Any inspiring, diverting or engaging words evaporate under intense distress following my country’s election results. I can barely offer this much tonight. I feel weary, confounded. Not yet utterly discouraged or disheartened. One does not abandon hope for one’s countrymen and countrywomen. Nor one’s belief in betterment of the future despite obstacles. In my homeland. My place of living and being, creating and caring, making do and making bridges, reaching for greater good.
Today I shed tears upon awakening. I walked a very long time–it is sometimes the only and even best thing I can accomplish.
I offer these two photos…. because of the beauty and the meaning found today. This is a bed and breakfast, a Greek Revival mansion built in 1911. It captures my imagination in various ways. It’s called Portland’s White House, oddly, perhaps. I have photographed this place for years, in every season from many angles, and have used it once or twice for a post on architecture and a short story.
But today seeing the United States flag hanging so quietly between pillars stopped me on the corner as it never has before.
I believe the flag flown is a rendition of a Betsy Ross flag; she made the original American flag in 1776. I wonder what she would think of all this tonight, she and George Washington and the rest.
Another day, my WordPress friends, another day. I have (we have) much to think on. But we must go on, must we not…? Don’t we have to brave our lives’ and our country’s storms, seek clarity through arduous times and beyond? Yes. In the struggles, we still can maintain comittment to an ongoing mindfulness that melds us to higher principles–and far better actions. We are many and we have to keep at it. I will not be undone, will hold fast to far greater than what can be seen.
The problem is, he is insistent on using a map. They have a GPS but no, it’s his new map that’s consulted. The Macklebees have been cruising along the interstate when Gerry spots a thready side road in the crease of the brightly colored tri-fold map.
“No, not that way. Not this time! We have three hours to get to the birthday party and that’s that.”
Lucille is very certain of herself and her driving. Gerry finds her behind-the-wheel style plodding. Unimaginative. She has been a principal driver for the bakery delivery van for years and before that she picked up and dropped off clothing for her alterations business. Door to door; it is almost a talent. She is an exacting driver who knows just how to get places. Gerry wonders why she takes such pride in this, but it is true Lucille possesses a mind that becomes etched with relevant details and thus, she gets product or person to places on time because she doesn’t deviate.
Gerry, on the other hand, prefers otherwise and protests, even argues his point.
“We’re on the road. We haven’t had a trip since last fall. It’s all work, work, work–all well and good, but now it’s time to play. Let’s take a new road at exit 41.”
She makes her little humming noise, a cross between a grunt and a dismissive sigh. It is mid-morning. They are to arrive at their daughter’s and son-in-law’s by mid-afternoon. They always stop (the three other times they have visited the new place) for lunch at a cheery, cheap cafe situated just between breakfast and Anne’s place. Lucille looks forward to the route, an easy drive to the townhouse where Anne and Toby and their son, Edsel–the first grandchild, two today!–now reside at the edge of the capital city.
“I just want to get there. After a good lunch at Clare’s Classic Cafe. We can meander our way back on Sunday. There will be time then.”
“There’s time now, and the sun’s shining away and the corn will be growing vigorously in the country. Turn at the next exit, please, honey.” He reaches across the back of the seat and twice squeezes her plump shoulder, as if a loving signal she ought to obey.
She squints at the sign: six miles to the exit where there is also a rest stop. She might reconsider for the rest stop but then he will argue that they should continue down his vitally important side road. If he had flown planes or run trains for a living, the passengers would have ended up in unwanted, surprising, perhaps shocking, destinations. Luckily, he’s a reluctant businessman who discovered he had a knack for baking. And married her to keep all the slippery organizational data straight. The complementary set they make works well, like salt and pepper.
She presses the gas pedal and switches lanes in one swift move, as if their compact Ford is a dominant force on the road, then looks at her husband. “I think Toby is doing very well now. Anne didn’t say, but she did mention they bought a new–oh, what do they call it? A dial-your-own-firmness sort of mattress. And a new leather couch. So he must have.”
“Or she got a raise. She’s a good French teacher.” He smiles at the thought of her early French as a teen. “Toby’s just a hard guy to know. Sells car parts, likes rugby. And reads John LeCarre–in agreement with that interest.”
