Eben Waiting

imag0762-1

On the morning he left there was a gathering across the street. Four women and two men sat in a circle by the fountain in front of The Manor apartments. He watched them talk and drink coffee, thinking about his trip. Annie had been cold on the phone when she said good-bye last night. They had argued, same old things, money, their future. He was currently working the counter at a deli while he looked for a better job. She wasn’t thrilled about that.

He was standing outside his place waiting for the taxi. Early, he was always early. To be late was to toy with the outcome of things and that was not a good idea, he’d found. You had to have a plan and stick to it whenever possible. Besides, if he’d stayed in his apartment Uncle Josef would talk him senseless. He’d welcomed Eben after he lost his good legal assistant job to downsizing. Now that his nephew was back on his feet the decision had to be made whether or not he was going to stay or move out. Annie was in Portland; Eben in Seattle.

“Well, you could marry her,” Uncle Josef had advised. “The girl has a career going, she’s pleasant. You won’t regret marriage–it’s said to mellow into a very comfortable thing. With the right one, of course. It’s pitiful that it’s just you and me here. Should have married Jane Hartner back in 1980. Do you think we could find her on the Internet?” He sat back and eyed Eben. “Your trip may sort this out.”

Eben pondered the situation. Annie had a way with words that could split him into little pieces, then put them back again before he knew what was happening. It made his head spin. He wondered if she was trained to do that in her therapy work or if it was just a defect. He couldn’t be sure; she was generally nicer although she seemed to find him annoying more and more. Not that he had an altogether sterling character. He tended toward introspection and that could be excluding of others. Of her, she noted often. He was particular. He liked documentaries primarily and hated anything made with eggs, beans or pork. He lined up his books as though they were on exhibit. Right up until June he wore cotton socks to bed. He also liked to play bocce once a week or so in good weather which he saw as an asset but she hadn’t decided.

Eben leaned against the wall. He tried to not think about the visit and watched the neighbors across the road. He only waved at them occasionally. They appeared to be an extended family.

A child popped up from the group. He was maybe seven, eight, a wild one– you could tell that from the way he looked: like a wind up toy that never unwound. He was alert to everything the adults were saying, leaning forward, climbing on one lap, then another, popping up between legs and elbows. He was wanting more attention though the adults were engaged in serious chatting. One man yelled at the boy to slow down, so he stood stock still a few seconds. The woman next to him lay her hand on his head, then he zoomed toward the street and zigzagged back to the fountain. He jumped right in; it was a hot day for fall.

“Marty, what are you thinking, getting your new shoes and pants wet?” the man berated him, scooping him up. He took him inside before he could wriggle away.

Eben could hear him screeching and he flinched. Loud, unhappy sounds were not to his liking. He enjoyed his aging painted turtle and Uncle Josef’s aquarium full of fish, silent, fascinating creatures that enjoyed lives of unimpeded ease. Eben did not look forward to the two Yorkshire terriers Annie had gotten when he’d moved out. They liked to bark at nothing, claimed her lap and snapped at him when he tried to be friendly. She said Eben wasn’t around enough to expect friendship but the truth was, he didn’t look forward to adding them to his small social circle.

The taxi was late. He was about to call when Marty came flying down the stairs again. Red shorts now, no shoes. At the edge of the fountain he dangled his hands in the water. The adults were laughing and sharing food, muffins Eben thought, mouth watering.  They took out cards and moved under the shade of a giant black walnut tree. The man who had yelled dealt them swiftly and they all concentrated on their hands. The boy was whipping up the fountain water with his hands. Then he looked across the street at Eben.

Eben looked down the road. No taxi. Marty looked both ways, then walked up to him, dripping.

“Hey, you going on a trip?”

Eben didn’t look at him. “Yes.”

“Family? Work?”

“No.”

The boy fiddled with the suitcase tag and read his name.

“Eben Hanson.” But he said it like “eebean”, drawing out the vowel. “E-bean?’

“Eben. Short ‘e.’ And you’re getting my things wet.”

“It’s just water, Eebean.”

Eben looked at Marty then. He had striking hazel eyes and freckles tossed across his nose. He was grinning and there was a blank spot where a front tooth should be.

