Pastime (a Freshly Pressed Post)

I know, this is my fiction posting day but I’m starting out with real life stuff. The made up story comes after. The situation is this: maybe it’s the weather changing, how glossy sunshine has begun to fade and darkness, struck with a light chill, falls earlier. Or perhaps it’s my age that more adamantly rouses the chameleon nature of mysterious nighttime. It might be a few squiggles and knots in my life that can poke holes in my resolve to wake the heck up and get productive right now. Or all this and more puzzling unknowns.

But this afternoon I am floating on last gasps of a very small sleep.It’s a hazard of living a life. The fine tuning required to create even a small yet decent story I’d want to share with you is not operant yet so I hold back. I ruminated and started and stopped.

Then I decided to do something I’ve never done before: re-post a story from 3 years ago, August 2013. Well, I’ve been thinking of pictures,  still or moving, and photographers, having corresponded with two fine ones recently. And I recalled my short story that was “Freshly Pressed” in 2013 entitled “Pastime”, about a photographer meeting up with blithe campers. What a happy moment it was– to be Freshly Pressed, and how surprised I was to see many readers stop by! I hadn’t the higher numbers of followers back then.

Today I re-read “Pastime” and thought: this is my post for today. Make that “reblog.” It’s a summery tale–do I admit to missing the season of heat and kaleidoscopic colors already?–and a little fun as well as very short for me (I often write 2000-4000 word stories, even on WordPress). All good for now.

So forgive my temporary laziness; I’ll be back soon with current, maybe even snappy, writing. First I need to get a genuine full cycle snooze in. Then I have to face a root canal tomorrow. I sure hope this story will suffice. I had fun writing it for your enjoyment back then and, it turns out, now as well.

Just click on the link below to see the rest; this one reads fast. Have yourselves a good-to-better Monday –I’ll work on mine.

Tales for Life

1950s-vintage-color-photo-man-with-bellows-camera-and-flash-outdoors-with-woman-in-apron

You would not believe the shock I felt when I passed by the gallery that winter during my lunch hour. I recognized his name right off. I pushed the door open and took it all in, wondering if it was true.

When we first met Sully was camping next to us, his tent sagging in the middle, his kerosene lamp throwing off a weak light. He was rooting around for something, I couldn’t tell what since he was half-in and half-out of his tent. Maybe that’s why it was about to cave in.

I walked over, licking my fingers clean after enjoying BBQ chicken legs I’d made for me and my two boys. He stuck his head out and looked at me, then the tent collapsed. I stood with hands on hips and watched it fall in on him, nothing more to do but see if he could put it back up right. I found it funny…

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A New Visage for Neal

 

So this is it, I’m done for, Neal thought as he watered the bigger than expected, menacing cactus on his balcony.

It rarely wanted watering from what he could tell. It grew as if infused with super growth hormone. Long spiny leaves reached to pierce his legs if he didn’t take extra care moving around them. It occurred to him it could be a guard cactus.  He’d place it at his door to discourage marauders and thieves. He paused to survey its prickliness, one eyebrow raised. It could use a shaping up and perhaps an accessory like a bow on the terra-cotta planter. Or a discreet sign: BEWARE. Why couldn’t it just blend in with all the other friendly plants and flowers he nurtured?

Neal wasn’t sure why he bothered with it, but it was a gift from his niece. The one who seldom showed up on time for family gatherings, then always had some ill-considered remark about his work or meal offerings or the choice of music played for dinner’s pleasure. Cara the Critic. Well, she was still young, what did she know? She’d gloat over this new development in his life, despite the fact that she lacked a true artistic bone in her flamboyant street performer body. If she couldn’t sing he might be tempted to dismiss her at times but the fact was, she made a lot more than spare change as a busker.

And she was beloved family, face it, his ill sister’s only child. Isabel’s. Izzy to only Neal. He had two younger nephews but Cara was his only niece. And she got him better than some, to be honest.

