Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Longest Day of August

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Mama Leah waited showing only the barest signs of distress for two years, expectations high and prayers fattened with gratitude. After all, she’d had everyone for twenty years, longer than many if shorter than some. Pops had gone his own way on it but then he would, he was the one who had caused it all. Or so part of the extended family determined. The others kept their opnions to themselves after the first go ’round. No one was as heated after two years passed by, though. And Pops was the type who sooner or later shrugged off all hard times as the way of things, the general luck of the working man. He didn’t mention it after the first year, when he told Mama Leah to take any other tears right out of that house, they’d had three other children in case she forgot. She made four rhubarb pies instead, then gave them away and that was that. For the moment. She could not believe he did what he did. It was a near-lethal puncture in their full lives.

But the second year of a certain date, the second actual anniversary of the event, she sat on the porch and studied the yard as if it was laid out just for the eye and soul to hunger over. Adorned with flowers every season, the expanse of rainbow hues caught everyone’s attention and gave succor to many who had all but given up on their plodding or ravaged days and nights. At least Mama Leah’s garden carried on like a dream, big and bountiful as she was, bursting with the glories of life. It gave them hope when all else felt paltry. And she shared vegetables from the kitchen garden, too; you could walk right over and snap a fat tomato or strapping pumpkin right off the vines and she’d wave at you next time you passed by. Though almost nobody did that much excepting Terry Harney. And he could be forgiven with crooked leg and lopsided face, all from jumping the train and missing.

So there Mama Leah was, leaning over the railing, head moving back and forth, making sure her plants had soaked up the daily feed of water. Then she sat on the railing, her girth settling about, her hand steadied against a corner pillar. The sun was high and it was blazes out. She had been at work all day in the yard, in the kitchen. Pops had come from the mill for lunch and lastly savored a berry crumble, then left her with just three words even if they were good ones: “sweet like you”.

“Sweetness gone sour today,” she said to herself and slapped the railing with her dish towel. Then she descended the stairs and sat under the oak and willow trees and contemplated what the date meant to her now.

She recalled shouting and heat so inflamed her head hurt and her thin shirt stuck to chest and back like another skin despite the overhead fans and a lush breeze. She recalled how Pops had stopped her from reaching out a third time to Jonas, not stopped with his hand but with that single look, the one that curdled her insides. She’d ignored him, just run after Jonas, feet stumbling, but he’d gotten into his truck and backed out with a skid, yelling as he slammed the gearshift into drive.

“I won’t be coming back with tail between my legs, no sir! I’m good and done with the lot of you!” He swiped at his mouth with back of hand but kept going. “Sorry Mama,” he called out, “done is done!”

“Jonas!” she yelled. Not once, not twice but until she made him stop and idle in that street. And he gave her a stare that was weighted with feeling, his eyes filling with tears. Or that’s how Mama Leah remembered it. It might have been the sunlight’s certain angle glinting off him, but she sure felt all those tears raging inside him despite the anger and bravery and, yes, maybe foolishness. Then he was gone, rocks splitting apart the saturated August air.

It was like a long slash across her spirit, seeing that country dirt and their misery and grief caught between his teeth, and that good head full of dangerous ideas. And in her mouth were trapped the words of love she had uttered every day of his life in one way or another and could not now dislodge as she fell into the well of grief. Oh, how things bled from her, sacred things, and she could not put them back inside, not the same.

Mama Leah sat heavily in one garden chair and lay her straw hat in the other, patting the frayed top one time. Emphasis was on saving the seat. She might sit there the rest of the afternoon. Just in case. Her dark hair lifted off her neck in a gust, a fine blessing.

It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She had the patience. And she had the heart for it.

******

It was that August day again of the twelfth year. Time had begun to spin its tales on Mama Leah. Her big frame was whittled down enough that folks still looked twice, not sure if it was her in there. And her face, if still lit with a ready warmth, was roughed up with furrows on her forehead and lines a little like seams sewn under newly revealed cheekbones. Her hair stayed bound up now, white strays sprouting curls about her temples. Her talk was still generous, just much quieter, as if trying to not actually whisper though it felt more natural.