“Well, who? A girl?” He giggled and poked Eben’s side with his wet index finger, making him jump.

“Shouldn’t you be with them?” He pointed at the group.

“They can see me. They know Josef. I see you come and go.”

“Really?” This surprised and irked Eben, that a child would know details of his schedule.

“If you have a girl she ain’t heeere!”

Eben sighed. Maybe if he just told the kid his itinerary he would get lost. “Well, I’m off to see her in Portland for four days.”

“Marty! Don’t bother our neighbor!” The big guy waved the boy back.

Eben pulled his suitcase to the street. “That man your dad?”

“Naw. Uncle. Don’t have a dad. I have a big family, though.”

Eben could hear the taxi. Marty tapped the suitcase, then Eben,  damp fingers cool on his arm.

“When you come back, you should play cards with us. You don’t have to be alone.”

“Thanks.” Eben imagined himself playing cards with them and smiled.

Eben nodded to the taxi driver. Marty looked back at him when he got to the other side of the street and waved hard and fast, as though all his energy was exploding from his small hands. Eben got into the back seat, then waved back. Marty climbed into the circle of adults, disrupting the card game.

On the way to the airport Eben thought about Annie and her intelligent insults and his quieter ways and he knew already. He was not moving back in, ever. There was time to find the right one. Someone he might have a family with one day. He wondered if Uncle Josef figured that out. Josef and Marty, they both knew a couple things.

Staying Alive: an Interview

Zoo Day and Farmer's Market-City pics 023

“So, alright, you have me sitting in a long-past-its-prime chair in a monochrome room and I am supposed to be cooperating so that you can do the work that is in my best interest I am told, but really is all this necessary again? I didn’t agree to come here to talk to you. I don’t even know who you are. I had no choice. I came because it was the last-ditch chance, his way or exit center stage! ‘Get out’ he said! I mean, I nearly…”

Mim’s inhales deeply, then fills the air with a few staccato breaths. She is hurting everywhere, toes to brain.

Lane leans forward. “It seems you didn’t really want to go, not like that. And you came of your own will today.”

“Yes, well, it isn’t that simple. It was a matter of giving in or getting out. I mean, leaving the family. Like, settling for a life on the street, likely, can you imagine? I can’t. He says he wouldn’t throw me out–how would it look to his firm, our neighbors?– but, hey, it has happened to better women than me. I mean, I’ve seen them out there and they are so sad, terrifying. But, then, look at me!”

The clock on the wall is simple, inconspicuous, but the ticking is like a stuttering shout. Mim, her new client, shifts side to side then pulls her shoulders back, finger to mouth so she can chew off a hangnail.

Lane sits still. In the corner of her eye she can see through the window, rain slashing across the parking lot two stories below. Her office is warm but the fortyish woman across from her shivers, folds her arms tight over her white shirt. Lane notes her shoes. They are expensive grey and black flats, slim and scuffed.

“I mean, it’s not like this is the first time. This is number three. Pretty soon I’ll be able to write reviews of all the treatment centers in northwest Michigan. I wrote a column you know. Used to. There can’t be that many more rehabs for me to check out. All the same in the end.” She exhales a guttural sigh that sounds like disgust. “So, yes, I have arrived once more, this year in New Times Center on Lake Michigan. I have to say it looks good out there.” Her good leg bounces. “It would possibly look gorgeous through the magic filter of gin.”

“You’ve had a lot of experience at this. You’re sober five days. It will look better in a week, two weeks. You know this already.”

Mim looks at Lane hard a few seconds but the woman doesn’t blink. Here eyes are moist, very blue, quiet. She is so still Mim wonders how she does it, listening to all the rantings.  Does she go home and have a tall glass of wine while she eats on her deck? Does she have to build a fortress around her before she goes to work? Or is she someone who gets it, this special sort of hell?

“I wonder what I must look like from the other side of the room, from your chair. It looks no better than mine but it must be a heck of a lot more comfortable. I know this isn’t a sabbatical trip I’m on, not a resort where I can kick back and have a good old time. But it isn’t the road to paradise, either. I don’t have to love it, find it new or fascinating. Because it is not.” She wets her lips, pushes her short hair off her forehead. “It is NOT.”

