Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Revising Life

Visiting Flowering Springs was a long tradition Mirielle kept, and for many reasons. The garden and pond were convenient for a bit of solitude when she visited her parents each winter and spring. They lived down the street and around the corner, and the oasis of abundance held sweet memories of growing up. She’d escape the house to safely roam along pond’s edges and along pathways, weaving between dense groves of rhoddodendrens and azaleas. Later, it became a refuge in which to mull over problems or visit a friend without parental surveillance. Only her best friends came with her. It was a public garden but strangers had their routes and resting spots and she had hers. Flowering Springs held enchantments, senuous beauty with heavy boughs rich with brilliant blossoms, the peaceful ducks milling about and territorial geese making known their authority by honking and strutting, sometimes chasing people. Shadowed mazes of paths were good for sharing confidences, and offered meditative nooks.

She was glad it was there for greater security amid unsettling times. Mirielle was finding this December visit taxing. Her father had had hip surgery and was recuperating slowly, often napping, dulled by pain pills. Her mother was getting hard of hearing so conversations tended toward a tragicomedy of errors. And even admitted she got gout attacks at at night, awakening her from a sound sleep. Not that their minds were going. They read alot, played Scrabble and chess if they could stand the length of the games, and occasionally attended lectures and performances. Her parents were enthusiastic in intention if not always in action. She should be happier about their general well being.

But she had a life, as well, and it had been a harsh year for her, too. Thomas had left six months ago without a backward glance, only a note about Kong the humungous, princely cat, saying he’d slip b ack in to get him in a couple days. She wasn’t even there when he lugged the creature to unknown parts. Good riddance to them both. Yet she’d cried for hours.

The end of everything that really matters, she had thought then, but of course it wasn’t true. Mirielle continued to go to work (in the guest room/office) cranking out articles for a city paper. She ran daily at 6 a.m. for 30 minutes, as usual. And gave into her love of cream cheese and blueberry bagels, smoked salmon and onion bagels, sunflower butter with apricot jam slatherd on plain bagels, cinnamon and raisin bagels dressed only in butter. Thomas loathed bagels, decreeed them boring and fattening–what is the point? he’d ask, lip curling.

She quit restricting herself in most ways since she no longer needed to consider his habits or preferences. If that meant going to bed at 2 in the morning, she did so with a roaring good mystery or trashy magazine until she slumped over, face planted in a pillow. No more tedious discussions about post modernism or the peculiar habits of weasels. No more annoying bike rides at the same greenway each Saturday so he could tally up mileage each time. Sometimes his arrogant intelleigence could wear her down to a nub.

“So what really happened? With Thomas?” her mother asked at dinner the first night back home.

Her father looked up from final bites of meatloaf, green beans and potatoes to listen better. He didn’t ask anything personal but he always wanted the lowdown. One heavily white eyebrow was cocked as he waited.

“A better job, as I explained. Multinational company in Denmark.”

“He moved to Denmark?” her father asked, incredulous.

“Not yet. Six months here, then to Copanhagen, but who cares?” Mirielle said, ready to close the topic.

“He didn’t want to take her along, Dan,” her mother explained quietly, clearing off serving dishes.

“I didn’t want to go, we’ve been so over,” she muttered.

Her father peered out from under the line of bushy brows. “Best to stay put where you are, anyway, Miri. You live far enough.”

“Yes,” she agreed, yet mashed potatoes globbed on her tongue. Denmark, she might have lived in Denmark. Well, it was much, much colder there and he was not at all snuggly the last year.

Her mother came back with slices of Key lime pie. “You said the cat stayed, though. That may be a comfort to you. But poor guy, probably misses him.”

Mirielle didn’t bother to correct her–and who probably missed whom?–and was glad dinner was coming to a close. With a favorite dessert.

Then her mother patted her back like she was eight years old, presented the plate with its pie wedge and said casually, “By the way, I saw Harrison at the grocery today–he’s visiting his folks, too, and asked about you.”

She had taken a big drink and sprayed seltzer water onto her Key lime slice. Thankfully, her mother disappeared into the kitchen and her father was clueless, though irked by the sudden seltzer mess, and looked as if he stifled the urge to reprimand her for gauche behavior. Instead, he tossed her his clean cloth napkin. She was thirty-six, she could clean up her own messes.

******

After a short walk, Flowering Springs was where Mirielle ended up the next day in late afternoon.

The cold had arrived abruptly at dawn, and it sneaked past jacket and sweater to find barely defended flesh. She pulled arms close and cast a fond eye over the pond. There were Wood Ducks, Mallards, Buffleheads, Canada Geese, American Coot, great Blue and Green Herons, Double-crested Cormorant…so many she recalled, though there were close to 100 species. In middle school she’d written a though report on this wildlife; she found that investigating then commandeering facts was satisfying. And that decided her future as a reporter.

Harrision had thought it a great idea but he believed most anything she said or imagined was great. “Nothing but the best for you,” he’d tell her with that generous smile that drew people to him. He demonstrated his appreciation in many ways. She was 14 and Harrison,16, so that meant two tickets to a popular Friday night movie or a bag with bagels and coffee brought to her house after the second church service. Or it might mean a bracelet with enamelled daisies on it, or a sweet note slipped through a hole in her bedroom’s screen window at midnight. It seemed excessive to his buddies but to him it was simple: he was in love.

They were in love. And it remained that way for two, almost three more years. Mirielle and Harrison, a perfect couple– so certainly they would marry after college. It was true that they were a good match. He, the quiet one and she, more gregarious; he, a natural in theater and she, a track star. Harrison always knew what to do when she noisily displayed feelings of distress or discouragement, and Mirielle was the only one who semed to understand his unspoken thoughts, his subterranean moods. And they were beautiful together, no one could deny that: he sported dark wavy hair, tawny skin with softly brooding brown eyes; she had thick auburn hair, fair skin prone to a burn and blue eyes that shone with curiosity.

Except following graduation Harrison decided to attend a family alma mater five states away, and the third year he met someone…and got married before he had completed his B.S. degree. She never got over it, and if he was honest–which he was, once—neither did he. But there were so many miles and alterations to their lives; it was the way it unfolded. It had been a long while. The keen hurt had almost faded. Even if his sonorous voice and his probing eyes had not faded from her memory.

And then that morning when she’d gone for her usual run (much later than usual), he’d called her parents’ old landline number and left a message: meet him at Flowering Springs. A place they’d shared many talks, pensive times and stirring kisses. It seemed absurd to not see what he wanted. To not see him, period.

Mirielle began to walk around the pond, wending her way through huge bare-limbed rhoddies and azaleas. She was nerved up, alive with anticipation but also uncertain. He had been married for 15 years; he had children. Why was he meeting her? The last time they’d spoken was after his sister had died nine years past; they’d seen one another at the funeral home. Fewer words were exchanged than heartfelt glances, and it had been taxing for her, perhaps for him amidst his grief. But his wife was always at his elbow as she ought to have been. His lovely wife that had somehow stolen his heart, after all.

And there was nothing more. She still felt that tug, a clarity of heart that insisted they’d been meant for one another. But were they, in fact? They had been living separate lives for over a decade, close to two now. There had nothing for it but to keep on, adapt on the fly, make do, create most of what she needed in her life. Mirielle had done well– with or without a man being a part of it. And there had been a few, though not a husband. She was a very good reporter and had friends, garnered some happiness here and there. She didn’t need more complications; she preferred a hiatus from romantic relationships.

The geese didn’t budge from her path but neither did they attack–they had known her so long, she liked to think. To what age did geese live and did they recall human faces? She forgot if she’d researched those for the report made. Their presence reassurred her with their brazneness and familiarity. All of it comforted her as she moved through the landscape on quiet feet. This was a place she had often dreamed and grown up strong, independent. Where she learned about nature, but also learned about hearts made full and empty.

The platinum sky was weighty with clouds; bands of light slipped out like phantom fingers. She could almost see the small waterfall and a fountain by the south end of the pond, where they used to meet. It appeared deserted.