Pops had gotten louder when he needed to speak. It likely was worsening hearing that made him bolder and harder. Some said he just had to make some kind of statement out of his presence since he’d been passed over for the foreman’s job. Oh hell, he’d said one day at Clary’s Cafe, no one wanted to boss around his friends, anyway, he’d ride his job out another ten years and retire and get lazy and fat. Which he would not, not Pops Riddle with his knife- thin torso, that still-muscled back and arms and relentless love of work.

Their kids, Mallory, Ginny and Red, had one by one vacated the old family farmhouse–the first, Mallory, off to a two year college, then stayed in the city to their surprise but she did well for herself. A computer tech person, they said proudly. The other two migrated down the street, around a few corners in either direction. There were grandkids, one each, and the required (Mama Leah and Pops were relieved) spouses. They visited time to time and always for Sunday dinner and an hour to chat or watch a game or play games with the little ones. Ginny and Red scoped out Mama Leah with sideways glances, but gave no signal of worry. She had changed but, then, they all had, only natural. Pops saw it, too. He’d every now and then put an arm around her, give her a squeeze. She acted as if he wasn’t there at first, then glanced up at him with a mild smile, get busy again. Other than that they did okay, their kids thought, and then would ponder how that could even be.

That day they’d stood face to face in the front yard, well, passersby couldn’t help but hear much of it. Pops had told Jonas to “get out then, feed your own self, pay your own way picking a ratty old guitar in a dark corner, become regrettable.”

This came after he’d offered Jonas a good job at the mill and Jonas said he’d not stoop that low, not anymore, he’d quit his butcher store job, too, he couldn’t stand it another minute.

“I’m not gonna be chained to this worthless dump of a town, work the grind day in day out until I’m worn down to smallness, then nothing! I’m going out west, making an interesting life and I’ll be a singer for sure, never a factory rat, and not like you!”

Pops looked so terrible hard at his oldest that his eyes weren’t even his anymore, and spat on the ground. Stomped back onto the porch and turned a last time.

“You foolish, ungrateful boy, your mother and I have worked our skin off to raise this family up from the dirt, to give you more and better! Did you think a man labors hard for less than that? You want to just sing about it all? Go on. Don’t you ever throw your shadow on this house again.”

His face puffed up, beet red, he’d slammed the door behind him right after Mama Leah came around from the back, running after Jonas.

The younger children and folks stopped on the sidewalk had never heard Pops speak so eloquently, and Red and Ginny hadn’t ever seen Mama Leah lose control and holler out their brother’s name so the whole town could hear their business.

So after this, no one said his name in that house. No one dared say how they still missed him every day, big brother with his dreams, quick laugh and temper, the echoing silences that he’d once filled up with songs and jokes. His flannel shirts hung in a back closet, still sturdy and nubby to the touch, pants and miscellaneous in a box, a reprimand behind a locked door. But no one moved his leather boots from under the back stoop where they grew a thin mesh of greenish mildew, and filled with ants and spiders. They’d disintegrate before they’d ever show themselves in the dawning of day.

Mama Leah didn’t have to check a calendar as each summer drew to a close. It was an ordinary day to anyone else, but on August 24th it announced itself in her center as if ten cow bells were rung hard. The early hours of the world just vibrated. Morning sunlight passed through her skin, flashed inside her so everything felt ablaze.

She took herself from the laundry room at last and then to the weather-worn chair, removed her new sun hat and lay it on the second seat.

It had been so long, day melting into night over and over, one season turning to reveal the next, sun and moon and stars traipsing across the sky in a good rhythm. Never had she thought to be this old, fifty-two now. Leah had just been twelve, climbed the biggest maple in the side yard and boasted of her independence. She had been loud and clear. She had been possessed of youth’s unstoppable joy. But her mother fell ill, was better off and on while Leah somehow finished school, then went off to work.

And there was Pops. Horace it was then but he hated that name so when they finally got married–after he’d gotten a better job at the mill, after she’d worked front desk some years for the small real estate office, then got possession of the family house– only then she had begun to call him Pops like some others did, no good reason why though he was to become one. Her own father had gone back to Georgia relatives after her mother fell from the ladder. She had been picking apples from their own tree despite her tiredness, and so fell fast as lightning. Broke her neck. Leah had been picking some at the other tree and was struck helpless, terrorized by the scene. Her father didn’t leave until he’d chopped down that demon tree and blasted the giant stump out. With all that, she’d shrunk and paled with loss until one day she saw how she had to become all that was necessary just to be alive. And to be ready for hard things to happen. They would again, she was certain of that much.

