Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Come-alongs

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The diffuse glow of light retreated into a cloud bank and hightailed it to a far off, more needy place. It was another piece of evidence that nothing was going right. He’d tried to ignore his mounting dread of another morning garbed in grey, then the afternoon battered with rain. But sunshine had won one round at noon before scurrying off, gave a generous showing as he stood outside the building door. He was trying with all his might to not smoke, partly because it set a bad example for clients, of course. But it was his only actual personal resolution of the new year. You’d think he might manage it–this was an addictions treatment clinic, and by now he knew a few things. But he advised himself that if bleak skies continued–honestly, that was likely– he was entitled to comfort of old habits.

Just standing outside, perusing the neighborhood with its abundant shivering trees was a solace but it could be completed by a smoke. Actually, it was the only reason to stand beneath a water-laden awning soon to unload, in the way of people at the doors. He should go around the corner; there he could take get in one deep, potent drag and he’d be good for the afternoon. He’d be able to work better.

Bargaining: he knew how this went. Bargain until one thing wins, the other loses.

“Hello Rick, catching cold yet? Waiting out the urge?” A quiet, clear voice. “Don’t  worry, the best is yet to come along.”

Marianne swayed past him with a chuckle and quick wave, graying curls bobbing as if pleased to see him, as well. He responded in kind with an exaggerated yuk-yuk but his shorn long hair had nothing to add. New clients had often thought he was one of them, so it was time. Oddly, when he was in treatment twice, himself, he’d been clean cut, stood with shoulders squared and was often mistaken for staff. That was nearly two decades ago. Much had rearranged itself, not only his physical presentation. He rubbed his head to warm his scalp; should have put on his waterproof Aussie hat.

Marianne paused to peer back through the glass door, a flash of concern unsettling her open face and since he’d watched her enter, Rick smiled, authentically. Only she knew he was trying to beat nicotine addiction. At last. He had to tell her. Only she knew how dicey the holidays were, with family far away; that he’d decided to not go see his egregious father and overachieving sister. Only Marianne knew much of anything worth knowing, he sometimes felt. About the clinic, city, people’s innermost beings. And she was the office systems manager, far too loyal to the organization. Everyone looked to her, but it had taken her well over a year to get to Rick. Not that he’d been her project–she’d been friendly, as she was to all. He’d believed he’d sniffed out a wanna-be counselor behind the warm eyes–that made her suspect. They each had their roles; there was no time to waste. He was polite, too pressured to chat. He sure didn’t need another bleeding heart-listening ear at him. Not when he was surrounded by four good plus one fake and three slightly-to-more-askew ones in his team room. He had his own issues but he tried. What a business, addictions treatment. Love and aggravation, that was his feeling mash up.

Marianne couldn’t help herself. She was responsive and caring by way of deep instinct, not by trade. Nor education. Or even personal need. Everyone relied on her at some point. Well, Tommy, his cynical teammate, thought she was sentimental “to a fault, unfortunately, and prone to mistakes on office orders, and way too forgiving of our crazy clients.” The two men had cynicism a bit in common, but even Tommy at moments noted Marianne’s peaceful influence on the milieu. The hypercritical guy often taunted Rick with: “You have fully succumbed.”

“So what?” he’d say and then shut up.

Rick reached for the pack of Camels, then pushed them back into the pocket. He should have thrown them out. He should have bought a bag of hard lemon candies, should have not had three cups of coffee before lunch. But this was the way of things. Good intentions and follow-through about 75% when on a persistently positive streak.

He took in a a few refreshing lungfuls of winter-rainy air and re-entered the workplace: quiet to chaos in the crowded lobby.

“Hey man, you gonna sign that shelter voucher for me or not?’

“Rick, lookin’ good, we need to talk!”

“I’m here on time, why are you late? Lunch that damned good?”

“Rick, I can do that UA now…”

He made a beeline for the interior locked door, swiped his ID, then made for his desk. It was true, he was ten minutes behind schedule. Not too bad; he’d be there late, anyway.

At his desk in the white square cubicle he opened his files and got busy. Voices migrated over the air waves: therapists discussing a case, another on the phone persuading a client to call his lawyer since he had no say on assault charges. Tommy cursing his computer again. The man had a wicked sense of humor but the cursing started to clang and scrape inside Rick’s head after a few hours. The man was five foot five but had a voice like a cranky giant.

Documents opened on his screen, he focused again. Relief. He hummed to himself, an old Nat King Cole song. Though he jiggled his leg until it vibrated. Did he have chocolate? He pulled out a drawer. None.

“Tommy, easy, all will be well,” he advised over the cubicle wall. He could shape his voice to be as soothing as needed.

“Rick, you’re a bona fide ass, your computer always runs fine and mine is on the blink twice a week.”

“You likely broke it to get a premier set up. New one due soon?”