The truth was, she’d be surprised if Harrison showed up. It was one thing to have an impulse, another to make it reality. And should one even act on impulses like this? Perhaps just as well nothing might occur. Time gone and comittments made, so many changes of fate. It was too much to figure out. Things needed to fit together much better to build a cohesive whole of her life. She was not 14 or 15 but heading toward middle age before too long. No more did she entertain childish fairy tales.

Mirielle sat on a weathered bench at the waterfall’s edge, leaned over to dangle fingertips in brisk clear water as it cascaded over mossy rocks. The ache and then slight numbness startled her. December days in Oregon were not like December days in southern California, but both places were home.

She’d give him fifteen minutes, no more. She was not being left stranded once more. A wood duck flapped its fancy wing by the pond and lifted its elegant green head, and she thought how simple a life it had. She closed her eyes and breathed in clean sharp air.

“Mirielle.”

It was almost a whisper, that rich, gentle voice sliding across the air to her. She stood and faced him.

“Harrison.”

He was shorter than she recalled and his black hair was nuanced with white at the temples. But his searching eyes were the same and, too, his sensitive mouth, which broke into the smile she knew well. He stepped forward.

Mirielle was frozen in place, whether by the sweep of emotion she felt for him still or fears that fell upon that joy. Before she could stop herself, she looked at his wedding ring finger. She had to know.

Bare. That was enough. Harrison’s gaze scanned her face with near-disbelief, then held his hands out to her. She moved to him, let his warm hands take her chilled ones. He pulled her to his chest, her name spoken happily, arms snug about her. Mirielle leaned in as close as she could–to be sure. They fit one another, still, and after k moments that threatened to undo them, they released one another reluctantly.

They squeezed side by side on the old bench and began to talk as if in an old and secret language, layered and muted and kept close between them–the waterfowl heard little of import. Harrison and Mirielle began to discover what story might blossom from their chance encouter, even as the sky closed over their garden and darkened. The rain fell and lamps flared one by one, illuminating the way as they dashed to shelter.

Wednesday’s Words/Flash Fiction: True Blues

When he saw her coming he balked and almost turned around. But too late. There she was with her tidy hat and jacket, sensible shoes, white ankles exposed below faded purple leggings that inched up as she moved. Her hair…was flyaway in the salty breeze, longer, a surprising ivory hue. She always looked tattered to him; he likely looked flawless to her, as ever. But the truth was their looks were secondary, always were.

He adjusted his face. Better a bit surprised than too nonchalant. She knew he tried to hide but if he didn’t look at her long…it was locked eyes he’d regretted after they’d first met. Her faint grey irises and bottomless pupils got to him. If she wasn’t psychic she was plain spooky, he’d thought then. But she was an artist, for one thing. And also knew how to reach in and find him.

Two summers ago they’d stumbled into each other at Kyra’s Killer Coffee on Beach Road. Literally–he pulled out his chair and she caught her bare toes on a leg, fell onto the table top, clipped his expresso and forearm. He caught his coffee in time to save it. Hers flew up, landed splat on the weathered pine floor, made a rivulet. Then, with apologies, she sat down. He did the same. But really–as if he’d invited her when his buddy was seated across from her.

“You another spoiled boy or a new sort of… summerling?” she’d asked.

He’d looked at his friend, who gave him a bad look. “Summerling?” he’d repeated, and she just threw her head back–with its bad teal blue hair–and laughed.

“That’s one bold, very strange girl,” they’d agreed as they left.

But his head tingling. “Huh,” he said. Her eyes, rapid-fire dry wit, that nerve.

So they got together; he felt he’d hit the jackpot, despite her odd blue-gone-muddy-hair, her stinging sarcasm at the ready, her pronounced lisp when excited. Altogether, the wrong girl. But that underplay of wrongness, the friction and foreignness: too good. For the summer, anyway. She lived at the beach with her wheelchair-bound mother. He visited a couple months at his grandparents’ weekend house.

When he left at end of his summer stay, she was calmer than expected. But in his case, he’d been ambushed by her intelligence, super-x-ray mind vision, velvety lips, clear eyes. Nobody had ever had the right to get to him; he didn’t allow it. He’d let his guard way down. But away from her, he drifted.

The next summer he visited cousins in Germany. When in winter he went to the beach it was to space out at a window, watch the stormy foaming surf, sit by the fire, sleep. He missed her sharp laugh, a hand holding his loosely, how they’d walked in sync since she was also tall. But he never sought her out. He’d been seeing a girl who entering university next year, pre-med, just as was he.

This summer was different. His parents had split up; he’d totaled his car in spring. He planned to enter university despite the head injury, a slow healing femur. He felt this was a last time to loaf, play chess and rummy with his grandparents, explore tidepools, be pampered some.

So when he saw her, he was both anxious and relieved. At last, they met again.

She came around the bend, arms swinging, chin tilted up, eyes forward. The gap between them closed fast, too late to turn back. He felt suddenly unsure, kept eyes to the path as they moved forward, then when they were two feet apart he slowed.

But she smacked his arm with a soft fist, thrust an envelope at him, and kept right on. He stared after her. She was not turning back. He bent to retrieve and open the envelope. Pulled out the stiff watercolor paper card.

It was a little painting she had made, a radiant miniature seascape with two tiny people. A man–was that him? yes–was moving out to sea, afloat on whitecaps, and she–yes, it was her– was standing on the bluff, waving, waving with a poppy colored handkerchief, all that pale hair free like a kite in bright wind, and the sky was so, so blue it hurt to look at it. But he kept looking until he was able to smile.

Late to Arrive are True Confessions

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

He didn’t like to take “no” for an answer if there was any hope, at all, so he went back again. He had passed the house once only and it struck him as a beacon in the dark. It was large, had a good veranda, was painted a stone grey, and he could see a portico at a side entrance. More importantly, in the parallel yard nestled by a back fence was a smaller dwelling painted a Wedgwood blue that needed a touch-up. A hand lettered “For Rent” sign was hung haphazardly by twine on its doorknob. It compelled him to stop and ask about it.

Jim Jameson, as tall as they came in those parts, swung open the door, leaned down to study the stranger to take in Van’s interest in renting the tiny cottage and said, “No. Not for rent right now.”

“But there’s a sign on the door announcing it’s for rent.”

“That was last week. I changed my mind. ”

And with that Mr. Jameson took the steps two at a time, huffed and strode over to the dwelling and yanked off the sign. He put it face down on the ground, scowled at the younger man who’d followed him and barked, “I’ve changed my mind. A man can be of two minds and oscillate, can’t he? Today, it is certainly not for rent. So excuse me, I’ll say good day now and good luck.”

Van wandered after that, thinking things over. He hadn’t been back to Chesterfield since he’d left Chesterfield College his second year. He’d never expected to return. But life did turnabouts in ways that baffled him. His old father died so the family business, Warrington Jewelry, Ltd., met its own untimely end. He’d grudgingly worked for him fifteen years, ever since Walt Warrington was unwell with a worsening heart. There were not more appealing options then and his mother had passed several years earlier, so it was up to him. They had long dealt in vintage items, fine jewelry; they’d managed well enough, or so he thought, keeping a pleasant  home and bills paid.

Van had little idea there were old debts stirring up secret dismay and stress in his father. Why had he waited until the end to tell him the truth? And Van worried extra college costs had further jeopardized the business–and to what end? By the time Van got the mess untangled and debts paid off, there was not so much left. Nothing enticing in the hometown, either.  He had managed to keep a precious few thousand after all was addressed, so he took a needed break from the misery.

Although one might argue that Chesterfield was nothing much, either, it had two colleges, one for medical degrees (Health Sciences Junior College), the other for liberal arts. Van had attended the liberal arts college on a partial scholarship, thinking of teaching high school kids. He hadn’t quit due to poor grades or lack of interest, it was more complicated than that, enough that he’d given it up and re–entered the family business.

After all had been squared away and sold, even the family house, after two peaceful but lonely weeks camping in state parks he’d had a happier idea. What if he went back to where things were better, before they got worse? Chesterfield had inspired him once; it might again. So he’d driven five hours toward that wavering glimmer of possibility and started looking for a place of his own. And then things got weird.

Van got a cheap room night just three blocks away and decided after his odd encounter about the cottage to inquire about Jim Jameson at the Pub ‘n Grub.

