Rooney’s Best Plans and Outcomes

It was the crackling of leaves underfoot that got him, heralding summer’s imminent shredding by wind, by graduations of darkness and a brisk tenor of air. He hadn’t thought of it in years, that particular fall, yet here it was upon him as if someone had sat him down and fed him a story. His story, long-buried.

Rooney was alone as usual at the coffee shop. He couldn’t reserve a table outside looking over the west bank of the river, of course, but he usually snagged one. For starters, he came early, a few minutes after it opened. And he’d be there right on the dot except that he couldn’t stand being the solitary figure with just a fancy mug. Additionally, he was a regular, one might say too regular– and regulars got their pick, it was somehow sensed by those who straggled in. Others were in, out, off to somewhere.

He could be somewhere else, a gym or park or claustrophobic senior center. The last barely surfaced at edge of mind and when it did, he threatened it with silent curses which he imagined as bullets aimed at the bright red number like a warning of doom: “sixty-six.” He kept this to himself; he did not want anyone to suspect slippage into dementia or criminality. Not that they should. He was smart, upright enough, clear-headed. And he was, after all, a kid when that other thing happened. Well, over nineteen, under twenty-one, half a kid still.

The coffee was supposed to be excellent, every sign announced this. The place roasted its own beans, ground and brewed it fresh. Rooney sipped, tongue seeking signs that this was true. He always came to the same conclusion: it was strong, hot and vastly overpriced. Back in the old days (there it was, the age thing) it was twenty-five cents. He’d have to get another job to keep his current ill-advised habit.

Leaves swirled in a gust, crunched by more trampling. A woman in tall leather boots walked by with leashed terrier. She smiled indulgently at him; he touched the brim of his fedora. She thought he was a sweet old guy with nothing better to do than sit by the river on a brisk morning, watching others live their lives. Maybe so. He could hang out at the office; it still bore his name though Rooney’s Metal Fabrication was now run by his son. But Rooney wanted nothing more of it despite fussing at times. He liked this scenario of onlooker with coffee in hand, a walk along the river path. Then hours of reading, working on his collection of old clocks, tinkering with his 1968 Bonneville, checking investments, daily work on his half-acre, meeting with a friend now and again for lunch or dinner, gin rummy or chess.

The smell of leaves, too, an acrid-sweet scent a perfume he never tired of smelling but then it was erased by bone-chilling rains. He dreaded taking his coffee at the indoor, polished wood tables or getting it “to go” in a crummy paper cup with fancy print on it. Or just staying home alone; his wife had passed four years ago. It would take time to enjoy the whole new process but it rankled that he couldn’t take things as they came to well; he was used to planning and executing. Taking charge.

But not those days, or not that particular one, he thought as he placed mug into bus pan. Those days in general he was a follower, more than he’d have admitted. Well, it was what it was. Rooney walked to river’s edge, leaned his tall bulky body against the railing, lungs taking in air imbued with eau de crumpled leaves with notes of rock, rich earth, rushing water.

This was why he’d relinquished his business, these singular moments as sunny shafts parted pewter clouds and the river rumbled along and leaves danced then clustered about his ankles. He ambled toward a certain meeting spot, but that long ago day settled upon hunched shoulders.

******

Rooney had been trying hard to keep up with Fergus that fall, the guy who’d moved to Rattlesboro two years previous and become a cohort unlike any other. Fergie was fast on his feet and a mercurial thinker but also “brash and rash”, as he boasted, “that’s what the ole man says–got it from him!” No one doubted it.

Rooney’s easy-going, sedate father thought it a terrible alliance. Sure enough, Rooney engaged in shenanigans with Fergie, a little vandalism and drunk Saturday nights that resulted in Rooney having his car keys withheld. But the boys played neck and neck, racing Fergie’s souped up truck against competitors on back roads, chasing the few girls who looked their way, spicing up rural bonfire parties with “dashes of hash and smatterings of mushrooms” as Rooney put it, flying high. He didn’t much think about what he was doing. Or what was coming next or he’d have foreseen it, and likely come to his senses sooner.

It was the week-end after Labor Day–they were both going on twenty at long last, working, both soon to embark on other things–but many took extended vacations due to the last brilliant weather.

“You know I was seeing Jan Townsend a minute, right? Until her mother caught wind of what was up, just as things were getting interesting. And her house is something, there’s a whole half of a yard devoted to food prep and entertaining–she explained it like that– the rest is just flowers , a tiny fish pond. It’s like a special Shangri-La for the Townsends. Man, I sorta miss it.”

“Sure, I was there a few times before you came to town. Birthday parties when we were younger. Pretty spot. Jan was nicer then, though.”

Fergie put his work boots atop the table–his overworked mother didn’t have the energy to keep three sons plus husband in hand and the surface was scarred and stained. Rooney shoved them off, shook his head but Fergie put them back, guzzled his cola then handed it to Rooney.

