Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Vesta Arrives on Tuesday

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The library was not like home, not like work or family’s or friends’ homes, in fact not like any other place, and that is why Vesta entered the ivy sheathed building twice weekly. It was a deeply neutral zone to step into, and that made up for much else in her life.

On Tuesdays she went by noon, after she had risen by ten and savored a leisurely breakfast–or, as her mother said with a cluck of the tongue, brunch. Since Tuesday was her day off she had more time to wander aisles, read through a pleasing spread of periodicals, then make black-inked, backward-leaning notations in a spiral notebook on many nonfiction books she had no intention of checking out.

On Fridays it was an after-work visit at 5. It was a comforting pause before the long night ahead. Vesta picked up a book on hold if there was one, examined New Arrivals, then perused the stacks, her forays dependent on last week’s choices. She chose one or two books to read over the week-end; she was a speed reader, thanks to a high school summer course. On Tuesday she returned books and stayed longer, settling into sway-bottomed armchairs chairs or hunching over smooth maple tabletops with her literary bounty.

This had gone on for years in one variation or another, since Vesta had graduated from college prepared to be a real estate legal assistant. At Marsh and Wright Properties she filed, managed inventory, answered calls and provided information, interfaced with banks, prepared documents and reports. In other words, she made sure all was in order, which some assumed was the dullest of positions, but she demurred. It held a small thrill when shoppers found their ideal home and all went slick as could be. But work could get fast and pressurized, impacted by sudden, errant matters, and could be rife with emotional fireworks due to the complex nature of human beings.

Vesta needed respite from all that despite being good at her job, passably content most weeks. Thank goodness for Tuesdays off, though it was not helpful for an extended week-end. But Ms. Marsh’s college age niece, Kendra, had a sort of internship on Tuesdays, so that was that. Not that Vesta objected much. Kendra would otherwise be in and out more. She was not a young woman to be trifled with, her pale face overcome by flaring glares which rendered her paler eyes mere slits. It was like being forced back into high school when Kendra waltzed in. So Tuesday off was perfect.

Vesta not only liked routine, she used it as a shield. Library visits were part of her scheme to maintain equilibrium in both the outer and inner worlds she inhabited. If work could seem full of screeching hawks on some days, well, her mother could be a character from a Wagnerian opera with her miseries, passionate wants and needs. She hit the booze too much and ruined everything she could, all the while calling her full glass the only faithful love she had ever known. It was more than sad to her daughter.

Inside Pine Grove Public Library, Vest found critical relief. She found random and persistent reasons to hope.

******

Libraries tend to be safely sociable but Vesta most often avoided people, even–or especially–their glances. In fact, they made her sweaty beyond the crisp, regulated office environment. It wasn’t hard to manage once she found the areas she wanted to pursue–she mad a beeline to it, got focused. Every patron did that, they weren’t there to chat up just anyone, though some made passing comments on books others had in hand, a free five second review. She ignored those; she made up her own mind. If stumped, she sought a librarian, though their formidable knowledge trotted out for the asking often made her feel lacking in greater intelligence. It wasn’t their fault, she knew. She had a lesser view of herself, anymore.

But there were some who too obviously were seeking hearts’ longings in the benign visage of an incoming visitor. She spotted singles in need of a partner; older folks who wanted a congenial conversation over a cup of coffee; a youth who longed for a research buddy to get him or her through tedious projects and then to hang out. Homeless folks who lounged, read and dozed in corners said nothing but their steady presence reminded Vesta that she should be more grateful and kind.

So she slunk down aisles until she fingered the spine of a book of intent, then stood quite still with back straight, feet apart, and turned pages fast as she could scan. The constant hum of electric lights, murmur of voices at the check out desk, people’s clothes rustling as bodies slipped by her–none of this marred concentration as nagging odds and ends of her life began to slink away, the thin pages offering portals into greater possibilities.

On a Tuesday in June Vesta had gathered three books about natural dyes, how to make and use them for ink or textiles. It was enough to keep her engaged, notebook at hand, for a good hour or two before the fiction section beckoned. Perhaps westerns, she hadn’t tried any western themes in years, or historical romance, though she doubted she would check out the latter–not usually written to her tastes. She claimed a rectangular table, though shortly there came a man who carried National Geographic magazines, glancing over from the other end, then getting engrossed in his pile. They were situated near four chairs in various positions, two at a farther distance.

Vesta was deep into dyes from plants whose names she was trying to memorize when a man and a woman entered the area. They were talking in more than a whisper, not that people did that much anymore. A flash of persimmon–this color name had leapt from a book she studied–startled her peripheral vision and she turned to see who it was stirring the air. Tall, reedy, the woman was nearly enveloped in an orange red cardigan worn over a black dress and fully crowned with burnished volumes of hair, feet clad in tall brown boots. Her companion listened to her but with head down, and wore a navy pea coat like ones Vesta admired in thrift shops, and jeans were black. When he looked up from the chair that faced the table–the woman’s position was sideways in relation to Vesta– his tanned face framed by black mop of hair was so startlingly, unavoidably handsome that Vesta let out a tiny gasp. Then she returned to her book, biting her lower lip and burning with embarrassment.

The guy at the end of her table didn’t raise his head, so intent was he on travelling to Mongolia’s vastness with its legendary horsemen and women, Iceland’s elf haunts or the Oceanic islands’ beauty. Vesta made two small boxes with her pen on a notebook page, underlined her last note, tried to refocus, turned to the next book. She leaned in, hand under chin, her handy veil of hair falling forward.

“Have you taken care of things? Is the vacation all booked yet?”

The mellifluous voice of Persimmon Woman came to Vesta and she stiffened, bent toward the pages. Quiet, she longed to shout.

“You should be dead!” Navy Man said, trying to control the volume and not much succeeding. “Why would we do that now?”

“Because you promised, and we have to go.”

“Of course we don’t–this is what is stuck in your head since the, uh, the accident–“

“Don’t even try to get out of it.”

