Water Likes Her, Not Me

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

My Marnie had her own entrenched ideas even as a toddler, so when she took to the water like it was her calling, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I gave her a thunderous “No!” but I couldn’t stop it any more than I could stop birds vanishing into a vaporous sunset. She was paired up with it from birth, like my mother, somehow. It had nothing to do with my priorities. My terrors.

I never have trusted the water. It’s too much everywhere, cannot stop closing itself over you when you stick so much as a little toe in it. It is obvious it has the power to consume you. It flows as if from an endless supply. Curls around the perimeter of the sodden earth with impatience. It’s wily, that’s what, beckoning and tantalizing you until it is too late. How can something so enchanting from a distance–the light riffing over it like fingertips playing a silvery blue instrument–feel so inconstant, even onerous, up close?

I know, you’re thinking it took someone from me or there was another tragic event and that is why I’m inclined to temper her interest. Not so. Everyone in my family swam as I grew up; we had a deep river behind our home. Not more than two and a quarter miles down the road was a lake. And beyond that, the sea, although it took four hours to arrive.

So that you have knowledge of my genes: my mother, tall and sinewy, demonstrated beyond normal athletic prowess whether she was at work or play, in stationary landscape or unstable watery scenario. My father did alright himself, though two inches shorter than she and less agile. They were brainy yet brawny. We were not afraid of really anything, the four of us kids, and were taught from babyhood to take to water as well as all else in nature, within reason.

“Far better to know its ways now,” Mother said as she dipped my youngest baby sister’s legs into the river. The infant squealed and smiled.

“Far better to be prepared, I agree–to save yourself rather than to depend on help,” Father intoned, as suited his pessimistic perspective.

“They find it friendly. Water, the river and lake and ocean. They’ll know how to move with water, get strong, enjoy themselves without anxiety.”

“There is always something else to fear unless you are well-armed with information–lest we kid ourselves,” Father muttered but she didn’t hear him. She had already taken my sister into the current, holding her firmly, watching her surprised face.

He glanced at me as if recalling how I was their exception to the family rule. I would not go willingly into the river. Nor a bath tub. In and out of the shower, in and out of any water whatsoever and that was more than enough.

Mother had been a swimmer long before Father was around. Won awards, competed. He, on the other hand, cared about and respected water as life-giver. He fished, he dug up clams, he nourished our garden with it. He harvested rain water. They shared activities like boating and water skiing and ice fishing. We did, too, or rather, I was also often dragged along with my cheerful siblings. And I was repelled by it and sometimes (guiltily) them.

When I was born Mother said I recoiled as soon as I left her protection and plummeted into open water, so unlike the womb’s. She would know since she had home births, slid us right into new water, the LeBoyer method. (They were quasi-hippies then. My father was a scientist at a research facility, my mother a biology teacher. They lived as much off the land as much as they could muster.) I suspect she was disappointed in me from the start but strove not to divulge it. It made poor sense to either of them that they produced someone who was only wedded to pencil, paper and books, who found excessive physical exertion anathema as often as not. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do things, run and  play basketball behind our house, ride a bike as well as others. I did and enjoyed myself. I liked the ground beneath me. But I liked to be still, too. Water was another story. It was so wet and sneaky. Voluminous. Shape shifting.

If Mother hoped I would have a change of mind about water, she didn’t indicate it. I could dog paddle out of a will to live, I could float if not able to paddle. They were fair parents, or considered themselves such, and encouraged me in my reading, writing, and developing observational powers. I was, Father noted, more akin to himself than to her. I sort of liked ice fishing with him. Our silence. The solidity of the lake. I liked examining insects and seeds, even animal scat. They told accessible stories.

But my brother and two sisters, they were demons about it, my water deficit. I had my share of being pushed into the river, being led to the lake in a blindfolded game, being told the tide was going out when it was coming in and being stricken with catatonia when the waves grabbed my ankles. I was dunked more than I could bear but I could hold my breath a long while, to my utter surprise. I could find safety by getting my feet on mucky land beneath me or, eventually, at the final edges of water. (Did this liquid possess even a blurred edge? It seeped into earth, washed over something.)

“Stop goading her,” Mother would say with a wave of her hand, as if it was nothing serious–though she’d rescue me if needed.