“I was interested in renting the little place he’s got but he flat out turned me away. There was a large ‘For Rent’ sign.”

“Big Jim?” The bartender said, shaking his neat head of dark hair. “He’s something, isn’t he? Teaches economics and world history at Chesterfield College. Married a gal who had just graduated, an artist. We all liked his wife a lot. They came in Friday nights for burgers and fries, a couple beers.” He paused wiping down the counter to check out Van from beneath bushy eyebrows. “You’re new in town, right? Don’t know too many who aren’t anymore, what with yearly expanded college campuses.”

“Well,” Van said, “I am, but not entirely. I used to live here as one of those invading students long ago. Left after two years to work in the family business, though. Now I’m back for awhile, anyway. My father died so I’m looking for work again and a place.”

“Sorry to hear of your loss. The town has changed a bit, no doubt. More people, more work in some areas, less in others. What was the business you owned?”

“It ended with my father…we bought and sold good vintage jewelry.”

The bartender stuck out his hand and Van took it. “I’m Bart Tilley, by the by. Been here since before you came around the first time. Don’t believe I knew you then but now we’re acquainted.” He pushed another beer over. “On me this time, then it’s yours to pay.”

“Thanks, Van Warrington here. I lived in the dorms on the other side of town. Hoped to be a teacher; had a dream back then. So what can you tell me about that rental property situation?”

Bart lifted a finger to indicate Van should hold the thought while he waited on more customers. The place was filling up; it was after eight. Van was suddenly exhausted from the drive, from looking for housing he could afford, from a few surges of muted grief which he could not quite name as such. Only a marrow deep weariness was recognized. He was on the verge of change, he felt it, but nothing good had happened yet.

Bart slid back and inclined his head close to Van’s. “She died, his wife, ovarian cancer. Big Jim has not been himself for awhile now. Gotten surly. He often decides to rent the place and then just as fast to un-rent it. You may as well look elsewhere. You seem like a good guy. I’ll ask around. But it was her studio, she was a potter. Good stuff. Sad story. Hey, by the way, there’s a new, hip jeweler taking over Dundee’s Diamonds and Gold downtown. In the big green building, just stop by, see if they need your expertise.”

Bart left him with that news as he got too busy to return. But he looked over his shoulder and frowned, rubbed his bristly jaw when Van was looking across the bar, mulling his own thoughts over.

Well, Van thought, that poor guy, no wonder. He went to his motel room. As he lay with hands tucked behind his head late into the noisy night, he mused, Jewelry appraisal, buying, selling–is that what I’ll have to do again? And then: Bart is alright, he seems solid, I’ll go back sometime and see what he’s heard–if he meant it.

******

But the next morning he returned to Big Jim’s house. He loved that part of town and imagined the rent more than workable for such a small abode.

Big Jim opened the door, looked Van up and down, shook his head sadly then closed it. Van remained on the veranda, turned toward the wide tree-lined street and looked over graceful lawns upon which stood old, well kept two-story houses. They had called this “Professor Row” in contrast to “Student Row” streets. He had sometimes ridden over on his bike, gawked at the pretty houses and dreamed of making it there, himself, in ten years. Ten years that had slipped away.

The door partly opened once more. “Why are you still here? I have a class in a half hour, I don’t have time to shoo you away every five minutes.” He hunched his thin shoulders as if he was too defeated to stand up and appear otherwise. “I don’t think I can rent it, it’s that simple. So for now, no deal.”

“Yes, I get it, Bart told me it was your…wife’s studio. I’m sorry she passed.” Big Jim only looked over Van’s head into the distance a wistful moment. “I love its appearance. I like this street. I need a place that is affordable and have money in the bank and can find work as a jeweler. Or something.”

“Right, a jeweler, that’s what I need here. If you’d said landscape maintenance person I might consider it a moment.” He gestured around the overgrown yard, flowers blooming out of control, rows of hedges in grave need of pruning. “But I don’t plan to lease it just yet. As already noted.”

“So you know, I can do that, too. My father had an imposing yard in Pineville and worsening ill health. I helped at home, the business he had. He died last fall.”

“I see.” Big Jim came outside, let the screen door bang, its whiny hinges scraping the still air.

Am I playing on his sympathies? Van wondered. But what I say is true. He was surprised when Big Jim gestured toward two dark blue painted wicker chairs nearby. He took a seat after his host did.

“Thanks for taking time to talk. I sure would appreciate this place, I have to get settled somewhere soon.”

“It’s not a proper house but part getaway and more a serious potter’s studio…a kitchenette, a tiny alcove for a couch or mattress…” He deflated more as his voice trailed off.

“I get that–not wanting others to live in it. Must be hard to see it there every day.”

“It was her refuge as well as work space, you see. I think she was happiest there. Married thirteen years, all we had. She got sick four years ago, died two years later. I just ignored the studio until recently.” He stopped himself, sat up and turned toward the congenial, pleasant looking man, perhaps the earlier end of middle age. “Well. And your name again?”

“Van Warrington. I studied education at Chesterfield College for a couple years, fifteen years ago. Then had to leave. But I understand that you don’t want to let anyone use the cottage, so I may as well move on and–”

“Cottage. That’s what she called it, her Potter’s Cottage, all six hundred twenty-four square feet of it. Look, Van Warrington, I have to go teach a blasted class now but stop by tomorrow and we’ll talk a bit more if you like.”

They said a hasty farewell and each went his own way. Van felt a stirring of hope. He wondered what sort of pottery she had made. He still wondered if the cottage might be rented in good time, and for how much. He went back to the motel, sat on his bed for awhile, trying to shake off drowsiness. He picked up his camera, put a few resumes in his backpack, then walked toward Stone River so he might follow its meander through soothing greens and floral cheer of Chesterfield. Maybe he’d stop by that jewelry store. Maybe not.

******

Jim Jameson found his way to the studio as he did each morning sleep eluded him before dawn arrived. He glanced at the kiln outdoors, then unlocked the door and pocketed the key for safety , patted  it inside the fabric as if it were an amulet. There was the still clay-coated potter’s wheel to right of the door. She liked to keep windows and door propped wide open in good weather as she worked, to encourage a fresh breeze. To move and out to think and use the kiln. There was the salvaged farmer’s double sink with cracked muddy splotches, and bags of clay lined up along the west wall. Cupboards hung above containing supplies of various sorts–he knew so little of it. On the east side were many shelves with last finished pieces crowding each other, bowls, mugs, plates, trays– and small free form sculptures not meant to resemble anything so much as a sensuous curve of a hill or a waterfall in mountains. It was the glazes that set them off, glossy or matte vibrant autumnal tones she loved, and natural textures she created.

Used to create,” he said in the dusty stillness, and took all in as long as he could stand it, not going near the day bed where she used to sometimes fall asleep and remain all night. More often than he’d wished. The worn coverlet with vines on rusty colored and quilted fabric was where it was when she died, the pillow scrunched up as she’d liked it.

But would she want it this way forever? Like a memorial to a life she once led but left behind? And without any serious complaint, he had to agree.

Jim blinked bloodshot eyes to dispel their dampness, shut the door softly, locked it and went into his house to make coffee. He took a stack of papers to grade into his study as he waited for Van Warrington to arrive.

******

When Van came and accepted the offer to enter the house, it was as if he remembered something, but he didn’t know what it might be. There was a familiarity about it but then, many of the houses were like this one and he had been in quite a few over those two years. Parties, a few suppers with profs’, study sessions at profs’, visiting friends who had snagged a shabbier version of such a house to share with five others. It could be the evocation of a time he lived, is all.

He followed Big Jim into the study. The walls were made of books and the scatter rug was a large old Persian. The light was dim, the room warm. It was early and too humid. The clouds outside regrouped, gathered more steam for rain.

They sat on the velvety burgundy sofa. On the coffee table was just that–a  carafe of coffee next to cream and sugar in cut glass bowl and pitcher. Jim poured one mug then a second for Van.

“So, I’m wondering just why I’m here,” Van said when silence settled between them a moment. He could hear a grandfather clock ticking, looked for but saw none.

“I thought I’d tell you more before you further considered how much you may desire to live there.”

“Alright. I guess.” The cottage was partly visible from the side bay window. Van wanted to see the inside but willed himself to be patient then drank the strong coffee.