“I’m not trying, I am out of this scenario, all that was then, this is now.” He made as if to get up but the woman yanked at his sleeve.

Vesta wriggled in her seat. The Nat Geo Guy remained mesmerized by his pages, never mind the odd conversation near them. None of her business, either, so she turned to an index, her fingertip sliding down the list until it landed on indigo, page 102.

“You should have died!” Navy Man whispered fiercely.

A pause, then hissed response, “You, too, Max–“

“But we didn’t so now–“

“–let’s move on. I’m well enough to get on with it, you know I am.”

Vesta cast a look their way. She sure didn’t sound convinced, though the woman made a good show of it, tossing her head, hair flying out from her like a banner of protest and courage as she moved in, knee-to-knee. Her mane had its own personality; she used it to effect, and he melted back into his chair. His patrician face–nose perhaps prominent, Vesta noted, but overall he was miracle–became obscured by Persimmon Woman’s bell-sleeved sweater as she sat taller and forward, as if to do something more, who knew what.

Why weren’t they at home talking this over? At a coffee shop or a park or anywhere else but in the library? This was a different space, not really public like all that. It was getting to Vesta; she closed her books. Then Navy Man sat forward, glanced around. Before Vesta could turn away, his gaze caught hers–she actually felt it, like a hook caught on an unsuspecting fish, an easy snag– his wide eyes, full of penetrating vision, only blinked and then slid away as he realigned with his companion. They resumed talking but softly, their voices a muted tapestry of higher and lower, darker and brighter, rougher and smoother.

The Nat Geo Guy leaned back and stretched, not a quick shake-off- drowsiness-stretch but one that betrayed tight muscles that had to release, arms held high with wriggling fingers, legs lengthened far under the table. He rubbed his palms over his balding head and then sat up straight.

He did not look at Vesta but looked straight ahead, then at the magazines, then at his phone. He was silent, rather inconspicuously alert, it struck her, and he looked…officious, official, perhaps a reporter, a researcher who was looking for more than good articles and photos. He was oddly still in the way a eavesdropper or even a predator might be… Oh, she made too much of his presence! He was only reading, paying no one any heed–as she certainly was.

She could not further sit there, ignore things. They were all three so intent on being contentious or immersed that she couldn’t regain her sense of gravity, that modulating calm that descended on her when she first walked in. The Navy Man had said, “You should have died!”–had he not? Did he mean he wished she had died or that she may well have died or that she wasn’t grateful enough or he was still feeling shocked by her almost-death?

Why did this matter to her?

She gathered her books and stood, pushing her chair back hard so that it almost fell backwards. The Nat Geo Guy never acknowledged her leaving.

“No trip right now, that’s that,” the Navy Man said and his partner laughed but not kindly.

The Nat Geo Guy didn’t move but his gaze slid over the table top, as if he was reaching for something she couldn’t see.

Vesta felt the urge to run.

She grabbed her books, loped away from them, and her heart shook off reins, galloped toward an unknown finish line. She entered the restroom, turned on the water, splashed her face with cool refreshment until she was calmer, leaned back against the white tiled wall. Her breath slowed. Vesta took out a comb to smooth back her damp, wavy bangs. She applied a pale sheen of lip gloss and pressed lips together, peered into her eyes and saw they were not too jumpy, were clear.

But she had been in the library for a little over an hour and nothing good had come of it. People airing personal lives was not what she looked forward to–she heard enough in her work–despite her curiosity about the entirety of it. She debated on staying or leaving and was definitely leaving momentarily when the door burst inward, thrusting Persimmon Woman into the path between door and sink.

“Take it, toss it, don’t care!” she said and dropped a small leather backpack at Vesta’s feet, then lost her balance a bit. As she grabbed the door handle the swift motion threw all that coppery hair away from her face. The woman turned, lips tight but breathing heavily, hands on hips, staring right at Vesta with eyes that could knock you through a wall and into next Sunday.

Her forehead were bruised, her neat nose scabbed over; her jaw and left side of her face were marred by a sinuous red wound held together by countless tiny stitches. The gauze had slipped, dangling by a bit of tape.

Vesta shook her head and pressed her back against the wall as Persimmon Woman surmised who she was, what was next. She looked as if she should sit, but the door began to open and the wounded woman pushed it hard, sweat coursing down her neck. She was feverish in all ways, Vesta saw.

“Don’t faint, shut up, you heard.” She pointed to her face. “Work-related, I’m in a risky business, unavoidable. Oh, so what!” She leaned onto the door, which bumped as someone tried to push it again and more successfully. But they both knew she’d fail in this fight.

“Open up! Put your hands up!” someone barked out and this was echoed by another.

Vesta tried to pull a deep breath, moved back from the backpack as the woman picked it up, slung it over her shoulder. Shrugged though her eyes still blazed, and the wound glared. “Sooo naive, sugar, well, too bad,” then she released the door and walked right into the presence of three policemen who spun her around, handcuffed her so fast that Vesta felt dizzy.

Vesta sank to the floor; it was impossible to stand.

The Navy Man looked over his shoulder as he was taken away, hands locked together. And his look of cunning combined with such force of life–and perhaps there was a twist of dismay–landed right inside her, setting off a quiver of fear that mixed with her own regrets–the latter of which she did not quite grasp yet.

And there he came, the Nat Geo Guy, talking into an electronic device as he offered her a hand. Pulled her up, took the backpack, led her out of the restroom to a public reprieve.

“Sorry, that got messy fast,” he said, “but you’ll be okay, right? There’ll be questions.” He pointed at another man on the periphery, muttered something more into his device, nodded at her and left the library.

Her knees quaked, feet felt like puddings as a bevy of librarians rushed to her, one with glass of water, another with blanket as if she was in dire need of help. They didn’t even know how little, or how much, they were helpers, after all. All she wanted to do was breathe clean air, book in hand. Go back home. To a life she could fathom.

