Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Venus is a Planet/Feather on the Stoop, Part 2

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If it wasn’t for the drenching wind lashing windows and careening around corners, they both might have slept a little. Lydia changed position every time a rattling came. It was working itself up into a fury. She sprawled across the bed on her back, staring at the gaudy chandelier above her as it swayed ever so little, its glass pendeloques (her mother’s correct term or as she said, crystal drops) barely tinkling so her ears caught the sound. The train soon squealed by, unstoppable, and the drops shuddered with a more lively response. A kind of solace, that train. It was one reason she’d rented the place and why rent was low.

The twice daily train reminded her of the fall cross-country trip she’d taken with her father when she turned ten. It was his birthday present to them both; his birthday was four days later. They went from Virginia to the West coast and back in two weeks. She never missed her mother, who didn’t like trains and was busy selling houses, anyway. Lydia closed her eyes: wheels on the tracks through Southwest to California. Her father’s shoulder next to hers, faces beaming as they pointed at sights past the window.

Lydia thought of the homeless woman she called Feather. Sitting there on the stoop in the damp wind. Lying on it, hips and shoulders surely hurting. It made her ache. Which was ridiculous, but perhaps it was sympathetic…her bed was only two years old. It was an actual firm-with-pillowtop bed. Not concrete.

The rain pelted all outdoor surfaces, rat-a-tatted every window. She was not, then, to sleep much, harassed by stormy weather in every way. Lydia turned on the bedside light and grabbed a book to fend off her usual sad holiday memories– and new issues.

As winds sharpened, Feather crunched her long body against the abandoned shop’s brick façade. If she got any closer she might be holding the damned building up. Her knuckles got scraped when she turned over. She’d tried to pick the old watch repair shop door lock twice, but she had no talent for it and didn’t need criminals helping. She gave up; it was probably full of happy rodents. They got a dry home; she got the wintry street.

She had earlier stood at the entrance to the charity lady’s apartment building. Looked up at the rows of darkly glinting windows. It made her feel better for a second, knowing someone was up there. Even if it was a naïve woman who likely did good deeds to make her feel nicely superior. Feather then went back to the stoop to think. The shelters were claustrophobic, over-full. There was an alley a half- block down. It might offer cover from the wind. She bundled the now-grimy Native American blanket that lady left her–she knew what it was, she wasn’t stupid–into her arms and left. She had some Hopi in her, she heard, a great grandmother. She wasn’t enrolled so good did it do her? But the blanket, it gave her warmth. Maybe a sense of protection. Foolish girl, she scolded herself; protection was a dream.

The alley had a metal gate; it was ajar. The narrow area was pitch dark, quieter save for wind echoing. There was a short roof overhang; it was the part of town where business and residential mixed from way back. Garbage smells permeated the air but she was finally used to that. The big dumpster she stopped by wasn’t bad; the lid was down and it was shoved close to alley’s end–she could still see out to the sidewalk, in case she heard or saw something. She arranged her blanket and the fancy embroidered–was that that style called?–pillow she’d found in the bag with blanket on that stoop. Feather slumped against the wall as rain spattered down to her boots; she pulled them close to her chest. This spot would do until sunrise, even had potential for a few nights.

Tiny feet with a thick body and long tail charged past her and under the dumpster; she covered her face with both hands, squelched a cry. Disgusting rats. Monstrous night.

******

When Lydia got to work, the Head and Body Salon was hopping. Tony was so strapped for time that his usual patter was vastly shortened; he was listening to his clients talk for once. Alma was consulting with a younger woman whose beautiful long hair went prematurely grey hair. She wanted to chop it all off; Alma politely dissented but she’d cave soon. Whatever clients wanted, they got. She’d shave their heads if it suited. Changing times. She glanced at Lydia, and sighed. That girl was worn out today.

It was nearly a relief to be at work, for Lydia. Last night had been rough, unusually so. It was the holidays coming up, she guessed. Memories of past Christmases, missing a few people. He dad, gone nineteen years. She turned from her thoughts and noted the next walk-in customer whose tufts of dark blonde hair mimicked shards of butter brickle. Another came behind her, looking desperate for aid. Almost all appointment slots were booked up for days. Hair! Skin! Lydia had such simple needs that she daily strained to understand the urgency. She smoothed her own dark brown, chin-length hair, a small reassurance, and stayed on task.

Alma took a break and sauntered up to the reception desk.

“What you got going? You look tired today.”

“Sleep issues? Holiday blues? Sometimes I just sleep less? You and your ten second breaks. You manage to pack a lot into those.”

“I surely do! Well, you tell me, kiddo. I think you’ve got more going on than that, but I’m not one to pry. And breaks are what save me…all of us.”

Lydia looked at her ringing phone, then at Alma with wide eyes. But you are still prying, she mouthed. “Hello, Head and Body Salon, how can I help you?”

Tony sidled up close to Alma as she went back to her station; he threw a look over his shoulder at Lydia. “Maybe it is an actual man, after all. Love can steamroller you…”

“Says the man with a kid already and another on the way…She won’t say a peep. Our potluck’s not more than a week away. Maybe a few drinks to loosen her up…”

“Dubious. She seems to prefer Perrier with lime, barely drank a beer that time we went out. But we’ll get the truth out of her, girl.”

They high-fived and got back to work.

Three women lounged in tawny vintage leather chairs around a coffee table. They mused aloud about gifting issues, dinner plans, family squabbles. How they wished new hairdos could solve it all–if only! But Lydia mused about Feather. She wondered about her jet setting mother and Grant, the latest adoring male, one more too many. Counted minutes until she was off work.

At seven o’clock she waved to her co-workers and rushed down the few blocks to her building. She didn’t see Feather anywhere. How could she give her food again if the woman wasn’t there? Last time this happened, it had disappeared, to who knew where.

An hour later: delivery of a covered storage bowl with still-warm chili with plastic spoon, a thick piece of sourdough bread with butter, and a bottle of water. She wanted to leave coffee again, but her thermos had been left with Feather and was gone for good, maybe. A take-out coffee, next time.

Lydia turned in a circle to look better as the rain got more oomph. Blasted December rain. She wished it was still sunnier fall. How could anyone live outdoors in the cold Northwest damp? She stuck her hands deep into her raincoat pockets, hunched a bit.

“Hello Feather!–I don’t know your real name…you out here?” She scanned areas across the street, squinted at deeply shadowed sidewalks. A girl on a bicycle whizzed by, its headlight jumping as she went over bumps. A man hurried on the other side, briefcase clutched to chest. “It’s Lydia here! Helloooo? I left food here!”

Nothing. She scurried to her apartment building entrance, punched in her code, looked back a last time, shut the door behind her.

Feather whimpered softly where she leaned in a doorway across the street. Her ankle hurt–it had turned as she stepped off a curb downtown too fast without looking in the early morning dark. She had wrapped a scarf she had worn too long around it. Not that it made any difference. She stood, wobbled, took a few steps and winced. But she’d heard her, the lady. There was decent food over there. There was someone named Lydia.

******

“I told you, Lydia, I will do my best to get back but it’s not looking good. Heaven knows, Lydia, I try to cram as much into each work day as possible. This week’s executive management training, however, is absolutely not what I thought it was. Rather rudimentary, but still, I make contacts. I find new contacts, leads. Connect with old ones–that’s worth the trip. More properties to move as soon as I get back…but it’s New York in all its gritty, glamorous glory.” There was a languorous pause as she sipped her brandy. “How are you doing, my dear?”

