Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Penny Park

If she could have avoided Marsten Street she would have, but the traffic was so bad Cam had to take the lane she could grab. It made her turn right and there was the street she tried to not use, cross, go near. It was inevitable that one day she would be corralled into its proximity. In this case, broad daylight, that mid-day blazing sunshine baking sidewalks, awnings casting heavy shadows, folks dabbing their brows while rushing to restaurants, shops, offices.

Then it came upon her, the small triangular park called Marsten Park–though that conjured up visions of columned manses and overarching, elegant boughs, of shiny long cars and women in linen dresses with floppy-brimmed hats. Now, however, it seemed closer to that incarnation. A neighborhood many invested in and it had paid off, she heard, but she’d not been here in two decades. Back in her childhood there were smudgy row houses that raucous families inhabited, sometimes two or three generations, life spilling out doorways any time of day, even night.

Penny Park, they’d called it when she was a kid. About big as a penny, her ma had said, and worth half as much. But they loved it, the kids, and some of the parents who brought smaller ones, Never mind it had one wonky swing for some years and a dented slide, with a horseshoes area (if you brought your own horseshoes), and four splintery picnic tables positioned close enough that they’d sometimes share extra burgers or frankfurters and even private info despite trying to keep talk to themselves.

Someone honked and she came to, saw the light was green, turned again since there was no choice, skimmed past the shady park. Such mammoth trees and so many more plantings the park looked foreign. She had to look again and hard. It was about empty, a small parking strip only half-full. Cam checked her watch, pulled into a spot. Parked and idled. Tapped her index finger, long tapered nail clicking against the steering wheel. She sighed and got out, shut the door. The place she had loved her life must be faced.

The first thing: play equipment painted primary colors and clean as can be– monkey bars, swirly slide, seesaws, four working swings. It took up the entire northeast corner of the triangle. That they stood empty dismayed Cam but she took a seat at a varnished bench–one of three. The day had been brutal, that Bampton case gone awry, the DA chomping at the bit and growling at her. Some days she didn’t know why she had gotten into this business of justice for all. It clearly was otherwise. But the wily ins and outs, the complex and intriguing nature of people and even the process had pulled her in from the start.

Who would have thought it? She was a pianist in her earliest and dearest of dreams. She imagined freedom from many conventions that had become part of her life, anyway.

Maybe it had started here, she thought, and pushed flyaway hair under a bow of perched fancy sunglasses. It certainly was not a family destiny, her father being a supervisor at the steel plant, her mother an overworked cook at Eagle’s Perch. But she had been a bit different, enough so that her dad said a few times a year: “How did your DNA sneak into this common stew pot?” She sometimes wanted to say that it was him, he had a far better brain than most, he had just not had a chance to exercise it all ways he wanted. But she did her own– because she’d willed it so.

A little boy ran to a swing and his mother trailed after. Soon he was pumping chubby legs so fast the swing was jerkily lifting higher bit by bit, the mother pushing only cursorily as she checked her cell phone. A half-attendant mother, much like her own, only better dressed. Cam worried he would fly out and then what? Maybe land on his feet, like she used to, mostly.

Cam and company hadn’t needed mothers much, fathers maybe less, or so they thought. They’d all lived across the street or around the corners, and after school they made a beeline for the only decent green space within arms’ reach, Penny Park. In summer they hung out until they couldn’t any longer bear the hot metal slide or smothering humidity of a Midwestern summer. They had a ball for kick or dodge ball, a found can for Kick the Can, a slingshot or two for whatever, and tangy Lick-a-Made packets saved up all week or rich butter mints snagged from blue glass candy dishes. They came there to share snacks and tales, play a game, do nothing, to hide from grown ups and maybe get into a little trouble.

Except Ben–he hung back, always with a book and a cold and sweating bottle of Vernors ginger ale. Despite the fact that the two of them lived next door, they were as suspicious of each other the first couple of summers as if they’d lived ten blocks apart. Cam excelled at games; Ben excelled at little but reading and just being outside, yet not even school held much interest. They nodded at each other after she had tried and failed to engage him in a good conversation. He watched her from behind the books and she attempted to ignore him.

But things began to change when they each turned twelve. For one thing, his father was out of work when her mother lost her job. They talked about it once briefly, a tentative, small bond over the failures of adults. They had zero allowance then so there was nothing to do but hang out at the park or sulk at their tense homes.

And that led to more chat.

“Why always the books?” she asked and plopped beside him under “his” aged elm tree. He was worried it’d be cut down for Dutch elm disease; he was likely right.

“I like what I like,” he said, scooting over a bit to create more space between them.

“What this time?”

Habits of Mammals in Spring,” he read off the cover. “Would you like to know about them?”

“Would you like to hear about my piano lessons?” she said.

“That would be a ‘no’. I am not so thrilled by your piano playing.”

“There you have it on those topics, then. But you have to talk and listen to know more about anything, not just read.”

Still, his words had stung–and did he actually listen to her practice? She tried to remember to lower the window sash in the living room.

“See, you’re the talker,” he said, upper lip curling slightly. “I hear you every day, talk, talk, talk.”

Cam rolled up a tiny bug into a leaf and tossed it at him. “That’s what we humans do.”

He laughed and batted away the leaf, laughed as if pleased by that assessment or the bug or both. It was a good sound to her–surprising. They sat quietly another few minutes until she got tired of looking over his shoulder–he didn’t move, just kept tuning pages– skimming info about beavers. It was interesting but she wasn’t going to admit it.

