Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Better Times

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Photo by Vivian Maier

“Sure, there have been better times, I’ll give you that. But this life is manageable enough for me.”

She stubbed out her menthol cigarette in the hotel ashtray and looked out the window with interest, like something compelled her to study the brick building across the alley. In truth she was avoiding his eyes. It was like a tick. If he looked at her more than five seconds without blinking she would dodge his gaze. Her own son’s eyes could make her skittish and indrawn at once. He ought to be used to it. The view next door was safer. Maybe a curtain fluttering with a tabby cat peeking out, or a pigeon perched on a windowsill staring over at it. Or a fat man with a fedora in his hand as he looked back at her. She’d said on the phone she’d seen such a man. Maybe by now they were friendly in that wordless way city neighborhood people can become.

Her son made a face at the sooty ashtray. She’d carried that thing from place to place for so long. Starlight Inn, it said. Once it had a navy blue background with three stars stamped white against it and the name of the place. Now the design was obscured by relentless heat and toxins from cigarettes smashed onto it for four decades. It was stolen from the place where she and her new husband–not his father, who had died when he was five– took their honeymoon on Cross Island. Up north, the Great Lakes and those inky green forests. He’d been there once, years later, on his own, just to see. It looked like a dump by then, or maybe it always was.

“They could be much better now, is what I’m saying, Ma.”

She tore herself away from the view, eyes flickering over him. Grunted. “By joining you and Marcy at the new place? The latest three bedroom suburban delight?”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant. The extra room at the back, it could be yours. A bathroom next to it. The second bedroom is now our office, you know.”

“I’m featuring it: almond or dove grey paint on every wall, floors so clean you could lunch off them, grass blades all one length. Neighbors who draw open their drapes on week-ends, maybe. I’d sure blend right in that decor and neighborhood.” She laughed a tight laugh. “I’d be a timekeeper while you two were working, counting down minutes in Dullsville ’til the front door slid open. We’d say our hellos and chat about…well, what? I’d season the beef, cut up carrots, onions and potatoes alongside your sweet wife, then you’d watch your big TV and I’d soon after disappear to a big bed. Then we’d start all over again.” She lit another cigarette. “Thanks, but I mostly think not.”

“It’s not safe here, not even in reliable shape. Did the mice come back or are they rats? I’m calling that bum landlord of yours again if one more is spotted. What about Apartment 19 down the hall, is the ex-con still hunkered down? And don’t forget how Murray died right at your feet last February when you were taking the garbage down.”

She swept grey strands from delicately lined cheeks, then bore into him with a narrowed look. She could peer into him yet he could not do the same. He was ready for a calculated zinger. But then she only shrugged, the tension leaving.

“Murray lived a good life. That was exactly how he wanted to go, boom. A gift, that dying was, and I’m happy for it and him.” She took a long drag, blew it out slowly, and it ended in a coughing spasm. “I miss him, yes. But Bernie, he’s too old to act all criminal anymore–he minds his business, I don’t care what. I’ve got better things to do. And nicer neighbors, we stay busy.”

Here we go, he thought, the litany of days and nights rich with entertainments and fulfillment.  He pushed his window sash up higher so the smoke wouldn’t choke him and waited. When she only shook her head, got up and set the kettle on the flame, he looked out her window and saw the tall fat man, sans hat, his beefy arm resting on the ledge with a can of something in his hand, a paperback book held open by the other hand. He also saw a woman two windows up take off her dark coat and raise arms over her head, stretching with all her might. Her yellow sweater came off her waist a couple inches; she suddenly tugged it down as if she knew someone saw. It was live theater here every day, apparently. he remembered how that was, the amazing density of all kinds of people, the great palpable energy, and guessed that was why his mother still loved the inner city life. Plus she couldn’t smoke if she came to stay with him. She maybe could smoke far from his new house. She’d only quit once when she was pregnant, she had told him. Then gave in to the urge again, never thought of stopping since.