“I’m perfect. I do what I do–you know, scheduling impatient clients to get hair done is a terribly difficult job.”

Her mother sighed as Grant rearranged pillows behind her back. “Beyond that, of course. Any new men moving into your building? Any leads on other job opportunities?”

Lydia laughed. “Not looking before Christmas, mother–I really like it there for now. Men? Wouldn’t know, I’m busier than you think.”

“Try me.”

“I’m studying train travel packages for next summer. Working on a montage to frame for my very beige bedroom. Reading three books off and on. And we have a work potluck soon.” She shook her wet hair out, combed tangles with fingers. “I’m well over thirty, Mother–just living my life.” There was a long silence. “And how is it with Grant?”

“Oh, well enough.”

“If he’s moving in, don’t tell me now. Wait till…the New Year.”

Her mother cleared her throat. “I’m glad you’re having a dinner gathering…. You aren’t by any chance still doing things for that street person, are you…not safe!”

“All is well.”

“Alright, then–see you on Christmas Eve, at least. Ciao.”

Lydia tossed her cell phone on the sofa and paced a little. No reason to be upset. They never had much of a Christmas together–there was always an urgent someone or something else. They didn’t buy each other much. They didn’t get trees. Well, Lydia put a small ceramic tree on the non-working fireplace mantel. The tree looked lovely all lit up. She went to look at it– a secondhand store treasure. She’d have someone over, she wasn’t sure who, maybe Diane from her last job, recently divorced. A good meal and large goblet of wine.

Saturday evening and it was getting late. She took leftover spaghetti and plopped it with its sauce into another disposable storage container, added now-cold peas, taped a fork on the lid. Got a bottle of pear juice.

On the way down the elevator, Lydia thought: why am I still doing this after over two weeks? Feather may not like pear juice or marinara sauce. She might hate that she was giving her food and throw it away. Maybe her mother was right–she should contribute in another way. Donation of money was so easy.

Feather sat cross-legged on the shop’s stoop. Her purple hat–the owl feather was missing– and coat were stained and damp. She looked up at Lydia. Their eyes met long enough that Lydia felt the force of her–strong, suspicious, intelligent, hurting. It was as if some weird electricity set on low hum connected the looks. Feather’s eyes flashed wide then looked away but not before Lydia saw their golden brown irises, the narrow pupils. Red-rimmed, dark circled, alert. She held out the food offering. Feather came closer, took it into both tanned, thin hands.

“Why all this? Again?” Feather asked as she eyed the contents and the woman who stood below the steps.

“Because you’re hungry, that’s all.”

“Okay. ” And she pried the fork off the lid, opened it, began to eat ravenously. “Thank you, then,” she said with mouth full.

Lydia went home. She stayed up late watching old movies, trying to guess Feather’s real name, munching a couple of rice cakes with strawberry cream cheese.

******

She heard it from the swirling center of her dream, a crying out as she awakened in a sweat. She waited for it to vanish, heart pounding. Looked at her phone: 2:34. It was still there, yelling, then the buzzer punched over and over for her apartment. She got out of bed, answered the intercom. But first she looked out the window, down three stories.

Feather on the sidewalk below.

Lydia pushed up the window sash a couple inches. “Feather? What’s going on?” Lydia asked, the cold air catching in her throat.

“I got beat up, can I come up a little?”

Lydia hesitated. Then pushed the button to unlock the front entry. Got a robe and padded to the elevator. The young woman came up with Lydia, shaking for the short ride. Her face was smeared with dirt and tears and blood. All she could do was mumble something about the alley, woman with a bad eye; then a dog scared her. Lydia put her arm around her, unwashed body odor nearly overpowering, Feather shaking hard.

They entered the apartment and Lydia turned on lights. Feather barely looked about but sank into the sofa, rubbing her hands together, swiping her face carefully.

“Shall I call the police? Take you to emergency?” She had never had to deal with a situation like this. What was best?

Feather shook her head “no”.

“You’re bleeding, you can wash your face in the bathroom…”

Feather didn’t move, just sat rigidly looking at her hands then the floor, then Lydia. Her eyes were dark in the dim living room. Blood trickled from her nose, a red lump rose under one eye, a split lower lip bled.

“Would you like some tea after you check your face? And I–I maybe could help you with a soft washcloth.”

Feather nodded, stood a little off-kilter. “Okay.”

Lydia pointed to the bathroom and followed with her hand on her elbow, took a fresh wash cloth from a shelf.

Standing so close felt rude, presumptuous–two strangers– as she wet the washcloth with a mild olive soap and gingerly dabbed wounded areas. Feather grabbed the cloth and ran it under hot water, then pressed it onto her face, breathing in the steamy heat. This she did several times, then added soap and moved the cloth in small circles about her face. Lydia stepped toward the door. Let her have space alone.

“Since I’m here now, can I ask….I’m sorry…but can I take a shower? It’s been over…it’s been so long. My body hurts so much tonight. If not it’s okay, I’ll go in a few minutes. Just wanted to see what she did to me.”

The punches she must have gotten. The painful swellings and cuts. Lydia wanted to ask who, where they went, get the police. But got a thick yellow bath towel, a matching hand towel and new wash cloth. Set them on the toilet seat.

“As long a long shower as you like.”

When she closed the door, she leaned against it and let tears run hot down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around her body. She put on the tea kettle and laid out clean clothing for sleeping.

******

Feather woke up with sunrise, as usual. She could not for the life of her figure out where she was. She wore a clean t-shirt and sweat pants, and lay on a vine-patterned sofa. She stood up too fast; every facet of her muscles and skin hurt.

Ah, Lydia’s…a heavenly shower for so long, cup of tea and sleep. Oh, blessed sleep in a warm place on a long sofa with snug, sweet-smelling blankets. She had an odd sense of unreality, as if she was not really there at all, but breathed slowly, evenly, and felt stronger. She had been so desperate last night. Now, more sore yet still better.

She didn’t know if she should bolt the smartest action, or wait. She waited, thinking of tea, of fresh toast despite her feeling this was all stupid, even sketchy, an unknown woman helping her for what? But Lydia was likely more worried than she was. She got up on tiptoe to use the bathroom. Her face looked like hell; her chest displayed a few raw lines from scratches. On the way back, she passed a closed door. Lydia’s room, she thought. She ought to explain more…but then Feather sank down on the sofa, pulled the blanket over her head, slept four hours more.

When she awakened once more there were fragrances long forgotten. The small dining table was set with mugs, real plates and silverware, and an aloe plant was at center, and a burning candle, cinnamon and orange. Like the old life, an ordinary table set in a simple way. Or the life before the last life…She felt a sweep of dizziness as longing threaten to grab hold and take her down the rabbit hole to the time and place she had vacated.

“Good morning, time for breakfast. Coffee?” Lydia stood in the kitchen, hand on coffeepot.

“Real breakfast? For free– or…? I can find food somewhere else!”

“Of course. Eggs? Toast with jam and peanut butter? Cereal, hot or cold?”

“You’re kidding–I can choose?”

“Feather…just a nice Sunday morning breakfast that I already ate as you slept.” She poured a mug of pungent coffee as the startled young woman sat down. “What is your name, anyway?”

Feather was at the table, the paper napkin put in her lap. Biting her lip and looking at the candle flame she shrugged. “Okay, I’m Genevieve. Called Gen. But being Feather has been nice in a weird way.”

“Gen… now order, please?”

She ate in silence, and though her split lip and cheeks hurt with each bite, she kept chewing fried eggs and toast and sipping fresh coffee. She didn’t want to be rude but there had been so many times of hunger. Days of it, even with Lydia’s food the grinding gnawed at her as a day fell toward night or night slid into day.

