little losses and cumulative failures, lack of excitement, decreasing purpose. A surfeit of loneliness. Life cracking around the edges when it had seemed whole and strong.

She hoped they’d get back to the larger family issues, much safer to talk about, even when it was tough issues. This was what any good marriage was for–or did they just turned this way and the other after kids came and that was that?

A whistled tune rose over their fence, abated then came again. They turned to look for its source. There Myra stood with voluminous black hair caught up messily with a clip, soft blue tank top soaked with sweat, big grin on her unadorned yet lovely face. Lizbeth noted dangly earrings with brown and white feathers and wondered if they got stuck to her damp shoulders as she worked on the house. Jill rarely wore jewelry, something they had in common.

“Hi there, I’m Myra Minthorn. Would you happen to have any extra coffee? I neglected to pack some. And maybe a little milk I could borrow until I shop tomorrow? I’m sorry to bother…it’d be wonderful if you had at least coffee! I need it iced, though, dying of heat, would sure like central air in there.”

Michael stood and walked to the fence, held out a hand and introduced them both. Lizbeth smiled wide, put up one finger and ran into the kitchen. Put coffee into a baggie and filled a small pitcher with milk and returned. Michael and Myra chatted away with animation. Michael’s father was an amateur but fine potter and his family liked art a great deal.

“Oh, thanks so much!” Myra said, hands forming a bowl shape to accept the goods.

“Any time,” Lizbeth said. “I hope your move has been a good one.”

“It is so far, I know it’s the right job.”

“She’ll oversee Bixler-Koin,” Michael said excitedly. “New directions to take, no doubt!”

“I plan on it. Well, see you two later–have a good Fourth!” Myra flashed blinding teeth, then bounded into Jill’s old house, now her house. Only who would ever recognize it after all those colors and designer impulses got a hold of it?

“See you later,” Lizbeth called out and wandered back into the kitchen. New directions, he’d said, as if he had something at stake in the gallery. No doubt there would be with this Myra Minthorn. Michael did patronize all the openings and did go to fundraisers for it. Maybe Lizbeth would start attending again to follow its future trajectory in the city scene. And how Myra worked the arty masses. Wasn’t she Native American? Lizbeth wondered.

Time for her homely glass to be filled with rosy red pinot noir. Michael could get his own. No, Michael was going to the store. She could drink alone for an hour or more. He’d leave her to herself, she guessed, if he was bothered. No need to argue the night before Fourth of July.

******

The barbecue was in full swing, everyone was tucking into sizzling burgers or impatient for steak. There was Lizbeth’s famous potato salad, thank goodness. Michael pulled her aside. She had noticed their daughters were already looking her over for signs of impending sloppiness but they would be disappointed. She resisted his tug on her elbow at first.

“We should ask Myra over, don’t you think?”

“You mean, as goodwill gesture? What happened to keeping things simpler?”

She honestly was eyeing the beer but she disliked beer when all was said and done. She would hold off on her third drink a bit longer.

“Sure, she’s alone over there and her first holiday in Portland…”

“Where’s she from?”

Tess ran up and hugged her before she set off for the corner coffee shop to get an iced latte with friend Kyle. Plus the new almost-family addition, Neal. They’d just gotten there but right off they had to go. And those coffee treats for kids, that was another thing but it  was true, they tasted so sweet and good.

Turning back to Michael she said, “Why do the grandkids come if it’s so hard to stay?”

“Oh, she’s fine, just has to have time with her, uh, buddy. And now there’s Neal to fit in somehow. And Myra last hailed from Cincinnati. I gather her career has kept her moving a bit.”

He felt more expansive today for some reason. He turned over fragrant sizzling steaks. Then studied her more closely. Lizbeth had had two glasses of her pinot noir, that was all. Not even quite full ones and it was going on five o’clock, a holiday. What was she up to?

“Sure, I’ll go knock on her door.”

“She’s in the back yard, I can see her from here.”

Martha stole up behind her mother, then Leslie joined up and they met at the fence. Martha put her arms around them both and squeezed.

“Dad seems pretty okay, more rested than before, but when are you two going on that lavish vacation? Isn’t it end of August?” She checked to see how much wine had taken hold of their mother. Not too bad so far, a relief, but then she was on her third beer, was that too much? She had to drive home. With kids. Better stop there, she thought.

“Supposedly. Right now I’m checking in on the new owner of Jill’s place.” She waved cheerily. “Hey there, Myra, how’s it going? Want to come over for some steak and salads? Light some sparklers or firecrackers?”