The good tea cups were taken from the shelf, the ones that held barely enough to wet your whistle. They had pale blue flowers around the rim, a touch of gold trim. They were left over from a past wherein she had a full set of china, there was a decent dining room and friends shared meals and stories. He was the one who carefully fit the candles in heavy glass candlesticks for company. When he was nine she let him also light them. They cast a honeyed light across the oft-bleached, off-white tablecloth and shadows danced about as invisible drafts pushed the lithe flames this way and that. He loved that moment before he was given the next chore, maybe running his toys to his room or fetching a vase for her roses just cut from the little yard. It became a heavenly place, he thought, food cooking and his mother’s strong voice calling out to his stepfather Teddy to remember folding chairs in the closet if many were coming, and then soon the door chimes ringing out. Everyone treated him like an important person, or teased him for the “plucky cowlick” on back of his head, squeezed his shoulder, patted his back and smiled when he answered all questions.

And yet, their life was not easy, and it got worse. Teddy was a man of many moods, as his mother told him over and over, but if anyone had asked him, Teddy was a man of two moods: good and bad. But he was excused; he’d lost his own parents and a sister in a fire. That was sad. And it was the reason he was not altogether well–not counting the beers. Still, he worked hard at the foundry. He loved his mother as he could. He managed to help raise him.

“Still,” his mother was saying, “I see what you’re getting at. I’m not young and I have my deficits and the place is falling down bit by bit. I just never was the suburban sort ,you know. I’ve lived down here most of my life, one place after another. Come on over here, now.”

He got the sugar bowl, sat down at the little round table in the middle of the kitchen as she poured hot water over mesh bags of black tea. So, where was the usual listing of daily fun events? Had she edited this part of their discussion today?

“I remember, Ma. I was around, too. A life that was good, overall…”

She sat, too, back straight, and buttoned up two more buttons of her burgundy cardigan. It was bulky on her thin frame, nubbier each time she wore it. The color always lit up her cheeks and he sometimes thought that if he came and she no longer had it he’d have to buy a replacement, as it was her favorite. And his. They blew on their tea and he mused over what to say next. There was a relaxed expectancy in her now that he wasn’t pushing the topic of her moving soon.

“Okay, well, I remember sitting by the stoop on Marsh Avenue many afternoons, counting different colored cars as they went by. I kept a little notebook over the years, I guess you knew that.”

“Sure, you told me how many of each. Showed me the columns of marks. Then the makes and models when you got older. You had a memory like a fine sieve, you caught all the interesting stuff. No wonder you ended up a lawyer. Saw variations in a pattern. Had a mind for puzzles. Give you a maze and you made a new way out if the ready-made one boring. My little smart aleck.”

He snorted. “Sounds like you, the mystery maven, and a smarty, too…But you find intrigue where there may not be any at all, am I right? is it entertainment?”

“Sure, intrigue is what life is about–pay attention, you’ll see it all.”She placed a finger alongside her pert nose. “But I can still remember you on that curb, clear as day. I’d have to yell to get you off the damned street curb and go sit on the stoop, what if someone mowed you down? Playing with Pete Callaghan’s cat, what was her name? Sonsie, friendly thing. Remember how you always wore that cowboy holster and gun? Begged me for a hat, then you lost it or a kind stole it, you never said for sure. I hated children playing with guns and still do. But it was the one thing your dad got you when you turned three and you wouldn’t let it go.”

Of course he knew all this and she knew he knew it but she always said it. It was a cap gun and he loved it, shot it off all the time. He and his buddies thought nothing of it as they made a ruckus, chased each other all over the sidewalks. No one got seriously hurt back then, not there.

“It was quieter then, overall, and fewer cars.”

“Who could think to afford a car? Not like today, you with your silver machine –what is it? A Lexie?”

“Lexus, Ma. And it’s taupe. And you’re thinking of an Alexa…”

“What’s that? And taupe! A color to put you to sleep. Well, we walked, it was good for body and soul as well as necessary. Took a bus if it was far and we had too little time. Though it seemed to take longer.”

“I counted a lot of cars on that street. And trucks, buses, motorcycles and bicycles….”

“Things have changed, the way of the world.” She sighed. “But here I am–it’s important to be rooted.  I know what’s what, who’s who, that the store on the corner is still a place I can get fresh kosher dills from the jar and a small bag of freshly popped popcorn for free and a gallon of milk cheaper than the new grocery two miles out. Plus a swanky, bitter coffee,  if I’m so moved. Though that seems expensive to me for what you get, two bucks for a 12 oz. and it’s just in paper.”

“That’s kind of cheap, Ma, but then you’re cheap. Otherwise you’d at least upgrade your walk up. Or at last buy a small condo.”

She pulled her sweater closer to her chest and frowned at him.