Now it was twelve years to the day that words like bulls on the loose edged her first son way past the family circle. Beyond an embrace of its strength and affection. Maybe all Jonas could recall anymore were those added up hardships. The sloppy boots that had to be repaired over and over despite his sore feet and embarrassment, just no way to make enough money to get really good new ones. Their dinner table usually a jumble of cross talk or jabs of silence, their father at the far end who chewed on without comment as out from beneath heavy brows those eyes were sharp, questioning. And there was the dense emptiness lurking about Mill Street after he had sung karaoke, no one there to applaud but drunk buddies and those same few girls who flocked about and made him scared he’d end up captive.

That first son, Jonas, singing to her while he helped her with the back straining work in the gardens. Son of dreamy eyes, and a sudden reach of temper, a heart of a poet-warrior that found no war worth the effort. She got that much but how does a person grow up right without something true to fight for? He’d had to find it, get a firm hold on it.

Mama Leah had her children and her gardens and a marriage. But not all her children and so not all of her marriage. Only her gardens were ever faithful. These things wore on body and soul some days.

She let her hair down, let it gently scrape her neck, a bare hint of shoulders, swing under her top and between her shoulder blades until that skin recalled a hand of her husband’s, sweetness or desire. She shook the heavy weight of it, gathered it back in the clip. There was no good breeze, only the heat, only the heavens above like a giant blue eye. She watched the street, waved at walkers and cyclists who looked her way, murmured soothing greetings if they stopped. Told them to pick flowers or veggies if they liked. Bees buzzed about her head, deciding if they wanted to commune with their old friend until fast they zipped back to business of honey in blossoms. The afternoon slipped away; her eyes shut halfway. She could make out a thin glimpse of tree limbs, and it was restful to think of a world defined by such.

Yet Jonas wasn’t coming. Not this day, no. It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She had the patience. But she had less heart than she expected.

******

Another, then another and more robust, thundering, glistening Augusts maximized and spread out their verdant beauties like a buffet until finally it was twenty years after that first day.

Front, side and back yards were stippled dark and light as sunshine played among trees, crowds of flowers, rounded bushes. Pops was holed up in his garage workshop repairing a three-legged wooden stool and tinkering. Mama Leah was upstairs resting after canning more peaches. He’d check on her soon, make sure she wasn’t having one of her spells. Red and Ginny had warned not to say that; she had heart trouble, not any passing “spells.” But Pops preferred thinking she’d lie down or get up any time she pleased. Nothing stopped her long. She’d had a bad time of it the last couple years but it was another year and she dealt with it, was strong, stronger than he was. Though he had no physical fault lines that he knew of–he didn’t stop to think about it, just a fool’s pastime to ponder such things. He–they–kept going. If there was something broke you patched it; it’d last a long while, maybe forever. Mama Leah knew. She repaired much, even people in her way. Pops was a tough one but soon he’d retire, then she’d have less to sweat each day, less to worry over alone.

Sheer whiteness with edges embroidered in serpentine vines swelled with air, went slack, billowed and deflated, and were sucked against the screen. She knew what day it was. She lay in her sun dress with arms outstretched, bare legs and feet splayed. At the windows maple and oak leaves shook, a soft, innocent sound. Mama Leah felt she must count blessings: heart beating one more day, healthy children and grandchildren (three now), food on the table and in pantry, her garden. A husband who came home every day, gave her a kiss on a cheek, loved her in his way.

Oddly, the gardens flourished better than last year, even the years before. It was as if the more she longed for her son, the more earth offered up its consolation. She sometimes wept over the flowers pulled close to her chest–she wept nowhere else–and they took those into their lives and gave her spectacular petals, sturdier stems, deeper roots. It showed her a future of more abundance and  some days it was unbearable, that span of beauty, but she would not stop, could not resist caring for all things that grew like magic from the simple toil of her hands.

The open door to the sleeping porch let in perfumed wafts of air. Late afternoon’s caramel light hovered, a canopy of delicacy near suspended over the bed. Her damp skin shivered, ears were attuned, her mind clear.

It was that time when the day answers your flesh with a sigh and you succumb to the pause. The spirit looks up and sees the veils between bitter and sweet, love and loss, and the essence of it all just fills you up. It is the moment you wait for even if you don’t realize it, that frisson of energy hissing in your veins, a tiny suspension in eternity.