“I’m thinking of nosing around there tonight, something to do.”

Rooney choked on his big gulp. “What?”

Fergie grinned, eyes widening, slightly protuberant ears pinking up with enthusiasm but freckles darkening. That was the moment Rooney should have left. He knew that was a look that presaged all manner of sketchy activities. And yet he wanted to hear more; there was always something percolating in his buddy’s brain, things he hardly dared consider. Adrenalin let loose in his veins.

Fergie stretched. “I figure, why not? No one there, dogs boarded, there are few streetlights out that way. We could have a look, see what there is to see. There might be other places we could check out…” He shrugged as if this was not a novel or bad idea. “Before we go our separate ways, a last hurrah.”

“It’s trespassing! A dumb idea. But I kind of like it though I’ve got a dozen reasons to refuse.” He considered a moment more. “We can say ‘so long’ in better ways. How about we get a T-bone or two, cook out, then take your truck out for a last race? Is that cool?”

“Sure, but nosing around Jan’s place is better yet.” He gave Rooney an imploring gaze. “I’m moving to frickin’ Columbus, Ohio to work with my Uncle Joe, man, come on! Let’s go a little bigger a last time before I blow this dump!”

Rooney thought about the uncle’s towing and snow removal business, the deep winters there, how Fergie could barely deal with his cousins but needed to earn good money at almost twenty. And Rooney was about to enter junior college; time he forged a grown up life. So one last night whooping it up? It sounded good.

By the time they got steak, grilled it, ate with Rooney’s parents and finally slipped out the back yard and into the truck, it was fully dark. Fergie started the engine but kept the lights off a half block.

“Turn on the lights!”  Rooney said.

When they stayed off, he reached for the knob to do so but Fergie slapped his hand away.

“I know what I’m doing attract no attention.” Fergie was quiet in the way he got when strategizing. “You gotta trust me like you mostly do. I got this whole escapade figured out, man, follow me?”

“‘Mostly’ is a key word…I’ve got to know what’s up.”

“You’ll see.” He turned on the headlights.

Fifteen minutes later they were entering territory they’d visited but could not claim as their own, the land of starched white collars, two or three car garages, the land of platinum blond upsweeps and real leather jackets that were not motorcycle styles or vintage fringed. The land where no hippie, no greaser was well abided. Rooney and Fergie were respectively, loosely, one of each.

The headlights went off again and Fergie slowed down, parked two blocks from the Townsend’s in a vacant lot behind trees.

“Okay, follow me, do as I say.” He studied his pal’s skeptical face, index finger up. “‘Okay? ‘Cuz if not, this thing is off and that’s that for us.”

Rooney balked. “But we’re just checking it out, then going out Sweeney Road, right? We’ll find guys to race, for sure.”

“Wrong, dude, we’re treasure hunting first, then the real race is on. Come on!” he hissed, then darted off.

And Rooney followed.

The place was cloaked in shadows except for the strange glow a mercury lamp threw at a far edge of the yard. There were neighbors next door, house also dark, but a few past that were lit up. The moon’s light was sufficient to brighten edges of the Townsend lawn, make easy the way around the place. Rooney recalled times he had roamed there with young friends and smiled. Even better in sheer moonlight. He felt a twinge of discomfort.

Fergie peered into, then checked both windows of the garage.

“What are you doing?” Rooney stepped back. “That’s their property, not cool– no breaking in!”

“Rooney, get over it, we’re sniffing things out, I want to see what they have in there–why not?”

It was always a “why not?”, that was the trouble.

Rooney looked about, senses alert. He backed into bushes, panicked, just as Fergie advanced. It turned out he had more skills, could crack a glass window with barely a well placed, sweatshirted elbow punch. He knocked out more glass shards then hoisted his skinny self in and unlocked the side door.

“No!” Rooney whispered loudly, “this is not what I imagined doing…I thought we were window peeping since it’s empty, admiring the yard–creepy enough…”

“That’s the thing, Rooney, you lack imagination. Take some of mine, get in here!” He yanked him in and shut the door.

There was a red Mustang on the far side. Jan had used her mother’s car at times before she got her own, then left for Bennington College. A workbench was littered with various tools, as if Mr. Townsend had been working on something and left it for clean up when he returned. Cardboard boxes were stacked in one corner, maybe things to be donated or old files of whatever–Rooney didn’t care, he wanted to get out. Would Mr. Townsend sense an intruder had been there?

He noted firewood cut and stacked by the entrance into the house. The door led to the small mud room and then a large den, he recalled. He had carried wood inside, himself, during one holiday party. He’d known Jan better than he’d let on, had in fact liked her a lot at thirteen.

“Okay, Ferg, let’s take our look about outside, then leave. This was not smart.”

But Fergie was methodically examining tools, turning each over, putting them into a large cloth bag. Where had he gotten a bag? Had he hidden it in his clothing?

“Put those back!”

