The new neighbor, a younger woman named Marta Swinsky, was to be greatly admired. All the women said so and the men didn’t disagree. Kari mused over this as she scrubbed final traces of grime in the upstairs bathroom sink, tub and floor. How many times had she seen Marta heave bags of gifts or donations of unknown sorts into the back of her station wagon then head out to deliver the goods? Every few days there she was again with a few more bundles, bags. Kari had asked her about it and she’d shrugged, saying, “It’s what I do, add a little something to others’ trees–I spend months getting ready. It’s what I enjoy.”
Kari donated items to charity, too, just not on such a grand scale. Year around. And she took several toys to the car dealership to disperse, bought art at the one day holiday market as they donated 50 percent of profits to the community center. But she could do more. She was focused on her own holiday preparations, admittedly.
And Marta was a real baker; that is, the air between the houses smelled as if she was. Even with only one of Kari’s windows cracked for a freshening breeze, fragrances of molasses cookies, lemon bars and cinnamon buns made their way to her nostrils. Next would be sugar cookies and Russian teacakes and more, Marta said yesterday. Kari thought she could smell sweetness even now, rising above the offensive odor of bleach in the bathroom. She intended on making iced butter cookie stars– soon. Maybe a mince pie or two.
The truth was, Marta was likely a better woman than she was. She was younger, more motivated, great at domestic creations, she’d noted. The living room alone was wonderful with its good taste and comfort. She seemed a young saint in the making, industrious after her already-busy work day, always ready with a wave and friendly greeting. Her stunning smile added to the overall appraisal that she was one of those who was touched with something “extra”–charisma, or perhaps more than the usual heart for humanity. And it was likely true. No one was displeased she moved into the neighborhood– nor her smart, dapper, polite husband, Evan. Four months later they were already settling in.
There were plenty of tasks checked off Kari’s lists but nothing to warrant modest neighborhood acclaim, not much of passing interest. It was a quiet rolling toward Christmas and New Year’s. Not many were excited this year although there might be a little relief from the pandemic. If the world was still subdued, she didn’t start her day fighting the fact. But she did try to make it more festive. Charles suggested they put more colorful lights on the garage–he got right to it. She played holiday tues and hummed along as best she could.
There was less and less to do each year, but it was only Charles and herself. Their son, Craig, had already flown off to see his girlfriend and her family in Hawaii. Not that he was obligated to come back home; he was twenty-nine and lived four hours away. But it would have been nice to see him a couple of days. Such a life, busy with his lawyering, his cohorts, flying across the Pacific. He deserved it–anyone who had to debate and harangue for a living deserved a sweet respites. In this case, with Delia the chemical engineer, again. Craig and his equally upward bound girlfriends–well, alright, good for them. Kari had liked a couple of them, but hadn’t met Delia. Craig and she met online six months ago. He’d told them he’d gone to see her twice already, that she might be “the one”. Kari would have to meet her to determine if that made any sense.
But love often didn’t, did it? She and Charles were like rutabagas and raspberries, both uniquely satistfying sparately but an odd pairing.
There was, however, nothing to gripe about during her morning assessments of reality. They owned a good dwelling; she had a companionable if somewhat distracted, often snoozy husband; a secured retirement following thirty-seven years of teaching high school world and American history. Charles still worked as a consultant regarding organizational and team building issues–from his office at home for the time being. They had a sluggish white Persian cat named Dot for a dab of black fur between wide eyes, and an active mutt, Mr. Grimly–or as Charles said, chuckling, The Grimster. That dog had fixed on its mug a somber look, even when happy. Maybe he was influencing Kari–she was increasingly the one to walk him. She talked to him at length as they walked; he made noises back, a whine or a grumbling.
But her everyday work was never done and that’s what loomed at her as she got up at dawn. If Charles had been more fussy as well as retired, it’d be harder to carry most of that load. She was just tired out–it bothered her, she long the one with unstoppable energy. Maybe being well over sixty was the problem or, again, the unending pandemic. Or work not being at school but household labors. She needed a new direction for the New Year.
Christmases past had been quite an event. But Charles saw it as so much fuss though he was glad to spoil her with a big gift (last year, a new computer, sorely needed). He didn’t easily join in the merry spirit she displayed–mostly the light displays he put up, a few classic holiday movies. Son Craig was all in until he was fourteen, at which point he found better things to do than decorate the house or corak along with their holiday tunes. He left at eighteen with hardly a backward glance, home only for brief periods after that.
“It’s a fact that things change and that’s that, get on with it,” she reminded herself and put away her cleaning supplies and ran downstairs, contemplating dinner plans.
“Pizza?” she asked at the study door. Therein Charles stared at his computer screen, then looked up blankly. “For dinner?” she prompted him with a grin.
“Oh, right, but on a Wednesday night?”
He said this with furrowed brow, as if she’d lost track of time and thought it was Saturday. They ordered take out Saturday or Sunday. Not Wednesday.
“I didn’t get to the store and don’t have a taste for soup and sandwiches. Or roasting a whole chicken, our only meat.”
He tilted his head at her, nodded, went back to his work.
When Dot wound her way between her ankles, she picked the cat up, held the fluffy mound of squirming fur close. Cats and dogs had barely a clue about the goings on, good or bad, were happy to be fed and walked, petted while given lap space. She appreciated them for that alone.
She ordered pizza and went outdoors to wait for delivery. It had warmed some in the afternoon. There was a loose weave of cloud with rain in the distance, but also a soft wash of crimson and pink as the sun went down, For those vivid colors given by sunsets she gave thanks. Christmas would come, it would be fine, it would be gone again. But sunshine and moonshine provided artistic touches to earth, waters and plants, the sky, and they’d keep on. She felt better to realize it once more.