She rolled to the edge of bed, got up, went to the screen door and pushed it open. There was a song drifting by. It came from the trees so Mama Leah stepped into the sleepy day, parted silvery hair from her face and surveyed treetops, then the yard and finally the grassy earth below her.

She remembered, and took one deep breath and released it. It took patience to wait for reconciliation, much like waiting for the bone dry bed of the creek to fill with rain and gush forth higher water, a beautiful ripple of waves that carried sustenance, and little leaves, rocks and fine starry light your way again. She knew this to be truth and she had the patience. But she found she had so little heart for it as the past year had rolled by; the organ had roiled and ached in her so long, it’d had to be finally cut into, and things rearranged, and then stitched back up.

She pulled up a chair and patted the empty one, anyway, and watched the street and its people, heard birds tell tales, then crickets faintly begin as the sun sank lower without complaint. She could have stayed til dinner but that she had to cook it. So she stretched out her legs, pointed naked toes, thought of pearly nail polish, how she sometimes missed the simplest silly things.

Then appeared a candy apple red car, just made its way into their driveway and parked nice and neat. Music turned up too loud, a door flung open, and the person who emerged strutted across the yard like a man who had found a miracle, arms opened wide to land and sky and house.

To his mother looking down in disbelief.

Mama Leah yelled, “You–thank God in Heaven!–came home, Jonas! You’re home again!”

“Yes, Mama! With my songs, Mama, you hear that music? My own songs!”

Mama Leah rushed downstairs and every step she screamed for Pops and he burst from the garage just as she exited the house. Before they knew it, they were all three thrown together, stunned. Humbled. And about to be freed.

 

Tissane and the Truest Truth

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Tissane isn’t afraid of her mother yet she feels as if she still could be. Melinda has always had power, cutting a swath through life with the incisive edge of her words, her intelligence an army of rebuttals. The fury of her routine inquisitions could pierce three layers of winter clothing and locate the tender spot where the mighty heart shuddered. Her amber eyes were like lasers set to short circuit Tissane’s own ideas. She was formidable. Until the last couple years.

She’s getting carried away. It was perhaps not so traumatic as all that. Those sentences arise from memories of being thirteen until maybe seventeen, when the sound of her mother’s voice at six a.m or p.m. often landed like a smack. Dangerous days then, her great need of adventure bypassing curfew and other rules. Beyond her mother’s grasp and her father’s burden of sighs. Her father was so absent that they were all they had, and Jonny, of course, for awhile. Then only Pill, the scrappy little mutt Tissane got her mother after she graduated college. A gift for putting up with her until she managed to grow up and succeed. That name was reasonable. Her mother had ingested tranquilizers like they were jelly beans. Instead of taking another pill she had that fussy, bouncy dog to focus on. Melinda’s true nature was revealed day by day. It was some better. And some worse. Nothing was the same in every way, though. Not after Jonny, then dad.

They fought out of the need to not love each other too much, she has thought since then. There was so much that could be lost.

Now it’s just the two of them. Not even that. Most of the time Melinda is alone. Tissane lives three hours away by plane. But it’s Thanksgiving week and Melinda had heart valve surgery three weeks ago. Tissane couldn’t come then; she was in Bali. Melinda’s recovery seems to inch along. She called to ask her to come to spend the whole week, help her out.

“Yes, mom, I likely can. I’ll check.”

But should she? They hadn’t talked much in the last few years. Tissane had a high pressure job in aquisitions in a big hotel conglomerate. Two new ones opening up in the next three months. There were meetings wedged between others, plans to execute, sites to visit. Travel afforded her independence she had craved her whole life.

And distance. She thought she had more in common with her father, long gone and now a retired pilot, than she liked to admit.

“Four days. Mom, I can’t spare more unless you don’t have decent help. If it’s critical.”

“Of course I have help; I’m in a swanky place that guarantees it. But is it even par? Is it worth the money I pay out? Not likely. And how can it remotely be critical? It was only a heart valve, Tissane. They replace them like rubber tubing, in, out, a couple neat stitches and done!”

Tissane bit her lip to squelch a retort. At least she sounded more like herself. She made arrangements and got there fast.

Now she has been listing things she needs at the store. No lukewarm Thanksgiving dinner to be delivered to the door. Tissane will make something good.

