Ordinary Sojourners

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

It wasn’t my plan to stop at a neglected used book store but I needed a cooling breath or two and a drink from the water cooler. I’d been hurrying through a busy part of the city when I spotted it: Parson’s Bound Words and Fine Art the swinging wooden sign bragged, as if there were arcane, prized items beyond its dirty green door. It was proclaimed awkwardly, I thought, and it put me off but I noted a young woman and child appearing to enjoy heat relief as they browsed. I hesitated at the door. Perspiration made a beeline down back and chest. I turned the dented brass knob and went inside.

I had just been to lunch with Emory. It’s a date we manage every six months to keep a civil line open for our three adult children and six grandchildren. We don’t talk on the phone or, heaven forbid, text; Emory doesn’t believe either is good authentic communication and I can’t say I entirely disagree, at least in his case. Emory is not one who can grasp or respond well without the talking partner’s face providing constant and helpful clues. This was still true for us despite being married to one another for thirty-seven years. We’ve been divorced for ten. His need to clarify via constant overt signals might in part explain why we didn’t have patience enough to endure, much less fully enjoy each other, until death do us part. I don’t need to be duly examined, nor to regard another with full force in order to chat about an update on life. I don’t even need to be in the same rooms; I like to move about. Use your imagination, I used to urge him, listen to vocal inflections.

Still, we’ve somehow managed to talk without fisticuffs and it seems a useful meeting twice a year. Emory is not unpleasant from afar and close up he still looks pretty good. He says the same of me so that much we continue to agree upon. We each remain single. Just less complicated.

Although seeing him still can increase my blood pressure and thus, internal temperature, the city summer had already scorched us all. So that bookstore beckoned. I entered, the obligatory little bell on the top tinkling in a frenzy. A waft of cool air welcomed me immediately. Mr. Parson, I presumed, looked up from an opened notebook by the cash register, nodded, then returned to his writing or tallying. His black taped glasses perched on top of his head; he squinted at whatever was being entered in his own bound pages. He must have felt me staring at him–he was grizzled and rumpled but had a scholarly air about him, much like Emory. He looked up, tried on a smile with eyes that I suspected looked perpetually quizzical. He loved books, after all.

“May I help you this ghastly August afternoon?”

“Water first!–how generous of you to offer it– then to general browsing,” I said and headed to the cooler. He grunted in a congenial manner and let me be.

After a paper cone of lukewarm water was drunk, I glanced at section headings and went for visual arts, mostly because it was dimmer and farther back so perhaps cooler. There were three others besides the woman and child, each bent over a book in the aisles; I excused myself along the way. I  pulled out a few art tomes and thumbed through the pages. Seen one, seen them all, I felt at the moment, though at home was a sagging shelf devoted to classic and contemporary painters and a collection each of Mexican and Native American potters. Bored with books that held little interest I moved on to two long shelves of photography, fingers slipping over smooth or cracking spines as I dallied.

Henri Cartier-Bresson–that name so renowned but it had been years since I had even glanced at his work. I contemplated a heavy-looking book and pulled it out. Parson was passing me and pointed at a table and chairs alongside a window.

“Take a seat, have at it,” he said, then disappeared through a swinging office door.

It was pleasant there despite the predictable dry, musty smell of aging, oft-handled bindings and pages. The book I held needed to lay flat to be appreciated and so I sat and opened to the first pages. Though I knew he had died in 2004, Cartier-Bresson meant something to me still.

During the onset of the 1970s I had studied photography, before Emory and the bit and bridle of married life, and had had the good fortune to spend a year in Paris. There I’d wanted to practice certain techniques, to at the least mimic the sort of spontaneous shots which made the master photographer famous. I shamelessly shot every place and person I could, trying to not provoke. It was a time of unfettered days and nights, made of dreams I’d held close until they had come true, time in Paris with camera in hand: the extraordinary light and shadow, charming scenes and grand old architecture, revelations of life unlike any I’d witnessed or even suspected before. I had grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and so embraced Paris with high expectations, a growing adoration.

I wished more than anything to become a female Henri Cartier-Bresson. I knew I had some basic talent but did I have the creative mind and eye it took to offer views that spoke volumes even remotely like the master’s? Roll after roll of film was shot, developed that year and so much of it was no good. But some of it was.

I turned more softly yellowed, slick pages, studied the pictures. Street life, fresh and fascinating. People paused to gaze into a long, bright alley; strolled hand in hand along the busy Seine; hunched over food at outdoor cafes or on a dock; loitered at street corners beneath glowing lamps; kissed in parks; toiled in the grime; dozed and gossiped on benches. The artist found the extraordinary in all that was ordinary, recorded subtle or dramatic changes in much of the world. Some of that time was mine, was where and when I lived.

I sighed, happy to have taken a few moments to come into the little dingy store. How could I have forgotten such treasures as these? I flipped through more pages, absorbing them with a flick of my eyes. I had to get home to feed Dana, my dachshund. The past only held so much magnetism for me, anymore. What had gone before was done. I hadn’t wasted time grieving over the cameras I put away, then sold; I had made a choice.

And as I about closed the book, I stopped.

There was a young man with aviator sunglasses, patterned bandanna snug about his forehead, books pushed aside as he lounged atop a ponderous stone wall, likely part of many steps to an immense building, his back to a pillar. Arms around a girl pressed deeply into the embrace, his fingers entwined for a stronger hold on her.

The boy was Phillipe and the girl he held was me, Natalie.

I gasped and my hand clasped my open mouth. The young woman with child looked at me with a small concern as she scooted around the table, hand clutching her daughter’s. But I just bent over the page and remembered.

How was that possible, to have had our picture taken and not know it, to never have seen it all these years? The thrill of this threatened to bring me to a faint and I took in and released long slow breaths. Parson walked by; I kept my eyes down. I couldn’t possibly inform a stranger that I was in a picture made by a famous photographer. Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken many thousands of photographs. We were just one more couple with a passerby eyeing us and perhaps disapproving on a sunny afternoon. We were in the master’s viewfinder, then he had moved on.

Phillipe was a student at the Sorbonne, studying philosophy and music. We had met at a cafe one afternoon when I was trying to not cry  over my espresso, feeling homesick despite the wonders found, wishing for someone with whom to share it all. He’d picked up my sunglasses from the ground as he walked by; we began to chat. He, too, missed his small town of Ornans but said this lessened as his studies became more interesting. Phillipe was studying music theory and composition, was working on a piece. I’d felt relief and gratitude that he had taken an interest in me, a foreigner, and he’d shared his struggles adjusting to living on his own.

I racked my brain –where was that taken? What had we been up to? It was like any romantic afternoon we shared in Paris; it may have been at the university after he got out of class. But I knew Phillipe such a short time, only three and a half months, and time trickled away so fast I kept a diary of our stolen and intimate days and nights, our falling easily into a tender love. He, the romantic French boy I’d longed to know; I, the American student he found so open and independent. I was afraid no one would believe me, or that I would forget somehow, so  I wrote it all  down each day. And took some pictures of him.

Where did all that end up? Crammed into taped up boxes in the attic, no doubt. I was twenty-one then, now sixty-seven.

I smoothed the page, tapped his hands. Recalled the weight of my hair in summer warmth, how he loved to hold it to his face; the prickle of his stubbly cheeks against mine. The books we read to one another, my French just passable, his English better. The music he played for me, very good songs. But I soon came to the end of my stay, the end of money left me by a beloved uncle. Phillipe had to continue at the Sorbonne. His carefree lust and easy affection for me were nothing compared to his passion for music. And though I found his words and touch gentling as well as incendiary, I suspected photography would bring me great comfort long after he was gone.

Yet it had stung, how could it not in 1971 for a young woman in Paris studiously snapping pictures while seeking a soul mate? He had walked into my life, we’d clung to one another in a free-fall of delights, then simply parted.

I took a last look at his face. It was so long ago it seemed impossible. I slowly closed the book. Henri Cartier-Bresson had frozen for all time one ordinary Phillipe, one everyday Natalie.

“Find something interesting? I couldn’t help but notice…” Parson grasped the back  of the wooden chair, leaned on it as he looked at me with interest.

I rolled hunched shoulders luxuriously–they needed a good stretch. “Oh, the past, it sneaks up on you at odd times. Or wallops you.”

“It can. May I ask–are you a photographer? I mean, since you poured over his work?” He patted the volume as if an object of his affection.