There was the investigator who asked tons of questions, and then she was allowed to go. Outdoors, the bystanders–and news photographer by the size of the camera– managed to get several pictures as she left. The TV van screeched into the lot but she ran to her car. Vesta fought back the urge to smile and wave like a crazed beauty queen. She let tears eek out as she raced away.

******

“So what exactly happened?” her mother asked for the tenth time.

Her suddenly fawning mother (gone half-bad with alcohol in her blood) was only on her third beer at 4 pm. She was still enunciating well, not emotionally unpredictable, but Vesta didn’t want to say more than she had when she walked in–the bare facts. Her concerned mother’s voice was akin to a mosquito buzzing, circling, buzzing and she was sorry she felt that way. But it had been a weirdly exhilarating as well as a frightening day, so far. She could not explain all this to her mother–she was not a truly empathetic type.

And Vesta could not endure much of anything but a good run and steamy shower, then a layabout in the back yard, dark sunglasses and wide brimmed sunhat blocking out more questions. Read the paper, look online, she wanted to say to her, feeling guilty–just get the nutty details yourself.

But when the sun set, and smudged silver and charcoal glimmers gathered like voluminous, gentle creatures hiding in grassy corners, and her mother had retreated with a Tom Collins and TV, Vesta sorted it out in the back yard. She knew her mother would look out the kitchen window from time to time to check if she was there. It was enough of a comfort for the moment.

She had only, as usual, gone looking for those books which emptied her as they clarified details of nonessential matters, the topics that made her wonder and study, not seize up with life’s toxic detritus. She had been interrupted in that comforting process by three people. Two were mysterious, found to be criminals who triggered a nervousness while capturing her fancy. One person was an ordinary man with extraordinary skills. Vesta’s natural suspicion and growing irritation had sent her away from unknowns, a danger zone. But it had found her, anyway. And though the events were unusual and crazy to a degree and not expected by any stretch of imagination, the experience was not as bad as others might think.

It was jarring. Unusual. Compelling as well as repellent.

She said to no one but herself, “That Navy Man was the best looking man I will ever see and be seen by, for the duration of my entire life…”

She said, “And Persimmon Woman was something else, scary and extraordinary…”

She thought about the backpack, if it held weapons or drugs, something secret or worse. If the woman took it back because she was who she was, no denying it. Or if she thought she might still escape. Or she just wanted to be with her cohort– alive, imprisoned or soon dead.

What was the accident that had ruined her face? Did he care so much that he was reconsidering their plans– or was he evading her demand to run away with him? Or had he been the perpetrator of the so-called accident? No, she determined, he just did not keep Persimmon Woman safe enough. He had another part, and she would never know.

She had known real, deep fear. And a kind of awe. Repulsion, and wonder.

As she saw them move again through her mind with their energy of otherness, danger and beauty, she said to herself: “Will they ever be surprised at work, holy cow.” She looked up at the newly star-punched darkness. “And Kendra, upstaged…”

At last rosiness of sunset, she held onto her historical mystery novel like a frail armor. She decided her life would just go on as before on the outside– for now. But on the inside it would be different. Already who she was felt rearranged, loosened, reconsidered, dashed. Vesta might just take a two week vacation, finally–somewhere far away, get lost in the newness of things. There was more to investigate than what she’d been willing to learn for years and years. Until this Tuesday at the library when life erupted right out of the books and into her own.

Friday’s Quick Pick: A Lark in the Park

 

And so after losses we yet manage–or eventually will–to get up, engage in routines and attend to obligations. And search for glimmers of valuable experience to be absorbed and offered to others. They are everywhere for me; I cannot get enough of life despite its rawness and edges and sudden dismay. Can you, even when your sleep is restless or your head feels crammed with trials? Our bodies, minds and the breadth and depth of our spirits seek more chances to be delighted, moved, changed. And we can do that in healthy and easy ways. A comfortable meander can engage the brain in greater well being; why do we ever want to avoid that? A heart pumping power walk can really stir things up.

Why not go to a park this week-end and remember simpler things? Sit and watch all the humans who persist in enabling peace and fun and respect and care, one to another. It always makes a difference. Here are a few fleeting moments that recently spoke to me. Invite your moments  to shimmer more, too. Laugh at the foolishness and yourself. Bring to the fore the pristine clarity of wonder. Breathe intentionally. Let a tiny happiness bloom into something bigger and share it–then take it home with you.

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A Garden of Dissent and Dreams

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Tully and Freda followed the couple on a sinuous walkway that led from one sprawling garden to another. It wasn’t exactly intentional, only in the way you decide someone else’s idea is better than yours so avail yourself of it. Without other intentions it was easy to find their way stepping into someone else’s scenario.

They–Tully and Freda–had gotten up arguing about the heat. She said the light sheet entangled her like a tenacious blanket all night and she may as well skip her shower, she was already drenched. Tully said they needed a big new fan, that’s all, but then he could hear her slamming the frig door closed, rankled by what was available for breakfast. He scrambled eggs for her, which helped only long enough for her to swallow the second bite, then she complained about the sunlight torching her legs and feet under the table.

“Summer! I’ve had enough. Bring back autumn’s rain!”

Tully put his hand on her shoulder but she shrugged it off. “What are we to do with ourselves if you already find today so repugnant?”

“Away from heat-radiating concrete, into nature might help.”

“Despite offensive sunshine blaring away on everything?”

She slurped her orange juice. “Yes, despite. I love flowers, as you well know. Let’s go see what they have to offer.” She got up, left her dishes and climbed the narrow stairway to get dressed in as little as possible, this being short cut-offs and a worn black tank.

Tully felt his own mood dip as he wiped up bread crumbs, soaked the frying pan. Freda was usually far sweeter in the mornings. But things had changed overnight. Her job was deleted; she was suffering from deflated self-esteem. Plus, he wondered if she was having withdrawal from the air conditioning in her old office. He had been raised in the desert, usually wore a hat and long sleeves, and felt fine.