The vehement slamming of a door broke her reverie. Voices rose and fell, muffled across the side yard. Marta stepped out the kitchen door, headed toward the garage but stumbled a bit. Her husband’s voice was commanding but unclear. She paused, turned around, leaned her back against the house, panting, then right before she walked back she saw Kari. Stood up straight, walked rapidly to the door opening to her. Went in. Kari grasped both sweatshirted forearms and shivered.
Had she seen anything, really? Heard –what? Who didn’t argue at times? Everyone did and sometimes neighbors knew it but respected others’ privacy; sometimes they never knew, which was a good thing, she thought. She and Charles had had an argument a month ago that still got her a bit riled to think of it, but they’d moved on. She sat on her porch and wondered about her neighbor. Drifted back to her son and how he was long gone. Young children especially made the holidays meaningful, fun….She wondered if Marta wanted children. Kari hadn’t, not really, but when she had him a light went on; she was so pleased for them all. How she missed her son pulling up into the driveway a bit fast, with reasonably warm Thai take-out on the back seat to share, and a couple of days and nights of good talk at the ready.
The pizza delivery car pulled up, a teenaged girl hopped out and ran to Kari, plopped a warm box of savory delight into her hands and took a small wad of cash proffered, no counting it.
But then Marta’s side door opened. Her body was ejected and Marta fell hard. Running acorss the damp grass, Kari’s heart pounded in her throat. Marta was lying in the driveway, face covered with a mass of long auburn hair. She was crying softly like a creature from far off and wounded under cover of night. Kari pushed back unruly hair to better assess the state of things.
Marta’s lower lip was sucked between her teeth, eyes squeezed shut though tears eeked from the corners. Face contorted, hands to sides of her head.
“Marta.” Kari smoothed her hair; the cheek against cement was bright with blood. From her fall? “Marta, tell me if you’re badly hurt. What happened?”
The woman’s eyes blinked open, one partly swollen shut, the other brimming but she shook her head back and forth, hands dropping away to the driveway. Then she brought a forefinger to puffy reddened lips, one split open and said, “Shhhh….”
In the small window above the kitchen sink, there was a shadowy movement–and Kari knew Evan was there watching them. He didn’t come outside. Kari felt sick to her stomach as she gathered Marta into her arms, though the woman resisted.
“I’m okay, let me be,” Marta whispered, then sat up, pushing Kari back. “So sorry, had a couple of drinks…wine doesn’t sit well,” she murmured,
But there was no smell that shouted alcohol, not wine or beer or liquor. This was a sober woman severely distressed. Kari helped her up, looked her full in the face.
“Please,” Marta implored, more tears flowing.
“Come to my house. We’ll make Christmas tea. Let me help.”
“Tea?” her eyes widened at such a preposterous though. “No, no–I can’t,” she said, looking quickly at the kitchen window, now dark. She turned back at Kari, strands of hair caught on her lips. “Please. Don’t say a thing.”
“Check in with me tomorrow, alright? Come by, even.”
Marta may have nodded or maybe not. But she clasped Kari’s arm before turning and stumbled off, holding her side. She reached the door, opened it and was enveloped by shadows.
Kari backed away to her own yard, watching the window for light, which did not trun on. Hesitated, atill, and listened. Only a slight pattering of rain which she now felt on head, face, hands. A sighing breeze among two stalwart pines in the back yard. She wanted to stay but was certain if she did she’d crash into their house and pull out Marta and march her to their own home. But Marta had told her nothing, did not want to go with her. Why would she? Recently new in the neighborhood. The marital fight an embrassment and, worse, worry about–no, fear– of the man waiting in the kitchen. It was so much more than a tiff.
The gravity of what had happened disturbed her; Kari felt caught by some twist of fate, mere chance, inserted into someone else’s bad dream.
“Kari! Where in earth did you go?” Charles stood on the porch and when he saw her turn to him, held out his hand. “Pizza isn’t much good now–we’ll have to nuke it.”
“I’m here! Oh, I was…talking…to Marta, sorry.”
The pizza respponded well to reheating. She smiled at his small jokes, nodded at the update of work and she thought of hurt and love, kindness and sorrow, trust and fear. And what did it really take to become a saint in this world, in such times? Was it ever possible–or simpler than imagined? Was it necessary, even? And, in the meantime, how did one live with pain, and knowing about others’ pain? Did you look at it, name it, or go on and still hurt with it?
How could she save Marta from any more? Had Kari surmised correctly her situation? Domestic violence. As if naming one sort of violoence separated it from others. It never told the whole story, she believed.
What was this Christmas meant to be about? Charity and pain?
It struck her as Charles lay his toasty, broad palm over her narrow, chilled hand: if not for shared compassion, it was all for nothing; if not for tenderness, it was all far less than should be. Cookies and lights and even sons visiting were smaller matters when considering greater human needs. And she’d about forgotten. That you had to rise up to meet life more, all of it.
That night in their wide, lumpy bed, covers heaped upon them, Kari and Charles embraced a long moment then fell asleep. Kari, to her surpise, did not awaken once until morning, a wide blue morning. As she turned to him and he opened one eye then another she decided she would tell him. Maybe they could figure something out; maybe they could offer safe haven. And Marta, being cared for, might find her way better. Maybe she’d learn that novice sainthood was not all it was cracked up to be, and that was alright.
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.”
“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…”
“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.
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!
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.
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.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson