Heading Out, Despite My Questionable Confidence

DSCF7793

Well, folks, I’m heading out again. Not to the Columbia Gorge you see above, nor even east of the Cascade Mountains, both favorite places. But there will be week-ends for that kind of moseying another month. Still, this view is spectacular and is my home territory. It is a comfort to look at. I thought it served this post well.

The situation is this: I have been cajoled and enticed once again by my oldest daughter, Naomi, to get on a couple of airplanes and meet her in upstate New York. From there we will be driving down to South Carolina with a few choice stops along the way. She is a real, not a pretend, traveler. I’m more the latter–I just say I love travel when mostly I read travel articles and watch National Geographic documentaries. And take a few week-end side trips, a family vacation a couple times a year for a whole seven days. Oh, in the past I have been more spontaneous and far flung. I don’t recall having such second thoughts in my second, third and fourth decades. And I feel I’d enjoy even more roaming….if I can better take myself in hand. But perhaps on foot or by car, bus, train, ferry or a yacht (yes, the last was as fun as imagined). Yes, that’s more how I like heading out.

I have written about this dilemma before, when I  flew out to help her move two years ago: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/becoming-bolder-disclosures-of-a-somewhat-reluctant-adventurer/.
That post got surprisingly big views. I saw I was not alone in having issues–a sort of existential love-hate about taking off via planes and so on.

Let’s just say I drag my heels until I absolutely must face the reality and get ready. I leave in a bit over 48 hours. I have a ton to get done before then, including readying things for a visit to our place by another daughter and her husband upon return. I may need to persuade my spouse to scrub floors, do laundry, make as little mess as possible. But housework is hardly a decent reason to lag behind.

I adore Naomi  and we’ll have a good time on the road so I just have to gather the momentum and go. I’m also pretty good at acting as if I am confident even if I am a quaking mass of pudding inside. So that’s a plus. I picture myself striding through airports like an old hand. I will not take sedation; I will be alert and lively.

This is the same kind of circumstance as last time: she is leaving one university for another. The moving company will do their part–I’m not quite up to that much heavy lifting or hauling. We are then driving down to her new habitat by the Southern institution. An artist (primarily sculptor) and professor, she garnered a position that bodes well for long term employment and deeper roots. I am excited for her movement forward and pleased she asked me once more to go along for the ride. Maybe I wasn’t too neurotic after all.

At first, I even had good reasons to not go this year, things that could have stood firmly between me and 2800 miles to her spot on the map. She is persistent, congenially so. Anyone born two and half months early and not only survives but flourishes must have a will of iron. Intrepid, at times. This is a woman who just returned from a six week sojourn around/within the Faroe Islands. And Scotland and England. Much of that time was spent on an aging but apparently seaworthy sloop. I didn’t have the vaguest idea where those islands were, and when I found out I wanted to yank her away from the notion and airport by the ankles. On a creaky, leaky boat in the powerful Atlantic Ocean? She loved it there.

A couple days ago she told me–sent a picture, actually, too–about something unexpected even for her. When she got back from a car-trip through several states following her Faroe Islands trip (she got back three weeks ago–isn’t she exhausted yet?–and she packed before and after…), she was greeted by a bat in her bathroom. Yes, a small bat was lying in her tub. She was concerned for its welfare. I immediately did risk assessment: did it drool even a tiny bit on her? Did it try to nibble her? Was there foam coming out its mouth?

“I just got a big baggie and nudged him in there and then took it outdoors. Never touched him, Mom. Poor guy, I think he’s not doing too well.”

I talked to her today at length. I was thinking of taking my tick repellent, since there are plenty of those out East. She assured me that as long as we are in her vehicle and on asphalt all will be well. I thought I heard her wrong. It’s not like we will be living 24-7 in her SUV. We will have to eat and use the restroom and stretch our legs. She wants to visit friends along the way, and then there are sightseeing moments. I want to walk, even hike some, too.

“Well, buy some lightweight quick-dry pants and we’ll stuff your pant legs into your socks and cover your arms and I’ll dose you with bug spray, and myself. You’ll be as safe, I guess, as anyone can hope to be. Do NOT bring your own supply of bug sprays–I have what we need. In fact, don’t need to pack shampoo and other hair products–I am sure I have it all.”

But that wasn’t all. I am supposed to pack light. There won’t be extra space for much else in her gas hog by the time she piles the last stuff in the cargo area and back seat. And we’ll be pulling a trailer, too, I might add–her gallery on wheels, how she stores all her art (rather large, mostly) and miscellaneous art-making supplies. But packing light is very hard for me. Is that a small or medium bag?

“You know, carry-on. Best to keep it simple and compact and not check luggage, you know.”

“But I know what I need and what I want to have with me,” I remind her. “In case.”

“And it is usually too much. I just got through six weeks with three of each vital pieces, a few pair of foot-saving socks and a warm, waterproof jacket. You’ll be gone for ten days. If I can live out of a backpack…”

“Ugh.” (Alright, I didn’t say that but I thought it regarding the “three of each” part.) “Well, you’re a veteran. I’ll consider your advice.”

And I do accept her tips as reasonable, smart. I don’t always use them. How many earrings can I fit in, what number of shoes? Face lotion, mix and match outfits? Rain coat? It can be rainstorm weather there this time of year, have to be prepared. So unlike the Pacific NW in summer, where sunshine is strong, free of clingy humidity and most clouds evaporate by noon. The SE portion of the country requires air conditioning or one risks a full melt if left in the outdoors too long.

And let’s not talk about bed and breakfasts or hotels, the widely variable food on the road. I know, be flexible, try to not have expectations–and be surprised! That exclamation mark makes me feel more cheerful about possibilities already.

I realize I’m edging toward whining already and I haven’t even thought consciously, deeply, about flying. And going through Customs, since I am flying through Canada to get to New York. (Note to self: must research this online, then write down their expectations.) Talk to husband, who has flown internationally often enough.

His advice?

“Follow along in the packed lines after exiting plane, you cannot escape it. Or ask other people.” He adds sympathetically: “Call me if desperate.”

I do, thankfully, still hold a valid passport from our other forays into Canada. (Memo: find passport tonight and put it by suitcase. Which one? No, in purse. Which purse shall I take…? Not too bulky. But there is the shoulder bag I must carry for books, tablet and camera….)

I’m in trouble already. I know–just think of it as an extended week-end at the Oregon beach. No big deal. Keep it simple, that’s the way.

You can see I am preparing for this–I’m working on a plan. It’s not a big time away, true, more like short-to-sort-of medium length in miles and time, not even close to epic. But it feels substantial. I’m seeing my daughter, entering the rippling and surging stream of her life, which is radically different from mine in most ways. And I only get to have her once or twice a year. How generous that she gave me the ticket that’s allowing me to talk with her face-to-face soon, to just hang out.

I have to finish this up–there is dinner, checking my lists and then a scan and tally of clothing options and accouterments. I have little clue what can be squashed into that blasted carry-on. Husband says to roll my clothes, an old trick. A suitable challenge. Minimalist living is supposed to be good for you. Ah, a decent spiritual challenge! As all life is for me, ultimately.

I’ll be back to these pages in two weeks, ready to scribble more odds and ends. Not writing more than a few stolen moments will be a hurdle to jump over. (Note: must make room for notebook to gather any epiphanies and random jottings; do not forget good pen.) I do look forward to discovering what new stories get stirred up. Until then, fare thee well–go out there and make your own beautiful fun!

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, nonfiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What I Left and Some of What I’ve Found So Far

11/12: The Professional: last tense days. Note tired eyes, forced, gritted-teeth smile

Writer-Grandmother having a ball with grandkids post-working life

Writer-Grandmother: fun with grandkids, 2 years post-work, when we went strawberry picking

There are at least a few hot-button reasons to feel guilty and worried. To wonder who on earth I think I am to take such a relaxed view of time and money, as well as heady concepts like success, obligation and the impact of even one human life. Some might suspect the cavalier attitude will bring me to ruin. They could be right. Am I somehow above such sweat and commerce, that bourgeois notion that money equals security, even contentment? Let’s face it, it’s more to the point that I am no longer a youthful dynamo dying to shine like a mega floodlight–so the pressure is off, right?

Except I was given pause by the over-sixty cashier yesterday, new to the store. He was congenial, appeared to be above average aptitude, and healthy-looking. I’d imagine he was a suit and wingtip guy at one point. Or a crunchy-granola, forward-thinking  professor. And as I paid for my too-expensive groceries, I wanted to ask: “What are you doing here? Aren’t you retired yet?” If I had paused one more second, I may have crossed the line as I can be that curious.

Then I went home and wondered how I ended up retired in my own early sixties. This is a big issue with “Boomers”–more and more are working longer and longer. Yet I manage to not feel very disturbed about not being part of the club. Okay, I must be honest–nights tossing and turning when contemplating variable savings and whip lashed investments? Sure. I start to consider how to find and buy a smaller, creaky recreational vehicle that might work for long term housing. I obsess, from time to time, over a few debts not yet paid in full and up my payments three-fold. And I hold onto leather footwear and other good basics “just in case” I cannot buy more ever again. And all this despite my spouse still working full-time, at the likely pinnacle of his career. He loves his chosen field, though long hours and travelling are more draining as the years pass. When he recently had health issues that involved hospitalization, I panicked on a few levels–one being financial. Thought: Dear God, I really do need to get another job, guide me on this one! Just in case. The urgency passed, apparently. He got better. I am not rushing out the door, not even to some job that is from ten-to-two, three days a week.

I have not worked for a paycheck for about three and a half years. He hasn’t asked me to. In fact, when I bring it up–that  there must be something, I might even make a pleasant greeter at the grocery– he shushes me. He says he’s glad I’m finally at home, writing daily as I always pined to do, taking care of numerous mundane and difficult tasks. It’s not that we couldn’t well use that extra income. We have significant and fluctuating needs at times and certainly those “wants” like all couples. We just manage alright without it. And that is good enough for now.