“So you say. Next week. Cope with my snarls as I do with your innocuous humming. What a duo over here, before you know it we’ll be doing a routine at the corner bar!” He screeched out a phrase of some rock song. Another therapist launched a wad of paper at him; it missed Tommy and landed on Rick’s desk.

Rick moaned, picked up his ringing phone. Two urinalyses right now, check. Then five clients in a row. Group lecture late afternoon, another in evening–what was his topic this week? Had to find one that kept even him awake. Home by 9:30. The voice mail light blinked red. He  got up, strode to the office front.

“Man, I can’t go and if I can’t go I just can’t go. That’s the gist of it!”

“Sorry, that’s a positive. Or you can drink another glass of water and wait it out, Jazz.”

She turned her narrow, taut but deeply dimpled face up to his and the smile became a scowl. “Hey, why do you always have to give me a rough time? Been clean 2 months now, nothing’s going to mess things up, got me a spot at the tent park and probation is going okay.”

Her bony body barely filled her long sleeved, black t-shirt and sweats. She owned just a fleece hoodie as far as he knew, now tied around her waist, spotted with raindrops or food or other mysterious things.

“You’re a champ so let’s keep it that way for you and the PO. I know you hate the observed UAs so do what you have to do each week and all is well. Right? Right!”

He held out the clear bottle again. Her pupils looked too small. She held out a plastic cup for more water.

“You on edge this week, you tweakin’?” She turned, cup up to lips. “Turn it down, Rickie.”

“Thanks for the advice, Jazz. Let the desk staff know when you’re ready.”

“I know the drill.”

Rick restocked a few UA supplies in the deep closet before getting the next client when he felt rather than heard a swish of something. A skirt? The uniform was clean jeans or khakis if you dressed up.

“Rick?”

He looked up, eyebrows drawn. An unknown face. A mass of hair swept back and far below that a skirt, long, bright. Dark eyes that reflected florescent light so it was hard to read them.

“Marianne pointed you out to me earlier. I have a stack of UA forms here.”

He took them, nodded at her, studied the new form.

“So you know, I’m Nell. Just started yesterday–took over Jud’s position up front.”

“Nell, good to meet you. Good luck.” He got busy again. Not because he loved tidying things but because looking at her made need to pull back. Too much to take in without staring from a distance.

There was that swish again and then muffled voices from the lobby beyond. The room felt cooler and bigger; had it been warmer before? He shook his head. He was going through nicotine withdrawal; it made him a little nuts. On the way back to the team room he glanced over at the front desk. Nell and Marianne were in a huddle; the older woman lifted her head as he passed. He called the next UA recipient. And then another showed.

Back at his desk to check voice messages. Three o’clock. and time for client Ray with two DUIIs, a broken front tooth from his last car accident.

He got to his office, sat at his desk, turned on the desk lamp with bright green glass base and soothing illumination. He’d brought it from his basement, a forgotten treasure of the past. Opened the file and got ready for Ray, a man he might personally like if he wasn’t so deeply alcoholic, angrily resistant. The man had nearly killed two people. But Rick wasn’t paid to like clients, just educate and support them on the road to better health.

Then: Nell who? Where did she get that amazing–is that what he thought of it–skirt? That hair was shocking. Stop. Why did he care? Rick was so far off women that he felt like he had dug a cave in the mountains and set a ring of fire at the entrance to ward off trespassers of the female of the species. He’d not be found off guard. He was a loner since Laura. It suited him fine.

He went to greet Ray but instead found Jazz walking back and forth before him, causing two people to cast her a look of irritation. Ray was asleep. Or hung-over. Or drunk– please not today.

“Jazz, you ready yet?”

“Come right along,” Marianne encouraged as she slid past him, out the door with her (overdue) lunch bag. “Rick is one busy counselor.”

Come-along, he thought, that was her trademark refrain. Everything in her view needed to come along– move forward. Or, it was that something good would come along–sooner or later– if that is what was sought. That’s what she told him whenever he voiced a complaint. It could almost put him to shame some days–that persistent optimism. Her own life was not an easy ride, widowed young, raising a granddaughter alone. And yet, the open heart. That’s why she should counsel and he should ….try something else, maybe. But what?

When could he take just one little drag of a stubby Camel? There was a rooftop terrace of sorts where they could eat lunch or take a break–he could smoke up there if he was fast. he thought of the view of the block, the sky. But incoming calls jangled the air. More life and death calls. He readied himself and beckoned the live wire that was Jazz.

******

At home everything was as usual, thankfully. Snarfy greeted him with a jump up, a lick and happy yelp. He let him out back and heated leftover chicken and veggie  soup that had been made from leftovers the night before, and also poured a cup over the dog’s kibble.