I considered the man. He was older than I, had a white trimmed beard and eyebrows that could scare you if he scowled. But he seemed more the benevolent sort. The poorly repaired glasses slid off his head, a hand catching them at the last moment. I wondered if he’d ever traveled or had only labored away in this little book shop all his life, an armchair sojourner. Did he like other things or only words and pictures he could catalog, keep handy in their places?

“I was once. At least thought so–or that I could be. I so admired Cartier-Bresson. I hoped to emulate his style. Then I stopped. You know, how we stop doing something because there seems no good reason to keep on? One thing just replaces another.”

He considered this, looking out the window. “Yes. I sailed and lived all over the world for over a decade and then I was done. Have not been on a boat since. I bought this store and stuck with it. Lately there are far fewer customers. But it’s what I enjoy still. For now.”

He acted as if he was about to pull out a chair and make himself comfortable, so I stood up. I had to feed Dana, it was getting late and I was tired out.

But Parson persisted. “What about your pictures–do you miss taking them?”

“I haven’t thought of it in a good long while. Until today. Perhaps I have, after all.” I started to move away from the table.

“Well,” he said, “maybe start again.”

I picked up the book and took it to the counter. “I for certain know I want to buy this.”

He grinned at me, crooked teeth homely but nice. “Good. Which one did you especially enjoy?

“Page sixty-four.”

He turned to it, peered at it a bit. “A fine capture of young lovers, in Paris, perhaps.”

“That was me… and Phillipe,” I said to my surprise and sudden embarrassment.

Parson raised those big eyebrows and his eyes grew huge. “That right? That’s marvelous, then, isn’t it?”

I paid for the book, a lot more than I expected. “Yes, I guess it really is. Quite a good memory but I value it because it’s by my idol. Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

“As well you should, Ms….”

“Just Natalie.” I half-winked at him, I don’t know why but it just seemed the right thing after all that.

“As well you should, Natalie, a wonderful find.”

“Yes, I’m so glad I came in. It’s a good bookshop. Thanks, Parson.”

“Jack, and I thank you, too.”

He offered his hand and I took it, held it a second or two, his palm slim but firm if aging, fitting into my bony, aging one.

“Goodbye for now, Jack.”

“Come back any time.”

I closed the door behind me and was swathed in a blanket of humid heat. But I hugged the book all the way home. I felt quite lucky at times in my life. Even with Emory, who had been kind if quite hard to bear as well. Weren’t we all. I did wonder what I’d find next at that bookstore. First I wanted to buy a good, cheap camera. I might tell Emory about that. Or even Jack.

Behold What the Eye Can See

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It happens to me often and here it was again as we moved through the scenery. Beguilement.

Expansive views of the acreage of Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate (built in 1895 and owned by the George Vanderbilt family known for their shipping and railroad empires) are majestic and bucolic. They thrill the eye, the sweeping views evocative of tranquil order, supported by nature and hidden human industry. I absorbed each vista with breathless anticipation of the next bend we would round. It wasn’t so much being impressed by the property as being impacted by the changing scenes. Each bigger picture was mesmerizing in breadth and scope. I could have looked and looked and never been satiated. Such plenitude of detail that at moments I could hardly absorb it all. Even withstand it. That’s just how it is for me. I’m certain it’s the same for others, especially those who have a passion to observe, to know more intimately what they see.

Not that it was overwhelming in a deleterious way. The copious beauty was varied and intense. There is something within me that, though filling up to overflowing expands further for more. I feel hunger for it all, want it imprinted within. And to partake of any wisdom moving beneath the robust and delicate scenes. For what my eyes see, ears hear–they teach me things. Our senses are gifts, conduits to greater understandings, not just of a moment but of complex universal designs. I follow my eye and instincts to discover an abundance of intrigue.

But I need to dismantle it a little. I take camera in hand and as all who love visual arts, focus on separate tableaus with their telltale clues, delights. Eye/mind/soul zero in on minute parts, look into shadows. Seek one cloud’s shape within greater configurations. Each piece is cohesive in its specificity, sometimes even more so than the extended view. They all have value; I am drawn in by a propulsive curiosity. I want to see well the exterior but also find an interior liveliness that is like a secret. It’s a treasure hunt for mind and senses. Any moment can harbor possibility and that is the real magnet that draws me. I can define an object before me , but what does it mean? How did/does it function in space and time? What matters or mattered about it within a garden, in a room, a life?

This is what attracts me in daily living: about everything. Put another way, what exists in this present can well hold my attention, but what has captivating potential–and everything does–is a series of magic doors I seek to open. If a glimpse offers a story, even a tiny one, I have been granted access to a journey that leads to challenges, a certain enchantment and most often, fulfillment. I can’t really lose. All of life is a story within another story within another, like Russian nesting dolls or better yet, a puzzle that is partially solved while added to over time.

I used to pretend being a reporter when I was a kid. I sat at a child-sized roll top desk with cubbyholes, took notes of various household and neighborhood goings on, filed them away in their slots and  folders. Diaries to detail more thoughts and experiences were required. I wrote and produced plays with neighborhood buddies and tried in vain to charge admission. We attempted full make up and ragtag costumes and hung a sheet for a curtain. We had decent turnouts. And then there would be a brief song on the radio which evoked extemporaneous movements–lo, a dance unleashing its tale. There was always something to hear, see, smell, taste, touch–and to read! and a cohort to do things with!– that jogged an expressive impulse. Take the navy, wide brimmed hat with sheer white and pink flowers at the ribbon my mother made with her own hands. It settled onto her silvery hair. It had presence all its own as she wore it; it did things with her. Another story idea.

Let’s take dolls as inspiration. Owning some of the first Barbie dolls was a blast.  I became stage manager and director of their adventures. I’d get the big square floor pillow–brown corduroy–and then cover a matchbox with a handkerchief for a couch or bed, bring in rocks, twigs and grass for a yard, sneak my mother’s fancy scarves to create exotic wardrobes and floor covering. The finishing touches were always changing but each mattered in that moment.  (I know, it’s not PC these days to say I enjoyed playing with Barbie and gang. She did not do dishes and Ken did not mow lawns, however. They did exciting things! Travel, art, camping, music! It’d now likely be demoted to mere play therapy as well, sadly.)  Barbie et al and I got all sorts of events going; those dolls unlocked ideas and enlarged experiences like crazy. They led lives with fine sensibilities but had a talent for spontaneous fun. Or I should say it seemed they did but I was supposed director if also the actors–one of these might take complete control on a whim.

It took very little to have a good time. From seemingly nothing could come anything at all. A sunny spot by or even under the scarred baby grand piano was a world to be reckoned with, mine to develop and claim. A starry night and a blanket. A cozy camp out within evergreens.

The back yard, with its shade trees and pines and bushes made a great stage but so did various living rooms and bedrooms, a porch or park or back steps. I didn’t even have to make much up, though. Tall tales unfolded all around me as life was textured and colored with people, places, events. I was charmed and mystified by myriad scenes, found them dramatically provocative of ideas and emotions. There still might arise an urge to embroider it–seeing an abandoned plaid, overstuffed chair or a cafe umbrella shading a person at a table whose single booted foot and “talking” hand were seen. Something had already happened, was happening or was about to happen. And I wanted to know, even if I had to fill in the gaps.

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This capacity for probing with problem solving–the urge to learn–is an attribute we all enjoy. It has been a powerful driving force in my everyday life. And because of this, I am never bored. Entertainment is within reach at any given time. There is endless mystery. I am duly humbled by how little I yet know and understand and experience a thrill from ongoing explorations. Even the momentary, least noteworthy ones. Or perhaps those are the best, at times.

It’s all in the details, that was what I was thinking on my power walk today. Walks are interrupted frequently as I pause to examine something. I spot a teal green gate at the side of a rambling house and above it is a heavily leafed branch; amber light is streaming through treetops. There is a soft splash, cat’s whiny meow, breath of wind. Leaves on trees shimmy, almost singing. How all this transfixes me… there is a sense of prescience. But of what? Of life happening and about to happen. Of  intricate connections, from behemoth tree to blades of grass to wooden gate to all creatures to crown of sky and beyond and to this moment. I am flabbergasted by the wonder of it. It is an intimate place in which we live and learn.

I am not naive. I have not lived a breezy, protected life. Surely no one truly does, for so much of what we do and hope for is a grab bag, like it or not. The very beauty that we need to love can hurt beyond measure when we’re vulnerable or anguished. As a young teen I still recall a moment when I experienced the unbounded extraordinariness of just being alive yet also felt  bereft. I stretched my arms around a favorite oak tree and wept. Later I wrote a poem, a terribly adolescent poem, and there is a line that’s stayed with me over 60 years: and yet beauty bites the bleeding heart. I loved so much and easily and still was rent by life’s bitter parts. As we each are.