After that they spent random bits of time together. He explained food sources for small mammals and where good bird lookouts were. She talked about playing Bach and pleasures of the always cool Beatles and why she found them both so fascinating. But when she took part in an impromptu foot race with their neighborhood friends, he hooted at her.

“Back and forth on the same grassy stretch, that’s no dang race!” he’d yell.

“Try me–I’ll beat you before you even say ‘go’!”

Then one time the kids paused to see if a miracle would occur and Ben would join up. When he shrugged, put down his book and got set to run, they tittered among themselves. Everyone knew Ben was not a sporty guy. Cam was good at this; she won three out of five times. So when they lined up behind the pine cones, she was ready to impress him again. They got off to a good start, she was ahead by several feet, outran Sam, then Ken, then Marie, when suddenly out from behind shot Ben, his skinny legs wound up and set loose as he dashed past all, and barely stopped himself with the natural barrier of a hefty tree trunk.

What a sprinter! Cam and the others gathered round him. Why hadn’t he shown them this before? What else was he hiding? Good grief, he was faster than all of them.

Ben smiled graciously, then went back to his tree, huffing and puffing a little, face reddened. He didn’t need to prove such things, he thought to himself, but now they knew something more about him. In fact, he had surprised himself a little.

Cam slid down in the dirt beside him after a few minutes.

“You had us fooled, you prankster,” she said.

He slowly turned his head and those blue-grey eyes reached in and it was like she was staring back at slow creek water, and there was something moving under the surface. Cam felt it, an energy that frizzed and she barely caught it, it was swift, wholly baffling. He shifted, scratched his chin as he did when thinking, and narrowed those eyes as if trying to see more. Then he was back to his book on rock hunting.

“I like to run, you just never asked me to,” he said.

And that was that. They were not as before, but more than before. They walked home later talking about running and rocks, her piano teacher who was mean and their parents who were more and more annoying. He felt the dry warmth radiating off her hand as it dangled beside his sweaty one; she felt the soft release of his breath on her bare shoulder as he said “later, then”.

It was as if they had always been that way. It seemed unlikely that things could ever go back. But there was plenty of time to ponder it if necessary.

******

Cam observed the boy and his mother tire of swings and they grabbed hands to cross the street; she heard trucks bump and roar past, crows scolding whoever passed. She noted a meter maid putting a ticket on her car–did they now dare charge for parking here?–but she looked into the trees and saw only Ben, age seventeen as he informed her that he was accepted into Stanford as soon as he graduated and, of course, a year early.

They had been to the riverfront all afternoon and finally–after dinner at The Floating Cafe, after they’d browsed the shops and bought matching copper and silver wire bracelets, after they’d run out of odd trivia to trade–darkness slid over sky and onto pathways and their persons. Bobbing boats were all lit up, and decorative lights gave a festive air to the marina. They leaned on the railing that kept them safe from the swirling brown river.

“I have to go, you know that– I wish it’d all work out differently,” he said, looking down at his holey sneakers. “But we are still together, right?”

She nodded, afraid to talk. He was two heads taller than she was and she was tall, and when he pulled her to him she felt as much as heard his heartbeat, steady and a little fast. It was always steady and fast– like a bird, she thought, and that swish swish had been a reassurance, a kind of audible tether to life when things got rough. His dense, warm chest, that heart, his chin resting on her head, his strong, long arms about her. This was the way they were to stand forever. She for him, he for her.

He held her head still with his, a few fingers woven through her thick, wavy hair and then he smelled the top of her head. This spot always gave off woodsy scents, the barest touch of musky something. Maybe it was because they’d spent so many years in the forest hiking, camping, sweating, dreaming: it was part of their skin and hers was richer than his. His comfort, each inch a fine venous map that led to greater things, to hope, to the next moment.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Ben asked, pulling back to see her face. “Be reckless for once?”

“Stop. Have to graduate, then University of Michigan if I am lucky, law school, a maybe or maybe not…As if you’ve never head this litany before.”

They let the night cover their sorrow; they talked of bears and Dvorak; they walked stealthily through the streets past midnight; they heard the river run with a vast indifference and then certain exuberance. It hurt to say goodnight, as if their words were windows shutting firmly to keep out a storm but also the sweeter breezes promised afterwards.

******

It was time. Cam leapt up from her bench in Penny Park, got her car, drove away and parked again fifteen minutes later. Here she was prepared to pay to park awhile, it was Bonner Auditorium, a small venue but all shined up, one meant for important events but smaller crowds. Lectures, solo concerts, chamber ensembles, readers’ theater, obscure dance company performances–these she had attended often the last three years since her return to help her mother relocate to a condo.

Since her divorce and the need for deeper peace. Which she had not quite found or created though she was getting closer.

Inside, people were talking excitedly, milling about and greeting friends, threading their way one end of the auditorium to the other. Cam found her seat easily; she had two reserved seats for the season but her mother was in too much discomfort from arthritis, to her regret. Cam’s breath caught in her chest and she coughed, fanned her lightly perspiring face with the program and wishing they’d ramp up the AC. When the lights were lowered she bit her lower lip to keep calmer. Someone was talking on stage, then there was a spattering of applause.

“Please welcome one of our very own, the esteemed microbiologist and author Benjamin Widdstone as he shares stories of his worldwide travels and research from his latest book, ‘Promise and Pleasure of the Humble Pond’.”