Lydia left her to it, got to work cleaning up.

After the food came the talking. Lydia glimpsed Gen’s face and demeanor as often as she could without being rude. The young woman had utterly changed with a shower, rest, decent food. Hair was shoulder length and auburn brown. Even with bruising along high cheekbones and swollen lip and abrasions and cuts–an open face touched with inquisitiveness and a latent softness. Her eyes were large, brighter. Yet striking features betrayed less feeling than she expected. She supposed it was the toll of the street. Having to be on guard, be tough. But Gen spoke carefully. Thoughtfully.

“Lydia, I’m homeless now for over three months but not for reasons you think.”

“What do I think?”

Gen put down her mug, breathed in heavily, let air out slowly. “What every one decides is true. Drugs, alcohol, can’t work because of mental illness and not being on meds. Well, I did lose my job and I guess I was struggling. ” She reached for the mug of coffee, tracing the cardinal on it, then took a drink. “I was working at a corner store across the river and had no place to live. I couldn’t find a spot to stay for long. Or always make it to work on time. On and on.”

“But you had a home, once?”

“Sure. An apartment.” She studied the folds of her napkin, shredded it to bits. “He was mean, you see, he drank, too, but he was just…too harsh. I reached my limit.”

Lydia felt herself lurch. “Domestic violence?”

“Why do they call it that? Like some neat label on a file?” Gen stood up, pushed back her chair, walked to the kitchen and back. “Why not get to the point: monstrous days or nights of cruelty, things you can’t figure out how to stop– emotionally or bodily, they just keep happening…?” She stopped. Sat. “I’m sorry, sorry…yes, he hit me, worse. Anyway, I had to go, so I did, and thought I’d be alright since I had a job, friends. Friends! No. They dried up when he came calling. Besides, no one really wants to get involved, they have their own lives to deal with. So I did what was necessary to survive. But then, you–why you?”

Lydia was riveted. This woman, ten years younger than she was–she had lived all that yet taken a great risk. Left but maybe ended up worse off, who could say this worked out at all? Violence and loneliness on the street or at home. Death, maybe. And she shared her life without embellishment as she rested with coffee and Lydia.

“I…I don’t know. I kept thinking about you every day I passed you. I thought it might help to feed you, that’s all. A small thing, when you consider the scope of your trouble.”

“No.” Gen placed her hands palms down on the table between them. “You saw me. Cared to stop.”

“I’m so sorry you’ve endured all this, Gen.”

Gen looked at her ragged fingernails, then at Lydia and gave a small smile, her eyes brimming. They stayed quiet then, drinking coffee, looking out the window at people rushing or sauntering by. Much had been said and left unsaid.

It was a Sunday. Laundry day in the basement laundry room. Lydia got up. “I can wash your clothes and give you some of mine to wear. The jeans might be short on you, but we’re both sort of tall and slim.”

“You’d do that?”

“You can stay all day if you like–talk things over tonight. Just rest. But if you have to go, then go.”

Gen got up and stretched. “It’s like I woke up in heaven.”

“It’s not all that much, really. I’m glad you took a chance to reach out.”

“I guess I am, too, but it’s pretty bizarre, too.”

Lydia had to agree. But why not trust her instincts, take a chance? Let life leave its telltale trails on hers; let herself be willing to accept this stranger named Gen.

******

They talked that night, the day and night after, and the next. More than either had talked in a long while. Nothing seemed too crazy to state as time rolled by. Lydia grasped Gen’s situation as well as she could. They defined boundaries each day. In the final agreement, Gen could stay until she got another job. Lydia would point her in the right direction for further help regarding housing. And counseling. They would take it a day at a time–that was the best way to approach the situation: practically. Carefully. Kindly. Gen was traumatized, Lydia saw that, but she wanted to be better and was persistent.

When the potluck rolled around a few days later, Lydia was ready, She was to host it at her apartment–she had leaves for the round table, it could seat all of them fine. When Gen suggested she just disappear, Lydia would not hear of it.

“No, you should know my co-workers and they ought to know you since you live here, for now.”

“But I don’t think I can do it. I don’t want to answer questions, have them look me over.”

“You face looks good now.”

“I don’t mean that, Lydia…I don’t want top be paraded out…”

Lydia was about to argue but only nodded.

So she left for the night and Lydia, Alma and Tony all got a bit tipsy, ate very well, played silly Charades and had fun getting a bit closer. But Alma and Tony didn’t know Lydia’s secret, still. As the three guests left the building, they passed Gen in the foyer and greeted her cheerfully as they would anyone after a pleasant evening. Gen waved at them, smiled back, her lips no longer hurting.

******

When her mother came back to town earlier than expected, there was no plan at all.

“Yes, well, here I am, flowers and food in hand! Why didn’t you answer you buzzer at first? I know I’m back four days early, but I wanted to see you, dear. Is this a good time?”

Lydia embraced her mother and her heady perfume, took the pink and red roses, sniffing them closely to get the fine rose fragrance in her nose, then arranged them in a vase. “Why the roses?”

“Oh, you know, Christmas.”

“That’s poinsettias, Mother, or red amaryllis.”

“I just felt like it, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” She looked around. “It looks good in here, what I’d call…homier. What did you do?” She took the Chinese take-out and plated it to heat in the microwave. “I meant to get you a great new scatter rug ordered for Christmas but ran out of time. There’s always something, I know, but it might slack off a couple weeks now.”

“Mother, it’s fine, but–“

“I’ll do it tomorrow, alright? Yes, and I have the reservation for Bartles, not to worry. A few days to go, then we’re done with it for another year. What did you get me this year, Lydia? ” She laughed her cascading laugh. “You know you’ll get money.”

“Mother, hold on. What’s up?” She took in her mother, a long, hard appraisal. Pale skin, sad droopy eyelids, tense mouth, a clenching and unclenching left hand. “He left… Grant is gone.”

“Well, so what if he is? They come, they go, nothing so terrible, he had a weak ego, anyway, and he makes less than I do as VP and, too, he has the most annoying–“

Lydia put her an arm around her mother’s silk-clad shoulder and led her to an armchair. “You sit down. I’m getting tea started. Then I have something to tell you, too. Let’s eat right here.”

The older woman sat, took off her black high heels and rubbed both insteps. She was full of curiosity but she was tired. A long, bad argument with Grant echoed in her ears. Done with that!

After the meal Lydia sat across from her mother.

“Mother, I have a roommate now.”

“Oh!” She lit up. “What’s he like? Is he hiding out in your room?”

“No, Mother, not that sort of roommate. I mean, a young woman who–“

“Lydia, you’re now leaning that way…?”

“Oh, stop for a minute! Let me explain. She’s–well, she’s the homeless woman. She got badly hurt out there, so I took her in, and it’s a long story but she needs a place to stay, she’s nice and respectable as you might say, just fell on hard times and–“

Her mother put up a hand. “Oh, Lydia. Whatever will become of you?”

Lydia had no answer for that. It was what her mother said when she ran out of words about her daughter, an old refrain.

“Where is she? How long will she be here? How do you know she isn’t dangerous?”

“She went to an interview awhile ago. She’ll be back shortly. It’s a good time to talk about that duplex you bought recently…”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Can’t we keep this simpler? And focus on us now? I lost my guy and the training was awful. I actullay booked an earlier flight because it all went to hell. I realized how much I miss you, Lydia…”

Lydia felt the impact of those words, and leaned into the sofa. “Missing me? I’m always here.”