But nothing is wasted in life; we experience it and let it go or keep it close, even recycle it sooner or later. We reinvent ourselves any way we can and need to do. It is our story to make happen. There is much to be unveiled as breath enters, nourishes microscopic cells, exits the miraculous lungs; while this fist sized muscle of heart beats its tireless rhythms for me. So I listen and watch, reach out, seek more. Wonder visits me like a loving old friend and we root out bits and clues, celebrate even when I get worn out and crabby. I do not want to be careless with the  bounties offered, nor dismiss the grace of moments I am allowed to inhabit. Big picture or small, the scenes of life are ours to unveil.

My visit to the Biltmore Estate gave me a renewed appreciation of my life situation, the assortment of whims, choices, dreams and labors. I left with a more vivid view of settings and circumstances within which the Vanderbilts conducted parts of their lives. The estate might have fleshed out the family more with traces of their individuality, remnants of yearnings. (George man loved books, that was encouraging, and hopefully the women did, as well. ) A visible legacy other than only wealth, with signs of daily interactions, musings and matters of the heart that roiled, pacified and beguiled–those underpinning and perhaps secreted away from such power and industry. I have more investigating to undertake. But I couldn’t help but think of them traversing the stone steps, gliding across endless rooms, seeking solace or joy in the gardens as they spoke in hushed tones. Can we have Act 1 outlined and set up, please?

Then again, maybe I will move on to fleeting moments of lives being lived, scenarios created this very second. Wait, see how the summer light moves across the grass and street? All it takes is observation plus a dash of imagination, same as it did as a kid.

The Ghostly Eye

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The experiment would not have been imagined at all without Glenna, who found a peculiar lump in her right breast. It was not the first one but the second. Since the first one had turned out to be nothing, she put off a mammogram and possible biopsy and went on with her hectic life. She maintained a great job at a burgeoning advertising agency and her three kids were used to her coming home late and helping out. She joked that the most tiring thing was expending considerable energy managing her husband, whom she adored. So life surged forward, as if pushed from behind. A few months later she found that lump again and it was larger. She had the mammogram. It was cancer. Had surgery and chemo and lived for over a year. Then was gone.

After four and a half months, Adelaine wasn’t anywhere close to being beyond the death of her best friend. She didn’t expect she ever would be. How far from it would she have to be, to not think of her daily and find tears crashing into her life like a mammoth wave? It was like looking into a canyon that had no bottom. Glenna had been her recovery sponsor, had felt also like the older sister she’d never had. They had both once been ill and became healthy, sober alcoholics; they had similar pale, unrestrained hair; a skewed sense of humor; and shared jewelry and purses any time desired. The first thing they did when they got up in the morning was call each other to see how they’d made it through the night, what their corresponding emotional temperature and mental clarity were after the first cup of coffee. And they often checked in before bedtime. Their spouses found this alternately amusing or aggravating–why didn’t they just move in together ? Maybe it was their being alcoholics; they could be weird sometimes but their husbands loved them. This was one quirky and deep friendship; they got okay with it.

The truth was, they didn’t get together that much, what with work and family needs. They waved “hello” from porches and cars as they hurried off each day (they lived across the street from one another). They took turns having monthly barbeques on week-ends. Occasionally when they got back from errands at the same time, they walked to the center of their quiet street. Stood there, getting in a quick catch up until a car came by and honked at them, at which point they huddled on a curb like gossiping old ladies and shouted to their kids to please take in the groceries.

Some days Adelaine, in need of advice, would stand on her porch and just whistle. She was good with a shrill and piercing whistle; a few dogs might come running. Then Glenna would step out and shout, “Okay, what’s up?” They’d take a quick walk if there was time. Adelaine would pour out her frustrations and her friend would tell her to “suck it up, take your own personal inventory not anyone else’s—all you have to do is stay sober today and be open to decent change, so keep it simple.” The hug was always a good one and off they went to their own houses, even if Adelaine thought Glenna often offered suggestions rather too simplified.

They went to AA meetings once a week if they could, but the rides to and from provided the only private time. Adelaine persuaded her friend into taking a few week-end trips over the years to scenic inns or city spots. In warm, drier weather they headed out for a day’s country outing, picnic basket in hand or backpacks loaded. But it was a challenge to slow down, enjoy being the close friends they agreed they were. So much other life was happening.

One of two last times Glenna spoke to Adelaine was a week before she died. She put her hand upon her shoulder, pulled her close and whispered so softly, pallid lips barely grazing her cheek: “Know yourself better now, not later, make sure your family knows who you are, too…” That, coupled with final words for Adelaine–“It’s been a good journey; you’ll always be dear to me”–were emblazoned within Adelaine. Played over and over in her mind as she worked at the medical lab and went through routines with family or attended recovery meetings. Whenever she took walks along the bluff where they liked to picnic, looking out over the passionate ocean that was coolly removed from her grief and confusion, she felt emptiness swell and take hold.

What was it Glenna wanted her to know about herself , to share more with her family? What was it Adelaine needed to do to live better? Or was it just the gearing down, taking time to be present in this moment. Something Glenna had long ago admitted was hardest for her to embrace–she had been born with the burden of nagging ambitiousness, unlike her friend. She’d once suggested to Adelaine that she was a dreamer cleverly disguised as a smartly efficient lab technician but hadn’t realized it yet.

The medical lab that employed Adelaine had undergone big changes. Two months after Glenna passed it had been absorbed by a bigger, more profitable lab and with that came a new manager and staff who then replaced various employees. When Adelaine got her pink slip, she was shocked. She had been there eleven years, she rarely missed work, she was very good at her job. It was one more boulder to load into her leaking boat of grief. She slept too much, sat gazing out the window, forgot to turn off the stove when the kettle went  dry. Her teen children were starting to give her sidelong looks. Dennis was tiring of his earnest but ineffective pep talks. He was afraid she might even drink.

Adelaine was not thinking of drinking. She was thinking of sleeping for a year and if that didn’t help, going on a very long trip on her bicycle with backpack and a tent. Would that take away the misery? Still, as far as the job was concerned, there was no denying that she had felt overworked and underpaid so she tried to see it as an opportunity for…something. What, she didn’t know.

She began cleaning and organizing; that was the only thing she could think of since-she had voluminous spare time to fill. It was a good way to empty her head as well. The spare room had a large closet that had to be opened with caution as it was piled and crammed. She was about an hour into it and feeling tiny relief from the chafing second skin of sadness, when she came across a shoe box of photographs, a big rubber band about it. Adelaine opened it, took out each picture with a jolt of memory. She had proudly developed her own photographs once, when she had taken a few classes in photography and film making during that first stab at sobriety. Eight long years ago. It had helped. She’d used the camera her father had given her, an ancient Voigtlander Bessa 35 mm Rangefinder. She’d felt a thrill using it, and took her fill of information in adult education over one autumn and winter. There had been a dark room where she brought to life her pictures. Mesmerized, absorbed by the process of bringing life to images on curling rolls of real film. She couldn’t recall why she had not taken more classes. Time issues, likely. Or a lack of follow through.

She came upon more boxes. One after the other, she sorted them: her son and daughter ((Tim and Cass, now thirteen and fifteen) building immense towers with blocks and odds and ends or playing with Tazz their German shepherd (alive) and two gerbils (dead), laughing with friends in the back yard, swimming at the indoor pool, walking along edges of the dramatic Pacific. Dennis, her husband, caught riding his ratty vintage bike, wrestling with Tim and playing darts with Cass, mowing the lawn, boating at a lake, snoring in his easy chair with books scattered about.

But where was she? She looked again. Dennis took a couple of pictures–he especially liked the old camera but not nearly as did she–and finally she found one. Adelaine was pushing back her long hair as she weeded the vegetable garden. She was squinting into the sun; it was hard to tell if she was smiling or making a face at him.

But that was it. No other pictures of mother and wife, the person called Adelaine. She wondered if it was the same with her digital files and realized that was the likely case. After all, she was the photographer of the family, a chronicler of their stories, the familial historian. She was the absent one in photographs, a ghostly eye behind the camera’s more accurate eye. And in an essential if obtuse way, she had been missing from her own life for a long while, too, ever since she had started to have an alcohol problem. Staying sober had brought her better in sync with most realms of living, yes. But had it brought her closer to herself? Or was she afraid?–or just lazy, as Glenna once insinuated with a gentle jab of an elbow. After all, she’d had nineteen years sober when she exited earth so clearly she had insights that made a difference.