Sustained, excited clapping rang out and he was there in the spotlight, the boy and youth who had avoided all spotlights. Her hands clasped tightly in her lap: yes, that same slight leaning forward, darkish hair longer than she had ever seen, hands expressive as he warmed up to the topic, his deep, melodious voice–oh, that voice. She closed her eyes; a tear loosened.

She will wait for him backstage, tell him she can finally almost play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, yes, with some difficulty–but still, she has managed it a few times, it does please her a little–and perhaps he’d like to hear it? If he has a free hour before the next plane, next book, next field trip. If he has the inclination, if he cares to recall just a little of what she did–and find out what she does now. How they both have done without each other.

She let herself look up. Ben tilted his head, turned his body to one side and as if searching the crowd he peered into rows of shadowy seats, a flattened hand cutting off bright light. He paused one beat, two, three– then nodded, smiled, scratched the close cut, graying beard on lifted chin, and then continued.

A Trail to Somewhere

It was a little like following a trail of beautiful blood, Percy thought as he stared at carefully dropped blossoms and then wondered what was wrong with him, anyway. They were lovely camellias yet surprising, somehow a bit shocking as he plodded along. He did hope no one just plucked them off the branches willy nilly.

He had decided to get out since his miserable cold had abated but he hadn’t gotten too far. Buster Keaton, his lame Jack Russell terrier, was more eager to walk him than the other way around. He gave a firm command; his dog heeled. The red petals seemed to interest the dog very little, while Percy found them by far the most intriguing event of his day. But it was only noon, no telling what was next, he had the rest of the day ahead of him to look for something, anything, of interest.

This was the trouble with the aptly yet oddly named “sunset years.” He’d been warned that unless he rediscovered or developed new hobbies, took a couple of classes or an exotic trip, he could end up bored beyond tears. He waved off the suggestions; he was a homebody at heart. He liked to cook, he liked to read and write meandering letters, he liked to listen to opera while tending his vegetable garden. And he went out on (very easy) hikes now and again in good weather. He had Buster Keaton and some human friends.

Although being bored to tears was a silly saying and an overstatement, there was something to be said for at least having a fine dog that engaged attention. If you could call taking him for brief walks twice a day and explaining to him the finer points of antique and flea market treasure hunting during favorite t.v. shows–as Buster gazed at him with barest interest–actual attention for either of them. His well-behaved dog was amenable; he was a quieter canine, being twelve and sort of gimpy (a broken leg had not healed correctly). He liked to snuggle beside him on the sofa, but not too much. The truth was, they were both a bit humdrum these days. The sunsets they witnessed had not been so utterly wonderful as what the later life forecasts had insisted.

But this flower trail was interesting. Percy gently poked at the first flower with his walking stick. It had been plucked or gathered a couple of days, he ascertained, as it was not quite browning about the edges but more wilty than fresh should be. They were placed in a deliberate pattern, each one set upon the intersections of sidewalk slab lines. It was puzzling out red dots with occasional dashes, a sort of code. Every now and then one was off-mark. Percy wondered if this was due to walkers or creatures kicking aside a few. Or perhaps the flower dropper got distracted.

Percy sighed. This sad little activity he was undertaking! It was a relevant summation of his life since leaving his active position. He was the founding half, the Rowell  of the co-owned Rowell and Randall Interiors. So little to get excited about yet his doctor had warned that peace was essential for a long lived heart. It was only himself at home, he affirmed when inquisitive people pelted him with questions about his private life–except for good Buster Keaton. He had never been deeply moved to marry. He had frankly not really met a singular woman–oh, he’d known a few, if he only could have melded them into one–more interesting than his four best friends. And his varied dogs, let’s face it, they were the most loyal of all.

Perhaps this had resulted from staying too close to home. He’d worked long hours, sometimes arriving home around ten at night, exhausted. His business partner, Wilkie Randall, still found plenty to do with a wife and three kids and now those grandkids he never stopped talking about. And they traveled and they entertained a slew of relatives and friends and so on. Percy had been to a good many dinners, was quite fond of the colorful family. It was all well and good for Wilkie but it usually left Percy desperate for fresh air and resounding silence after two hours. They had people coming and going all day long at the store, wasn’t that ever enough? But Wilkie was nearly twelve years younger, he had yet more steam.

And now every day Percy had all this substantive, variable… quietness.

Good grief, the blossom trail kept on. Buster sniffed here and there after he completed his task. Absolutely no one was about–no, wait, there was a fully grown up skateboarder cruising along with purple helmet and plaid Bermuda shorts, for goodness’ sake, and the trusty mailman was scurrying from house to house. But no person was strolling about with a basket of camellias on her arm. It might be a girl of perhaps seven or eight who’d been playing the evening before, he had about decided. Sunlight brightened sky and streets longer since spring. Children were often outdoors past seven-thirty, about when he was sitting down to dinner.

It might have been created with a friend or for a parent close behind or for her own simple entertainment, he thought. To intrigue people like Percy, the ones who had nothing better to do than look about and dawdle. But it seemed intentional, as if it meant something more. He and Buster Keaton kept on, following until they rounded a corner and the trail changed. It got more flowery, small groupings of white as well as red in a pleasant if quite artless design. Now it curved at a driveway, made its way to the base of a tree. Percy gawked and recalled the attractive contemporary house belonged to the Saransons. They had additionally built a well proportioned, two-roomed tree house. It perched in an ancient chestnut tree in the side yard near the garage. It was built when their sons were born. He stepped onto the grass. What were their names?