“We built it right soon after we married because she decided to make art, not teach it–though she did teach a few workshops each year. It was easy to agree to anything she wanted. She was younger than I by nine years and had a laugh like gently falling water… and a smile that snared everyone who saw her. She had the kind of beauty that caught you off guard not because it was dazzling but because it was quietly unassuming, natural but unmistakable. Sweet and a tad zany at once.”

Van drank more, uncrossed his ankles. He felt embarrassed by the details shared. Was the professor going to wax on and on about his deceased wife? He should be kinder; Van was sure the woman was lovely and very talented. But he wasn’t a grief counselor, not even this man’s friend. He had his own sadness to sort out. Was this woman’s essence never going to let go of the man? It hovered about him, a cloak of sweet sorrow.

Van understood how that could feel. But Van didn’t speak of it, at least not to strangers.

Big Jim went on. “She had such a knack for pottery–she fully discovered it after she got her B.A.– that it was only a matter of time before she sold them at art fairs, then galleries were interested. She began to make money at it. But mostly she loved what she did. I was never creative. I’m a man of strict numbers and political pondering, neither of which interested her much. I don’t create a thing but decent meals.” He scanned his bookshelves as of there was something there he must recall. “But she was so vibrant, she shook me up. I wasn’t a fool; I knew she needed the security I offered her so she could be a potter. I didn’t care. Just to be near her, to know she was out there every day, would be here most of the time when I returned from work….” He covered his eyes with a large hand. “I will not marry again.”

Van felt a sharp twinge. He knew some of what Jim spoke about. But he had to move on, learn about the cottage availability.

“It must be wonderful to have such a marriage, Jim. And I’m truly sorry she got sick/ And died. I suspect you’re right–this is not the right time for you to rent it out. I appreciate your telling me how important it is to keep as it was. I couldn’t live there. honestly, knowing how you feel. I hope you’ll excuse my bothering you.”

He was feeling short of breath, as if the room was hotter and smaller than it was and he was taking up too much air and room by by sitting there. It was a little creepy listening to such longing, as if he was overhearing a confession of something more intimate or complicated but he didn’t know what. He began to stand up.

“Still, she’s want me to share her cottage with the right person. I feel Lily would like you.”

Van sank to the chair. Tiny hairs on the back of Van’s neck stood up. He felt vaguely nauseous. “What did you say her name was?”

Big Jim unfolded his clasped hands and gestured toward the cottage as if she was out there waiting for them to decide what was next. “Lily. Lily Hunter Jameson.” He stood and looked out the window. “My dear wife for far too short a time.”

Van had to leave the room. He wanted to crawl out on hands and knees, he felt weak and unable to stop the spinning of his mind, the unreal sense of everything there. Lily Hunter! The bright young woman he had fallen in love with the moment he had met her in freshman composition. The woman he’d wanted to be with the rest of his natural born days. The woman who loved him right back with her stirring spirit and searching mind, her resonant body like an instrument made of fantastic music–as if she had waited only and ever for him and could never let him go.

Except she did. Back in college she in fact was falling for someone else, she confessed so one spring day after they picnicked in the riverside park. Someone more established and secure in life. She had to be an artist–he surely could understand that, couldn’t he? And the man knew exactly what she needed whereas Van, truth be told, sometimes needed too much, gave more than she could easily handle. She need energy left to create.

He never knew who it was but now he was staring at the back of a very tall, thin man, an accomplished, kindly man who so loved her still. A man more secure and well off. A man who adored her from afar as long as she had lived.

Van left the room as swiftly as he could, as if he was being run out, without a backward glance, tripping down the steps of the lovely veranda, past the cottage he would never look at again. He started up his car and drove to Stone River, then got out. Such an ache that dug into his center. How could this have happened? Was she not done hurting him, chasing him after death, mocking him after all these years? Or had Big Jim Jameson figured out who he was? No, that would be too uncanny and cruel…

“Get a hold of yourself, Van!” he said aloud as the river swept by. Let it go.

“”Yeah, man, come on, it’s just a place to rent that you need,” Bart said as he lightly punched him on the shoulder.

“Hey Bart–what are you doing here?” Van threw a rock into the muddy current.

“You look pale as a…oh, wait, you’ve been talking to Big Jim about his haunted cottage. Listen, I tried to tell you–nice guy, but kinda nuts these days. Pay him no mind. I have a place for you, it’ll be fine.”

“What? Just like that?”

“I’ve lived here fifty eight years. I know things.” his glance slid over Van. “Like who you are.”

Van felt a strong need to move away from Bart or to push him. This town–he had thought this could be a good move.

“Wait, Van, I knew Lily a long time, too. She used to come into the bar and cry on my shoulder. Everyone does, right? It’s my job. But, yeah, she came in after she married Big Jim and drank a little much and finally told me how she’d ended up with the wrong man but it was too late for her and Van…how much she loved you, that she lost you. But I don’t think her husband ever knew the truth. She had to carry on with her life, didn’t she? A really good potter, a finer woman. My friend, glad to say. I miss her–she was a lively gal when she wasn’t swimming in regrets.”

Van gave Bart a hard look then turned away. He was ready to wake up from the unnerving dream he was stuck in. All he had to do was concentrate on the three dimensional world. He took in the trees’ lush greenery, the polished picnic table, three children laughing at river’s edge with their father. He listened to his heartbeat against his ribs, just beyond his shirt, ba-duh, ba-duh, ba-duh.

“I mean: Van. Your name is one you don’t forget! Old fashioned, kinda like Lily’s. I thought it was you when we met…and I had to say she did love you, buddy. She made a kind of mistake that couldn’t be undone easily so she was in it for life, she said, with Big Jim Jameson, a decent man. It just turned out it wasn’t for that long.”

As he steadied himself on a picnic table–newer, cleaner than the one he and Lily had used years ago–he slowly sat on the bench. Felt the strength leave him and run into the sky, river, ground.

Bart grabbed his arm. “Hey, take some slow deep breaths. It’s a lot, no need to rush into understanding it all. It’s a tough story.”

Van straightened up. Sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs. He felt better in a few minutes. But he felt half-undone. He jutted his chin into storm-prescient air. He was a man who knew how to make the best of things, wasn’t he?

“Yeah, a lot to take in. To think about later. It happened. But it’s over, done. The past can’t hurt us unless we invite it to do damage.” He felt Bart nodding agreement beside him. “Okay. I heard you say you have a room? If I stay, that is?”

“Oh, stay awhile. It’s a small bungalow on the west side. If you have cash and get yourself a job soon, it’s yours in two weeks. I own it so that’s a solid.”

Van felt like he had been taken too far back to make a victorious step forward. But hearing Bart give him new information made him recall his life was just a life like any other. There had been good breaks and bad, quirks and bad timing. Deeper pangs. But he believed better times were possible. It was his way and it was what made the best sense to him right now. That, and Lily loving him all along even as she cared for Big Jim. She was some woman.

Blood and Love Among Us

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

It’s only natural that one should take stock of one’s life a few times. I don’t mean the facile review that accompanies each turning of the year, but the kind that digs deep and turns everything you thought you knew into a foreign milieu–which, nonetheless, reverberates with truth.

I was doing this as I drove from Missouri to northern Michigan, a trip made now and again to see my extended family over the last thirty years. I liked to drive, it relaxed me. In the countryside the newly assertive spring sun created a parchment-like whiteness. Roadsides once snow-hugged were murky, taupe and grey. And yet it was empty in the way a new canvas is before Darren, my husband, charts a bold line across unsuspecting space with his oil paints.

Joplin, MO. was the place I’d left behind; Marionville, MI. the village I was moving toward. I cracked the window and inhaled a lightly chilled breeze. As I cruised at 75 mph through fecund fields and rolling hills I determined it’d been a reasonably satisfying visit, if one can say being crammed into various spaces with nearly twenty-five others can be meaningful. But we do it to assure ourselves we are yet loved merely because we are part of family, and we don’t have to do anything else to garner general affection. Thus, we can take with us the belief that we are not truly as alone as imagined. It is also a gathering that reminds me there is no judgment that cannot be done or undone when blood comes into the picture.