We live right on the edge of a wealthy enclave. I see many sleek, steel-grey-to-white-coiffed persons who haven’t stopped working. I cannot imagine why they would not. They slide into their Tesla/Jaguar/BMW or vintage Volvos every day and hit the road with brain primed with espresso, on go. I walk by these lovely houses every day, the ones such hard work have garnered, and wonder why more aren’t sitting on front porches or messing around with roses and weeds. It’s true many have gardeners. But aren’t they going to leave extra time so they can cover less agenda, more wishes? Not only live adventures in the Swiss Alps or moseying about in St. Bart’s or Reykjavik. I mean, just hanging out at home alone, or with friends and relatives. But it is said the more you have, the more you spend. Perhaps, also, the more you believe is ever needed.  The competitive, heady business of acquisition cannot be done with, I suppose. But their material life is not mine. I admire their gardens and porches yet, too, our balcony holds its own charm with chairs and tables and nineteen pots of colorful flowers and pleasant views of trees, neighboring houses and active city streets beyond.

Still, a wraparound porch with landscaped yard would be a fine sit for contemplation. And I am not one to just sit. I apparently get a few things done stealthily. What on earth do I do all day now that I retired, another builder dweller asks. She never hears our TV –her constant companion– but does faintly hear classical music and maybe…jazz? I do seem to be move about, though. I ask if I am noisy but she shakes her head with a smile, says “Have a good day”, closes her door.

I tried it this week, doing nothing much the last couple of days–nothing that one would note as an accomplishment, even a small one. I have my trusty Moleskin Journal where I plan the upcoming week. Most days are packed just enough with writing, daily walks and other exercise, appointments, meeting up with family for one thing or another, household business and errands. You will notice I don’t mention getting together with my friends; they are among those who yet work forty hours a week. I feel intrusive and guilty when I call them during the week. They are bone-tired while I am bubbling over, wanting to catch up, make plans.

But for a couple of days, I more often sat and read. A lot. I am (we both are) a bibliophile–books line most walls where there isn’t furniture– and subscribe to at least a dozen magazines and journals so there is a plethora of reading material. I tend to read a few pages at a time, between laundry loads or waiting at appointments, while boiling water for iced tea. Usually before sleep. So I read long, without checking the clock, caught up on magazines so that I am now about done with June and July issues. Started a new mystery and a nonfiction book, read long enough to abandon the first and continue the second.

I also watched several episodes on Netflix of a Canadian series I love, “Heartland.” (My neighbor will be glad to hear of that–but it was late at night in bed.) I walked longer than usual, sometimes twice a day. I took more pictures during my walks. I rearranged the pots on the balcony, plucked dead blossoms. And I got up a few times after bedtime to revise things I had written, including the last post, as the errors and new ideas haunt me until I commit to them. That is a certain kind of work, I suppose, but it is overall pleasant effort put forth.

This all felt luxurious to me, perhaps a little wasteful of time. But the most fun and absolute least regretted (not one minute) was time with two of our five grandchildren. We went to city center for an outing yesterday.

First I took Avery (14) and Asher (10) out to lunch. The first place we had chosen was very crowded but Avery spotted a pizza place. The mini pizzas were perfect size, baked in a big wood fired oven, crispy and tasty. Then we headed to our main destination: a put-put golf venue. However, on the way Asher saw the huge glass Apple store and requested we go check out various technological enticements. He and Avery tried many as I watched over their shoulders, duly informed of their purpose and operations.

Then on to a weird, all black light illuminated, cavernous pirate cove where we played eighteen holes of mini golf. All the white bits on us glowed bluish-bright. I was rather good at the game. I had forewarned them, as I’ve had more practice than they. The fine art of whacking a tiny glowing ball took us 45 minutes.

The last of our stops was The Fossil Cartel, which displays and sells rocks of all sorts. This was a major draw; they’ve been avid rock hunters thanks to my son, Joshua. He makes jewelry out of hunted rocks and other pieces. I bought a couple–amethyst and a blue goldstone orb for Asher and Joshua, respectively. Avery spied a lamp made of glowing rose quartz that she was quick to agree was quite costly. Perhaps one day.

And then I took them to their house across town and went back to mine. I was more tired than anticipated after four hours running around with delightful young ones. So I arranged dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then wrote a measly half hour (usually 6-8+ hours at a stretch) and read more of The Writer magazine until my husband got home. We walked a half hour about the neighborhood. He made (frozen) tasty salmon patties with a heaping green salad and baked potatoes. Very nice. We put our feet up at around nine o’clock.

These events took place on a Tuesday afternoon and early evening in mid-summer. If I was still employed at the non-profit mental health agency where I worked many years, this could not have happened. Seeing our family was another To Do list point enumerated on my planner–it happened but squeezed in between all else. The clock was always ticking. Such is the working life and life beyond it. Today I don’t wear a watch. Time seems to melt as events unfold.

At noon, I would have been counseling, full-steam ahead. Substance addicted and/or mentally ill and court mandated DUII clients (drinking and driving under the influence). Released inmates needing post-prison aftercare and monitoring. Self-referred persons with situational depression due to grief and loss, unemployment or ill health blues and fears. Clients whose children had been removed from the home due to parental drinking and drugging or domestic violence. People came from all walks of life. As they entered my office, their burdensome pain and suffering relented bit by bit or all in a desperate rush. But if they were court mandated for drinking and driving and they felt it entirely unfair, they sat stonily. Or angrily. Either way, the next fifty-five minutes could be just as demanding as any session. Some clients might say brutal. I was not known for cushioning matters for people who drank more than the legal limit, then blithely driving along causing havoc and worse– or fatefully escaping it one more time.

I taught alcohol and drug education groups each evening (some mornings, as well) for an hour and a half or facilitated women-only group therapy. These could extend past the time limit if there was a lively discussion or intense sharing going on. And then there were the urinalyses. Well, when was this not done: between individual sessions, between groups, sometimes during. Some required my presence in the restroom for observed UAs–the court system and DHS often required it. Or I did if I had good reason to suspect specimens were actually offerings from others.

Documentation of all on computer (by hand, many years ago) took an unreasonable amount of time. But unless something was committed to a permanent record, it never happened. Meticulousness and promptness was how this was fulfilled. I worked a four, ten hour/day work week that became–as any human service employees will agree– more like a twelve hour day. That meant I got home around nine-thirty many nights, rarely before eight-thirty. And that meant we ate quite late–my husband cooked, as he was home earlier. But I first walked 30-45 minutes before I ate every night for heart health, rain or shine, darkness or not, alone or not.

Then my agency’s two-story building was accessed by a burglar (computers, TVs, looking for drugs from a locked cabinet) while another employee and I worked alone at night. In our offices on the second floor, we didn’t hear much of anything–rather, not what we thought could be dangerous. I did listen closely once or twice but kept on. As usual upon departure, I double checked outside doors and made sure all lights were off. I hesitated–instinct, I am sure. Then I walked out to my car in a dim parking lot. My work mate had said to go on, but I waited in my locked car. When she came down, we left.

The next morning we heard the news; the entry and burglary occurred partly while we were there. They thought it was a client who knew the ins and outs of the place. We were appalled but reassured that things would be taken in hand. Yes, incidents had occurred even in other work places. We knew we were at risk, working with the volatile, confused, paranoid, desperate. But this was different. I had been there, felt something amiss and we had been there without any security. My husband started to meet me at the end of my work day. He drove from his workplace a half hour away to my work place, waited until I got into my car, then drove off behind me. He was that worried, insisted I not come out until he got there.

I began to think twice about that job. My entire career, the places I had gone alone, the fraught people I had shared a room with, a few events with bad results. That isolated parking area and building were never well lit that late. Everyone else was gone by then. I had at times been entirely alone in the building at night; that night my co-worker happened to be there. The doors were obviously not that secure. There was no alarm system. No security personnel. After that event I complained  more about the building and its lacks. The complaints fell on deaf ears, in fact, they were thought over reactive. I documented issues and resultant communications for a later discussion with the Human Resources Director. Then, finally–disappointed, worn out by the fight to get more assistance with the night hour security issues– I handed in my resignation.

I said: “Maybe I am ready to retire. But I have done the best I could here. And I still believe the safety of all is compromised. I now relent.”

It felt like a defeat. During the last day exit meeting, the Director seemed shocked. She vowed to address all, offered me a position in another clinic. I declined. Sometimes you just know it is time to say farewell.

I’d had enough. Not of the actual work, which felt like a calling to me–the nitty-gritty work of counseling and educating those who demanded–deserved–steady guidance and encouragement. But of politics and funding issues, too-long hours and high case loads. In fact, I had started that specific track of my career right after age forty after discovering a passion and natural ability for helping seemingly hopeless addicts and alcoholics, the abandoned, forgotten ones with mental health disabilities. It scared me that I was getting tired, physically and mentally. That I was starting to worry too much about the machinations of that agency as well as safety. My clients had always abided within my first and last thought during each day and evening.

The first two years I quit working the yearning to get back in there came and went. My alcohol and drug counseling certification was placed on sabbatical status while I sent occasional resumes out. It seemed odd there were no responses: I’d never not been able to get a job quickly. Those close to me suggested it was a sign to forget it. It seemed possible; I still wanted interviews. But I had plenty to do and was not bored. I thought maybe within a year at least I’dd find something new. I still missed my clients.

But over time, motivation to keep looking assumed less importance.

I had long desired to return to writing full time, as I infrequently had during a sometimes unpredictable adulthood. I had for years been writing for a block of hours on Fridays, my one day off. I’d jotted ideas down at work if all was caught up for a few minutes.So now I began to write a little more each day, and quickly found it as before–writing fast in concentrated hours. The flood gates of imagination were thrown open with the simple addition of time and a freed mind and soul. The stories would not leave me alone. I was breathlessly, extravagantly happy and told myself to calm down, take it one day at a time, stay disciplined. It all began to work together. I published one thing again, then another. I developed this blog.