It had been Laura’s job to let Snarfy out and feed him; she’d gotten home first. A graphic designer, she went in at 7:30 and got home by 4:30. He slept in until 8:30 and got into work at 9:30 doing the four, ten but more like twelve hour days. She always felt he should tackle housework early in the day or run errands or pay a few bills, not just slumber away. But when he got home he was so keyed up, he couldn’t sleep until 1 am or later. He’d slip in, move toward her aromatic warmth, and she’d usually mumble about cold feet so he’d back off. Stare at the ceiling awhile. Try to catch up with the Post or CNN on his cell phone. The ceiling morphed as traces of failed light crisscrossed the deserted space; it soon gave rise to a wilderness of faint possibilities. He liked watching it all unfold or pause, and eventually he’d fall asleep when he wanted to wake her, show her. But Laura never deliberately studied ceilings, to his surprise. Too “prosaic”, she said, which he had to look up. He had thought it was a design term.

It might have been his work and differing hours, her cool, tidy art taking precedence and his counseling so all-consuming. Her formal education, his street smarts. But in the end it felt like boredom. Rick, bored with her nagging and avoidance; Laura, bored with his resistance to her ideas, so many feelings. With their lack of willingness to do something innovative, insightful, fun to change it all.

Five years and done. That was four years ago. She’d left Snarfy; she didn’t have a natural affinity with dogs. The right thing isn’t always comfortable but in the end, it’s still right. For Rick, liberation was right, being alone, too.

The soup was still good. Netflix had a good mystery series on, so Snarfy and he sprawled on the couch. Snarfy’s fuzzy triangular ears were pricked at the whistling winds as they swirled around oak and evergreen treetops, rushed along the back fence, awoke the tubular chimes and their sonorous callings.

He’d be halfway content if not for the smoking dilemma. But he’d had a dream in which his father shook a finger at him, told him to “dial it down” and immediately Rick thought of smoking, steaming hot lungs: bad for him. As it had been bad for his father, gone ten years too early at least.

Snarfy licked his bowl clean and Rick rinsed their items in the kitchen, put them in the dishwasher. This was when he missed smoking most, after a meal. Like the final portion of the meal, or a commentary that tied it all up. A delicate branch flew by the wide window, then a thicker one with pine needles. The rain could become black ice overnight. Maybe the clinic would close–a pleasant thought and unlikely. But as he turned out the light above the sink and ambled to the couch with Snarfy trotting along with him, her olive-toned face, those deep eyes robbed him of that idea–he wanted to go in tomorrow.

So you know, I’m Nell.

He reached for his lighter, flipped it over a few times, thought of the Camels. Leaned forward with both arms on his knees, undecided, then lit a half-burnt Christmas candle, a now-droopy, snowy pine tree. Turn down the heat, Rick; don’t be lured by stuff you don’t need. Just be calm.

******

“And when you click there it will take you to the other client portal and that data you need… oh, morning, Rick, how’s it going with the resolution?”

Nell glanced his way as her boss spoke, eyes sliding down to his feet as she crooked a couple fingers in greeting, then got back to the screen.

He peered over his reading glasses at her. Couldn’t Marianne keep his smoking battle to herself? She must think he needed a mother–he had a very nice one in New Hampshire, thanks, anyway. He couldn’t help but love that she asked, anyway.

“Morning, Marianne, Nell. Feeling pretty alright.”

Nell turned in her chair slightly and looked at him full in the face. It jarred him so that he spread his feet as if to gain better purchase. She was alert, pale lips a little tight, mind at work. She hesitated, then opened her mouth a little, took a breath. Conscientious person about to offer not so great info.

“Jazz’s UA results are in.”

“Not a good feel to that.”

She pointed to his mailbox so he snagged the sheets, took them to his desk in team room. There it was. Positive for cannabis and opiates. His held breath shot out. How could she? But, then why not? Picked up the phone, dialed her cell number, waited for the voice mail recording.

“Jazz, I need you to come in ASAP for another UA.”

He hoped that would get her in fast, as it was a probation violation. Jazz was running out of the last of good luck. She knew the consequences: more jail time. She should not try to run this time.

The day flew by because there was much to do; he was good with tightly packed schedules, worked faster and better. There were too many UAs on a day when he needed to prepare for two new groups. he stopped thinking of the Camels in his jacket even when he felt his head might explode. He popped a lemon drop in his mouth, walked a bit. He sneaked out for a very fast, late lunch and when he returned, there was Jazz yakking with Nell as if this was a social call. Rick noted Nell was the congenial sort, encouraged brief conversation, a good thing with clients as it gave her insight. Some sleuthing might be accomplished if she was willing to share information. Like who looked high, who seemed more depressed than usual, who was antsy or angry.

When Jazz showed up, they sat in his office. She crossed arms over her chest. Noting he saw this, she then let them fall casually at her sides, hands resting on the chair’s arms.

“You want to show me your arms?”

