Nels’ Northwest Initiation

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Nels didn’t like the neighborhood. He thought it was too quiet, so tidy that he wanted to drop his gum wrappings on the sidewalk, maybe a wad of gum, too. The dogs were all well-behaved, not a snarl out of any of them as he passed. It wasn’t Chicago, he kept hearing from his dad, who grinned whenever he said it. Nels felt gypped. He had heard it was a decent city they were moving to, smaller but still with plenty of stuff going on. Portland was supposed to be bursting with music and art, tech nuts, young hippies and old hippies, skateboarders, a famous bookstore. Mountain ranges soaring nearby. Two rivers (one that dumped right into the ocean, not too far away) with ten bridges.

Four were draw bridges, he’d read. He was fascinated with bridges so had planned on making his dad drive over every one of them in the first month. Nels was half-scared of being stalled high up over water, and when he thought about earthquake potential, it really made him crazy to consider being stuck on there. They had crossed two so far. He planned to document them in his notebook: “Bridges Surveyed and Survived”.

Presently his topic of research was farmer’s markets. He’d never been to one,  not a large one with food from nearby farms. It was early fall so there would be pumpkins and weird mushrooms to check out. The possibility of tasting goat cheese, fresh smoked salmon and homemade Marionberry jam thrilled him. There was a market downtown, even with certified organic food, which likely meant there were bugs on it.

Fifth grade had begun and all he could say was this school one was as boring as every other school he’d been to, all three of them.  The last one was a Quaker private school (thanks to his aunt, who taught there), not one Nels would have chosen even if he did like the subjects better. He was relieved to be back in public school. But he daydreamed about his mother and his oldest best friend, neither of whom would likely visit him here too often.

Friends weren’t that easy to come by. He was just too new. His dad suggested he head out on his bike, see what he could see. He felt silly riding around the same area over and over, looking cool, unimpressed with the scenery which he found exotic. Often there were a couple of teen-agers playing basketball but they ignored him. He saw a kid, maybe seven or so, with a crown on and she waved like a beauty queen from her porch. She looked more like a dirty fairy princess, wings and all. Nels rode by without a nod.

But there was something interesting that got his attention one Saturday morning. It was a bungalow with peeling white paint on a corner two blocks away. The drapes were half-open but the rooms looked dark. The yard was teeming with flowers. He slowed down. He’d seen roses, of course, but not growing like they were wild in every yard. In late August and September. There was tons of lavender–he’d seen it in a gift shop by the North Shore–with bees buzzing about. He laid his bike down on the outer grass and peeked into the back yard. There was a small play house, and red, yellow and blue chairs about a table. The little red house looked rusty, as if it needed fresh paint, too.

He heard the back door open and stepped back. A large orange cat leapt out, then zig-zagged across the yard, batting at something defenseless with wings. The play house looked abandoned. He didn’t see any signs of life, not even a dirty old tennis ball or a crunched pop can. Just looking at the yard made him want to be back in Chicago where you could rub shoulders with masses of neighbors. His current back yard was spacious and fenced and emptier than this one.

“Hey! What’re you gawking at?”

Nels head jerked up and he saw a girl balancing on a skateboard, watching him. Hands were on hips and her head was cocked to one side. She had shoulders that looked like they could level him in one mad rush.

“Nothing.” He got back onto his bike. “Just saw the playhouse as I rode by.”

“Yeah, now you saw that, what else?”

She picked up the skateboard and walked over to him. He felt she was one of those fictional Amazons as he sat on his bike curbside. She seemed to know this and lorded it over him, chin up, looking down her significant nose at him. She couldn’t be much older than he was even though she acted like it. Her eyes glinted in the sunshine, brown with golden slivers.

Nels shrugged and stared down the street. “Like your board. Want to ride around with me?”

“Maybe.”

She put her skateboard on the pavement and pushed off. He jumped onto his bike and caught up with her, then passed her, but she grabbed his fender and held on, getting a free ride.

“Why do you have a playhouse? Do you really still…play house?” he shouted at her and pedaled harder, his breath a little labored. She was not a light-weight.

“My dad built it when I was three,” she called out. “Now it’s a kind of clubhouse.”

“What?” He slowed for a stop sign and turned around. She drifted up next to him.

“CLUB HOUSE.” She enunciated as if he was hard of hearing. “For me to do stuff undisturbed. And maybe a friend or two.”

“How do you get in? On your hands and knees?”

She punched him on the shoulder and skated off, gaining speed with each push forward, then jumped a curb and landed without a wobble.

“Maybe a secret password, too?” he shouted after her.

“Hey, better watch out for Flora! She’s like a wild beast!” The basketball guys laughed as they rode by on their expensive bikes.

Flora. Flora the flying wildcat, he thought, and liked the sound of it. He headed back home.

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The next two weeks it mostly rained. Nels had never seen it rain that way, on and off, on and off every day. Hard as pebbles, then soft as feathers against his window. He came home and thought of the bright cold air of Chicago, leaves going orange-gold, fire red. He thought of his friend Holden and the park that was a second home, the basketball court, a fountain in the shape of a lighthouse (with a light at top when it worked) near the swings and the patchy grass and weeds getting out of hand. When Nels looked down the street from his bedroom window now he saw bright bunches of flowers, perky despite the downpours. Lawns were so green they almost glowed as if drawn with florescent markers. Bushes were pruned into mini-sculptures. Back home….(“This is home, now”, his dad reminded him at least once a week)….the lawns were skinny and you could tell what the neighbors were having for dinner and who was mad and if it wasn’t always the safest where they lived it was lively.

One evening as he finished his English assignment–write a three-page report on your favorite author (he chose Tolkien to impress his teacher but he had actually read two books)–rain drops tumbled off rooftops. Then stopped for more then fifteen minutes. He opened his window and sniffed the air. Slightly cooler, earthy, fresh and breezey. The neighborhood shimmered under the street lamp. The block was calm, as usual. He grabbed his jacket and ran downstairs.

His dad looked up from the Irish mystery series he was watching, his phone lit up in his hand. Multi-tasking.

“Going for a short walk, okay?”

“It’s almost eight, be back in half an hour.”

Nels power-walked across the street, arms swinging. His breath emitted little clouds, or he wished they were clouds but really they were just damp puffs, nothing to indicate autumn temperatures. It was a few notches above balmy, in fact, and he began to sweat. By the time he reached the girl’s house, he had taken off his jacket and tied it around his waist as he jogged. He came to a full skid stop by Flora’s back yard.