“It’s another try at sobriety,” Lane says, “a chance taken.” She pauses. “On something more. For you.”

200236712-001The clock, rain, the steamy warmth of the room: they have a dreamy effect and  contour Lane’s mind. Mim’s words, edged with gold–“It is NOT”–line up across her mental screen, perilous, brash. All those negatives over the years have become like so many glass words Lane collects, then breaks apart and rearranges with each new client. They create something else or do not succeed.

She picks up her mug of tea. The client doesn’t respond, only watches rain streaking the window, eyes narrowing as though trying to focus on one thought, a moment, the certain feeling that might tell a whole story, the truth, in one sentence. Lane knows it is hard. She sees it takes all Mim can summon to sit there and be seen like this when her nerves feel like they have shark teeth and her heart is a chattering fool. Lane knows it is not yet anything like the promise of well-being the tri-fold brochure intimates. The woman is to smart to see how she runs in circles. Yet. There can be change. There is a stirring in Lane’s chest like a small door opening, then: a steady pulse of compassion.

“I do want life to be different. I want my son and daughter to race up to me on visiting day, feel absolutely sure I am going to be strong. Kind. That is what I want to be: so much kinder than this.”

Mim brought the tender finger to her lips again, but she took it into her other shaky hand. She laced all fingers together so they formed a basket she peered into as they rested in the hollow of her lap. “But I don’t know what I’ll find if I stay sober. I don’t have any idea what I will discover inside, what sort of real woman is there…”

Ticktickticktick. Time slinks away as rain’s counterpoint beats an ancient drum on earth and brick walls. Mim’s fingers unthreading, shoulders sagging forward. Her face is like an underside of the moon, not fortuitously revealed but marked by a terrain confused by misinformation and the inroads of experience. Alcoholic eyes, burning wells. An etching of persimmon scars marches up her jaw line to her temple, slides across her covered, crooked nose. Her left eye is still circled by the palest velvety purple. Her lips move but nothing is let go. Hands fly to mouth, to eyes, to face.

Lane sits forward. “Life will find you, has found you even now. All you need do is be present with it. You have time here, a safety net. I’ll be here while you puzzle out the clues.”

Outside, Lane catches sight of a bony, bespectacled young man looking in the narrow window of the office door. He cranes his neck to see Mim. Crutches in the corner. Cast on her leg. She sees him staring and turns away. He feels sorry for her, her face damaged like that but he is much more angry. He might have been her, he might have ended up like her, but no. Did. Not. Happen. With a forceful push of the wheels, he propels his wheelchair down the hallway.

Mim stares at the empty rectangle of glass. “Lane, look, I can’t promise anyone anything. I don’t even know if I will stay.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“You came today.”

“Yes. I did.”

Lane nods and almost smiles. Mim feels done. She stands up with difficulty. Lane watches her hop to the crutches, steady herself. When her client stands a bit taller she crosses her office and opens the door. The hum of life flows down the corridor, a stream of possibilities. Mim looks over her shoulder, eyes like two dark stones turning and shining in light, and steps forward. She wants to smell the wet earth without alcohol numbing her senses. She wants to smell the rain.

DSC02113

Gleaning Gifts of a Dream

DSCF2192

Last night I was a moody but confident, passionate but restrained, weary but adventurous sixteen year old again. I was talking to a roomful of people from high school. We had played together in each other’s yards and attended public schools together for many years. My mother was at my shoulder and noted one young man in particular and said something about an event that had occurred. I reminded her I had figure skated with him although he was a far better speed skater.  A sweet affinity was shared with the boy with the honeyed voice; we cozied up on the couch.

I stepped back and examined myself: auburn-brown hair touched with gold, bangs falling over one eyebrow, blue eyes peering out. The style was a modified style based on Twiggy’s, that famous beanpole model from the sixties. I had more curve and muscle. My skin was pale, smooth, softer than seemed reasonable. A smile swept over my face, light and breezy. It was good to be there that moment.

Then the scream of the alarm grabbed me from my dream with such force it felt like being pulled from deep waters–but I didn’t need or want to be rescued. I fell back. The dream arose once more, replete with familiar faces, voices entwined in easy conversation. The contours of living and dining rooms came alive; shadows shifted as bodies rearranged themselves. I sensed food being prepared in the kitchen: a party underway.