“Check out all you want, bud. Ten minutes, we’re out of here.” He turned to the Mustang.

“Not the Mustang!”

Fergie shot a look that silenced him. His behavior was not that of a novice, Rooney saw, but practiced, calm, fast.

“Those break-ins this past year…no one was caught…” Rooney whispered.

Fergie filled up the bag, shouldered it, paced before the car. “We can do it. I’ll hot-wire it in a few seconds and you open the big garage door and when I pull out you jump in–we’ll take the ride of our lives, right, buddy? I mean, look at it.  Then I’ll dump you unless you want to come ‘cuz I’m heading to the state line and beyond!”

Rooney stared at him, unable to move. He flashed his small flashlight at him to make sure it was his friend spouting that nonsense.

“See how this id done, buddy?” Fergie was grinning, eyes bright and big with the thrill of it, then he opened the car door, slid behind the steering wheel. He leaned out the door a moment, head bopping to some silent beat in his crazy head.

“I’ll get this done and you get ready when I lift my hand and open that garage door, got it?”

“Not doing it, Fergie.” Rooney felt caught between fear and overwhelming clarity. “You’re on your own. Sorry it came to this.”

Fergie got out and stood before his friend, body tensed, face ugly. “What an idiot you are. This is what makes my life interesting, how could you not know all this time? What keeps me going! But you could never be a part of the fun because you’re just common chicken liver–such a nice guy, a real sweetheart. You know nothing, are nothing! Get out! Then shut the hell up, hear me? At least do that one last thing.”

“No, man, please don’t do this.”

Fergie’s fist flew up and grazed his friend’s jaw, a warning, but Rooney raised both of his and pressed into the slim space between them. They stood stock-still and then Fergie shook his head sadly, got into the car, started to work on wires.

Rooney filled with rage and sadness. For a moment he almost tackled him then, torn, started to the big garage door to aid and abet. That fine car, the charge of the illicit rose up like a punch of energy. Then he was seized with a more powerful sense of wrong. A deep betrayal. He was spurred out the side door and across the yard and down the street, stifling a terrible urge to roar out the anger. But no sound escaped other than labored breathing, a heavy hiss from between clenched teeth. His tongue went to a metallic taste of blood on the soft inside of mouth as feet pounded asphalt, crunching early autumn leaves frail and fallen.

******

By the time they caught Fergie not ten miles from the house with that candy apple red mustang, Rooney had gotten home and on his bed, sprawled sleepless across the handmade quilt, listening to any stray sound and his heart beat. The next morning he answered questions from his parents and then police but there was so little to say, he had left Fergie sooner than later, walked home after a disagreement when his parents, early-to-bed as usual, were asleep. But his mother, unbeknownst to father or son, had cracked the door, noted the time his arrival: ten-eighteen. Earlier that she had expected.

She’d decided he was innocent, believed it.

No one had seen him on Marley Street or elsewhere. Fergie said he’d worked alone.

Later that day Rooney drove to a meadow at edge of town where he’d enjoyed picnics with his family as a child, the one where a creek rose and fell according to the seasons, where creatures played out their blameless stories. He shed tears of relief and a disgust with all of it. Himself, too. But not for long. He waded the creek, its music and coolness assuaging the ache of it. Thoughts came about college, making a real life far from there.

******

Rooney watched a leaf spin on the river’s current and he wondered how far it could go, to the next city, to the next body of water? He might like to travel like that, he mused, and turned when squeaky wheels signalled a walker rolling up.

“Hey, there,” the man said, khaki overcoat flipping out from the rake of his body with each stumbling step.

“Hey yourself, how’s it going?”

“It’s herky-jerky but I get where I need to go, as you know. I’m great, I’m on my feet, you are, too!”

“Best news all morning.”

Frank Tillton had been employed at Rooney’s business for thirty-two years as accounts manager, when he had a stroke. Rooney had kept him on to help the new employee, a woman with a fine talent for numbers. But she had to accept Frank’s place or she wouldn’t have the job. It’d worked out, more or less.

The two men had been close friends for most of those years; they knew much of the other’s life. Like, how Frank was a “high functioning alcoholic”, later in and out of recovery until the stroke put him smack into it for good five years ago. Now they were both unemployed for the first time in their lives.

“You look like you’ve been thinking already this morning,” Frank said, laughing as he came to a stop beside him. “Is it that serious?”

“Naw, just a memory.”

“Oh, those are like smoke, here and gone, no sense worrying over them.”

“Right as ever but I was thinking I hadn’t yet told you the story about almost becoming a thief.”

“That so? This I gotta hear, you’re holding out on me. Let’s get walking. Then I might tell you how Lucy Masters and I nearly tied the knot. True–before Eileen came along. Lucy is famous now as a newscaster, I didn’t want to spill those beans… ”

“I’m ready for that one! Mine has a half-famous person in it, too, but not in a commendable way, I’m afraid.”