“I have been, really. It was dreary sitting alone on the plane for hours, thinking of all the years we had more time together. Work and men always dominate my life.”

True, but now all this talk was getting to be too much; it wasn’t like her mother. It almost worried her. “Well, I think of all that, too. And now you’re home. So we’ll have our dinner, we can gather round a real tree, if you like. I, for one, would like that.”

“Done. A good change. I’ll see where I can find a lovely tree for my living room–they cost so much, but– yes.” She tilted her head, narrowed her eyes. “What about the duplex?”

“Maybe she can rent one when she gets a job? Or before. I’ll help with rent awhile, if needed.”

“What, your own money? You must have a lot of faith in this person! Take a minute to evaluate, Lydia.” She clasped her hands, then relaxed a bit. “We will see… she needs a decent job. I’d need to get references, not just from you.”

“Mother, she’s a domestic violence victim, just give her a break!”

“True. Men can be such beasts. Except for your too soon-departed father.”

“Yes, Mother, I know. Oh, please don’t cry–I have enough tears around here.”

The door swung open and in walked Gen who went straight to Lydia, clapping her hands like an excited school girl.

“I got the job–I think! She liked me–and may soon hire me if my work references pan out.”

That Genevieve was changing was clear, Lydia thought. For one, she looked amazing all clean and hair shining and dressed nicely. But even more she was standing taller, looked at her in the eye but not too hard; shoulders back, chin up a tad. She smiled enough as she shook Lydia’s mother, then sat and chatted, nothing too personal, just job hunting, her bookkeeping skills. And Lydia helping her out. She was not much intimidated by Lydia’s finely mannered, impeccably dressed mother, Leslie Settlefield, or did not reveal it. Gen knew how to cope, it seemed, to face life as required. She could figure out solutions–how to survive, start over.

Leslie thought, she had a spark, that girl, spunk. She’d manage alright. Past trials wouldn’t stop her if she could help it.

But it was Lydia who Leslie Settlefield wondered over. Her daughter had people skills, and an ability to believe in them when many did not. She had seen that when she was very young, how she defended the taunted kids in school, and sold friendship bracelets as a fund raiser for a little friend’s cancer treatment; how she stubbornly refused to stop being friends with a boy whose father had been to alcohol rehabilitation many times. She had faith in humans, unlike Leslie, who far more often had faith in property and the currency it generated.

Leslie, though, knew the man whose home goods store Gen applied at; she knew without asking that Lydia had called him ahead of time. It occurred to her than she should talk to her daughter again about a job opening in the real estate company. She’d be great at finding and welcoming new clients, connecting people with one another.

As Leslie prepared to leave, she held out a bejeweled hand to Gen.

“I have a property that may suit you– if you get and keep that job for a couple months. I’m renovating it but it will be ready by then.” She gave her a business card and looked back at her daughter. “See you for tree trimming–I’ll call you.” Turning back to Gen, she added, “You’re welcome to come, too, of course.”

Lydia and Gen made popcorn and watched surprising, fine snow drift past the window. Lydia was thinking that she might bring in Gen to work tomorrow. Introduce her, if she was okay with that. And they both could use a haircut for Christmas.

“It’s been a month since I first saw you out there,” Lydia mused.

“Too much to take in…I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes already,” Gen said, “and have more to go. I was never lucky before…thank you, did I say it enough?” She popped a handful of buttery goodness in her mouth. “Gads, isn’t it just something beautiful out there?”

“You did. And I know only a little of what it feels to live more than you expect. Still learning.” Lydia peered into the glimmering snowfall. “Yes, beautiful.”

She knew that Venus–her planet that shone like a star–was up there under dark layers, beaming its light about, still listening in on their hopes.

Monday’s Meander: A Pittock Mansion Christmas and Moving Onward

Still haven’t meandered much since my car accident, but that will change once more, in time. I’ve opted to share old (2012) photos of Portland’s gracious Pittock Mansion dressed up for the holidays. Apologies if they seem too familiar. One does what one finds expedient some days….

Good news: I have another set of wheels at last minute after a trying month, and am grateful I could do that. Better news: my neck pain should improve with more help. Best news: my state of mind is set more on half full rather than half-empty after much prayer seeking insight and fortitude, stern self-talk, rest, greater acceptance of self and others, kindly support and many good walks.

But I haven’t forgotten about the heart of the Season, nor to keep an eye out for goodness and beauty. I’ve felt blessed with life-giving moments: a dear and very ill friend hospitalized for pneumonia is safely recovering; my son made not one, but two lovely meals for us in the past two weeks (plus we had a great time hanging out); a daughter from SC has stayed in touch daily and sent us a bushel of gifts; our twin grand-babies have delighted at every turn, as ever. Other adult kids always offer an encouraging word with check-in and hugs. And Marc has been a great partner dealing with me as not my best self.

Speaking of which: may we keep praying and working for peace in our neighborhood, our own abodes, our countries, in a beleaguered world we call our greater human home and worry about because we love it and need it to keep on turning… We can be activists in diverse ways but I hope we will act out of compassion, not react from fear or anger; may we honor one another as fellow travelers along each smooth or rocky path traversed.

I will be back in a week, right after our little getaway in Seattle–hopefully to share fresh words and pictures!

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Winged Nights

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Alan J. was a boy who no one quite wanted around, not really. Even if they didn’t hound him with that fact, he felt it. It wasn’t that he was a nuisance; that would be something to note, make him easier to relate to. It might have made life easier in the school yard where he was ignored, generally, and at home, where he suffered the ignoble status as youngest and smallest–a “runt” as his siblings said. He could make the fiercest faces at them (which incited more taunts) but had even less to say as the years rolled by. It was not his nature to spout off or to mumble on about things. It made many people uncomfortable. He observed and learned quickly, he asked such questions for just an eleven year old, his teachers assured his parents; he was an unusually introspective child.

Maybe, he thought, he was just not ready to tell the world what he thought of its silliness and beauty and puzzles.

Even the house, once rather grand, seemed to ignore him, perhaps in relief, as it was full of raucous activity. He could fade away into its dusty far corners. It was a big house, if now worn about the edges. Gran and Grandpop (the J. of his name: for his grandfather, Jackson) had run it as a bed and breakfast for many years, then Grandpop died. The past nearly four years she had relinquished it to her daughter and son-in-law and their four children. It had become more a home, not a business, Gran said with a long sigh–as if she missed the latter and didn’t so much crave the former, anymore. At least in its present state. She was slowing down and let them deal with the greater matters.

Wintry rainfall pattered and dashed against the roof, under which Alan J. sat with flashlight in hand, illuminating the bead board of his sloped ceiling. Once an attic, the room was a reasonable size if a bit dank, separated by a small bathroom from his oldest sister’s bedroom. Sarah was now relegated to visitor status since attending college. And big brother Gerry didn’t want the room, as he was well installed at the end of the third floor hallway, the opposite end of his parents’, separated by a guest room and bath; the second floor was primarily commandeered by Hannah and Gran though there was a also study (and bath) used by both his father and mother. Alan J. wasn’t sure how he’d lucked out getting an attic room. It suited him, and he was nagged about taking too frequent refuge in the so-named “AJ Cave.”

Grandpop used to take refuge with him in either attic room way back then if none was rented, as they loved to watch the sunset, the moon and stars from up there. The old man had a telescope which was in the den now, and he’d also read some of any book Alan J. chose, then the boy would read haltingly for his soft-spoken, hunched over Grandpop. He was the one tourists loved to see again; Gran was hospitable, unruffled but sheathed in a coolness, ever the businesswoman. But that was all a long time ago, three and a half years now. Grandpop was sometimes nearby yet not there, at all, a baffling thing.