Something fell onto Buster’s head; he shook it vigorously and the tiny twig somehow caught on his collar, bounced off. He then barked right up the tree. Another object struck him on the back, this time a green plastic cap off a drink bottle; it slipped off Buster’s back, then rolled down the driveway.

Percy was worried about what might be next so stepped back into the driveway, yanking at Buster.

“Ahoy, there! My dog doesn’t like being thunked. Show yourself.”

“This isn’t a boat in a tree, it’s a very small house if you take a good look.” The disembodied, irritated voice was not easily identifiable as male or female. More branches rattled for emphasis and ensured movement was being made to likely disembark. Or climb down, more realistically.

“Well, Captain, I can see that, home interiors is my business!” Percy tried again, this time lowering his voice. “Sorry for the misnomer. I’m Percy Rowell of Taylor Street”–he gestured in the direction from which he came–“and this is Buster Keaton, said dog. Which of the Saransons are you?”

“Oh, hey Mr. Rowell, I know you. It’s Jeremy.” There was a creaking of wooden limbs, a jiggle of more branches. “Sorry to bother Buster. It wasn’t on purpose. Really.”

There was a pause, then a thud as the boy’s weight made contact with decking around the tree house. Percy could just see flashy tennis shoes, then frayed hems of jeans. Jeremy bent down, poked his head between bright green leaves and put on a fair smile through which very white, slightly crooked front teeth showed. The boy turned around, backed down a handmade ladder nailed to the old tree.

When Jeremy touched ground, he plunged his hands into back pockets, long arms now all jutting elbows. Nodded his head. “Mr. Rowell.” He bent down and slowly reached to Buster, then patted his smooth head. “Hey Buster you survive, little buddy? I was just cleaning up junk.”

“Don’t you have school?” Percy asked, eyeing both houses suspiciously. His parents worked, he knew.

“I had a cold. One more day to recuperate.” With his sneaker toe he pushed a rock onto a hole in the concrete driveway, then gave it a swift kick.

Percy thought he looked well enough, hair tufted and unclean, perhaps. A gangling boy on verge of growing up. Nothing at all like he, himself, appeared when he’d hazarded a glance in bathroom mirror a couple of days ago between sneezes: drawn, sallow face with reddened bulb of a nose smack in the middle of a saggy mess. But Jeremy was all of maybe thirteen or fourteen. Kids bounced back from most everything.

“Going around. Just had it myself.”

He studied the tree house now he was up close. It had screened windows, green shutters. Two folding camp chairs were on the deck. Peaked roof with a circular window at the point. Compact, made of redwood like the grown up version next to it.

But he thought about the flowers, how they’d petered out at the driveway; this was why he’d stopped.

“Impressive–it must’ve been fun for you and your brother.”

“Me and Todd. He graduated last year.” He shifted his weight, as if deciding whether to take off now or keep chatting with the neighborhood retiree. “I still escape there sometimes. Like last night, then today.”

“I recall he’s at Notre Dame.  Say, Jeremy, I was wondering…” His eyes turned toward the camellias, a few bunched up flowers here and there, some crushed by the tires that ran over them as the boy’s parents left for work. “Do you know who dropped these around the neighborhood? They put effort into making a pretty trail. Maybe it led to you…?”

When he looked up, the boy’s head was hanging. “Uh, yeah.”

Percy’s eyebrows shot up but spoke with nonchalance. “Oh, I see.”

“Yeah, I was making a fun thing for a friend of mine, you know, wondering if she’d notice it, then–well, I was just fooling around, that’s all, it was actually stupid to do. Dad said to clean it up today since I’m basically playing hooky as my cold is actually gone.” His cheeks pinked up  and he sounded almost angry as he bent down to rub Buster’s ears, who playfully barked twice. “They were mostly fallen, so I was moving them out of our yard!”

Percy picked up a couple of deep pink blossoms, smoothed their silken thick petals. Curious flower, luxuriant, strikingly vivid for a short time and then a fading, slippery mess as they plopped to the ground. And with nary a fragrance.

Curious thing for Jeremy to do.

“I have to walk Buster back home and get him a treat. Want to walk with me as you pick them up? I sort of wish you didn’t have to, they make the sidewalk more attractive.”

“I can do that, I guess. They were supposed to look nice–to get her attention.” He threw Percy a half-smile as they started off. “But it didn’t work out.” He folded inward a little, loped along beside the rotund older man and a re-energized, limping dog, then began to pick up blossoms and put them on the side of the walk.

“Here’s an extra doggy bag to put them into. Less mess by the sidewalk as they decay.” Jeremy took the bag and stuffed more flowers in it.”I can’t imagine what was wrong with that girl you mentioned. It seems a good idea, following flowers to a nice boy who has an interest. She live around here so she could see even the trail?” He glanced at the boy, who looked sullen. “None of my business, sorry.”

“It’s okay, I don’t care. It’s Loreena, on your street here, across and down a few houses from you.”

Percy strained his memory to bring up a picture of Loreena and could only get the barest hint of a tow-headed child on a small red two-wheeler. He had no idea who she was now. He saw all the kids at the annual summer block party and on the street at times, but their faces apparently had either blurred or never evolved as they aged.

“I’m sorry. I do remember a blond child of maybe eight or ten? Always racing her red bike with the rest of you up and down the streets?”

