Garage Living

As Clark opened the double doors to air things out, in rushed a gust of damp, dead leaf odor. He couldn’t win. He thought if he got busy with something his newly inflated misery would be deflated some. It had been six months since they had moved to this broad street with friendly looking houses but now all he could ever see was the rain. It had let up some in the last hour but it was still ever-present and irksome, like the projects he never got around to finishing. Like fixing the second-hand cabinet Mina wanted in their master bathroom. The door needed new hinges and a fresh coat of ivory paint–Milkweed White, she called it. Nothing taxing, so this chore was his goal for the day. But how can you be successful in such dampness? It’d take days to dry.

He reached a hand to the top of a door and stood there, the other in his left worn khaki pocket; a corner of his upper lip betrayed mild disgust. Anyone passing might think he was a well-bred fellow, a man who knew how to take charge–he was taller than many, for one thing, and moved or stood still as if he meant it–a man who had a decent job and was just taking a day off because he’d earned it and why not?

Instead, he was a man without a job, having been let go before they moved. They sold their house in California as soon as Mina got a far better job in Oregon. Life was supposed to be cheaper, more relaxed here, but he wasn’t so sure. The expectation, of course, was that he would get employment as soon as possible. But the insurance industry market seemed different here, though he frankly didn’t care about that line of work much. Yet he definitely was a resistant handyman/house husband. Mina went off to work as Nurse Midwife each morning, nearly whistling. But that was not different from before.

“Where is the stupid damned Phillips screwdriver?” He rifled through things on his creaky workbench; it was hiding under the previous owner’s old washer warranty and a handful of bent nails. He tossed it all into the wastebasket.

Clark could hear Mina tsk tsk over his language as he unscrewed four rusting hinges, cleaned the wood beneath them, then loaded the paintbrush from a newly opened can. She was quite proper in her speaking while he was tried to recall mannerly rules. But, then, they were so different in every way, it was a wonder that they had made it fifteen years.

Mina grew tired of the sunny palette of California while he had found himself utterly adapted after a month. She liked more variety while he liked the constancy so it followed that for him routine was appreciated and for her, spontaneity was enjoyed. Clark liked essential orderliness and she liked a little mess in every room “to make the scene more interesting.” People were not his thing, other than for the sake of business but give Mina a chance to greet a stranger and she would have them gabbing up a storm with her in no time.

They had one main thing in common: they loved each other. So they tolerated things, supported each other, had plenty of laughs, survived the spats trying to figure out how to manage life together. It just worked.

Until he lost his job, they moved and he could not find another good job and she was adapting without him. He wondered when she’d get sick and tired of his moping but so far she had just stayed her usual positive self and let him be.

He slapped more paint on the cupboard but wiped up drips before they made a worse mess. he did want her to be happy. Didn’t he? She always said that no matter what difficulty they were facing, she got to help new humans enter the world and that was enough happiness to tide her over. She took care of people and loved life because she had a gift for it. Clark cautioned himself to not puncture that happiness but why was it so great being born into this place, anyway? But Mina was smart and she’d had a hardscrabble childhood in India. She well knew the costs of life daily lived, the value of the smallest, random joy.

The rain drummed harder on the roof of the garage. He ignored it and stepped back from the cupboard to examine his work. Looked acceptable, much better than before sans hinges, which he’d add when the Milkweed White dried. he checked his irrelevant watch. He had hours to go.

“Hey, Clark, how’s it going?”

Neal the mailman didn’t expect a reply as he dashed through puddles to hand off the mail but Clark wanted to talk.

“No change, still a handyman. Painted a cupboard,” he said, pointing at it with a small flourish.

“Looks good, enjoy the free time–you’ll find work soon!” and Neal was gone, splashing his way to the Hudson’s’, a retired couple he never saw.

This rain, it’s like a curse that’s never-ending, Clark thought as he noted his sneakers were damp from the puddle Neal agitated. And that’s when the cat raced in, sniffed the newly painted piece and sat himself down. Clark frowned at it, sat across from it on his three legged stool and wished it would disappear.

******

By the time Mina arrived home he’s gotten acquainted with it. There was no collar or bell, ad nothing interesting about the cat other than it looked more like an oversized sleeked down rat with all that wet grey fur. In other words, ugly. Clark didn’t recall it being in the neighborhood and wondered if it would go its own way as cats do. It looked cold as it curled up on the cracked cement floor. He felt it, too, under his rain jacket, that icy damp that spread as cloud coverage got thicker and rain pummeled the earth like a beastly thing. No wonder the cat took a chance with him.

“Clark, you out there?”

Mina always parked at front of the house around the corner. She came through the kitchen door and found them sitting quietly. He had closed the doors to warm the space up some and was contemplating how to make it even cozier.

“What happened to the poor creature and why is it here?”

She squatted before it, still dressed in her blue nursing clothes, ebony hair swept up in a fat bun with tendrils escaping, her eyes lit with interest.

“It dashed in, it can’t take this winter deluge, either. He’s been drying out some, along with your cupboard.”

She stood up, studied the piece, then clasped her hands. “Wonderful! That will look so good when it’s up, thank you, honey!” and she turned and planted a kiss on his lips. She was not a cheek kisser with her husband; that was one thing he loved.

“Well, he?–yes, it’s a he–deserves a safe place to dry out. Maybe we should give it some milk or tuna fish–he looks famished. As am I.”

She bustled out and the quiet two gents sat a moment longer before Clark got up and left the cat a few moments.

“Were are you going with that?” Mina called after him as he returned with his idea in hand.

“Right out here, we need it here.”

And he plugged in the portable electric fireplace unit into the extension cord and then turned it on. It emitted a nice hum as the phony flames leapt up and heat was dispelled.

When Mina came to call him in for reheated beef and bean casserole and to feed the cat, she found them both dozing before the pleasant representation of a fireplace. Clark’s head was leaning against his work bench; she noted how much his sandy beard had grown in. Was it a bit sexy or was it becoming concerning? She knew he would get another job; if only he believed it, too. She opted for sexy, placed her hand on his shoulder and shook it so his eyes flew open.

The cat became fully alert and dove right into the tuna.

******

That’s how it started. The rain, being out of work, the painting of a cupboard and a drenched stray cat.