A light appeared inside the play house. Rather, there was a wavering brightness leaking through small windows and a half-open Dutch door. Nels slinked into the yard, tried to see if she was there. All he made out was a fat round yellow candle.

“Who goes there?” A voice like Flora’s but deeper.

So she was the dramatic type. Nels sneaked up to the door and crouched, ready to scare her. Flora popped her head out the upper half of the door and looked around.

“Come on out. I can smell you,” she stated flatly.”It’s like sweat mixed with cinnamon rolls.”

He stood up, avoiding her grasp. “Cinnamon bundt cake, vanilla ice cream. We bake sometimes.”

“Any extras?”

He thought she meant pieces of cake, as if he would bring her any.

Then Flora opened the half-door a couple of inches. “You alone, no dogs or other bad influences? Gilligan is with me.”

“Gilligan?”

“Yeah, that’s right, like the old show Gilligan’s Island. My cat.”

She pulled Nels in and shut the door. He ducked down a few of inches. He could see the tabby curled up in a corner, the cat that had sprung out of the back door. Flora bent over, too, as she made her way to a large plaid pillow on the floor, then pointed to the other one across from hers.

He sat clumsily after she did. She stroked Gilligan until he settled and purred, then glanced at Nels as if to check that he was behaving, as well.

The candle sputtered in the waxy pool. Flora poured some of it into the palm of her hand. She jerked her head at the candle and he followed suit, a warm carmelly drip stinging, then smoothing over his palm. They waited for it to cool, then crack. The flame on the candle steadied and illuminated the walls.

He saw her eyes turn more golden and imagined her a mountain lion come down from the mountains he had yet to explore. They were piercing and darted about. He wondered if she had long pointy nails, decided she didn’t, but would check later to be sure.

She thought he looked tired and parched, like a creature who finally made it to paradise after being lost in some terrible place. He knew all this was not a mirage but he still seemed very unsure. He had a baseball cap on and his grey-blue eyes reminded her of water trapped under ice.

“Where you from, Nels?”

“Chicago, home of the White Sox.” He tipped his cap. “How do you know my name, Flora?”

“Word just gets around, right? Wow, the Great Lakes. And a huge, freezing, windy city.” Flora shivered violently. “I’d like to have more snow. We get black ice, mostly. Except on the mountain. Mt. Hood, that is. You ski?”

He shrugged, stared at the flame as it danced, then rested, danced, rested. He felt the urge to say things. “Yeah, I can ski. And snowboard. And swim and ride in marathons with my dad. We came to this bizarre rainforest because my dad got a great job. Had to move…My mother, she lives in a townhouse and does web design. They divorced three years ago but I like living with my dad better.”

He shot Flora an angry look. Her mouth, which was hanging open, closed.

“I was way happier in Chicago.”

“Of course. You’re from the Midwest. You have culture shock, or so my mother would say. She has MS, and writes sci fi books and has nearly white hair even though she’s just thirty-eight. A genetic thing. I’ll probably get it before then–I saw a white hair the other day, swear it.” She patted Gilligan. “My dad left when I was four so I don’t miss him. You’ll get used to your mom being gone. Eventually.”

Nels let loose a sigh; he didn’t realize he had been holding his breath in after he’d let out so many words. He half-smiled at Flora, more out of relief to have air them. No one else knew those things here.

She didn’t smile back but held up a squashy little ball of wax. She pulled it apart and gave half to him. They picked at their pieces and dropped bits of wax back into the candle’s well and watched the flame, blinking and yawning. It reminded Nels of a cobra, the way it moved.

Nels leaned against the wall and got so sleepy he felt like he could sit back and snooze until morning. He noticed Flora was tired out, too, with Gilligan curled up on her lap. The candle flickered and threw monster shadows on the walls. Their shadows. He got up.

“I need to leave. You go to the same school right, right? I don’t feel like being caught in a play house…Is it the only place you’ve got?”

She frowned and studied Gilligan as he stretched. “I have an oak tree that beats the rest. There’s a good park a few blocks away. I like it here. We could sit outside at the table. I was going to say you could come back and visit here, but oh, well. You’d have to donate a candle, anyway. I like to light them as it gets colder.”

She caught Gilligan’s tail as he hopped off, then let it run through her fingers. Her nails were short.

Nels went outside but poked his head through the half-door. “You mean, for heat?” He snickered. “When you’re forced to put on fleece and wear real shoes?”

She flashed a toothy smile. “I wear sandals most of the year.With leggings or tights. You probably brought snow boots but forgot a water-repellant jacket. You might drown with all that weight on your feet.”

Nels laughed and waved. He crossed the yard and stopped to examine the rain jewels on roses, then looked back as the little house went dark. He didn’t wait to see Flora emerge. He took off down the street, Gilligan running after him then making a U-turn, off on a hunt. He thought about the market he and his dad were checking out on Saturday. Portland was possibly going to be a decent place. Eventually.

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Posted in fiction, Pacific Northwest living, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A LeAnn Rimes Sort of Intervention

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LeAnn Rimes’ soaring alto grabbed me at the sink as I cleaned a skillet of salmon leftovers. I was minding my own business and boom! the song shook me right up.

It’s important to know I’m not generally a country music aficionado though I admire its production value and talents. I’m not a very sentimental person, just occasionally nostalgic. I go for Debussy and Berlioz, Miles Davis and Diane Reeves and Bill Evans among many more. But sometimes I need country’s brand of liveliness, its overriding warmth. Even its simplistic and frank commentaries. So as I tackled kitchen clean up from last night’s late dinner, I thought LeAnn might do the trick. The song playing had a great chorus that insisted everyone has their highs and lows, love can stand strong despite life going right or wrong. What I heard was less regarding romantic love, more about life’s highs and lows.

And I thought: that about sums it up. And started crying.

I was elbow-deep in suds as tears slid down my cheeks and mingled with soapy sweet potato bits and salmon flakes. I wondered what on earth was going on but let them quietly fall. I’ve gotten good rest, plans are in order for my daughter’s upcoming wedding, and summer hasn’t yet been utterly vanquished.

Yet, something was up. I am not an easy weeper. Country doesn’t figure strongly in my musical repertoire because I have had enough of broken hearts, longings for more love, sizzling nights and crazy-fast cars, lalalala baby. It was once dizzying and fabulous and nuts but from this perspective, a bit overrated. Well, I mostly have had enough. I admit a lapse into old daydreams from time to time when I have nothing else to do or think about. Or a vivid memory catches me off guard.