“I don’t want you to go to a lot of bother, dear. I’m not the ravenous type, you know. We can have canned pears well-chilled, a dash of cinnamon, and one of those handy pre-roasted chickens.”

“Is that what you prefer? Or my Rock Cornish hens? You used to like those.”

“There’s so little meat on those delicate bones. Is that what you eat? No wonder you’re so thin, dear.” She sniffs several messy sniffs. “Hand me a tissue will you? And a mint. The chocolate mints in that ghastly pumpkin dish. Saralee–I know, what a name– gave it to me. She has good taste but it took a hiatus. She shops at flea markets with her son now once a month. Dreadful.”

Tissane watches as she chooses three mints, then dabs her nose. She is propped up with two pillows and frequently requires readjusting. Her hair, though, looks as if it has been freshly washed and set. It hasn’t been done since Tissane arrived yesterday morning. She sleeps on satin pillow cases.

She’s beautiful at seventy-four. Maybe more than before, with a relaxing of tension that used to make her look severe at times. Her silvery white hair waves around her sallow face, etched with lines around mouth and eyes. Her golden brown eyes are at odds with the swoop of her hair. Their liveliness draws people but her powers of observation too quickly deducts who they really are. Tissane would not be surprised if her mother is both loved and resented, perhaps even hated, now as in the past.

“I will buy the birds, red potatoes or rice pilaf, fresh green beans, salad fixings–add stuffing if you like.”

“Leave the stuffing. Pilaf preferred. I’ll benefit from Saralee’s stuffing artistry later.”

Her mother painfully raises her shoulders a quarter-inch. Tissane rearranges the pillows until she is more comfortable.

“Are you good, mom? I’ll head to the store unless you need something.”

“Another pain pill. Please.”

Tissane raises her eyebrows, hesitates with list in hand. It has barely been four hours. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, mom.”

“Now would be good! My dear, I don’t have patience or time to be polite.  Let’s get on with it. This was not a fun surgery.”

“No.”

“I think they broke every single chest bone getting in, getting out. I am not convinced even breathing is recommended. Much less talking. But. Being mute is no option. The thought of leaving this bed is less enticing than expected, I can tell you. Yet I don’t feel like reading much. What can I do but lie here? Perhaps chat with you.”

She seems exhusted–all those words. She smiles at Tissane. Her eyes warm enough that her daughter thinks of tiger eye stones and honey. Of caramel, yes. Perhaps that oddly bitter and sweet marmalade of her youth. It makes her feel like she’s ten and that triggers shakiness, to her alarm.

“I’ll take your word on the pain. Yes, we’ll definitely chat more.”

She studies Melinda; Melinda gazes back but with flagging interest. Then Tissane gets the bottle of narcotics, shakes out a pill, hands her mother the water glass. Watches her swallow, and then her eyes lower to half-mast.

As she leaves the bedroom, Tissane waves but her mother doesn’t see her. She is already moving toward a place where pain will recede like waves at the seashore.

******

The rain started yesterday and has not let up an instant. Tissane is on her way back with two bags. She has turned the wipers on full force. Treetops bend this way and that like muscular dancers. The temperature has dropped greatly and she wonders if her mother is warm enough under two blankets.

The light seems to have been red a long time as her mind wanders. It’s so much nicer in San Francisco. She cannot imagine why her mother chose to remain in Oregon. But, then, she has never liked to move about. Even leaving the couch or a chair by a table after she completed her chores seemed a bother. She read alot or wrote poetry (Tissane saw a few but doesn’t know much for sure) for hours. People came to her. None of that traditional greeting-the-family-at-the-door. Children and husband searched for her when they came home. And then she opened her arms.

They played croquet or badminton or bean nag toss with dad ten times to every one with her. She sat on a white wrought iron bench in the shade, bare feet tucked under her. Looked up from the magazine to emit a sound that might be mistaken for a faint bleat of acknowledgement if you listened hard enough. Then came the critiques of their form or foul play, as she did seem to know about games even as a spectator.

A driver behind her lays on the horn several times. The light is now green. On a quick take off her rental car slips, slides sideways and for a minute she thinks she’ll cross the lane and smash into the oncoming truck. She recovers at the last minute, heart in her throat. Sleet is now assaulting everything. It takes her fifteen extra minutes to get back to her mother’s, shoulders knotted with tension.