But the news was: they wouldn’t be taking his fine photographs, anymore, after August. There were now deemed archaic, out of step with societal mores and/or themes, lacked a passionate edginess. Neal wanted to march down to Carven and Carven Photographic Arts to demand more information of Renee. But it was money, after all, everything was. Nothing she might say to cushion the fact that they needed a wider profit margin could soften the blow. Why should Neal feel betrayed when it was business? She and Harry, her brother, had to do what they had to do despite having shown his work for four and a half years with success. And it wasn’t the only gallery, just the largest and most respected in the state. There were four more plus gift shops where his photos did so-so. Lately not all that well, it was true.

He sat down on a creaky wicker chair and put his head in his hands, wishing to fall sleep and not wake up for a few years.

“You have to be relevant, Uncle Nealio,” Cara said. She’d dropped by a couple of days later to return an Eartha Kitt CD she’d borrowed. “I’ve been telling you that a long time.”

“Don’t keep calling me that.” He plopped down her iced tea with extra sweetener and opened his sparkling water. To his surprise and her credit, she hadn’t sneered nor laughed. “Relevancy is a matter of taste or intellectual inclination so often, don’t you think? I mean, look at you. Who decided this was relevant today?”

She looked down at her long orange skirt paired with a loose green tank top bearing gold spangles. Held up her hands. “It’s eye-catching, right?  People see the bright flash out of the corner of their eyes about when they hear my voice and bam! See, that’s what you need–something that grabs attention in moment by moment living! Maybe you should come down and take pictures of the streets. That sells well, I’m sure. We’re unique, a city where trends are started, nutty ideas make good, people can be whoever they want to be. Yeah, here’s to our town!” She gulped the tea as if dying of thirst.

“You know how it is with Carven and Carven–their very reputation gets my work sold! Without them I may as well hang it up, think about doing greeting cards.”

“Well, that wouldn’t be so bad, either. But you can’t just take pictures of historic buildings. Well, wait, you do have prints in two museum gift shops so you could add a series of cards…but it still won’t make for a very decent living.”

Neal stifled a snicker. Cara shared a tiny loft above Pioneer Square, the heart of downtown among historic edifices galore. What would she know about more than just getting by? On the other hand, maybe something since she was paying sky high rent for a killer location. Well, he had his own worries, lots of real bills, the sort that weighted his mail box every day. They’d seemed to increase twofold since he was given the boot by C and C.

“I like architecture. It’s my love, my fascination. Do you have any idea how many incredible buildings Portland has? I will never run out of subject matter.”

“Sure, but maybe you already have if no one wants to buy the photographs. How many people want to hang a portrait of a nineteenth century mansion or business building on the wall of their house? They want color, they want unique, they want relevancy.”

“Good grief, you should be doing marketing for the gallery, Cara–where is this zeal coming from?”

She shrugged her narrow shoulders. “I had a triple shot of espresso this morning. But you cannot ignore the fact that at twenty, I likely have some insight into what’s hot and sells.”

He snorted. “A minute subset of buyers. Not the collecting sort or business people who want to add the right touch of class.”

“Alrighty then, Uncle Nealio. I have got to run. Do you have a travel cup? Good tea this time, what did you do different?”

“Nothing and yes, on the kitchen counter–if you bring it back.”

“Of course!”

He watched her as she flitted about singing, her textured alto voice rearranging the air in the rooms. He noticed she had a new tattoo on her forearm, a dragon of sorts, right next to a moon surrounded by stars. Innovation, he thought, she’s good at that but sooner or later even that goes stale, right?

She opened the front door. “Think about it. You should try my demographic. Lots of action down there. Just don’t get too close to me, we don’t have to be that friendly when I’m trying to make a living, right?”

“Not likely, but thanks. By the way, why don’t you take back that cactus one of these days? It still doesn’t like my petunias and geraniums much–or me, for that matter.”

“I just checked on it as I came in. It’s doing great, you have a knack! You just need to see it in a friendlier light. Take it for a walk, talk to it. It’ll look less like the enemy.”