The topic of this reunion–the 99th birthday for Great Aunt Mattie; she was not likely to make it all the way to 100–was no less than MaeLynn (she insisted it was to be spelled “Mailin” later) and Jacques (many called him Jake despite his dislike of it). It seems they finally got divorced after forty-some years together–I wasn’t counting. I hadn’t thought much of them for awhile. They had lived in France and Spain, and despite my closeness with cousin MaeLynn, they had drifted far. After a couple of years I had to let it be; she and I would always be family though things had changed. I knew there was more beneath the emotional distancing but I didn’t want to disturb the surface.

But it’s a shock to the others. Our family got all stirred up with disbelief and speculations, that such a perfect match should be dissolved. He was so successful and she, so talented. A foolish thing to undo after all this time. It made me laugh to think how most had distrusted the match at first. What I thought I understood was kept to myself.

MaeLynn was my cousin, though if you set us side by side you might have doubts. I had what my mother, an enthusiastic colorist, dubbed “a twilight look” with black-brown hair and deep blue eyes. While my cousin’s fairness–“a dawn look”, Mom said– gleamed soft and bright. Those were not the only differences. She seemed almost made up with her achievements, prettiness and an ingrained shyness and then she went away and came out a whole new person. That’s what family said, anyway, after she studied at the Sorbonne –she had a gift for French and other languages, as well as drawing and design. Not much later she found Jacques. She admitted to me she thought him a muse.

As for my personality: faster on my feet, less academic but a problem solver, someone with ambition and yet slower to find her true liberating element. “Quirky” was a word attached to me when younger. My mother thought me a sad-eyed one, akin to a gypsy child who might range far and wide before finally setting up camp. I was alright with that. And the melancholy part came and went, bothering me far less than the parents.

My cousin and her beau said they met via acquaintances at the horse races, which scandalized our Southern Baptist genes. But this Jacques was not to be corralled into anything serious quite yet. He decided to come with MaeLynn to check out her roots.  His family tree was old, even illustrious. Our family tree has many kinds of roots. He could choose from mighty or humble, tenacious or weakened, creative, given to a few touches of madness–or humdrum but reliable.

I had graduated from University of Michigan two years prior, three years behind MaeLynn. The summer she brought him home I’d had a promotion at a fledgling lawyers’ office: executive legal assistant. Sounded grand. It was tedious at times but engaging as I came to know the cases and was soon keeping up with demands. I had wanted to be a lawyer, myself, but that had fizzled when money ran low, so I worked and saved like mad. I longed to get an apartment but my parents’ house accommodated me as I aimed for a future with law school. Still, I often felt the tug to run away. Where was all that life I was expecting to happen?

One night I came home to find pork roast simmering in the oven. The kitchen was dense and humid with cooking and my mother in motion.

“Get upstairs and clean up–put on that navy and green outfit, it suits you well, Jessamine–before MaeLynn comes around with her French gentleman.”

I nibbled on a large romaine leaf with a drizzle of oil and vinegar. “She’s here so soon? I thought that was day after tomorrow.”

“I don’t know where you’ve been–stuck at that desk too long, head full of murder or mayhem, no doubt. In less than an hour! Go on, now–then help with the table.”

On the way past the living room I glanced at father and he felt it, so lowered the paper and threw me that look: yes, we must get with it, it’s family reveal night–then turned the page and tried to hide himself a few more minutes. It’s not that he didn’t love his niece, he just didn’t relish being the first to determine the Frenchman’s suitability for the family, his brother’s possible son-in-law. I stifled a laugh. Dad wouldn’t likely commit either way, at least not admit much to his brother; he kept his own counsel more often than not. I saw the value of that.

After splashing cold water on my face, I dragged a brush through tangled hair. I didn’t see the point in trying to impress my own cousin and as far as her man was concerned, he’d come and go. Or if she really loved him as she insisted and he was good to her, that was that; we were all stuck with each other. I pulled on royal blue slacks and a white mandarin collared blouse which my mother found too tailored. Slipping on flats and thin silver bangles, I was done. But I hesitated at the mirror, fingers pinching cheeks, then smoothing back dark waves. I was twenty-four. MaeLynn was twenty-seven and felt aged she admitted, and if Jacques didn’t marry her soon she was coming back to the States and starting over. I studied my reflection thoughtfully. I had not once thought to get married. Had, in fact, turned down two proposals. I had wanted what my cousin got–travels abroad, exotic friends, experiences–and bided my time, reminding myself the best things came to those who worked hard and were open to opportunity. I had enough patience, even too much. Perhaps I needed more imagination or courage.

The table was fresh with yellow tulips, sparkling with lit white candles and crystal water goblets, and the food smelled perfectly seasoned when the door bell chimed twice. Dad got up to answer it and Mom came up beside him. I held back with Terra, our white American Eskimo dog.

“Sit and just smile,” I informed her and was obeyed though her tail indicated a desire to dance about. If Terra liked Jacques, I would, too.

“Hello, welcome!”

Mom and Dad’s voices rang through the foyer and when I was on the verge of stepping forward MaeLynn’s light rise and fall of laughter stopped me. I hadn’t properly heard her voice (only on the phone) in three years and its lilt draped the rooms in silkiness. I had forgotten that elegance. Happiness swept over me. When could we leave all this, catch up on everything? Not soon, though, with Jacques DuFresne at her side, the man who had kept her from us, from me, too long.

As they rounded a corner I came forward, hands held out to her. And stopped the barest split second but still it felt like a stumble, a giveaway.

Jacques was remarkable. Handsome and lithe with conviviality, and as soon as his inquisitive dark eyes found mine I looked away. But it was too late. I felt his presence hit me like a small firework blasting in my chest. His smile radiated through space and back to me before I threw my arms around MaeLynn and held her tightly.

“Jess! Hello, hello, hello!” she said squeezing me back until we were breathless with excitement and anxiety. “Jacques–my favorite cousin, Jessamine; Jess, meet Jacques, my favorite Frenchman!”

He took my hand in both of his, kissed both my cheeks. Such contact put me off balance, and I was enveloped in an aura of brisk lime. I righted myself before fresh air became any more scarce, responded with politeness, smiled back. Terra pranced about our feet, barking with the thrill of old and new converging, and she managed a good whiff of Jacques’ pants legs before bounding over to Dad, who called her firmly. I felt vaguely alarmed by this man’s presence and was glad we sat some distance apart. On second glance I saw he was older, perhaps five years, than Mae Lynn. I immediately wondered why he hadn’t paired off for good before. Probably because he was too attractive to hold onto; no one was foolish enough to believe she’d be the one and only. Except perhaps my cousin.

“Let’s sit, eat and talk!” Mom directed, her face flushed, silvered hair glimmering in candle light.

“So here we are,” MaeLynn started as she passed potatoes au gratin, “and so much has happened. I just had to stop here before we fly on to St. Louis. I told him my cousin comes first–well, along with Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Ian–then best for last, of course, my parents. Well, so far Jacques is impressed by the scope of our country. He kept pointing out various landscapes from the plane window.”

“It’s true. I’ve been to Scandinavia, most of Europe, Asia on business but not here. Ridiculous!”

Clear English accented by his native tongue flowed gracefully. I looked at my father, who seemed a little skeptical but was at ease as he inquired of Jacques’ business.

“Textiles. A fourth generation family business, can’t get away from it, I’m afraid.”

And then they were off and running with talk of work and the market place and related safe topics. Mother kept the food coming and directed the conversation from time to time. Mae Lynn and I got in a few words about our work and family.

“What do you think?” MaeLynn mouthed at me across the table.

I nodded slowly, then asked her about her plans. They were meeting family but also taking in sights and then he would return to Paris and work; she would follow later.

“So, tell me, Jessamine, of yourself.”

I shivered at the sound of my name spoken by him, found myself fidgeting with my napkin. I plunged into work scenarios, when he asked about what I liked to do for enjoyment.

“Well, the outdoors is paramount.”

“She dances,” MaeLynn said. “She’s marvelous, unlike me.”

“Oh?” he said, head cocked to one side, eyes revealing pleasure.

“I studied ballet for years, but that was then, and then ballroom dancing. Waltzes, Latin dancing, and so on. I get out to dance now and then. You have this  hobby in France?”

