Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
“I sure don’t know how I ended up like this…oh, never mind, I’m just in a mood today. It will pass.”
Evangeline pushed the stroller along without a hitch despite her girth and tired feet. They moved arm-in-arm at a good pace through the green lit spaceship of the park. Rita always felt they were walking into a fantasy world after leaving her grey office made uglier with its fluorescent lights, odd odors snaking in the doorway, phones jangling her brain. Here it was shimmery with color, shaped by sunlight, shadows and reflections. Sweetness.
Rita checked her companion, someone she trusted with her infant son, Riley. She wasn’t sure if the older woman meant how she ended up as a caretaker of Riley twice a week or something else. It was usually something other than what she imagined. Rita didn’t always get her, felt there was much more than she’d ever know about her white-haired friend.
“And maybe I’ll tell you how, but for now we’ll enjoy the walk with the little one. You catch me up on work. How was fussy Mr. Reynolds today?”
Rita tucked the light blanket about Riley’s baby fists, two pale flower buds that one day would open and grab and never let go of her. Evangeline pushed an arm through the crook of hers and Rita felt her weight shift, wondered if her feet hurt. She’d never say so.
“Mr. Reynolds is on vacation for a week. All of us women in billing are celebrating with wine at lunch. We sit on our desks, share our food and what we really think and drink until we get goofy.”
Evangeline kept pushing the stroller as she studied her from under thick silver eyebrows. “No, you don’t.”
“Yeah, but we should. We do share lunches from our desks sometimes. Then some of us go to the courtyard and share leftovers with birds. You should come sometime; we could have a little picnic on my lunch hour, you, me and Riley.”
“No thanks. Hospitals are like giant vacuums; they pull you in and you might not ever get back out. Let me waste away at home.”
“Evangeline, you have a dark viewpoint, a real deficit of faith in modern medicine among other things. Healing happens, too.”
“So you say. Best to stay well and alive.”
Riley opened his round eyes and let out a squawk that seemed like surprise inside distress, clenched hands flailing.
“See, Riley knows.” She slowed. “There’s a bench. Let’s get out of the sun.”
They sat above the pond where there was good view of turtles on a log, ducks floating in tandem with their partners, and a handful of people on the other side. Rita took out Riley and let him sniff the piney, flowery breeze, eye the treetops and water. He looked startled, his sweet mouth dripping drool, soft brown eyes wide.
“So has Neal been by this week?”
Rita shrugged as if to say it was no big deal. Evangeline knew better. Neal was a chef on his way to somewhere–this city seemed a stopping off spot. He had paused at Rita’s way too long, she thought–and now seemed to have a lackadaisical interest in son and beleaguered mother. He was one of those handsome talented rats but she didn’t dare say it. Rita thought of her as a good-natured, grandmotherly type when in fact she had a heart like a pinball more and more lately. It hit all the right points some days but others it jammed up and stalled out. Literally and figuratively. Well, it was getting close to the anniversary date she wanted to ignore.
“He called twice, is coming by Thursday morning. Maybe Wednesday night and then, well, I don’t know. He helps out financially. Neal adores Riley, he finds him perfectly lovable. He’s just busy a lot.” She saw the scowl of disapproval on Evangeline’s face.”You just aren’t around him much.”
Evangeline placed her knobby hands upon ample thighs, leaned forward. Held her tongue. The water was shot through with streaks of turquoise. She liked the turtles and blue heron best, they sat still and that rested her mind.
She had become fond of Riley and liked being there with Rita. The hours felt longer when she didn’t have baby duty. Rita had her sister across town take care of him, mostly. Certainly not Neal. Their apartment building, Mistral Manor Apartments, emptied out early in the day except for the new tenant in his wheelchair on the first floor. Evangeline hadn’t met him yet. He was not likely her type of person, she could tell by the way he often dressed in a shiny burgundy sport coat from nineteen fifty–the man had to be around sixty–and how he sang to himself often, as if everyone in the world wanted to be entertained by that nasally voice. He never removed his tweedy grey hat. He would leave at night and no one would see him til two in the afternoon. Rita said he was a musician, which confirmed Evangeline’s worst suspicions. She didn’t ask what he played; she didn’t want to know. She said he couldn’t possibly sing on stage, too, could he? And Rita laughed as if she was kidding, it was very likely he did.