“Buy air, you mean! See? Your values have changed. You were frugal right from the start, then you grew up and got professional, married up, bought two different houses already. Now you want me to move in the same circles with you, I suppose. Well.” She sipped as he played with her silver lighter, flipping the top open and closed, then made the flame flare. “Stop, it’s repetitive and annoying. Anyway, I’m not saying it’s bad for you and Marcy to move on–I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished, you know that–but just not so good for me. I guess.”

He put down the lighter, held up his hands in surrender. “I’m not going to keep at you. You know you’re welcome. Marcy and I like the idea of you with us but since you keep telling me to back off and let it be…well, you win.” He gulped down his tea and checked his phone for the time. “Anything you need me to get or do before I head out?”

His mother paused, looked him over with hooded eyes still so blue– then beyond him as if trying to conjure an idea. She picked up the teacups on their delicate saucers, the got up and set to work at the counter. “Can’t think of one thing. Go on home. I have business to take care of, people to call. I happen to have a picture to finish painting tonight, a watercolor of my violets.”

“Good, you’re painting again.”

It was usually flowers she couldn’t plant there; she had a keen sense of aesthetics. He put on his jacket and waited as she puttered in the kitchen, rinsing off this, wiping that. She had energy, good sight and hearing; she was sharp and strong minded. But she was lonely ever since Teddy left her nine years ago, even if she finally admitted he was a beast at times. “But he was the common beast I knew, and not always mad,” she’d said and then looked away.

He’d sent her a postcard of a turquoise ocean, palm trees on glinting sand all the way from Mexico and with an apology. He’d always said he’d do it; she’d always said she would not so he had to go. She wasn’t sorry she stuck to it. And so that was that.

It was a relief when it was finally over. The yelling, his terrible insults, the darkly sad times and in-between times after which the man would be happy-go-lucky for awhile. It had been exhausting and hard work for his mother and him to manage it all. He had wished for her something so much better, no, something miraculous when he reluctantly went off to college and then, happily, law school. Now he could help her at last, and she refused. She would not budge. Like someone who had made a nest where there were few spots left (at least on her small income), she was set.

“I’m off, Ma. Sunday for dinner with us, right?”

“If I am not otherwise engaged, I’ll call you Saturday to RSVP.” She put her arms about him lightly and he gave her a soft squeeze. She hoped it might be veal Parmesan.

Once downstairs and outdoors he stood at his car and found her smiling, hand in the air. She always waved, she had been waving at him from windows all his life. Except when she worked at the neighborhood paper several years. He was a sassy teenager then but he’d discovered she wrote an informative city gardening column. She always made something beautiful of the pinched spaces behind their flats. Now she didn’t have a garden, she had two African violets and a few potted plants brightening up those shabby four rooms. He longed to see her help Marcy work up a boisterous jungle of beauty at their new place. To place fresh flowers on their table between glimmering candles.

She held herself with cold hands and long arms as he disappeared, then took her seat by the middle window. Squinting into the duskiness across the way, she picked up the cordless phone and punched in numbers, then watched until she saw a lumbering figure arrive at the opposing window. The big man picked up his receiver and turned to look at her, settling into his easy chair. She was so tiny over there she almost faded into shadow. He saw the glowing tip of her cigarette so lit one for himself.

“Well, did he convince you to leave yet?”

“No, but it is getting harder for me to refuse and easier for him to persuade me. Though tonight he gave up rather fast.”

“Well, I know, you’d have all the amenities, right? People to look after things.”

“I don’t know if it’s all that. Maybe great home-cooked meals? The possibilities of a garden? Though what I could do I’m not even certain–my knees aren’t what they used to be, Floyd. I deny reality, at times, pretending I’m nowhere close to the end.”

This required no comment; they both had left behind more years than they would gain.

“The odd thing is, today I half-wanted to give in.”

“Let that thought cool a bit, please.” He took a drag and exhaled and she did, too. “I’d miss you like all get out.”

“I’m not that much company over here. But we do have good chats. We need more of interest in our lives than a daily phone call.”

“You’re my one true friend these days, even if I can’t visit you in the flesh.”

She pictured an actual meeting and felt they were better off this way, sweet as he was. “We’re dying off, for one thing. And then it’s hard to meet people that you actually like and that will stay put.”

“You mean, like us.”

“Guess so, Floyd. We are two stuck people.”