But this morning something else happened. Music found me and whispered secrets, awakened dormant feelings. I began to recall cherished friends who have come and gone (or I had to leave due to circumstances), love held close then torn apart, life’s hopes and disillusionments. It seemed the spot where loneliness lives was unlatched, then let out to roam. It dogged me from pan to plate to gleaming countertop. The harder I scrubbed the more tears fell. I need to get a grip, I thought, right now. And I could use a bigger support system–how’s that epiphany for a retired counselor?

I looked around for more to do. I’m an action person, and like to think on the fly, multi-task. Feelings are appreciated, too–as long as I also get things done.

But the sadness intensified. My parents and long-gone friends hovered about like visitors. Faces from twenty-five years ago came forward, those I had counted on and cared for, reluctantly said good-bye to. My mother, having left earth thirteen years ago, may as well have entered the room. Of course she knew I needed her. I nearly felt her hand on my shoulder; her easy laughter came to me like a freshening of breeze. I imagined what she would say to me right then:

“Well, some things are out of our control. But the rest you can work with and have a good time doing it, too.”

I had to sit down.

I guessed it all made sense. A wedding for my youngest, A. is soon–but my mother is no longer here to ask for advice, to celebrate or commiserate with. She would have had a word to offer on everything, like it or not. Soft hugs and prayers that targeted bothersome specifics; mom was affectionate but never wimpy. Somehow she could corral unruly life, place it into a manageable perspective. And I know she shed plenty of her own tears.

I thought of the necklace, earrings and bracelet A. will wear with her vintage bridal gown. I sniffled a bit more. They once belonged to my mother, given to another daughter, who is sharing them with her sister.

The wedding preparations have required a concentration of multiple energies. I’ve gathered up scattered information and tried to execute ideas with a level of skill I’ve at times felt was lacking. There have been few to assist me due to others’ life obligations (a twenty-two year old granddaughter helped a couple of times, thankfully, and daughters have chimed in a bit). I’ve relied on my own problem-solving and hoped for the best: May it please not rain on the forest ceremony! Let the food be savory and hot! May the music be lively and the sound system good enough for what we can afford!

And all the time I have been thinking of A. and how her life has been in a fantastic upheaval, with a move to another state, a brand new career and her best friend/fiance who is looking for his own job. Wedding yet to happen, but soon, so soon.

There is this business of the family morphing… again. I have been through it a few times. This idea of losing a daughter, gaining a son… We have known D. many years and care for him, root for him, too. I know how to welcome folks into my home as well as adapt and this was no new person. No, it was all this shifting gears, making things happen, accepting all outcomes. Today varied impressions manifested as a tender sorrow, a pressure within that left no bruise yet radiated pain. And beneath that, a swift, deep river of feelings. To cross over to the other bank where a more productive day awaited meant fully acknowledging them.

So LeAnn was singing away and I was at the oak table weeping and praying: This is how messy it is to be human. I hate it sometimes. How inconvenient to feel so sad when I have things to do and much to celebrate. So help me, Lord, because this life’s drama and comedy will go right on until it does not. Help me, Jesus, to be strong in the compassion you have shown me. Give my soul safe harbor when things get out of hand out there. Show me how to be of use, how to exemplify your Love. Lord, let these tears cleanse any sore spots I have neglected to ask You to heal. And never let me forget the blessings I receive every single day…And please, I need a better sense of humor! (An Aussie puppy might help…but later when I can catch my breath…) 

I thought of my two best friends, both struggling with illness, who may not be able to attend the wedding. I thought of my sisters, one close and one far away, both of whom are dear to me. They also have health issues and demanding lives. One brother is nearby but I rarely see him and one lives across the country but will come and also photograph the events. We’re getting older and time and place separate us more than I would like.

But sometimes what I think I need doesn’t seem to be what I get. Today it was the comfort of someone who knows me well and to whom I could say: “Change in my life is hard, I admit it. And it can make me feel discombobulated and lonely for what used to be. Even though that wasn’t a sure thing, either. Even though I’m curious about what awaits around a next corner.”

After a few minutes I’d had enough of crying. I washed my face and put on more lively music–a little Ry Cooder and his Cuban pals–and got ready for the gym. When blurry or low on spiritual and emotional power, getting active is a way I can circumvent a descent into lethargy or self-pity. I brushed my flyaway, greying hair and put on tennis shoes, already feeling some brighter.

And then A. texted me.

“I’m feeling overwhelming sadness and I don’t know why! Will you say a prayer for me so I act like a normal person at my new job for the rest of the day?”

Just like that, God stepped in closer to do some work.

I texted back. “Me, too…maybe that’s why I shed some tears today. Well, I have my own stuff. It’s all these changes, a roller coaster of ups and downs. When you move out of the temporary place and make your own new home you’ll feel better, I promise. It takes time to fit the pieces together after a big, sudden move like you’ve had. And the wedding on top of it all! I’m proud of you for just coping with it, carrying on.”

We chatted awhile. The topic changed a bit. But I texted prayers and held her close at heart. She went back to work with love sent my way. A. is such a good egg. And she will work work like mad to do a great job. Her new job is a marketing and community outreach position at a performing arts center. It is work she was meant to do and she feels fortunate. But her needs extend beyond work and this transition has been trying.

Sometimes–though I’ve worked in human services most of my adult life and have loved the work–I don’t know what I need. I believe I’m competent overall and have faith in my daily decisions. But what requires most attention can be a blind spot until something jars the truth out of me. It could be music that excavates a clue, writing a poem that sheds light or the natural world enlargening my vision. I start each day with a meditative reading and prayer, yet still I might need more sharpening of focus. But generally what matters to me is a steadfast faith in God, helping others including family, the courage of kindness, the phenomenal resilience of love, and the fulfillment and freedom of creative work.

And as I finish this, it finally hits me: LeAnn Rimes is to be a performer this season where A. works. I’m surprised, but it all comes together. Her song must have been waiting to reach and teach me today, along with my daughter. Such clever timing, when my soul needed a dollop of sweet on top of sour. Didn’t I, in fact, get what was most needed? A pause that allowed some tears, a sharing of love, a refreshed outlook. Now I can better set aside useless longings, make more room for the present and future. More living will certainly occur; stasis is useful but not permanent. There’s no holding back change once events are in action. Life has its own velocity, clears it own paths. We just have to decide how many directives we want to issue and how much work we’re willing to do. When we want to jump in and step back. Sometimes it means letting the aches of living rise up, burble and shimmer, transform our vision and help set us free. To be truly human and glad of it.