Clark set about fixing up his small garage with a vengeance, letting his vintage Fiat remain sitting under the maple tree. He sorted and tossed bits and pieces left behind by previous folks and swept the floor well, then covered it with sealant and waterproof paint of blue to mimic the ocean’s color. He put up pegboard and hung his tools, then purchased a better utility lamp. Their bicycles were hung on the walls until spring. There was even a painting on the vacant wall between rakes and lawnmower. He had found it at a second hand store, a tropical landscape he still sorely missed, and there was a beach shack on the shore. He thought about hanging fish netting from the rafters but Mina frowned at that.

The cat–whose picture he had posted all over the neighborhood–mostly settled in before five days had gone by. He ventured once or twice inside the house but preferred the garage or the outdoors, much to Mina’s relief and Clark’s acceptance.

“Is there to be a name or do we simply cat him ‘Cat’?” Mina asked.

Clark thought it over, giving a stroke to the skittish creature. He’d dried and fluffed surprisingly well; the thick grey coat was handsome beneath green eyes.

“Captain,” he said quietly to the cat who looked up at him, blinked once and looked away, then back at him, whiskers seeming to twitch. They held each other’s gaze a couple of seconds and thus, it was decided.

“Well, Captain, you’ve managed a miraculous thing for Clark and his garage, so welcome.” She worried that someone would come looking for him, but for now she’d take it as it came as long as he stayed outdoors. She wasn’t such a cat person, and who even knew he liked cats? They’d had cocker spaniels until the last was hit crossing their busy street in California.

“Let’s see if the weather surprises us this morning,” he said to Captain as he opened his garage doors.

“See you two tonight!” Mina called as she closed the garage door.

******

Bernie Hudson liked to keep an eye on things from his living room window. When he saw there were colorful lights being strung on Clark’s garage, he decided to get out and watch more closely. He moved slowly among slippery leaves, using his cane for better purchase.

“Hello, Bernie.” Clark, startled since he had spoken with the older man maybe a half dozen times, greeted him from the ladder. He was about done with the lights and they draped about the doors like small exclamation marks, brightly welcoming. The cat was curled up on a big flat rock now that the rain had stopped. Weal sunlight eked through the clouds and rested on its green eyes and Clark’s congenial face.

“That looks real good, I have to say. Some people make such a show of wasting electricity but this will be tasteful.”

Clark chuckled –he didn’t think of holiday lights as being fine decor–and climbed down, then entered the garage and plugged them in. The brilliant colors glowed under the mostly bare black limbs of trees, seemed to spruce up the homely garage. They admired it together, noted the other houses people had lit up over the week-end.

“You got a new cat, eh? Fine looking animal.”

“Oh, he found us, a stray I guess. I advertised that he was here but no one has claimed him this week. I decided he could stay–well, he comes and goes but  likes to hang out in my garage.”

Bernie followed him inside the warm space, leaning on the cane as he gazed about. It looked almost like a makeshift den, he thought, with two old ladder back chairs and a humming electric fireplace and a painting on the wall. A well used oval rag rug was aid across the floor, to his surprise. Hardly a regular garage. But pleasant.

“Mind if I have a sit? This leg gives me grief.”

“Not at all. I’m about to put on new hinges on a repainted cupboard for our bathroom.”

“Nice job,” he said, and took out his pipe. “Mind if I smoke?”

Clark hesitated before answering. he disliked cigarette smoke and cigars were overwhelming but maybe a pipe would be okay. He didn’t mind the old guy visiting, so why not?

“I like best my Paladin Black Cherry, do you know it?”

“No sire, can’t say I do, not a smoker, but go ahead.”

Clark worked in silence after that while Bernie smoked and grunted a little at the cat or over his sore leg and captain took his spot on the big braded rug by the fireplace. The aromatic scent wafted about the room  and since the excess escaped through the open doors, it lent a peaceful atmosphere. As time went by, Clark shared some about his past work and how he wanted something different, he was a very good numbers man. Bernie talked about his wife’s weak heart and their seven grandchildren and how he could get tired of the dark, wet weather, too, but this was home until they were too old and then who knew? Best to enjoy the days as they came.

“Clark, what have you rigged up here? How enchanting.”

It was the neighborhood’s community mediation specialist, Julie, with daughter Carrie in a stroller. The three year old reached for the cat but he got up stretched and sauntered off.

“Oh, just a project while I keep applying for more jobs… the house can feel small all closed up in winter and well, I like garages.”

“Yes, Troy would admit to the same. He’ll want to come and see this!” She waved and kept on.

He hadn’t recalled her ever talking to him. Julie lived kitty-corner from them; Mina had run into her once in the store, she’d said.

As darkness began to fall and the little lights quietly blazed, Bernie waved to someone getting out of a BMW. It was Terry Hansen and his wife, Melba. Clark gritted his teeth; they were both younger and lawyers; they likely would sneer privately at his little project. They’d ask whether he was working or not. Clark got busy fiddling at the workbench but on they came and looked things over as they chatted with Bernie and then his wife, who had hobbled over to find her spouse.

Mina opened the garage door, then carefully backed out onto a landing atop three steps. As she turned, two mugs of coffee in her hands, she stopped. She was amazed to see Clark chatting with neighbors they barely had been able to recognize. Everyone was so busy with their lives. But the visitors greeted her warmly so she offered them coffee.

“Sure, why not?” Terry said. “It’s been a grueling day. Mind if we sit and chat?”

Melba helped with coffee and then the women joined in, opening two camp stools on which to sit. The rain had started up again and darkness was thickening about the streets and houses but the glow of the Christmas lights sparked up the homely scene. Clark looked on from his three legged stool and made a mental note to bring out their set of folding chairs, and to buy a tall stool for himself. But he was a little baffled by all these people, how much they liked his funky garage. Maybe no one here had thought of such a thing before but its wasn’t entirely unheard of, he was sure. On the other hand, garages not renovated for, say, an extra bedroom, were meant for cars and tools, not people.

Once more, rain started up, sweeping across the street, yards, bushes, into the garage. Clark pulled the doors to a little, enough to see the curtain of water and let out the pipe smoke. They grew quieter, each in his or her own thoughts. Dinner time was also past due.