“Hey, Cara…how is Izzy doing this week?”

She looked away and for an instant he thought she might tell him how scared she really was. Then she locked her sheer blue gaze on his and held steady. “You know. Lung cancer chemo, round three. She manages, I guess. Call her. I need to see her more… Later.”

******

Neal stood at yard’s edge of one of the mansions Cara had mentioned. There was a drifting swath of fog and fog was good in this opalescent morning light. It was open to the public but few arrived as early as did he, and not when the view of the city was obscured. The ticket seller/taker had barely nodded at first, as if she’d hoped to remain in bed. But when she saw his cameras, her grey head had popped up.

“Oh, taking pictures? That’s a fine camera. Good luck this morning.”

Neal had then introduced himself, pressed a business card into her palm. Shameless. He had to keep selling himself any way he could– and she’d read it aloud, then tucked it in her handbag with a pat. Maybe she’d tell the outfit who ran the place.

It was a formidable stone home, monumental at 16,000 square feet,  imposing in its extravagance for the year 1914 . Built in the French Renaissance château style, it sat on a bluff with a ranging area of 46 acres. Neal had admired it many times over the years; it garnered high regard of thousands of photographers and visitors. But this time he had come to walk and meditate as well as take photographs. The fog embraced him with is damp chill, sunlight permeating spots here and there. He checked the house in his viewfinder, framed and took a few uninspired pictures. Its beautiful monstrosity was softened by voluminous haze. Its impressive solidity, its historical significance enthralled him no matter how often he visited.

Maybe he was too attracted to the past. The places imprinted with it via design and their materials and a lingering of memorable events felt dependable–as the mutable present was not. He felt that way even as a child, perhaps because all he had of his mother were a handful of memories. Photos in a scrapbook. She, too, had had cancer, leaving them when he was six. He thought of Izzy, her frailty and strong will at odds and shuddered. He wondered how many pictures he had taken of her, if they had shown the truth of her life, after all, and if that was all he would have left. Alarm shot through him, a lightning bolt of pain. That he could begin to imagine her gone was too much.

The fog seemed to swallow him the closer he moved toward the mansion, so he stepped away. Looked out over the city as swaths of thickened air began to fray, then dissipate more. It was an expansive sight the original owners had enjoyed each day. Thrilling, even, he was sure, as they sipped coffee or tea from china cups at a table on the veranda. Neal thought of his own vistas: vehicles jockeying with people for space on narrow streets, the colorful garden courtyard of his building, a rectangular and variable view from the skylight above his bed. He sometimes thought of his beckoning skylight as another camera lens where visions morphed throughout seasons. Hours, even. How much easier life appeared through that imagined gateway into the cosmos. A life lived beyond illness and endings, beyond fumbling failure, beyond mercenary means and ends.

As he looked back at toward the humongous house, there was a flash of red on the stone terrace, what seemed a billowing edge of a long dress. He raised his camera and took a shot, then more rapidly as a nebulous figure paused at a pillar, gazing to the east. His position was covert and gave him more time to move through thinning fog, dodging shafts of light striping the green expanse and rows of flowers. Who was she, a volunteer? Another  visitor? Her face was porcelain white, her hair piled up in a bright mass, her body a kin to a fantasy firebird’s that had slipped amid shadows cast by aged oaks.

He had to find her, ask her for more photographs. Neal rushed to the entrance and showed his ticket to the volunteer–Betty, her tag informed–now alert at her station. Walked quickly past a group of college age boys, toward an area of the mansion where the woman should be. Opened the door onto a terrace. Glanced right and left and beyond. Nothing, nothing but tails of fog. He followed the terrace around as far as he could and tried all doors but none opened. Neal was left to himself. Laughter followed him, then came a group of women. He examined their clothing. No pinks or corals or reds, nothing close to the dress the elusive woman wore.

He moved through the rest of the museum house, every room he knew so well after years of enjoyment. A straggling pair here, a lone visitor there. No red  anything. No one with pale hair swept up. He was oddly desperate.