“Oh, yes. I too like to dance, it’s like creatures freed by joy, more when moonlight arrives, wonderful to do.”

“He’s a simple romantic, I suspect, despite being built of tough male genes,” Mae Lynn said. “It’s a French thing, perhaps. Everything is steeped in a subtext of poetics. Charming! But you’ve met your match in Jessamine, Jacques. Be careful, she will one day be a fierce lawyer even if her heart is made of gentler sentiments. Give me clear palpable edges of a design aesthetic, where art rises to meet every practical need.”

“Here, here,” my mother agreed as dad rolled his eyes just a little.

“A fine combining of opposites,” Jacques said looking my way and then lifted his goblet to mine, his gaze steady, magnetic. I blazed inwardly but reciprocated with a shrug, then inclined my own to each and every goblet.

“To the reign of poetry’s wisdom, to compassionate justice, and also design’s triumph,” I said.

Shifting candlelight flared then softened as we sipped and it was off into talk of travel and obligations and the necessary glue of family and back to more workaday matters. Time accordioned and before we knew it, the evening came to a close. Terra had made tentative friends with Jacques, doted on MaeLynn and she doted right back. As they left for the hotel, we waved  farewells, my happiness tinged with longing. I felt we all had barely shared what mattered. They had one more day before flying to St. Louis. I would join them for sightseeing along the shores of Lake Michigan.

“He’s rather impressive, don’t you think?” Mom asked us.

Dad put his arm around her waist. “We’ll see. Smart man, could be a good catch for our MaeLynn.”

“And vice versa, dear,” she added. “And she said she is spelling it that new way: M-a-l-i-n–now, accent the first part.”

He grunted; this was irrelevant to him. To us, the family.

I slipped away, found the privacy to process our evening. I passed my mirror, stopped and scrutinized my reflection, startled by such vulnerability. It was a dangerous nakedness glimpsed, as if my sallow skin had become translucent. I was myself yet lit from deeper within and that strange glow permeated me, threatening to reveal even more.

Fear, though, gave way to curiosity, a frisson of excitement.

******

Waves lapped against curvaceous beaches bringing to us a song of the ancients. Skin reddened with wilderness gusts. Stoned fell into our palms, gifts from winter and the turbulence of cold meeting warmer currents. The trails were winding and long and we were strong and full of energy. Conversation was less important than the fanning out of complex life forms, a primordial mystique that came upon us, seemed to spring from our very limbs and breath. The top of Jacques’ head nearly glanced off limbs and his face radiated excitement. MaeLynn’s hand caught mine, then his, dragging us up to a peak. A valley’s loveliness swept us up, held us still. He stood between us, one arm about her, one about me so I could hardly bear it but did, then let happiness take rein. Then we were three again, set into motion again.

The laughter of that day, clean and rough and easy. Words traded as if we were the smartest and best the world had to offer. Hands grazing hands, legs pumping blood to heart to everywhere and such rich oxygen rushed to our brains we were drunk on promises of spring. We believed in all we envisioned, we were young, and it was good. We felt what we felt, thought of little beyond that moment.

I felt it coming apart beneath the seams of our childhood devotion, and perhaps so did she but we acted as if we were all meant to know and care for one another.  But at the end of the trail when MaeLynn was yards ahead of us, Jacques stopped in his tracks, right before me.

“Jessamine. ” His forefinger raising my chin, his moving closer. “Always, I suspect, Jessamine.”

I lifted my hand to his, gripped it, then moved it from me just in time, before touching his strongly lined palm to my lips. The urgency of want crackled between trees, earth, us. I caught a glimpse of my cousin’s narrow back disappearing. Best friend for a lifetime.

“Jacques, be wise,” I whispered.

He looked into my eyes, intense with disquiet and brooding, and a sharp sliver of sadness cut through me. He was so close the musky heat of him seared me. I feared I might weaken or, worse, collapse from the combined weight of desire and loyalty. So I broke into a hard run. His voice trailed behind me, calling my and then her name, asking us to wait.

It has to be blood, I told myself, it has to be blood, not ever this beautiful sea of longing and bit down on my lip, the blood a taste of primal sorrow, of joy refused.

******

Missouri, Illinois, Indiana,  my childhood left behind only to reveal more of my youth and adulthood as I drove into the giant mitten of Michigan. But somewhere along the way those times had settled in with me. Many miles I heard our names repeated–MaeLynn, Jacques, Jessamine, Darren–and I’d have to pull over, drink or eat something, listen to music turned up loud in my car. I’d commune with cows, seek new leaves and gaudy wildflowers that felt like balm of peace. I’d walk a little if there was a spot to enjoy, then get into the car again. I stopped d late at night to fall dead asleep in nameless hotels. I called Darren a few times, checked in with his personal care aide, who was steady and likely kinder than I could hope to be.

How does one explain love? I have asked myself this a thousand times since then. There were other men–men I stayed with, until I was enamored no longer. Then in my thirties there was my husband who cared for me in ways that made a difference and I, for him. Was it love that drew us to marriage and cinched us tighter with time? Is that what kept textiles and furniture pioneer Jacques, and the successful interior designer, Mailin, partnered all those years? Despite the rifts and crises, the gaps each year widening? Was it the strength of love or was it a deepening commitment and were the two so different in the end?

Darren had a stroke four years ago that left him in a wheelchair though his upper body and language were rescued mostly. We left–I left my career as a lawyer; he sold his plumbing business– a megapolis lifestyle for woods and lakes again, our first stomping grounds, and now our likely final domain. I push him outdoors each morning he can bear the air and light and effort to accept limitation. I spend my time writing poetry that sometimes I send out and sometimes tear up, take the dogs for walks that feel might never end if I kept walking. The beauty fills me as much and more than I had hoped. Solitude is unbroken unless we desire it and then we find a few friends among the woods hideaways, play cards or listen to stories or make music, remember past times and wonder over the rocky human course. Darren paints, not all that well, but he loves it. I admire his uncomplicated joy in form and color.

For me, poems are things that have to be given great breadth and depth of soul and there are days I cannot do it, at all. But I do not live without gratitude and an abiding affection for life.

This evening when the phone rang, I knew something, call it intuition or an old fear come to pass, call it a crossing of two moments beyond time that became one. I looked out the window, past the scrubby yard and dock where one weathered boat is tied up, past sway of lake water with dusk’s coral a sheen. Past the black-green evergreens’ spiky tops that always reminded me of steeples. Steeples of an infinite church that rose out of the earth, reaching skyward. I could see the North star and Venus and Mars and so much more.

“Jessamine?”

Jacques. I heard his voice and it struck me to the marrow, nearly shook me apart then held me still in a thrall like a beautiful chord struck in the pure night air.

His voice vibrated along some invisible zigzag line that reached there to here.

“Are you looking at the sky? The same grand sky I can see? We can look up, know each other there. Or we might actually meet…We never danced.” Silence echoed. “Jessamine?”

My hand with phone in it slid to my chest and I prayed he could hear my heart beating. I closed my eyes. Swallowed a swell of tears. Lifted the phone back to my ear. I could hear him breathing; it was one of the tenderest sounds I would likely ever hear. And then I disconnected from silence and remnants of words, turned from that life-charging heat once and for all.

That sky beyond, the blood tie with MaeLynn–those would remain.

Readers, I have written a series of stories about Marionville, some of which have been posted here, such as: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/the-watchman-2/ and

Fool’s Errand

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2016

“William, I need you to go to Morton’s Cafe and Country Store and meet with Sarah Demple for me. She was due at ten but she’s late–can she think this is a good start to things?–and now I have a meeting with city council.”

She waited in his doorway and filled part of it with her well dressed and compact girth.

Willie looked up from his desk. The long, narrow window before him was filled with a blooming magnolia tree; he appreciated that it blocked out all the rest below. He acknowledged her with a sigh. It wasn’t that he hadn’t managed such tasks for her before. They’d had housekeepers come and go–his aunt had high expectations. Still he frowned a  bit. “I have this project. Couldn’t she come here and just wait a couple of hours for you? I’ll serve her tea and cookies and be nice.”