“We might have to find a bench if it’s long.”

“Yep, it’s a park bench sort of story, old friend.” He glanced at the crinkling of a smile about Frank’s eyes. How different a face than was Fergie’s–open, sunny and generous. And how fortunate a life Frank lived in comparison, a difficult life reclaimed while Fergie’s was lost to long stretches in prison. And his own? It had been made different by a hair’s breadth, perhaps, though he knew he would not have made it as a burglar or con man. Not enough cold-edged boldness, reckless confidence or even greed. But he had made a good businessman, had another idea if Frank was game: one mug of just everyday coffee for one buck (he’d call it “One for One”) in an airy, festive, colored-lights-lit tent at river’s bend. A reasonable place where customers could relax when it poured all winter or got too sweaty in summer.

Or maybe an internet business. They’d talk.

“Most good stories are worth a sit-down, boss man.” He lifted an eyebrow at Rooney. “Bald ole bestie, heh heh.”

They chortled and took off, Rooney with tweed coat flapping about long legs, fedora clapped onto his bald head and Frank yakking, step-sliding with the walker, each advancement feeling like a victory for them both.

What I Left and Some of What I’ve Found So Far

11/12: The Professional: last tense days. Note tired eyes, forced, gritted-teeth smile
Writer-Grandmother having a ball with grandkids post-working life
Writer-Grandmother: fun with grandkids, 2 years post-work, when we went strawberry picking

There are at least a few hot-button reasons to feel guilty and worried. To wonder who on earth I think I am to take such a relaxed view of time and money, as well as heady concepts like success, obligation and the impact of even one human life. Some might suspect the cavalier attitude will bring me to ruin. They could be right. Am I somehow above such sweat and commerce, that bourgeois notion that money equals security, even contentment? Let’s face it, it’s more to the point that I am no longer a youthful dynamo dying to shine like a mega floodlight–so the pressure is off, right?

Except I was given pause by the over-sixty cashier yesterday, new to the store. He was congenial, appeared to be above average aptitude, and healthy-looking. I’d imagine he was a suit and wingtip guy at one point. Or a crunchy-granola, forward-thinking  professor. And as I paid for my too-expensive groceries, I wanted to ask: “What are you doing here? Aren’t you retired yet?” If I had paused one more second, I may have crossed the line as I can be that curious.

Then I went home and wondered how I ended up retired in my own early sixties. This is a big issue with “Boomers”–more and more are working longer and longer. Yet I manage to not feel very disturbed about not being part of the club. Okay, I must be honest–nights tossing and turning when contemplating variable savings and whip lashed investments? Sure. I start to consider how to find and buy a smaller, creaky recreational vehicle that might work for long term housing. I obsess, from time to time, over a few debts not yet paid in full and up my payments three-fold. And I hold onto leather footwear and other good basics “just in case” I cannot buy more ever again. And all this despite my spouse still working full-time, at the likely pinnacle of his career. He loves his chosen field, though long hours and travelling are more draining as the years pass. When he recently had health issues that involved hospitalization, I panicked on a few levels–one being financial. Thought: Dear God, I really do need to get another job, guide me on this one! Just in case. The urgency passed, apparently. He got better. I am not rushing out the door, not even to some job that is from ten-to-two, three days a week.

I have not worked for a paycheck for about three and a half years. He hasn’t asked me to. In fact, when I bring it up–that  there must be something, I might even make a pleasant greeter at the grocery– he shushes me. He says he’s glad I’m finally at home, writing daily as I always pined to do, taking care of numerous mundane and difficult tasks. It’s not that we couldn’t well use that extra income. We have significant and fluctuating needs at times and certainly those “wants” like all couples. We just manage alright without it. And that is good enough for now.

We live right on the edge of a wealthy enclave. I see many sleek, steel-grey-to-white-coiffed persons who haven’t stopped working. I cannot imagine why they would not. They slide into their Tesla/Jaguar/BMW or vintage Volvos every day and hit the road with brain primed with espresso, on go. I walk by these lovely houses every day, the ones such hard work have garnered, and wonder why more aren’t sitting on front porches or messing around with roses and weeds. It’s true many have gardeners. But aren’t they going to leave extra time so they can cover less agenda, more wishes? Not only live adventures in the Swiss Alps or moseying about in St. Bart’s or Reykjavik. I mean, just hanging out at home alone, or with friends and relatives. But it is said the more you have, the more you spend. Perhaps, also, the more you believe is ever needed.  The competitive, heady business of acquisition cannot be done with, I suppose. But their material life is not mine. I admire their gardens and porches yet, too, our balcony holds its own charm with chairs and tables and nineteen pots of colorful flowers and pleasant views of trees, neighboring houses and active city streets beyond.