“Stop endangering her welfare, children! She is not a water child but a fixed earth child. You cannot change a creature’s natural habitat.” Father bellowed often, then returned to his projects.

That “fixed earth” bit: I wondered over that, how he’d borrowed from astrology–I am a Taurus–when he was a scientist, but the truth of it was evident. But they both got brimming with philosophical talk so perhaps that’s how they explained my personality, an anomaly: of the stars.

Anyway, it was suspended around age fourteen, my sullen resistance, as well as the teasing.

I was taken sailing with my first summer boyfriend, Jon, after we met at Loon Lake. His parents had a Sunfish and not wanting to tell him I was afraid to go out on it, I sat down and clung to its sides, staring at his bronzed beauty. I imagined my parents would be astonished by the tale I’d tell when I got back. This gave me courage. We bumped along endless wavelets and those more threatening. I just didn’t want to capsize out there, feel the water yank at legs and arms, ruffle my swimsuit, take me even a few seconds to its dreamy depths. I had a life vest on but it seemed like a flimsy foil for the lake’s unpredictable moves. I prayed for safety and let Jon do the work. The wind let up enough that we slowly began to sail easily. Gratitude lifted my spirit as we slid along. It was a sweet, bright-blue July day following a thunderstorm, as if all the irritations within water and air had been driven out.

And then we glided, lifted off the known world.

Jon cjecked with me often. I bravely followed his instructions as he maneuvered the small boat. I forgot to ward off anxiety. I just thought, If I fall in, I’ll bounce along with head up, it’s okay. If I must drown, Jon will be there the last moment. He was good-natured and at ease, the first boy to pay me attention. I discovered out there that if I acted as if I could do something, I could manage it, not without some trembling and misgiving, but it did get done.

It felt like being on a small ship adrift in an azure sky, I thought, soft wind in our hair, sun so near it felt like second skin. The rising and falling of the Sunfish was more like a lift and a roll, a boat dancing, a boy and a girl having a time together. Water splashed onto us and felt silky-cool. The shore and its cottages looked like a miniature movie set. I liked that we were far without being too very far. It was, by the end, as if we were under a summer spell. I did not want to get off and could have bobbed along for the rest of the day, at least.

But Jon left in two short weeks. We never even kissed, just fumbled. I felt stunned by his departure, and spent time puzzling over how a person I barely knew could so affect me. I had a few dreams about him and the lake; they were both unnerving and magnificent.

I didn’t tell my parents about the Sunfish ride until he left.

“You braved the elements, got out there and sliced through the water, just like that?” Father asked. “How did you even know he was expert enough to take you out?”

“I am sure he strongly persuaded you, but all ends well, so good for you. You’re learning how to take more chances!” Mother added, then her brow wrinkled as if she thought better of her words, but too late for her second young daughter. “So, you might be a water baby yet?”

“I’ll take you out in the canoe tomorrow.”

“No thanks, sorry, I’m done.”

I retreated to my chair and book. I could not be enticed again. It was Jon and his sailboat that held the magic key and they were gone. That time out was a separate experience. It was out of sync with my life, a bright sprinkling of mystery, a wash of perculiar emotions. An inkling of young love. I avoided the water again though my parents and siblings were befuddled by it. I grew up and nothing else happened to disabuse me of my idea that water was fundamental, crucial to living things but otherwise a choice to like or not. I still did not.

I once told my daughter, Marnie, the sailboat story and she was unimpressed by my sophmore courage. She knew of her grandmother’s water prowess–she still swam and dove and went on boating adventures at seventy. I could never live up to that. My mother had also told Marnie she had it living in her blood, the champion swimming gene, she could tell by her long torso and wide shoulders, how easily she took to it. She was impressing gym teachers by then. My pleading for a very conservative involvement, rather than full immersion of daily hours, meant nothing.

“What are you worried about, Mom?”

“That you’ll grow fins.”

“Already have.”

“That you’ll grow fins and run off to be with the mermaids and mer-gents and never return.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought of that. Sort of crazy, Mom.”

“I always worried, you see, well, uh, that I might corrode or melt if I was in the water for more than a few minutes. That it might change me. I didn’t want to be so changed.”