“Tissane? You back, dear?” Melinda’s voice is a taffeta curl of sound, words drawled out.

“Yes, just now. It’s mad weather out there!”

Tissane sloughs off her wet coat, rubs her hair with a teatowel. She puts away the vegetables and Cornish hens. She is skittish, anxious after the slippery road, and chilled. Her mother sounds drugged. Tissane needs a hot shower and a steaming latte. She needs to be on her own balcony watching the city lights wink on and off. With her cat, Domino.

“Do you want some tea, mom? I’m putting the kettle on.”

There is no answer. She enters the bedroom and watches Melinda’s chest rise and fall rhythmically but shallowly. She wonders what it feels like after something has broken into your chest and meddled with the organ that keeps the body humming. That feels everything first and last. It terrifies her, takes her breath so she sits on the end of the bed, gently so her mother can’t sense her there. She wants to lie down beside her.

She whispers to herself as much as to Melinda. “Remember when Jonny used to draw houses inside houses inside houses? Like those old Russian dolls… And she said it was for protection from the world but also like a maze? We thought she’d be an artist, a first in the family. She always had an idea that was better than mine. Even yours sometimes. She was so…curious.”

Tissane’s voice hurts even in a whisper. Something grabs her larnyx. Melinda rests, eyelids delicate as shells that cover her soul.

“Remember when she told us she saw fairies by the rock behind the oak tree? I thought of that the other day when I saw a pewter one, only pewter but still…she reclined on a shelf at a bookstore. I wondered if Jonny’s fairies were fair or olive-skinned, if they looked like dad or you or no one. I never asked. Did you? Maybe fairies have skin you can see through. I bet she knew.” She swallows the angry crush of tears. “Who would she be now? With us?”

It is true she cannot control herself and she is crying but she doesn’t want to think about it. Nor let it damage things. She is here to help her mother, not herself. Tissane wants to be a strong woman, the grown up daughter she truly is. To take care of everything she needs to take care of even a few days. But her mother looks very small in the aqua-blanketed bed. An exotic fish the size of two hands in a big ocean. She looks very pale beneath the olive tones, as if foreign forces are leaching the vibrance. Like thieves of pain and loss and illness and time have won out.

“But she got hit, that car…ice storm, ’86…” Tears snake down one cheek then the other only to join the green-blue bed, water lost within cottony water. “It was so icy cold, mom. I was scared, she was smarter, older, I couldn’t make her come back…”

She is afraid if she closes her eyes she will see Jonny tossed onto the side of the road. She will yell Jonny’s name. Make a mess of things when she came to aid healing, to be courageous this time. For them both. Tissane keeps them open, stands up, enters the spare kitchen to retrieve the tea kettle. Outside the window she sees the night is blue-black. Quieter. She gets out mugs, tea bags. Dips them a few times. Watches them float, then sink. Blows her nose and splashes kitchen faucet water on her face–she’s startled by its deep chill. She carries the tea drinks, then sits on a bedside chair.

“Tissane. Dear.” He mother’s eyes blink at her a few times so their fading sheen eyes goes off and on, off, on. “Is it snowing? I thought…the wind, how it sounds when it gets snowy. Not likely, I know. Anything can happen in Novemember, right?”

Her daughter places each mug on the lamp table, then turns up the lamp one notch so the room pulses with a faint shimmer.

“Well, it was nasty out when I went to the store. I skidded…it was, I was…”

Melinda turns her head to better see her, surmise the intention of her words, discern her mood. Tissane makes herself glance back. Those eyes the color of hard amber agates they hunted once, up and down Oregon beaches. Her skin, imbued with richer hue after her nap. Since the snag of pain has been unravelled by a pill.

Arched eyebrows rise a little in anticipation of what will next be said. “Yes, Tiss? Then what?”

Tissane reaches for a mug. “It was so windy! A bit slippery. And the snow swirled about so prettily and all I could do was sit and stare at it as I waited at the light. Enchanted. So lovely, how it drifts and dives through the air. It makes me think of little winged things, I don’t know, like the snowflakes have angel wings, or maybe it’s all fairy dust, know what I mean? There is something about the snow that visits here. It’s softer, finer, brighter than any I’ve seen. It won’t last, though. But yes, you do have your snow.”

Tissane hopes so much her mother cannot, will not, read her face or thoughts tonight.