Thanks, LeAnn. Thanks, A.

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Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope’s Last Stand

Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths

Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths

“Isn’t that what they called it, Pruett? Last Hope Street?”

He was reading the weekly activist paper sold by the homeless and didn’t want to be bothered by another conversation with Zelda. Even if she was his second cousin and his quasi-rescuer. She always had such an arch in her voice, as if she was studying something from her privledged distance, nose pinched between thumb and index finger. She had to comment on everything. Even the picture on the back page as he read. The photo op page. It was aggravating enough that she always inquired why he bothered to read the paper, put out by people who could barely spell and a staff who was just a bunch of do-gooders.

Well, so what?

“They’re playing at being journalists, Pruett. They might seek education, get jobs for which they’re suited not just emotionally inclined. People should act less from selfish wants. More from practicality.”

“Could be,” he mumbled and read the last paragraph of the article.

“Could be that it was called ‘Last Hope Street’?”

He nodded, turned the page. Zelda sat up in the rocking chair and fiddled with the wisps of hair unravelling from her bun. (“Chignon, a far cry from a bun!” she’d corrected him once.)

“It was such a different place, then, wasn’t it? Nothing green growing, children playing half-dressed on the sidewalks with their grubby hands grasping at you as you walked  by.” She yawned tidily. “It was a place you tried to avoid. Now, well, who could imagine? What strange ways time has with real estate.”

He didn’t want to acknowledge her thoughts. He wanted to be left alone with his own. But this was the way of things now. The house she owned, the room he rented, the other two boarders were here long before he had had to “downsize”, as they said. Whoever “they” were. Whatever that even meant. As if he chose to lock the door of his rapidly sold two story Tudor and drive off without a backward glance. As if he willingly shared a structure with someone who served chilled prunes in a cut glass bowl with a sprig of mint atop, presenting them as if they were delicacies. And shared an opinion on everything.

He turned to the back page. “I suspect the picture is to remind us of a perfectly ordinary street where people once raised families and had fun. That’s what I see.” He held the page with the photograph closer. “Copyright 1958, it says. Well, I somewhat recall it was a decent street if a bit scrubby. Now it’s about to become cleaner and chic. Money gallops right along, setting people to the curb. You do understand the poor and homeless don’t want us to forget what happens to such neighborhoods, Zelda?”

Zelda sniffed, a habit due to a chronically drippy nose that was straight as an arrow and as sharp. She usually had a tissue hidden in a pocket, at the ready. “My point, Pruett. How can some of us forget? It was part of our old territory. And why shouldn’t change be encouraged?”

Tiresome. That’s what he thought of her. It was like entering a maze and struggling to get out again some days. But once started, he couldn’t help himself. Maybe it was part competitive, part entertainment. But this was a topic that mattered.

“If you haven’t been homeless or poor, how could you know what it is to lose your block to bulldozers and condominiums? People all need a place to lay their heads and nurture their babies. Surely you see that.”

Sniff, sniff. “Well, of course. I’m not an idiot, dear.” She dabbed her nose with a folded tissue. “But you are an authority? You taught at university for forty years. Even if it was anthropology. Hardly living on the dole…”

Pruett felt his stomach tighten and rumble. He reached into the fruit bowl on the coffee table and chose a lovely orb of apple. Polished it on his sweater and took a maximum bite. Eating was a good way to render one’s self speechless. Let her think about what she just said.

She resumed. “Running out of money is one thing. Having none to start with seems another. How can one miss what one never had…? Yet it happens. Both ways.”

He stopped chewing and swallowed hard. Was it possible this woman was an absolute boor? No, just so narrow in viewpoint her mind became myopic. She was unschooled. Unable to imagine lack of good fortune since her inheritance was substantial. Zelda had lived frugally, had boarders for years to augment what?–a few million?–and wanted for nothing. Likely never would know destitution, not even close to it.

Nor would he, though sometimes it felt like it as he made his way to the corner room where he had a desk, a single bed, a nightstand and lamp. The taupe brocade wingback chair. A trunk, once belonging to his grandfather, now at the foot of his bed, keeping safe his paper memories. A bookshelf that held less than one tenth of what used to keep him company late at night. It was only a rented room, not a nursing home–good Lord, please, not that for at least another twenty years. If ever. He hadn’t wanted his Marie to live and die there, either, so she had stayed home, battling until the end, ten years of dismantling a vibrant, then weakened, then an unspooled and ashen life. Letting go of their safety nets precipitated a steep descent. Spiritually, emotionally. Financially. Well, she had gone on to a good place if Pruett really saw that soft smile she left him. And he did.

And he remained. With time on his hands and Zelda.  The other two, young boarders, came and went. Their feet clomped up the stairs when he was dozing in his room, then shuffled to their own refuges. As if they were older than the hills when they had years yet to work and save and complain and get old. They shared pleasantries, a dinner here and there, waved in the hallways. They’d move on, be replaced by others. But he was stuck here.

“What do you do there each Monday?”

Pruett startled, saw Zelda’s face in high relief as late afternoon shadows draped her features. Those cheek bones looked faintly dangerous. She was still a beauty but a sadly neglected one.

“At This Planet, Our Home offices? Answer questions that come via phone about the homeless. Edit articles. Work with an aspiring street poet or two. Listen a lot.”

“Educate me, then.”

The apple was crisp, sweet on his tongue. He took another bite and studied the street through the bay window. The rain was splashing everything, cooling things down enough that he wondered where his slippers were. He thought of the historical novel begun earlier, and the wingback with its neatly folded, worn and wooley blanket.

“Well, the numbers. Last year there were over six hundred thousand homeless in the United States. Most were sheltered but about thirty-five percent were not. Unsheltered means they stayed under bridges, in cars, in parks, in abandoned buildings. Even to sleep. In winter. People twenty-five and older were the majority of homeless folks, but one quarter are children under eighteen. New York and California had the highest increase in homeless persons.”

He noted she was listening, though her hands were restless, picking at a stray thread on her nubby skirt.

“In Portland it’s estimated four thousand sleep in shelters or on the streets. Fastest growing subgroup everywhere? Women with children.”

Zelda yanked the thread, frowned as it held fast. He wondered if she intended on yanking until it unravelled, pulling until it required emergency repair. She needed to exercise authority, he thought, in all things. She looked up, eyebrows raised.

“That many? Miserable. Why do you suppose so many end up that way? Do you give them money? One expects they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol, isn’t that right?”