So, sure, there is one reason or another to look for work–money for bills and the years ahead, for additional health insurance. The need to help others is still present. I know I should volunteer. But I am impatient with all the “should” stuff and getting more attuned to “want to and will do.” What I have loved but was often neglected comes to the fore. Working with and for others is a priority but there are many ways to do this. I am thinking it over as I write. I am praying for clarity and sniffing out opportunities. I could encourage personal storytelling with at risk youth. I could share poetry about life’s hardship and healings at more readings. There are hot meals needed and that lets me interact with isolated folks as I once did with Meals-on-Wheels program.

I guess I may have needed a big rest from the human condition, the ways it weeps and howls, triumphs or falters. Inside me is such love for those with whom I have crossed paths over the decades. They demonstrated how to find more courage in the midst of mayhem and how to persist despite no earthly good reason.  But most of all I learned how to find ever deepening wells of compassion and mercy. Within myself and within others.

The next time I see that cashier I will chat a bit, thank him for his assistance. I am certain he gave his decision to keep working longer–or to return–plenty of thought. He is doing a good job. I hope life is going well for him. I could worry each day that I am not bringing home a paycheck to add to the pot.  Most of the time I do not. I have this time to live, right now. I am a heart patient who has so far prevailed but I don’t know what tomorrow brings. None of us do–more and more we are finding the world is built on sand and it so often brings the chaos of trouble with unjust endings.

There is a lifetime of endeavors for all humans. Besides the need to survive, it is in our make-up to seek the next thing worthy of our efforts to assess, tackle, solve, wonder over. For me, work continues, just not as a counselor right now even while I remain on sabbatical status. I was, am and will be a writer, though. A person seeking creative expression each day, for there is a surplus of opportunity. I am thankful each day I have more time. We must divine what is right for ourselves, invest in the richest life possible, the one we truly value. There is a lot of stuff we don’t own that we might. But this is true fortune to me–family and friends, my faith and optimism put into action, caring for my wellness, more engagement in living fully. This is on my best daily agenda, nothing more. I anticipate what unfolds with trust and curiosity.

Playing put-put golf

Playing put-put golf

7/16 Freedom to hike and walk more, another passion

7/16 Freedom to hike and walk more, another passion

Posted in creative nonfiction, essays, memoir, nonfiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Life, in Pieces

lake with sun on horizon

Morning rearranges itself into something I do not recognize, all stitched together after night’s rending. Translucent greys and rough patches align themselves in random order. I see them through the screen window and shut my eyes. It is a heavy quilt this early hour, and my body hides beneath it. It would take so much to throw it off,  just to rise.

They say it is July but I wonder, even as I sweat beneath the light layer covering me. It could be January. It is cold as ice inside the places that I think. Inside the rocky cave that has a hollowed out corner just for me. Yet a pine branch still waves at me through the skylight above the bed. The brilliance I see could be the snow for all I care. It matters less, what is imagined or is not.

A brash–so confident–robin trills. A sharp intake of breath but no, I will it to leave me to the stillness beckoning. My hand lifts to block sultry rays that prove the misconception: yes, it is summer, the burden and beauty of it both rude and magnetic. Here comes that light, it flails against my face and shoulders as if thrown from Ring Lake from a bigger, ultra sun. If it is a net it will surely capture me.

No, I will not have this, I will not rise.

Still, the day takes me in its wrenching grip, whispers: be alive.

******

I hear her feet now. How they tread wood planks lightly, moving from one side of this renovated chapel-house to the other. Mia paces in the wake of morning, as I resist. Her hair, so like mine, will fall away from her face when the breeze catches it, finally, as she seeks the tenor of the day outside on our deck. An amber light will cling to its waves and curls, revealing an innocence put on hold. Daedalus, our German shepherd-husky mix, will stay at her side. They will scan the water, waiting for something to break the tension of its surface. A fish. A floating plant. A hand. Some sign of life.

I want to call him. Dae. He knows all things, is the secret keeper, and Mia is the one who cannot bear to know. Or I suppose. She has asked things; I have not answered.

What that night of loss would bring was suddenness, like the lightning that skewered the sky’s earlier benign blackness. We sank into the abyss of a life gone sour, beautiful ripeness spoiling in our hands.

Mia was not a witness. She was with her friend, screeching, then carrying on like children do in summer storms. Now her eyes tell me she, too, is hiding despite her body moving, mouth speaking. She is almost thirteen. Not a child anymore, she has said all year. No. Not now.

I will miss her more than she will me. My sister comes soon to keep her safe from all that has happened here, may yet come. Her leaving may collapse my house. My friends or strangers will pass by, see it standing, eye its ingenious re-design. History made contemporary before their eyes. It may look like a country chapel that morphed into a house. But it is changed by ruin, a place sinking beneath its own weight. Once, as we began, it nearly floated by water’s edge with laughter.

They will say, She is in there, the door is locked against the living– we must find a way in. They will ring the bell and Dae will bark and I will sleep the way the left behind sleep, without a moment’s forethought, or any saving desire. With a fondness for forgetting.

******

“Mom? Mom.”

She touches my hand, which has strayed beyond the sheet. My fingers lift to meet hers. Eyes blink, try to focus. She likes the braid my hair is in, is almost always in. It gingery length trails down the middle of my back. She tugs at it. Perhaps she thinks this will prod me upward and out of bed.

It makes me think of the bell tower that is still there, without a bell. How many hands rang that bell, how many worshipers did it bring? To kneel and offer thanks. Or how many did it save when it was rung to alert loggers and fur traders to emergencies so long ago? To muster bravery and resolve.

How archaic is such courage— that ordinary men and women would answer the call to put out a neighbor’s fire, I think as Mia repeats my name. Does this still happen? Would someone have come to help me when…?

The bed frame creaks, mattress dips as dog and child climb up.

I turn to face them both. Such eyes, both blue as the clear northern horizon. Hers’ are from her father. I turn my head, face the wall, see photos of another life hung there. Then I do the right thing and look back at them both. But I cannot eek out a smile.

“Why won’t you just talk? To me. To Rissa, your best friend? They all keep calling for you. You can’t stay silent forever. It’s been three weeks since Dad…since he d-drowned…”

Nothing leaves me now and only enters if I can make room for it. I perhaps can stay silent forever. But I will let you know.

“Aunt Janice is coming back tomorrow, as you know. I’ll be gone the rest of this summer, stuck in Vermont, stuck helping at their bakery, probably, with Lily. I mean, I love them but–all because you won’t talk yet.”

Her pleading voice carries through the room. I take her hand in both of mine. Pressed between my palms it feels light and smooth as a flower, making a soft impression I will not forget.

Mia lies down bedside me, and Dae beside her. We are three survivors, marred by loss. Dae sighs so loudly and wetly she almost giggles and I reach my arm around to her back, press her closer to mine; we are moldable as clay these days. Our dog companion sits up, leans his head across her shoulder, reaches to mine, lays his muzzle on my upper arm.

If I weep any more, I will dissolve entirely. But I pat his head appreciatively.

“Dae! You’re suffocating me–your breath is bad!” Mia says sternly, pushing him back behind her. He obeys.

Wait, please suffuse us with your kind loyalty and vigilant regard. Your canine acceptance of such sorrows. Our dire endings, our desperate need for beginnings.

******

Mia left me to Dae’s watch. He’s nudging me. Food. We all require it.

I swing up and onto the edge of the bed with caution, swift dizziness accompanying this movement, then settling. Toes touch the floor and there, my feet, calloused, sturdy dancer’s feet, find their places and stand without wavering and take me from the bed, out the doorway, down the stairs though my hand grasps the railing like a woman old before her time.

“You’re up!” Mia cheers with both fists pumping air. “It’s only eight o’clock.”

The first day up before mid-afternoon and I immediately think: Return at once to bed. Nothing good will last once I’m in motion. She will get her hopes up, this is too soon to hope of anything but bare basics.

But breakfast begins to make things seem more reasonable. Daylight scatters shadows. My hands at work feel heavy but decent. The aroma of bacon, eggs, bread toasting pulls me closer to a familiarity with gravity. Still, the sounds of that water outside slapping against the peninsular shoreline is like a warning. I cover my ears without thinking and Mia frowns at me sadly, closes the sliding door.

The possibility of an upright day unfolds. There is more. This is real, not just the interminable mourning and bed. Not just memories and denial of the present. We might walk, even. But perhaps not by Ring Lake. It is bright as a mirror today, will blind us.

Dae joins us under the table. He licks my bare feet. He knows how they can dance, he remembers my dancing that night, even. Danced even though Thomas could not bear it. My dancing: freedom, passionate happiness.

“Mom, remember how we used to love to ski? I think winter will feel better, we can snowshoe and ice skate and cross-country ski again, right?” She held her fork aloft, awaiting my response, the soft yellow mass quivering, then ate it. “If you are talking by then.”

I get up, pretend I need more coffee. I toy with the sugar bowl.

Muteness is not a choice! I want to yell. Your father chose. He let his despair and anger win out. He took control in ways you will never know. He created  a whole identity out of esoteric matters, charted them like tiny bits of data, then tossed the whole experiment out. A scientist at odds with his love of science. The pond life Thomas adored teemed with organisms that eluded him in the end. Like us.

I am not trying to speak or not speak, daughter. I am trying to stay alive.

When I turn, I almost say her name: Mia honey.

Dae’s head rears up as if he hears my thought, as if to say, You must speak now. But my voice was tossed about, torn out, lost that night. My eyes fill up then are dry of tears before Mia can see the truth on my face. I make a poor facsimile of a smile, bring us both coffee, open the sliding door to encourage the wind’s music entry in my home. She smiles back, lopsided as usual, but with lower lip quivering.