Adelaine leaned back, smacked her knee. That was what Glenna said. That she needed to get to know herself more intimately. Perhaps there was time and a way to do that now. She would take self portraits! See what came forward. She’d use the easy digital so she could check each one, delete as needed; there’d be too many of those. It was settled. She wanted to explore photography, anyway.

******

The first one wasn’t so hard. She took a self portrait of bleary eyes and mussed up hair right after she awakened. And promptly deleted it. Then took it again, catching light streaming through the sheer embroidered curtains. She may as well show unadorned truth, who really arose from the depths of sleep. She looked baffled and shy. Then she snapped a group as various household tasks were undertaken, but when she checked them it seemed she’d made a mid-twentieth century ad for housewifery. They took her aback with their soothing emptiness, even though she knew it was honorable enough work. What could she do that was different, visually interesting?

So commenced her lone day trips. On the way, she found herself holding conversations with Glenna, telling her where she was headed and why and then it felt like she heard suggestions. She was drawn to parks, great emerald swaths with flowery trees, small creatures and colorful passersby. She got a shot of herself peering around a tree trunk, kneeling at a creek with stones in hand. She liked art galleries so snagged a few shots of herself standing between monstrous metal bugs and a huge garish abstract painting–both made her think of otherworldly landscapes. The gallery owners were not enthralled so she looked for outdoor public art. Sidled up to a General, admired a dazzling salmon the size of a whale. She found nooks amid shops, and crannies within countryside. She played with light, her face fully seen and half seen and unseen and her hair floated about her shoulders with its own life. But who was emerging was not who she had thought. She had a small edginess, a sassiness that had long escaped her notice. And that forceful sadness that nearly gave off sound waves, that shaped her mouth and stunned her eyes.

One time an idle young woman offered to take her picture at a burbling fountain in the square. She urged Adelaine to jump in. She hesitated then did so despite a sign forbidding it. She let water splash over her, sticking her arms through the cascade, looking up so water streamed over her face, sunshine gilding all. The picture was a favorite; she did something not expected to be done sober, and a stranger had made her laugh. A few adults gave her looks that may as well have been finger waggings but it felt liberating to dash, smiling and dripping, to her bike. The ride home was lovely despite a chill as breezes dried her.

Over the weeks, Adelaine found it harder to arrange such outings. She found fewer reasons as to why she had to meet someone another time of day or pick up the kids at a different spot or hide in the bedroom to spend another ten minutes to capture her mood and look before going out with Dennis. It was all to accommodate her self-portraiture. She found herself snapping pictures more often. At times she freed herself of the camera, setting it up with timer at ten seconds: dancing to loud Bjork in the middle of morning; as she tossed a heaping veggie-studded salad or poured a mug of coffee, stirring cream into steaming dark richness; in the back yard dirty and pleased among tomatoes and grapevines, marigolds and geraniums; in the car while waiting for Tim after soccer, impatient and scowling. She began to mug a bit, develop a congenial smile, wink as if she had said something smart and sly and funny. She recorded her moods which were becoming more variable.

She would often think of Glenna, say to her–“I know, an uppity sort of shot, who do I think I am?”–or sense her presence poking fun, egging her on, telling her what a creative, finicky and impatient but brave and good person she really was.

It almost eased the tension and heaviness she’d felt since losing her friend and then the job, and with both a chunk of self-esteem. Photography insisted she focus on something other than sorrow. It was self indulgent, too, but she didn’t care. It meant something…she would look at the pictures and feel confounded–who was this woman? How could she have faked it for so long? And was she still play acting, wearing a small, useless life like some raggedy costume? But she wanted the kids to have something of her other than fast hellos and goodbyes, besides the fussing or praise that parents always give. Something more than the mother they knew so well. Because there was more, much more, and she was just beginning to consider herself someone who hungered to explore life, who might be able to grow as she searched different avenues. To become a more complete someone, a better version. Not only sober–as if that was the final best she could offer now– but entirely Adelaine.

******

One night she was trying on different clothing for a series of shots long after Dennis was out for his monthly poker game and the kids were holed up in their rooms. She had many good clothes not worn now so why not play a bit before their donation? It seemed harmless, might be revealing. She set the camera on the master bedroom fireplace mantel, aimed it toward the space she would pose, then start the timer when ready.

She had just pulled on a shimmering cranberry red sheath not worn in a couple of years. It had been bought for a cocktail party during Christmas season. She turned and twisted in the full length mirror. The scoop neck and snug cut showed her good figure. She remembered Glenna and Terry had been there; all four of them had nabbed a table together. It was softly snowing, an oddity in Oregon, and green candles were throwing off a dance of light. They laughed readily, glad to be together and looking forward during Christmas. It was right before Glenna found the lump.

Adelaine’s feet were bare so she grabbed her black tennis shoes and slipped them on. Turned her head upside down and tousled and bunched her usually tamer hair. Put on a pair of silver dangly earrings. Left her lips palest pink and dusted on soft rouge, drew silver liner along each eyelid.  She glanced in the mirror. A slightly messy, glittery-eyed, curvy woman showing one comically arched eyebrow. A person veering toward nuttiness while feeling abandoned and adrift.

“Glenna ole girl, you might think this a waste but we didn’t get to goof off enough, did we? I think I get it now, what you were meaning…”

She set the camera timer, stepped back to her spot, put hands on hips and looked right into the camera, eyes unblinking as tears prickled, chapped lips holding loss like salt from the sea, then she began a smile as the camera took a shot.

There was a knock on the bedroom door.

“Who is it? Just a minute, hang on!”

“It’s just me,” Cass said and opened the door.

Adelaine froze. Cass gaped at her mother.

“What are you doing…? Or should I even ask?”

“I’m um, I’m just trying on some old clothes–”

“Playing…a kind of dress up?” Cass came closer and examined the dress. She touched her mother’s wild hair. She snickered over the shoes paired with such a dress. “I like it, sort of. Radical for you. A creative change… What were you going to do dressed like this? Not going out, right?”

Her expression showed horror at such a thought. She fingered her own short purple hair as she stared, as if comparing their two heads. Then she sat on the bed and shook her head at her mother and herself in the long mirror. They shared some features. Cass had always felt she was lucky to look like her mom not her dad, who was altogether paunchy middle-aged masculine from hairline to feet, not what he used to be, he said as he patted his stomach.

Adelaine felt relief fill her body, steady her mind. “No, I wasn’t going out. I was…” Too late, her eyes involuntarily went to her camera.

Cass followed her mother’s gaze. “You’re taking selfies?” She snorted. “Really? For what? Or for who?”

“Wait a minute, Cass, using a camera for self portraits was not always thought of as superficial, egotistical ‘selfies’. They were considered creative photography, they were important self expressions. It wasn’t so different from painting a self portrait or sculpting one. You must see it was a way of searching for and exposing a person’s real self, one’s deepest self with an honest eye, or making a creative composition of someone. Have you never heard of the famous Cindy Sherman, as a more contemporary example? She has made a career out of photographing herself in different guises.” She heard her voice increase volume but could not soften it.  “And I can also snap pictures of myself to help define who I am, don’t you think? I have been a mother and a wife, an alcoholic in recovery and a laboratory worker bee, but I am more than that, I am someone who has ideas of my own, more feelings unknown, a strong urge to create something good–”

Cass held up her hands, stood before her. “Mom! Mom, hold on a minute I didn’t mean to laugh at you. Exactly. I just wondered what you were doing. I get it. I get it, okay…? ”

“You cannot possibly get it.” Adelaine stood with arms limp at her sides, features fighting against crumpling. She kicked off the tennis shoes and reached for a brush on the dresser, her back to her daughter. “I lost my best friend, I lost my job, Cass. I’m trying so hard to stay positive so just let me do what I need to do.” She yanked it through her hair.

“I know, Mama… I know, maybe not like you do, but I know it hurts and I’m sorry. I really do know life can be so awful and hard. But you’re strong, Mom. I know that, too…”

She went to her mother, took the brush, led her to the bed and sat her down. She pulled it through the fading blond, knotted length, over and over. Adelaine closed her eyes, eyelids fluttering then clamping tight. The long even strokes were just how she brushed Cass’ hair for so many years. Now it was snipped so short; it was Cass’ style for now. Her own self expression.

“You want to see what else in your closet? You have any other good dresses I haven’t seen in awhile? I can finally wear your shoe size, right? I’ve been meaning to try on your spiky navy heels, though I really do not like heels, I actually want your tall black leather boots. Let’s try them all on.”