Melinda lifts her mug and breathes in sweetness of orange and spice. “Ah, I can imagine it entirely. Don’t you so appreciate a mystical snow before Thanksgiving? I have to tell you. I do like you being here. In early winter. Fancy Cornish hens. And your kind stories. I-” she sits up a bit, winces, then the pain falls away a moment–“do! Love you! Now I have a story as well. If my will holds out.”

She huffs a bit as she tries to blow across the surface of tea, then sets it down. Her daughter is blinking away memories, eyes lowered. A sure sign of shielding the heart. A shadow of sadness seeks the room. Melinda will need to make it rise over them, transitory as breath. Release them.

“Don’t worry. I’ve only the best tonight, too. Help me get comfortable, Tiss. It may take some work to tell it…you might need to add a few words here and there…”

 

Remarkable Matters

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The place was overtaken by ceramic Siamese cats. They showed off their glossy pale coats, peered into the room with icy eyes, and lorded their eminence over anyone who set foot in the room. Everywhere Clementine looked, they seemed accusatory, as if they knew her reasons for climbing the stairs with leaden feet. She’d had to ring an outside buzzer to get in the building, like it was a secret society up there. What did you call a fortune teller’s work? A consulting business? A fool’s paradise? 

It was attractive once she let herself in. Elegant, in fact, which was surprising considering the neighborhood, fraught with wandering souls and greasy eateries.  She ignored the cats and focused on a wall of pink, blue and gold floral wallpaper, two large mirrors that caused wintry light to gather and flash across the floor and her lap. Everything was prettified and hearkened from early or mid-twentieth century. Even the phone was rotary, made for someone who wore high-heeled satin slippers upon awakening. Clementine was drawn to a dish holding heart-shaped cookies. Were they supposed to encourage a placid, appreciative expectancy in customers?

Her eyes lingered on things despite her intention, which was to await her appointment patiently, to breathe slowly. Keep her mission in the fore of her mind. How could she prepare and present her thoughts intelligently when everything gleamed and bloomed without mercy?

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When the private door swung open, she would enter the office (or would it be a room shrouded in voluminous drapes and darkness?) and take a seat confidently. Say she’d been passing by, saw the little, calligraphic sign by the door and determined to call Madame Valencia on a lark.  And she would be frank, tell her that she didn’t believe in this sort of thing, but for twenty-five dollars maybe she could tell her something good. Something so visionary that she would leave with a renewed sense of purpose. An epiphany, against the odds. She snickered softly. Wouldn’t that cost more?

Maybe that would be too much to say, on second thought.

Clem studied the perfect arrangement of heart-shaped cookies. She picked up a red one and cradled it in her palm. Her fingers trembled. The oxygen felt as though it had leaked out of the room; the warmth was oppressive. There stood eternally blooming flowers, Siamese cats like sentries. If they were real they likely would size her up as an impostor but it should have been their mistress they inventoried. Or maybe they would be trained to think of Madame as “Highness.” If they could only purr, they might leap upon the rung and twitch their tails against her ankles, make an effort to be more welcoming. Ease the mean ache burrowing between her ribs, the reason she was here. Really, she should just leave this silly place.

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Clem covered her eyes but that did nothing to stop the years from rewinding: she is again at the art museum, waiting two hours for him, studying Monet and then Gauguin. After an hour moving on to the fifteenth century tapestries that she admires most of all. He knows where to look. Though he would like contemporary exhibits, he accommodates her tastes. But this time he is too late, and Clementine has gone to the mezzanine that overlooks the first floor. Scanning the sparse crowd, she thinks she recognizes his olive trench coat, his sandy hair, but it can’t be. This man is leaning toward a woman in a navy blue cape and high heeled boots as though imparting important information. His hand is on her shoulder. Clementine is about to call out and wave when the woman looks up anxiously. The woman freezes, then steps back and brushes by him and out the glass doors. He lifts his eyes to the mezzanine and sees her, is alarmed. He punches the elevator button three times. By the time he gets to Monet, Clementine has slipped way, taken the side stairs and gone home. For the person he was stood close to is Anne. Clementine’s sister.

Though he called repeatedly, she never answered. When her sister arrived at odd hours and rang the bell twenty times, Clementine was driven out the back door by rage. Then finally moved far way. She knew he and Anne had to have something important, deep; they never would taken the risk and come to the museum together. Maybe they had been been planning on telling her. And it was just like her sister, taking what she believed was meant for her. And just like Clementine to let her have it.