I will not let you take more from us, I tell the lake. Let all the knowns and unknowns you harbor settle on that murky floor of earth. 

But the lake is unassailable. Not a suspect. The lake is a bystander, and cannot take the blame.

******

The trees welcome us as we traverse our acreage. How can these be so grand and yet so humble? They have lived long, survived longer than any other. The oaks, elms, maples, birches and poplars and pines, even more. I once wanted to name them all. I have such abiding love for them it is a mercy just to walk between then, touch the bark, smell their green fecundity. My daughter and our dog scamper, finally given license to race and roam for no good reason with this bigger person close at hand. Safety is an illusion, I want to shout, enjoy it for now!

The big person: me, Sophia, known here in Snake Creek as Sophie Swanson. Six feet tall. That’s right. The one who looks as if she might conquer small territories but cannot speak of things that cannot be undone. A mother, once a wife, now a widow. A dancer who cannot now dance at all. A friend who cannot find a way to construct the bridge from grief’s too-rich anger to hope-filled caring, one small powerful movement forward that will end this isolation. Perhaps one day.

Well, I am up and out and walking with my family, anyway. I shut my eyes. Dae’s raucous barking, Mia’s high voice calling out to him. Leaves shaking their brilliant forms. Summer water pulling me like a lost dream, a possibility to re-enter another time. My long penny-bright braid stirs against my bare back so insistent heat of July reaches skin. Spills its warmth. I open eyes to see cerulean sky filling space between treetops. Lean against papery thin, peeling bark of a birch and feel something course up my legs, into my own trunk. A remembrance of strength. I shiver in the breeze as the gauzy dress flutters about my knees.

“Mom! Come see these wildflowers!”

I pick up the skirt, run toward them and just like that slip from sleepwalking into a little more agreeable wakefulness. Into a decent and surprising  moment of living.

I will probably somehow survive all this and Mia and I will find our way, I tell the birch grove as I leave it. Their leaves turn but do not disagree.

******

Before we know it, afternoon slouches around us.

Her reading, then disappearing to charge her cell phone and then to pack. Standing on the stairway, talking down at me. I hear her words, muffled syllables. I sit on the sofa by the cold fireplace wishing for fire. Wait for the landline to stop ringing.

“Mom! It’s Aunt Janice. She’ll rent a car at Haston’s airport and be here around noon tomorrow.”

She hands me the old-fashioned heavy, black phone, the one we found at the second-hand store after we moved in. A year and a half ago; time feels unfriendly, even vicious now.

“So, it’s all set, Sophia. We’ll have her the rest of the summer like we agreed and then…see how she is by early September. How you are.”

I’m better than that night, than the funeral, than the week after. I’m better now than this morning. Maybe you and our parents were wrong–I really can keep her here with me. With Dae and me. I should, I should!

“It’s so frustrating! You’re not even making one sound. I’m sorry, but this is all just…hard.”

I let out a sudden rush of breath into the mouthpiece and imagine its soft roar invading her ear. I want to laugh at her foolishness, not mine. Whose frustration is tantamount here? Who wishes to speak of even mundane things?

“Don’t be ridiculous, you know what I mean, Sophia.”

She coughs, whether to clear her throat or to pause her words, I’m not sure. Janice can be officious and prickly but she is also trustworthy and steady. I am the dancer, after all, she is the bakery owner and businesswoman.

The elegant wood clock on the mantel ticks like a metronome. Tiresome, like this talk. My foot taps air along with it. I want to say loudly as if she is deaf: my name is Sophie now, just plain Sophie.

“I’m really sorry, sister. It will all take time, that’s what they say. Whatever happened that night…maybe one day you’ll tell me. I just want you to get through this. You should come with Mia, but no you have to stay there. The scene of his death. That house once a chapel–so strange. You should never have moved, never bought it. Oh, Sophia, I do not understand what it all means. But we will do our best to support you. We love Mia so much.”

Do you still love me, though I failed to inform you of the gravity of our situation? I am the same woman as I was before, I have just been robbed. Though the robber paid, I am left nearly empty.

“So I’ll see you guys tomorrow. It’ll be good to just be with you an hour, then we have to catch our plane back.” She blows her nose.”Sorry, summer cold. I know Mia wanted to fly out alone but this is better.”

Right, you have to see what’s going on, report to the parents, I think with irritation. Granted, I am a silent sister and daughter now.

Dae jumps on the sofa, makes himself smaller, groans tiredly. Mia runs down with arms overflowing with last-minute laundry. How do I inform Janice I must go? I catch Mia’s eye, wave the mouthpiece in her direction. She drops the pile, grabs the phone as I get up and gather dirty clothes. Head to the washer and dryer. I hold up her shirts and tank top, hold it to my chest. I do not listen to their conversation. Mia will love Vermont, always has.

She will be free of the poison, that deep bruise of anguish that covers me without permission. She will not know my bitterness, the shame, the rage that have taken hold of me.

But I still love it here as much as I dread the thought of enduring each day without Mia. The rafters above, the idea of a choir in the great loft. The bell tower that waits for another bell. The woods and lake giving up stories. The sky crisscrossed with stars, planets, moon, sun. It is my home. Despite the money I will receive from Thomas’ estate, I do not want to leave.

“Will you be alright, Mom? If i go? I don;t want to, but everyone says it is for the best, how do I know? And well, maybe we can manage for a month…”

I take both her hands and we start to move in a circle like when she was a child and we felt like being silly for no reason, round and round until our heads spin and we fall onto the couch and lie there, staring at the ceiling.

“I love you,” she says, those tears again coming forth.

I take her face in my hands, kiss her soft pudding cheeks and she shrieks.

Will you be alright, Mia my beloved, in the hands of your aunt and uncle and cousin and grandparents? Yes, you will. But nothing feels certain anymore. We have lost our places. But we will find them once more even if we have to make up an entirely new sign language, our very own. Because that is how love works.

******

There will come a time when the thought of dancing will not send me into panic but liberate me. But I don’t know when. Maybe another life altogether.

I had been working on choreographing a new piece. I’d thought he was still in town enjoying dinner with one of our new friends. I was hoping his mood would be better and that he wouldn’t have drunk much beer or wine. And he appeared sober. But he was not better; he was not alright at all.

“What? You will not dance any longer!” Thomas yelled. “You are done for, too old for this, I don’t care how strong you still are or beautiful or talented! I am so weary of this, it’s taken so many of your years with me. When we moved from Boston, you agreed to leave your dance company behind, leave dancing with it. No, no more, Sophia–you must just be mine awhile! I have my breakthrough work started here. This is our family home now. It’s my turn!”

More was said between us, but it all blurs in parts of the brain that are so hard to reach. I do know leotards and costumes were found, yanked out of my trunk. Cut into jagged shreds, heaped in a pile like a funeral pyre. He turned away as I collapsed on the floor, then walked with purpose toward me, scissors in hand. I started to run, he blocked me, then to the corner of the loft as I wailed and the storm whirled about our chapel house, treetops and their limbs calling back to me in vain.

The rest, I cannot say. He made my soul jump out. And then he left and took the boat into the thunderstorm. So they say.

I couldn’t answer their questions. I was no longer able to speak so wrote what was remembered. It amounted to more and less than they expected. He was, after all,   my husband until the end.

******

We have eaten dinner outdoors, now linger on the deck out back as the vivid July sunlight wanes. I thought she would want to talk but the meal was quiet.

“Want to go down to the water?”

I look up sharply.

“We could watch the sunset.” She pets Dae, ruffles his ears, avoids looking at me.”We could walk along the shore awhile, all…all of us. I want to be able to think good things of the lake with us three.”

That beauty, that beast of Ring Lake. I take her hand and we–Dae dashing ahead and circling back several times– walk down the sloping yard toward water’s edge. Stroll along the shore as if this was any night, any moment.

******

As we walk, my memory works despite my resistance.

This lake-and-forest country was something Thomas always desired. He vacationed in northern Michigan as a youngster, later as an adult. A limnologist, he studied inland waters for environmental purposes, and pond life in particular. After teaching for thirty-five years, winning accolades, publishing, he looked forward to semi-retirement in this land of his youth. We could have lived anywhere. His old East coast family had money; he garnered more as the years rolled by. But this is where he wanted no, had to be, he said often.

I am–was– younger by fifteen years. I had my own intergenerational dance company, was a choreographer and well-known dancer. But he declared he must have this–for his depression to ease up, for his old age to begin serenely– and so I dissolved my company regretting every pained goodbye. I thought, anything to ease his bouts with bleakness that was then further fueled by scotch. And I was sooner to be forty-eight. 

I got a teaching position at the esteemed summer arts camp at the edge of our new home, the village of Snake Creek; I knew it might turn into more. Thomas was angry with me long before that fateful night. He was jealous of my devotion to dance, my success. Independence.

I loved him for his brilliance, sophistication and attentiveness. He said he loved me because I simply cared without reservations from the start,  and his money bored me at best.

He needed me more than I did him, ultimately; I see that now. And I failed him, perhaps. Perhaps. 

I had had such hope of more. How wrong to believe it would work out well, this move, our contradicting needs. So many changes. How foolish.

 Fatal.

******

Dae prances about by the water, takes a drink, then zigzags back. He sniffs the air, the earth at water’s edge, mouths a rock and drops it. Then backs up, turns around, running to me. I stop. The waves roll in. Mia squats near the water, draws with a stick within a stretch of sandy earth but I can’t see what.

The western tree line across Ring Lake and the sky above it hold a mix of chiffon-warm colors, almost liquid as they spread. The air is humid, still too close to hot; the water is likely almost lukewarm. I inhale deeply the loamy scent of plants, mud, wet stones, lake water. It’s one I have need of, as much as forests and four seasons. As Thomas did. On that we did agree.

Dae is whining and circling me. I kneel beside him, store his great head. I never knew where he went that night, if he followed Thomas outside.