Adelaine stopped the brushing, pulled the brush from Cass’ fingers and took the almost unbearably young hand in hers. Held it briefly against her lips, then released her.

“Thank you, Cass, you’re a most loved daughter. Do not forget. Yes, let’s take out the old stuff I don’t know what to do with. You can have a pair of the high heels if you want, but you can’t keep my best boots, no way.”

When Dennis came home, he and Tim stopped in the master bedroom’s doorway and took in a strange scene: chaos. A phantasmagoria of fashion and footwear with Adelaine and Cass dressed in get-up they’d never seen them in and, luck holding out, might never again. But the females of the household were engaged in a hilarious romp, not even bothering to greet them.

“What is this, a weird play time for girls or are you just losing it?” Tim asked, hooting at their mismatched outfits.

So the men in the family left for their respective sanctuaries. But after a moment Dennis circled back, having seen the camera, and took a picture for a keepsake.

That night Adelaine stepped onto the bedroom’s balcony as Dennis slept, searching the stars, feeling Glenna nearby. She knew what she’d be doing tomorrow and the next day and the next: taking pictures, learning how to best capture others’ essences, finding her way toward film making, discovering how to tell truthful stories of real people. All those random pictures of herself? They’d taught her a few things, as Glenna had wished. They’d be there for the children to laugh and wonder over when she was long gone. She’d add many family pictures but more would hold her presence, Adelaine the human being–who was a mother, a wife, a friend and who knew what else. All healing up bit by bit.

Picture It Like Life

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Summer had arrived in all its gaudy glory, as observed by scores of purely tinted blossoms, multi-greens of leafy things and people sporting spare, candy colored clothing. Several children added to that tableau, creating gleeful havoc in the refurbished courtyard fountain of Mistral Manor Apartments. Why did everyone make such a fuss over this time of year? Was it being seventy-one that made the difference? She hoped not. But awakening in a damp bed–unless you had the wherewithal to purchase window air conditioning units–was soon followed by the quandary regarding her tea, hot or iced. Evangeline preferred hot but even when it had cooled for fifteen minutes she felt as if she was on her way to being steamed half to death. She opted for iced for the third day in a row and enjoyed the chill seeping into hand and down throat as sipped at her balcony table.

Van Garner waved as he zipped by in his wheelchair, en route to the corner mailbox. She knew his destination because he waved the envelopes.He did not trust the mail person to pick up things before they were snatched by thieves lurking nearby.

Natalie-from-New-York, her daughter, told her with frequency that she ought to break down and get an air conditioning unit for her bedroom. She’d then order another for the living room so it was tolerable when she visited in August. Evangeline considered, so far not going along with plan.

Natalie, aged forty-nine, firmly entrenched in pushing her clients up the ladder via her talent agent prowess, apparently had sixth sense when it came to what her mother needed. Evangeline wondered why since she wasn’t there enough to observe her mother’s life. In point of fact, two tall floor fans did a decent job. Her insides just flared up at night and resultant heat sought escape through her pores. She always ran hot, handy in winter. Evangeline shivered involuntarily, another anomaly. She blamed it on an odd gust from the North. There were many strange winds in this part of the city.

From her balcony she peered three stories down at the crowd of kids making havoc in and around the fountain. There was a sign that stated: “Do Not Climb or Play in Fountain”. No one paid it any mind. It was big enough that six or eight medium sized kids could jump in, flap about. It looked like fun. She wished Riley, her past babysitting charge and not yet a year old, still lived here. She’d help him wiggle bare feet and legs a few times, maybe get in with him to wade about. A twinge in her middle came and went.

The summer brought out the worst in her, she thought. All those giddy, spontaneous things younger people did. Her plumpness making the heat feel more a burden. Her silver hair so long and heavy that anyone else in their right mind would chop it off and look sensible at last. A chignon required dedicated effort. She watched the kids romp and then picked up her book, photographs by a previously unknown street photographer. She had been pondering photography lately, wondering if she had any business trying it out again. Carter, her deceased ex-husband had always complained she got things crooked. Maybe she could get it right this time; she might have more patience.

The peppermint and black tea mixture was bringing her closer to feeling civilized. She smiled down at the children now drenched and likely filthier, soon to incur wrath of a mother or two.

The doorbell was rung, chimes sent into a frenzy of excitement. She yelled toward the door.

“Come on!”

She turned a page, then flipped it back again to study the picture of a woman in the fox stole and veiled hat. Hideous dead creature draping her thin shoulders but a riveting shot.

“Come on, whoever it may be!” she called out louder. She glanced through the French doors, the dining and living room. “Who is it?”

There was a loud thump, then a hard bang. Evangeline pushed herself up from the wrought iron chair with its plump rose covered pillow. Maybe a delivery person she’d missed seeing. She had ordered books. She found the door half-open, and pulled it wide. Van’s barely wrinkled face had a scowl that melted into a half-grin.

“Why won’t you just come and open it? Is this inconvenient?”

“I just did. And it often is, but not today.”

He maneuvered his way in.” I get stuck at the door jamb. It’s hard to attempt opening a door while pushing a wheelchair through it. You should lock it, by the way. ”

“Well, the solution is obvious, stand up and leave the wheelchair in the hallway. You don’t need it now per your doctor, correct? Now that you’re fit again?”

She took his grey tweed hat–he had to take it off when he arrived or he wasn’t coming in. He ran a hand over bald head and grabbed his cane. Van’s height never ceased to surprise her; they’d met when he couldn’t walk yet. When his legs healed so he could stand up to greet her, he was over six feet tall to her shrinking five feet two (once five feet five, she thought). Had he once been a giant on the smaller side?

“Oh, spare me, what do they know? They didn’t fracture both legs falling into a ravine while hiking. It’ll take more than rehab and a fortnight or two.” He slowly walked into the kitchen off the dining room, emphasis on his small limp, and waited.

She looked at him, eyebrows soaring like white wings, one hand on a rounded hip. He was in better shape than she was except for the limp.

“I’d like whatever you’re having, please. And one of those muffins.”

Evangeline poured the iced tea, he grabbed a blueberry muffin and paper towel and they settled on the balcony.

“What are we doing today?” he asked with mouth full. “Sorry, I’m hungry.” He held up a finger to ask her to hold on as he chewed while she looked through her book. He washed down the bite with more tea.”I’m up for adventure.” He waved at a girl below. “Valerie! Good job, you got everything completely drenched!” He swallowed hard. “That fountain is a lifesaver in more ways than one. The sound of it helps me sleep. The flow of water is cooling and it keeps the kids happy awhile.”

Van ate, thinking Evangeline was ignoring him or bored, neither what he was hoping for.

“You know what? I’m thinking about buying a good camera.”

“Good, I have one for sale. I was given it for a birthday a few years ago and hardly ever use it. It’s a point and shoot thing. Want to give it a free trial?”

“That’s interesting, you also like taking pictures? For your band gigs or what?”

“For nothing. My sister bought it for me  out of lack of imagination. She doesn’t know me, obviously, but it was a decent gesture. We have a photographer for publicity shots.”

“Of course–well, wait, I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“You never ask about my family, not that I talk about them much–”

“And yes, I’ll take it. Today. Let’s go out this afternoon with camera in hand and see what we can find.”

Van ate most of the muffin, took a swig and swiped a hand across his lips.”Let’s go, then. It’s in a plastic storage box keeping company with other useless gifts.”

“Finish the muffin, no wastefulness allowed if I can help it.”

“You ever stop being the stern, dare I add formidable and irritating, librarian? I’ll bring you a bag of mixed muffins this week.”

“Dare say anything you want. But also, I’m not pushing that wheelchair, so it’s walk or nothing.”

“No wonder your Natalie’s too busy to visit!”

He glanced at her to see if he had hit a sore spot, regretting his fast mouth. But she shrugged, made a face that said well, so it goes, then buckled her sturdy sandals, gasping a little as she bent over. That was the thing about Evangeline. She was possessed of a fluid perspective, leavened with pessimism. It might be a bulwark against serious breaches of her heart’s locked entrance, unlike her actual front door. A mystery. Calamity may have met its match, Van speculated, and he didn’t even know her that well yet. She just seemed well-suited to life. Able, ready.

Evangeline didn’t belie the bristling inside. She thought how little it seemed musicians could muster much less master spoken language. Language that actually said something on target, with finesse. Give them an instrument and they’d become voluble, show grace and inspiration. Give them a chance to use actual words and out tumbled things that could run downhill fast. But she’d give him more of a try.