“Yeah, she’s still athletic. Anyway, she’s fourteen now, like me and I thought, I mean, we’d always been really good friends, and at school we talk sometimes and then…” He smashed more blossoms into the plastic bag then stopped. “Dumb ideas I get! That maybe she liked me, too, you know?”

“I see. Well, it was a thoughtful thing to do, I’d think anyone should like it. Maybe she was just not around?”

They were close to Percy’s house and he wondered if he should ask Jeremy to sit on the porch with an iced tea, would that be an awkward thing to do? Buster was starting to tug at the leash.

“She was out, alright, with her girlfriends. They sat on her porch talking and laughing–they saw me– and when I got halfway up the block with the camellias they went inside. I just tossed the rest and went back home. I’d left a note in her locker to follow the trail…” He kicked at the blossoms before him. “I saw a movie once, there were rose petals that led the girl to, well, bed, but that wasn’t what I was trying to do, I just really like her. You know? She’s special. I thought.”

The hurt had surfaced now, was spilling out despite a small shred of dignity left, and bottled up outrage. Percy didn’t know what to say to him. It was such a romantic thing to do that Percy wondered it Jeremy had the heart of an artist or poet.

Well, yes, his father had mentioned he played piano and guitar, and said he was quite good. He must have true leanings of a dreamer. How hard it was to be fourteen.

Jeremy had gone on to gather the rest of the flowers and now turned back to Percy, face blotchy and eyes half closed, downcast.

“I’m just so glad she’s at school so she can’t see me doing this! It was bad enough that she knew I was outdoors, all those lying there for her!”

Percy reined in Buster who barked impatiently. It was time for his treat. Percy would read the historical novel he had just begun, then they might doze a little. Still, something nudged him.

“You like an iced tea? It’s so nice I thought I’d sit on the porch a bit.”

“What?” Jeremy looked at the man he’d been talking with so openly as if he saw him for the first time. “Oh, Mr. Rowell, I have to, well, I should–” He rubbed his messy hair with a knuckly fist then let his whole trunk go slack. “Yeah, why not? I’m sort of thirsty.  Not much else happening.”

Percy arranged two medium-sized glasses–he didn’t want Jeremy to feel trapped there by a full taller glass– with a bowl of sugar and a spoon on the small metal table. He set down a plate of Girl Scout chocolate mint cookies as well. Jeremy took a seat in a matching chair, then Percy sat opposite. They sipped and ate cookies, watched the cars go by. There was a decent view of the house where Loreena lived, Jeremy said and pointed it out. They talked about the warming spring weather and all the dogs taking over the neighborhood and then a little about his school.

“You married, Mr. Rowell? I think you live alone here, right? Sorry if I shouldn’t ask.”

Percy looked down at his glass in hand. He shook the ice cubes around, felt the wet chill of the tumblerin his warm hand, how it meant summer was coming, too. “It’s alright, everyone asks. No, I never married any gal, Jeremy. No, I’m not gay.”

“I didn’t mean that–I wouldn’t care.  To each their own.”

Percy lifted his glass and Jeremy lifted his as well in a gesture of solidarity.

“No, I never found the right one, so to speak. They say there is a someone for everyone but I’m not entirely convinced. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. I was driven by my work, I’ve really loved interior designing. Then there was the store’s solid and growing success. I guess I dedicated my life energy to making things look and feel aesthetically balanced and exceptional–to following an artistic sensibility.” He looked at the boy, who nodded.”I dated some when I was young.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, there was one girl.” He took a quaff of tea. “She was always on the arm of another college man, a football player, of course, right? We had been in classes together a couple of times. I got her attention by painting a watercolor of public gardens she said she liked. She loved it, fell all over herself with appreciation and gave me a kiss… on the cheek. Though she liked me, I was not him, not the right guy, it was that simple.”

They sat in silence a few moments.

Jeremy turned in his seat. “Was she smart and cute? Loreena really is… But you just let her go, huh?”

“Oh, she was more than cute and smart, she was elegant and brilliant and sporty all in one. I thought she was about perfect. No, there was no hope. We both became interior designers, remained friendly after college. She married someone else entirely. But except for our paths crossing now and again, that was that.”

Percy felt emptied. Felt sweaty, a bit breathless, as if telling that nearly forgotten story had hollowed him out. But he remained calm and waited for Jeremy to say something.

“Yep, I could about see Loreena come and go if I sat here. Well, not a good idea, either.” He turned to the aging gentleman. “I guess we all have this stuff happen. I’m sorry for us both, kinda, you know?”

“Jeremy, just give things in your life a chance, some patience. You might see her in the future or you might find another girl. Or you might end up with just your music and be entirely happy.” He glanced at the boy, who looked surprised. “You dad told me you’re a musician.”

“Yes I am, Mr. Rowell, or sure hope to be.”

“Good.”

Percy fidgeted. He was feeling a smidgen self-conscious now and restless. He longed to go in, jjust read that next chapter in his book. Buster Keaton was scratching now and then at the screened door.

“Well, I should get back home. I’ve got more cleaning up and honestly, I’m sorta tired out by the mess I made of things.”

Jeremy finished off the tea and one more cookie then stood up. It was clear he’d be a taller man, likely gaunt like his dad, perhaps a good thing as a moody musician. But he had honest and quick brown eyes, a good way about him. He held out his hand to the much older man.

“It was nice talking to you. Really, thanks.”

Percy grasped the strong hand. “I’m glad I was curious about your camellia trail. I’d like to hear your music one day. I’m a quite good cook. I need to invite the three of you over for a meal. And by the way, if you ever want to make some cash doing lawn work…” He gestured at his grass and bushes, in need of help.