“I’m thinking of having some people in the building over for dinner. Want to come?” She turned and smiled, as if to ensure her sincerity.
Evangeline patted Riley’s back although he was snuggled in Rita’s arms. He got hiccups a lot, she noticed, too much air gulped down when he ate, maybe, and she resolved to pay better attention when she gave him his bottles.
“If that so-called musician isn’t coming.”
“Well, he might. And maybe four or five others. Neal, too–he’ll cook, actually.”
“I might help you get ready, but don’t know if I’ll stay. Though it’d be interesting to sample your son’s father’s cuisine. Maybe.”
Rita almost told her to not bother then, but suspected the old lady–was she 69? 75?–she’d never asked and it was hard to tell– would come, even arrive early to set the table and bounce Riley on her lap. There was a good person inside that dour countenance. Maybe she’d actually enjoy herself if she got to know the neighbors better. Riley burrowed his face into her shoulder and burped.
“Must you?” she called down from her balcony overhanging the courtyard.
He was down there, that man in the wheelchair, with the rusty vocal chords, and he was singing as if the birds were his privileged audience. “Spring is Here” was the name of the old tune; she recognized it. She preferred the robins with their repetitious eruptions. He’d fallen down a ravine when hiking, she’d heard. She ought to be kinder; she’d try harder but it would take more than practice.
He lifted his hat to her. It made her think of her ex-husband’s–well, he was dead, also–though his was always straw, elegant. Panama hat. Evangeline could see the neighbor was bald, head round and speckled like a giant egg.
“Yeah, I must, I admit it! I wake up singing even if it is midday, don’t you know? I have tunes running where thoughts line up in other people’s heads.” He rapidly turned the wheelchair wheels and came to a halt beneath her third floor balcony. “You don’t ever sing, my dear?”
Evangeline put down the cup of tea she had been nursing. It was cold now. Did he say dear? “No, the thought doesn’t occur to me, thankfully.”
“See, that’s the problem–people need to think less, sing more.”
“Imbecile,” she muttered to herself but grinned down at him.”Well, have a pleasant day, off with you and your songs. Please.”
He had to shout above the sudden rattle and roar of a truck on their street. “Now this is problematic! But I know we can come to an amicable resolution. I make music a lot. I come outside here to exercise a bit and get fresh air.” The truck moved on but his volume remained. “It’s one reason why I rented this place! Okay, I’ll bring it down a notch.” He paused to readjust his volume. “But I think the outdoor space galore is great not to mention vintage interiors. And I have a patio, too.”
“Vintage? Is that what you call it? Cheap, that’s how I call it, but it suits me. Well, then, Mr.–”
“Van. Van Garner. I’m ‘that blasted musician’–a trumpeter by the way– I’ve heard you try to avoid.”
“–Mr. Garner, I will certainly try to respect your needs if you will try to respect mine. A softer sound might do the trick.”
“Alright, I’ll try for your sake…” He spun away from her, then spun back. “Coming to Rita’s and Neal’s dinner Saturday? I hear he’s quite the master of his trade.’
She sniffed, put finger to nose, then sneezed hard, twice. The creeping roses had burst into bloom last night. Or it was Van’s presence. People could make her feel allergic. “I may.”
“Guess I’ll see you there. Rita says you’re great with Riley. A mighty fine boy!” And he wheeled through the courtyard, out the gate, was gone in search of a decent newspaper and magazine stand.
Evangeline closed the book she had been reading. Stared into the trees until the fine new leaves blurred. Wasn’t it enough that she had been reduced to staying at this place? Three years it was, now. But she had to be friendly with people she often preferred to avoid. She might have to reconsider the senior housing as her daughter in New York had urged. She hadn’t wanted that, not yet. She was only 71. Had good health or rather her ticker got a bit tricky but otherwise she was strong–she still took a daily walk an hour each day–she was apparently lucid, she had decent sleep and appetite. She could lose a few inches and pounds but ach, it was too late, too much work.
Her old house, too, had far more than required for her own good. Dusty things and memories and unused rooms. She had retired, finally, from the county library system. She’d made the reasonable decision and found smaller was better, cheaper was best, and as long as she could climb stairs–there was an antiquated elevator she rarely took, it was creaky and cranky and threatened to drop them all–this place was it.