Terry drank the last gulp of his coffee, stood up and stretched his compact frame. “You play cards at all, Clark? Poker or a hot game of rummy? I’m thinking this would be a great place to play on an occasional week-end night, open the doors some for fresh air, fire up the fireplace unit and have at it. What do you think?”

“Oh no, another ‘man cave’ plan being hatched!”  Melba said in mock horror but she seemed to not find it so appealing.

“Keeps him occupied for now,” Mina said, smiling tolerantly at the chic woman. “I kind of like what he’s done, and so does the cat.”

“Here, here,” Bernie said with a lift of his pipe. “Cards are sorely missing from my life.”

Clark thought it over and found it full of possibilities. “I might like that idea…”

“Good, we’ll figure out a couple more players. Quite a nice set-up you’ve created. Unique, I have to say. Just what the neighborhood needed.”

Melba moaned good-naturedly and reached for Mina; they swapped phone numbers. “We need to get our own thing started,” she suggested.

After all had left and Mina ordered Italian take out, Clark puttered around until Captain came back. When the cat yawned and he figured it was time to pick up their food, he closed the garage doors and turned off the electric fireplace. He petted him twice and went into the house, leaving one garage door ajar. He figured if Captain wanted to leave he’d come back sooner or later; he sure knew his way around places and people. This could be a decent life for them both, at least for the time being.

 

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.

 

Song for Forgotteness

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Sometimes you wake up and feel like you’re in the absolute wrong story. The train bell is clanging on time, there are sirens sounding like a rescue to someone out there and a couple of robins that fought for and won a spot on the last anemic elm are making good on the phrase “for crying out loud.” That’s how it sounds to me, their bird blather, though it’s probably just me. I’m no good before the third mug of coffee. Still, this is that morning when waking up feels like an off-beat, failed response to a wrong cue.

I sit by the open window, my bleary vision drifting over the city’s fancier angles and spires, then rectangular testaments to cheap but everlasting. This has been my perch for eight years and the armchair fits me, a lumpy nest. The fluttering beige curtain slaps my face like a soft hand. I close my eyes, raise mug to lips and let tongue meld with the first acidic, bright savoring. Swallow, stomach lurching. A tinge of rum from last night still sours my taste buds and glazes the far reaches of digestion. But the breeze is alive with life. Other people’s, other places’. I can appreciate it nonetheless after the tenth swallow and a dried out cinnamon roll. I pick at it, inhale the air and its fragrant messages joined with others.

I’m not what you call a slob but I’ve been given to neglect lately. I feel the weight of unwashed hair on my head and neck. My apartment is strewn with nothing necessary or good. It’s been four weeks since the last job set me free so I can feel more poor. Not that it wasn’t expected; it was temporary, like most jobs of the last couple years. Still, nothing like the defining sound of a metal office door closing, and that envelope in hand feeling too light for even the little it bears within it. It’s a small throwaway life says the paycheck for all my sweat and muscle strain while on the line, soldering wires and impossibly tiny pieces that make up parts that go into bigger ones to ultimately get airplanes off the ground. Never mind, though; it wasn’t work I liked. But it was something, wasn’t it, not this sitting here and noting layers of grime on the sill and staring at deep scratches on the ancient wood floor and going blind while studying windows that wink at me from across the street.

“Rise and shine, son. Got to look for ten new jobs today?” my father says when he calls to see if I’m out of bed by eight.

“It’s like being in a swanky hotel, getting a wake up call every morning. Don’t you have anything else to do, like feed the pigeons? You don’t have to hustle, anymore.”

“No, I got my own life of leisure, my pension could send me to the Riviera but I prefer Omaha. You need to take more action, Kelly, not wait for things to happen.”

“Okay, thanks for calling, Dad. I’m going back into hibernation mode, so don’t call tomorrow.”

“It’s get up and go time, not snooze time,” he says as I hang up.

“Bye, love you, too,” I say, tossing my phone onto my all-purpose round metal table.

I’m actually concentrating hard on the phone, willing it to ring again so I can answer, then hear someone inform me I’ve won the jackpot, come on in for an interview. The resumes I’ve sent hit sixty-two yesterday but he wouldn’t even believe that. Dad thinks it’s still forty years ago, you can always find another gig; it’s a matter of beating the pavement. He never had to even beat the pavement. He was a supervisor at the same factory his father worked so when I turned it down he worried I was some sort of fool. But I wanted to go to community college. Then he bragged on me. He was right, though, as the measly two-year degree landed me right where I am. Associate of Arts, so not a big deal in the work world.

It’s nearly ten. Mrs. Havers is leaving her apartment across from mine. She goes in late because her boss is always late so why not? She does flower arrangements at the floral shop, takes two buses across the city and has done so for years. Her knock on my door is crisp, methodical, three raps and then a considered pause followed by a hard fourth. That’s her secret knock, she told me once, so I’ll always know it’s her.

I open the door, proffer a closed-mouth grin. This is not a morning to chat or to tell lies about my success. It’s a morning like an empty stage and I’m starting to wring my hands.

Her light eyebrows, drawn with delicate precision, flick up and down like wings. “You’re up but not yet motivated, I see.”

“How can I feel motivated? No one’s called since the temp agency. The guy wanted me to try detailing.”

She frowns.

“Cars, cleaning up cars,” I explain vaguely.

“Oh, that doesn’t sound like you.”

“No. And I just own a bike.”

“But nice to not be trapped in a factory.”

“Maybe.” I notice her smock. “New one? It has herbs all over it like you’re going to work in a natural foods cafe. Or a gardening center.”

“We’re now selling herbs, set up a stall on that bricked area in back. It looks good out there with potted pansies, a couple of director’s chairs in yellow. I used to eat lunch there, though. Mr. Kent’s trying it out since people ask for them now and then even though it’s a flower shop. Go figure. So I thought I’d get into the spirit, look the part. You think it’s too much?”

Her dyed harsh red hair is pulled back into a neat bun; her lips are peach, as are her cheeks. The smock looks like the rest of her, tidy and colorful. She loves plunging her hands in dirt, making the beautiful even better, giving encouragement when you deserve far less. I feel like I’ve known her my whole life, like the mother I no longer have. Mrs. Havers would be embarrassed to hear that; she thinks she’s a failure in that department as she had one kid who never calls. I know that kid is missing out.