They had chosen gardens as their Saturday escape. Freda could mosey about and absorb floral fragrances. Tully could be happy moving in any manner, anywhere, to avoid congealing on the fake leather loveseat.

After a tranquil Japanese garden tour which left them with a smattering of higher thoughts and fewer snappish words, they spotted a striking couple strolling hand in hand. She wore a flowing red and white-flowered sundress, quite exquisite, they agreed, with her black hair flowing. He appeared attractive enough, displaying impressive shoulders. Then Freda heard the man correct the woman’s language usage–she was speaking uncertain English. The woman turned her head from him but he tugged her hand until she looked back.

“You hear that? He has the nerve to correct her. She’s probably trying her best.”

“Keep it down. Maybe he’s her tutor.”

“Awfully friendly for that. Likely her boyfriend or husband. He seems to believe she requires his expertise to communicate.”

“It would seem she could use his help, as I said,” Tully nodded.

“Can’t you be more generous with empathy?” Freda shot at him and hurried ahead.

“What? Apparently not…”

Tully let her gain a few feet ahead before he closed the gap. He kept his eyes on the lush landscaping, the treetops reveling in glowy breezes. He knew his wife was still reeling from being laid off almost three weeks prior, but felt she was overdoing moodiness. She just wasn’t any less expendable than the rest, but she took it personally. They had first argued after she said he had not thought of her feelings, only of her job prospects. He had plenty of thoughts, her feelings being one if not always the top pick. He cared for her, but he also knew Freda could get another position at a better company before the month came to a close. She had never been unemployed; she was a technology whiz. For now they could manage on his teacher’s pay.

The attractive strangers striding ahead of them took a turn, descended steep stone steps and entered the rose gardens. The woman moved as if she floated, torso erect, head high but not too high. Her partner walked heavy on his heels. He bent down close to speak to her.

“Shall we?” Freda pointed at them.

“You mean trail them? That’s your game. I’m all for smelling roses, though, that’s the point of being here.”

All Tully could see from where they stood deliberating was the glare of light skipping across people’s heads or hats and onto a few rose bushes. It all shone as if with celestial stage lighting. He had forgotten his sunglasses and squeezed his eyes shut a moment. Shade trees were sparse in this part.

Freda started down another set of steps.

“Let’s go in. We’ve not seen this garden blooming in a year.”

But the roses were thirsty and not so soft to nose or fingers. Most had passed their prime, a peak experience missed. Freda was disappointed but kept marching up and down rows of bushes, sniffing away, taking mobile pictures. At the end of a row of elegantly colored Peace roses, she turned to beckon Tully. He was examining a bee in the blossom next to her, keeping safe distance, thinking a tall glass of iced coffee would do them both good after this.

“Where are they now?”

“Over there, last I saw.”

He indicated with his head where the couple had gone. They had stopped under an arched trellis and seemed in deep discussion. Freda took ger husband’s arm and steered him toward that area.

“I really don’t feel like stalking people today, honey, maybe tomorrow,” he said, hoping to get a smile.

She blinked twice. “I’m not stalking, just observing. We can sit in a patch of shade near the summer concert stage. I just want to see if she’s okay. There’s something tough about him, don’t you think? I sure wonder what they’re about.”

As they made a wide sweep around the dark-haired couple, Tully thought she might have a point. It did seem as though they were arguing, though quietly. Well, beautiful people had issues, too. Not surprising these days, climate problems and warring and money shortages. People got mad sometimes, yet this was a sign of life in his opinion. He shook the thoughts off.

As Freda walked closer to the couple, he let a groan escape. She wanted to interfere, he could see that. He believed that people generally made right choices. And if not, were capable of mammoth change for the better when put to the test. She was far more skeptical.

Tully eyed the shady places to sit in the terraced hill above a semi-circle cement stage and wished there was music. He’d like to lean back, rest under a gentle dome of soothing sounds but he heard his wife’s bold whispering.

“That guy is insisting she stand still and listen to him. He’s practically pulling her into place, why is he doing that? She looks so passive, her face is showing nothing of what she must feel. No, no, she’s…scowling, or maybe smiling, trying to pacify him, yes. Well, he’s backing off now, he must have come to his senses. You can’t boss someone around like that, not in this public garden. Huh, she’s waiting for him to do something now.”

“Freda, sit with me.”

“What if she doesn’t want to be with him? What if she’s….made to be with him and can’t get away? We might need to help her!”

A passerby glanced her way and hurried on. He had heard the rise of agitation, too, anxiety trumping mere curiosity, her imagination running away from reason. She had been so up and down since she lost her job, she had nothing but worry to consume her and skew things. It made him nervous lately but didn’t show it. One of them had to be steady until they got over the hurdle.

“She’s fine, she’s standing there with him, not running off, she’s out for a nice afternoon with her man. Please come and sit down. It’s nothing to us, anyway.” He walked over to her and put an arm around her shoulders. She resisted. “It’s weird, Freda, to keep such close watch on folks we don’t know. Come away, okay?”

She walked, feet dragging, to the hillside and took a spot beside him.

“I’m sorry. I’m so out of sorts. I let my imagination take over me, don’t I? Well, I do like to know what people are about.”

“I know you do. But why not let strangers keep to themselves and hope for the best? Or at least be more dsirceet about it.”

She pulled her knees up to her chin. “In case you didn’t notice, I’m more aggravated with life, less inclined to be generous with hope, lately.”

How to salvage this outing that had started so well? He put his hand on hers. “Look at all the people having a good time, sunbathing, even! Having picnics, Freda. We’ll have to do that again sometime, right? The air is so dry with no rain in three weeks but things sort of…sparkle, don’t you think? Colors are brilliant.”

“It makes things droop, get brown and prickly. I am not good in this weather, not one bit.”