“Betty, can you help me?”

She smiled. “Of course.”

“Have you noticed a tall woman wearing a flowing, floor length red dress–as if on her way to a party? Light hair up in a hairdo like a…I’m not sure what it is.”

“A bun? Chignon?”

“Yes! Have you?”

“No, sorry, no one like that. Sounds lovely. Perhaps, though…a trick of the eye? The fog is a magician, you know.”

He frowned though she still smiled up at him. “No, of course not. Thanks, anyway.”

“Come back soon,” she called to his departing back. “Some say someone from the long ago past turns up during the odd hour here and there; you may see her ghost again.”

“Right,” he said. “Bye.”

After a thorough search of accessible grounds he gave up, he took a final look from the bluff’s edge. The fog was receding early, before noon. The whole of the city opened up before him. He saw trains rumbling to the historically important station and a huge grid of skyscrapers, sunshine gleaming across mirror-like spareness. Snail-slow cars and buses making their way to and fro. The meandering dusky river with newer steel and stone sturctures, even orange or yellow painted buildings rising alongside it. Blue-green mountain foothills to the west undulating like rolling backs of mythic creatures. This city was rich with life. Incandescent.

He suddenly wanted to be down there, too.

******

“Really? You had to take me that literally?”

Cara was between songs and leaning against a building he liked, one constructed in 1912. Neal admired the beveled windows of its front doors as he stepped from the flow of walkers. People were heading to restaurants on lunch hours; she made plenty then. Her worn acoustic guitar was slung over her shoulder; she drank tepid water as indicated by distaste.

“You could get me a cold drink if you want to be helpful, but when I start singing you need to back away more.”

“I’ll donate more than that to your cause if you let me photograph you awhile. You’ll look pretty interesting on film, I think.”

“What? You must be a crackpot, Uncle Nealio. I’m no model and I’m not posing.” Her face was rosy from the gathering heat of the day. Her dark hair stuck up around her head like a spiky halo and hazel eyes glowed nearly green in slanting light. Circles of sparkly gemstones swayed at her cheeks. Not to mention the blue and yellow tie dyed dress she wore and her young skin glowing. She was a vision of individualism, a quirky beauty that had barely tapped into its good genes. And it was wrapped up with signature Portland, its creativity and brash confidence.

“Of course not! Just sing! I realize I’ve never gotten pictures of you doing your art here. You and other street performers. Something you’ve suggested I document, remember? To be more au courant?”

She rolled her eyes, looked away. “Well, fine, just be discreet about it. Somehow. I do not want you blocking foot traffic or distracting my attention…please, Uncle Neal?”

“Fair enough.”

Cara stepped forward, started strumming rich chords so they rang out above din of traffic and loud conversationalists, her forearm’s fierce dragon tattoo swaying. Then her voice joined, rich and throaty, strong and gorgeous. Of course he knew she could sing like this. He had offered once to foot the bill for voice lessons but she’d refused. She sang on occasion with bands but preferred going it alone, she’d said. The creative license she had, leeway with time and place, the money all to herself–well, she was making her own way. Despite her mother’s worries and her father’s embarrassment at her lack of college degree so far. But she was now notably more than good and a natural performer.

So he began to shoot, rapidly, from every angle, as far and near as possible. Her singing but also: strangers tossing money in the guitar case without slowing; the homeless kids circled up with arms propped on each other’s shoulders, their scrawny dogs sniffing and barking. Men in snappy suits and women in fancy high heels who flashed grins and money that counted; the old ones who shuffled up, paused, nodded dreamily and donating a dollar. And Cara’s personality unfurled like a series of bright flags, an far braver person with easy banter and seemingly endless repertoire. Gratitude for every cent and word of praise. She filled up his lenses with magic.