“No, you’re ravishing, as usual.”

She flashes a mock beauty queen smile, then swings the sturdy cloth bag she calls a purse so it deliberately thumps my knee. “You need to look your own part, get out there and find that job!”

“The problem, Mrs. Havers, is that I haven’t been able to find my place. The play keeps going on without me, no intermissions, no clues about my character.”

She shoves a stray carrot red hair back in place. “My, you’re quite the talker–you trying to be Shakespeare? The clue’s practically staring you in the face. You figure it out.” A quick pat on my shoulder. “Now get in the shower. Have a decent day, Kelly.” She takes a few short steps, turns around before I shut the door tight. “You seeing Milt soon?”

I wave her off with a genuine half-smile.

I’m thirty-four, not a genius, not a winning replica of a dream son. I’ve worked since I was fifteen but after nearly twenty years it’s getting redundant. What do these people expect? If it isn’t my dad or the neighbors, it’s my ex-girlfriend, it’s the guys at the bar down the block. I’m there almost every night lately, the neighborhood haunt. Three of my buddies stop on their way home from work. We have a couple of beers, they give me tips on meeting women and getting jobs, they complain about their jobs and their domestic bliss and then they go home to wives and kids. I stay on awhile, drink some more. I know this isn’t good as Lou the bartender has been reminding me when I should head home. But why? Call it depression, call it burn-out blues, call it a rut but morning til night seems one and the same. I feel myself slipping.

Well, there is this: on week-ends I perform there along with other wannabes. Karaoke, but I get a lot of applause. I can sing a bit. It’s about blowing off steam, having some fun. I look forward to it more than most things. Pathetic when you consider that.

Then a couple days after seeing Mrs. Havers, Milt the bar owner asks if I want to play piano and sing on Wednesday and Thursday nights, says he thinks I might draw more business. I thought he was joking and it wasn’t funny. I’ve always felt a reluctance, more of a rawness in my throat with a strangling sensation in my chest when I try to sing out. With a few drinks I can ham it up with the canned music. Stumble home, mind empty.

“Right, Milt, thanks for that. Of course I’m fine with the other karaoke nuts–but let’s get real, it doesn’t really require anything, does it?” I slurped a third foamy beer. “But alone? Not so much. Once, maybe. Now…”

Lou joined Milt, his youthful blondness startling next to Milt’s overripe body, his shiny baldness.

“I caught that,” Lou said. ” Really? You can sing, can’t you hear yourself? You’ve got pipes.”

“Lisanne Havers says you play piano, too–you’ve got one in your apartment. Says you’re good.”

I turned around on my stool, surveyed the regulars. John came in the door, high-fived Todd whose real estate investments were paying off at last. I wondered what cases John had won or lost in court that week. I vaguely suspected they thought I was a loser bar buddy, one more lowly factory rat scrambling among the rat kings.

“I’d like to hear you with that piano. See if Lisanne Havers is correct. I generally trust her judgment.”

I knew Milt had a longtime thing for her, imagined she’d put him up to it. I swiveled back.

“I don’t do that sort of thing, anymore. It’s been years. Since I was twenty-three or so.”

He leaned over the counter and shook his shining dome at me. “Gotta try something else, Kelly, the factories don’t want you lately. If you’re any good, I’ll give you decent change for a couple hour hours a night to start–once you bring in just ten more paying customers. Then I’ll expect better, of course, and you’ll be better remunerated.”

“Why are you doing this?” I could feel a shift, as if a time warp machine was controlling the scene’s atmospheric pressure. I was going backwards and I was about to audition for my first bar gig. I flashed on that dump, then blinked.

Milt spread his hands out. “Why not? A favor to us both, maybe.”

He had no idea what he was asking of me. I left early and went home, sat by the window and fell asleep to rattling and buzzing in my head, the tracks of my past. But the next day his words felt still like a magnet I couldn’t repel. He had laid down a challenge. The prize might be more music in my life.

So tonight I’m going in with nothing but a memory full of old standards that my mother taught me. I’m like an old juke box with no control over selections. When I sit down at the piano, notes and chords will roll out from the piano, that’s how it works. My hands will pretend they belong to someone else; it’s easier that way. And if my voice gathers force I might have to leave, because then my secrets will fall out my mouth and all will know the truth. That I need this.

I haven’t really sung–not good singing, committed-to-the-music singing– since my mother passed. She was a genuine singer, sang in back street dives, then bigger jazz clubs around Chicago and Detroit before she married my dad after he got out of the service. They moved to Omaha; well, it was where his family resided. Why she did that, I don’t know. I was going to be born, so likely for stability–who can say for sure? But not pursuing her dream nearly killed her; she drank like a madwoman. She finally vacated our home when I was twelve.

St. Louis got Marie Whiting. And they got the better parts, her artistry. Chicago got the most and best, I read years later.

Dad instructed her to call weekly or not at all. She called sporadically, saw me a few times, tears and kisses, until he put a stop to it. It was too hard. She was travelling, getting known. She recorded four albums I never heard, even when I got older and might have. I’d heard her sing for us for twelve years and it was heaven but that was her in the flesh, not a CD. Then I caught her voice accidentally on the radio. It was a jolt of happy and proud–until bitterness took the goodness of it, a landslide undoing a pocket of green valley. Only Rona, my ex-girlfriend, has known who my mother is. I live far from Dad and Omaha folks who knew her once. Rona has kept all my secrets. I couldn’t find my way to reciprocate her decent love, not when I’ve had so little to spare. I wrote a song for her that one day I may share. Way late, but why not.

My mother died at her peak, the magazines said. Breast cancer. My long forgotten aunt called Dad out of backlogged anger, then regrets. He and I went to her funeral only because I begged him. We sat in the back. As we watched the crowds gathering it was too much, a sweltering pain. We slipped away and then I went numb. We never spoke of her again.

I wonder what Dad would think if he knew I still sing a little. He oddly enough tolerated it when I was a teenager. Sometimes left what he was doing to stand in the living archway as I played the piano we kept. But he never said a word. Music was her showing up in me; that might have felt good or bad, I never knew for certain.

Of course I want to perform, that’s what anyone would think if they knew Marie Whiting was my mother, if they knew I also play piano well. They might ask why didn’t I get on with it, why did I go to community college then work in factories? I mean, factories are fine, but I had to learn that work piece by piece, my will the victor.