But that was then. Clementine wiped any clinging crumbs from her lips and put the tissue in her purse.  The sculpted marble clock on the mantel indicated she had two more minutes but the private door opened. Madame Valencia wafted into the room, extended her hand, then followed her client into the office. Clementine took in the brocade love seat, the table with its flowered phone, the appointment book beside the kitschy figurine of a bride and groom, perhaps hers or her mother’s long ago. Madame Valencia settled across from her, long legs crossed at narrow ankles. She looked more like a fifties model than a so-called psychic, with grey pencil skirt and ruffled lavender cashmere sweater. Her blond waves were immovable.

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“How can I be of use today?” Madame asked, voice smooth as  caramel.

“I have my doubts, really….but I know you specialize in doing readings for clients with relationship issues, right? How about past relationships?”

“Everyone has matters of the heart in mind. How long ago? Here, yes?” Madame Valencia’s eyes smiled though her mauve lips moved little.

Clementine wondered why the woman didn’t know. Wasn’t this her job or did she need clues? Maybe Madame wasn’t the real thing. Her neck tingled.

“Fifteen years, here, yes. But recently there was a divorce. Not mine. My sister’s. But I knew him first. Was with him first.”

Madam Valencia nodded.”And you would like to know if he thinks of you? Cares. Wants to find you, perhaps, to begin anew.”

“Something like that. I never married…I might still love him, but I might hate him, too. I’ve been away a long time; I had to make a whole new life.”

“Have you?”

Clementine shrugged. “Enough that I’m sought after as an art dealer. That I’m able to do as I please.”

“And are you really doing as you please? So why Jon?”

The sound of his name, not mentioned to Madame, jarred her.”Look, he took my sister–vice versa likely. They married. I haven’t talked to her since I knew they were….since they were seen somewhere they shouldn’t have been. My mother told me they divorced last year. Now mother is ill and I’m visiting awhile. I don’t know what I want to do about Jon, if anything. Can you tell me something, if I should reach out to him?”

Madame Valencia had lowered her eyelids as though meditating. She squeezed them shut and her jaw tightened as though wincing from a sudden pain. Clementine clasped her hands together and worried the fortune teller would start spewing strange things. It suddenly felt worse than absurd to be talking to a stranger, captive in a room awash with romanticism. And there was yet another cat in the window, mocking her. Too much.

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Madame opened her eyes again; they were clear blue, calm.

“Your sister, Anne, is waiting for you to call her. This has been a terrible thing for her. You can find your answers with her. But Jon is long gone.”

“Anne? I don’t care what Anne is undergoing. She stole Jon, she made the marriage whatever it was and now she is done with him. This is not of any interest to me. Anne can take care of her own business.”

“Ah, but these past years have been a chore for you, yes? They have been spare… emotionally… bereft of close friends, soured by loss of trust. You have whipped about in your private life like a kite without a direction, tethered to pain. You keep close all you lost, feed your resentment until it’s become bitter sustenance you cannot live without. You will disappear into a well of regrets if you cannot let go. And love your sister as you loved her once. With deep affection. Acceptance.”

Clementine fell back. “I paid you money and this is what I get? Jon is who I’ve needed all these years…”

“It may be Jon you both once wanted. But your sister is the one who will always be here, as you could be for her. Don’t abandon yourself over a man who came and went. Free your heart. Give it first and last to your family. It is you who has truly left. Not Anne. She waits.”

Clementine felt something rumble and turn inside. She felt the river of her life as it moved from past to present and toward the future. Had Jon divided them? And did she leave behind her sister even though she was the one who felt disposed of? What was the nature of betrayal? She was suddenly made fragile, near tears.

“Perhaps,” she whispered, “this is true. It’s time to find out.”

Madame’s eyes warmed with compassion. “Not all, but much love is renewable. Tend to it.”

On the way out Clementine picked up an ornate old mirror on a table by the restroom. She looked more weary than she’d expected. A breathing, running Siamese cat slipped behind her, tail tickling her ankle. What a remarkable and strange place. She’d keep her mad impulse a secret. Now she was going to get coffee, think it all over. Or maybe it was time to call her sister. Compare life notes. Even learn to laugh about the messes they’d made. Arm themselves with real love for whatever lay ahead.

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