“Of course some are addicts. Too many. Some have just lost jobs and couldn’t make ends meet after a couple months. Families are homeless at an alarmingly increased rate. And mental illness fells large numbers, or physical disability. Veterans can be prone to homelessness.”

“There.” She said this with satisfaction as she captured and broke the offending thread, shook it off. “Certainly, it is clear they need much more than housing. It seems an untenable situation, Pruett, but nothing is impossible to alter. What lasting good can you accomplish by just listening and editing? Maybe it would be better for you to invest time in something more…” She scanned the dusky room for inspiration. “…I can’t know for certain, but perhaps real estate that pays off in a big way. That’s what I’m doing.”

He sat forward, his hands gripping the arms of the chair. “Zelda, you have callouses lining your heart. You’ve been good to me, but really.”

She flashed her eyes at him, as if to say he was being absurd.

“I”m talking about my investment in Hope Street.”

“So that’s why it got your attention.” Pruett ran his hand over his forehead. He felt defeated by her dearth of social empathy. “Zelda, I would love you to come down to the paper’s office with me next week. Will you do that or are you fearful of catching a few bugs?”

He presed a finger to his lips. That could have been left unsaid. Zelda wasn’t that sort of woman, not really. Not fearful, at least! He was impatient when he might be more charitable. His own blood.

“You are self-righteous at times, Pruett. I realize we haven’t been close for some time. I suggest you open your mind a little. As I am trying to do. We are here for the duration in all likelihood, in this house, life closing in on the last years. We should be quite kinder allies, is that not wise? Much more effective.”

Such an emotional appeal seemed extravangant as well as a small embarrassment to Pruett. Quite kinder allies. Where did she get that? Her father no doubt, old military establishment, then esteemed judge, whose fortune she had at her disposal. Yet, she was right. They were here together because of his fate, her good graces, a shared history. He ought to be more friendly, not rubbed raw by petty fractiousness. His, mostly, he admitted.

“Yes, you’re right. I do apologize. Would you like to come with me next week?”

“Well, yes, if is there is some way I might be helpful.”

“I’d think you’d proofread after teaching English for so long. Or just observe the newspaper process. Yes, please join me.”

“Ah, good then.”

They listened to the rain. It had started in the morning, a slow release, a descent of moisture from grey skies after so long a summer. They both liked rain, that was one thing. They tended to read more in rainy season, even paragraphs aloud to each other. Other things that worked: she cooked, he cleaned up often. He went shopping for her as he didn’t mind crowds, even rather liked them. He paid her little but enough that he didn’t have to feel like he was taking advantage. There was no need of that; he could carry his weight even if it was a little. She accepted this with quiet, due appreciation. Every communal group has its hierarchy, its common needs and shared labors. The house ran well because this was understood.

Zelda had a talent for running things but the respect she afforded her boarders was a bonus, despite her patrician bent. She had a moral compass and it worked well even when he failed to see it. The chignon and a few jewels worn daily and the way she spoke blinded him at times.

He turned to her and appraised her straight back, her silvery hair, the creases around still-full lips. She had been a single person most of her life. He was just learning how to do it, a man fumbling in a darkened room for another hand.

“I’m thinking there is another reason you want to come with me to This Planet, Our Home.”

“That’s so.”

“Real estate involved?”

“Yes, Pruett. How quick today!” One eyebrow raised this time.

“Hope Street?”

She then smiled at him and he glimpsed his mother’s smile, or was it his great-aunt’s, but it was familiar in a way he had forgotten.

“Yes, I’m taking one big last stand, Pruett. Against this hellbent world. How much longer can I be of good use? I thought I’d buy the building on Hope and Fifty-third. That red brick, ratty hotel, remember? Terrible inside. I got it for a song and it will cost to renovate but it has good bones. I thought it would make lovely transitional housing.”

“Housing? For homeless people, you mean?”

“Don’t look so  surprised. I do a few things. Not all of us are called to climb into the trenches but we can still use our talents.”

“Well, I’m the fool here.” Pruett pounded the arm of the chair three times with his opened palm. “Excellent idea! The hotel on Hope Street!”

Zelda laughed and rose to get their tea. He watched the rain slap the bushes, slip down the window glass. His brain percolated. A hotel of hope. Maybe thirty studios or twenty one bedrooms. Maybe a community club space on the first floor? He’d love to start something up.

Zelda handed him a Royal Dover fine bone china teacup on its tiny saucer. “Here, Paulie. Time to really talk.”

Hearing his childhood name spoken ignited warmth in his cranky bones. He set the teacup on a side table and leaned closer.

“Maybe call it Hope at Riverside, as that is where it sits. Wait-how about Hope Street Lofts? And we could utilize some of the first floor for a common gathering place. I see ping pong tables, a coffee bar. Let’s make it a place everyone can enjoy.”

Zelda nodded. “Now you’re thinking, cousin. Let’s.”

 

***********

Note: Please see The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Deal

 

DSCN6143

Through my office window slipped a warm breeze, adding a gift of more oxygen to the light. But the young woman sat before me with hands clenched, deep-set hazel eyes averted and brimming with unshed tears.

I had asked her a simple enough question: “What are your dreams?”

I knew the answer already but waited for her to speak.

“I don’t know! I don’t have dreams. What are those? Fantasies! All I ever had was a crazy need to survive.” She looked at me, eyes empty of tears as suddenly as they had filled, the hurt pushed back to the tender places she guarded so well. “I guess I’ve done that so far, anyway. Gotten by, day by day.”

It was an assignment: come up with three things you want, such as wishes you had as a child that were put aside, hopes you let yourself dare to long for, situation imagined that would make you happy. But Marta wasn’t accustomed to thinking in terms of what she would love for herself. For her daughter, yes: a better life, which currently meant shelter in a safe place, enough healthy food, health and friends. But for herself? Just getting by in the most basic sense was enough; she had eaten from dumpsters outside of restaurants and slept under highway overpasses and shot meth. None of it had killed her so far.

Marta’s mental health and addiction treatment had spanned three months so far. It had begun with a DUII, her first, and developed into something more far-reaching than she had expected. She had presented herself as amenable, even friendly, but it had been a veneer, a shield, as behind that was a tough woman who was paying attention, keeping tally. Deep beyond that was a soft core that floated in pain. I saw flashes of her soul when she thought I wasn’t looking. There was a radiance but it felt to her like a weakness. She drank to keep it in one spot, in the dark, under wraps. It was better, she informed me, than the methamphetamine she had used for eight years and finally quit at twenty-three after too much, too fast. As far as she had been concerned, she had to “do the time” in treatment. It was easier than what her spouse was doing: time in prison for violent crimes. Some against her.