Myra was swinging in a hammock with eyes closed, Lizbeth saw too late.

“Oh, hello–no thanks.” Myra sat up, blinked in the harsh sunlight. “I think I’m good. I’m not much of a steak eater. Pretty tired after moving.”

“I have my daughters here, Leslie and Martha, and this is Myra, our new neighbor.”

Myra waved and lay back down, a forearm shielding her eyes.

Leslie and Martha whispered something to each other, Lizbeth thought it was “better looking than Jill” and was about to say something sharp but dropped it.

“She says no thanks, she’s fine,” Lizbeth told her husband as she slipped past, got a beer,  joined the group at the picnic table.

“Where are the grandkids?”

“Gene is likely off in bushes smoking funny stuff, ” Leslie said. “No, wait, here come they come.” She took Barry’s arm and they wandered toward the fragrant Peace roses.

“You can keep criticism to yourself,” Martha warned too loudly.

“Hey, are those steaks done?” Gene rounded the corner on cue. “I’m starving.”

“Everything looks delicious, and the yard is superb, ” Barry the billiards man offered.

Lizbeth popped a beer can open and sipped a little.

“Not a beer,” Michael moaned as he arrived with the meat platter.

“Can’t have a Fourth of July without a few cold ones with our steaks!” Leslie stated and they all agreed, beers in hand. Even the grandkids cheered and gave a sly look at each other, their coffee drinks raised but barely drunk. Neal eyed his father who ever so slightly frowned at Leslie’s mother, then raised eyebrows at him. Neal would not risk another few swigs of beer that night.

******

“I know it’s after eight but I thought well, we have so much extra and I wondered if you’d unpacked kitchen wares or eaten a thing.” Lizbeth thought she had never seen so much lustrous hair. Once her hair had been long. Twenty years ago.

Myra chuckled, took the plastic wrapped plate from Lizbeth and opened the door to her. “Come on in, how nice.”

It was confusing to look around. First thing that caught her eye was something intricately beaded hanging from the one lit bird-like lamp. There was bright sleek furniture in place of a pale leather sofa and a Bentwood rocker, large vivid paintings leaning against the wall where there had been a pleasant medium-sized photograph of Tuscany. Jill had bought that while on a trip. Lizbeth had secretly wanted it but of course never asked. Instead, Jill gave her a goodbye memento of treasured gold rimmed with red roses tea cups. Lizbeth had wondered how well they’d known each other, after all.

Myra sat, then patted an orange couch cushion as invitation to sit down.

“I don’t want to bother you. Moving is so taxing.”

“It’s good you came. I was just reading and trying to drink lukewarm so-called iced tea I made from a mix. I’d offer you some but it’s no good.”

Lizbeth nearly asked if she had unpacked any wine but held  back. “I just wanted to drop off some food. Can I help in any other way?”

Myra sucked in her generous lower lip, narrowed her eyes in thought. “I might need a suggestion for a good primary care doctor and dentist at some point. You’ve lived here awhile, right?”

“Over two decades. I can right off recommend Dr. Lilian Ruh for a doctor and I like Dr. Gupta for our dentist, he’s so kind and experienced.”

Myra took a memo pad and pen from a free form teak and glass coffee table and wrote them down.

“Excellent, I knew you’d be a help. I’ve lived in apartments for a long time. Everyone said I needed a real house for this job and I agreed. But in my old communities I was in close quarters with others, never entirely alone. My family and friends worried I’d have a hard time fitting in here, you know, in this single family neighborhood, big yards, wide streets. A different kind of neighborhood.”

Lizbeth sensed much more under the words. Was she afraid to be alone? Had she had a house but it hadn’t worked out, maybe a divorce? Or did she feel she might stick out here in West coast culture somehow? Or perhaps she didn’t like kids running about? Or was it that she wasn’t, well, white? If only she knew how little Lizbeth cared. Maybe she should, more.

“You’ll find your way, I can tell already. You have that natural flair, a creative way of doing things–look at all this. I might not always get art but I can recognize others have talent.” She swept the room with her hand. “And people are friendly here.”

“I will? Can you tell all this?” She tilted her head playfully. “Do I seem confident, raring to go?”

Confused, Lizbeth struggled to find words to respond correctly. “I just meant, you’re a smart young woman and you clearly have a deep love of art…”

“It’s okay, Lizbeth. I’m sorry, I’ve been hard at work all day, I’m overwhelmed with a major sense of dislocation and frankly I’m just fiending for one long drink…”

Lizbeth laughed. “Oh well, I have pinot noir and beer if you like!”