Neal got her two cold drinks and a hearty snack and set all by her feet as she geared up for another set. She was working so hard and even the ones who tried to avoid her were startled by that adamant, far-ranging voice. He’d had no idea it had come to this. He wondered if Izzy had heard her perform here or if she and that brother-in-law of his, Dan, thought it beneath them, beneath her perceived capabilities. If they only knew.

He’d missed so much down here. He had missed it while painstakingly photographing all that glorious architecture yet none of the inhabitants or passersby. He’d cataloged formidable and stodgy and famous and useless buildings. But the actual people who now lived within or around them hadn’t even been given basic acknowledgment.

******

“Yes, this is Neal Harding. Sure, I know who you are, Mr. Tilton–excellent competition for Carven and Carven, for starters.”

The man on the other end tittered quietly. “Well said.” He cleared his throat.”To the point: I saw your small grouping of photographs down at the market last week. The ones of a street singer and company. And an intriguing couple taken, I suspect, at the esteemed Pittock Mansion.”

“Yes, I threw together a few pieces, sold several. But I usually show at–”

“C and C, among several other places. Yes, you are a fairly well known fact. And now you need to come up with a great selection for my Portland Premier Photographers gallery, if you would. I suspect you even deserve an exhibit of your own. And from there who knows what could happen. We’ll strategize.”

“You mean that I…really, a headlining exhibit?”

“Can you handle that sort of demand?” George Tilton laughed in delight.”Of course you can. I would want lots more of street scenes, any others that showcase your interpretation of people, you have such an eye. Less architectural studies but they are so good, a smattering would be fine. Why don’t you come down next week, discuss terms with me, and we’ll sign a contract.”

They chatted a few more moments and hung up. The silence was unbroken save for the screaming throngs cheering him on inside his blindsided brain. Then he turned around and looked himself full in the face in the broad wall mirror, a sight he generally avoided. The receding hairline and scruffy mustache, the hint of a double chin, eyes bleary from restless sleep. But there he was, looking happy again.

“Imagine that,” he said to himself.

Neal walked through the French doors onto the balcony.  He gathered a deep breath and let it go slowly, savoring a lightening of all the anxiety-laden worry. He picked up his phone and called his sister. He looked at the cactus. Flourishing despite his distrust and dislike. It did have its own kind of appeal, he admitted.

“Izzy? Hello, my dear. I’ll swing by this week-end to hang out but I wanted you to be the first to know. I am going to help make your daughter famous. Yes, I’m serious–her visage will soon adorn many nooks and crannies, whole walls, I hope! I’m on my way up again, sis–thanks to her.”

After they caught up and further congratulated each other–she, for having a talented and smart daughter like Cara in the first place; he, for being a can-and-will-do rather than a has-been sort–he went to his bedroom. Removed a heavy vase of yellow lilies from an antique plant stand that he’d painted a deep lacquer red. He set the piece in the little foyer, across from his front door. Neal then put on leather gardening gloves, went to the balcony, picked up the burgeoning, perhaps misunderstood cactus, carried it gingerly across his living room and placed it on the elegant stand. Right where all could note its strange grandeur. Especially that bold and adored Cara who had, it seemed, set in motion many excellent things.

 

(Note: The real Pittock Mansion is in Portland, OR. and the above foggy view is a 2011 photo, one of many I have taken. The 16,000 sq. ft. manse built in 1914 was a progressive construction with a number of innovations including a central vacuum system. single room thermostats and intercoms. Built in 1914 by Henry Pittock, an important businessman and owner of our city newspaper The Oregonian, it is on The National Register of Historic Places. Some people say it may be haunted but I have not felt a ghostly presence there yet.)

 

The Loft

Image form The Fugitive
Image from The Fugitive

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

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

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

“Cal! Hi!”

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

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

“What’s going on, Rutgers?”

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

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

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

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

“Now where you been?”

“Just out of Columbia. Jungle assignment.”

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she’d had other ideas.

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He kept them all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Left for where?”

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

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

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

Cal thanked him and rang off.

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

And now–what did she see and do now?

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

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

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

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

But he’d find her. Or she’d find him.

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

We’re All Tourists

Photo from http://www.oddities.com
Photo from Patricia McNair via http://www.oddities.com

I knew him before all the furor started, when no one thought much of him and never guessed who he’d become. I’m talking about other people. There were things on my mind, like my cousin Arnie in jail and my mom tiptoeing around like she was a mouse. Dad had taken off my junior year and then we lost our bungalow. And then there was Ginny Marston’s smile which looked like it belonged to a movie star, which was good and not good.

But since we lived above the three car garage on Mrs. Tilby’s property, I knew Michael. Mrs. Tilby, his mother and a widow, tended to not talk to us except to ask if we’d please pick up the mail for her at the gate or would we mind getting cough drops when we were going to the store. Little things that she didn’t feel like dealing with or didn’t bother to ask Michael to do. It irked my mom. But she was alright. She rented to us when few others would have.

So I thought of Michael as belonging to the property and maybe his mother. Some called him a mama’s boy, an only child still at home. Kept to himself. He worked three days a week in the family’s law business, fraud investigation. At twenty-nine, he seemed old to me.

I got to know him by accident. I was roaming the field behind their yard, trying to flush out rabbits. Crouching low, inching along. Then I saw pant legs which would have shaken me except I had just trained my eye on one plump, four-legged creature.

“John, right?” he said.

“Shhh!” Then thought to look up.

I saw it was our landlord. A backpack was dropped at his feet. He had the sort of boots I admired, sturdy leather, lace-up ankle boots.

I stood up. “Joel,” I answered, half-offering a hand which he ignored. “I’m just scouting rabbits.” I pointed to a clump of bushes where I had last seen them, now surely gone. “Is that all good with you?”

He shrugged, then stuck out his broad, dry hand.”I’m Michael. I’m sure mother wouldn’t miss a few. Not fond of rabbit stew.”

“I don’t hunt and kill them!” The idea gave me a shiver. “Deer, okay, but not rabbit. I just like being outdoors, watching things.”

“I see. You ever get a deer?”

“Not yet. I only hunt with Arnie, my cousin, and he’s…gone awhile. You?”

“Once. With my dad. Years ago.”

We just stood there, me in my jeans and dirty tennis shoes and stained hoodie. Michael shorter than I thought, bulky in a kind of bush jacket. Those great boots. He looked like he was going on a picnic or birdwatching. I saw he had a camera in hand. Maybe I had interrupted his fancy, urban wildlife picture-taking. But it was his place.

“Should I leave?”

“It’s okay. You live with your mom in the apartment. How’s that working out?”

My turn to shrug but it was more like a shoulder stretch as I stifled a sudden yawn. I wanted to get back to the rabbits, then get home. “Not bad for a two bedroom. Bigger living room than we had before. But weird living above cars. And a Cadillac…truck.” I turned my head at a sound. “Look.”

Two greyish-tan rabbits scattered, hightailing it to better cover.

Michael hoisted his backpack. “Well, we used to rent it to tourists who came for the fishing and all. It’s better having just a family there. But we’re all tourists however we live as I see it.”

He shot me a wry grin. I thought about that a second. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or being deep.

“Yeah, maybe so…”

He gazed toward the horizon. “Well, the light isn’t as good as it was, so I’m headed back. Enjoy the property, don’t make a mess anywhere.”

I watched Michael lumber along, zigzagging through grasses and weeds. He paused and looked up, pointed his camera toward a branch. Maybe it was a certain bird he was after. He snapped a photo and left.

We got used to each other. I’d see him pass in the distance when I roamed the woods. Sometimes we waved at each other as he was coming in from work or elsewhere. I sat on the balcony off the living room if it didn’t rain, watched the road and a pretty birch wood. Finished homework. His silver BMW gleamed in the fading sunlight, then disappeared into its bunker beneath us. I could hear him walk up the winding stone pathway to their gigantic back porch. A faint thud as the back door closed. I liked that he went in back.