“What? No.” Jazz narrowed her eyes at him. “You crazy? I’m not doing heroin and not here for show and tell. But I can take another UA any time you want.” She roughed up her thatch of fading burgundy hair.

The defiance, the feigned outrage made her face fiercer, hints of worn beauty barely visible under makeup. She had been at all this a long while. She knew what was expected, what the cost was, what her life could be or how it would end. It had been fifteen-plus years of using and she was a hard thirty. Lost two children, lost partners, lost any facsimile of a what passed for any normal life. They’d worked together four months and she had become less wary of him, even relaxed at times–until now.

“Let’s go, man, prove me wrong.” She flipped her hand at him.

“l’ll get Melissa to accompany you.”

“Observed UA? Really? I hate those–can’t pee–I’m good, I tell you!”

“Not according to this.” He handed her the red-lined results.

“No way, no way! I got four months, I go to those stupid meetings, come to your groups and therapy, I’m even eating again–you know this!”

The words torpedoed out; he had to make himself not pull back, glad the spit didn’t hit him.

“But the truth is indelible, Jazz, there’s nothing for it but to test again and hope this one is less toxic, anyway. Then we need to talk without any bull. And I have to call your PO.”

“Right on, Rick! Nothing like screwing with my life! You got the wrong sample or you got a bad reading, I’m clean as they come!”

“Jazz–” He silenced the words: better not catch you with bought urine.

“No Jazz this, Jazz that…I’m just outta here. Idiot cops or keepers, all of you!”

She stood so fast the chair knocked sideways, teetered and righted itself, then she was gone down the hall.

“Jazz!” he called as softly as he could but she cut off his attempt with a chop of her hand. He followed her a way until she rounded a corner.

“Gone. Damn.”

He said this to himself but Nell, returning to her desk, heard him and watched Jazz go.

“But not gone for good?”

He rubbed hard at his forehead. “Unless she ODs again and doesn’t wake up.”

Rick wanted to run after Jazz, ask her to please stop using, please stay alive, please tell him what happened. But he never did that, it was the client’s choice. Sort of. So he suddenly wanted to smoke. He broke out in a cold sweat, leaned against the file room doorjamb.

“Hey, how about coffee in the kitchen?”

“I just need to pause and let it go…well then, okay, yes.”

They sat there without talking a moment, inhaling the fragrance of a fresh brew, sipping. Rick suspected she was jeopardizing her new job by taking such an unscheduled break– another staff was in the front office but, still, her chair was empty. He tapped fingers on the table, then stopped, jiggled his leg. His closely shorn head felt chilly, itchy. Smoke, just smoke that cigarette, he heard in his head. He wished he still had long hair that covered him up more.

“So, you have a dog?” she asked, lighting up. “I just got a mutt, a really good one. Named Sukie. Training isn’t so fun, but worth it. She’s a good buddy and smart.”

“I like that name. Yeah, my Snarfy is an old border collie. He likes to laze about, follow me around, answer my questions.” She laughed. “Plays Frisbee with me sometimes.”

Five minutes, ten minutes, and he had her face memorized, voice etched on his brain. Her hands flushing the air like birds, translating words into more good stuff. Hair wound in a turban sort of thing. And another skirt, skimming booted feet.

He got up, smoothed sweaty hands on his jeans.

“Thanks, I guess I needed a mental health break.”

She cocked her head at him but shyly.

He asked, “You in recovery, too…or is that too personal a question?”

She nodded but preceded him through the kitchen’s opened door and aimed for her desk. “Have to get back to work. Oh, I like your socks.”

He stood in the hallway and stared at his feet. He’d worn two different socks, one faded navy and one grey with red squiggles and he hadn’t even realized. And was she in recovery or had he been direct too soon?

Tommy rushed by, hands thrown up in the air. “What a fashion plate! You’ve sure got what it takes, ole boy!”

Melissa passed, a hand clutching her phone. “Still not smoking?”

“Does everyone know?”

“Of course!”

“Yeah, then.”

“Kudos!”

Then moving at her own cheery pace came Marianne, arms stuffed with manila files.

Tommy roared past from the opposite direction. “Aren’t we way, way beyond the Stone Age, Marianne? Can’t we eliminate actual files now?”

“Come along, Rick, can’t dawdle, groups to lead, people to lift up,” she said.

“I may not be your man. I’m in serious need of rejuvenation. By the way, are you now my supervisor? All the free advice you keep giving me!” He held out his arms in wonderment.

She affected looking aghast. “Who suggested that? Is there a raise? Naw, just an office manager. But Jazz is almost begging to see you.” She trundled on then spun around, almost losing the stack. “Rick, you know you’ll do what you do so well. You’re genius with tough ones. Success is relative, more to come. And be very good to Nell; she’s a keeper here.”