Am I some mental health expert? No, but I saw one after she left us and by even then I knew what was going on. What was cutting me off, what I’d lost or could lose. So maybe I’ve chosen to just get by, to fit in with family and friends, avoid memories. To forge my own path. Save my dad from more hurt, too. I’ve tried to beat down the desire to give myself away to music. Like she did. And it took and took and left us reeling.

Music the wound maker.

Still, I answer when it calls me.

Tonight I head to Milt’s Bar and Grill to play a few songs, anyway. I’m tired of repeat boredom, the same views, same failures. I might as well change something. I’m running out of cash and ideas. I have to do something and something presented itself. What’s a song or two to me? I sing for nothing at the drop of a hat, hollow songs, pop tunes that mean little to nothing, music that allows escape for a moment. I can do that much–and I can do better if I have to, can’t I?

“Why isn’t this just a regular audition?” I asked him. “How come I have to play for the patrons now before we know I can do it?”

“It’s the audience who’ll decide, as usual. You aren’t afraid, are you?” He looked me up and down. “We can call it off. Just doing you a favor.”

“You’re a scoundrel, a nice one but…”

He crossed his arms, cocked his head at me. “What’s to lose, kid?”

So now I suck in a shaky breath, dive into beery darkness. The piano is left of the small stage. No spotlights are on, per my request. I’ll sweat it out in complete smoky obscurity.

“Kelly! Ready for good times? Man, glad I got here early!” Todd calls out as I thread my way through clots of early drinkers. He’s on his second beer already.

I lift the piano cover to reveal a very worn keyboard but know it is in tune. I asked for that much and Milt took care of it. It may sound less than sterling but my own upright is a third-hand instrument. I pull out the bench, sit unceremoniously. Stretch out my arms, flex fingers. Grab the drink on a chair beside me and sip. The pop music that had been playing over speakers goes soft, then silent.

“Ladies and gents, we’ve gotten together tonight to drink, gossip and enjoy music as usual. But tonight is an experiment, as some of you know. I’ve invited a guy up here whose reputation precedes him. I give you our star karaoke singer, Mr. Kelly Whiting!”

A nice smattering of applause with some hollering and hooting. From the corner of my eye I see Mrs. Havers but she is looking down. I have a sudden urge to check if Rona is sitting in front but no, she’d call out my name even now.

I’m not prepared for the moment when everyone awaits that first note. I think I’ll suffocate. Almost get up, leave–but then I start to hear the music in my head. If I want this to go the right way so that it is a minor means to a possibly bearable end, I have to dig deep, be honest with those listening. So I am still a minute or two more. It’s best to relax into things, let things unfold of their own accord.

The cue is in me and I hear it and take action.

I set my hands in motion but as if suspended above my body. See them touching stripes of ivory and ebony keys, my head moving to and fro as my body responds. A sudden rushing of blood in my veins, lungs pulling oxygen from the ordinary world. The static inside quits. The music spins, turns me inside out. Spills across the stage and covers the room, the people. I open my mouth as if I have something that needs to be sung and it happens. For me. Whole and intact, the song erupts as if it has been saving up courage, gathering up soul and body, finding the resolution that will change it all.

It all comes back to me like a kind of natural wonder revealed. The music lives.

The broken nights and days wrapped in self-loathing–they deserve no more of me. There is something more left, it stirs and releases the music, a surge over edges and rolling outward like an offering of what still survives. Joy amid longing.

Now a spotlight floods the stage and covers me. There are cheers. All I feel is heat, that combustion of energy let loose by the music. I am in the center of a storm and I am casting for hope. And note by note I am given ownership of the tune, riding a swell of crescendos, chords and runs like honey and fire, stony rivers and shooting stars that take me into mystery. My voice opens, reaches. I barely hear the rise of applause as I move out of my own way. But I’m getting closer to where I’m more certain lies deeper belonging. Can you hear me, Marie Whiting? Hear me and know I am your son.

 

Beacons for the Drowning

I, Marianne, don’t drink alone, I keep telling him. I don’t go to bars and hang out. What else does he want and why does he care? I’m aggravated all over whenever he brings this up because it is none of his business.

We’re sitting in the back yard for the first time in a month. Justin usually gets home too late to cross the street to my condo for coffee and scintillating conversation. Or he comes by with Thai take-out and enters a “no-talk zone” by flipping on my TV while I pretend to work on my laptop and eat. I watch him. He scrutinizes ads and each program, doles out critiques as if offering tidbits from his store of wisdom. Many of his remarks are accurate and funny. But he has a lot to say about my life when he decides it’s needed, too, even though he’s just my neighbor.

Justin’s decision to corral my alcohol consumption arises from old history, his one-time fiancee. She never knew when to stop. Anything. She spent money as if there was no end to it, wasted time on craftsy projects that came to naught, miniature houses collected until they crowded out items in her china cabinet. She even got swept up in reading marathons as if they were critical to her health, per his report. But he lost her to martinis, he insists. He doesn’t want that to happen to anyone again.

“You just chose the wrong girl,” I tell  him. “I drink a good microbrew and a well-made Seven and Seven.”

“You only seem to enjoy either after the fourth or fifth.”

“How do you know? You’re not around that much.”

“I see you on your balcony all the time. I’m hoping you don’t accidentally execute a swan dive from the third floor some night. You get loud, did you know that?”

“How can I get loud when I close the balcony door?”

“That’s the point–you close it when things get too boisterous during your Friday lonely hearts night of revelry or, in the past, during weekly parties. You’re drinking more by yourself, I think. I notice things.”

“You’re spying on me! I forbid it. You’re my neighbor, not the police, certainly not on some sobriety surveillance. And why don’t you come over and see for yourself, if you’re all that interested?”

He leans over from his lawn chair and puts his hand on my shoulder, gives me the barest shake. “Someone has to. You’re running amuck with booze.” He leans back and uncrosses his legs, feet splayed. “I’m not a partier, as you know. I like to come by when you’re being the true you.”

I roll my eyes. “Maybe you should be, loosen up. You work too hard. Your brain is on overdrive with no outlet.”