For the first month or so she thought little of me and my tools for life and yet she had come to every individual session and two groups. I had reserved any judgment. I knew for a fact that a counselor–or anyone else–cannot predict who will make real headway and who will give up. Marta caught my attention, though, with her strong will and quick mind. She just couldn’t see the potential she had. Yet.

Years living the gang life and finally out, at least as much as she could be then. Multi-generational domestic violence. A child born right after she had gotten clean whom she adored and worried about every minute.

“Maybe Trina will have a good life, maybe she will be kept enough from harm, find a way to something good. I’m working on it. I changed jobs like you suggested.”

The corners of her mouth dipped, then changed into the barest crescent of a smile. She had left a fast food job for a factory worker job, working swing shift as her erratic mother kept her child. But it was better pay and she had done well enough that she was shift leader already. It didn’t surprise me. Marta knew how to problem solve on her feet, learned quickly and wasn’t afraid of hard physical work. She had inner endurance and stamina. I’d want her on my team as long–as she stayed sober and crime-free.

“So maybe you could look into moving in a few months, you think?”

“Maybe. Have to finish this first. This costs me! But, yeah, maybe by Christmas I can look around.” She shifted, put one foot underneath her. “That would be good for Trina. Some present!”

“So, one dream–one wish–is having better housing for yourself and Trina.”

“I guess.” She paused as if checking to make sure. “Really want to know? A small place outside the city, maybe. But I’d start with an apartment just outside of my block.”

“Outside the city…?”

Marta blinked at me, shook her head. “You’ll think this is weird, but I’ve always wanted to be in the country. My grandfather was poor but he lived on an acre of land in Texas and sometimes we’d visit him a couple of weeks. One year–I was eight–we lived with him. He was hard to get along with–you had to dodge dishes and worse–when he drank tequila. But he cared about us kids. He had three dogs. A huge cat, great mouse killer. I always thought it something that I’d wake up and see the horizon. The air was different, you know? Like there was more of it, smelled good, sorta shone in the daylight.” She gazed out the window.

Her jaw relaxed, her lips softened as they slackened. The vision in her head pierced thick inner walls, roused a gentleness I had sensed but rarely glimpsed.

“A garden, maybe, tomatoes and pumpkins and crap all like that.”

She flushed, wriggled in embarrassment despite the effort to stay in that other zone, the one where she lived only to survive, worked to keep her daughter safe, alive, first and last. Marta knew about guns. She knew about running through deep of night from feet right behind her, sometimes many, who pursued her for no good end. She knew about weapons and trades. She knew what it was to have her husband tape her mouth and beat her because she was too pretty and smart. Because her nature was to be dauntless. Or he just felt like it.

Marta knew sacrifice, fear, exhaustion, numbness. But not much more.

“Who all would live there?”

“Trina and me.”

She looked up at me suddenly, shock widening her eyes.

“I heard that, Cynthia….not him…not Tito…”

Silence filled the room, a divided presence, half-doomsday and half-epiphany. My heart thudded a bit. I had waited a long time for her wants to change, for her world view to separate itself from his. He stayed alive for her so he could dominate and brainwash, put her to work dealing drugs with him, give her whatever he thought she had coming. The last time he made a mistake he had no way out. And he was up for parole again in four months.

“Marta, you do have a dream. More than one. Close your eyes a minute, will you?”

She hesitated, closed then opened them, sat back and let her eyelids fall over tired eyes.

“Do you see it? “

“No.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, okay, I’m getting there. It’s…a nice, safe place in the country, with my daughter. Small and…bgray? Somewhere to breathe and have a dog and a cat. My daughter running barefoot, real clover everywhere. Tito? His chair has a pit bull in it. He’s a good dog, maybe.” Her laughter rattled the room. “The house is nothing much but it’s mine, it’s good.”

Marta opened her eyes and squinted at me. “But the problem is, Cynthia, having a dream is dangerous. It can make you crazier. It takes a piece of you–because, dreams? Come on! They don’t come true.”

There it was, the slip back into the habitual self-talk of loathing and bitterness, the fall into a stream of fast current that wouldn’t let go. She would need to climb out of this, shut down thoughts that took her to dangerous places. She had to keep her mind open to something finer, healthier. Prepare for a battle but plan for victory.

That is, that was what I wanted for her.

“Can’t dreams make you powerful, too? Can’t they inspire you, teach you, help you hope?”

“In your world, maybe. In mine…” Her hands grabbed the chair arms and she leaned forward. “Big difference. But, hey, I’m in this treatment and the insurance is paying good money so why not? Why not think about things? You’ll tell me the truth, I know that. I can tell you things I haven’t said to anyone before. really bad things. Some good things. I’m not stupid. I can learn. So I’m willing.”

“Willing. That’s a concept to love.”

“So you say. Well, I’ll make you a deal, Cynthia, that’s how I do things. One, I’ll stay and complete this. It’s not so bad as I thought. Two, I’ll start a list of one thing a week I wish for. One small thing. Maybe I’ll get it better that way. Like today. I didn’t see Tito in that picture. That was…well, it scared me. I don’t even know what to think. But it makes sense, too. It might be right even though I barely can imagine.”

She sat back, released the arms of the chair, smiled just a little.

“But you got to stay my counselor. Got it? You can’t pull out when I’m going in for the long haul. I won’t do this with anybody else.”

Her words created a lurch in my stomach. I knew I was leaving the agency in less than 6 weeks. I wasn’t certain she would be completed by then.

“Marta, I appreciate your appreciation….but I can’t promise I will always be here. The good thing is, you’ve already changed your path by staying sober and envisioning something better for you and Trina. You’re so persistent. You’ll go forward if that’s what you desire.”

While she considered this, I restrained myself from throwing my arms around her, giving her an award, celebrating triumph with her. Still, I knew better. Changes would be stormy well as illuminating.

And I had my own secret. I knew it wasn’t me she counted as an ally as much as God. That the deep beauty within her was revealed to me by my soul’s ever-seeking eyes. Every session was preceded by a prayer, that I would see the true person struggling to get free. That I would be a conduit for God’s mercy.

The session presented a small beginning. Potent. But tentative nonetheless. I was always calm, knew to sit just enough, contained. I leaned back, too. To say less, not more. To not overwhelm this person with great joy when she was only learning what joy could be. And barely believed in it. Still…

“Marta, you’ve made my day, no, at least my week! Now time’s up.”