He smiled as he studied the darkening blur beyond his window. Treetops whipped about in a glistening wind. His flashlight beam then zigzagged about the bead board ceiling, then back to his personal balcony which was long and narrow. It stretched from his small outside door to his decamped sister’s. Sarah had long ago put up a bamboo screen and nailed it to the railing and outer wall. It was decrepit but ivy she’d had in pots crept up the house and over the top into his sunny or dreary part. He liked seeing it there still. Alan J. missed her some, especially the last year when there were midnight bombs of marshmallows and chocolate drops and dumb missives thrown over the screen, at his windows. She had gotten drunk a few too many times. He’d not complained as she laughed more then, and he generally liked her surprises. Sometimes he had tossed marshmallows and miscellaneous junk back and then total madness was on.

She had at least seen him, noted his presence often. But Sarah would not be home for holidays; too much money for a quick plane trip.

It was getting closer to Christmas, a week or so now. This bothered him. Alan J. usually knew what to get people, something simple like packets of seeds for spring or a good if used book or a drawing of the brick-red covered bridge over D Street Canal or a flamingo or a race car or bouquet (his one talent, his brother conceded, was that he drew well). This year he was empty of ideas, probably because they’d had to tighten the purse strings, as mother said, so the mood was less inflated. Dad, a big manufacturing plant’s supervisor (soon to be manager, they still hoped), was laid off with the rest of the workers for six weeks, on a sharply reduced pay. That meant their allowances were suspended, other budgetary cuts made.

No, he was not yet inspired to draw much of interest, but it might still come. Or he’d come up with a crafty thing.

Alan J. stood and looked out over neighbors’ houses. The whole block had houses two stories or even one. People thought they lived in a mini-mansion but the truth was, they lived in a rambling house that looked good across the street but up close showed age, even an unmistakable neglect. Still, the view from his attic room and balcony stirred in Alan J. a sense of confidence and expectancy, as if he was a ship’s captain or an airport watchtower’s commander and there were important things to see, do and plan. He liked being able to glimpse quick scenes of neighbors’ activities, too, as darkness fell and lights cast a golden glow over inhabitants. Sometimes he tried to sketch them at their tables or lolling on porches or watering gardens. He found it all worthy of a long look.

Tonight he watched various goings-on, and the black bare tree branches and gleaming streets, and felt something like a longing with discontent, even as he smelled pot roast aromas stealing upstairs. Or he imagined it, since Gran and his mother– after she’d rushed home from her bank job–were preparing it earlier. His father had been in the basement, fixing a scratched old toaster or at least looking busy at the workbench and he’d nodded at his son, asked how the day was. Then they both fell silent. His father was down there a lot lately, and he cracked jokes less often than Alana J. would have liked, despite how corny they were.

The trash cans banged and crashed about; the wind had tossed things here or there. Another sudden crash disturbed the falling dark, and then another. It could be a homeless person or a raccoon or even a coyote. Alan J. had seen the last only one time, and he hoped to see another, so he tossed on a heavy grey hoodie and went onto his balcony to take a look.

As he bent over the railing and peered down below he just made out a scrawny figure with a backpack poking about the trash cans, tossing a couple of cans into a plastic bag. His father might yell out a window at a vagrant, as he called most who came onto their lot, but Alan J. always looked. Waited. He wondered where they came from and where they were going, what they most hoped to find. Any tossed food–even if  it was not spoiled–would be a sodden mess in winter and the thought of having to eat such a thing made him feel ill.

He’d left outgrown tennis shoes out there; they were gone faster than he expected. So he left other things in bags by the cans, like a sweater he hated (had a dog on it) and a pillow that had fuzzy yarn daisies which Sarah left behind in her closet. Gran had seen him do it. And Hannah, now thirteen and too busy for him, so she just shrugged and flounced off. Gran shook her head, said nothing.

The rummaging didn’t stop despite the inclement evening, chilled and wet. Alan J. was afraid the person might fall face first into the can, so far into it was his or her body. He shivered, pulled the hood closer. He felt like calling down. What was needed at six o’clock at night in the rainy dark? His mother called up the stairs loudly; dinner was ready. Still he felt compelled to watch and when finally he was about to go indoors and dry off, the person three and a half stories below looked up, scarf falling away from the face.

Her face, he saw as light, long hair was tossed back in a chilled gust. She stood stock still, stared at him a long moment, then slowly raised a gloved hand to him. He saw she couldn’t be so much than fourteen, maybe less or more. She was short and looked terribly thin even in a puffy jacket, face also narrow, small. Alan J. raised his hand to her in almost a wave, and a rush of feelings coursed through his body, a shock of something. He wanted to call out, ask her why she was out there all alone, or what was it she needed. But she quick like a rabbit scurried right into the street and beyond.

******

Alan J. took his perch by the bedroom window to watch for her the next three late afternoons and evenings like he was an appointed sentinel. He’d tried to recall the color of her jacket–black or was it navy?–how her eyes were, how she stood with arms dangling, a half-empty plastic bag slumped on the ground, her fingers wrapped around the top. Bedraggled and worn out was his impression and yet he thought she must have been roaming all day long and still would roam more. She had to be brave, strong. Or entirely out of luck and options. Both, he decided. But she did not return.

The fourth night he decided to get something ready for her just in case, he told himself. Hannah saw him put a sweet roll, box of crackers and slab of cheese into a bag and rolled her eyes. He liked snacks late at night–she did, too– and only told on him when he once took the last three chocolate cupcakes. He then took it all to his room, found a basket of hair stuff in Sarah’s room and emptied it onto her bed. They had used all the string last week threading together plastic glow stars, which they neatly hung atop the windows. So he got the very long, doubled piece of yarn he’d cut from Gran’s stash of skeins and tied it around the basket handle.

It had stopped raining awhile, but he had slicker and flashlight at the ready. A half hour later he caught a glint of that blond hair under the corner street lamp by their house, then saw her run to the garbage cans. He left the flashlight behind–he didn’t want to startle her– but got the basket and entered the balcony to stand at the railing. His heart was beating almost like a hummingbird’s; his breath caught in his throat. Would she look up? He was afraid if he called out she’d dash off. He didn’t want her to be afraid. Worry he’d be mean.

After she found a few empty cans and a small portion of last night’s pizza, she ate hungrily and drank from a large water bottle. Alan J. took the newly food-filled basket, placed it over balcony edge and lowered it down to the ground. It thumped on sodden earth and she glanced that way then away, then back again. It spooked him to imagine her distrust as her elfin face slowly lifted up, up, up until she might have thought she saw someone at the top balcony of the house. But Alan J. had crouched down, made himself small, and leaned against his door, yarn taut in his hands. He did not intend on being seen. It would spoil things. He could hear her run to the basket, rummage in the contents and then, right before she left, there was a tug on the yarn. After listening a few moments, he heard only crows and the slight damp wind. He stood and pulled up the basket. Empty.

Triumph.

Each night when Alan J. could manage it, he put something good in the basket. A soft scarf  no one really needed. Four dollars from the makeshift Mason jar “bank” on his dresser. A small summer sausage with a can of seltzer. A paperback fantasy novel he’d enjoyed and Tootsie Rolls. Each time he hid under cover of darkness–she came roughly around 5:30–as the girl stealthily arrived and left. She always tugged on the basket and he never came forward. It occurred to him that she was counting on him, and that made him feel good. Alan J. had a new purpose and it propelled him through the days, gave him an uncommon sense of fullness.