Myra clenched her hands together. “But I don’t drink, anymore, that’s the thing. Which is why I didn’t come over earlier, all the beer.” She looked at Lizbeth with intense, lively eyes. “And I had a stroke three years ago which makes it even more imperative I take care of my health from now on. Just so you know a couple of basics up front. You stopped by and here I am.”

“Oh, I see….I won’t offer you any drinks, for sure. But an actual stroke? You’re young!”

“Yeah, that’s right, while riding my bike. Went blurry in one eye, weak in my arm then leg, fell right over roadside. Age 37. It happens. I won’t burden you with gruesome things. But I’d been drinking that day, too much, and I thought it was alcohol that did it. No, just a common small stroke. It felt big. But alcohol wasn’t good to me, either, before or after. So no more of it in my life. I want to stay fit and well, work at what I love, enjoy the rest of my Creator-given life.” She barely touched Lizbeth’s hand. “I’m pleased you brought me food, it’s thoughtful. I’m looking forward to knowing you and Michael better.”

Lizbeth looked down. “I drink a bit too much, myself, just so you know. But I aim to change things. I’m glad you told me.” She wanted to give the woman a sound hug but refrained, best to not scare her off. “I’ll let you rest. Call anytime, even for a cup of sugar.” She wrote down her number on the pad of paper.

Myra put it in her pocket. “Say, I’m going to develop new art classes, programming for older adults. Good stuff, I promise. Might you be interested?”

“Well…Michael is nuts about art.”

“I somehow feel you would be, too, if you just explored more things, played with your creativity. I’ll keep you in the loop.”

“Thanks, Myra. And welcome to our neighborhood.”

“Glad to have found this place. And my dream job!”

******

Michael called to her from the second floor landing.

“Changing my clothes already. I’m wiped out. You coming up?”

“Soon. I want to sit in the garden awhile.”

He stood there, then crept down several steps to catch her at the kitchen sink. Lizbeth stood before the bottle of wine on the counter as she cradled her empty glass in her hand. Gazed out the window at her garden glowing under the power of an ordinary, breathtaking sunset. She set her glass in the sink, turned the bottle upside down –he could hear it empty into the drain. She went outside, quiet as can be. Michael covered his face with both hands for one intense moment, then joined her.

 

The Watchman

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Heaven had hung the windsock she’d whipped up from remnants at the back of her house, near the fence enclosing her courtyard. Right where Jasper Dye could see it. It flapped and spun in gusting, humid breezes. The placement had been his idea. She’d walked up the hill and offered it to him last month. Thought it would liven up his house a bit. She preferred the numerous handmade wind chimes that called out from her eaves and elsewhere. Most of those hung in the front with the exception of a large chime back of the driveway by her business sign: “Heaven Steele’s Glass Chimes and Art”.

Jasper generally liked the mix of brittle and soft notes that lifted in the air, wound their way up and over the road to his place. Kept him company. The visit was a surprise despite being neighbors. He was third generation Marionville and she was new. He suggested he’d see the windsock better from his porch. It was a cheery decoration but sure not his style. He wondered if she was trying to tell him his place had gone to seed; that was old news, he’d been out of the genuine farming business awhile now. But the other thing was, he didn’t want to feel indebted.

He had grown used to the woman’s strangeness. She wasn’t like most people in Marionville, around Potts County. She was younger than she appeared with that silvery, cropped hair. She had one nearly violet eye and one brown, some defect that marked her more. It was true she was a hard worker (she had that in common with other folks), but was operating an art studio. He guessed she made hundreds of glass chimes year-round and other useless, pretty things. But her other business was all about desperate folks showing up at her door, day and night. Some sort of counseling, he’d heard, but he knew better. Maybe a money making hoax or some witchy thing going on. That made her somebody way outside of the box but he didn’t know quite what. He cared very little; he waved at her when she waved, shared a few words.

He could see a few goings-on from his porch up the hill, as his ratty–he admitted it–farm overlooked the back of Heaven’s nice house. Jasper hadn’t crossed her threshold yet, saw no need. It had to have things in there he couldn’t decipher. The fall one evening last week was a warning, anyway. He had inched down Heaven’s steep lot to get a better look at a girl–he thought he knew her; her father could be a violent man–pounding on Heaven’s window. But he’d slipped in mud and tripped over a root or rock and that was the end of that. He’d paid for his nosiness, drat the ole curiosity. The girl took off. Now he had a cast on his right arm and nasty bruises up and down his side. Felt nearly helpless though it could have been far worse.