Still, a wraparound porch with landscaped yard would be a fine sit for contemplation. And I am not one to just sit. I apparently get a few things done stealthily. What on earth do I do all day now that I retired, another builder dweller asks. She never hears our TV –her constant companion– but does faintly hear classical music and maybe…jazz? I do seem to be move about, though. I ask if I am noisy but she shakes her head with a smile, says “Have a good day”, closes her door.

I tried it this week, doing nothing much the last couple of days–nothing that one would note as an accomplishment, even a small one. I have my trusty Moleskin Journal where I plan the upcoming week. Most days are packed just enough with writing, daily walks and other exercise, appointments, meeting up with family for one thing or another, household business and errands. You will notice I don’t mention getting together with my friends; they are among those who yet work forty hours a week. I feel intrusive and guilty when I call them during the week. They are bone-tired while I am bubbling over, wanting to catch up, make plans.

But for a couple of days, I more often sat and read. A lot. I am (we both are) a bibliophile–books line most walls where there isn’t furniture– and subscribe to at least a dozen magazines and journals so there is a plethora of reading material. I tend to read a few pages at a time, between laundry loads or waiting at appointments, while boiling water for iced tea. Usually before sleep. So I read long, without checking the clock, caught up on magazines so that I am now about done with June and July issues. Started a new mystery and a nonfiction book, read long enough to abandon the first and continue the second.

I also watched several episodes on Netflix of a Canadian series I love, “Heartland.” (My neighbor will be glad to hear of that–but it was late at night in bed.) I walked longer than usual, sometimes twice a day. I took more pictures during my walks. I rearranged the pots on the balcony, plucked dead blossoms. And I got up a few times after bedtime to revise things I had written, including the last post, as the errors and new ideas haunt me until I commit to them. That is a certain kind of work, I suppose, but it is overall pleasant effort put forth.

This all felt luxurious to me, perhaps a little wasteful of time. But the most fun and absolute least regretted (not one minute) was time with two of our five grandchildren. We went to city center for an outing yesterday.

First I took Avery (14) and Asher (10) out to lunch. The first place we had chosen was very crowded but Avery spotted a pizza place. The mini pizzas were perfect size, baked in a big wood fired oven, crispy and tasty. Then we headed to our main destination: a put-put golf venue. However, on the way Asher saw the huge glass Apple store and requested we go check out various technological enticements. He and Avery tried many as I watched over their shoulders, duly informed of their purpose and operations.

Then on to a weird, all black light illuminated, cavernous pirate cove where we played eighteen holes of mini golf. All the white bits on us glowed bluish-bright. I was rather good at the game. I had forewarned them, as I’ve had more practice than they. The fine art of whacking a tiny glowing ball took us 45 minutes.

The last of our stops was The Fossil Cartel, which displays and sells rocks of all sorts. This was a major draw; they’ve been avid rock hunters thanks to my son, Joshua. He makes jewelry out of hunted rocks and other pieces. I bought a couple–amethyst and a blue goldstone orb for Asher and Joshua, respectively. Avery spied a lamp made of glowing rose quartz that she was quick to agree was quite costly. Perhaps one day.

And then I took them to their house across town and went back to mine. I was more tired than anticipated after four hours running around with delightful young ones. So I arranged dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then wrote a measly half hour (usually 6-8+ hours at a stretch) and read more of The Writer magazine until my husband got home. We walked a half hour about the neighborhood. He made (frozen) tasty salmon patties with a heaping green salad and baked potatoes. Very nice. We put our feet up at around nine o’clock.

These events took place on a Tuesday afternoon and early evening in mid-summer. If I was still employed at the non-profit mental health agency where I worked many years, this could not have happened. Seeing our family was another To Do list point enumerated on my planner–it happened but squeezed in between all else. The clock was always ticking. Such is the working life and life beyond it. Today I don’t wear a watch. Time seems to melt as events unfold.

At noon, I would have been counseling, full-steam ahead. Substance addicted and/or mentally ill and court mandated DUII clients (drinking and driving under the influence). Released inmates needing post-prison aftercare and monitoring. Self-referred persons with situational depression due to grief and loss, unemployment or ill health blues and fears. Clients whose children had been removed from the home due to parental drinking and drugging or domestic violence. People came from all walks of life. As they entered my office, their burdensome pain and suffering relented bit by bit or all in a desperate rush. But if they were court mandated for drinking and driving and they felt it entirely unfair, they sat stonily. Or angrily. Either way, the next fifty-five minutes could be just as demanding as any session. Some clients might say brutal. I was not known for cushioning matters for people who drank more than the legal limit, then blithely driving along causing havoc and worse– or fatefully escaping it one more time.

I taught alcohol and drug education groups each evening (some mornings, as well) for an hour and a half or facilitated women-only group therapy. These could extend past the time limit if there was a lively discussion or intense sharing going on. And then there were the urinalyses. Well, when was this not done: between individual sessions, between groups, sometimes during. Some required my presence in the restroom for observed UAs–the court system and DHS often required it. Or I did if I had good reason to suspect specimens were actually offerings from others.