She looked at me as if she was looking at a stranger, then laughed hard. “Yeah, it makes people happier to swim and play in water! You’re a funny ole mom…”

I wasn’t thinking when I spoke honestly. Or whenever I was in the water, for that matter. It was a visceral thing, something that came over me and propelled me back to all shores. I felt bodies of water were mainly for looking at and listening to–fine for senses and mind–and respecting for their places in the natural schemata. Having moments with it scattered about. Not deluding yourself into thinking you could manipulate it, harness its force, outwit it. I knew better.

“I don’t want to work against it, Mom, I want to be one with it,” Marnie said before her recent race.

It was then that it all made more sense. I always had felt that way about the earth, then my vegetable and flower gardens, and finally my work as a landscape designer: an adoration of form and function, beauty and mysteries. It was like living a prayer, following earth’s wisdom. I needed to meld with nature’s abundance, with gravity of land. Oh, the miraculous dirt.

I studied her from where I sat at the swim meet. She had mighty strokes that would beat all the others in the pool. She was freed by the water, given an infusion of personal power, transported to another plane. When she won, I closed my eyes and was on the Sunfish, riding water’s permeable, floatable surface, water and air molecules working together for the good accord of all. And we nearly flew. How I missed that sensation, that light on the undulating surface, a sense of strength I had never felt before coupled with a willingness to surrender.

I didn’t say to her, I might take to the water sometime, we might swim together one day. But I knew it then, just as I knew Marnie had been fortunate enough to be born to it. Water loves her well. She, it. I want to understand this world from a new perspective, as well as follow her adventures. Water and I, we may well be uneasy together but that doesn’t mean we haven’t found a new point of common ground. I will just have to push off, learn as I go.

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

In Search of a Good Paperback Summer

Girl Reading by Charles Edward Perugini

Girl Reading by
Charles Edward Perugini

You know those magazines and online sites that tout the latest barrage of fast summer reads? My eye goes to the catchy title or tagline with an avarice that is a tad embarrassing. It’s like a magnet, each sizzling, promising list. (But, then, I read book revioews for fun as well an info on the latest offerings.) The books on the beach lists are intellectual lightweights, perfectly breezy. They fit snugly in one’s hands. I keep waiting for a “Beach Bonanza Bingo” fold out, one I can play to win a freebie. Because the truth is, as I finish the brief reviews I’m rarely compelled to fork over cash on the suggestions.

Okay, I do find myself momentarily stalled by a book cover design and author bio, the blurbs. I do think, now this one or that might whisk away vestiges of the miasma rising from a too long winter and spring’s instability. Such a book might enable me to dog paddle in ultramarine waters of the mythic Mediterranean, a place I dearly long to visit. Or might I accompany someone who has distilled her strength via harrowing trials? I may then fly with her as she flexes new wings generated by… what, really? a mad love affair? Or perhaps I’ll get the inside story on the powerhouse CEO who takes ownership of a Cape Cod manse–which is inhabited by ghosts, one of which is an old business partner. I might even skitter down alleyways for a rendezvous in the humid beauty of Rio de Janeiro. Or outwit a detective in solving a latest pop-up murder on a lakeside wayside in noir, majestic Norway.

But I think not. There is not enough to keep me riveted, most times. Still, jewel thieves interest me; where is that paperback? That might be in non-fiction, another fine creature altogether.

Yes, I think, pack two or three in a colorful bag along with my bikini (alright, one piece: over fifty, not fearless and foolish) and head out to the sandy stretch of coast for a day of reading and SPF 30 sunning. But I had my four-day summer trip last week. I found little time for books. And I don’t own a quaint cottage. So it is off to my easy chair or bed. Or my balcony, under the shade of, well… I haven’t yet bought bamboo blinds to hang from roof edge so I don’t scorch under remarkably high temperatures. I’ll read indoors, enjoying a moderate blast of air conditioning. Iced tea at hand. A sort of oasis, afterall, in the midst of my day.

Reality, however, or the intrusion of same: that is what stops me when I peruse the June/July lists. As often as I seek fiction, my real life can’t seem to comfortably accommodate those light flights of fancy, where good folks come out unscathed and bad guys get their comeuppance every single turn. Where love is as delicious and satisfying as fresh-squeezed lemonade sipped on the sun-dappled veranda: “Oh, thank you, darling. I do want it to be that way, sometimes, who wouldn’t? The momentary weakness of considering books that command brief attention, tales frothy and forgotten as soon as I close them–all it is, is a slight pull to a life that is painted as sweet and easy. I know, millions of people devour these novels. But the basic falseness leaves me even cooler than usual this year.