His family was oblivious. His father was in the basement or at the table eating or in the den with the TV muted. His mother was frantic with Christmas preparations, working on a wreath, and Gran was busy knitting and crocheting, or up to her elbows with kitchen matters. Hannah was with friends, doing homework or telling him to stop looking over her shoulder as she read–she’d pass her sci-fi book along if it was any good. Gerry was just gone; at seventeen he had a junker car and it was his freedom ticket. Plus, he worked part-time.

On the fourth night he stole a look at her. He knew she knew it, as she turned in an oddly careful way toward him, showed him a big smile. Then she dallied a bit over trail mix and a single bottle of apple juice he’d put in the basket, and raised the empty to him in a “cheers” before heading off with bright steps.

He waited to see her from then on. They didn’t speak but communicated with a look, a gesture. He wondered if she could talk, then realized she might wonder the same. Once they both looked at the stars at the same time. It gave him chills when she waved at him without even turning and kept waving as she melted into shadow.

After the seventh time it also came to him that, since she was counting on him, what would she do if he quit this? Strictly garbage can living again–unless others were doing the same as he was. It seemed almost wrong of him to ever consider stopping, yet how could he for certain keep with it? He just would.

The ninth night, three days before Christmas, there was a weather warning: rain mixed with sleet. Possibly snow but likely the dreaded black ice. Maybe she wouldn’t come at all. Maybe she’d found shelter; that would be perfect. But he filled the basket, anyway: a pair of Sarah’s worn mittens, his striped knit cap, a small crocheted throw from his reading chair. And a fat sandwich, lots of turkey with big slab of cheddar. Gran had seen him fix that at four o’clock. She’d warned him to not eat the whole thing before dinner, for goodness’ sake, or his chicken dinner would be unwanted. And then she’d put hands on hips and narrowed her eyes with head cocked to one side. Stopped him cold a minute. He kept his face impassive and waited, but she just threw up her hands and went back to her work.

The sleet hit like bits of glass on glass of the many tall windows. There was a steady fire roaring in the living room and Alan J. sat on the floor near Gran and Big Cat, her black Persian. He listened to the clicking of knitting needles. Heard his father’s footsteps as they trudged up basement stairs.  The Christmas tree, as fancy with decor as each year, was beaming at them. His mother was running quite late and Hannah was dozing under a blanket on the couch. He had worried the cuticle of his right index finger until it bled. He re-checked the time on his cell until it was closer to when the girl might come by. If she’d bother. Gran got up to check on the browning chicken so he slipped away to his room.

He put on his winter coat, went to his balcony, lowered the basket. When he looked down, there she was beneath him the three and a half stories below. And she was looking up. The lights from the house illumined her softly. Her wide eyes were dark and her hair long and straight, the color of straw but streaked with black. She was very pale, perhaps older than he thought, but not as old as Gerry or young as Hannah. She had a grown up air to her as she stood with one hand on hip, jaunty-like.

“Hey, brother, what’s your name?”

Her voice was much louder than he expected; it cut through low howling wind.

“AJ,” he called out, thinking it easier to catch than his whole name. Sleet stung his cheeks, wind seared his eyes. She pulled her hoodie closer to her face and head. He cupped his hands, said, “So here it comes.” The basket slid down over the railing.

“AJ, okay, I’m Marley! Thanks for everything, you’re the best. Saved my belly–you’re a real prince of a guy!” She grinned at him, a big smile that showed uneven teeth.

As soon as it neared her reaching hands, she sorted through it all, tucked the sandwich into a pocket, put on the hat, pulled the mittens over her gloves. He saw her slap and rub newly layered hands together and thought of their radiant fireplace. Of the delicious dinner waiting. Marley took the warm throw and put it around her shoulders and managed to tie a fat knot in the ends. She hesitated a second then pulled out the sandwich and took a giant bite, then another. He wanted to invite her in, to make a ladder and pull her up. She kept eating as he waited; they endured darts of ice and the bitter air. He wished he had stairs to his balcony and a chair for her. What a sight she made, all decked out with the added layers. Somehow she gave off cheer and this made him smile.

Gran set plates and glasses on the table, hoping for her daughter-in-law’s safe drive home. Big Cat sat alert on a window ledge, ears pricked, head turning back and forth. Gran checked to see what she was seeing. It was a medium-sized basket dangling, swaying in the air close to ground, and a slight young girl, alone. Right there in the middle of a storm, she stood eating a sandwich. A basket in mid-air? She grabbed her coat from the coat tree, rushed to the kitchen side door. As soon as she stuck her head out, the girl started, then froze, her fingers releasing the remaining sandwich fall to the ground.

“What’s going on here?”

The girl looked over with saucer eyes as Gran followed the basket string to the crouching boy at the other end. When she looked for the youth again she was gone.

“Alan J.!” she yelled up the balcony. “What are you up to?”

But she knew full well. Her hand pressed against her heart as she closed the door to shut out all the storm.

******

His mother got home and walked into a murmur of excitement. At dinner the event was all they wanted to talk about: a homeless girl and the basket idea and Alan J.’s initiative and how good of him to think of it– but, too, rather risky. Pats on the back, hair ruffled. But still, you never knew…. he should be more careful. No more good deeds that might endanger them all, right?

He didn’t tell them how many nights it had been, just that he’d noticed her once out back, so he’d given her some stuff. All he thought about was how full his stomach was, how warm the rooms and where did Marley have to go next? Gran scared her off. He felt angry. Alarm at that and sadness. Still, the bigger thing was that no one had ever called him “brother” who was not blood, nor called him a “prince”; he heard her voice ring out, carried to him on raw wind. No one had said “thanks for everything” to him like that. He found it sad, yes, but she was amazing, out there on her own, surviving somehow when he’d curl up in a ball and die. She deserved to have more than a small basket now and then, didn’t she? To have a better life, not root about for crumbs.

After dinner, he was glad to get away and scampered upstairs to do math homework. Tried to. He knew she wasn’t still out there; black ice was laid over all now, she’d at least be inside a store or fast seeking shelter. He had a name now, he knew who she was; they’d talked a little. But that was it. It all stuck in his mind like tantalizing clues.

A few minutes later there was rapping on his door. Alan J. didn’t want to answer. But Gran walked right in–he could not recall when she had done that—and sat herself at the end of his bed.

“I want you to know I’m proud of you. Grandpop would be happy to hear it, and likely he does… And I suspect it wasn’t this one time. I didn’t want to embarrass you at the table but, Alan J., you have his spirit, his kind ways.”

At the thought of his grandfather, Alan J. nearly choked up; he was the one he wanted to talk to about the girl. Gran moved closer, put a strong arm about him. The door pushed open and in came his mother and father and they, too, sat on his bed and briefly hugged him.

“But what about Marley?” he asked, tears hot as coals sizzling down cool cheeks.

“I think she’ll be back,” his mother said, laughing, “to see if you were real.”

“You’re a sort of angel for her, son,” his father said with uncharacteristic emotion.

He shook his head. “No.” His words were gulped, hard to get out. “Marley is.”

But he knew they wouldn’t understand. She’d called him “brother” though he was a stranger; she’d called him “the best” when he’d only done the easy thing. A “prince”– for what? For giving her stuff he didn’t need. Marley had welcomed his offerings, and that made him feel rounded with contentment. He’d received the most.