I know, it wasn’t  far from here, it was the island, they found him near Stump Island. His private haven.

We know so little of what someone really thinks or can do. We think we know, we live with a person, love, share, make it through toughest turns and boring times. Cheer each other on and raise a victory glass to each achievement and moment of bliss. And still there are those loose ends. There are subtle and bigger lies and misfired words and heartless nights in a wide, too empty bed.

You were there, Dae, I don’t know what I would have done without you.

That night, I saw him there, afterward. That much I knew for sure. His howling, his standing guard, his stalwart presence by even when the police came.

Daedalus wriggles free, runs to a clump of bushes by the stony beach. He roots for and grasps something with difficulty, then trots up to me. I open my hands, then draw back and look at him. He drops it at my feet, panting, blue eyes steadily holding my gaze.

“What’s he found?” Mia asks, suddenly beside me.

I touch the cold steel, plastic blue handles. The scissors, the scissors Thomas wielded.The blood now gone, of course, blood from the wound made on my upper back as he tried to cut my braid. The one I wrapped tight with a towel and pulled my loose robe over so no one would see it. That and all the rest that was done. And got cleaned up, stitched up in the city a half hour away early the next morning with my dearest friend, Rissa. She tried to get answers but I was not able to tell her, nor the doctor. 

That five-inch wound Mia doesn’t know about–my hair covers it–with all the other ugly details. And never will. I shrug so she won’t think anything of it. Maybe she won’t recognize they are the ones long kept in the desk drawer in the loft.

“Oh, I know those, those are ours. That’s odd.”

She picks them up, opens and closes them. I shudder. They don’t work well now. I look over the nearly still lake. The cooling breeze is elsewhere, I could pass out for lack,of oxygen.

“I guess we must have used them for something out here, yeah, maybe when I was making flags for our deck for…oh, Mom, the fourth of July…when Dad and I….when we were planning our party? The one we didn’t get to have.”

Her face crumples and I pull her to me. Let her moan again. I toss the object as far as I can. Dae picks up the scissors’ handle with his teeth, trots farther down the beach, just drops them. When he returns Mia’s head is on my shoulder, mine on top of her frizz. She takes my braid in her hand, squeezes it. I can tell, her grasp is tender, the sensation moves to my head. I blink back my own tears but fail. How can she go to Vermont? We both know it’s best for awhile. I

I am not well; she is lonely and lost.

“Why did he have to go out in that storm and just drown?” she asks for the hundredth time. “Why did he leave us?”

I almost respond,  words bubbling in my throat. They stall on my tongue. It is more like a tiny shush that slips from my lips. I don’t think Mia can even hear it. I am rocking her back and forth, back and forth while Dae lies apart with head on outstretched paws, watching the waves, the last of the sunset or maybe the oncoming darkness. This is the smallest of moments, one wedged in between millions of others. But it is one that will come back to me the time she is gone: Mia in my arms, trusting I will be more available again for her and the steely blue water flaring, afire with light and last heat as it slides away from us until morning. A morning I dread.

Her father seems near at times and now I look about and  stir. Dae’s head lifts, his ears pricked but it is nothing, only my uncertainty, a fear I never had before. This strange brew of sadness, longing and anger that makes me reel. I have much to do for my daughter. For myself. Language needs to surface, make for itself a new voice. But for now I am caught in the resonant core of silence, cannot yet leave it.

The three of us are bone tired. Twilight limns treetops and silvers the softly undulating lake. We find ourselves resting in a tentative ease. Taking in the music of Ring Lake, another woodland night settling like an old shawl about us.

 

[Dear Readers: This post about Sophie Swanson is part of a novel I am slowly re-developing. Tentatively titled Other Than Words,  it  was first completed a few years ago. An excerpt was then published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Still, the entirety needs a lot of work. Any comments would be helpful if you care to share them. Another chapter from the male protagonist’s viewpoint was shared this here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/other-than-words-an-excerpt/  It tells how Cal Rutgers feels about his life as a photojournalist and his first encounter with Sophie. Thank you for taking the time to get a glimpse into Sophie’s story!]

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Saving Graces: One Kid’s Summers in a City Park

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The modest one piece swimsuit was made like a tiny sheath of stretch terry. The narrow blue and green stripes appealed to me, colors of leaves and grass, sky and water. I regarded the new clothing article as if a challenge to conquer; it looked fine but would I fit right in it? White washed walls and cement floors of the large locker room reflected waves of laughter and talk. Pleasant in a sharply familiar way, a scent of chlorine infused the air and would soon overtake our skin, hair and suits. The rooms were jammed with bustling children, morphing clots of girls and varieties of adult women. The latter group methodically corralled or instructed their charges or worked their swimsuits over winter-and-spring-pale forms.

I yanked mine up and over twelve year old awkwardness. Grabbed my well-used towel. Then strode around a curved wall, through a door-less opening into the bright, chaotic, beautiful scene of Central Park Public Pool. It was like entering a broad and deep open air stage. I  wanted to find, then claim a place on it. It was that strange summer after elementary school and before junior high school. The in-between time.

I felt as if I stood on a precipice. Of course, the sneaky onset of adolescence had already begun; continuous movement forward felt rocky. Also more obvious to others. I was beginning to look different. But what baffled me was that I felt rather unlike myself. I was of two minds about it, at least. On one hand, it was perhaps overrated. The social and emotional lurching about was uncomfortable and at times embarrassing, a new experience. Other moments it felt irrelevant in the larger spectrum of life experiences. Why all the fuss? We grew bigger like every creature, no choice in that. I was largely unimpressed with this while more attracted to more learning and creating things. The arts, exploring the outdoors and athletics, invigorating my brain and enjoying the company of those who shared my interests: this was what felt right. Yes, I was a child on the way to maturity technically, but I did know what I liked. This wouldn’t appreciably change–would it? I felt like the same person, overall, but suddenly less secure in new scenarios. Even old ones, like the swimming pool in summer. It was as if I was slightly off-balance when before I had a solid foothold.

The problem was, there appeared to be curious new expectations. I wasn’t sure what they were, only that they existed. They were discernible in the teens I passed at the pool. The open or closed looks thrown my way or a total ignoring of my presence. Eyes travelling up and down my somewhat curvier yet still shorter length (when would that change?). Every face seemed to hold a question: who was I; how old was I; was I cool or not cool; who there knew me and what junior high was I attending in the fall? Some called out or I recognized them, a relief beyond measure. It was smarter to go to the pool accompanied by friends.

Someone said sooner or later, “Oh, hi, you’re a Guenther, the musical family–I know your dad (or mom, brothers, sisters).” Ours was a public family, in large part due to our father. He was well known in our Midwest town of about 29,000 in1962. I was used to being identified simply as one of that clan–not exactly what I was aiming for as I got older. Like all youth, I longed for my own unique moniker, a separate identity–eventually.

As I perused the pool’s areas, I became acutely aware that I was, well, walking. Leg joints and shoulder and back muscles and tendons tightened as if in a vise. I wasn’t clear why. I was usually in control of my limbs. Walking by the boys sunbathing or engaged in random hilarity and shoving matches on wild beach towels, I could barely nod. It was a tad easier passing clumps of girls as they lounged in changeable, eye catching poses to show off swimsuits and tans, whispering in each others’ ears. Well, that looked boring and silly. Some I knew from my elementary school and neighborhood. Others I recognized from arts’ or academic events  we’d participated in over the years. Some were a curious unknown. But I had coping skills: smile at everyone, nod or say “hi”, and stand tall with head up. The “head up” part was one of my mother’s mantras (“Chin up; hold your head up no matter what”) and it was second nature by then.

But seeing them well and clearly was, in fact, my first challenge of the day. I suffered from significant myopia and had worn glasses for near-sightedness since age seven. These were banned when in the pool, sensibly. One couldn’t see with water on lenses and the glass was a safety hazard. This was long before prescription swim goggles. (It would be two more years before I would be fitted for a first pair of revolutionary hard contact lenses, which I would learn to wear underwater by squeezing my eyes shut, then squinting the rest of the time.) So when I walked out into this public place I moved in a perpetual haze of diffuse light and shadowy forms, and among human identities that felt tricky to acknowledge.

I had by then learned to recognize faces by committing to memory what were previously clear features, shapes and colorations. Voices told me a great deal. If all else failed, I just walked close enough for friends and neighbors to move from blurry to clearer focus, as a camera brought things to the sharper fore. I could get an assist from them as needed, my name called out or a directive to head this way or that. But I wasn’t so self-conscious about it and had only occasional trouble navigating. Besides, unless I was there specifically to join friends, I was there first to enjoy swimming. Or, more to the point, to dive. All this I did by sensing my way about, by trial and error.

There was a high diving board and a low diving board. The way to start off swimming was to leap from the high board, splash into the fenced-off, deep water diving area, and come up gasping. After arriving at the top of the steps, I paused a moment at the start of the board. Assured myself it wasn’t so far down, then walked fast along its flexible length, made one strong bounce. Jumped. The trip down was always faster than planned and the cool shock of the water better than anticipated. The low diving board was better, as I didn’t think twice about the distance from board to pool’s surface. For a couple of years I’d been practicing swan dives, jackknifes, and somersaults, and hoped to try flips. There was also a straightforward plunging forth, making a slim sheath of my body so as to shoot out and rapidly descend, then slice through that welcoming turquoise expanse. Exhilaration! I was happy, confident on the diving boards, perhaps more so than just in a more crowded aqueous expanse. (I hadn’t learned to float well but I had a strong side and breast stroke and enjoyed laps as well as just swimming about.) After I burst through the surface, blinked with eyes stinging, I swam back to try it again. Someone shouted my name. I waved gaily, not sure who it was until the person swam to the diving platform and stood closer. But no matter; summer was big, bright, voluptuously so. All was well enough.