Documentation of all on computer (by hand, many years ago) took an unreasonable amount of time. But unless something was committed to a permanent record, it never happened. Meticulousness and promptness was how this was fulfilled. I worked a four, ten hour/day work week that became–as any human service employees will agree– more like a twelve hour day. That meant I got home around nine-thirty many nights, rarely before eight-thirty. And that meant we ate quite late–my husband cooked, as he was home earlier. But I first walked 30-45 minutes before I ate every night for heart health, rain or shine, darkness or not, alone or not.

Then my agency’s two-story building was accessed by a burglar (computers, TVs, looking for drugs from a locked cabinet) while another employee and I worked alone at night. In our offices on the second floor, we didn’t hear much of anything–rather, not what we thought could be dangerous. I did listen closely once or twice but kept on. As usual upon departure, I double checked outside doors and made sure all lights were off. I hesitated–instinct, I am sure. Then I walked out to my car in a dim parking lot. My work mate had said to go on, but I waited in my locked car. When she came down, we left.

The next morning we heard the news; the entry and burglary occurred partly while we were there. They thought it was a client who knew the ins and outs of the place. We were appalled but reassured that things would be taken in hand. Yes, incidents had occurred even in other work places. We knew we were at risk, working with the volatile, confused, paranoid, desperate. But this was different. I had been there, felt something amiss and we had been there without any security. My husband started to meet me at the end of my work day. He drove from his workplace a half hour away to my work place, waited until I got into my car, then drove off behind me. He was that worried, insisted I not come out until he got there.

I began to think twice about that job. My entire career, the places I had gone alone, the fraught people I had shared a room with, a few events with bad results. That isolated parking area and building were never well lit that late. Everyone else was gone by then. I had at times been entirely alone in the building at night; that night my co-worker happened to be there. The doors were obviously not that secure. There was no alarm system. No security personnel. After that event I complained  more about the building and its lacks. The complaints fell on deaf ears, in fact, they were thought over reactive. I documented issues and resultant communications for a later discussion with the Human Resources Director. Then, finally–disappointed, worn out by the fight to get more assistance with the night hour security issues– I handed in my resignation.

I said: “Maybe I am ready to retire. But I have done the best I could here. And I still believe the safety of all is compromised. I now relent.”

It felt like a defeat. During the last day exit meeting, the Director seemed shocked. She vowed to address all, offered me a position in another clinic. I declined. Sometimes you just know it is time to say farewell.

I’d had enough. Not of the actual work, which felt like a calling to me–the nitty-gritty work of counseling and educating those who demanded–deserved–steady guidance and encouragement. But of politics and funding issues, too-long hours and high case loads. In fact, I had started that specific track of my career right after age forty after discovering a passion and natural ability for helping seemingly hopeless addicts and alcoholics, the abandoned, forgotten ones with mental health disabilities. It scared me that I was getting tired, physically and mentally. That I was starting to worry too much about the machinations of that agency as well as safety. My clients had always abided within my first and last thought during each day and evening.

The first two years I quit working the yearning to get back in there came and went. My alcohol and drug counseling certification was placed on sabbatical status while I sent occasional resumes out. It seemed odd there were no responses: I’d never not been able to get a job quickly. Those close to me suggested it was a sign to forget it. It seemed possible; I still wanted interviews. But I had plenty to do and was not bored. I thought maybe within a year at least I’dd find something new. I still missed my clients.

But over time, motivation to keep looking assumed less importance.

I had long desired to return to writing full time, as I infrequently had during a sometimes unpredictable adulthood. I had for years been writing for a block of hours on Fridays, my one day off. I’d jotted ideas down at work if all was caught up for a few minutes.So now I began to write a little more each day, and quickly found it as before–writing fast in concentrated hours. The flood gates of imagination were thrown open with the simple addition of time and a freed mind and soul. The stories would not leave me alone. I was breathlessly, extravagantly happy and told myself to calm down, take it one day at a time, stay disciplined. It all began to work together. I published one thing again, then another. I developed this blog.

So, sure, there is one reason or another to look for work–money for bills and the years ahead, for additional health insurance. The need to help others is still present. I know I should volunteer. But I am impatient with all the “should” stuff and getting more attuned to “want to and will do.” What I have loved but was often neglected comes to the fore. Working with and for others is a priority but there are many ways to do this. I am thinking it over as I write. I am praying for clarity and sniffing out opportunities. I could encourage personal storytelling with at risk youth. I could share poetry about life’s hardship and healings at more readings. There are hot meals needed and that lets me interact with isolated folks as I once did with Meals-on-Wheels program.

I guess I may have needed a big rest from the human condition, the ways it weeps and howls, triumphs or falters. Inside me is such love for those with whom I have crossed paths over the decades. They demonstrated how to find more courage in the midst of mayhem and how to persist despite no earthly good reason.  But most of all I learned how to find ever deepening wells of compassion and mercy. Within myself and within others.