Gerry is holding the map closer to his nose. He recently got bifocals and it’s still a guessing game more often than not. He recalls seeing another side road, a county road that seemed to curl around hills, right into wine country. Maybe that would be more fun.
“Foreign car parts, not domestic. Makes a big difference.”
“I suppose so. You know, we might skip Clare’s Cafe and take our chances on roadside stands. If we follow this way.” His finger creeps along the tiny black line from exit 41 to nowhere in particular. He knows they might end up being late but it’s not as if they’re taking a meeting with the Pope. Anne will hardly notice.
“I think she is happier since the baby, don’t you?” She is certainly happier with a grandbaby.
“Hmmm, yes, and he seems happier. He wants a bushel of babies. I’m not sure Anne was consulted on that. She wants to live in France for a couple of years.”
“Oh, time for that.”
Gerry takes his eye off the map a moment to register the last few out-stations of suburban sprawl flashing by. Ping pong pow, hethinks irrelevantly as sunshine flashes off windows. He wishes they had a week off, not just two days. He feels an urge to get out and walk across the entire country. He often has this unruly impulse. It’s a childhood dream of his, given fresh impetus whenever they leave the city. It feels so close inside their house and bakery and also this dull grey car interior, even with windows cracked. He’d rather be in full control of his feet, pointing them elsewhere. Seeing more color. Anne understands, or did.
“If he wants her happy, Paris should figure into his big picture,” he mumbles.
When she was still a teen he’d told her he’d take her when she grew up. Then she grew up and went, anyway, and then got married. Gerry thinks Lucille is rather too optimistic about their son-in-law, though. He isn’t exotic, that’s for sure. Gerry also thinks they just need to focus on the pretty drive, not the family they will visit with for two days. Riding in the car always seeems to bring up subjects better left behind.
Lucille waves away his words, then grips the steering wheel with renewed surety. Soon she will hug Edsel long and hard. She will just continue on. Exit 41 will come and go; he may not even notice with his nose in the crisp map. Gerry and his maps of everywhere, something she’s never understood. If not going there, why trace the routes?
The map is opened up. He loves to look at the entirety of Oregon, its topography highlighted in a select spectrum of soft colors, lighter to darker. The greens draw him in, just as actual forests do. On the map they’re series of irregular puzzle pieces. Inviting yet mysterious. They make populated areas notable for their comparative scarcity. This is a land shaped and regulated by trees. Owned by nature.
“It’s like a portrait, really, a rendering of places and experiences. History made. A record of dreams and daring. The earth.”
“What?” It’s map talk but it is habit to ask. Her dreamy husband.
“This updated map. I’d like to dive right in and find out more of what’s going on.”
“Gerry, here we are on the road, which is a squiggle on the paper map. You are actually having your experience right now.”
He almost disagrees but says nothing. She is thinking of one thing; he, another. He typically wants more.
“The exit, there, coming up!” He points.
“I’d rather keep going, stick to schedule.”
“I need the rest stop, anyway, don’t you?”
She taps the steering wheel with her short index fingernail. “Yes.”
Once she parks and they get out they both stretch. Travelling makes her cramp up. She lumbers to the ladies’, he strides with looser limbs to the men’s. Afterwards, he enjoys a small cup of coffee after donating a dollar to the jar, tipping his baseball cap at volunteers from a service club. He likes the fact that they take time to serve mediocre coffee and cookies, welcoming everyone; it seems the best of being on the road in America. Gerry imagines they sit at rest stops all over the country, chatting and sharing treats. He’d like to find out if coffee is better in Georgia or Maine.
“You’ll just have to go again after drinking more,” she notes sharply as they start back to the Ford.
But she is not looking where she’s walking, and before Gerry can warn her, a small runaway dog dragging its leash crosses her path. It yelps as her foot entangles with the leash, giving the dog and her a yank.
Lucille knees start to buckle as her foot turns over but she grabs a trash receptacle.
And she half-straightens up. “Gerry?” Her round face is stormy with distress as she reaches to him, standing on the good foot. “My ankle!”
There is a flurry of activity as a couple of strangers check to see if she is okay and Gerry helps her to a bench, the anxious dog owner following. They examine it but find nothing remarkable; she can turn it without significant pain. There are effusive apologies amid Lucille’s stern advice, the dog given a very bad look. It backs away, panting. After a few minutes all seems better and they start back arm-in-arm.