The evening swim periods were magical. As the twilight gained depth I felt increasingly at ease, relaxed, half-stealthy in the low light. Less apt to draw any attention. The lights in the pool lit up rich blue walls and floors, and darkness enveloped us, sky opened to mysteries above. I floated and dove and slipped swiftly through the deep, entered a world of silent, seemingly mystical properties beneath the known surface. Life felt even more intense. Peculiar and lovely.

The acreage of Central Park was like a second home for me and hundreds of others. That summer perhaps more than usual as I plotted my way through the contradictions of childhood versus teenager-hood. I needed familiarity, the constant of old routines, comfort of getting what I expected–even, for example, getting the pleasure of swimming after paying twenty five cents for pool admittance. I knew every portion of that park, the public spaces for gatherings of many sorts and more private ones where I could sit and dream within the shade of huge deciduous trees. There was always something to do if I wanted to do it. Even play tennis, although Dad, a tennis lover and energetic player, despaired of me improving significantly after several lessons and work outs. “It’s that darned ball moving so fast; I have to run this way and that to meet it”, I complained. I was afraid it would hit my glasses or my eyes and then what would I do? I’d rather play volleyball or basketball–“Mom’s sport in high school”, I reminded him. I could see those bigger balls coming and this alone guaranteed an environment far less risky.

The city park took up a huge area and was three and a half blocks from my family’s house. Spread over eighteen acres, attractions included four tennis courts, a softball field, an outdoor ice skating rink and a summer bandshell where Dad conducted a city band during each June and  July. There was also, on the other side of the park, a large and shiny community center that held an Olympic-sized indoor pool, exercise rooms, gymnasium, table tennis rooms, dance and martial arts classrooms and arts and crafts sections. Plus meeting areas. I’m sure I am leaving things out–it was a large, well-designed modern building, well funded.

Surely, my neighborhood’s Central Park had about everything a kid would want for entertainment those days. There were even (supervised) Saturday afternoon dances set up at different times for younger teens and older youth. Ultimately, I found those well worth the wait to get in, as I was a dancing nut and there were those boys who had become more interesting.

My 12th summer, following others like it, offered not only  a couple of hours at the pool. There were also musical evenings to enjoy. It wasn’t what most young people would get excited about, perhaps. This was a night devoted to old standards, Broadway tunes, easy pop music for general audiences and older people. The June and July concerts were held on an open air stage called the Bandshell, with rows of benches on a gentle hillside. Dad, the Chemical City Band conductor for many years, carried forth the program. It seemed one of the things he enjoyed the most having once been a big band saxophone, trombone and clarinet player. By that summer, I was the only child left at home, so I was next in line to help him with preparation and distribution of the music folders, set up of music stands and chairs, participation in a sound check. I also tore down the set-up and helped sort and re- file sheet music later. This work with my father was treasured time though the chores were tedious.

During the concert I often sat in the audience with my admiring mother. We both loved the tunes performed, humming along. At times Dad would invite the audience to join in and the hillside would be alive with music. He even sometimes sang one especially for Mom, his eyes and warm voice emanating love for his industrious, outgoing, attractive wife. They were in their early fifties then and year after year this continued. Watching them was a lesson in friendship and romance.

The city sky grew darker as music played on. Constellations above seemed on full power, more lustrous. I imagined what it must be to hear such lively music waft across the park and into residential blocks as people sat on their porches and in their backyards. Listening.  Free music for all.

Sometimes there would be a dance after the band concert, held on the tennis courts. There was a DJ; the tunes were current. Entrants allowed into this activity were eighteen and older. I pressed my fingers and nose against the chain link fence, watched fresh-faced young women attired in summery dresses, young men debonair in crisply ironed short-sleeved shirts and slacks. The circled each other, nervous creatures, then chose partners, started each dance with all manner of hopes flushed with excitement. They were so beautiful with their secrets and fascination, perplexing desire, laughter light and sweet on a humid breeze, their dancing like a rite of passage far beyond my reach. But I was content to watch, wait, dream, knowing my time would come, too. Wondering over it, what it might bring.

At twelve, I was still a kid and I felt quite at home in the world those evenings. I ran back over the hill, sweat sliding down my spine, sandaled feet flying. There were my parents down below, Dad opening a cold can of his favorite Squirt and both of them chatting with friends. Ready to turn out the bandshell lights once more. Many lingered, reluctant as I was to be released from a music-filled hour. To move from graceful open spaces into hot houses, leave behind an ease and reassurance of ordinary life lived well. Each week the groups shared camaraderie,  the neighborly news. Simple courtesies exchanged in a moonlit night.

I remember that summer before junior high school, before the thrilling, unnerving leap toward thirteen. It was part of a bridge from one age to another. We all embark on certain passages dictated by age, even gender; by family ways, religious traditions and cultures. And without a community to school you, to provide a framework within which to tentatively move and grow, it must be so much harder to accomplish. We each keep close certain people, times and places which have lit the path for us. That grasped our hands and cheered us as we searched for our fledgling adult selves. I was given invisible life saving aids even when I wasn’t aware, when I slipped, flailed and sank beneath other, more deadly surfaces than water through the years. Because all that time I had a refuge, a playground that was safe and inviting, with neighbors and friends close by. Those good times were as real as terrible times.

Optimism and liberation were encouraged in Central Municipal Park long ago, and still does. It’s rituals and recreation, its people and design. It’s taken me years to fully understand its power in my life, from childhood day camp to private figure skating lessons; lazy days at our equitable pool to music given voice in velvety dark. It was an active arena within which to also discover stories, small magic gems amid ordinary rock piles. I learned how to work and play better with others thanks in part to adult guides found there. And the beauty of a small city in mid-Michigan opened itself like clockwork each season. All I had to do was take myself into its bounty and participate. These things helped deliver me to myself that year and many others.

Every child needs a place to call freedom. Opportunities to find an expanded life. A good public park is one accessible place; their summer programs improve countless lives, I am certain. More youth and children ought to have their curiosity awakened, their bodies challenged. Perhaps more adults can recall the possibilities in the simplest of leisures –or create new ones. Why not put down technological distractions a few hours each week or even–stride to the edge of change!–daily, the rest of this summer. Find more to enjoy and bring it into your life.

 

Central Park Swimming Pool, 1964

Central Park Swimming Pool, 1964

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, narrative nonfiction, nonfiction, Personal essay, prose, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

His Angelic Beasts

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It wasn’t what he thought, the return to Two Mountain Valley. It was harder and it was easier. There were amends to make, he accepted that. People to generally deal with–where were there not? He had held onto the hope that Grandpa Kent would let him stay out at his place awhile, until he got his feet planted or freed. So far, so good. No one spit at him, crossed the street to avoid him. Or, at least, he thought they didn’t but it could be hard to tell. The way that town was able to keep the truth hidden had always irked him.

He knew he looked different. Bigger from near constant exercise, marked in ways not so obvious at first: tight lines around his eyes and harder mouth, the way he stood with feet apart, hands clasped before him unless at his sides, eyes forward and alert. Or how he walked, more compact movements made of watchfulness or warning. That way of life had leeched out of the cement walls, from other locked up residents and into him–despite his fighting it.

So there were a few who just nodded at him, eyes widening. Force of habit kept them cool and civil. Only a fool would tangle with Ronnie Morrissey now. Only a new woman in town would consider tossing a flirtatious smile his way. Some of the older men kept their own thoughts to themselves but it was they who said: Hello, you’re back finally, good for you, take it easy.

He’d like to change his name to something like Brad or Jonas or Craig with, say, a last one like Smith or Johns– and then get the heck out of there. “Ronnie” didn’t fit him now. But it took time to do bigger things. Hell, it took time to do things small, even when you tried to rush. Things were what they were and you had to tackle them. Determination but patience. He learned that in prison–there was so much blank time to observe things. To just cope with. But not much was any good except the first lesson of survival of the fittest–or in his case, maybe the smartest. Ronnie could hold his own–that was never a question, not in Two Mountains and not on the inside. But it was his talent for staying a few steps ahead that kept him intact for three years.

Grandpa had driven four hours to pick him up on freedom day. They sat side by side. Only a few paragraphs dropped between them during those miles. But it felt good. He let his eyes rest on the rolling earth, then mountainous landscape, more meadow grasses swaying, birds singing as if all was always well, the sky so stuffed with layered, knitted clouds and that bright blue–he thought he might go blind. Then they came to the Kent family’s small ranch where the old man had raised mostly sheep and goats for four decades. The usual gathering of llamas were eating, wandering a bit, glancing their way as the familiar truck rattled down a long drive. It was such a relief to see them Ronnie felt undone for a second. Those graceful necks, innocent faces and long ears–they were beautiful. They were good guardians of the money–that is, the sheep and goats–but Grandpa kept them for pack animals to rent as he wished, and their good wool.

Ronnie had always loved their lack of malice. Their eyes empty of doubt. He smiled at them as they slowed near the house and they offered their humming responses.

“I can use your help around here while you look for a job in town,” Grandpa Kent stated when they entered the back door. “Feeding, cleaning out the shelters and barn. Bunk upstairs in Nan’s old room. I’ll get some dinner going.”

Grandpa rummaged in the refrigerator and pulled out a casserole of leftover spaghetti with pork sausage. “I’ll heat things up as you settle in. No rush, son.”

He watched his grandson, his eyes then focusing on something unseen after Ronnie had ascended the steps. Nan and the family’s past. His wife, how she’d laugh and gab, bustle about if she was there.

Ronnie took his duffel bag and entered the room his mother had used as a kid and teen, decades ago. It could be anybody’s room now except for her graduation picture on top the scarred bedside table. Dust topped the frame and he blew at it, rubbed the smudged glass with the tail of his shirt, set it back. Just seeing that happy picture of her, a lot younger than he was now–he already didn’t want to stay too long. There was too much to remember. But he had restrictions, a parole office.