The sun is hovering over the horizon, casting light that bronzes his skin. Justin’s face is reminiscent of a sculpture to begin with, the assertive nose, enviable cheekbones, those eyes that can spark the dimmest room when he gets another idea. He’s the right person to work in advertising, a go-getter attitude paired with a great profile. I often don’t get him but I like him. I’ve lived on the block for three years to his five. Justin owns a narrow, tall, newer contemporary house wedged in between two big older ones. Perfect spot for an ad man, new overtaking the outdated.

I am, on the other hand, between jobs. I was a top travel agent until I had too many conflicts of opinion about how to increase revenue and run the place. Redecorate in bright colors and glass and steel (I like cutting edge, too), hire younger people, get multimedia going in the reception area, for starters. For my research and trouble, I got asked to vacate my office. I have an interview in two days at a competing agency. It’s my fifth interview in two months.

I stand up and look closely at the scarlet azalea blossoms. I pull one off, cup it in my hand. It pulses with life. The lilacs are even opening. I am grateful for this yard shared with three other condo owners. If I don’t get another good job before summer, I’ll have to get creative with my bills. Fear sweeps up my back, taking me by surprise.

“You don’t know what I’m up to here. Why do you care?”

“Because you’re a decent person and I like having you around here. Like to keep it that way.”

Despite the fact that we both like Westerns, brunch at Cady’s Cafe, daffodils over tulips and Moroccan mint tea, I find Justin a narcissistic annoyance at times. This is a good example. Is he on some neighborhood governing council I didn’t know was started? As if he has anything to say about who is his neighbor and how they can act in their homes. No one asked him.

“I’m getting a beer, want one?” I ask as I turn away. “If it’s a ‘no’, why not enjoy your own back yard?” I laugh as if it’s meant lightly.

He’s gone when I look down from my balcony. I’m disappointed despite intending to not be. But I don’t know what else I feel like saying to him tonight.

I sit down at the white wicker table and sip the beer I say I don’t ever drink alone. Of course I drink an occasional beer with my meals or when I watch a tennis match on television or get ready to go out to dinner with a new man I meet online. Or whiskey if I can’t sleep, maybe. Justin is the one who’s a bit out of the loop. He drinks mate and apricot or guava juice and sun brewed iced tea. He eats vegetables because they’re “attractive, colorful”: “Those attributes alone guarantee well-being!” And he runs every morning. Maybe he’s right because, yes, he looks good. He dates very selectively, only those he has already met. He has way too much confidence. What can he do to temper that?

The sun is lowering itself to the distant river that defines our city. The one I had to cross every day to get to my job. The job I was proud of and enjoyed, the place I worked for over five years, advancing rapidly. The boss was soon to retire. I thought this was a chance to introduce an innovative agenda into meetings. Everyone else seemed open. But HRH Claire Purcell found me “presumptuous, not properly seasoned despite some time here, and although a good contributor to our monetary health, not the one who charts the course, nor likely to in the near future. You can’t seem to rein it in, Marianne. It’s best you go now rather than later.”

The sun has nearly set and the skyline bursts into flamingo pink. The moon glows like an opal from afar. It all makes me feel lonelier than usual so I go inside, open the refrigerator and search the dreary contents. There are many more beer bottles than yogurts or aging strawberries in their glass container. I root around and find nothing that appeals or pairs well with beer, so take another bottle, then think better of it. I open a top cupboard. Grab the whiskey bottle.

Who does Justin think he is? His agency is in a part of town I can’t even afford to park in so why does he talk to me? He feels the need to caution me more each year. He once admitted to me he considered being a monk when he was in sixth grade after he went on a church retreat with his parents–every now and then I try to imagine this–and displays a surprising philosophical bent when he lets down his guard. But this does not make him a fine moral compass– not mine. At times I can’t stand his smug life. Contentedness. That he seems happy.

I open the whiskey bottle and find a glass and fill it to the brim. There. One glass of whiskey. That will do it, not too much, not too little.

At the stereo I find and put on a jazz vocalist, Diane Reeves, then start wandering around my well-earned condo. The glass is warm in my hand. I take a drink, whiskey burning its way down my gullet. I am shocked by its potency. Its savage purity. I almost never drink liquor without dilution with other ingredients. There is a reason for this. Liquor commandeers my good sense fast. But Justin’s nagging, my interview coming up, the fact that I haven’t heard from my best friend, Lil, since she went to Austin on holiday a week ago–it all conspires against my better judgment. I can still hear Justin talking at me, that steady-eyed concern. His patronizing.

I take a small gulp and slowly dance, feet light, languid, arms held out wide. The whiskey in the glass is golden and full of shadows in a dissipating light. I turn on the electric fireplace to add cozy atmosphere, then head to my bedroom. I take another drink, this one so deep that I sputter and cough. It doesn’t make sense that I am drinking right now but neither does having been fired when I’m good at what I do or that Lil didn’t ask me to go with her since I’m not working. That Justin has to make my life harder with his increased inquisitions.

The alcohol may be starting to singe my veins, as I feel hurt abound, deep under my skin, under these musings.

I shed my sweats and want to play dress up, a thing to do when bored. I open my closet and rifle through the dresses and suits I no longer wear, the sweaters that need to be put away from winter. At the left end of the long closet is summer clothing. An ankle length blue and white sundress grabs my attention. It’s still a bit chilly but I put it on. I go through boxes of shoes, tossing them here and there until I find sandals. Pick a pair of thongs with silvery leather and beaded flowers that slip right on my feet.

I study my long brown hair in the bathroom mirror, take a drink and pick up a brush. I try to count to one hundred strokes when there it is, the smoothing glow of whiskey mixed up with the soothing motion of the brush. I, Marianne, sing a lullaby barely recalled, one that came from my mother on a good day or a children’s movie, I don’t know which, but it is sweet and tender on my tongue, takes the sting out of whiskey. I have another drink, dance with my reflection. I might have been a ballroom dancer instead of a travel agent selling tours to China and New Zealand. I might have gone to college in Paris. I might have been the girl who got the boy of her dreams. Found a way to save my mother. Made a fortune from my big smile before the accident changed all.

It is always a mistake but I need to really look into the mirror. There, the deft scar above my brow, the way the jaw hints at another sort of chin taken from me. The teeth that are implants, poor copies of mine. Her face, my mother’s, vanished beneath a blanket after the accident. I saw her feet slip from under, one snug in its mahogany leather loafer, one bare, twisted and bloody, the gold ankle bracelet still hanging on.