Mom often noted Micheal was going to be one rich bachelor when Mrs. Tilby passed. I half-wondered if she wished she’d had a daughter so she could somehow marry her off to him.

“I just think he’d be a nice husband–quiet and smart–and anyone can see they would be secure.”

“Not like us, you mean. Kinda poor. Well, he’s a little young for you, mom.” I was anxious to get over to see Ginny. “And you havent; signed the divorce papers.”

“Joel, you know better…! Anyway. Just wondering what he’s about. I see him with his mother or running errands, strolling the streets. He’s always snapping pictures of this and that.”

“He’s not that happy.”

I don’t know why I said it. But I knew it was true. I’d seen it on his face alot.

“And you know this because…? Special observations from your balcony perch? Some people say–”

“Mom, I’m going to Ginny’s. Call Caroline if you want to gossip.”

I wasn’t interested. But I thought he was probably really bored. How could anyone so obviously enjoy the outdoors and stand being stuck in an office? I was going to be a forest ranger, I hoped.

Their gigantic, sprawling house was at the edge of town. Michael’s grandfather had bought a lot of land to protect and enjoy. I got mad when Ginny said she was sorry we had to live over a garage. I loved the quietness. I felt lucky to have all that land I could walk. I felt even less sure of Ginny when I heard her telling a friend how we had to live above expensive cars and I had not once driven one of them. Yet, she added. There was a breathless edge to her voice that reminded me of Arnie’s. He’d gotten locked up because he liked other people’s cars way too much.

Michael and I sometimes crossed paths on the Tilby acreage. I had gotten to taking a book or my cheap binoculars. I liked to spy on the animals, look into undergrowth or close up to a nurse log. I saw Michael doing the same with high-powered ones–he let me look once–and he always had that camera in hand, too. We might talk or not and usually only a few words. He seemed to crave solitude like I did. I noticed he always wore those boots and jacket with lots of pockets, a uniform, I imagined, for his real life. I pondered his statement about being tourists on earth. It struck me as smart.

One Saturday we both ended up at Skinny Creek that wound through trees. I kept hoping it would run wider and deeper, flush with fish, but no luck.

“You like your job? I don’t think I could do that all day.”

He chuckled. It altered his wide, jowlly face, made it friendlier.”I like having work to do but not so much that kind.” He pointed at a yellow winged bird high above as it flapped away. “You like school?”

“No. But I can get through it. I have to be a forest ranger, definitely.”

“Ah. My grandfather lobbied for preservation of forests all over the state. My dad, less so. He liked three-piece suits a great deal and fine booze, and the rest.”

“Money.” I leaned over the creek bank with a finger and watched a turtle creep down a thick wet branch.

“Yes, indeed.” He squatted. I looked at him. His eyes were deep-set. They flicked to mine, held steady. “Money matters. But not so much as people think. Take me. I have some. But I love photography more than anything. And nature. But I’m expected to stay in the family business. She’s alone now. There are many expectations. So I take photographs as much as I can. And wait.”

“I have those, …expectations, I mean. But wait for what?”

I picked up the turtle and set it down on my knee. I figured he might mean until his mother died or until he got the nerve to leave. It felt a little too personal but at the same time, we were just tossing out thoughts. It seemed natural out there.

Michael sighed. As if he didn’t want to have to explain anything but would if he had to, because I had nicely asked.

I shifted and got steadier in the muck. “It’s okay. I have to wait to leave this fishbowl town and go find mountains. But could be worse.” I replaced the turtle on the stick and got up.

“You’re right, Joel. I meant wait until something bigger happens.”

Michel took some shots of the creek and turtle, leaves falling and another bird. We walked together a little, then he split off. On the way back I thought how if I had gotten an older brother, someone like Michael would have been okay.

Days, then a couple of weeks went by. I got more busy with school, football, spent time with Ginny less, then sometimes Val, a new girl in town who liked to hike.

Then it happened.