She turned to better study the couple under the arch. The man was taking the woman’s hand in his, now she was shaking her head but not pulling back. Who was she? Was she family or friend? What was so important under the climbing roses? Were they maybe hiding from someone? Or just having more words, the JUly heat driving them mad? Freda did this when she was upset, made up things about strangers. Tully sometimes found it entertaining, sometimes tolerated it. It had started long before he came into her life, an odd coping mechanism. But other people’s lives sometimes seemed to hold more or better things than hers. She even tried to foresee their fate, pronounce it happier or safer or more exciting. She supposed many people did the same but didn’t admit it. Who could not help wondering about each other, social creatures that humans were? Or being nosey, at the worst. She didn’t want to end up like that, a misguided busybody.

“Freda. About your unemployment.”

She pulled at the grass and left bare spots of earth.

“It will work out. You got laid off, not fired: repeat this daily. You’re getting unemployment. Keep looking for a better job–someone will spot your value soon enough. You never liked your boss, anyway!”

Her head snapped up and she looked him in the eyes. “Dan? Of course I liked him…at least when he was on beam, doing his job. He was funny, that much I’ll give him, when he was happy with us.” She patted his hand, which she then removed. “It’s my friends I miss, not the job. Paycheck, too, naturally. Well, and the routine, of course. I suspect I’ll find work. I’m just not used to being tossed out like that, as if eight and a half years is nothing. It hurts.”

“It’s longer than many people remain at a job. You’re so good at what you do.”

“I was up for promotion! Now I have to start over.” She wiped at a tear that slipped out. “I know, I’m quite beside myself. I must get a firm grip.” She lay back on the grass. “I’ll call an office mate who got the boot, too. We’ll hash it out.”

This pleased Tully, her about-face. It was clear she had to move on after all the moping and grumbling, staying up half the night. She had made the decision to start anew and so she would, that was her style. He was chagrined about not having more faith in her. She was always a surprise.

But right now he wanted to shield her from the sun. Her skin was so smooth and fair. Hold her. Maybe recite a poem he had been re-working this summer. Cook tasty clams, whip up a chocolate tort. Just take her home, spread about peace, instill joy. It would be such a relief to get on with things.

Freda rolled over so she could frame the pretty couple under the rose-covered trellis with her flattened hands.

“Oh.”

“What?”

“Look. He’s taking pictures of her. Maybe she didn’t want to or maybe…wait, is she pregnant? That’s why she’s so voluptuous, maybe. If not, she’s still a young Venus, what genes.”

He raised his head and studied her, too. “That might be it. Maybe she was fussy about being photographed when pregnant or, well, something?”

“Not fussy,” Freda said propping chin in hands. “Just…sensitive. She looks wonderful, don’t you agree? Lush. Full of miraculous things! I have to be wrong about them. They seem alright, I guess. I just had a lapse, of imagination and, I admit, small-mindedness. What do I know?” She laughed her throaty laugh then was still a moent. “Gosh, what a lucky woman, look at her smile…”

He heard her but there was something more, a wistfulness, a desire. Was she…? No, couldn’t be. She wanted her career, too. They were responsible people despite harboring streaks of zaniness.

Smoldering warmth found its way into the grassy shade. They found each other’s fingers and laced them together, grew languorous at last in the July afternoon, on an edge of the garden of roses. They were together in this wonderful muddle of living. Tully thought how they had labored hard to get this far, had fallen through hidden trap doors and climbed back out, had secured a home at last that they loved, had made progress in fledgling careers. They had enough things and far more of love.

“Are you…?”

“No,” she said, “but I now see I might like to be.”

Tully touched the tip of her nose and her eyes opened, hazel irises encircled with gold, a smile taking over her lightly freckled face. His longish dark-blonde hair fell forward along with sweat, which slipped off him and onto her tank top and chest. He kissed her forehead, chin and then her lips, hoping this was answer enough, as he wasn’t up to talking, only dreaming, now. Greenery’s perfume mixed with an array of roses settled on them so that they fell under summer’s spell.

The photogenic couple under the trellis started up rows of nodding red and yellow and peach roses. They entered that haze of blood-deep heat, hands just grazing as they sauntered through the grass, up stone steps, then disappeared under a canopy of hickory trees.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

 

Train En Route to Halloween

Photo by Michael Putnam
Photo by Michael Putnam

Five days before Halloween I got on the train at Eighteenth Street station, arms full of packages. My feet were relieved as I sat two seats in front of him without a thought. There didn’t seem to be anything to notice about him. He was asleep. I, too, felt bone tired.

It had been a day of spending money for Lauren, her fortieth birthday mega-spree, but she encouraged me to shop as well, so I said, “Why not? A little only. For old times’ sake.” We played this out on a smaller scale each year during her birthday week. But that day Lauren refused to let me pay. It was humiliating at first–who could not pay for a pair of leggings and a comfortable sweater? I was more willing to accept her generosity after I bought our usual Irish coffees, accomanied this time by Dutch apple pie.

I tucked her into a cab before scrambling for the train. She went her way; I went mine. I can’t recall a time when we last visited each other’s homes. Well, two years ago, during holiday season we carolled with the almost-defunct book club where we’d met. We started the revelry at her place. I’d stood in front of her new house, utterly diminished. It was so big it ate up the sky, which you normally could see out there. Afterwards I had trouble savoring cookies and coffee we were served. I was too busy gaping at the glittering, tasteful decorations. Tamping down envy that hadn’t netted me in a while.

When we first met, things were not just different. They were entirely another chapter from a story that is lost to me now. I had a roomy, renovated two-story brick townhouse and a husband and twin daughters soon to attend college. I worked because I wanted to. Yet despite my change in circumstance, Lauren remained a good friend, close, even, if you count bi-weekly phone calls a sign of valued friendship. I tend to do so, anymore. That line of communication has been a tether to what was once a good life, what is still decent and safe. But, too, it’s often felt as if we were allowing quick glimpses into each other’s lives. Without risking any significant intimacy, any surprises. Or damage. There had been so much before and gradually Lauren came to prefer things without unseemliness. I guess I provided her with more rough edges than anyone might appreciate.