But as they talked, she imagined being at her son’s, not conversing with someone across an alley, and it didn’t seem so terrible a thing to leave decades long grime and cranky appliances, the snuffling, scratching creatures of the night and sketchy characters even if fascinating that inhabited her crumbling downtown world. That chill she sometimes felt even when it was heating up fine outdoors. Nights like long circlets of licorice no longer even palatable. Floyd was sweet, a practiced conversationalist who was once a cartoonist. He was quirky, a plus, but he was so fat and severely diabetic it scared her to think he’d soon go next.

Her son and Marcy–who ran a small import business on Fifth and Tallwood–were healthy, of course, kinder and smarter. At least in the way she understood. They just cared about her best. She had to let that sink in, face all of it as fact. They were family of a commendable sort, she admitted it. And her stubborn loneliness fell under a specific category: true home, gone missing. She guessed that meant love.

Maybe when he came by next she’d have boxes and bags packed, the forbearing violets and his cap gun and all. Much would need to be let go but how much did she care about the material world? Little to none. She stubbed out her cigarette and  shooed away the noxious curls of smoke.

She finally said goodnight to Floyd who stated he’d see her in his dreams, unlikely if she was honest and she was sorry he was more alone than she, and wondered if it might be her job to be there for him. But no, not actually so and it was like a smear of sadness to think it. Then she picked up her almost full pack of menthols, opened the trash can and emptied the pack, crumpled the package to toss in. She watched it all mingle with teabags, burned fried egg, stained junk mail and several stale macaroons she had shared with no one, so had forgotten to entirely enjoy each one. The lid banged down. Sunday she’d be as ready as any day to go forth into unknown territory, so time to get on with it.

How to Soften Without Weakening

 

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CJ always walked fast in her brown Frye boots that had a hard inch high heel, the better to strike the hard byways and roads, floors of public places, rooms of homes. They announced that she was strong of mind and body, she was not wasting time, and don’t even think of accosting her. People would turn their heads, face in a frown, so loudly did her heels hit a surface.

Those boots travelled with CJ for years, carried her into woods and mountains, cities and villages, from one side of the country to the other. They covered her snug, faded jeans to the knee. She wore sporty tops, a wornout jean jacket. Her hair morphed from year to year, blond for a bit, years of cropped burnished red, then reverted to the real auburn, then finally interspersed with strands of white. Large blue, dark-rimmed eyes bore right into you when they looked into yours at all; mostly they scanned the environment, took in the milieu. Located a spot within a group that she would claim. Not reticent, CJ spoke right up, interested, attentive but she kept a psychic distance, engaging in talk smartly but without full personal committment. She had strong opinions; everyone knew them soon.

Never would she be tricked by people again, nor by life or love. But, of course, she was, often. And at the end of each day she went home, pulled off the boots that had become scuffed and pliable with wear. Washed her face, settled down with journal or books, paper and typewriter or sought guitar or piano. And then tender, responsive, yielding feelings and thoughts flowed like water from an opened spring. A little softness breathed and expanded. What moved her came to the fore, and what hurt bled so that she was both sorry and relieved to still feel it all.

This went on for a couple of decades–variations of attire, sometimes fancier footwear–until someone asked her why she acted so hard. The question was like a slap in the face but she said, “I’m not hard. I’m kind of tough, I guess, but I’m strong and that matters to me. The world is harsh, don’t you think? I guess my way works for me because I’m still going onward and upward.”

“Does it?” came the response. “Because people are afraid of you at worst, intimidated at times by your energy and bearing, and even those of us drawn to you don’t know if we’ll be welcomed or challenged…”

CJ laughed. “Well, I guess the braver ones will come forward and we’ll work it out. Or not. I can’t be responsible for what others think, only for what I choose to do. And I’m okay with things.”

“You know what? You seem…arrogant. That’s part of the problem. But maybe you’re just afraid. ”

CJ turned away and stalked off. No one understood. Interacting freely and openly was so often an exercise in futility. She was better off alone except for a very few and even then…

It took awhile to find her way back to the gentle side of genuine strength. Being soft resulted in being vulnerable from what she could tell. She was in her early forties before she redesigned her behavior substantially enough to present herself more fully and honestly to others. Because there was some truth in the observer’s comment: she was pretty tough and perhaps a little arrogant, but she was also scared of various things, good-hearted and full of passion for life. Committing to absolute sobriety made an immense impact but that was only the beginning of a journey to wholeness. Well being would require more than awareness or a good plan; it required a willingness to change and redoubled efforts. Peace was the goal. The one experience she had failed to encounter since childhood.