“Jasper Dye’s Downfall!” His son Shawn laughed at the foolishness when he came by to help out. “Let people be, ole man. Don’t go where you’re not invited. Stay the hermit you usually are.”

Shawn got on his last stretched nerve some days. Acting like his own father was getting dumber rather than wiser. That was not the case, not yet. But he was a good son to help out so he just grunted, let it go.

So now Jasper truly had little better to do than watch plumes of dust stirred by infrequent trucks and cars that rumbled by or Heaven’s comings and goings. He wondered if she knew he could see her pretty well in one part of the spacious courtyard. Tree branches overhung more than half of it. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to have a water feature; the sound of water falling slipped in and out of his hearing range. That’s where she met with people if the weather was good. All he could make out was someone’s head or a flash of one of her bright outfits between thick leafy branches. When the wind was settled and the road empty, a murmur of voices might drift up to him. It was like having the TV on low, a barest semblance of company.

He felt a peculiar contentment knowing she was there. Had been for about ten years. Before that the place had been a vacation home, people in and out and noisy. This was better. Yet all Jasper truly knew about her were the rumors of unusual talents (Shawn said she was “just plain psychic; she advises people on stuff” and Jasper just laughed at the idea), her beautiful chimes and quiet ways. She had been friendly enough the few times they’d crossed paths. He wasn’t a big talker; she let him be.

One Thursday–he usually came on Thursdays–Shawn had done an errand for him and then barbecued burgers for dinner, cleaned up and left. Jasper sat on the creaky porch drinking coffee, rolling the same lumpy cigarette three times before he got it right. He needed one of those simple machines since his stiff fingers made a mess of things too often. It was about dusk, the light rich but sweet in the trees, tipping the swaying wild grasses. The air had a glossy sheerness that early summer lent it. Everything sparked with color. Jasper lit the cigarette as his gaze ran over the scene before him, resting briefly on Heaven’s darkening house. The windsock settled down as if done dancing for the day. He noted a silver car still parked in her long driveway. It wasn’t familiar but then lots of cars at her house weren’t, especially with high season getting into full swing. Heaven got people from all over wanting to see how she made those chimes and they always carried out bags bulging with purchases.

He rubbed his thigh and hip, smoked, thought about his wife, Jane, long gone. How she’d sit with him without a peep and it was like a whole conversation happened.  Jasper talked to her more now than before.

“I know it was stupid, but you wouldn’t say so. Just our son’s got that sort of mouth on him…Made burgers with his special sauce, my so tasty, he should be a chef not some greasy spoon cook…”

He leaned forward, squinted. Heaven walked into the courtyard and back again, talking to someone, hands wildly gesturing. There was a guy there, much taller than she was, which was saying something. Jasper strained to catch the tone of voice.

The man stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. She stood still, as if rooted to the spot. Jasper re-lit the last half of another cigarette. Well, this wasn’t his business. She’d made quite a life in Marionville and some excitement was part of it, whereas he got bored with things so paid too much attention to her place. Heaven, despite her soft name, could handle herself.

The glowing stub faded; he crushed it in a ceramic pot full of stones. Rubbing his eyes, winced at the deep ache in his left hip. Stood up. He looked out over the valley towards town and the water. Lake Minnatchee gave off a deep blue sheen. He imagined the young ones had gone home and teenagers were soon taking their places as darkness snuffed out coral and rose streaks of sunset. They’d be up to no good or romance, maybe the same thing. Jasper felt something like peace but a melancholy undertow yanked at him, as usual.

Jasper turned to go inside and threw a last glance at Heaven’s house. The silver car was still there. There were no sounds coming from the courtyard other than faintest tinkling of water. He frowned at the emptiness he felt there. Something had changed in the last few minutes. Well, they’d left the courtyard, no big deal, she likely was showing her art. Still, unease coursed through his legs. He rubbed his hip and rocked forward to redistribute his weight, then scanned lot and house again. It was the windsock; it wasn’t there. The air was dense with moist heat; no blasts of wind had swept over the hillside to shake it free. Windows in her house were grayed out; the courtyard’s bright lights, usually lit up at dusk, were off. He swallowed hard, then trudged down his bumpy footpath to the road and Heaven’s place, his hand carved cane aiding his decent.