Rick switched direction and followed. One more time, that’s all it took, another try with Jazz, another hour to stay smoke free, another chance to reconsider the beauty of surprises. He’d been ready to sneak out, light that cigarette, set fire to his own cravings–and who knew what else? It felt like this, the nicotine withdrawal: repeated small implosions, risk of explosion. Bam. He breathed through his nose as if meditating–if that even worked.

Did she like soup, he wondered–because that was a specialty, making something simple, bringing out flavors and goodness from little to nothing. He’d learned that out of necessity but while it was useful it also generated happiness deep inside him. He liked life simplified; it offered more meaning to him.

He swung open the lobby door and found Jazz slumped in a chair, tears snaking down her cheeks, marring thick rosy make up, tears gentling her face despite deep lines and scars from years gone so bad she had nearly quit living.

He squatted, hands folded.

“Jazz, come along with me, let’s go have a talk, okay?”

“Why not,” Jazz sniffed.

After she wiped her face, Jazz grabbed the sleeve of his shirt, didn’t let go. He did not shake her off. She’d never come with need so naked. He appreciated that aching humility that felt like shameful defeat. He was careful with her. And Nell, savoring pieces of tangerine at her desk, noted that.

Wednesday’s Word: Great Ocean, Take My Grief

I wanted to write a short story today. I really did, something richly arresting, bright-toned but real. And almost did, as my writing habits are so ingrained a story would have let me shape it and set it free upon this page. Yet what sort of story would it have become?–for elegies of loss are lately becoming a deafening refrain.

But my sister-in-law passed away this afternoon from the damage wrought by that heinous thing, cancer. She has been one of my valued sister warriors. A survivor of life’s harrowing and strange times. A woman whose heart had such breadth and width, whose mind was tough, quick, coiled and ready to work. Any work–even work for abandoned or forgotten creatures. She stood steady amid the draining minutiae of living and knew how to yet find the glimmers of good.

We haven’t seen each other much in decades; we moved, they moved, days rushed us forward, took time away from us. We visited her and my brother-in-law last autumn in Michigan. She was frail then, and persistently alive. Quiet as in a cocoon yet available as she could be. We used to talk a mile a minute, smoking and drinking coffee. Laughing. Her eyes missed nothing, spoke of all she did not say.

I think she still missed nothing of importance. She listened well. But no more.

This is the second loss in a month. First, my brother Gary, now Sherril. The ache is a flame that cannot cauterize such pain; it can feel like danger, this diminishing of the heart’s natural fullness. The remainder after death: an abyss of a surprisingly darker sort. And in it  the rising volume of sorrow. Tears can barely do their job, there are too many, and yet not ever enough.

I know, of course–how can we avoid knowing it despite attempts to do so? it waits in our personal realm, our daily news — that we live. And then we die. But each time a dying takes something out of us, a gigantic thing not a small one as it leaves the new absence. Like a drowning in the wake behind a mighty ship. We struggle to keep afloat despite the impulse to slip under. I think some days I am weeping for the world, not just my family, not just friends, but all of us.

There is this bone-deep yearning for more time, more love and stories, more moments when you even do no t one noteworthy thing…. but simply be with one another. Experience has such quality if we only give it its due. Nothing should be ignored or wasted, not the hurt, not bafflement or even outrage. Never the energy of compassion, the ease of simple appreciation. No words ought to be tossed here and there or out the window as if they are useless, or recyclable. They are not, not ever, not really. They are potent. Meant to tell us things we need to hear–and to say. Otherwise, we require the sort of silence out of which Divine Love, a harmony we do not even understand can rise. Inform us of more that needs to be known and done.

The words that she and I shared were quite good enough, even really good. Those conversations, those times are held close, pull me into them as if only yesterday…A dry wit. A rapid fire comeback. We exchanged lines that rang with our truths hidden in a raised eyebrow and fast look, little truths that swelled inside our words with balloons of life and respect.

We always wanted Sherril and my brother-in-law, Bill, to come to Oregon, explore the Northwest, share adventures and belly laughs and even music we might make right here, but it just never got to happen. So today I am posting pictures of the Pacific Ocean that Marc and I enjoyed Sunday for Father’s Day.

I am wanting sea spray to flick its feathery tails at Sherril, for glossy sunshine to slide about her being, the great blueness to carry her far and to whole soul joy. But she is already there, wherever she is. I’m just counting on it.

Let a hallelujah love transform you, be ever prefect as the perfection that fills each star and all gaps between. Oh warrior sister you’ve made it through this quick bitter this long sweet life and now it is done it is done

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The Safety of Birches

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It’s not easy here. It goes deep, the cold, and shadows push their way across each space as if they cannot hold back, as if the light is too great. I lean toward the small window but the fire is flaring in the hearth and water in a dented tea kettle is sizzling, ready to boil. No reason to leave the cabin mid-morning. Snow is in the air; I can sense it, the trees are not shivering, but waiting. I have come a long way to find a certain place in my soul, long-buried. I will sit until I begin to find it.