“Both sound good, catch you later!” Jeremy ran down the steps, waving.

Percy watched a fine boy, a soon-to-be-young-man, a decent human being in the making. He felt quietly happy.  Entered his house, scooped up Buster Keaton who put his damp, cool nose on his double chin. Found a treat for the creature and then his book. They settled in for who knew how long. Percy knew they had just the right amount of time left in the day and any others to come.

 

 

Big Surprise

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                              (Photo Credit: Garry Winogrand)

We were heading out to Lake Winnatchee when I got a call about a party on Rinehart Road. The reception was sketchy but it sounded like Amy. The address matched. They have the best parties, what with the moneyed and the mad hiding out in the woods. I knew Karin and her folks well enough so I changed directions and floored it.

“What are you doing, man?” Janna narrowed her eyes and sulked. “The lake and a bonfire sound a lot better to me. The Winslows aren’t even that friendly.”

“It’s Saturday night. Why not check it out?”

Janna gave me a look. She likes plans. I like spontaneity and sped up. Her hand smacked my thigh so I backed off a little.

The trees were dense, the night thickening with darkness. Every now and then someone would speed by and honk, blares lingering. In Marionville it isn’t easy to go unrecognized, especially when you drive the only red Camaro.

“Everybody seems to know you, Tony,” Mick said. “Did you play football or something back in the day?”

“It’s the ‘or something’,” Janna answered for me. “First football, then just playing. That was well before me.”

Mick snickered. I could see his “thumbs up” in the rearview mirror.

If only he knew. Mick was Janna’s visiting cousin and a minor smartass. I was one of those guys who made a wrong turn, then got spun around. Too much business late nights, the kind that attracts cops. A couple of jail visits and I was cured. Or you might say Janna happened. She’s the sort of person who finds the best in people but won’t let on until she’s impressed by at least one thing.  We met three years ago–she’s from a town down the road. I definitely proved myself by expanding my family’s marine business. And she has talents, good at photography. She can flush out and shine up people’s true characters.

Mick rolled the window down. The autumn night was musky but sweet. Mosquitos were not yet gone and would cruise along with us if I slowed down, then buzz on in.

Janna craned her neck at Mick. “Roll the window back up. There’s the beach where we’re not having a bonfire, where Tony almost proposed but got cold feet.”

Mick snapped my shoulder. “You need to rectify that. You both passed twenty-one a long time ago.”

Jana grunted. “One more year. Then I’m leaving town.”

“She’s off to seek her fortune in the wedding photo business. Detroit, watch out,” I said.

“Well, it won’t be my own wedding pictures that make my name.”

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I down-shifted and turned left. Cars were parked along a curve, a line that snaked a distance. The Winslow house was blazing and we could catch a few strains of music. A live band, maybe. We parked at the end of the row and got out.

“So, Tony, why do you think we can crash this party? What if it requires dress clothes? Look at us.”

I hesitated. Janna looked excellent in red pants with black sweater. Her boots held a sheen under the street lamp glow. I always wore chinos; dad required it and I hadn’t changed. Mick was more ragged in jeans and jacket. We’d know soon enough if we got in.

The front door looked taller and wider. I hadn’t recalled it being a deep red, but it had been awhile. I rang the doorbell and they rang out in a bass voice. It opened wide and we could see to the back of the house. Well, to the crowd. A short, balding man just stood there, drink in hand, smiling at us. His free hand caught the door frame for balancing.

I held out my hand. “Tony Arnell, Russell’s son. May we come in?”

“Of course! Come in and check out the fun. I will go in search of more sustenance. Oh, Carl here. Have the Ford dealership.” He shook my hand and moved on.

“He had a tux on, Tony!”

“We can go around the side yard to the back.”

“No, that’s too sneaky. What was this supposed to be for? Should have brought my camera!”

Carole Winslow scurried past the open door, disappeared, then came back. Amy’s mother, the hostess, full of good will.

“Tony Arnell! And…is it your girlfriend… Janna, right? Come on in–if you dare!” She looked us over, a gaze like a magnifying glass, then smiled her toothsome grin. “Never mind. It’s after ten thirty. Everyone is long past caring. My fiftieth birthday. I invited your folks but said they were off to somewhere else.”

Amy walked by with someone on her arm and waved. I returned the greeting as we stepped in.

“Chicago”.

“Well, so much better!” Carole shut the door and turned to a well-wisher.

We slipped through the crowd and made for the food, drinks and music. The band was good, though it played old standards, not my choice. Janna grabbed cheese and a sparkling water; Mick grabbed a drink and headed toward the band.

“Nobody cares. We’re just Marionville, not New York.”

She ate and watched, took a swig, then looked at me with those deep-set grey eyes. They were like the lake in winter but shot full of warm currents. “Well, let’s join the throng on the dance floor.”

I was never voted even a good dancer but how could I turn down a woman who used words like “throng”? This was a large couple of rooms and the music echoed. I danced reluctantly, if moving most parts of my body qualifies. Several people greeted us, mostly known. Everybody looked giddy and didn’t comment on attire. I hoped Carole was happy with fifty.

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After a few minutes we danced ourselves out to the veranda where citron candles flickered. We shivered and stood closer, leaning against the low stone wall. My eyes roamed over the scene. I wondered if they had sung “Happy Birthday” yet. I could sing better than dance.