She had gotten out of that marriage at last, just took off; she wrote him about it from somewhere in California as fall gave way to winter. He got a cheery card at Christmas, then she wrote a bit in spring about her job as receptionist and the ocean’s pleasures. But never was there an address, just a postmark of Santa Cruz. It might not mean anything, really. He knew it was fear that still made her secretive.

Ronnie lay back on the bed, arms behind his neck. The pillow was soft, the bed was forgiving of his bulk and length. How would he sleep in such luxury? His eyelids drooped as he fought to keep them open. The window by the bed was wide open. That breeze from the countryside pulled in every delicate and heavy scent from the places he had loved so long. The space around him was too vast. He should set out his sparse belongings nice and neat. To mark his own space–like in prison. Nothing out of place, ever.

Everything was so unlike what he had known. This familiarity and comfort had been taken from him the moment his sentence came down. He closed his eyes. What could he do to manage all this? But that terrible night arrived fresh as yesterday, just as he’d feared. It would be worse now, he guessed, at least for awhile. He was back where it all started, more or less.

Ronnie sat up with a jerk, closed the window and curtains, went downstairs.

“Got a smoke?” he asked. The food smelled better than he’d expected. He thought it was likely due to do with being in that kitchen. With Grandpa. Free.

Grandpa Kent gestured to the cupboard where he kept his filterless cigarettes. He still smoked two a day, one with morning coffee, one before bed. Just like he had one shot of whiskey on Saturday nights.

The back yard was the start of acreage that fanned open to fields, hills and trees, then the mountain range. Ronnie filled himself with it. He eyed bruised mountain peaks wearing tall caps and silky shawls of clouds. His grandmother had told him that as a kid. They’d sit on the back porch and she’d talk and he’d ask questions here and there. My smart guy, she said, and winked at him, gave him a side hug. He liked to listen. Her voice was friendly, unlike Grandpa’s which sounded as if it had been raked over a few coals, then left out in the wild to cool and heal. She said it was his smoking; he said it was a reluctance to speak at all. But she made up for it. All the tales she’d told Ronnie–any hurts and haunts seemed less likely to pester him after she was done.

She’d passed away while he was in prison, the end of the first year. He worried he had somehow killed her, or his mother had, just the burden of them. But no, it was her congested heart worsening, then done. He got a day out but shed no tears at the burial; neither did Grandpa or Mom, not then. She’d been freed of it all. Her daughter, Nan, the troubles. If Nan just hadn’t married young, just hadn’t married that sort, he recalled her saying before the trial, rocking and holding herself. Then she’d seen her only grandson incarcerated, a horror. He thought of her every day in there, not his mother.

“Why you done it, I get that!” Grandma Kent said soon after he was arrested. “But didn’t you know it wouldn’t help, Ronnie? Nothing coulda saved her then. She was still unable to change things no matter what we tried to do for her…and now you’ve been brought down!”

“No, Grandma, she didn’t know different by then. He had her in a tight ball of a fist, she forgot what it was to live a real life. He almost got me in that clench, too. But there was something that might have changed it all; I had to do what I did, had to try for her.”

“And you won’t say just what, only that it might help her!”

“Makes no difference now. I don’t even know what all it meant,” he said truthfully and the sadness clocked him hard. Maybe Grandma knowing would make both his grandparents open to Glenn’s attack.

“So you won’t tell even me. Well, what now? How’d we lose her? Now you, too, Ronnie, you, too.”

Grandpa Kent had only sighed and shaken his head. The mournfulness rolled out, anyway, left him empty. As if his strength was drained away. But he’d never asked for anything; he had to keep Grandma going. Look after Nan somehow. Maybe he’d not been there for her enough. Maybe he was too inside himself. He had to find a way to atone for all their sins. They’d had a few loose ends over a few generations. But they’d never had criminals in the family. They’d been hard working ranchers, horse trainers, some lumbermen. They hadn’t asked for that much.

Ronnie inhaled the acrid smoke deep and coughed. He was going to quit one day. If he ever made it to that day. He shook his head to free it of darkening pessimism and wandered over to fenced acreage.

The llamas were humming and clucking their talk, rooting out some bark by a grove of trees. He’d counted eight of them. They hung together, moved together. Ronnie had known a couple of them since he was seven or so. Nearly twenty years had passed. The closest he had gotten to anyone besides his grandmother was likely those creatures munching away on grass and twigs. That was an odd truth but they listened. Heard, he believed. They asked for little in return. Llamas didn’t berate, judge or question him but accepted him day and night, in good or not-good times. They were still his angelic beasts. There was a powerful pull to them.He wanted to get close to them, feel their smart, gentle energy cover him. Guide him again.

“Time to eat!” Grandpa called out from the kitchen. “Got fresh corn and carrots, too. Food good and clean and fresh for you, son.”

It was what Tom Kent could do now, feed the boy. And wait with him. Let the passing of time do its own work.

Ronnie realized he hadn’t heard him say that much at one time in a decade.

“Man, I sure do need it,” he called back and crushed the smoldering butt with his worn out boot. He stretched mightily, reaching to the summer’s ravishing sky. A glimmer of a smile appeared, then vanished.

******

Ronnie was holed up with Errol back then in their step-above-crappy apartment. They both worked as mechanics at the Ford dealership, Ronnie on trial basis after finishing required courses for computer diagnostics. Everyone thought it was great he had followed Earl’s advice. He had worked at Broken Star ranch four years and decided he wasn’t suited to such a life, dawn to dusk back breaking. Earl had graduated high school a few years ahead of his friend, made a decent living at Butler Ford. And so far Ronnie had done alright. The future looked better than it had in years.

But then one Friday night came a deepening sense of unease, as happened at times like this. His mother had called him twice and it wasn’t even seven o’clock. He was at the bar with Earl, eating a burger, on his second beer. His cell phone buzzed again, and it skittered across the table to his elbow as he tried to ignore it.

“Your mom again? Better pick up.”

“Dang,” he muttered. “Mom, what now? Tell Glenn to get out for the night, sobering up at the drunk tank would be good. That’s all you can do. You’re okay, right?”

Earl watched his friend beneath thick black eyebrows. The younger man’s intelligent brown eyes shuttered as he toyed with leftover fries. He wished Ronnie’s mom had it better off. That Glenn was not a man to make an enemy of–his position made things worse. He was an almighty Deputy Sheriff, after all. And week-end drunk.

After a few more words, he hung up. Earl waited but Ronnie said nothing. He figured it must be alright until Ronnie got up, his chair shoved back angrily.

“Later, I gotta get something for Mom at their house. They’re holed up at Trail’s End Motel for the week-end–he’s calling it a getaway week-end, the idiot!–so it’s now or never.”

“But she’s alright?”

Ronnie started off, then stopped and turned. “You know how this goes. I guess so or she will be, she said, if I take care of this for her. I’ll see you tomorrow at work.”

Earl stared into his beer. He didn’t like the sound of it but it was just more drama. He was glad his own mother hadn’t remarried.

It should have been simple. She kept a duplicate key under the third red geranium planter by the back door. This was put in place years ago when it became apparent Glenn drank too much and then kept Nan in for the week-ends so she could be the recipient of his verbal abuse–no physical stuff she assured him, but he knew how it could go. He had lived there long enough. Sometimes she called him or her dad to come help settle things down.

This time it had to do with some journals, of all things. When did his mother ever write things? She’d been keeping journals a few months, she’d told him quietly on the phone, about things Glenn had done or might do, things he said, stuff he’d want nobody to know. It was an outlet but a safeguard, too.

“Mom, it’s not good to write private things that can be found out, not by him…”

“Right. But I had to, just in case,” she’d said, voice lowering to a hoarse whisper. “Glenn’s taken Rufus out for a short walk. He’s drunk already…but we talked earlier, he suspects I’ve been keeping track of stuff. He saw me writing once or twice. I told him I’m trying poetry–he laughed, of course. Tonight he’s convinced I have a big file on him. Or I’m writing love letters to someone else! He gets so nuts after a few glasses of whiskey, you know how it is, Ronnie…so could you just get them? Three small journals. Take them to Grandpa’s–hide them somewhere. Don’t tell anyone else!”

“Where?”

“Behind the bottom drawer of the chest of drawers in our room. They’ll be lying on the floor–he’s coming, gotta go!”

“Okay, get a grip, Mom. You okay, should I call Grandpa? Say ‘no’ if not okay–and nothing if he comes back in.”

That’s how they did it. She hung up.

So Ronnie had gone over to their neat, white-with-black-trimmed bungalow and slipped around back. It was getting dark. The neighborhood was quiet but for a couple boys playing basketball down the street. The house next door glowed with a couple of lights. He noted the neighbor moving from one room into the next, heard a voice, a yelled response. Ronnie’s pulse quickened as the key’s tiny metal box was retrieved. He inserted its familiar shape into the lock, no problem, turned the handle. Resistance, no entry. He tried a couple more times. Harder. It was the wrong key, had to be. Her mistake? Or Glenn had replaced the good one; Ronnie had wondered when he’d figure it out. He had forbidden his wife to share extra keys.

The air released a warm lavender scent as he felt sweat dampen his neck. How important could these journals be? And why was she so certain Glenn would find them? It would be like him, though, to sniff out the goods, make a big scene, give her a severe tongue lashing. Make her feel worthless. Or worse. Ronnie felt sick, his mind reeling, chest tight as his heart banged. His mom had been so worried about the journals that she’d risked calling him with Glenn near. They must document important information against him. He had to get them, that was all there was to it.

He pushed against the back door, found it rock solid. He crept around the house, stepping over flowers as best he could, looked at each window. Then he felt with fingertips more than saw that a bathroom window, the en suite, had a long crack along the edge of its frame. He stripped off his T-shirt, wrapped it about his hand, pushed hard against the spot. It did not give way. He pushed more, then hit it with moderate force. The glass cracked and broke into shards. Ronnie pulled away bigger pieces, reached up inside for the latch, unlocked it, raised the window and hoisted himself in. Jumped but landed on hands and knees which hurt sharply, then ran into the bedroom, opened the bottom drawer. He felt around for the journals and bingo, there were three, small spiral-bound notebooks held together with string. He grabbed them, rushed into the bathroom, climbed out, landed feet first onto soft ground and hightailed it out of there. He headed for his racing bike hidden in dense bushes along the driveway.