“I’d better drive.”
“I think I’ll be fine, just a bit sore.” She turns back to glare at the offenders, now vanished. “Of all things!”
“It’s your brake and gas pedal foot.” Gerry takes the keys and helps her into the passenger seat.
Lucille grabs map and tosses it into the back seat. Dogs! Irresponsible pet owners! She is annoyed with the whole situation although she consoles herself with the fact of a sprained ankle being far better than a broken one. And it may not be sprained, only stressed. She hopes she can play with Edsel without impediment. That she can still help Anne while Gerry and Toby get to know one another better as they admire the updated patio and grill.
But there is nothing she can do about Gerry driving. No telling where they will end up. She thinks he looks a tad smug behind the wheel. If only he have any urges to stop, doesn’t take unnecessary chances on the unknown road.
She tells him so: “Just get us there soon, in one piece.”
“What sort of chances can you take with a six-year-old car on a lonely back road?” A smile skips across his narrow face.
Gerry’s chest prickles with excitement as he backs out, then soon enters the country. The road is eighteen miles long. A detour, sure, but it will reconnect to the highway. If that is what he decides to do.
His wife rubs her forehead with both sets of fingers. He lapses into happy silence though Lucille comments on the rough ride, barns in need of repair, farmers toiling in the summer heat. There are few other vehicles after a battered truck trundles down a private road with its load of crates and huge bags of , perhaps, fertilizer. He wonders what are in those crates.
“Don’t take the curves so fast. There might be pheasants or snakes or a stray cow, one never knows.”
Her hand often checks the tender ankle as she sips from a water bottle. Removes her slip-on sneakers and repositions her bulk. Her eyelids falter, then fall.
Gerry feels the release that comes with this quasi-solitude. The rows and rows of corn look triumphant. Wide front porches of farmhouses are dressed up with hanging flower baskets, painted chairs. Cats dash into driveways, chasing birds or mice or dust whorls and a few dogs chase him as he slows for a better look at barns and sheds, the yards, the men on the tractors who wave back. He has the windows open and the air is overwhelmingly sweet in that wilder way he misses smelling at home. Everything is brighter, clearer out here. The grasses dance in a rifling of wind. The treetops net light so that an entire line of them–are they only ash or cottonwood?–are pulsating against a sapphire backdrop. And then the rolling vineyards–stately, precisely designed, flourishing as intended, soon to be transformed into drink. What beautiful sorts of grapes ripen, ready themselves for offering delights?
This is what he waits for, a curvy country road on a summer’s afternoon. Oh, he loves his daughter and maybe her husband a bit. Of course, that Edsel boy! And Lucille, his right hand, his trusted partner in good and bad times. But to be free like a leaf tossed into a rippling river, that is what his soul craves, he would welcome the bumps and being submerged, the turning this way and that, the wondrous shock of fresh air above the surface. The heart-shaking thrill of tumbling over an unseen cliff and landing somewhere new again. To feel the stunning energy of life being lived up close, at full speed.
How can he live such a stationary life? Why was he born with such a terrible urge to roam? But he does not go and do. He has a business and a family and he does the right thing. But there are times he studies the collection of old maps in his home office, smooths the frayed world map on his wall, spins the globe the family got him for his fiftieth and stops it with eyes closed. Where will he go now? Mongolia! Patagonia! He wants to pack a light bag and head out.
The car carries them down the road, Lucille dozing, Gerry driving a little faster now, the breeze catching his cap so he takes it off to let the last of greying wisps rise like little flags. He sees horses ambling from one good feed spot to another, heads nodding, their elegant bodies without conceit. Everything here is only as it seems. A purity of animate and inanimate. Gerry drinks deeply of this peace. His sport shirt collar and sleeves flap. He stares at sheep grazing and black and white cows lounging in cool greenness. A bumble bee zooms in, buzzes about and then exits past Lucille’s lovely double chin. She turns her face to him. Gerry chuckles. He has mapped out this time and he is free of cares.
And then the car lurches and sways as a tire hits a pothole. He slows down, rolls to a stop near a fruit stand. Lucille has bolted awake but softness clings to her, the part that often hides when she’s awake. Her blue eyes are tender.
“What’s going on?”
“Fruit stop.” He gestures to the stand which is manned by a boy of perhaps nine along with a big, old dog with a long snout.