And then, there she was, like a hallucination or a dream.

Champagne-colored dress to match her hair, which was in her trademark upsweep. Her body swinging, her fingers snapping, eyes averted as she disappeared inside the music. The dangling earrings must have weighed a ton. As if she felt my stare, she looked at me. She stopped, patted the arm of the man opposite her and took her time coming over. It all slowed down, her walk, the dancers and the song. I started to go back in but couldn’t figure out how to avoid her so turned around and looked over the lawn–could we jump the wall?

I could smell that luxurious, sweet, decadent scent before she got there. It hovered, a warning. I waited it out.

“Tony, Tony, Tony.”

Janna spun around but I turned only when I felt I had to.

“Gilly McHenry. What are you doing way over here in little Marionville?”

Gilly’s lips plumped like a big pink peony. “I am about to live here. Can you believe it?” She flashed a smile at Janna.

I started and blinked, then Janna stepped away from me.

“My girlfriend, Janna Baker.”

Gilly slid her hand across the space between us and floated in closer. Janna took it, then let it fall. Said “hello”, then frowned.

“You’re going to live here? Off the beaten path?” I almost stuttered like a kid.

She laughed, that famous raucous sound hammering my nerves. “I am about to marry Neil Hendron. The real estate guy? Met him at a nice party in Traverse City and we hit it off. Imagine that–I told you I wasn’t long for single life!” She chortled. “I wondered if we would ever meet again, Tony, my boy.”

“Again?” Janna’s voice sliced the air in two. Her head turned to me. “Did I know that, my boy, and just forget?”

Gilly took my other arm. “Sure, Jan. We had a summer awhile back. A Traverse City summer fling, right? I think he was twenty-one. Or younger. But he was singing karaoke like a pro! This one’s got some pipes, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Janna said. Her eyes were going grey to charcoal.

I put my arm around Janna. “But, still, Marionville? This guy doesn’t live up here year-round, does he?” Please say no, I thought.

“No, just summers and week-ends. So I could see you on the  slopes this winter, right? If I get any good at skiing!” She fiddled with a stray strand of hair at her ear. “We might marry here, though. Something different. You should meet him.” She looked over her shoulder. “He’s quite a talker.”

I could feel Gilly’s perfume latching onto me, settling in. I worried that it would attract more mosquitoes. Her glow dimmed a bit but her eyes were still a shocking navy blue. Janna was biting her lip, not a good thing.

“Gilly,” I said, holding out my hand to her. “I’m glad you found the right one!”

Then we turned away from the woman with the spell-casting perfume, down the back steps and toward my car.

“Who is she?” She asked. “Wait. It has to be a bad story.”

“It was that summer when you helped your sick aunt in Ohio, remember?”

“Well, six weeks, enough time for trouble, right?”

Then she put her hands alongside my face and said, “Despite your lapse in good taste, I love you, anyway.” She leaned against the Camaro. “I wonder if I can photograph her wedding? She’d make a great picture!”

“So. Will you marry me?”

Janna’s dark eyebrows shot up. “Whoa, big surprise number two! Let me think that one over.”

“Okay….while I’m waiting, we should call Mick to come out.”

“Maybe Mick will bump into her. A thrill a minute for him.”

We sat on the curb and studied the October sky, our breath creating little clouds. The stars were having their own quiet party. We were just spectators. I sang a tune I’d heard the band play. Janna rested her head on my shoulder, where it belonged. I thought: that’s a “yes”.

Details for a Young Detective

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Before everything went haywire, the fence marked the border of a small paradise. Jenisse lived four blocks away, but her yard was a square cement pad behind their apartment. My mother used to say that travelling five blocks was leaving one country for another. I thought she was being judgmental but I was wrong. She just thought Jenisse had a tough life and wondered how she might change my viewpoint. It should have been the other way around. My best friend wasn’t perfect and maybe took a couple false turns but it was a long way from where I ended up awhile.

We  had several things in common back then but the most important were philosophy and fast cars.  I read Camus and Kierkegaard in study hall. She found that weird in ninth grade but the thing that impressed me was that she even knew who they were. She liked to think past pink lipstick and white pom-poms, too. We were, contradictorily, cheerleaders that year. We had other friends, but no one liked us as much as we liked each other.

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The cars had fascinating, daredevil men attached to them in our imaginings. We also wanted to drive a few of our own. On Friday and Saturday nights we watched them roar down our busy street. I was better at calling the make and year but she was better at waving and smiling if they slowed down to get a better look at us. A perfect team.

We liked to hang out on my parents’–and mine, by default–half-acre. Our overgrown yard. I don’t know why our modest bungalow got the benefit of so much space outdoors–we were at the edge of the city– but it was perfect for me and my two older brothers. There was a little creek–that is, when it rained enough, otherwise it was just an unsightly ditch. Dad, a history teacher who had a passion for making things, built an old-fashioned house like a pioneer homestead. We half-grew up there and used it for all sorts of secret activities, from eating too many chocolate donuts(us) to playing dice and smoking a joint (brothers and sometimes us) to furtive gropings in the dark (all). There were sleepovers there which were popular with everybody. Our parents could see the place from the kitchen window so they felt we were safe.

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I guess we were but it was easier to find trouble there. My brothers’ exploits are theirs to give away. Even though it was fifteen years ago, I’d raise my dad’s blood pressure if I told him about the fire Jimmy started that consumed the neighbor’s prize roses and damaged the fence at the property line behind the “homestead”.