She returned to the conversation with that wheel-chaired musician with a blasted musician’s kind of name to boot: “Van Garner.” That Van had said Rita thought she did a good job with Riley. No, ‘great,” he’d said. A rare happiness spread through her body and moved among a number of synapses in her brain. She recalled raising Natalie-in-New-York–now so successful, very out of reach. It had been fun for a long time, mothering. Now there was Riley and he was even better; she could return him but she could anticipate seeing him regularly. She knew he didn’t have a thought for or against her, she was a squashy, toasty hug, she was an expert with a milk bottle, a way to while the day away and inhabit safe haven for until his mother rejoined him once more. Riley was so curious and cheerful and untainted that his beauty could remediate the world. Slay dragons with a guileless gurgle. Babies were powerful, she was sure of it. Evangeline must tell him the next time he blew a bubble with his spit.
And Rita said it out loud, that she did a great job? Well. She took out her tissue and pressed it to her nose so as not to sneeze again, not to sniffle. That was a little something, wasn’t it? It was some comfort to count, a feeling of being worthwhile that she’d recall in a stretch of unremarkable days and gently emptied nights.
She wondered what she might find in her closet to wear to dinner. Did folks still dress up for dinner parties? She wondered if Van would keep his hat on at the dinner table like her once-husband used to until she pinched his thigh under the table. Would he sing and if he did, could she just leave? And maybe chef Neal would prove he deserved Rita’s loyalty and caring with a demonstration of cooking prowess, then give them all one fool-proof sign of his love.
“He really shouldn’t do that,” Mike stated as the expert he was, a therapist whose practice was small but growing and but included families. His wife, Ellie, another expert, shook her head. They had no children of their own yet.
They were observing Riley gnawing and sucking on a chicken drumstick bone Neal had offered him. The meaty well-seasoned main course was being arranged with the rest for serving. Rita was fine with it. Evangeline was, too. She had given her own Natalie interesting things to mush or nibble, even play with. They were having an Indian dish called Tandoori Chicken and Evangeline had missed the preparation since she was helping out with Rile. It smelled delectable, she had to admit. She didn’t often explore cuisine nowadays, but Indian was a favorite. She watched Riley in his automated swing and babbled back at him without restraint when Van arrived.
He had taken the elevator. Perhaps never again.
“It sputtered and took a time out for something twice. I thought it was stuck and I’d have to shake the iron grating to get it moving or holler for help. I whistled a little. Then it roused itself from its sloth and got us back on track. An adventure to the fifth floor of Mistral Manor! With a name like that what do I expect? It felt like some old ‘Twilight Zone’ outtake and was worth the trouble. Ah, smells heavenly.” He tipped his hat at everyone. “And a hello to you, Evangeline. You got all gussied up, I see.”
She blushed in spite of her irritation. She had put on a long navy linen skirt, a warm weather favorite plus a white voile blouse with a ruffle along the V-neck. She had put on pearl earrings, discreet ones. Her long hair had been carefully washed, air-dried half the day, then reassembled into its heavy chignon. After all that her arms nearly ached. A hint of perfume, something Natalie had sent her for Christmas. It had an amber note to it, exotic, she thought. She seldom used more than an herbal blend talcum.
“And you smell good,” whispered Rita. “You look pretty.”
“Oh,” she replied, a bit overcome by such nonsense.
“Shall we gather at table?” Neal called out.
There were seven of them altogether, eight if you counted Riley, and they filled the long modern glass and steel table. The place settings were white and blue ceramic. Fran, the seventh guest and Rita’s youngest sister, had set it and it sparkled with a bouquet of pink and red peonies. The sisters each in their 30s, and the older woman in her 70s, had chatted at their leisure. Evangeline marveled at the young women’s poise and eloquence. Confidence. She wondered for a split second if Natalie was thought of that way, and hoped so, and felt a sharp pang for her.
Dinner was enchanting and lingered over. The offerings were delicious with seasonings both correct and just enough, not so strong as to drag you into an uncomfortable night. And there was Pino Gris, a wine she had drunk rarely. In fact, she didn’t really drink but this was an exception. Everyone talked about politics, abut upcoming city festivals and concerts, the building repairs needed and the cost of real estate, a real crime these days. Their needs and wants and aspirations. Evangeline chimed in on some topics but it was books that hooked her–and them. Her knowledge was diverse and well honed since she was a librarian her entire working life.