I put my right hand on the eyes in the mirror. My face is cut in half, then fingers slide down, down. I don’t know who this is, this stricken woman in a cheerful sundress who lifts glass to mouth, glass to mouth until glass offers nothing more. But later, maybe, if I sleep, when I get up and try to start over. Brave reality again.

The walk to the living room is far and tiresome but the fireplace draws me. Duskiness creeps in from my balcony door. It matches my mood. I must do something. The door swings wide and I lean against the balustrade. Where is he now I have something to tell him?

“Justin!” I call, but he doesn’t answer. “You are correct! The drinks after the first get better!” I raise my empty glass to his chic house, then toss it to the grass below where it rolls over, a sad, empty vessel. “Now leave me alone.”

Dark is transforming all, blurring things as I stumble inside. Get the bottle. Carry it to the couch before the fire. Stop thinking. Mouthfuls of medicine, bravado swallows taking me from this world, its lofty pretensions, dangerous mistakes. Down the magic rabbit hole on a slippery slide. The fire speaks in sly hisses, grim crackles.

The whiskey talks louder. Drink up, my friend. So I do. Try to submerge every inch of my life.

“Marianne! Let me in.”

Dull throbbing drumming underwater, muffled foreign tongue and a crash far away from me swimming this ocean of cheap whiskey.

“Open up, Marianne! I’m breaking in if you don’t get the door now!”

I feel nothing. Zero state, ahh. No, wait, wait. A hand on arm, then arm underneath, laying me lengthwise on sofa. A boat on this forgotten sea. I float. Sink.

“Marianne. Please. Don’t do this, anymore. Can’t you see where this ends up? Do you insist on proving me right?”

Even if I wanted to speak, I cannot. My lips, sealed with whiskey, my mind saturated with whiskey, that first beer somewhere at the bottom of it. Want nothing but the sleep of ruinous paralysis.

“I can’t spend more time with you if you drink, Marianne. You know I don’t drink. I lost Estelle from drunk driving and you lost your mother….stop doing this. For you, for me.”

This boat, rocking arms hold me…long ago a rocking chair I rocked through abyss of loss until I had to say good-bye to her my mother too young both in our blooming had to find my way alone so lost.

Weeping, an echo from long ago, another place, a passageway through space, my face burns at a touch, breath is razor ragged, this is the terrible place of love gone and longing so I open my eyes to find out who is crossing here this dam overcome.

Justin is rocking me now. He speaks to God, doesn’t he? Monk Justin. Cries, hand on forehead smoothing back my hair. Speaks my name. The drag of whiskey lets up in my blood a second so I can breathe, wincing from vapors of alcohol, forgotten tears. Fire flickers, his insistent voice flares like a beacon, a way out or back, maybe home.

“Hey,” I whisper. “Okay, okay…”

Somehow he knows it means: I surrender; I give up, will get help. Because he stays, is there in the morning, minds my business with me as I retch and grope and sip clean water. Justin the ad man, the profile that undoes all women but me, the little boy who felt called to God. But this is my doing. I have to figure things out. This time I must create a trail back to myself. I will believe.

 

Queen Sheba Steps Down

Photo by Robert Frank
Photo by Robert Frank

The place felt like an oven already so Hugh put the tea kettle on one of the three working burners and adjusted the flame. He was making iced tea without being prompted for once. Sheba was still in bed, the sheet pulled up to her eyebrows. It wasn’t likely she’d rouse before noon.

He looked out the window to check on their daughter. Delilah was swinging from the maple, her tanned bare legs stretched toward the next lowest branch so she could push her toes against it. Sheba thought the swing should come down since a neighbor boy fell and lost consciousness a second. But no one blamed anybody but the boy. He’d been stupid enough to stand up and try to jump off at the highest point. Trying to impress Delilah, Hugh guessed. Lucky he didn’t break anything.

“There’s a clue of what’s to come,” he’d said, “when Del grows up. There’ll be bodies at her feet.”

Sheba had pulled back her still-luxurious brunette hair, piled it on her head and stuck a pencil in the topknot.

“Yeah, been there, had that situation.”

“Don’t I know it. Still true, honey.”

Hugh found the second-best glass pitcher, its red and yellow painted flowers half-erased by years of handling. Sheba would complain when she saw it, not vocally but an eyebrow raised high and lips pressed hard in distaste. She preferred the clear glass and gold-rimmed pitcher with matching glasses. They each had gold running along the edges, worn but visible.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “They were fully golden once and they still look pretty filled with iced tea, lemonade or Boone’s Farm.”

The tea kettle started to shriek and he grabbed it fast so as not to wake Sheba. There weren’t enough regular teabags so he rummaged and found a couple stray mint bags back of the cupboard. He sure hoped she’d be happy with it, not soured by it not being just right.

The front door opened then banged shut. He shushed her.

“Daddy,” she whispered, “can I go to Thea’s for a blue popsicle? She’s waiting outside and it’s dripping down her neck.”

Hugh handed Delilah a kitchen towel and shooed her out. “Come back soon.”

“I want to play with her Barbies. She got a new one that can ride a bike!”

“Come back and we’ll see how mom is when she gets up.”

Delilah came up to him and put her arms around his waist to give him a squeeze. He had one hand on the pitcher and the other on the kettle but he let go of the kettle and patted her back.

“Go on but bring back the towel after Thea wipes her neck.”

Del ran out and the door slammed again. He’d have to fix that today. He heard the girls giggle, then Del tossed the towel inside.

“What’s going on? Not yet ten and I’m yanked out of dreams by the sounds of a scream and a bang. Can’t even get enough rest around here. I’ll have to check into Dawn’s Motel just to get fifty winks’.”

Hugh glanced at her and got back to work. Sheba pulled her filmy pink robe about her and shuffled to the round table by the window. She pulled the plastic shade down. Massaged her head as she lowered into a chair.

The steaming water in the pitcher made the tea bags pop up and float. Hugh stirred them with his index finger, then put the pitcher in the refrigerator.

“You’ll thaw everything in the freezer doing that. Steam’ll rise right up and get through cracks, make the frozen chicken legs soft.”