******

Van explained the few basics. She liked the camera or rather she felt she would once she got more comfortable. It was small and slick; she worried it’d get lost without a strap to hang it around her neck. It was digital which meant another set of troubles. She’d had a fancy Nikon once long ago. She and Carter had used it for family pictures or on the trips they’d taken, joining up with his famed bossa nova band, “Laguna Azul.” Those pictures were probably worth something now, if she could find them. She’d research that.

She snapped a picture of the high wall with entry gate to the salmon-pink stucco structure of Mistral Manor Apartments. Usually it struck her as a sad attempt at replication of far better places in the Southwest. Now it appeared refreshed in the viewfinder, better than she’d hoped, mature deep green trees bending gracefully about, their funny grand fountain looking bright in late morning sunshine. She focused close up so she could capture the kids splashing about but felt it didn’t turn out. She tried a couple of different views, then they went on.

They walked to the corner and turned down Market Street, Van stumping along with his handhewn cane. He had carved it himself and proudly showed her the hawk’s head upon which he rested his hand. She noted his skill, said he’d unearthed a talent born of need. Now she walked as briskly as she could manage with him along.

“We could go to the park,” Van suggested hopefully. He might sit on a bench and watch her work. He had felt tired out since the accident  but tried to muster good intentions.

“And let you remain idle while I snap away? No, let’s go around the neighborhood. I have some ideas. You recall the second hand stores that sell old records and books and such? Maybe I’ll feel inspired by random things.”

“And the people who shop there.” He chuckled. “Of course I know it.’

She smiled and put her arm through the crook of his. He was a help just being there. She might not venture out on the street with a new (if simple) camera. It might have felt eccentric, unseemly at the least, taking pictures of this and that. Of course, being odd was not new. She just arrived that way but had a skill for camouflage as needed. Like “The Librarian” she was most of every day for decades.

The older people got, the less others seemed to care, anyway. Maybe that’s why older people gradually forgot about how they appeared.

“Hey lady, enough already!”

She was photographing a wide shouldered, beefy man who was with perky white terrier on a stroll. It looked good to her on the camera’s screen. She moved along as Van tousled the dog’s fuzzy head.

“You have to be careful out here, Ev.”

She halted. “Why must you call me that? You’ve only known me…four or five months. It’s presumptuous.” She put the camera back to her eyes, snapped a few of colorful store fronts and a stray tabby cat lounging smack in the middle of the warm sidewalk.

“But I like it–you don’t, honestly? There’s that record–well, CD and vinyl store. What, they now serve coffee at the back? Let’s go in!”

Once inside they noted music rolling around the grey spartan room and stopped to talk with a sales person whom he knew. There were listening booths in the back with a coffee bar nearby. He purchased an iced cafe latte with two espresso shots and meandered.

Evangeline watched from the blues section, rifling through the CDs and recognizing nothing, to her dismay. She used to like the blues, who were those good artists? Van was engaged in conversation with a young woman by the rock section. The contrast was interesting. She with her mass of purple hair and tattoos on arms and legs, vitality strong. He showing wear and tear in the barest bent-over stance; his skinny-legged limp (which got better as they’d walked); the scarcity of hair hidden by his old tweed hat; deepening furrows about mouth and over eyebrows. His aging was eclipsed by ferocious interest in many things, music being number one. He played his trumpet four nights a week, despite being partly retired.

She saw that everyone he spoke to seemed to know him. He had something she did not, natural gregariousness which arose from an appreciation of humankind that would not be contained. She envied that at times.

Evangeline snapped pictures of faded and torn event posters tacked at angles to one another. Of a young man with bushy blonde hair keeping time to the beat with eyes closed and head bobbing. Of a small woman with a swaying floral sundress and singing along with whatever was playing in headphones as she browsed, intense voice noting love lost. Perhaps no one quite heard her or cared to hear.

Vinyl records were discovered in their tattered, marred sleeves. Holding them brought her to the past quickly, as if someone plopped her into dream time. She slipped from one grouping to another, finding ones she recalled enjoying, but did not look for Carter’s old band recordings. Not today. Changing from color to black and white, she took a picture of a beautifully suited businessman grasping a Beatles’ record close to his chest, sunglasses pushed atop his head.

There was something to this, being swept up in incremental bits of life, fractions of seconds she could pinpoint and hold still. She liked it just as she’d had suspected, the seizing control of the moment. Or, she thought with a light shock of recognition, perhaps it actually found and seized her, held her in thrall.

As she scanned the room, she paused on a good-looking young man, perhaps sixteen, well dressed, whose hands ran over the cases of the CDs as he nervously scanned the room. He chose three or four as he moved down the row. No salespersons were in sight. She lowered her camera and studied him. He felt her eyes, looked over his shoulder, noted her white hair and bland face, her harmless bulk, then returned to the music. He snatched up two handfuls of CDs and stuffed them into his field jacket’s deep pockets. Evangeline raised the camera and shot the act of theft.

“Jonathan? Son, are you ready?”

It was the businessman. He had gotten a couple more albums and appeared pleased with his finds.

Jonathan nodded, smiling back at him. “Yeah, let’s go, Dad.”

“Find anything?” his father asked as they moved away.

His son shook his head and his eyes bore into Evangeline’s, then offered a mocking smile. He was getting away with his crime. She made a quiet sound like a tiny growl, then walked rapidly toward them.

“Excuse me, sir.”

The man stopped and turned. His son pivoted, threw a challenge with his glare.

“I feel you should know your son is attempting to rip off the store. I watched him stuff CDs in his pockets.”

The man shook his head as if dismissing a peon. “Lady, you’re mistaken. That’s absurd. He can certainly afford a few CDs. Jonathan? Do you have purchases to buy?”

And then turned away, took him by the elbow, conferred in a quiet voice.

“No, sir, not mistaken, rather, my trusty camera is not. Please check his pockets or I’ll call the manager over.”

The man drew himself up so that Evangeline felt shorter and broader than usual but she, too, straightened herself, stood with shoulders back and head high.

“I don’t think you realize who you’re talking to, madam. I’m Jeffrey Rickard, a state attorney, so I suggest you step cautiously here. Now what seems to be the actual issue? Do you have a bonafide complaint to lodge against my son and, by virtue of being the father of a minor, me? Or was he rather rude? Then he must apologize. Are you irritated with his music choices? Then perhaps you need to apologize–we all have our tastes, not to be confused with good or bad.” He looked her up and down calmly.

Jonathan was showing a slight concern with nervous tapping against a thigh of his right hand, eyes downcast, but he now placed hands on hips and stood with feet apart, as if mustering for a round of punches.

“Now wait a minute–” she started.

“What seems to be the trouble here, Evangeline?” Van appeared and stepped forward to join her line of defense.

“And you?” the man demanded. “If this misguided woman your wife?”

Van showed his false white teeth. “That is certainly not part of this problem. Apparently there’s been a dispute over something I sadly missed.”

“I said wait a darned minute!” Evangeline stepped forward and held up the camera.”I want you to take a look at this. I took pictures of his offense. It’s clear what he did and he needs to rectify that wrong or there will be an problem neither of you can so easily dispel.”

“Ah,” Van said and stepped back a bit. “Yes, better take a look at her evidence. She means business.”

A sales person had been alerted and was warily watching them. He didn’t really want to have to intervene with that customer; the man often came in to buy up the best and priciest offerings.

But Jeff  and Jonathan Rickard watched as the condemning pictures paraded, five of them. Then then fell silent a moment.

Van shook his head at the boy.”She’s on it, this lady, really on top of things.”

“Dad.” His arrogance had been whittled a bit, but he was still trying for the long shot.

Jeff looked as if he was going to spew all sorts of legalese, then thought again.”Jonathan, march back over to where you found those–your pockets are nearly bulging!– and put every one of those back, you hear me? Now!”

Jonathan shot Evangeline a last withering look and hurried back to the scene of the crime.

“Do you like Latin music?” Van asked. “I just wondered as I saw you over there earlier. I was looking for something, too.”

Jeff was angry and embarrassed, his face going pink and splotchy. He swung around to Van with impatience. “What’s that now? I like many kinds of music. Look, lady, sorry this happened but really, it is not worth making a scene about…My son is a good kid and he slipped up.”

“Evangeline Templeton is my name. I’m sorry it happened, too, but he needs to be held accountable or it will happen again. I’ve seen it before–the end result is not good, surely you realize! That was bold to take something in your presence, in a store you enjoy.” She looked straight into bloodshot eyes. “He should have punishment.”

“Anything wrong over here?” A pimply faced youth not much older than Jonathan, a salesperson, sidled up.