The next time I see that cashier I will chat a bit, thank him for his assistance. I am certain he gave his decision to keep working longer–or to return–plenty of thought. He is doing a good job. I hope life is going well for him. I could worry each day that I am not bringing home a paycheck to add to the pot.  Most of the time I do not. I have this time to live, right now. I am a heart patient who has so far prevailed but I don’t know what tomorrow brings. None of us do–more and more we are finding the world is built on sand and it so often brings the chaos of trouble with unjust endings.

There is a lifetime of endeavors for all humans. Besides the need to survive, it is in our make-up to seek the next thing worthy of our efforts to assess, tackle, solve, wonder over. For me, work continues, just not as a counselor right now even while I remain on sabbatical status. I was, am and will be a writer, though. A person seeking creative expression each day, for there is a surplus of opportunity. I am thankful each day I have more time. We must divine what is right for ourselves, invest in the richest life possible, the one we truly value. There is a lot of stuff we don’t own that we might. But this is true fortune to me–family and friends, my faith and optimism put into action, caring for my wellness, more engagement in living fully. This is on my best daily agenda, nothing more. I anticipate what unfolds with trust and curiosity.

Playing put-put golf
Playing put-put golf
7/16 Freedom to hike and walk more, another passion
7/16 Freedom to hike and walk more, another passion

Garnetta Looks Backward and Forward

DSCF5174 When Garnetta finally left her high school counselor position it was an unceremonious affair, handshakes at a small but respectable luncheon, a voluptuous, rainbow bouquet of roses (her least favorite flower after lilies) and an oversized card with blue birds and butterflies on it. A touch of glitter, she noted with a raised eyebrow. She was grateful there wasn’t a drawing of a sign on a shack saying “Gone Fishin’.” But it managed to move her.

Everyone signed it: “Best wishes” and “Miss you already”.  Her favorite was from Rafe Kellogg, the science teacher: “I wish I had known you better, but look forward to your life!” As if he was looking forward to her life being carried out elsewhere.  The blue greeting card script trumpeted joy and delight: “May Your Retirement Bring Renewed Rewards!” The phrase stumped her: did that mean she should look backwards to old rewards so they might be revamped? Reclaimed?

How was it that after nineteen years at the same place no one knew her? Yet they were oddly intimates, by virtue of years they had rallied for their students’ well being. Resources. Political skirmishes. She patted their backs when they offered sudden hugs. Being in such close proximity was a surprise to them all.

It ended on her thirty-fifth year of soothing, encouraging, advising and intervening. So many teenagers! It had been a trying last year, the sort that one does not prefer to add to a trove of good memories. There are events everyone fears and loses sleep over, and the loss of one young man hit her hard. Not that Reese died–that had also happened, other students and years– but that he had chosen to drop out. To follow the footprints of his father. Which meant sawdust filling up his lungs at their (admittedly good) wood shop, maybe developing a penchant for petty criminality as father had and, God forbid, countless drunken debacles. It was known the boy tied one on more often than he ought.

He could have become a designer, an architect, a preserver of old historic houses. He might finally flip houses rather than make benches and tables. Time would tell. But the last time they had met Reese was on his way out.

“I wanted to tell you how much you helped me,” he said, smiling crookedly as always. “I mean, I wouldn’t have made it even this far without your talks. Just being here. I feel better about things. But I have to move on.”

He leaned forward. For a moment his hand hovered over the stapler as if he was going to emphasize his point with a sharp stapling of air. He picked up one of the pens and twiddled it between his fingers like it was a twig. Reese was big and always moving.

“You’ve still chosen to quit despite all my talk and all your listening. I feel somehow less than satisfied, Reese.”

“I did hear your advice!” He squinted at her. “Miss Harlinger, that time you told me to do what I knew was best, not what was easiest, hit me hard. It’s best I work with my dad, then take over one day. And we both know that ain’t gonna be easy to do.” His gaze swept over her cubicle divider. “Hey, you got a new poster? It’s nice.”

“Not ‘ain’t’, Reese, isn’t, it isn’t going to be easy but that is beside the essential point. I hoped you’d stretch yourself into something bigger than this town can contain. You once kept up your grades because all other indicators said you are more than a good athlete and great woodworker. And then it was to be scholarship applications with my help, and then I might have put a one way ticket to somewhere fantastic right in your palm. To your destiny as a more successful creative person. An innovator.” She sighed. “The poster was a gift from a student who is going to college. It stays for the next one of my ilk.”

Reese stuck the pen behind his ear and laughed. “See? That’s what I mean. You cheer me up just by saying that stuff! Okay, seriously, I know what you meant. Being creative and all that. I agree. I have to make all kinds of things. But my mom, you know this, she counts on me now. Dad has to get help with the booze and maybe a new liver and how will the shop run then? And if he doesn’t, who then?” He put the pen into its plastic holder, opened his hands and studied the broad, dry palms. “Not by itself, it won’t run. I can do it. I will.”