“Oh, my, look at that beautiful line up.” Her eyes dance, perhaps now grasping his devious plan.
She eases out the door and finds her ankle fit enough. After he inspects the tire and finds it intact, they take their time looking over a surfeit of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries. They inhale the scent of heavy cantaloupes, burgundy plums and ruby nectarines. He chooses a warm blackberry and pops it into his mouth, savoring its succulence, then places one into Lucille’s. They buy and snack more on the fruits of summer than planned. The boy carefully counts his cash and wishes them a good trip, his dog’s tail wagging in accord.
But they hesitate, lean against the door and listen to crows confer on the fence and follow a red-tailed hawk as it sails high, then low. A heron makes its way from meadow to sky. They try to identify a songbird’s mellifluous call, practicing the notes. They each eat a nectarine, juice dripping down chins. Sweat runs its path between her pendulum breasts, down his broad back.
Lucille takes his face between her hands and plants a kiss on his unsuspecting cheek. Her sticky lips fall just right onto his sun-warmed skin. He returns it, smack dab on her lips. The shimmering, endless road beckons them a little but neither mentions time or destination. No one suggests the highway. They’re right here and they don’t need to say one word.
Nels didn’t like the neighborhood. He thought it was too quiet, so tidy that he wanted to drop his gum wrappings on the sidewalk, maybe a wad of gum, too. The dogs were all well-behaved, not a snarl out of any of them as he passed. It wasn’t Chicago, he kept hearing from his dad, who grinned whenever he said it. Nels felt gypped. He had heard it was a cool city they were moving to, smaller but still with plenty of stuff going on. Portland was supposed to be bursting with music and art, tech nuts, young hippies and old hippies, skateboarders and cyclists, a famous bookstore. Mountain ranges soaring nearby. Two rivers (one that dumped right into the ocean, not too far away) with ten bridges.
Four were draw bridges, he’d read. He was fascinated with bridges so had planned on making his dad drive over every one of them in the first month. Nels was half-scared of being stalled high up over water, and when he thought about earthquake potential, it really made him crazy to consider being stuck on there. They had crossed two so far. He planned to document them in his notebook: “Bridges Surveyed and Survived”.
Presently his topic of research was farmer’s markets. He’d never been to a genuine market, not a large one with food grown in nearby farms. It was early fall so there would be pumpkins and weird mushrooms to check out. The possibility of tasting goat cheese, fresh smoked salmon and homemade Marionberry jam thrilled him. There was a market downtown, even with certified organic food (a concept that puzzled but interested him), which likely meant there were bugs on it and more.
Fifth grade had begun and all he could say was this school one was as boring as every other school he’d been to, all three of them. The last one was a Quaker private school (thanks to his aunt, who taught there), not one Nels would have chosen even if he did like the subjects better. He was relieved to be back in public school. But he daydreamed about his mother and his oldest best friend, neither of whom would likely visit him here too often.
Friends weren’t that easy to come by. He was just too new. His dad suggested he head out on his bike, see what he could see. He felt silly riding around the same area over and over, looking cool, unimpressed with the scenery which he found exotic. Often there were a couple of teen-agers playing basketball in the street at a portable hoop. But they ignored him. He saw a kid, maybe seven or so, with a crown on and she waved like a beauty queen from her porch. She looked more like a dirty fairy princess, wings and all. Nels rode by without a nod.
But there was something interesting that got his attention one Saturday morning. It was a bungalow with peeling white paint on a corner two blocks away. The drapes were half-open but the rooms looked dark. The yard was teeming with flowers. He slowed down. He’d seen roses, of course, but not growing like they were wild in every yard. In late August and September. There was tons of lavender–he’d seen it in a gift shop by the North Shore–with bees buzzing about. He laid his bike down on the outer grass and peeked into the back yard. There was a small play house, and red, yellow and blue chairs about a table. The little red house looked rusty, as if it needed fresh paint, too.
He heard the back door open and stepped back. A large orange cat leapt out, then zig-zagged across the yard, batting at something defenseless with wings. The play house looked abandoned. He didn’t see any signs of life, not even a dirty old tennis ball or a crunched pop can. Just looking at the yard made him want to be back in Chicago where you could rub shoulders with masses of neighbors. His current back yard was spacious and fenced and emptier than this one.