It was slow going, half because Jasper didn’t want o feel he had to hurry for anything and half because he didn’t want to tumble into the soon-to-be twilit road. As he inched his way down, then crossed the road he noted the car was a Porsche and had an urge to lick a tire. He walked around to the courtyard fence. There was the pretty windsock, crumpled on the ground. He couldn’t quite reach the hook from which it had hung so stuffed it into his pocket.

“Jasper,”  Heaven whispered at him, more a hiss than his name.

“Yeah,” he whispered back but couldn’t find where she was.

“The window.”

Jasper moved three feet to his left, saw her face behind a screen. He felt a little embarrassed to be right at her private rooms and backed up.

“Don’t go. I need a little help.”

“Yeah?”

“There’s a man, a guy who came hoping to talk to his dead wife…I don’t do that kind of junk….but he’s drunk. I can’t get him off my rocking chair in the courtyard. I need to call a cop or a cab or something but earlier my phone was at the edge of the pillow on the chair–it has to be right under him. I stood on the garden bench just barely yanked off the windsock hoping you’d see. Well, that you’d understand. Which, of course, you did.”

Jasper studied her imploring eyes through a scrim of falling darkness. Those eyes were two beautiful magnets; he couldn’t stop himself from staring.

“Jasper!” She pressed her nose and lips against the screen, face flattened comically. “Can you come in and help me with him or just call a cab? Or the police?”

Jasper started, nodded, then hobbled around to the front of the house, past the glinting chimes, up to her door. Walked right in. He knew to turn left to find the courtyard and passed though part of the living room and a big kitchen first. Heaven met up with him. The man was sopping blitzed, slumped over in the rocking chair, reeking of something expensive. Jasper raised an unruly white eyebrow and pointed to his cast. Poor guy, hurting and stinking; he knew about wives dying too early. Needing to hear a word from them. But he just talked to his own Jane as before. That felt like something but she had a strong personality even after death.

Jasper did the easy thing, used his cell phone and called a cab, then waited at the door as Heaven sat in the courtyard keeping tabs on the guy. When he roused some from his stupor, he yelled at Heaven.

“Liar! Imposss-ter!”

“Okay, that’s right, you gave me nothing but a headache so we’re all good,” she reassured him as Jasper came forward.

“Thaz right, mista, real fake! Don’t give cash, I’ll tell who you are, lady! Or hey man, you part of this scheme…?”

Jasper reached to steady him with his good arm as well as his cast-hindered arm so the drunk wouldn’t come crashing down on the rocker. Or, worse, his bum leg. The man swung at him with sudden vigor and just as fast Jasper lifted his cane, whacked him good on a meaty but weakened fist. He yowled and stumbled back as the cab driver stuck his head into the front door and yelled out.

“Okay here or need a hand?”

“Hey Billy K! We’re all good, come get the fool!” Jasper yelled back.

Billy K, a big man but an affable one, had little trouble encouraging his new customer to take a break, sleep it off in the hotel, get his car the next day.

“He came all the way from Georgia…” Heaven stood there in a floaty turquoise dress, her big bare feet planted firmly and a calm look on her face.

As the cab disappeared in a swatch of darkness, he and Heaven stood in the middle of the empty road as if waiting for something, he didn’t know what.

“He was just perturbed, poor guy… That about it, then? You okay?” he said.

She smiled at him. There was a warm gleam, as ever, to her weirdly colored eyes. She took his good arm and the cane, steered him to her house. She smelled like lilies of the valley that grew back of his house and her hand was strong.

“Let’s have some good tea with a couple slices of mixed berry pie.”

He hadn’t seen an invite coming so was surprised. Nothing too crazy had happened yet. He went along as she guided him down softly lit steps and onto her walkway.

“How’d you know I’d see the windsock was gone and wonder about things?”

“I’ve got my eye on you, Jasper Dye.” She squeezed his arm and it wasn’t unpleasant.

“Is that right?”

“I see you walking about, see your cigarettes lit and smoke rising in the sunlight. You spend a lot of time with your good thoughts. And I know you watch me, too.”

“I do, that’s so,” he said and it was frankly strange that it didn’t bother him a bit to admit it. He crossed her threshold for the second time in one night out of those many years since Heaven Steele came to live in Marionville. He’d never felt he’d wanted or needed to. He supposed since he’d helped her out it was like being a real guest. Maybe, he suspected, even a friend.

 

(Note: This story about Heaven and Jasper is one of a series about various residents of the fictitious northern Michigan town of Marionville. First posted in 2013, this one has been revised for today’s offering. I’m in process of editing/rewriting the stories for possible submission for publication so may continue to share a few here. Feedback is welcome!)