“I’ve asked more of you because you have it in you to make great things happen.” Garnetta picked up another pen, underscored the school’s logo on her desk calendar as if it was an important reminder of something, then laid it gently back down. She had to let go.

“College, I don’t know, but I’d love making cool houses, skyscrapers, even.” He stretched out his considerable length, arms held high, then pulled it all back in. “I disappointed you.”

It was true, but Garnetta wasn’t saying it. Worse, the boy felt let down by life, itself. “You gave it deep thought or you wouldn’t be here telling me your junior year is your last. For now…”

For a long moment Reese was still, staring at her desk. Then he picked up her mascot, a stuffed spotted owl. “I always liked birds. I hate thinking about trees being cut down so we can make big houses for humans. Desks for paper calendars to doodle on. Magazines and junk mail that Dad burns. I watch the ashes float away above our pine trees and feel sad.” He patted the owl on its soft head and set it upright before her again. “I keep an eye open for owls. They’re good omens.”

Garnetta caught her breath. This was the Reese that often hid and who she was able to find. He felt things between the known world and other worlds. She had seen his sketches, how they captured the rich tension between the functional and imaginative, each frail pencil mark defining space with his vision. The houses he drew caught one’s eye and mind, such was his grasp of spare, soaring beauty.

He stood up and she looked all the way up to unkempt brown hair, at hazel eyes that shimmered with energy even though subdued.

“Yeah, well, I have to go now…” He held out his hand. “Thanks for everything. I hope you have a real good retirement.”

He held out his hand and she took it into her smallish hand and gave it a firm shake. “I think we’ll hear more from you, still.” She hoped it was true. She willed it to be true. “Yes, a good retirement is the least I can ask for! A nice long life on a park bench. You can feed the pigeons with me when I don’t know you anymore.”

He laughed again, shoulders bunched up, and then he did a small thing with all that teen-age muscle and bone and restlessness, with that crowning brain. He bowed. Then turned and left.

Garnetta put her head down and wept.

It was the last Sunday of June when Garnetta ended up at a favorite park with a duck pond. It was near an Italian restaurant where she planned on having a late lunch or early dinner. She had her book, one that she had put off reading so she could savor it, a biography of a woman explorer in the nineteenth century. She was hoping it spurred a sudden hunger for adventure, made her intrepid enough to vacate the country for a couple of weeks. 

Garnetta had lately felt going to the store and back was enough of an outing. It scared her. She was just sixty-eight, in good health, so why the sluggishness? Her friend Jane told her it took far more than two weeks to adjust to the thought of summer stretching into fall and so on–all without a desk calendar to direct her and a yellow Big Ben alarm clock to wrench her from sleep.

The second chapter had failed to snag her attention. Not a good sign. She watched the ducks swim in seemingly aimless circles, ducklings blithely following moms. The air smelled blue and green, all bright water and shadow-laden trees. It was sweet to sit and enjoy the moment for no good reason.

“Is this seat taken?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, it is!” She put her book beside her and turned to look at the man who spoke. He was taking the spot, anyway.

“Nonsense,” Rafe Kellogg said, and sat down. “I need a rest.”

“How did you happen along?”

“I came by the same path as you. I, in fact, often do. I live down the street. And yourself? Enjoying your altered life? Smart hat you have there.”

He let out a thin stream of cigar smoke in the direction of the pond. Garnetta imagined the ducks holding their breath, then decided it wasn’t all that terrible a smell. Just foreign. It was curious, his desire to stop by.

“I tend to go with the wind these days.” She flapped her hand over and up in the breeze. “But I haven’t found a fine unfettered life yet.”

Rafe puffed on his stogie. “No, I imagine none of us quite do though we delude ourselves pretty well. We just have to sort it all out, I guess.”

Garnetta stole a glance.  He looked different out here, away from the brick walls. Cigar smoker! More substantial but less stuffy in dark blue jeans and smart tennis shoes. He didn’t have his glasses on; they poked up from his jacket pocket.

“I plan on following the clues,” she said, closing her book. She ought not to bother him–but why not? He had insisted on sitting. “Any thought of a late lunch?”

Rafe looked away as if seeking the answer in watery reflections or the little island of stubby earth at pond’s center. “I’d like to go over there at night, that bit of land, flashlight in hand. Just a notion I have but I wonder how it might be managed? Without being caught or drowned? And, yes, lunch is something I’d like soon.”

She smirked at the thought of him wading through murk in the dead of night. It had an appeal. He grinned at her, large yellowed teeth resultant of cigars from years passed. But when he held out a piece of dark chocolate, Garnetta took it, then pointed out a flicker that landed nearby. Black bib and red dots under its eyes, a dash of yellow. She dearly hoped Reese would see one, too, wherever he was, whatever he was creating.