How does someone radically change? Would that it was a natural metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, a transition that felt so reassuring, with a punch at the end: the beautiful pay-off. But adding wings to those who treat life as though it has to be wrestled, tamed and codified is an arduous task.

When people are tossed about by the vagaries of living, experience multiple losses, become used to fighting hard to stay alive, they learns that being readied for the worst can be useful. It’s like arming the alarm and sitting in wait for trouble. It creates a cynicism of the worst sort, as even vivid blue sky moments can be missed due to tracking skittish or heavy clouds. There can be so much put into survival emotionally or physically that exhaustion renders the person worn-out. Ragged. A hard shell can be the only remaining defense. This view lends itself to expectations of losing out–why go all in and embrace possibilities and happy times when you believe they will soon dissolve? Life is fickle, prone to sudden shifts. Some are convinced being stoic and putting shoulder to the wind is better than being swayed this way and that and then perhaps toppled. People who push hard through life have had enough of being down. They need to stand tall; beware anyone who takes them to their knees.

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The problem with such stolid refusal to bend or back down is what the old adage states: without flexibility, a person can break. Or just become so obdurate, so unwilling to relinquish control and to take a chance on vulnerability that there is a loss like none other: the inability to feel richness of emotion. Love and fulfillment. Deep intimacy, tranquility. Hope. That hallelujah that comes from joy.

Everyone needs to toughen up a bit. That begins as toddlers, then ever after when we fall. The kindest parent will let the child get right back up with encouragement and a gentle touch, bear the howling and sniffling then wipe tears away. If not, each fall and failure would be one too many, hard to accept as part of the process of gaining more skills. Resilience is instilled this way. Directed toward the next choices or steps, there is the belief that the coming experience will be worthy of effort, with the possibility of a better outcome.

But there are those who tumble without a kind word to shore them up. There are those, too, who have so much breakage during many kinds of falls that something inside gets crippled, stunted in the process of healing. What helps overcome pain is becoming inured to it, ignoring it, bearing it in private with no witness to offer a supportive hand. And when people who are born very tender-hearted come face to face with the frailties, ugliness or woundedness of living, it can scour their minds and souls, tear away critically protective insulation. The alternative for too many is to become harder or perish.

How can healthy living be restored? A search for balance needs to be initiated, so that endurance and stamina, courage and strength can become more potent with no loss of heart. Instead, the heart will open and become wiser as we navigate dangerous shoals effectively. It requires risk and surrender: letting feelings come and go as though through a sieve, feeling and acknowledging but not overdosing on them, not being overcome. It requires thinking imaginatively when all seems pointless or burdensome, dsicerning thenext right steps. And considering the promises and pleasure of what lies around the next corner. Not least is practicing to be a person of enduring substance, who has dignity but not arrogance. A core of strength devoid of unforgiving hardness.

A seemingly superfical alteration is trying a different costume and demeanor. When I was still counseling addicted and emotionally challenged persons full-time and saw people enter my office with shoulders rigid, lips taut, their public masks bold but full of warning, I suggested trying on a new one. Loosen the stride, smile at others first, open up personal space a little, walk with confidence, not as angry self-defense. Speak more quietly; others listen more to someone who doesn’t demand being heard. Buy new clothes or rearrange an outfit so it’s no longer armor, but only an accoutrement. An addendum to the real person who can better shine through. It’s powerful how even small adjustments can affect those who meet you. Then, forget yourself altogether. There’s a whole world out there that could use your attention. The truth is, every person needs to be seen so go ahead, look them in the eye if they don’t shy away.

Whatever lies ahead is generally as good as you make it. No one else can do it. Use your strength like a gift, not a weapon.

The last time I saw CJ was today. I looked in the mirror. I simply stopped walking as though I was on a terrible mission decades ago and discovered how it feels to not win or lose, but be at home in my own skin.  To be better powered by faith in God and acceptance of life’s whims and trials. To know that love for others never has an end; what is given away is replenished. Being fully and deeply human ended up becoming an even more extraodinary experience than expected. I feel strength of heart, of soul increasing each year.

Of course I still have boots. My favorites are soft black leather, tall and lower heeled. But barefoot or shoed, I am walking with ease, moving in peace.

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