I piled the packages onto the empty seat beside me. The train car was only a third full. Distracting sounds frayed me further: metal wheels on tracks, a man coughing and repeatedly blowing his nose in the back, three children shrieking and laughing as their mother read a newspaper and various muffled conversations between companions scattered about. I pivoted in my seat, hoping to throw a warning glance at the rowdy kids but they were blithely unaware.

Behind me, the sleeping man I had first laid eyes on stirred. I couldn’t see his eyes. His gentlemanly hat was atop a strong-boned and lightly five-o’clock-whiskered face. He had been snoring until then. He raised his shoulders and repositioned himself, hand rubbing his chin. It was then a ring on his finger winked at me. I leaned over the seat to see it better.

It appeared to be white gold or platinum, unlikely sterling silver but I couldn’t be sure even though I knew something of fine jewelry. The simple band was mounted with a respectable diamond. Two small rubies on either side. The ring shone fiercely, dramatic in the gravelly afternoon light.

I whipped back around, fingers pressed against my mouth. My head felt like it had once on a speed boat, inundated with dizziness. I braced myself, both hands grasping the edge of the seat.

It had been a long time, yes, nearly seven years, but one cannot forget such things. The ring I had just observed was just like Rolf’s ring. The one never recovered, along with contents of two jewelry boxes, buffet drawers, china cabinet, a small safe and so on. The list was almost obscene to contemplate, yet inconsequential when compared to the far, far graver costs.

But that one piece… it was a ring we had bought together to mark our tenth wedding anniversary. Not ostentatious, but commanding attention. He had joked about it.

“I need a far better job title to match this signal of success! But it’s our marriage we celebrate and, anyway, it covers our fifteenth, too. I think rubies are due for that, so two-for-one.” He laughed, a sound that brought me contentment.

“How do you know such things? It’s alright–we’ll come up with another great idea. Maybe ruby-colored slippers?”

“That’s a picture, our fancy feet stretched out by a fire!’ He sighed. “By then maybe we’ll have a down payment on a small lake house…you always wanted that…” he’d said and kissed me well and fully, like a promise. The jeweler turned away to afford us privacy.

As the train gained speed I touched my neck, then bit back tears. The diamond necklace he gave me was elegant, delicate, with two small tear-shaped gems on each length of white gold leading to the matching, larger stone that nestled below the base of my throat. It was so beautiful that Grace, my barely older twin, suggested I wear it across my forehead when we went to the symphony or opera, like someone far more daring. Like an important woman would, she added, elbowing me.

I did not, though I tried it once when in my room preparing for a night out with friends a couple of years later. I liked to look at it even if I didn’t wear it. In the mirror I observed a pleasant, plain wife of the department head of Interdependent Anthropological Studies place it just so on the high forehead. It looked absurd at first, then the romance of it grew on me. Rolf was emerging from his shower with towel around his waist. He walked over and put damp hands on my chilly shoulders, their radiant heat warming me. Making me smile. He grinned at the woman, lucky me, in the mirror. I thought randomly: “Sweet skin and diamonds, love and lust.”

I suddenly recalled all this as if it was that night again. My heart threatened to usurp my breath. Just as it had the night of the burglary. That ending of everything as I knew it to be.

Seven years ago I was chatting on the phone when we arrived home, first with Estelle then Grace at NYU, when he yelled at me from the second floor railing.

“Anne! Call police!”

I lowered the phone as the hair on my arms rose up. “What?”

“Our house–our things–someone has broken in!”

In panic I headed to him, passed the dining room, took in my home’s disfigurment, such disarray. I never knew what it meant to say one’s blood ran cold but every bit of the glow of a happy evening–no, life–left me, then my insides were ice, my mind immobilized until Rolf swore from the blind end of the hallway, yelled at me again, his voice thundering down on me.

“Leave now, Anne! Leave! Go outside–call 911!”

His face was the color of the ivory walls, his thick hair still sleek, his deep-set eyes dark with outrage and fear. He pointed to the door we had just entered; I ran down the stairway I had just ascended. Opened it. Turned to see Rolf’s trousered leg and large foot disappear down the shadowy hallway. I wanted to race up and grab him, drag him down the stairs with me but felt disoriented. Nauseous and strange, as if I wasn’t really there, as if I was wearing someone else’s body. I heard something, a rush of jumbled sounds–hands and feet scrambling? something–our possessions?–being dragged along the wall?–and yet obeyed my husband and called for help.

The sky let loose rain hard as stones. I stood there in my silky dress coat and high heels. Told the dispatcher all in ten words or less. And through the cold veil of wet I heard far worse, red-hot pops of sound, small enough to be softened by rainfall but big enough to invade my ears and attach themselves to my insides.

I could not breathe. Move. I tried to see through darkness and downpour but–nothing. It was quieter now. Except for me.

“Rolf!” I screamed, throat torn by the sound of his name “Rolf! Rolf Jacob Eberling! Rolf, my love, my love!”

Can a person drown in tears, inside rain? I vacated my known life as rain sliced the air and me in ten directions.

Others shouting then. Sirens and wild lights. Sitting on the sidewalk with head to lap, hands over ears, rocking, rocking. Hands grabbing.

Eventually he came out to me in the flesh. Bleeding into the watery world. On a gurney. But his spirit had been ransacked. Emptied of his essence. I was robbed of him. It was as if I’d died, too, and all this time I had been crawling back to the land of the living. Surveying the world from a corner of the blanket of grief. Because my daughters asked itof me. Begged.

Now here I sat on the seat on a workaday train, weeping. No one noticed when I got up and bent over the sleeping man. He looked so ordinary in his nice woolen coat and hat. A rumpled middle-class businessman on his way home.

I pummeled his meaty shoulder and his head jerked back, knocking his hat off. He grabbed my wrists.

“Lady, what are you doing?”