My childhood home, a sturdy yellow and turquoise bungalow. I crossed over the foyer, lingered by the baby grand piano, admired the dining table set with flowers. I glanced at the buffet which held a stack of mail, colored glassware, another vase with bright flowers. Music issued from the stereo, something I could not quite define. Was it classical? Did my gentle, dignified father put that on even though I wanted Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez? Then the den (a bedroom in earlier years), television room where a TV did not exist before 1963 because there was no time for it, no interest, really. There was always something else to do; my family got engaged in whatever required attention most. Usually music-making or studying.

Upstairs, two good-sized bedrooms and a bath. I paused on the landing, stared a long moment, then eased my way down. I sat on the third from bottom step. This was the best vantage point for many years, the place that was central to all first floor activities. I could hear most conversations, construct the scenes. It was the place from which I first discerned the fabulous, puzzling adult world. A spot where I used to cry without drawing attention, make a playground for a Barbie, and years later wait for the telephone to be free so I could talk with my best friend or maybe, surreptitiously, a boy. Where all five children waited for the door to be opened to Christmas wonders. I could nearly smell cinnamon rolls and sausage.

Out of some interior space floated my name, the nickname of my childhood. I entered the bright living room. My mother’s laughter became more quiet, then faded away. I glimpsed her fine-lined face haloed by the famous silvery white hair. The room remained filled with those I have known and nearly forgotten but no one is in a hurry. I wondered how long we would stay in this golden place.

Soon crows make a ruckus that punctuates city traffic. I sit up quickly, my eyes not yet seeing, my mind cloaked in secret things, unworldly things. Thin light is caught inside corners of the bedroom and so defines angles as I find my way back to this spot in time. I see the blue differently and realize for the first time it is the blue of my childhood room, before it was lavender. My heart is a cocoon of peace.

I can hear my youngest daughter’s voice. Laughter as she packs up to return to grad school. Her fiancé is washing up a few dishes as they talk.

After greetings and coffee, we pour over a bridal magazine and I know this is going to happen; she is getting married. And I want to tell her: “Grandma came to visit me. She misses you and longs to be at your wedding.”

Instead–there is not time for the tears that will find us–I tell her, “I had a dream of being sixteen. My face was open and so young, soft. There were many people at your grandparents’ house. It was lovely…”

I was married once in a chapel, the first time. I was more than a decade younger than this daughter and choices did not include quite finishing college. I was in love and unprepared, before much understanding was captured from life’s wily snares. I had ached to be wise, braver than brave as a youth, then as a young woman. But now I am a woman surrendering little by little to this ebb and flow of life, growing older. It is not arduous. Much like my mother was, I am filled with relentless curiosity, hope tinged with bittersweet yearnings and a reservoir of love that wants to transform discouragement and pain as well as celebrate triumph. All with a tale and an embrace, duly witnessing and making note of life in all its cantankerous and exceptional fullness.

I take a picture of my daughter and future son-in-law and there are my mother’s grey-blue eyes. Her crooked, sweet smile. Think: Well, here we are, Mom. This and much (you know how much) more to come.

DSCF2190

IMG_2321

The Enchantment of Fairs

old_fair_photo

If closing day of the fair had been the day before, Marisa would’ve been on the divan sleeping off the hang-over left her from their monthly card party. It would have passed her by. Today her energy returned and a better viewpoint with it. She made Toby what he wanted for breakfast (two eggs over easy, two pieces of bacon and a bran muffin with blackberry jam), waited around to see what he was up to, then waved good-bye from the side door.  He had promised to work on his best friend’s car and seemed to have forgotten the fair altogether.

That was the first surprise of the day. He always remembered it. He hated it, said his mother had vanished when he was eight because of the damned fair. It came into town; she left with it. Marisa didn’t understand his reasoning; the woman was obviously unhappy or she would have stayed. No adult used a fair as a reason for running away, not since the turn of the century. But to abandon her child was brutal. It was something that had drawn her to him, a well-hidden brokenness. Her parents didn’t understand it; she was level-headed. He had a need far greater than hers. Studying nursing was just no match for mending hearts, so that was that. It had worked out. When she felt restless, his love was a magnet.