“Hey! What’re you gawking at?”
Nels head jerked up and he saw a girl balancing on a skateboard, watching him. Hands were on hips and her head was cocked to one side. She had shoulders that looked like they could level him in one mad rush.
“Nothing.” He got back onto his bike. “Just saw the playhouse as I rode by.”
“Yeah, now you saw that, what else?”
She picked up the skateboard and walked over to him. He felt she was one of those fictional Amazons as he sat on his bike curbside. She seemed to know this and lorded it over him, chin up, looking down her significant nose at him. She couldn’t be much older than he was even though she acted like it. Her eyes glinted in the sunshine, brown with golden slivers.
Nels shrugged and stared down the street. “Like your board. Want to ride around with me?”
She put her skateboard on the pavement and pushed off. He jumped onto his bike and caught up with her, then passed her, but she grabbed his fender and held on, getting a free ride.
“Why do you have a playhouse? Do you really still…play house?” he shouted at her and pedaled harder, his breath a little labored. She was not a light-weight.
“My dad built it when I was three,” she called out. “Now it’s a kind of clubhouse.”
“What?” He slowed for a stop sign and turned around. She drifted up next to him.
“CLUB HOUSE.” She enunciated as if he was hard of hearing. “For me to do stuff undisturbed. And maybe a friend or two.”
“How do you get in? On your hands and knees?”
She punched him on the shoulder and skated off, gaining speed with each push forward, then jumped a curb and landed without a wobble.
“Maybe a secret password, too?” he shouted after her.
“Hey, better watch out for Flora! She’s like a wild beast!” The basketball guys laughed as they rode by on their expensive bikes.
Flora. Flora the flying wildcat, he thought, and liked the sound of it. He headed back home.
The next two weeks it mostly rained. Nels had never seen it rain that way, on and off, on and off every day. Hard as pebbles, then soft as feathers against his window. He came home and thought of the bright cold air of Chicago, leaves going orange-gold, fire red. He thought of his friend Holden and the park that was a second home, the basketball court, a fountain in the shape of a lighthouse (with a light at top when it worked) near the swings and the patchy grass and weeds getting out of hand. When Nels looked down the street from his bedroom window now he saw bright bunches of flowers, perky despite the downpours. It looked like a wanna-be jungle down there. Lawns were so green they nearly glowed, as if drawn with florescent markers. Bushes were pruned into mini-sculptures. Trees he couldn’t identify yet elbowed more trees. Back home….(“This is home, now”, his dad reminded him at least once a week)….the lawns were skinny and you could tell what the neighbors were having for dinner and who was mad and if it wasn’t always the safest where they lived it was definitely lively.
One evening as he finished his English assignment–write a three-page report on your favorite author (he chose Tolkien to impress his teacher but he had actually read two books)–rain drops tumbled off rooftops. Then stopped for more then fifteen minutes. He opened his window and sniffed the air. Slightly cooler, earthy, fresh and breezey. The neighborhood shimmered under the street lamp. The block was calm, as usual. He grabbed his jacket and ran downstairs.
His dad looked up from the Irish mystery series he was watching, his phone lit up in his hand. Multi-tasking.
“Going for a short walk, okay?”
“It’s almost eight, be back in half an hour.”
Nels power-walked across the street, arms swinging. His breath emitted little clouds, or he wished they were clouds but really they were just damp puffs, nothing to indicate autumn temperatures. It was a few notches above balmy, in fact, and he began to sweat. By the time he reached the girl’s house, he had taken off his jacket and tied it around his waist as he jogged. He came to a full skid stop by Flora’s back yard.
A light appeared inside the play house. Rather, there was a wavering brightness leaking through small windows and a half-open Dutch door. Nels slinked into the yard, tried to see if she was there. All he made out was a fat round yellow candle.
“Who goes there?” A voice like Flora’s but deeper. “Show they ugly face.”
So she was the dramatic type. Nels sneaked up to the door and crouched, ready to scare her. Flora popped her head out the upper half of the door and looked around.
“Come on out. I can smell you,” she stated flatly.”Sweat mixed with cinnamon rolls.”
He stood up, avoiding her grasp. “Everyone sweats. Cinnamon bundt cake, vanilla ice cream. We bake sometimes.”