“Take it off! Take off Rolf’s ring!”

He unfolded himself, a foot taller than I, stopped me at arm’s length. He kept me there with one broad hand clamped on my rain coat.

“What? What ring do you mean now?”

He held up his hand and examined the terrible thing on his finger. The same finger that should have had a ring on it when Rolf was wheeled away from me into oblivion.

“This ring? My ruby and diamond ring? Right!” He frowned at me and shook his head, then reached into the aisle and grabbed his rolling hat. When he was righted he blinked. “You’re not well, lady. Sit down. Now.”

I planted myself on the seat across from him and he sat with forearms resting on his legs, tense, at the ready should I wale away at him again. The train shifted from one track to another. I could see that ring gleam in flickering overhead lights. I held his gaze even though I shook. His eyes were grey, heavy-lidded, skittish then still. I slowed my breathing and leaned forward. Mimicked his stance.

“Mister, tell me where you got that ring. I need to know!”

He cupped his ringed hand with the other. “Why do you ask?”

“Someone lost one just like it–” my throat wanted to close but I kept on, stronger–“someone who lost his life over that ring…our whole life lost…”

I watched him closely. His face shuttered, or so it seemed to me, as he lowered his head.

“Uh, sorry, ma’am.”

He looked up again. His eyes seemed wrong, calm but harder at the same time. I couldn’t see beyond black pupils but I noted uneven teeth and a gold crown inside his half-open mouth. Tried to memorize him. Dark blond hair. Torso solid, rectangular against the seat, alert for defensive action even as he appeared at ease. This man on a train was hit by a crazed woman who ranted and accused him. Yet he was unperturbed. We swayed as the train slowed and rounded a corner.

“How did you get it? Did you dare take it off him? Did you shoot him? Kill him in fact because he caught you? Your very incompetence brought my husband death!”

My voice had somehow deepened and strengthened, an anvil held aloft in the car. I got to my feet and stood above him for a moment, ready to call for help, fists ready, too. I was inhabited by something I should not let loose. People looked at me now, alarmed or at least annoyed. The man rose, straightened his coat, the ring sparking at me.

“You’re very upset, that’s the truth. But I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady. I got it at a pawn shop downtown. Years ago.” He rubbed his forehead then snugged his hat closer, forefinger fingers ficking its rim, a period to his statement.

Brakes ground against wheels. We fell forward a half-inch. I knew my stop was coming up. Perspiration broke over my forehead, chest, back. The man slipped past me, lithe and quiet, as if he didn’t want to leave any trace of himself. I followed after but others got up and clogged the aisle. As if they all lived in my part of the city, had to leave. Maybe they were hiding him! But no, they were likely trying to escape me.

The train came to a halt. I pushed my way out, got my cell phone, pressed Lauren’s “favorite contacts” number. I could see the back of the ring bearer’s head.

That thief, that murderer! No escaping me again. I would finish it for Rolf.

Did I say these things aloud? Everyone looked at me as we clamored off the train. They scattered into the dusk, left me to my own devices. I searched the platform and held the phone to my ear.

“Anne? Is that you? Hello? Anne, are you okay?”

I spotted him. On the other side. An attractive woman in black boots, long bright hair, an arm about his waist. He spoke to, then kissed her. She glanced toward me, shook her lioness head. I began to cry and hung up on Lauren as I realized my bags of fine clothing and accessories were still on the train. Goods for someone else. How that disturbed me in the midst of it. I stumbled toward the walkway as the train sounded its warning, started to move.

Then I imprinted on every memory cell exactly how he looked, stood, walked, talked. And the woman, his cohort. In case I got the nerve to call the police. Made a report of a stranger with a ring….how foolish. The illusory, maddening world threatened to upend me once more. I breathed with practiced precision, stood up straight.

And then, slowly, just so, the stranger turned and peered back at me, delivered to me his unwavering, laser-sharp stare, and he held up a hand, the one with the rubies-and-diamond-studded ring. He gave it a cheery, pageant-style wave that sent lightning chills crashing up my spine then down to my furious, forlorn core.

Train to Happiness

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

Les had been rounded up by his mother the night before and made to pack a big suitcase plus his backpack. His back pack was a no brainer, the only place he stashed basics and important things. But the suitcase was filled with clothes he didn’t care about and an extra pair of shoes that made his feet hurt. There were two books to add, for English and math. He had homework to do. Les already decided he’d deal with it on the train ride back.

It was spring break. He’d travel eight hours, thirty-two minutes to reach his destination, if all went well. This was because his father, Dean, lived in Idaho but his mom and he lived in Wyoming. Dean actually lived with Les’ grandmother for the time being. That was because he was broke again and trying to get on his feet. The fact that Dean hadn’t really talked to his own mom for three years made it interesting, his mom said, but things were better now. They’d had a falling out, Les knew that. It had happened one Christmas Eve when he was nine and as a result he hadn’t gotten his new bike. Money always seemed to be the problem.

Dean was a good guy and an okay dad, if a little unreliable. He was a construction worker, and when he lived in Ohio (like they did until he was seven) he hadn’t made enough money. Out west the weather and times were better with more houses and businesses being built. Les could see that even in his town things had changed since there was a new canning plant. Workers had just started tearing up ground across the street for six new houses. They’d probably be so tightly packed you could see what cereal the next door neighbor was eating. It had been a big empty space as long as Les had lived there.

The trip had been a last-minute plan. Dean–Les called him that since he left his mom when Les was only three–had a gap between jobs.

“Come on over,” Dean said with enthusiasm. “I got a new blue truck –well, it’s used, but still looks new. Grandma is always wanting you to visit, as you know. We can hang out, see things.”

“Yeah, sounds good if mom agrees.”

“Of course–we already talked. Lara, I mean your mom, says she has to work extra hospital shifts this month so it works out. You’ll be fine by yourself on the train, right? I thought you’d like that and there was a deal. There’ll be adults to help out.”