But she might check out the fair even though it was not an event Marisa particularly enjoyed. She had memories of the cows as encountered as a child, their dirty, dusty smell, their breath on her legs. The horses were excellent though they had a terrible ability to stare her down, their gaze fierce then disinterested. She imagined them jumping the gates, then taking her along with them and this idea thrilled her more than their beauty. The worst of it was the pigs and the Ferris wheel. They both promptly made her gag even though her father had encouraged her. The crowds were unruly, the food inedible her father agreed. They liked the quilts, science experiments and horse show. Her mother, of course, never went. She couldn’t handle the odors and cacophony, both triggers for mean if infrequent migraines.

Maddy sat on the stoop, chin in hands. She found herself wondering lately if her mother could have finally accepted that she married Toby. If she would berate her for not having children or not being in school.

Her family was one of a handful that lived in the hills, in fact, one from which you could glimpse the fair. It had been a large house by any standards, cool inside with pale leather furniture filling the cavernous living room. Lilies everywhere leaned their heads over the rims of glass vases. Meryl McCann had been one of those women every one wanted to know. Marisa, an only child, had trailed after her from room to room until it was unseemly to adore your mother. Then she spied on her, memorized her ways, caught fragments of conversations. She organized, made things happen. Meryl knew how to laugh even when you weren’t funny and smile even when she was in pain. Maddy was sixteen when her mother died of an aneurysm. It was a summer day but stormy and before she had gone up to her room, she had reminded Maddy to not be afraid.

“The wind always rattles the house, you know that. It’s just nature at work, God ruminating. I am going to rest a bit.”

She had placed her hand on Marisa’s face, then alongside her own temple as the storm wailed. For months afterwards Maddy felt her fingers on her right cheekbone, a caress interrupted by thunder.

Toby had always been good to her. He was a great mechanic and machinist, but his skills did not recommend him to her father. What it took was her begging to marry him and thus remain in town rather than attend college. They would be there for him always, bring grandchildren around. It was barely enough; Brett McCann wanted more for her. She was nineteen.

Here it was three years later, no babies, no changes in her father’s lack of warmth toward her husband. The three of them shared a drink now and then. Unbeknownst to her father, Marissa drank alone at times; she felt her mother scold her. It was summer’s malaise, she thought, the way the heat siphoned off her energy and good intentions. It was even more likely being twenty-two without accomplishments to feel proud about.

She shook off the thought as she stood, hand shading the sun from her eyes. The transparent blue sky blinded. She felt less like staying home than going to the fair so she got her purse and put on her sandals.

DSCF1981

The first tent held the usual array of creatures, sheep, goats and somnolent cows and steers. She glanced left and right, thinking they deserved a better fate. They no longer bothered her as much as tugged at her pity. The horses seemed less fearsome and more beautiful but she  didn’t understand them. Marissa suspected they knew it; they nodded perfunctorily.

She admired the handiwork of quilters when she spotted her father’s balding head bobbing above the crowd. He carried a beer in one hand and bent down a little, talking to someone. Why hadn’t she thought to ask him to come along? She hurried through the throng until she recognized Esther Thorne’s auburn hair shaking free of a barrette. She laughed and lifted a paper cone of blue cotton candy to coral lips. Marissa’s father pulled her aside and his lips grazed hers. When he looked up he saw his daughter there, mouth wide open,  hands up in the air and eyes big with astonishment.

“Marissa!” He and Esther strode forward as she stepped back.

“Dad, what are you doing here?”

“Marissa, dear!” Esther held out her hand as though they were next door neighbors. No more, not for a long time.

They exchanged meaningless words and Marissa excused herself, running past the vendors and rides and tents, up the hill. She ran until something pricked her heel and she had to stop. It was sweat or tears that wet her face but she ignored both as she surveyed the fairgrounds, then trudged home.

Toby was washing grease off his hands in the bathroom. Marissa wiped her face before sitting on the toilet seat.

“What’s up, gorgeous?” he asked.

Marissa touched his arm. “I want to have a child but I want to go to college first.”

He dried his hands, leaned against the wall. “What happened?”