“Really?” She stood, her height commanding, shoulders squared and readied for the world. “I mean, the first thing?”

“Yes, really.”

“Nice.”

She spontaneous her smile filled the room.

Out the door she strode, down the stairs. I could see her from my office window. Her long dark hair gleamed in the light, her fancy tennis shoes made a fast path to her car. She turned around as she opened the door, put a flattened hand to her forehead so she could see up to my window. I think I expected her to salute in mock respect or to give a perfunctory wave or maybe do nothing at all. Marta was not an easy one to predict even though she had such potential. But she lay her hand to heart, then raised it up to me, a testimony, a promise, the sealing of the deal.

 

(Note: Identifying details and name have been changed.)

 

 

 

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Graffiti

 

Photo by Rennie Ellis

Photo by Rennie Ellis

Sure, it bothered him but he wasn’t sure what to do. Pops Haverson could repaint it, of course, but how long would it stay fresh and clean? It wasn’t like it had dirty words or racist drivel or threats, was it? That’s what his wife reminded him as he left their house and also: “It’s not the Ritz, not the best we own, you know.” No, but the painted words spoiled the half-wall, behind which were stairs to a locksmith. The small business owner on the west end of the building hadn’t said a thing. Pops decided to find out who’d made the art work. It’d probably take him weeks or he could call the police–fat chance of anything coming of that–but he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want retaliation. He had fair relationships overall. And Pops wasn’t a fighting man. For the most part his tenants were decent, hard-working folks; they reminded Pops of himself before he invested in real estate. That is, they were a bit worn thin but full of grit.

His twelve tenants liked him enough. No one went out of their way to be real friendly and he didn’t encourage it. Pops believed that you get chummy and before you know it, trouble rolls in. They might want an extra week to pay rent or skip out of their lease, try to get more for their money and then take it personally when you deny them.

No, vandalism wasn’t a problem for him before. But inoffensive or not, why that? Why paint “No standing, only dancing”? A weird thing to say. What did they mean by that? He’d rarely seen anyone dance in front of his apartments. There were a dozen kids around there (four teens in the building) but they liked to smoke, gossip, watch other kids go by. They sat on that wall a lot. He found busted beer bottles sometimes, end bits of joints, and sometimes a dirty sock or a tennis shoe, a trashed motorcycle magazine. Someone had a thing for Harleys, as the magazines got left behind every few months. So he repeated, Keep the doorway clear, stay off the wall, move on down the street. He even put a hefty trash receptacle by the entrance.

He came by once a month to collect rents. Sometimes he’d yell at the group to stop hanging around the door. They’d refused to quit congregating   and he’d had enough, so posted a No Loitering sign. That lasted a week. When he came by last week-end the graffiti was there. Some nerve these kids had, he thought as he mounted each step slowly.

The tenents had the option of putting their rent check in the mail or waiting until he came first of the month. Usually they didn’t answer their door bells, just slid their envelopes under the door or handed it through a half-inch crack. A few chatted, at times complained more than he wanted.

He rapped hard when nobody answered the doorbell of apartment one, floor one.

“Della. Come on, I don’t have all day. Here for the rent in case you don’t have your calendar open.”

He could hear shuffling, then silence as Della peered out the peephole, as usual. He could almost feel her significant body weight from the other side as she leaned in. It finally opened three inches and one rheumy eye stared at him. Her hand clutched the envelope and he grabbed hold. She held fast. It was her way of resisting, of telling him she was boss. She used to be a high school principal. At eighty-four, she still could have been.

“Della, please. And I have a question, so could you open up a little more?”

She put her white cap of curls against the opening and her raspy voice asked, “What is it now?”

“The writing on the outside wall. Who did that, you know?”

Della pulled back, raised her eyebrows and smiled a tight little smile at him, then let go of the rent. He tried to wedge his foot in but she was too fast and slammed it shut.

“Sorry, Pops, you’re on your own,” she called through the door. “And my bathroom faucet still drips, keeps me up at night. Fix that and we might talk.”

Pops took out his notebook and made a note of it, then rapidly walked to number two. He saw the rent envelope from Jarrod Tuttle held fast in a clothes pin he’d affixed to the door. This was usual. Pops saw all sorts of things dangling from that clothes pin–poetry (if that was what Jarrod wrote), ribbons glued to prayers for ailing strangers he’d read of, seasonal decorations, notes to others in the building. Pops had met with Jarrod twice, when he applied for the place and then paid and moved in. He was up front about having a severe anxiety disorder, couldn’t leave his place much at all. He was on disability. The man was in his forties and hadn’t worked for over ten years. But he kept his place up from what he heard from Della and repair people, and paid on time.

Pops took the envelope down, unsealed it, pocketed the check and then wrote in his notebook: Jarrod, if you know who vandalized the building, please get in touch. Much appreciated, Pops.  He  tore the page out, put it in the envelope and clipped it with the clothes pin.

Number three. He rapped on the door hard four times because Thomas Johns never answered door bells. He’d told Pops that he didn’t need to feel like a trained dog. Besides, he knew who was at the door by the knock, usually, and that was interesting to him. That is, if he wasn’t working on web design with his headphones on. Thomas loved classical music, primarily Bach but sometimes Dvorak. Pops liked classic country but why would he care? He never had complaints about Thomas.

The door opened. Thomas still had ear phones on and held a bowl of salad in one hand. The other held out the rent check. He was very tall, pale-faced, long-haired. Pops was a rotund five foot six. It sometimes felt as if Pops was reaching up to the lowest branch of a birch tree to snag the check. Thomas laughed, lowered the check, then slid the headphones to his neck.

“How are things? Collecting all that is your due and then some?”

Thomas could be sarcastic but Pops didn’t always know when. He was in his late twenties, he guessed, and was trying to make headway in his field. Self-employed. Della had mentioned that Thomas was about to launch himself “into the stratosphere” as he was getting good offers from companies now.

Pops looked behind Thomas. “I see Anton hasn’t moved.” The tabby cat sat on the window ledge in front of Thomas’ desk.

“Right, Anton likes me and sunshine. Plus he catches the mice twice a day.”

Pops laughed. “I need to get a few more cats in here.” But there weren’t mice in this building as far as he knew; he saw to all that.

“Say, Thomas, could you tell me who painted the graffiti on the front?”

Thomas looked amused, then shrugged. “Not a clue. I’m too busy to pay attention to people here, really. Pretty soon I’ll be moving on. But you might try the second floor. Wally and Darcy always seem to know things no one else does, even if you aren’t interested. Or get Della some brandy.”