“Absolutely not. Meet with her, determine if she is reasonably appropriate, smart and pleasant enough for the housekeeping opening and if so, bring her back then for a more incisive interview when I return. If not, buy her lunch if she requires it, then send her on her way.”

It wasn’t the first time he had dropped everything to do something for his aunt; it would not be the last. She directed him to do her bidding with a tone of voice and a look that could only be described as executive-insistent but short of dictatorial. She didn’t look the part. She was short, wider than she had intended as a young woman, her wavy hair pressed into a neat cap above light brown eyes. Eyes partly obscured by wire framed glasses. They rode down her long nose as the day progressed. It may have been the heat that took them to the precipitous tip but more likely because she didn’t bother to get them fixed after their dog, Big Cat, sat on them. Yes, Big Cat, their lumbering, overly furred creature, that small-eared, big-footed gentle canine who had kept them company twelve years. She had longed for a real feline but was seriously allergic. He couldn’t bear his aunt’s eccentric naming, so called the dog “BC.”

Willie was not very willing to be anyone’s errand boy but he often felt like one living with Aunt Fran–even as he exited boyhood for a rather abridged–so far–manhood. He should have moved on long ago, left the town, even. And yet he stayed, immobilized  more with the passage of each year. He’d finished college in a city four hours away, felt like he’d accidentally returned and now was held captive by inertia, a leaning toward shyness and a quite decent living situation.

He was only seven when his parents boarded a train to Tallahassee about a new job prospect for his father. Maybe that was why he was loathe to leave. That trip ended in a disastrous crash and Aunt Fran (his father’s sister) was the one best equipped to care for him, he was told at the funeral. He’d even then wondered what that meant. The fact that she was early widowed, left with money? That she was childless? That she was employed by the bank’s loan department and had a solid reputation in town? What Willie longed for then was a good night story and someone with whom to toss a baseball around plus random warm hugs. The trusted providers of those had been taken from him on the way to Florida, of all places. Aunt Fran had later sat across from him in her empty kitchen, poured him a cup of strong black tea, and placed her hands on her knees. She stared at him with sad eyes and he stared back, eyes dried out from too much crying in private.

“Well, William,” she said.  The grandfather clock chimed six times. “Here we are, left to our own devices. Let’s do the best we can. Just get on with it, shall we? You know your Aunt Fran cares about you.”

He’d looked at the sodden napkin in his hands and twisted it so that it started to shred and a few sweet cookie crumbs fell into his lap. Willie nodded slowly. He heard the last after-funeral visitors leaving, footsteps resounding as they departed via the wide front steps leading from his aunt’s grand porch. His, too, he then realized. And she softly patted his back and got him settled upstairs in his airy blue and white room at one end of a long hallway. As he lay down on his bed, pillow clutched to his skinny body, a slow-building moan of a train whistle unstopped a fresh spillage of tears.

He still resented, at times deeply loathed, train whistles. Even after twenty years. But Aunt Fran’s house was built on a hill above a historical train station. Each opening of day and closing of night was pierced by its sudden voice, its weary sighs. He had to endure it like the constant threat of illness so he protected himself by ignoring the auditory intrusions as much as possible. By listening to other things. He never knew when it might send him into a frenzy of pacing, hands pressed against his ears, BC circling and barking like a lunatic. Yet most of the time Willie failed to overtly respond. It was, after all, just one annoying sound among many, another signal of time passing like the gentile slide tick slide tick of the old grandfather clock’s pendulum down in the foyer. He could hear that finely gauged sound, too, from his room if the door was open. He thought perhaps even when shut.

Willie was unusually sound sensitive, always had been, a person who heard things others did not until it was audible at last to them but almost blaring to him. At times the auditory messages blew up enough that it drove him to packed-tight ear plugs. It might be psychological, the doctor had said when he was still a green stick of a boy, but Willie and his aunt thought not. He could hear things like the resident mouse sneaking down s tiny tunnel under the stairs. And that was when the kettle was boiling, his aunt talking a mile a minute on the phone. Sometimes even Big Cat seemed a beat behind which scared Willie though he never suggested it aloud. It was possible BC was being lazy–like when he scratched at the door to be let out to do his duty a little late, as if he found it a bother.

Sounds could hurt Willie’s ears and they often diverted his attention. They informed him of everything from slow-moving storms to an unknown car visiting down the street, each year, make and model of which he learned to identify by thirteen. He heard what others blissfully could not. Sometimes the knowledge meant more to him than it should, as if surrounding himself with sound was akin to a comforter. It was his secret world but it made him feel childish, too.

He knew things about people that he would rather not; he could hear them trading confidences down the block as if they were speaking right at him. So Willie finally adopted a demeanor when around others that was mistaken as disinterested or fully self-absorbed, his pleasing, chiseled face often going blank. People didn’t quite know what to think, so beyond niceties that came from respect for his family name–Blalocks had owned many acres and properties (and once a canning business) for three generations; his aunt was on the council and various committees–they skirted around him more often than not. Willie finally could work from home as a computer programmer alone, rarely complaining of it.

Despite all this, Aunt Fran insisted he run errands for her and interact with even strangers as if it was nothing much to ask in exchange for room and board. He supposed he did need to offer something in return for her generosity, the awkward shows of genuine–he admitted he felt it in return–affection. Willie found her steady and trustworthy if also unnecessarily directive, even intimidating. But after all the years her attitude was annoying at worst, with her voice grating on his ears when it could be at its best even calming. But the rest of the time he knew her to be a sterling human being, generous to have taken him in so long ago.

Willie closed his laptop and left his desk. He could walk to the cafe but preferred to ride his bike so hopped on and sped away. In the distance he could see heat lightning slice through the hazy sky, hear its faint sizzling of dense moist air, the breeze signing. If it rained, it rained, but he felt it would not or not seriously.

“You here on business or pleasure, son?”

Willie saw Harry at the counter and greeted him with a small salute. “Meeting someone for Aunt Fran, Harry.”

“Ah, as I heard from her own lips last week. I think you’ll find the person near the stairs. That’s a newcomer by the window.”

Willie hesitated. Her back was to the room as she peered out the tall window. Her hair was burnished gold in the light and hung loose about her shoulders. She was tall, as tall as he was, and thin. He couldn’t imagine her slogging from one room to another with a mop and bucket or scrubbing the insides of a refrigerator much less carrying laundry to the basement and hoisting a basket of fresh, folded clothing to their rooms. It seemed a ruse. She might be doing research on something?

He came toward her from the side so she could see him approach.

“Sarah Demple?”

She turned in a movement both efficient and graceful, pleated skirt rustling, hair swishing. She held out her hand with a question in her eyes which were wide and unruffled as a summer horizon.

“You are…? Where’s Miss Traynor?”

They were close to melodic, those five small words, notes to a measure opening to a larger piece that would be revealed, light and sure, tinged with sweetness yet edged with humor that caught Willie off guard. He took her hand briefly, offered his name.

“William Blalock, Frances Traynor’s nephew.”

He led the way toward a corner table but she looked up the stairs to the landing so he changed course. It was out of the way, perhaps better for an interview.

Before sitting down, Sarah Demple glanced at a sign on the wall. “You are a stranger here but once!” she read aloud. “Quaint. Is that a good thing, I wonder?” And she smiled at Willie with a mixture of devilish humor and serious inquiry. “Such good light here. We can watch the street as we talk.”

“Yes, it will do,” he agreed, noting her lilting, self-assured voice and wondering if she ever did reader’s theatre. Or if she sang. Wouldn’t that be something?

Once they had settled in and sweet iced tea was brought to the table, their young waitress studying the young woman closely, he began.

“My aunt sends her apologies but since you were late she had to attend another meeting. She’s a busy woman, as I assume you are, too.”

He tried to focus on her but looked out at the traffic. It announced its rushing and pausing with a rumble and a hush, punctuated by muted honks that struck his eardrums like stones thrown upon taut leather. Willie wondered if they both could be easily seen by passersby and resisted squirming. He’d thought of the spot as a kind of decoration. People sat up there only if the place was packed, a lunchtime occurrence. It was like being on stage. Few were in the cafe. He was terribly conscious of their reflection in the wall sized mirror so turned his head away.