Jenisse and I were happy best friends, that’s the thing I need to make clear. We had that innocent, bountiful trust that you look for the rest of your life. Everything that happened or crossed our minds was talked over: breathtaking and annoying family dramas, sapping discouragement when we failed to meet our goals, whether or not slapping Hugh was a strong enough response to his hand on Jenisse’s thigh, the skin cancer scare for my mother. Or just how wine red lipstick and black eyeliner made us look older but not better. And our plans for the future.

“I’m definitely going to be a private investigator,” I told her. “That, or a lawyer. By the way, I want to–no, I will–win the next debate at school.”

“Of course you will, Lola–you out-talk everyone, who wouldn’t cave under all that? But I got you beat. I now think I want a career in designing parks. Isn’t there something like that? Ever since I got to know you and spent time out here I’ve thought about it. More safe outdoor places for people could change neighborhoods, even whole cities.”

I gave her a long look. “See, this is why you are so much smarter than most people. You think about the long tem effect of things, not just your own little desires. You have principles. Me? I just want action!”

She punched my shoulder. “Stupid, you just have to make a show of things, like telling people you gotta have action, when what you want is to save this crappy world, just like me. Well, as long as it involves some risky–or maybe a little risqué?–stuff!”

I gave her a punch back and then a hug, I’m sure. How many people got me like that? So it seemed like we would be friends forever. We even talked about how when we were old we would have houses by each other with a connecting yard for our kids. If we had any time for kids.

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It was the following autumn when things changed. September had shaken out the languid vestiges of late summer, edged with the promise of frost. A fire was burning in our corner woodstove. I was in the living making a poster for class when I heard her on the porch. I would know her laugh anywhere, a crescendo of sound sweet but loud like she had just seen or heard the funniest thing ever. When she didn’t come in, I dropped my felt tip pens and looked out the beveled glass window in the door.

It was not to be believed. She was on the porch swing with Arnie, my brother and they were swinging hard, chattering about something that appeared to fully engage Jenisse’s attention. His arm was around her shoulders. I opened the door.

“Jenisse? What are you doing out here?”

The swing kept going but Arnie just looked at her and she looked at me like, what did I mean? I thought it was funny how dumb they acted. Like, were they up to something, like planning a surprise party for my upcoming birthday?

“Why are you out here with my brother instead of inside while I struggle to create a fabulous poster for my speech about Egypt? Come in and help me out.”

“I can’t. Me and Arnie are talking.”

I thought they were both just up to aggravation so I went out and pushed Arnie half off the swing and squeezed in beside her.

“Lola, “she said, hands up, “wait a minute. What’s wrong with me having a conversation with Arnie? I’ll be in later. You’ll do great without me.”

And there it was. I got it instantly. Jenisse liked Arnie more than just her best friend’s older brother. He got up and leaned against the porch railing post, arms folded, feet crossed at the ankles like he was King Tut. It killed me, that look. I knew from others’ feedback that he was good-looking or even better but I didn’t think he was that smart or nice or fascinating. I was closer to Jimmy. Arnie, well, he was arrogant. He was a jock and I thought myself a burgeoning intellectual; he teased me about it. I was not having Jenisse sit with him now or ever. It was cross contamination.

“Get up, Jenisse. You’re blinded by genetically pleasing material. He is not The Man. You and I are best friends. That makes it almost illegal for you to remotely care about my brother!”

Her brown eyes shot me a challenging look. “Lola, you don’t own me! I can be with Arnie if I want. In fact, we’ve been together more and more. You just didn’t notice. Some detective you’ll make!”

That did it. I got up, entered the house and slammed the door. I steamed all night and into the wee  hours.

You think you know how this ended. We had a fight, got over it and they got married one day. A love story in which I could play the part of everlasting friend, maid of honor. Sisters-in-law!

None of that.  I ended up alone. Too often. I ended up taking rides with a few drivers of those fast cars after school. I felt like I should change, too, or I’d be lost. I was upset and angry every day; I had to see her hang out with Arnie at school or while I sat in my room or avoided them. She greeted me tentatively but I was deaf to her attempts. Watching them from my upstairs bedroom window was shocking. Seeing how he pulled her close, how they whispered things. It was bad enough thinking of my brother kissing at all but my best friend? What was she telling him about her life that she kept from me now?

Jenisse stopped trying to talk to me. She got dumped by him four months later and her grades dropped I heard. But I burrowed into school work but I’d found a group who liked to party. I had instant success, being a little mouthy but witty. But I frightened my family with increasingly grave errors. The last car I got into while in high school accelerated to one hundred twenty mph. A gorgeous Porsche. Before we even hit sixty we bounced off a lamp post and another car. The guy was in the hospital for two months and then in court for a DUII. I broke my nose and right arm.

But I finally figured out what not to do about the misery of loss. You had to just live through it. So, I guess, did she but by then the bond had frayed and split. I returned to my saner self and resolved to pay strict attention to internal and external signs. Do something good.

Despite my initial lack of observational skills as a teen-ager, I am now an investigator. I’ve survived worse things than losing a best friend. But I had to tell someone our story. Today I saw Jenisse’s picture–it was her with more make up, less hair and sleeker–in the newspaper. She won an award for her co-design of a park circling a pond. The name? Homestead Park. I want to see it. Then I may give her a call. We each had our plans. We aimed for the target and finally hit bull’s eye. How many people can say that?

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The Enchantment of Fairs

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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.

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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.

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