A few weeks ago there was the contained chaos of the city, important enough work, my body in concert with others dashing across streets, lifting our heads to stop lights and walk signs meant to keep us safe. Though not to be trifled with, I’ve certainly not been a despot in my mid-management (thus far) job. Rather, the sort of man who knows when to start up a conversation and just how to end it, who acts from a modicum of good will but alert to the right angles. I was an eager study of my grandfather, who used to tell me the way to advance was timing and a take charge attitude joined to quick, creative thinking. I was already good at the last by twenty or so I thought. Timing–I was impatient. Leadership–I’ve had to gain this step by step; it is the third that draws to mentors to me.

Life: success and failure have felt like second cousins, neither all important that great fuss should be made over them. I have been a man of habits. Gotten up daily, kissed my wife, Luann, hugged our young son and off I went. I locked my desk drawers and shut down my computer by 5:15, got home by six. I admired the city lights rather than curse the traffic jams; I liked to empty myself. Lucia got home earlier–she’s a nurse–so made dinner, something simple, color-balanced she says and substantial. The evenings were easy more often than not. We were good company to one another, loved without serious complaint. I would have said nothing could come between us. We were so close that any existent distances acted as required spacers between well-functioning parts. I didn’t know then that routine could be a drug, that if you don’t question things they can blindside you.

I hear the kettle whistling but remain in the heavy chair at fireside. Close my eyes. The sound recalls a train whistle, the train rumbling by my childhood bedroom each night around 10 pm and in the morning at 7. That whistle kept life in order, made the two halves of 24 hours fit right. Maybe the tea kettle will do that here.

I get up, pour scalding water into a stained white mug. There was a stag head emblazoned on it once; now it’s half gone. The fire crackles and hisses, a wild thing. I take my seat and locate its ravaging core, sip and remember things. I want nothing more than to be alone with peace, the surety and gentleness of it, but unease is having its way with me yet.

It was nothing that could have been surmised easily. Perhaps the way my employee rubbed her eyes at her corner desk, or how she seemed passive, just nodding during supervision the last couple of months, More often than not during meetings she stared out the window. I recall thinking then that she must have something on her mind but she smiled at me when I caught her eye. Alicia always looked right, that is, she was put together, long light hair smoothed back into a fancy knot, clothing well-chosen. She was about due for a promotion to supervisor. Alicia had come to us four years earlier freshly wedded; her spouse, Dane, was a young attorney. Someone mentioned she got “a good one”, he was ambitious and would do well. I noticed she didn’t keep any photos of them at her desk. Everything was tidy, almost empty save for a small fresh bouquet she brought in each Monday and tended as if she meant them to last forever.

But did he, her boss, know her at all? At work she was immersed in her job, revealing little else. I met Dane once, a medium-sized guy with a dusting of grey at his temples already and a noteworthy vocabulary. He surely noticed something at home. Did he share it with friends? Perhaps he talked with his dad when they had a weekly cup of coffee on Saturday morning? As I passed her and a cubicle partner, I heard her say he liked to do that. She later noted at a luncheon that her own family was gone except for an older male cousin in Ft. Collins. And now this still-new husband, she said giving a shake of her head. But they were facts reported.

I have always felt fairly in tune with Luann. She, however, says I need to think less, feel more to get the real picture. I differ on that, as just as I know the shapes of my ten digits intimately, admiring their varied functions and forms, so I know her. My wife is mother and lover, a persevering acoustic guitar player and a good water colorist. And more, of course–but what, exactly, have I missed?

I can’t understand–as her boss how could I have been blind to the signs? I asked Luann, ready to leave for the cabin.

Listen, it’s just, you men might look at us deeper. More. Us women. Sometimes we can’t explain things.

I paused at the door, wanting to stay as much as go. I frowned but she kissed my cheek. The more part? I persisted. How can I know if you aren’t clear?

You should just know by now. Or fight to know, she said. Anyway, I love you. I am so sorry about Alicia. I hope the cabin helps.

But her face drooped as she closed the door. I got into the truck, my mind dull yet crammed with things. On the way to the cabin, it was like a terrible chorus you can’t shake off: Should have known, could have known, guilty as charged. About Alicia. And perhaps about Luann, too.

How much had I missed in living day-to-day?

Now I grasp the wrought iron poker and jab at the fire. It spits and snarls at me. It is so still otherwise that the rooms seem to have held their breath until I entered. This is why I came for the week-end. That well of silence. I don’t want to think. I want to know. I want God to tell me things. I don’t go to church so often the minster knows my name right off but I am not a stranger to God. He comes to me in the meticulous design of the outdoors I love so much. In my wife and son. In wordlessness that is scarce. In the nights when I awaken to the lull of Luann’s breathing as there’s a shifting of tree limbs beyond us. I have felt God’s arms surrounding us. But now, this morning in the woods, I am still at a loss for what makes sense. A prayer feels far too much to ask of me. I sit and let the fire pull me to it, and wait for a new story to unfold like my father’s stories did right here, in this room once.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving vacation and as I had passed cubicles I’d tried to recall who had taken time off, who was set for Christmas vacation. I took off my coat, sat, turned on my computer. Then the phone rang. Dane was on the other line.