“The fair. You’re right. They have unreasonable powers. But I came back and always will. I’m just ready for more.”

When he touched her she knew what he felt; she felt it, too.

DSCF1951

Rules

4793366677_5a995629bd Rexall

The rules were simple: Pay attention, wait until the coast was clear, be fast and quiet. Smile. He’d recited these all the way down the street. All Tim had to do was wait until the cashier was busy ringing up a customer, then he’d edge towards the magazine rack and make himself small. He knew the cashier, Beth; she’d worked here all summer. She’d glanced at him when he came in, smile as thick with phoniness as her red lipstick. He’d find a way past her somehow.

He paused by the rows of aspirin and antibiotic ointment. If he bought something, it’d be better. He chose a Band-Aids box, then put it back neatly on the shelf. This first aid stuff cost way too much so never mind the story about his stepbrother, Evan, scraping his leg in a bike accident. He’d made it up just in case. But Evan rarely left the couch so it had been hard to imagine saying.

Tim had sixty-eight cents left from lunch. Probably could get a couple mints for fifty cents but they were in a small box perched on the counter. He adjusted his blue knit cap and kept moving. Past the make-up, past the paper products, turn the corner, then stopped dead by Mr. Nars’ legs. Or it seemed like it, the man was so tall. He looked like a human tower to Tim even though his dad said he was just six foot four. Tim had not yet hit the growth spurt he’d been promised.

“How you doing, Timmy?” he rasped.

His large veiny hands were full of packages of razors.

Tim nodded, half-smiled, then went around him. He raised his hand to make it look like he was being friendly but was in a hurry.

“Need a shave yet?” Mr. Nars chuckled, then loped down the aisle. “Lemme know if you need help,” he tossed over his shoulder.

Tim headed down to the magazines, trying to walk normally when he wanted to run, looking up and down the aisles. All clear. The new magazines glistened in the fluorescent lights. They made his hands itch just looking at them. The ones near the top drew him–skateboarding, car racing and maybe a peek at one his sister liked because there were girls in them, secret stuff. He scanned them again but he knew comic books were at the bottom, within easy reach.

Evan had said it was easy to steal a magazine, they were small and thin and you could stuff them into the back of your jeans. Pull your shirt over with a flick of the hand–that’s what he said, “a flick of your hand”–and then walk out. He made it sound like magic, like it was simple as making a dime disappear under a walnut shell. Tim could do that trick and Evan was bigger and clumsier than he was. Be quiet, fast, smile.

He heard the entrance door swing open but he kept focused. Casually, Tim picked up the Superman comic. His mouth went dry. He felt a little sick and excited all at once as he studied it. It didn’t cost much, but there wasn’t money for entertainment, his dad said, since his shifts were switched from nights to days. Tim was eleven; he knew it was just life right now. But he clutched it to his chest, started to slide it down, around to the back.

And then she started down the aisle. The new girl from his class. Tildy? Tilly? He felt sweat slick the nape of his neck and that sickish feeling hovered in his chest. She stopped, just stood there, hands behind her back, curly hair springing over her shoulders. The comic was at his back, flat against his shirt. He smiled at her and looked away, took the comic in one hand, let it dangle. When Tim glanced back she was still there, staring at him, brown eyes unblinking, her lips pressed together. He glared at her. She didn’t budge. What was she doing staring at him like that? She tilted her head at him, and tugged at her sweater. He shrugged, then carefully put it back in its place on the shelf with a little pat. A mishap, bad timing. He was about to say hi when she spun around.

On the way out the door, he turned back. Beth smiled that plastic smile; he knew she would never have figured it out. But Tilly waved back and forth at him like a beauty queen. Which he thought she kinda was, but better. Nervy.

Tim ran home. He couldn’t avoid Evan with his bag of chips and his stocking feet on the coffee table and that look he gave him when he realized Tim came back empty-handed. But Tim felt better than he had all day. Rule number one: don’t steal. Rule number two: don’t lie. Just not worth the trouble.

“Guess what I figured out today, Evan?”

“Huh.”

“Stealing is for dummies, which I’m not, and anyway girls don’t like dummies.”

Evan frowned, cleared his throat as though he had something amazing and important to say, then put three more chips into his mouth.