He was immediately blinded by a strong beam of light.

“Hold it, boy! I saw you at the back door, nowhere to run! Glenn just got a new alarm system so you’re like prey in a trap, buddy!” Mr. Jones stepped closer, lowering the flashlight a bit. “That you, Ronnie? What the heck?”

And then the manic wail of police sirens escalated like it was a five alarm fire.

Ronnie felt his life slip away from him that quickly. From his mother, too. Any promising future melting into nothing. He stepped back, pushed the journals deep into the bushes as neighbor Jones rushed down to greet the law like some damned hero. Ronnie looked at his damp hands and knees, saw the blood trickling down his fingers and staining his jeans and he thought: all this for what, Mom? What is it all worth?

It took time, too much, but the verdict Glenn’s lawyer pushed for and got was felony burglary in the second degree. One to three years in state prison.

******

Ronnie went into town a couple weeks after he got back. That was soon enough. He went over to Pat’s Famous Cafe for coffee and one of her five star giant cinnamon rolls.

“Ronnie Morrissey,” she said and her ruby red lips curved into a smile that seemed true.

“Patricia Ann,” he answered and got his cup of coffee free. He paid for the roll, sank his teeth into its richness.

“I hear you might be going back to work with Earl.”

“Don’t know. Haven’t heard from him the past few months. He still at Butler’s?”

“He is. But he’s married now, you know.” Pat inclined her head so her grey and blond-streaked hair tumbled over a shoulder. She still wore blue eyeliner.

Ronnie nodded assent, when in fact he didn’t even know. He guessed it was Fran, the same girl Earl had long dated. The mouthful went down a little hard.

“Yeah, she’s gonna pop soon, baby number one. You should call him if you haven’t already.”

“Yeah, I should. Got his number? I forgot…”

“Sure, babe. Let me write it down.” She scribbled it on a napkin. “Hey, good your mother got out of this place. That drunk, he got rehabbed after you left but that wasn’t near enough. Well, anyway, know where she got to?”

He considered Pat a moment. A gossip at the least. “Some place far, I hope.” And gave her a nonchalant shrug topped with a generous smile.

“Well, welcome back, you lookin’ real good. Hope it all works out.”

He knew everyone knew he was back. He suspected some didn’t hold anything against him but would never admit it. They knew what sort of man Glenn was. They knew his mom had it bad and Ronnie, well, he was supposed to be the fix-it guy. Until he screwed up.

Ronnie never admitted to just why he broke in and that made things much more complicated. People just assumed it was to create trouble for his stepfather, possibly get some goods for cash on the way out–but it just didn’t work out. It was best that way. He was too scared of what could happen to his mother if Glenn got a hold of the journals. Which he just would. When she visited him alone before he was transferred to prison, Ronnie managed to look her in the eye and silently form the word “bush.” She later told him she destroyed them. He wasn’t so sure of the last. He’d wondered many times if he’d ended up in prison for nothing but he also had broken in, he had conspired to commit burglary. Well, he took something. But it enraged him sometimes as sleep eluded him and in the day when he was so restless he could have jumped the high wall. But he knew she did whatever she did to save herself, to keep them both safe from repercussions of another sort.

Or at least he believed that was so, had to.

After his mid-morning snack at Pat’s and a few brief, uncomfortable exchanges with customers, he wandered down Main Street, hands jammed in his jacket pockets. He peered into store windows, finding much unchanged in some, altogether new in others. It looked shinier than when he’d left it, and guessed the mountains were luring more health nuts. Those seeking rock climbing and hiking as well as those who needed only a solace of beauty. A couple people waved at him from across the way; many passed by as if he was a total stranger. Maybe he was that, now. He felt like a visitor during his hour long reconnaissance. H dreaded who he might see next. When would Glenn appear? He shuddered but told himself nothing could come of a bad attitude. He had done the time, now he had to go forward regardless of enemies. And leave when he was off parole.

The building that most surprised, then upset him was the old community center. He’d had many classes here as a child and youth. He’d taught diving to kids in the chlorine-scented, softly illumined pool when he was a high school senior. It had been a sanctuary. Now it looked as if it had had a fire, gutted. Stark. Trashed and abandoned. His family hadn’t mentioned that. He hoped a new one had been built.

He pushed open a steel door and entered a hallway littered with the detritus of parties and vagrancy.

“Anyone here?” His voice echoed insubstantially. He heard feet scurrying. Rats. Or people into forbidden activities.

A bird flew overhead, diving toward him then altering its course. A cat meowed in complaint from top of a stairwell, another pounced on it and they shot off upstairs. He took steps two at a time, passed the second floor, the third and finally got to the top one.

No windows were intact. He found a wide, blown-open space and a ledge to sit on so he could survey the town. It looked prettier than it did below. He even felt better above it all so pulled out the new cell phone Grandpa Kent had bought him and called the number on the napkin.

The robust voice that answered was upbeat as ever. “Earl at your service!”

Relief flooded Ronnie. “Hey, Earl, it’s me…I’m back, in case you hadn’t heard.”

A hand over the mouthpiece, muffled sounds. “Ronnie! I got the news shortly after you arrived, thought I’d give you some space. Welcome home, man!”

“Thanks!” His childhood friend’s voice made everything right. He let his eyes roam over the top of the town’s buildings. He could almost see Butler Ford from his perch and felt an urge to go see him in person. “I hear you’re about to have a baby! Fran, I guess? Congratulations, that’s great.”

“No, no–” and he laughed sharply, “Emily! A gal who came to work here with us. After you left… you’ll love her, Ronnie, she’s a true sparkler, and the silly woman’s working up to her last day!” Muffled voices again. “Say, how about we meet up sometime, catch up, I mean, lots has happened here in…the time you were gone. How you doing?”

“Getting used to things, I guess. Figuring out what’s next. Emily, huh? Well, I have a lot to learn.”

“True, nothing stays the same. But good to hear from you. I’m afraid I have to go–I’m so busy I hardly have time to turn around. We’ll talk more. I’ll give you a call, come out to your grandpa’s sometime, okay?”

Ronnie could hear someone–was it Jim, the guy they both disliked?–call out in that bombastic voice: Ronnie, that loser? Really, Earl? Be smart–tell him to shove off!

“Oh. never mind, you know how Jim is! Okay, really, gotta run, Ronnie. Best to you and your grandpa. Take it easy!”

He got it loud and clear. Earl didn’t have any interest in getting their friendship back on track. Or he was embarrassed to hear from him while at work. Or both.

His ears burned, mouth went dry. He’d trade anything for some smokes. There were new complications to cope with. He looked at his hands; they shook with aggravation. They’d all told him it wasn’t going to be easy. Ronnie sat on the ledge like a statue, halfway out of his body, out of the present. He flashed on blood hands and glaring flashlight, the clank of steel doors, keys jangling, jeers. Wait, wait, what would he be doing in prison right now? Push-ups, waiting to go outside to the yard to run as many laps as he could, play basketball, avoid trouble, keep his head clear. Right, stay centered in the now.

The distant mountains looked like the best thing out there and he thought that might be his next move. Camping, alone.

Nothing could change that night. He knew what he knew almost four years ago when it all started. He loved his mother, tried to protect her for years; he could not trust, much less ever appreciate, his stepfather, the bully, the controller, the abuser. She had something on him, more than anyone would ever know but maybe it didn’t matter now with her gone. She’d lost her nerve but at least she had left him. That was the good of it and that was that. Ronnie hoped to one day see her, learn the truth. He wished her well, in any case.

But this was how it would be now in Two Mountains. Ronnie Morrissey, apart. They didn’t have one clue what he’d experienced. He didn’t get who they were, either, and didn’t care.

He picked up a piece of broken cement and threw it in a wide arc over the edge, watched it fall, blast the ground. Vertigo seized him and he closed his eyes, held on to the ledge until it passed. His phone rang once, twice, three times and he stared at it. All numbers were unknown to him.

“Hello?”

“Ronnie? This is Emily.”

A commanding and pleasant voice reached him and he blinked, stood back from the ledge.

“Who? Oh, right…”

“Earl’s Emily. Listen, you need to come over for dinner, the sooner the better, as I’m due in three weeks. How about this Saturday night? About seven o’clock? We’ll barbecue, eat on the patio, you know where, right? Oh, no, wait,  it’s a new place! I’ll text you the address, okay?”

He considered her words. “I don’t know….”

“Ronnie, look. Earl is just…he doesn’t know what on earth to say. It’s okay. He’ll get over himself, no one is perfect. You’ve always been his best friend. How can you not be here as we welcome our first baby? I want to meet you, so say you’ll come.”

Ronnie looked across the streets, over the hills, saw the tiny people moving as if in a dream, the miniature vehicles trundling along. Their valley. That hazy blue mystery of the mountains. He had to start again, somehow.

“Alright, sure. Thanks for… just calling.”

“Good! See you soon.”

The ledge and the wide, unknown distances beyond beckoned a last time, but he turned away. Raced past two kids smoking pot, past a ratty sleeping bag and four broken chairs, past garbage bags left for weeks and rats digging for a feast.

Back to the ranch where he did belong, for now.

******

Ronnie walked onto the green acreage to find the llamas. He found them grazing, huddling, cozy in small groups. There was an opening between them so he claimed a spot and stood within their warmth, entered their nuzzling, humming, whinnying circle of life. He reached for a long, fuzzy, powerful neck. Put his arms around it. Held fast as he did long ago and was gently, kindly tolerated. Ronnie hugged that beast close. Shut his eyes, hung on.

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