It’s Dane…Alicia. She’s gone, he told me, his voice hoarse and low.

Gone? I watched my laptop screen pop with images.

Gone…died very early in the morning. Car accident.

I stopped moving, pressed the phone closer to my ear.

What, you say?–she has died?

Dane’s hand covered his phone. Muffled voices. I waited, panic creeping into disbelief.

I had to call you right away, she would have wanted that, she says you’re a great boss … Mr. Larson, she’s crashed her car into a tree, she was to go to the airport around ten last night, but she got a little drunk, see, got in her car, I couldn’t stop her… well she drinks sometimes, she’s this quirky person and I’ve tried, God knows. And I love her, she’s so good…She’s not coming home, anymore. That’s all I can really say.

I said, No coming back, I see. Dane, I’m terribly sorry. Thank you for calling me. I don’t know…what to–if I can help in any way, please tell me.

But how do you help a man who has had his wife snatched away and with it a whole life of loving? I covered my face with my left hand so the fluorescent lights and taupe walls, tidy bookshelves with marble bookends were gone.

I’ll let you know when the funeral is, Dane said, his voice like something small and unsafe. She’d like that. She always said you were too good to her, made it the best job.

Ah, I said. Of course I’ll come.

We hung up, he to face bitter sorrow and terrors to come, me to face my staff, her empty desk chair, fine work undone. Those unbearable, soon to wilt flowers. I turned and looked out my window, my heart seeming flat as a stone. Alicia. Gone?

It wasn’t enough, the call. How did I miss a telltale odor of stale alcohol, not see difficulties? As I thought it over, somehow it made sense she drank. It might have been her avoidance of me some mornings. Or her perfume being heavy from time to time. Could I have not paid closer attention to her work and behavior those days? What of her apparent appreciation–which I never even imagined while she worked hard for the team? I felt miserable that he told me that now. Why did I never inquire as to why she seemed more apart from us lately, a quarter beat off? Because even then she was a stellar performer. I knew how special she was from day one.

But we’re not taught to be ready to aid, to be concerned. We are taught to achieve and manage, to organize, devise, conquer, put that best foot forward. Not to ask after one another, not open up a little more, never as a matter of course at least. And I am the boss, right?

The shadows lengthen; up north they do so as if there is a purpose. A signalling of minutes and hours falling away. It is long after noon. I am on my third mug of strong, black tea. My stomach gripes but I have no appetite. I am waiting for the snow. For some sign. I want this cabin and woods to fill in the blanks left by Alicia’s dying. Those gaps at home perhaps created by me. I need answers but I know smart thinking cannot provide them this time.

The wind whips the frosted air, slides down the chimney and causes fiery shapes to flail. I study the rich red and orange flames and they begin to mimic waves lapping at the logs I brought earlier. My body sinks back into the chair, conforms to the wide, old cushions. My grandfather and father sat here alone or with others and now I do and it feels as if I should be welcomed by them, a son among sons, a man among men. What would they tell me now? I know they still care. The fire settles; my eyelids falter and fall. I smell ghosts, cherry pipe tobacco and Old Spice, venison frying, snowballs with vanilla.

Two weeks before Alicia stopped living she knocked on my office door as I was finishing a phone call. I could see her through half-closed vertical blinds. She was looking at the floor, then looked up as a co-worker passed by. I noted the smile, not for the first time. It usually animated her fine, delicate features with surprising vivacity, as if she changed from black and white to full color. This time, it was muted in effect, smaller. She was younger than I but she might one day have my job. Time and practice, that’s all it took in the end. I have replayed this last interaction over and over but still, I wonder.

Come in, I called out as I hung up the phone.

Mr. Larson, I was hoping to talk to you about time off. I know the deadline is long-passed for turning in requests. But I may need to see my cousin for Thanksgiving.

Is that right? Plans change. Let me see if I can spare you. How long?

Just one day after Thanksgiving week-end. I’d fly back Monday, be back at work on Tuesday.

I looked up; she sounded breathless. She was biting her lower lip as if a chapped bit of skin bothered her. Her eyes were on the sleek brass clock Luann got me five years ago after five years at the company. It was the one thing I’d take with me when I left.

I can manage to give you that. You’re taking more time at Christmas but that’s okay, we need to do that if possible.

Oh, that’s good, I really am grateful. My cousin is ill so we should visit him. My last relative, right? Or maybe I will just fly there since Dane hasn’t even met him.