“Maybe she’ll turn up soon,” Gran said as she stood up and peered out the window at the sudden snow. “Getting rougher out there.”

“If she does, can we invite her inside? For dinner at least?” He wiped his nose on a sleeve and stood next to Gran as his parents fidgeted.

She sighed. “I imagine so, we’re in the hospitality business, aren’t we? Of course we are.”

He nodded, wondering if it’d ever really happen. If she’d come in, take off her puff jacket, mittens and the thin gloves and sit by the fire and warm herself, lean in at their table and share hot food. He had to shut his eyes to remember how she’d waved at him, spoken to him. She could fade so fast.

The grownups saw he had gone inside himself again so left, carefully shut his door behind them.

But Alan Jackson Havers III didn’t leave his post at the cold, filigreed window for a long while. He was watching the thickening confetti of snow soften a treachery of ice, watching his street turn into a velvety blanket of white and garbage cans turn into bright, frosty mounds. Watching for Marley with yellow and black hair streaming from beneath his favorite striped hat, a tattered angel sliding along icy sidewalks, roaming the street for good finds.

He felt his fingers itch for drawing pencils and prepared to recreate what he could of her smallness and bigness, which felt to him like unfolding wings in the great secret of darkness.

 

Friday’s Quick Pick: Farewell to Heart Concerns (for now!) and Beck’s Tree Farm

 

Well, I came through the heart angiogram just fine and am about back on my feet, after a fine conclusion: the third stent implant is not needed! Now I happily turn my attention to the Season’s preparations once more and must think about where we will get our fresh tree this year.

Beck’s Tree Farm was visited over the years as it was our favorite place to get a tree. It was bought later in life by a charming and friendly couple who finally retired from the business; now new owners apparently have other plans. We quite enjoyed the woolly sheep, our endless walks across muddy fields to discover the very best tree which we (or, if our son wasn’t there, a helper) cut down. Such panoramic views were beheld, including glimpses of Mt. Hood. The air was crisp and sweet. It was fun, felt magical to us.

Here are a few pictures from 2013 and 2015 of the annual trip out there with our son, Joshua and his children, Asher and Avery. Happy memories, indeed! (Now Asher is 13; Avery is 16, soon to graduate early from high school.) You will note Joshua is wearing a more  typical Northwest attire even in winter: shorts (if at all possible) with a heavy fleece-lined flannel and sneakers (or hiking shoes). Of course, the Santa hat is required for these Christmas forays!

No matter where we discover our next and best piney tree, then decorate and light it  up, it will be more good times shared. I can’t imagine anything better. Though I may have a less than perfect heart, it is beating strong and true, overflowing with love for my family and friends as we gather around table and tree.

Fragrance of Life

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Carolyn was getting sick and more than tired of the holiday hullabaloo. It was not going to happen for her. Why would it? Bills were starting to pile up, the building’s ancient heating system eked out puffs of tepid warmth, an upstairs neighbor’s recently rescued Border Collie puppy was looking for sheep to herd, his restless whining keeping her on edge. And it had snowed. Not a drifty dusting but a raging snow. She couldn’t see a well-defined anything from her second story window, just pillowy lumps of whiteness, nearly blinding her. The courtyard and beyond were slowly vanishing in thick swirling snowflakes. A wave of panic swept over her; she hugged close her ratty navy wool sweater and looped a thick gray scarf twice about her neck.

When she’d taken the airy, high ceilinged vintage apartment at Mistral Manor, Carolyn had harbored such hopes. But that was two years ago. The past year had been one of plenty, then rent by piercing losses. In November she’d finally gotten news of the end of her marketing job. The company’s local office had been downsizing awhile so she had half-expected this. Just much later. The resumes she’d sent out had thus far garnered only a couple of nibbles.

She let the sheer curtain flop over draped white twinkling lights she had put up before the news. They gave off a sparse but steady glow that proved heartening despite her distress and the cold that crept in through every window, sneaked under doors. She went to the hearty wood box by the fireplace and set about making a fire. She had first relied on childhood memories of helping her mother with the wood stove,  hands warmed by her mother’s as they directed hers: splintered sticks that way, smaller pieces this way about those, bigger kindling crisscrossed and then pungent split logs placed just so. The fire always responded to their joint (mostly Mother’s) efforts. Her mother said being a fire tender was woman’s work as it took equal parts ingenuity, delicacy and strength.

Once again being a fire tender felt like second nature as it had so long ago. Now the aged wood combusted and crackled, a fragrant offering of another downed tree permeating the rooms. Carolyn sat on her one overstuffed chair, slippered feet splayed before the plain, companionable hearth.

It felt, however, disorienting to have so much time to herself. She had grown accustomed to the chatter and bustle of work, lunches out with two good office mates, the critical demands of a trying boss with such large perfect teeth the woman scared Carolyn for a bit. She’d liked her business coursework, had done very well and enjoyed two other positions before the last. But her current job’s reality had been tough to embrace with gusto. It was tedious too often and unlike her friends, who’d fought their way to better situations and were now being dispatched to new offices, she had begun to flag.

She had thought it all mattered less than it did, even the friends. Now as she let herself be mesmerized by her fire’s erratic dance she realized she had taken the situtation much too lightly. That’s exactly what Damon had told her six months ago before he walked out. He’d found her lacking in ambition, something he fairly burst with, and it made him impatient. Carolyn was also smart and energetic, attractive in her off-beat vintage way, yet she had so much less enthusiasm about business than he desired in a partner. He had set up shop already, a small kitchen store that sold unusual, surprisingly handy items. It was her lack of aspirations that came between them, he said. But Carolyn knew better. It was his self-importance and her lack of true commitment to him. There was too much of the first and not enough of the second to make it work–better despite advantages of a lively companion, observing business success close-up, even sharing a passionate bed amid gross uncertainty.

What did she actually want?

First, to pay the most of the nagging bills on time. Second, to enjoy the effects of sustained heat with rest. Third, to just skip Christmas. Without her mother–living a deserved life of leisure in Florida, enjoying sunshine with her third husband– it meant so much less. But this year money was too scarce to flee like royalty into balmy days and nights unfolding way across the country.

Fourth: to stop feeling so damned lonely. Hallelujahs were lovely for others but to her were more like a too-long intermission with no second act to attend. Where was even the next two line paragraph of her story? In limbo, that’s where.

The tea kettle’s whistling startled her out of growing self-pity. She let it softly shriek a moment or two more; it sounded like comfort. As she dunked the cinnamon and orange tea bag up and down in the heavy white mug and sat again, Carolyn inhaled deeply. She jumped when someone pounded on the door.

Through the keyhole she saw Mr. Carpenter’s fuzzy white head. He didn’t peer back as he stood with a package, hand readied to bang again. He might have pressed the doorbell. When she opened up the door a crack, he looked up and she noticed his glasses were still held together with duck tape.

“Got a package here for you,” he softly growled and it was not an attempt to be ornery but his ordinary voice. He did not own the sort of voice that offered soothing words. Yet, they tended toward kindly.

She swung the door wide open, gesturing that he step out of the cold, drafty hallway.

“Thank you for bringing it to me. You dared go out on that porch to get the mail today?”

“I did! And it is blowing out there. No need to come in, thanks, I will get back to my reading–a great Sherlock Holmes.” He gave the package to her, leaned his wrinkled face into the room a bit. “It feels cold in here, too. Okay, you’ve got a roaring fire, that’s good. I need one.”

“Why don’t you come in, get warm, at least. I was just making tea.”