He didn’t see her study him. Sarah liked the way his eyes opened wider to acutely observe, as if he was taking copious mental notes with the tiny cameras of his eyes.

She offered a smile bounded by pale lips. “Not so busy. There was no problem, my train was just late from Hampstead. I called but got her voice mail. I expected to have to wait. Are you my interviewer, then, William?”

Her voice was a series of bright swoops and gentle sweeps in the air and he found himself chuckling. “I’m the first set of doors to get through, I suppose, and possibly your employer’s right hand. ” He blushed. It was a stupid thing to say but it was done so he settled himself, sat up tall and began again. “Why not tell me about your experience. I know you submitted a resume but what positions have you had and what brings you here?”

She spoke of working with a well-known cleaning service a year before college and then two years part-time during school and how she’d had a family crisis with an ill mother and had to drop out of classes last year. Now she needed to return to work.

“I loved English Lit. I like to write. But I don’t know what I’ll study when I return, if I return… I need a career that carries me forward, I suppose. And my mother is better but not fully healed. She has a nurse twice a week and, of course, my father. But I need at least one good year of employment to save money.”

“I see. Sorry to hear of your mother’s illness. It seems you do have experience. You have ambitions, too, so I guess you’d be moving on again.”

But Willie was lingering over her sentences–the depth of vowels, clean endings of consonants, an emphatic delivery as she described most ordinary things–long after she had stopped speaking. Sarah waited calmly. His gaze wasn’t intrusive, just calmly appraising. Sarah found this oddly moving, as well as the tilt of his dark-haired head as he looked at her, then beyond her. When he said nothing and drank the rest of his tea, she noted how sunshine of late morning brightened a swirl of dust. She saw that in a distant bank of clouds there was a squiggle of lightning, a wild scrawl of energy. She found nature beguiling and wished more than anything she could find a job outdoors but this would have to do. When she looked back at William, he appeared ready to leave, one leg and foot cast out from the table.

“I think you should meet my aunt; she’ll be home shortly. I only have my bike but we could walk. It’s just three blocks away, up that hill.” He pointed at the house. “The white one at the top.

“I pass the first round then?” she asked with a hopeful laugh and studied the house where she might be living and working soon. Her breath caught in her chest a moment, then let go with relief.

They got up to go and he paid the small bill. Harry waved them out the door.

“Yes, it’s a very small town, but one made of decent people. You just have to accept the good with the bad as you do anywhere. I have lived here a long time.” He cast her a glance.”I live with my Aunt Fran.”

Sarah stopped and was about to ask him something, anything–did he like living with her and why did he? Did he work, was he gone to work every day? Who was he, really?– as he took up his bike, then they along walked together without more talk.

The darkening sky gathered its clouds like drifting skeins of wool, making a large mound or two, and the afternoon’s sultriness rose and wrapped about them. First raindrops fell as if tossed from above, lazy in summer’s heat. Sarah seemed unperturbed and so was he, their steps a little faster. But their silence split open with laughter as drops fell to earth as tiny crystalline tears through shards of sunlight. By the time they got up the hill, he could see that the valley was slicked with rain. It was going to catch them but it didn’t matter. He felt ready for a proper August storm.

“I have a good feeling about this,” Sarah said, and ran ahead of Willie as the sky let loose a drenching.

“I’m sorry you’re getting all wet but I think we’ll make it between  lightning strikes!”

“Who cares–I’ll race you to the door!”

He scrambled after her, exhilarated by what he thought was just another electric storm.

******

The fire is snapping and sizzling in the hearth, keeping winter’s chill at bay. Willie has brought a book of Pablo Neruda’s poems for Sarah and he is filled with anticipation. The one he has chosen tonight and hopes she will agree to read is “Keeping Quiet.” It is somber but it asks for hope and strength; it is something he understands from  a lifetime of trying to make peace with melancholy. He wants to talk about it with her, see what she thinks. He reads the opening lines to himself as she pauses at the library’s doorway, feels his intelligence and his heart.

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still

for once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language,

let’s stop for a second, and not move our arms too much.”

He closes his eyes as Sarah sits in the easy chair beside him. She has wanted to tell him something since she marked her six months of employment. Since they admitted to more than simple mutual appreciation. It has been a time of transition for them, threaded with all the color and sound and feeling of a different life explored. There has been such complexity evolving from the interactions and intentions. Even perhaps for old BC all has changed, she thinks wryly, as he shares all the attention with her now and seems gumpy. Even for Aunt Fran, who is more at ease. And what will come next?

She reads the poem aloud, and marvels over Neruda’s words, the  language with meanings that reach deep, far beyond their lives, the poem’s intensity and grace as vivid as strewn stars. Perhaps they will be guided tonight by this. Willie leans toward her now although he looks into firelight and finds renewal even as wood is burned to ash.

“Willie, I’ve wanted to tell you something. Something I think you should know.”

He looks up, one thick eyebrow rising. There is the halo of her hair as it shimmers in light-and-shadowed room. He wants to reach out and touch it but restrains himself as he often does. Happiness runs up his spine, skids into his brain. He aches to touch her more than the occasional brush of hand on upper back or forearm against arm. But she is employed by his aunt. He waits and waits.

“Yes? What is it?”

“Do you remember when your aunt sent you to meet me? How you thought you were interviewing me for the housekeeper job?”

Willie pauses, trying to see where this is going. Her voice has gotten tighter, higher. “Of course, how can I forget that?”

But fear sneaks in, charges his innards with anxiety. He holds his breath.

“Aunt Fran knows my mother.”

He releases the air, looks at her blankly.

“They were friends during their youth when Mom lived here for ten years….and Aunt Fran knew she had cancer, that I had left school and went home to help her. I didn’t know she realized I desperately needed work then. So she already knew I could do the job as Mom promised I was qualified.”

His eyes widen and narrow, hand goes to chin and he rubs whiskered skin. “So I was sent on a fool’s errand–she already was going to hire you? What a scammer my aunt can be!”

Sarah reaches for him, fingers lightly splayed against the top of his hand and they both feel desire stir. Her fingers tremble, so unlike her.

“There’s more, though… She wanted to know if you found me, well, of any interest or I, you. She told my mother she felt we might be, uh, a good match, you know, and they were both wondering…”

Willie involuntarily presses hard into the oak rocking chair and it begins to rock. He stops the motion, turns to Sarah with mouth agape.

“Wait–what? She engineered this for her own personal reasons? How like her–she can’t help herself, can she? My very life! Well, I can certainly move out if that is the problem.”

“I swear I didn’t know this until I talked to Mom. But apparently your Aunt Fran was worried about you.” She pulls her hand away. “She worried, I guess, that you were stuck in a rut. Lonely. Like I was, Willie, alone and tired and drifting.” Her eyes trace his fine head and tense shoulders, hands gripping the rocker’s arms. “Oh, I should never have told you. Not yet, not now! How stupid to think it might amuse you as it does me…that you’d appreciate the romance of it but no, I was wrong.”

“Amuse you? Are you amused by me, then? Find this charade a pleasant little diversion?”

Willie gets up and paces before the fire, hands covering then rubbing his eyes.

“I can’t believe my own family, what does she think I am, a mere child, a virtual idiot? Well, maybe she was right.”

He stands before the fire, back turned against the woman he thought he might be falling in love with, the one who is tickled by the planned arrangement, who surely will be gone soon. William Blalock, certified numskull, the last laugh is on him again.

But she stands up behind him, places her arms nearly around his chest. He is pulled to her muscle and bone and softness, to her dazzling heartbeat.

“Listen, I was surprised, too, and angry. But I need to say it was such good fortune we’ve met. What happiness it’s brought me!” She lays her head against his still back. “All due to our families suggesting we might be good for one another. Because you came to meet me at the funny old cafe. And then we ran through summer rain, up a lush green hill. William Blalock, turn around…please!”

Willie turns and they are face to face. He kisses her and she tastes of winter’s silvery cool and the smoke of fire and a hint of bright rain. The room thrums with a musical mix of BC’s lackadaisical howling, the slow burning wood and a circuitous farewell of the train as it leaves town. Willie doesn’t hear that ghost-filled metallic wail. He hears Sarah’s feathery breath meeting his.