He put his headphones back on and turned away. Pops stepped out and closed the door.

“Hey, you’re looking fine today!”

That voice zinged him like a shreik. He stumbled up the steps. He was hoping he’d miss Darcy. She was happily tripping down the stairs, a dark red lacy shawl lifting from her shoulders, a rather too-short blue skirt impeding her progress, coppery red hair flying out of a loose bun. She had bright earrings that swung back and forth. Pops instantly thought of the chandelier in his office building downtown.

She stopped him with her hand, rings winking in the stairwell light.

“I finally got a call from my agent. I may have a decent part, Pops! Of course, it’s not the lead but it is a widow who is accused of murdering her husband, very black comedy. I have to go, dearest, but the check is stuck in the door jamb. If it rips, call me and I’ll mail one.”

With a flourish of her shawl– she looked a little like a toreador, he thought–she waved and ran off. He watched her high-heeled boots as they clicked on the tile. Saved, he thought, by an audition. He wondered how much longer she was going to pursue this dream when he knew for a fact that her father gave her the money for rent half the time. Darcy was forty-five if she was a day, funny at times, and excelled at talking his ears off when she wasn’t auditioning or rehearsing.

When he reached number five, he saw the door open very slowly, the hinges squeaking and making his neck shiver. He had some WD40 in his car so would get it later. Pops hesitated, then looked in.  Mrs. Lansing worked and her door was always locked; she mailed her rent.

“Mrs. Lansing?” He called out in a loud voice, alerting whoever it might be.

“No, she’s gone but just a minute.”

The voice was not known to him. A cleaning person? It was light and soft. He tried to think if Mrs. Lansing had anyone who she was close to but couldn’t recall; it was likely she never said anything about her life beyond her job. She was an RN, and she was often working extra shifts at the hospital so she could buy a condo, she informed him, before she hit retirement age. Ten more years to go before the deadline was up.

Pops waited a minute and when there was nothing more forthcoming, he put his head into the living room. A woman had her back turned. She looked like she was getting ready to go somewhere. She had a dark skirt on with a white blouse and somehow Pops thought she looked professional. But different. He cleared his throat.

When she turned round, he caught his breath. He recovered as she nodded at him, a warm smile wreathing her face.

“Mother just left for work. You must be Pops? I have it if you want it now.” She held a check in her left hand and a leather satchel in her right. “Oh, excuse me, I’m Francine Nording.” She dropped the satchel and shook his hand. “I decided to visit mother for a week after my tour in Europe.”

“Yes? That right?” he asked stupidly. “Uh, hello, Francine. I didn’t know she had children. Not that I should. But nice, thank you for the check. She’s always good about getting it in the mail.”

The truth was, Francine Nording was breathtaking. Not Hollywood pretty, not beautiful like his wife admitted she’d wanted to be as a kid. This woman deeply glowed. Her skin was ivory, her hair a white-gold and she was tallish and slender and held herself as if she was royalty. Maybe she was, he thought with a stab of panic and then felt foolish for everything he felt. Get a grip, he told himself. She held out the rent.

“Mother is so organized. Not like me. I get by well enough, though. As a member of a company that travels all the time I just follow someone else’s directives!” She laughed lightly and picked up keys from the entrance table. “Was that all you needed? Good. I have plans.”

They stepped into the hallway and she locked the door. He had the urge to take her elbow, guide her gently.

“No, just the rent. Good to meet you. Tell your mother hello.” He flushed. He barely knew Mrs. Lansing after three years.

He stifled the urge to watch her go down the stairs, then moved to the next door.

He rang the bell but it didn’t make a sound. He knocked four times and it swung open.

“Pops, my man, good to see you and here’s your cash.”

Waldo Zuma handed him a wad of bills which Pops shoved into his pocket.

“Thanks, Wally. Electrical in kitchen working now, right?”

“Fine, man, no problem. Now the bell doesn’t work but I don’t mind.” He looked past Pop’s head. “You talk to that gal, daughter of Mrs. Lansing? A beauty! She’s a professional dancer, travels the world, amazing stories. Very classy, like her mom. Out of my reach, but she’s moving on soon, anyway. To Sweden, she said.” He rubbed his bald head, mouth agape. “Scandanavia, man!”

Pops frowned. “Yeah, I just met her but I didn’t get she was a dancer. Like ballet stuff or…?”

“I don’t know, she said something about it but I didn’t really understand, didn’t ask. It was just a hallway conversation with her mother there. Early this week. Haven’t seen her since.”

“You didn’t talk to her or see her again? How about the others? You know if they met her? Really, now.”

Wally shook his head, mouth a tight line.

“Come on, Wally, what’s she up to here?”

Wally held up his hands. “What you worrying over? Nothing. She’s visiting her mama, then travelling more. Ask Mrs. Lansing. Now I gotta go.” He started to shut the door, then added, “Pops, nice to have a door bell that works, right?”

Pops ran down the stairs, passed Thomas in the front hall, then was out the entrance. He looked up and down the street. He studied the words painted on the cement half-wall. In the distance he could hear music and people calling out. He felt pulled to the park, wanted to see what the commotion was about. All the while he scanned passersby to see if she was among them. Yes, that Francine.

When he got there, he was winded, sweaty, so he sat on a bench and mopped his face. The music was something spacey-jazzy, maybe it was all the rage, and a radio was turned up loud as could be. There was a circle of people near the fountain.

Pops made his way to the edge of the crowd, then wormed his way through.

It was Francine Nording. And she was dancing in that slim skirt and white shirt, her arms and legs moving in ways he had never seen before. She was lithe and elegant, lively and joyful and sparks were coming off her. She was like liquid energy as people watched and clapped. A clot of teenagers were dancing near her, free-form he guessed, whatever that fancy stuff was but even though they did amazing contortions they didn’t hold a candle to Francine. Not one bit. Everyone was mesmerized. It was one of the most moving things he had ever seen. Like seeing someone share being in love. A woman in street clothes, moving to sweetly crazy music, her body a ribbon of light, hands speaking, feet mixing up patterns in soft shadows on the sidewalk, the fountain rising into sunshine that was cheering her on.

Did Francine paint those words on his property? Did the kids tell her  what he said and then ask to meet them because she was a conduit of the dance, all wonderful with lively ways and an exotic existence? Pops didn’t care how it all came to be. He just let himself surrender to her wiles, felt himself lift off to another world, another way of being and called it all very, very good.

Image from Frances Ha

Image from Frances Ha

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