“Bad headache again?”

“When do I not have a headache? It’s my bunched discs, that’s all. Ever since that night….”

A couple flies had sneaked in so he hung another sticky fly-strip above the table after he took the old one down, examined the tiny bodies it had collected since yesterday morning–eight–then threw it away. She watched him as he poured a cup of coffee, then carried it to her. He waited to see if she was going to ask for iced tea, but when she didn’t he took a big breath, let it out and opened the door.

“Close the door tight or we’ll have a gang of flies. We’ll have to move out just to give them enough room.”

He almost laughed, relieved she could still joke, then closed the door behind him, gently so it didn’t jar her.

She thought he said something but it got lost in the hot, dry wind. A heaping spoonful of sugar melted into her coffee. One more night and then to the hospital for tests. MRI, blood tests, things she couldn’t even pronounce. It might be something scary or it might be just her neck whacked out-of-place, which was bad enough.

Still, she was being tough on Hugh. The pain had eroded her will and patience. It wasn’t his fault she’d been mugged. Took her license, one good credit card and forty-eight bucks. He hadn’t even been at the bar with her. Rarely was. He was a steady man, a caring father, worked hard as any man could. But for too long a time now she couldn’t get enough distraction out there. Not so much cheap drinks, but all the activity–pool, darts, music and dancing, the passing flirtations. The attention. Years had flown by. Here she was, brushing shoulders with forty. Paying the price for self-neglect. Neglect of him. She should have left long ago, spared them her impulsiveness. The misery that came of it. But he still wanted her there. She needed him. The wanting had settled a bit awhile ago.

Sheba looked around. They all kept it clean, tried to fix things as they broke. There were touches of better days. The sofa sleeper, brass lamps and a fancy glass vase filled with paper roses. She was proud of her embroidered pictures on the walls, had won a blue ribbon at the country fair for her second-ever quilt. This hadn’t been the plan, any of it. Not the trailer, not the jobs at Hargood’s Lumber that were promising but amounted to less than she deserved. Not the bars. She’d thought she’d do more, be better. Hugh was twelve years older and showing it finally. He still had the sweetest smile, a kindness she craved. He had a touch with the kids. And her. He was one in a million just born good.

“Hi Mom,” Delilah said as she ran in, pulled out a cupboard drawer, then stepped on it so she could get a clean glass from the dish drainer. She filled it with water.

“Is your head better? I got a blue popsickle. Thea said they have a big box in their freezer so any time I want one to come over.” She smiled, took a big gulp and sat at the table.

“My head is fussing at me, but not as mean as yesterday. What have you been doing, Del? Come, let me fix that ole crown.”

Sheba bent over her, the robe falling open so frayed silky tank top and shorts showed. Her skin was pale and tight against her bony legs and chest. She smelled like Jergen’s mixed with sweat, just like she should. The crown was crooked, held in place with bobby pins that Delilah had tried to get in right. When it was straightened, Sheba smoothed back her daughter’s flyaway hair and gave her a fat kiss on her forehead.

“You’re my heart, Delilah Corrine. Ever since your sister left for the city you are all I’ve got and boy, am I lucky.”

Delilah pulled back and squinted at her mother, the same one who’d yelled at her last night to sit still and not make a squeak until bedtime. They’d been watching a talent show. Her mother wasn’t so easy to be around sometimes, that was for sure.

Sheba held her by the shoulders. Looked her up and down. “I know I forget to tell you that, but it’s still true. You have my old crown because you absolutely deserve it.”

Delilah sat down again, hands atop the sparkly curves. “I forget I have it on. I didn’t let Thea try it out. I’m careful. One day I’m going to get my own, anyway, you’ll see.”

“Get your own what? Popsickle truck? A house without bugs?” 

Hugh caught the door before it banged shut and sat at the third chair.

“Naw, my own Summer Festival crown. When I’m sixteen. Like mom did.”

“Well, that’ll be a day to celebrate,” he said. “I won’t hold you to it but I’ll look forward to it if it happens.”

Sheba looked at Hugh funny and he returned her gaze. Her wide-spaced blue eyes were red-rimmed, bleary. The imprint on her cheeks left by the sleep mask looked like deep wrinkles but the fact was she just had a few lines on her forehead that deepened when she was mad and laugh lines that he loved to kiss when she’d let him. Her hair…ah, he loved her hair even when it was a tangle, even when she couldn’t fix it, how it cascaded aorund her shoudlers and flew away from her face when she was working around the place. At work she looked great, confident, head high like a lovely queen, the way she did when he first set eyes on her. But mostly he loved that she knew him–his stubborn streak and forgetful ways, a penchant for quiet and addiction to old kung fu movies–and took him as he was. He tried to do the same.

Delilah saw the signs–soon he was going to say silly things, forget she was there–so she slipped away after she found her Nancy Drew book.

“I want to say how sorry I am for disappointing you, Hugh.” He shook his head. “No, really. All this headache mess has me taking stock. A little late. I’ve got to tell you I’m done with foolishness. Thinking I’m high and mighty. Just because I was good-looking once and was told I’d go far I got this attitude, like I’m owed something. I don’t know why you put up with me. I’m not the woman I wanted to be…”

She never cried. She railed against things or got stoney or got busy. She drank a little too much, went dancing. Sheba was not born to be a whiner, not even when Hugh was laid off for two years now, not even when the doctor said there might be something else going on besides a bad knock on the head. Now, a tear escaped.

He watched it roll down her cheek as if it was on its way to somewhere far away but didn’t want to go. He reached out and touched it so it rolled onto his own skin. Sheba let more out and he just waited, surprised.

Delilah peeked around the corner and saw what looked like tears. She crept up to her mother, took off the crown, then placed it just so on her mother’s head.

“I crown you best mom of all the world. Ta da and amen!”

Sheba stopped crying and her shoulders quivered with laughter. She took the crown off and set it on the table. Sunlight barely lit it up, it was so old.

“How about we just be who we are right now? Just leave it at that?” Delilah looked puzzled, unconvinced, but sat in her mother’s scrawny lap.

Hugh slapped his thigh and stood up. “I’ll add an amen to that. And I’ll make lunch. We can eat at the picnic table in back. May as well relax. Tomorrow is another day, a long one for mom.”