“I was just telling Mr. Rickard that Evangeline, my friend here, was married to one of the greatest vibraphonists of all time, Carter Templeton. Pretty great, right?”

Jeff Rickard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Really? Impressive.” His eyes gave up their professional glaze; he nearly smiled. “I like that old band, wasn’t it ‘Azure’s Ocean’. No…’Five C Blue’?”

Van blinked. “Close…”

“Amazing, right,” the sales person added.”Looks, not my niche. But as long as you all are okay…”

“Fine, fine, right?” Jeff asked.

He left them to their own devices, then headed to the computer to look up that musician’s name.

Evangeline watched the boy swiftly slip CDs into their crowded slots as if each was a hot potato.

“Alright.” She put her camera into her pocket. “Harm averted. More or less. For now.”

“I tend to agree,” Van said, the added under his breath, “but he’s a slick kid.”

“Agreed,” Jeff stated with decisiveness and a hint of relief. “Thanks. You will delete those, right? Or should I wait to watch you do it?

“She will.”

Jonathan slinked back to his important father, hands shoved in his pants pockets.

Evangeline addressed Jonathan. “You need to realize the importance of music, even old music, even used and forgotten music. You need to pay for this music, for the musicians working hard to entertain or shake up or inspire you. Not steal it, got that?”

The boy’s face was caught between brazen amusement, regret and humiliation. He really looked at her, then away. She saw something deeper there, something sadder, smarter or both. He and his father paid for the Beatles and left.

Van and Evangeline slipped out without notice of a few eyeing them. Ambled past second hand shops, the new and used bookstore. She was too tired to stop and snap more.

“That was exhausting–and why bring up Carter’s name once more?”

“I thought it might help. It did, sort of.” They passed a rundown, packed cafe. “I need something to bouy me. Want to share a chocolate cupcake?”

“No, not now, let’s go back. I’m done with documenting humanity. I’ll make you a fresh French press coffee or you can have more tea and I might get my chocolate chip cookies out of hiding. Despite your sugar-burdened diet. Or make you a nice sandwich.”

“Yes, even better, Evangeline, I’m all for a sandwich–with cookies.”

She had an impulse to punch him on the shoulder but he stood too tall. Besides, it was best not to punch a man already limping about, rightly so or not.

“I do think you have a knack. You could become a private investigator and offer discounts for seniors–”

She slapped his forearm. “You never stop. I intend on taking more pictures, just not today. I see people and places, all kinds of life in a fresh light. May need to reconsider who, where and how… but it feels good. Just don’t bring up Carter again anytime soon. Please. That’s the expired past, my own past. This is the voluptuous present. Hopefully you like me for, well, me, not my deceased ex-husband being famous. Let’s mosey about in each new today more, shall we?”

“Quite right, Ev.” He liked this talk. It lent hope and delight to all things. “I surely do enjoy you for you.”

“And thanks for being there, too, Vanderbilt Garner. I may have had less restraint with the youngster had there not been a better-natured voice.”

Van made a strangled sound as if she had hurt him by saying his real name aloud. He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezed a tad, then let it slip around to lower back. She laughed, good and rowdy. They hobbled home, Evangeline thinking Van had a valorous streak as well as a cheeky one. The summer might improve, all in all.

They felt relieved when they beheld the courtyard. The children had gone in search of other enticements. Mistral Manor’s fountain gushed and burbled as summer played on watery cascades, like fingers of light on a beautiful instrument.

 

Hello Readers, this is the second short story featuring Evangeline and her community at Mistral Manor. The first was recently posted here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/three-lives-for-evangeline/

 

 

Come to Me, My Shining Time

Williim Eggleston
Photo by William Eggleston

Though I’d just awakened, I was to get up and meet him at the Tacos ‘n Thai cart owned by Javier and Apsara. Not my favorite place at the moment. Food and I have not been on good terms even when I can afford more than this. Stress attacks my insides. The scraping for money. The nights I try to trick my body into sleep as I rock back and forth, all knees and elbows in the hammock Neal left on my porch when he disappeared. I am not often left with an appetite for breakfast. Hunger for relief, yes. I just want to live normally, take care of my business and do good things with no whining. Not so remarkable, but you’d never know it from the fears that threaten to abscond with my brain.

“Lily, back at last!”

Apsara flashes her monumental smile and the morning is improved. Her good will makes every dollar I spend here worthwhile so I order a side of rice noodles with egg, carrots and mushrooms with a bubble tea.

“You got something going on now?” She means work; she dabs her brow with the hem of her apron. “Shining that sweetie face in more glossies?”

“Modelling…well, no. I’ve been cleaning more houses for the past couple months. It covers gaps since Neal left.”

“Cleaning still… ” Her round face clouds and her lips purse.  “No good!” But her smile returns as she pushes a pen further into her hair and stands tall. She never prods for information, unlike her husband. “I’ll get you fed.”

I don’t know if she means “no-good man” or just “that’s bad news”, but either way it may come down to the same thing: not the best situation. I find the man who was with me for two and a half years entering my mental screen, all lankiness, blustery talk and warmly lit pools for eyes. A filmmaker, he was often gone. This time gone for good, and it’s not as hard as it looks to others. He was difficult to take in doses bigger than a few days after the first six months. It wasn’t his roving mind, the constant storytelling; I like stories and ideas. It was his expansive self-appreciation. I got bored. Even though he helped me out as my money dwindled, it was not such a sad day when he left on a promising European project, gone before dawn.

I need rent and grocery money, not him. I need things to go just right for me for once. My own time to come, my own passion to be acknowledged and enjoyed. And it’s sure not modelling, which shocked Neal. Well, it would.

Javier sticks his head out and waves. “Back for the best, I see!” he shouts, causing a handful of customers to gawk. “That good-for-nothing guy gone or what?” He makes a motion with his hand as if saying “good riddance” or worse, then is yanked back in by Apsara.

As I walk to a far table, I cringe. My personal life doesn’t need to go public in my neighborhood. I know I should get used to this, a different life. A harder one. I’ve considered the food bank but can’t handle the thought of lining up behind parents who have kids crying in their arms. Patient and often disoriented homeless. Clots of women pared down in size and spirit who are spurred to action by their men or a gnawing pain in their stomachs. It doesn’t seem right; I should be able to manage by now, not take from those who need it when I eat unevenly, that’s all. I’m almost thirty and haven’t gotten off to a roaring success. Well, the modelling paid well but that isn’t the success I aim to have.

As my madly successful family reminds me.

“You might consider getting a skill at last that equals a dependable and decent paycheck,” my father, a mover and shaker in biotech, advised on the phone. I had called for two hundred dollars to pay past due water and electricity. Every word including a “please and sorry” felt like failure. His voice can disguise itself as an audible grater, shredding both my eardrum and self esteem.

I pinned my cell between ear and shoulder as I folded clothes on the bed, then let it slip to the quilt as he continued to enumerate all I might have done or still could do. I counted in sevens as I did even as a kid. It still helps calm me.

“–instead of trying to become some sort of photographer! Art for dear art’s sake does not make for very fortuitous ends. Why couldn’t you have stayed with modelling longer?At least that got you in some doors and offered tangible rewards.”

“Yes, dad,” I murmured into the pause.

“Lily? You still there? You want your mother to talk to you? She’s just back from her book club.”

I clutched the phone and let my eyes rest on a dark corner of my room. I thought how it might look in a wide angle shot, a young woman with voluminous flame-red hair facing a dark plum wall, shoulders and feet bare, soft light slipping over her back. Her shadow flimsier than she imagines. I closed my eyes. “No, dad, it’s fine, I’ll call her another time. And thanks for the money, I’ll keep you posted.”

“Right, will do and love you, just get back on track.”

I’ve lived off my modelling savings for over eleven months and it is about gone now. My three year contract with the agency ran out. I haven’t returned phone calls from other agencies. I don’t want to be anyone else’s mannequin. Beauty alone can carry you for a great many miles. But long ago it left me at a dead end where its meaning and values are at odds with my idea of a real life. How can anyone pay such big money to hang clothes and jewels on my torso? To use me as a canvass for someone else’s often hallucinatory visions? It’s all disposable, even meaningless as I take the longer view.

It was a convenience from the start–easy money before, during and after college where I garnered an Art History degree. But I’m sick of it, want to shed that persona like a coat both heavy and sweaty. I am a burning creature inside this muscle and bone, burning with dreams and impatience.

Neal did not understand my doubts, nor did he try. He found my career invigorating, a jump start for his tendency toward sluggish ambition. I got to be his muse for a bit, gratifying at first. And a useful asset when we went to the endless parties and he could say, “This is my partner, Lily, who last had a starring role in British Vogue. Isn’t that wild?”

“Noodles steaming hot!” Apsara calls out.

I get up and walk near an occupied table. There is “the look” from three young men, that ten second stare as I come and go. The hair, the legs and so on.

“Got a minute?” one asks and another elbows him. The third whistles low and tunefully.

I want to snap my teeth at him and make terrible faces.

Javier is right behind his wife, grilling and turning meat and peppers and onions for tacos but he stops to turn to me.

“So what about it? Gonna go back to modelling jobs or still trying to sell those pictures of yours?”

I pick up the plate, succulent steam flowing from Apsara’s noodles into my nostrils. “No, done with the first and working on the second. I’ll figure it out.” I dole out ten dollars, glad for change.

“And we’ll put a few pounds back on for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll help out if you need it.”

He gives his head an affirmative nod and his dark eyes fill with an odd mixture of compassion and gentle mirth. I want to take their photographs: hustling side by side in early mornings and into late nights, the joking and running into each other and cussing and stealing kisses. They’re life being lived on maximum volume, quick to respond, full of enthusiasm, cooking a way of life and an offering of affection.

“You got what it takes, little sister,” Apsara says, leaning in the open window. “I know you make it. Your dream life. Look us, we get it done, so too you, Lily.”

Tears arise hot behind my eyes but I shoot her a grateful smile and head back to my spot, the fragrance of noodles and veggies a rich perfume. I thought I wasn’t even hungry but I had thought I wasn’t lonely, either.

“Hey, you lookin’ so good!” The whistler gets up and ambles over. “Got a number?”

“It’s not available, just move on.”

He makes a sour face, as if he put his hand in the shimmering water and got stung.  “You got sass, my oh my!” he says but takes off to catch up with his friends.

True enough, I’ve shown it all: sass, melancholy, wide-eyed surprise, riotous excitement, wild fierceness, seductiveness, tender innocence–you name it, I can locate each and work it into my face and my limbs as fast as demanded. But today I feel tired, vulnerable, transparent to the world. Just like yesterday.

Except for that early phone call. Even the persistent ring sounded official and yet I hung back, unwilling to find out who was on the other line. It wasn’t a familiar number.

“Lily here; hello?”

“Herb Winters. We talked last month, remember? Meet me at the food cart, that Mexican and Thai one by the park in an hour. I like it for lunch sometimes.”

I ate half my food when my stomach began to balk. I wanted to leave before Mr. Winters arrived. His voice was devoid of clues as to whether he had good news or bad. That might mean exactly that: indifference. The worst sort of response to baring one’s soul. No one has ever seen my photos up close in person except for two people: my oldest friend and then Neal. It took all I had of small courage to take my portfolio to his gallery. Leave it there for his scrutiny. When I didn’t hear anything after two weeks, then three and four, I knew I had made a serious miscalculation. I hoped Mr. Winters would be open to my work because I admire what he hangs in Winters’ Photographic Arts Gallery: pictures exposing human foibles; scenes of ordinary life so vivid with insight, perspective; moments captured that revealed deeper truth; such layers of texture and form and hue.

If my photography has any true power, it will hold onto one millisecond of life that renders it visible to many, each person bringing with them their history and inquiries, emotions and intuition. A slice of life is brought close not entirely by me in a blink of focus, a suspension of time–but also by the vision others bring to the result. Their eyes see with mine. And I want that intersection to be transformative for them. I’m not sure I want to invoke anything except attentiveness, an experience of all else falling away so the one standing before my visual notations knows some of what I observed and felt, then adds adds his and her embroidering to it.

Exploration can begin that easily. I want us all to be witnesses to lives we carry and lead. To say: I am here; I acknowledge this moment, feel this life force move, regenerate.

And what else is there? A series of truths to absorb and share. I think about all this every day now. About how much I want to make pictures, have them in shows. Put them in print. Hope others emerge from the seeing with a greater sense of life’s density and transparency, too. I guess what I want is to find each essence, then be a person who will tell her truth.

I tried to explain this to Neal. He found me contradictory–“A foxy model longing to be profound?” he teased. I was thought ridiculous with my desire to create something more worthy. Change the ways we know the world, even for even one person? No, not this pretty woman.

“Entertain them,” he said, “that’s exactly what every one wants and that is my aim. Distraction–not being more present in this miserable world.”

I slipped away without answering, the moment emptying me of it.

I have never been very religious in ways I suppose I might be, but photography is a kind of conduit to God. Through my cameras I begin to discover what makes things as they are. The mysterious otherness of each perceived creation shows me a holy Presence. Stillness, astonishment, awe, grace: all I could otherwise lose possesses me with magic. I feel as if caught inside the perfect whorl of time, a still point where everything is unified. Makes sense or may, one day. I feel rent and made whole all at once.

This I could never experience as the posed subject of a camera, as a person to oggle, study or use as a vehicle to advertise material goods. To design an identity that was as foreign to me as my cohorts’ (including Neal’s) hunger for wealth and public adulation. My beauty was a destination for many; for me, simple DNA. Then a reckoning. Then a barrier. But I will define myself through and beyond these. Be a human being who does, not only who is.

I shred the paper napkin in my hands, look at my watch, sip the chilled bubble tea. Herb Winters is late. Nerves jiggle my leg and foot.

Javier is wiping sweat from his forehead with his plaid-shirted forearm, fists full of cooking tools. The lunch crowd lines up, then disperses. Some shift their weight as they check the menu, others stand with arms crossed, patient. A moving tableau of color and form. I reach for my camera and start to shoot, get up and move quietly, my old friends unaware, lunch people shuffling and taking places at tables. The high sun is clear, golden in the autumn coolness, an element that competes with the faces, then complements expressions rippling one to another. A wave of fascination for my eye.

Apsara looks up, past me, her eyes locked on the far treeline, perhaps, and she is turning luminous, black hair almost sparking, her mouth a ripe berry as happiness gathers and she turns toward Javier. He slips his arms about her, pulls her close so their foreheads meet. Another customer arrives, waits, rubbing his tired neck as he watches such big love. But there are so many aromatic choices for lunch. He speaks up. They laugh. My camera finds them all somehow exquisite and I take them in, fill up with images as they are framed and snapped, spellbound.

A shadow splays itself across my path.

“Lily Rossiter?”

I look up. It is Mr.Winters. He has my portfolio under his arm.

We find our way back to my picnic table but it is full up now, so we walk.

“I have spent good time studying your work. I’ve begun to see what you’re doing.”

“Yes? You have?”

He’s a big man, has a girth that is not enviable but he walks with a long, easy stride. I match his steps.

He nods. His beard is more silver than black I see now, his face more lined. It is a good, open face, the sort that’s both distinguished and capable of humor. My heart takes off and I wait for his final report.

“You want to love everything and everyone. The longing is there, the care.”

I steal a glance at him but he is not looking my way. What he says is true, I realize. I feel my insides have been exposed.

“But not everything is lovable, not everyone commands the valor of it.”

“Maybe so… I hope otherwise. I know there’s much more to taking pictures than beautiful design or engaging people or other creatures.”

He says nothing as we enter the park. We’re walking faster. The birds are chorusing and kids are playing basketball; there’s a woman with a red and white striped dress on and she’s reading under trees. I want him to just tell me–that it isn’t going to happen, he doesn’t find my attempts at photography commendable yet; I must work and study harder. Maybe he’s a man like my father, wanting me to wake up and get back to real life, that making art, honoring life and giving it my heart needs to stop before I make a fool of myself.

“You have a lot to learn, Lily Rossiter, but you have both eye and courage, I suspect, to do this. I want to hang a few of your photographs soon. You have much more to do to prepare for inclusion in my next show, ‘Discovery: Works of Rising Photographers’.”

I am about to burst with fear. “I know I need education or a mentor but I had to take a chance. Maybe you can tell me what to improve…wait, hold on…you want my photographs?”

Mr. Winters takes my hand, presses it between both of his thick, warm palms. “I think you have a gift. Let’s see what happens. I’ll call to set up a formal meeting.”

“Thank you… so much.” It comes out a hoarse whisper.

He heads for the Tacos ‘n Thai food cart. I’m standing by the merry-go-round with my portfolio so put it under a bush and hop on, push off from the ground so it starts to spin and gathers speed, and the sunshine is velvet on my skin and the breeze is sweetness and then children call out and jump on. We turn, turn, turn and there’s laughter and squealing. I lie back, let all my mad hair go and it flings itself over the dusty earth like a brazen, happy flag of victory.