I was wasting time until meeting friends and wandered further than usual. There was an abandoned Ford truck in the middle of a field. I could see the cab. It was maybe nineteen seventy-something. It had been blue; now the paint was chipped and faded. The body was more rust and blemish than good clean metal. Tires were long gone. Windows windows rolled down or gone. Weeds grew high like a protective fence around it. A little lopsided, the bed of the truck had branches in it, leaves, dead wildflowers. I wondered how many others had been there. Some crushed beer cans lay on the torn plastic bench seat. They were from way before my time.

I climbed into the bed and jumped on it a few times, then piled up the branches in a corner. Grabbed an oil-stained rag, the lid of a can and a torn up t-shirt stiff as a board. Set them in the corner, too. I climbed atop the dented cab and threw out my arms to the sky. I felt good lately. My mom was perking up, getting her sense of humor back. My cousin was out of jail. Maybe we’d go hunting with his dad. And Val was getting interesting.

“Yes!” I shouted, my fists pumping into the open sky.

I jumped down again. Did a little dance on the metal bed, making a racket. Ordinarily I was very quiet out there but what the heck. I saw a few tiny flakes of snow. I felt a surge of adrenalin and danced a little more. Animals would figure it out or hide. After that I sat on the hood and dangled my feet. Greyness seeped into the sunlit sky and the blanket of clouds thickened. I’d smelled snow coming all day.

It fell. On my cheeks, on my eyelids, jacket. I climbed up to the cab and held out my hands, smelled deeply of the icy-silvery-wild-apple air. Soft white flakes fell faster, sailed and whipped around, a snow dance. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind until cold tunnelled its way into my jacket.

I slid off  and down as dusk fell, ran out of the field. Through the clumps of trees. I glimpsed Michael heading to his house in the distance but kept on, then burst into the warm apartment. My mom was pleased I fell onto the steaming chili with a mean appetite.

Two days later she tossed the slim newspaper in front of me. My phone was ringing but I didn’t answer.

“What?”

She pointed at the picture on the front page with a look of confusion and surprise. It said: “Joel’s Place”.

It was me, kicking up my heels in the back of a beat-up truck. I’m jumping about a foot off the bed, knees up and feet splayed, arms stretched up, head thrown back. Face half-covered by the hoodie I wore under my jacket. But you can tell it’s me. It’s my smile, my mug, alright. The November woods, the light snow and field looked beautiful. I had been there, after all. So, apparently, had Michael.

“Did you know he took this? Michael Tilby! It’s good, Joel, you look really good. His mother showed me and seemed baffled. Not upset, she thinks her son is talented. But still–”

“Wow. My gosh! I’ll explain later–have to call Val back.”

“Famous already, huh?”

That’s what Val said, and we laughed. We didn’t know what was coming.

Some kids thought it was weird. Arnie found it amazing I personally knew Michael. I thought it funny so much fuss was made of it. Still, the picture was special. It looked old-fashioned, black and white and sorta raw. The way he caught the angle of light, the different shadows. Almost like you could walk right into it, too. It was surprising Michael had gone unnoticed. But I knew he’d had lots of practice getting his best shots. He was likely there first. And waited.

I had felt happy, confident; there it was for everyone to see. Mom said I was going places. She said it was the best thing to happen in our family in a long time. It made me feel proud.

Michael, it turned out, had taken quite a few pictures of me screwing around on that broken down truck. So I gave him permission to publish more in a couple of magazines. Then he sold several. Eventually he got a fancy photography award for the series. And then another one for a shot of me standing on the cab, eyes shut in the snow, winter’s magic moodiness right there.

So he moved on. Success gave him the freedom he wanted. His mother is okay; we watch out for her. “I’m still just a tourist, Joel, you, too,” he says when he calls. He’s thanked me too much, offered to help me with college, which is scary–means I have to work harder. And I felt good when they were published, sure. But it was more than that. Michael welcomed me onto his grandfather’s land. Then he made it official with a picture, a title, my little nutty moment. His kindness, man–that’s what no one seems to get. That was more than enough for one year in my life.