Her face quieted, closed.

I tapped my pen on the desk and said, I see, good, it’s settled.

Alicia cupped one hand into the other, then sat up straighter. Her pale mouth opened, then shut. I waited to see if she had something else to ask, fiddled with my pen. Her attention moved to my hand, the heavy golden pen that signed everything of importance. I stopped and she raised her gaze to my eyes, held it a split second. Another unwavering moment. I felt something. Then shifted.

Is there something else, Alicia? Is the new program going alright?

No, I mean, all is well, she said, rising, smoothing her skirt down. She headed out the door, turned to me at the last minute. I appreciate your expertise and help. I’ve learned so much here.

No problem, happy to encourage you, I said, returning her once-again warm smile. She left. I addressed my laptop. But I thought about it a moment, the late request, her seeming anxiousness. She is the best I have. Her smile is a welcome sight in a busy day. It all seems good. I got back to work.

Now as I doze in the cabin Alicia is walking across the arena of my mind. She is not smiling but lifts a hand. Walks slowly, nearly dances with long strides in the air, turns to me but doesn’t speak. She focuses on something I can’t discern. Her eyes flare blue as the heart of flames, her visage dazzles the smokey shadows. Then she’s gone.

The images are an electric jolt to my brain and I come to life, stand up, stretch. I look around and see only the comfortable living room, pine table, sturdy chairs and a galley kitchen with steaming tea kettle. I am suddenly hungry. After I eat I am going to look at my fathers’ and grandfathers’ dusty books on hunting and fishing as well as a few fine ones they passed on, some Faulkner, a collection of Twain, the poems of Longfellow. I will wait for the darkness to gather around by the cabin, by this fire. I will make sure it burns long and late. I likely will sleep little though I long for its restorative power.

******

In some endless tunnel of night I am more aware of being alone than I’ve been for decades although I often travel for work. I reach for Luann’s pillow and smash it against my chest. This seasoned cabin has been meant for respite. For hiding out while paying greater homage to nature. But also, meant for more than one.

I lift the pillow to my face and a searing ache wrenches from my throat. No sense running from it now.

I did not know, I tell Alicia and try to not cry out as I search for her. I did not know you cared, that you drank so much, that you were unhappy. Lonely.

Forgive me. That I could not, did not help you.

******

In the morning, snow, and more falling, a delight from above. I press my face against a lacy iced window. It isn’t deep but a soft and glittery sweep of snow laid beneath a sky that promises more. I make a bitter mug of instant coffee and instant oatmeal and eat. The fire is smoldering, has used itself up. I am sleepy but know the air beyond log walls will shake me out, keep me on my feet. Because I am going in search of birches, maybe fox and deer. Weaponless and empty of complex intentions. I pull on ponderous boots and my father’s ratty Navy pea coat and head out. The air bites my face and snowlight obscures my vision the first steps. As I progress snowflakes come more thickly, clinging to my shoulders and eyelashes.

It is at end of mile one that I see the birches shining. The sheer whiteness of the ground reflects enough so slender-trunks seem to rise into the early winter sky from a vast spread of gleaming white confetti. They reach up as all trees do but they are so proud, of their white and black and greyness, of the special peeling layers of bark that add mystery and texture.  You cannot strip it off or it will wound the inner and outer body of the tree. Their branches sway in topmost currents of breeze. Bare twig fingers at the ends of their branch arms seem to point in the four directions. As a child I came here with my father or grandfather on the way to the valley meadows. As a young man I dreamed with the birches and heard them breathe and rustle, watched them shed leaves, then gather snow and let it go, then once more favor new life.

They are whispering now, the sound a blessing on this winter’s day. It is a hymn. To life, to earth, to humans and all other miraculous creatures. I stand between them, raise my eyes. The birches crowd toward me, seem to make a broad circle with me in its center. I am not afraid because God lives here, holds me, my arms held out within this secure hold. I am no longer sad, do not feel lost. Am not alone. This copse of birches will remain upright and sturdy, will welcome the cycle of life and its leave-taking with quietude. From a ragged jacket pocket I remove her last small bunch of dried flowers. Place them at the snowy base of a birch. I step away from their ancient protection. As I move through the swirls of snow there is a flash of elegant red tail. There are deer out there, too, but it is time to go home. Be with my Luann, my beloved son.

 

Glimmerings

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There is so little in life that cannot yet be held dear, despite this often ruinous world. May we hold close the delicate and transitory moments we are given, make room within our restless souls for everything true and honorable, and every one who needs our kindness, our merciful love. I feel charged to embrace more than I can see or understand. So let me not be the one who cannot give more. Let my life glow inside each moment even–and especially–when darkness descends. Let a drop of light overflow my limits. And then may that glimmering light greet all others and go on, go on and on. Amen.