“Sure!” The thought of riding alone gave him a charge. “Hey, should I bring my ball and bat? It’s my favorite thing, you know. We could play in the back or even the field.”

“Naw, got those waiting for you.”

Les figured Dean would run out and buy them after they hung up. The fact that he wanted to play ball with him was awesome.

Grandma Cora had always called Les once a month and sent him cards with frilly flowers and bright birds on them that said “Wishing you sunshine!” and “Missing you across the miles!” He hid them in his desk drawer so his friends wouldn’t harass him but he missed her, too, even though they only saw each other a couple times a year. She laughed a lot, had crazy stories and liked to buy him cheap but good gifts. And made really good red velvet cupcakes, among other things. Since Dean had moved in with her maybe he’d see them both more. He and his dad could go camping or riding bikes. Grandma’s house was just outside a small city but her big back yard opened onto pasture where somebody’s horses liked to graze. The Sawtooth Mountains looked like giants, sleepy and muscular against the sky.

Les leaned back, swayed a bit. Vibrations from the clackety clack and rush of wheels on steel rumbled through him. He watched the world go by and daydreamed. He did have company across from him, an older couple, close to Grandma Cora’s age. The man had caught Les’ eye and nodded. His arms were both tightly around his wife. She slept against him. He looked out the window most of the time, his face so still Les couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.

Les had been up since six and his stomach growled. There was a ham sandwich and a peanut butter peanut butter one in his backpack. He looked them over. On the ham sandwich was a sticky note in his mom’s neat, slanted printing: “#1 so it won’t spoil!” as if he didn’t know better. She had also sneaked in an envelope which he opened. Some cash, good, and a longer note. The scednt of ham and cheddar sandwich made his mouth water. He took a huge bite as he read.

“Les, you know you can call me day or night. Or Aunt Roberta. I hope this trip turns out to be what you hope. I think it’s great Cora will be there, too. If your dad gets too busy or ornery or you get bored just call any time. Call when you arrive. I LOVE YOU! Mom.”

Les got the ornery part. Dean could get impatient sometimes; he wasn’t used to having kids around. But he didn’t have a bad temper too often. When he did, Les went to his room or outdoors. That worried him a little but Grandma was there. He finished the sandwich and got his water bottle. He was ready for a walk around.

The sleeping woman stirred, her elbow jerking, her ankles uncrossing as if she was going to sit up. But instead, she mumbled something and the man smoothed her hair, patted her shoulder. Les tried not to stare.

“On your own?” the man asked. His voice was very deep but quiet. His wife didn’t move anymore, just sighed.

“Yeah.”

“I guess you’re big enough. About thirteen?”

Les shook his head; he knew he was tall, a little chubby. “Just twelve.” He took a sip of water. “Going to see my grandma and dad for a week or so.”

“That right? Good thing to do.” He looked back out the window.

“You travelling a long time, sir?”

The man nodded but kept watching thickly forested scenery whipping by, lines and squiggles of greenish brown. Les waited a minute–he didn’t want to be rude–before getting his backpack and standing up. Then the man glanced at Les, his eyes so pale they almost blended into the grey shadows. The man’s face was colorless, too. It scared Les, he didn’t know why.

“Second day on the train now. Hard on Fran here. Whole trip was hard, to tell the truth. How about you?”

Les sat down. “I’m great. Left early and will be at my grandma’s and dad’s for dinner.” He wondered if that was the wrong thing to say to someone who was having a hard trip. “Haven’t seen Dean–I mean, dad–since last July.”

“Looking forward to it?”

“Yes sir.” He wanted to leave awhile, check out the other people, get something sweet in the dining car. But he heard his mother saying, Good manners, now; treat people well. “My dad builds houses. My grandma plays organ at church. She has an old house with a huge yard, horses beyond it.”

His face flushed. Why was he telling this stranger stupid personal stuff? Encouraging the man more? But he felt he should.

The woman whimpered and her husband pulled her closer. “That’s good, son. You enjoy every single minute with them.”

He turned his face to the window again. Les could see the lined skin around his eyes squeeze a little, then his eyes go watery. He felt panic for a second. What were they doing on the train, anyway? He felt his legs about to push him off the seat. He wanted to think about baseball season, wonder over what his grandma was making for dinner. If Dean was going to pick him up for a hug like he still did last summer. Les sincerely hoped not.

The man rubbed his face with his right hand and looked back at Les. “We just buried my son. Had the cancer but his suffering is done.”

Les held his backpack close to his chest, heart beating a little too fast.

“Just so you know why my wife is so unsettled. Both of us. I’m sorry. You should have friendly people on your trip.” He sounded so tired.

“It’s okay. I mean, I’m sorry about your son… ”

“Thank you…we just need rest. Won’t bother you anymore.”

Les scooched forward on the worn leather seat. “I’m Les Winter.”

He halfway held out his hand. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? What should he say now? Why did he have to say so much, period? Big mouth, that’s what he was, his friends even said he talked too much. He should just play with his phone and shut up.

The man took his hand off his wife, extended a long thin arm and his palm was so empty Les had to fill it with his own slightly damp hand. The man’s was dry, chilled, firm and he gave the tiniest squeeze for a second, then let go. He tried on a half-hearted smile that faded.

“Ken Haverson. Going home to California. Yes, thank you Lord, back home again.”

Les felt the sadness creep from Ken to him but waited as the man grew sleepy. But then Ken spoke again.

“You’ve been nice, Les. I hope you always aim for happiness, then you’ll get and give lots of it.”

Les watched the two of them sleeping awhile. They looked so calm and natural, as if they’d been side by side their whole lives. Then he got up and roamed a bit. He saw the landscape turn from forest to valley to mountains, shapes and colors flashing by like a beautiful story. But right then Les couldn’t wait to get off, not becasceu of Ken and Fran and their son. He just wanted to see Dean–his dad!–and grandma in the flesh by the train tracks, waiting there with arms open just for him.