“Poets?” She responded to Van’s question about naming favorites. “Well, no one can disagree that Rilke is one of the finest of all time! And Blake, Merton, Whitman. Neruda. And I rather love Denise Levertov and there is Theodore Roethke… There’s a whole slew of interesting poets. Have you read Joy Harjo, a Native American poet? Mislosz. Mary Oliver. Well, I could bore you all night, and I have yet to catch up on the newest, not since my library days…”
They were enrapt but confessed ignorance of most, how was it that she could read so much? She felt a little foolish after the gush of enthusiasm so she started on her third glass of wine. Then invited them to peruse her personal bookshelves any time.
Evangeline gave it one last shot, leaning into the animated group. “Give poetry a good try. It seems to me it’s necessary to the development of incisive thought, health of the soul. Even young Riley should hear poetry, at least as soon as he can speak a little. Try Shel Silverstein, for one.”
Mike and Ellie agreed with this statement. They had heard from friends that he was a beloved children’s author, so placed a couple of books in their waiting room along nature and sports magazines. They played classical music, too, for their patients–was that going a bit too far, did anyone think?
Neal looked exasperated. “Do whatever you want, they’re captive–yours for an hour!”
“I still have my favorites from when I was a kid,” Rita said, rocking her tired and cranky son to sleep in the kitchen.
Neal gave the boy a kiss on the forehead. “I don’t read poetry, didn’t as a kid, but give me a book of recipes, and I’m in heaven. ‘Ode to Mangoes’ or ‘Salad Days of the Young and Hungry’ might get and keep my attention. I may well have to write a volume of food poems for our son– for a proper introduction to literature and food, a primer of good taste pairings.”
They all laughed and raised their glasses to him. Evangeline was heartened that this man had turned out to be smarter and kinder than she had imagined.
Van had listened without much commentary on the poetry topic, studying Evangeline as she spoke. He removed his hat now that he was anticipating a small cup of tea and a French macaroon. He ran his hands over his bare, freckled pate. Then he set the hat on a side table behind him, gave it a pat.
“And then there’s music,” he said.”Everyone loves music, there’s something for all, and it’s as essential as any other creative form. More so, it runs way deep into our most primitive being. What about your musical tastes, Evangeline? Shall I sing to encourage your response”
“Heavens, no! And I suspect story runs deeper still–it is entwined with song,” she demurred, “but alright, I suppose there may be some truth in it. There are certain sorts of music I like. But I don’t listen much. I like silence more often than not–unless I’m with superior company.”
Again they laughed, agreed, raised their glasses, and then more wine was poured. She had the vague sensation that she had come close to her limit, that three glasses was quite enough for a quite occasional drinker. She had become loquacious and far too open already. It was fortunate she had only to descend two floors to collapse into bed after farewells. Yet her own hand-blown, sapphire-colored glass was held aloft, too. She liked that they used such glasses, not the fancy cut-crystal goblets she had noted in a rustic china cabinet. They had a unique way of doing things, dear Rita and that Neal, and somehow their gracious dinner had become a portal into a more fortuitous future. A happier passage that had space and time for her aging as well as their eager youth.
“And that would be what music choices?” Van pressed. He sipped from his sea green glass with a careful pleasure, as if it was the elixir of the wise. His eyes telegraphed his new lady friend–was she going to be that? was he really getting that old, too? or was he just drunk?–a firm encouragement for her to continue.
Evangeline raised her shoulders, then squared them above her considerable chest. But everyone took notice of her beautiful hair in the candlelight. She pursed her lips. Once full-mouthed, a feature men’s eyes used to linger over, her lips were now visible only due to a ghostly outline of a raspberry lipstick she had slicked on hours ago. It had been fun yet she didn’t want to speak of music. But it seemed to want to be spoken of since she had intuited in Van a person who might understand some things, without too much fuss. She could be wrong, though.
“Well, I used to like, no adore might be the better word, my husband’s music. He was.. a musician, you see, played bossa nova in a band from South America. We were took risks, were crazy in love as they say. His band was called –you likely haven’t heard of it–Laguna Azul, translation being Blue Lagoon. He was a–”
“Laguna Azul? Are you kidding me? You mean with band leader Eladio Barella? Then there was Fredric Gavion on sweet guitar, and Carter Templeton, the great vibraphonist! He was in that Brazilian band?”
Her heart dropped as if it had been on their faulty elevator. It hadn’t occurred to her that Van might know of them, it was twenty years now. A lifetime. But there it was, her past brought up in Technicolor, as if it all took place last week.
“Yes, Carter. That was my husband. For thirty years. We loved to dance, you see, tango, samba and the bossa nova, all that. I met him in a club on a random side street while on vacation. It was Rio and I was only 21. I traveled courtesy of my wealthy, tres chic aunt who chaperoned me, in her way. Carter was older. I heard him play and then there was a second band and for some reason I got up and marched right to him and said brazenly, ‘That was the most perfect music I have ever heard’ and he asked me to dance. That was it. We got married six months later on a ship headed to Greece. The honeymoon lasted for years…”
“Evangeline, that’s awesome!” Rita said, sitting on Neal’s lap, her arms wrapped about him. Even Mike and Ellie were sitting hand in hand while Fran looked on from the kitchen after putting Riley to bed. She sighed loudly, filled her glass, threw back the wine.
“Carter Templeton, that is amazing,” Van breathed. “I can’t wait to hear the stories you have about him.”
And then it all hit her, the spices and herbs and wine, the strange and voluminous openness she was offering to all. The truth of what had happened to her all that time ago. The anniversary of his death was tonight. Her eyelids lowered until she could just see a soft luminescence from the candles’ light; her voice lowered.
“He’s dead. You know that, surely, Van. It happened this very date. He went down, down, down into the sea in a chartered plane, an accident while on tour…the whole band and pilots drowned in the Caribbean. Terrible–and their band’s name, and then that…” She slid a glance toward him. His sudden unease was as sad as her own. “We had divorced two months earlier. And then he had to die, can you imagine?”
The room emptied of movement, of talk and a silence came that was so deep, a sensation so dizzying, Evangeline thought she had perhaps fallen asleep, was leaving that convivial room, leaving the earth or she had been dreaming, and it was a dream she wanted to wake up from and then forget once and for all. Carter’s being there, and their taking leave of one another after too much time apart and distance and then came misplaced longings with terrible errors made. His dying as if to further spite her, to avoid what he might have had to face, their love tossed aside, as did she. But it was Evangeline who had carried the wonder and burden of his musical legacy, along with memories of their happiness finally ruined by a failure to start anew.
She fell forward, then sideways, that soft, lined face meeting up with metal. A thud with cries that shook the room.
Evangeline sat on the hill at the park, Riley slumbering beside her. He had just turned ten months old. It was late afternoon, and soon she would take him back to his mother–and his father. They were already packing, would be heading to Seattle to further Neal’s career as a rising chef. It would be hard to say farewell. Always there were farewells to be made, more than ever this decade, she imagined. But they had told Evangeline that she could visit any time. She’d have a spot even if it meant sharing it with Riley at first. That thought was a pleasant one.
The heron was perched on top of a tree that was dead. He often was there. From that vantage point he could see things coming. She thought that was not so desirable when all was said and done.
The whistling came to her on the breeze. She recognized the song–“Stairway to the Stars”–and when Van plopped down beside her she didn’t turn to look at him but continued to watch the heron.
“I brought lunch. Did you bring the wine? ” He handed her a container of noodles and chopsticks.
“Ha! You know better than that. I brought carrot cake slices. Baked it yesterday.”
“It’ll still be tasty.” He looked her over. “You look good in red. And your nose looks fine again. It took awhile, huh?”
“Well, that night was a shock to all my systems. A broken nose was the least of it, I had hidden our lives–his fame and tragedy– so long after he passed. Now stay tuned for part three.”
“All of us felt it. Thank goodness you hit my wheelchair and my knees before you broke anything more.”
Evangeline’s laugh made her jiggle and she dropped noodles on her lap. “Yes, you sort of saved me. And I never thought I’d even talk to another musician.”
“Never thought I’d be hanging out with an older woman. Sharing some tunes and stories.”
He touched her arm lightly and she turned her head and smiled at him. They ate noodles and watched the heron until he slipped off the branch, swooped down, around and then floated on an updraft into brighter sky.