She didn’t want to sound desperate as she held out her hand to him. He was, after all, an old man, much older than her mother. Since she’d lived there they’d exchanged reasonable pleasantries, not overly friendly, not so aloof. Most all the tenants did when they bumped into someone. She felt welcome enough, but Carolyn had yet to get to know anyone well. It was the sort of bohemian community she had imagined she’d like to make home, creative types, young entrepreneurial sorts, old and young mixed together, some having been there for decades. But she hadn’t had the time.

Mr. Carpenter sniffed the air with his fine long nose. He had been a successful perfumer once, another tenant told her, but his smell had gone haywire or got worn out –he’d been ill, perhaps–and then he’d worked at Macy’s for a decade or more.

“Is that a grand old fir tree you’re burning?”

“Why, yes, lodgepole pine. How surprising you’d know that! I wanted to save the well-seasoned red alder and some madrone for a hotter, longer fire.”

Mr. Carpenter stepped in and looked around. She took the package, likely a gift from her mother, to the circular dining table.

“You might need that if the weather report can be trusted. Say, I guess I’d take that tea, after all, Miss Havers,” he said. “Any hearty black tea in your cupboard? With a dash of vanilla, too, perhaps”

“I do. Exactly that one, Mr. Carpenter, what a lucky thing.”

She took his faded black fleece and hung it on her coat tree, then prepared the tea. When she returned he had pulled up to the fire in the creaky rocking chair, the one she had found at roadside and had always planned to paint or refinish. His head bobbed up and his eyes smiled above his damaged glasses when she brought his mug. Taking her seat and settling again, wondering over how much warmer the whole place felt already, she sipped as they watched the fire lick at the air and twist about.

Mr. Carpenter cleared his throat though it made no difference in his gravelly tone. “You have any family coming around for Christmas?”

“I don’t. My mother and her husband live in Florida. I usually go there, but not this year. It’s…tight financially. Bound to get even tighter.”

“I don’t see you heading out at seven in every day, anymore.” She threw him a frown but he was still staring into the fire. “I often keep an eye on our people here. Not much else to do some days. You and most others leave each day for work. I did, too, but no more, of course. They threw me out ten years ago with flattery and persuasion and a pin of honor of some sort, but the truth is I reached seventy so that was the end. Imagine that!” He slurped from his mug and stretched out his spindly legs, then gave her an appraising look. “Beg pardon, I guess you can’t, Miss Havers. You’re a young one yet. But working hard comes naturally to you, I think, you carry yourself with confidence.”

“Maybe once upon a time. Not anymore. I lost my job last month. I worked in marketing. I’m not so valuable in the working world, either, it turns out.”

“I am sorry to hear it…well, on to the next good thing. I was a perfumer with my own shop for thirty years. We crafted bespoke fragrances as well as sold the most excellent scents. I dearly miss that work; it is an art, making perfume, and it well suited me. But I got sick with the cancer; my sense of smell was affected by chemotherapy. So I turned my business over to niece and nephew. They’re doing a capable job. After I got better I just took a job at Macys selling lesser scents but it was distraction, a paycheck. I tried to teach a little about perfume as I sold each bottle and had a ball. Then I was done there, too, so that’s how it goes. Life just flings surprises at us, distressing ones, sometimes beautiful, you know.” He stopped his gentle rocking and turned to her. “What’s next for you if I may ask?”

Form the corner of her eye she glimpsed the snow like a passing drape of white velvet, a near-ghostly thing. It struck her as wonderful. “I like design, maybe create packaging. That might sound odd but I like to draw and used to make things. But my degree doesn’t really support that wish. So I don’t know yet just what to do.” She closed her eyes, warmth flowing to her toes and calves and thighs and into her core and chest at last.

“It’ll come to you. Something always does if you’re willing to reconsider things. To try new avenues. I was glad to have my Macy’s job in the end. It saved me from deadly boredom, kept me engaged with people and, well, it was still perfume!”

Mr., Carpenter ended his sentence on such a gleeful note that Carolyn felt a pang of envy.

“I wish I had a deep passion like that…”

“Maybe it’s there and you just haven’t given it due respect and attention.”

She pursed her lips. “Maybe.”

They listened to the increasing wind and talked of weather, the endless oversell of a commercial Christmas, then the sorts of music they preferred–he, the old standards and opera; she, electronic and jazz–the food they wished they might eat and what they settled for on a limited budget. His late wife, gone long before he retired. How he’d then taken up painting after many years of forgetting all about it. He admitted to being fairly bad at it but no matter.

“Well, enough of an old man’s ramblings. I’ll head back upstairs, you have better things to do,” Mr. Carpenter said when their mugs were empty.

Carolyn bit back the words, Not really, please stay a bit longer. She could tell he was ready to go home; he probably had more to do than she did.

At the door he put his jacket over his arm and smiled sincerely, his wrinkles deepening about lips and folding around eyes. “Thank you kindly for the nice tea and talk.”

She felt overwhelmed by his friendliness and seized with a desire for another visit. “Want to come by for dinner Christmas Day? I’ll try to make something decent. Maybe start with a good glazed ham?”

His thin white eyebrows hovered above his glasses, then he stared past her, perhaps out the window, and for a moment she thought he’d gotten lost in thought, forgotten her altogether. Then he came back to the moment and rubbed his whiskery chin.

“I think I still have a scalloped potato recipe tucked away. Do you want to try a hand at throwing a small Christmas party–together? Invite a couple more folks? Mrs. Mize is alone this year, and so is young Trent Rafferty.”

Carolyn felt a small jolt of nerves as she imagined her apartment occupied by people she barely knew. She’d have to clean and maybe decorate. She hadn’t fixed a ham in a long time. They needed candles, too, and she was out. She knew wise-cracking Mrs. Mize but who was Trent Rafferty, a new tenant? Whatever had she been thinking, inviting him in for tea, then impulsively inviting him to dinner? Him, not three!

“Yes,” she heard herself say, “that’d be a good thing, I think. If they bring some dishes, too.”

“I’m sure of it. I’ll call them–or better yet, we’ll stop over later this week and figure it out better. They’re good folk. How about it?”

“Okay, Mr. Carpenter, sounds like a deal. And please–call me Carolyn.”

“Carolyn, then. I’m Elwyn, if you like, either way is good.” He nodded approval, as if of the way things were going. “And also, I’ll ask my niece and nephew if they need any good marketing done. Or package designing, perhaps. I still hold a place in our business. Oh, and maybe you’ll burn the madrone and oak for Christmas? Love those fine woods. I might have to steal a piece or two…”

He exited the doorway.

“What was that you said? About the work?”

But Mr. Carpenter’s thin, energetic visage, in burgundy flannel shirt and baggy dark chinos, shuffled down the hallway to the elevator.

After she shut the door, she poked at the fire to coax a hotter flare again. It’s tangy, sweet smoke smelled of well being, of good times, of a life lived better if only she could figure out how to make it happen. She moved to a frosted window, fingers splayed against sharp cold, melting icy filigree. The snow had stopped lambasting everything. It now lay upon the space below in a sparkling landscape of small hillocks and valleys. Streaming light created a bejeweled dream of a courtyard. She wasn’t entirely sold on a potluck for Christmas and she missed her mother terribly. But home had sneakily become Mistral Manor with its creaks and dripping faucets and chilly spots, her serviceable fireplace and small balcony that was a boon even in winter. It’s curious inhabitants. With Mr. Carpenter–she might call him Elwyn, more likely not–as new friend and perhaps adviser, anything might be possible, after all, given time.