He thought she meant pieces of cake, as if he would bring her any.
Then Flora opened the half-door a couple of inches. “You alone, no dogs or other bad influences? Gilligan is with me.”
“Yeah, that’s right, like the old show Gilligan’s Island. My cat.”
She pulled Nels in and shut the door. He ducked down a few inches. He could see the tabby curled up in a corner, the cat that had sprung out of the back door. Flora bent over, too, as she made her way to a large plaid pillow on the floor, then pointed to the other one across from hers.
He sat clumsily after she did. She stroked Gilligan until he settled and purred, then glanced at Nels as if to check that he was behaving, as well.
The candle sputtered in the waxy pool. Flora poured some of it into the palm of her hand. She jerked her head at the candle and he followed suit, a warm carmelly drip stinging, then smoothing over his palm. They waited for it to cool, then crack. The flame on the candle steadied and illuminated the walls.
He saw her eyes turn more golden and imagined her a mountain lion come down from the mountains he had yet to explore. They were piercing and darted about. He wondered if she had long pointy nails, decided she didn’t, but would check later to be sure.
She thought he looked tired and parched, like a creature who finally made it to paradise after being lost in some terrible place. He knew all this was not a mirage but he still seemed very unsure. He had a baseball cap on and his grey-blue eyes reminded her of water trapped under ice.
“Where you from, Nels?”
“Chicago, home of the White Sox.” He tipped his cap. “How do you know my name, Flora?”
“Word just gets around, right? Wow, the Great Lakes. And a huge, freezing, windy city.” Flora shivered violently. “I’d like to have more snow. We get black ice, mostly. Except on the mountain. Mt. Hood, that is. You ski?”
He shrugged, stared at the flame as it danced, then rested, danced, rested. He felt the urge to say things. “Yeah, I can ski. And snowboard. And swim and ride in marathons with my dad. We came to this bizarre rainforest because my dad got a great job. Had to move…My mother, she lives in a townhouse and does web design. They divorced three years ago but I like living with my dad better.”
He shot Flora an angry look. Her mouth, which was hanging open, closed.
“I was way happier in Chicago.”
“Of course. You’re from the Midwest. You have culture shock, or so my mother would say. She has MS, and writes sci fi books and has nearly white hair even though she’s just thirty-eight. A genetic thing. I’ll probably get it before then–I saw a white hair the other day, swear it.” She patted Gilligan. “My dad left when I was four so I don’t miss him. You’ll get used to your mom being gone. Eventually.”
Nels let loose a sigh; he didn’t realize he had been holding his breath in after he’d let out so many words. He half-smiled at Flora, more out of relief to have air them. No one else knew those things here.
She didn’t smile back but held up a squashy little ball of wax. She pulled it apart and gave half to him. They picked at their pieces and dropped bits of wax back into the candle’s well and watched the flame, blinking and yawning. It reminded Nels of a cobra, the way it moved.
Nels leaned against the wall and got so sleepy he felt like he could sit back and snooze until morning. He noticed Flora was tired out, too, with Gilligan curled up on her lap. The candle flickered and threw monster shadows on the walls. Their shadows. He got up.
“I need to leave. You go to the same school right, right? I don’t feel like being caught in a play house…Is it the only place you’ve got?”
She frowned and studied Gilligan as he stretched. “I have an oak tree that beats the rest. There’s a good park a few blocks away. I like it here. We could sit outside at the table. I was going to say you could come back and visit here, but oh, well. You’d have to donate a candle, anyway. I like to light them as it gets colder.”
She caught Gilligan’s tail as he hopped off, then let it run through her fingers. Her nails were short.
Nels went outside but poked his head through the half-door. “You mean, for heat?” He snickered. “When you’re forced to put on fleece and wear real shoes?”
She flashed a toothy smile. “I wear sandals most of the year.With leggings or tights. You probably brought snow boots but forgot a water-repellant jacket. You might drown with all that weight on your feet.”
Nels laughed and waved. He crossed the yard and stopped to examine the rain jewels on roses, then looked back as the little house went dark. He didn’t wait to see Flora emerge. He took off down the street, Gilligan running after him then making a U-turn, off on a hunt. He thought about the market he and his dad were checking out on Saturday. Portland was possibly going to be a decent place. Eventually.