Death, illness, heartache, a ridiculous car accident garnering a hefty co-pay at the body shop–these have been interwoven throughout the first six months of 2015. Life occurrences; we all have them, ready or not. So have I longed for escape, maybe beyond that of aforementioned cotton candy books? Of course. The brief coastal respite after my heart issues was a good thing, as upon our return, there have been family troubles that ring unmistakable alarms. It is being sorted. Solutions hunted. I can reach into a stubborn, deep resolve when it comes to problems, as can my spouse. We have each navigated thorny issues for our careers, but family members’ well-being is a whole other concern. It requires fast action, then careful reassessment. It requires patience and presence to be alert to unthinkable possibilities: sea changes or more loss. With the bottomless well of Divine Love, more compassion will be gathered and given.We are bulking ourselves up with prayer and faith in God, plucking insights and resources from a tangle of feelings, of shifting priorities.

As in the best fiction, in actual life the truth of an individual is often not what is imagined “authentic”. Rather, it can arise from a murk of human error and need, then one’s willingness to take healthier risks. Half the challenge of living is its awkward unpredictability. Even as we think matters are being perceived well from our outward and inward selves, there is usually something not observed or defined correctly. I could almost envy those with prodigious memories, who can reel in every sight, sound and signal by gleaning mental files and then tapping their fine heads with an: “Aha, there’s the telling moment, the unadulterated truth. Reality, naked as it is–can all not see it?” All I have is intuition and years of honing observational skills; I am not all that accurate.

Yet, why can’t my being and doing equal entirely the shining creation that once, long ago, seemed probable? That’s the wraith of my youth whining, excuse me. But the diluted lives that those breezy novels offer up, with quips and fabulous fixes? Not so much my cup of tea, you must see. It’s serious, the business of being a human, if ridiculous, too. One can be an adult a long while and yet there comes a day or evening when one is still unreasonably, foolishly jarred. Flummoxed and humbled.

Despite this, I praise every morning’s light gliding through windows and evening’s violet twilight, welcome mysterious darkness. I can and do find it lovely to laugh and it is summer, anyway, with lavish air slipping over me after Oregon’s wet chill winds. I am spellbound by all variations of light and shadow, greenness enveloping each linear or rounded space, the buzzing and sneaking about of so many insects. My daily walks and hikes are that much more amenable.

Well, I may not have the most leisurely, beachy paperback summer that others may have, but it will be a remembered and valuable summer. And there will be time for more good reads. Must be; it is mandatory especially in challenging times.

Yes, more books call to me, just not summer bestseller lists. Currently there is a surprising novel on my nightstand that should be on a beach list. But there is a meatiness of themes concealed within well-written entertainment. The Silver Witch by Paula Brackston contains Celtic symbolism, shamanism, albinism, grief recovery, time travel (or historical synchronicity) and intuitive powers, the creative life of a potter, danger, and the healing forces of love. I am halfway through it and though I am not a usual fan of fantasy novels about magic, I am rooting for this protagonist. She is strong. She is willing to learn from spiritual challenges that meet her every step. It is escape reading, yes, but it resonates right now, provides me interesting moments without too great an investment of time. And I do like the author’s turn of phrase. Brackston is a Welsh writer; I’m half Irish so perhaps that inflates my pleasure.

But since I am writing about lists of books that elicit appreciation, slight loathing or, worse, indifference, I herein offer a half-dozen titles, some in paperback. If you like reading fare that challenges as well as lingers, try these. They abound in plot and character, hold intrigue of a variety. Maybe you’ll find and like something new.

1. Power by Linda Hogan.

An endangered white Florida panther is killed. It is sacred to a Native American’s clan, and a teen-aged member knows who the murderer is. She intends on finding out why such an act was committed. There is a hurricane, there is mystery, Native American spirituality and unusual perceptions. There is, happily, Linda Hogan’s always transcendent use of language. This book is a challenge that mesmerizes.

2. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.

Ahh. A family of coyotes, a female wildlife biologist who is absorbed by wildness, surprising human connections and the landscape of southern Appalachia. There is heart, the lush natural kingdom and surprising revelations. A departure for Kingsolver, perhaps, lighter and still very fine. One of my favorite fiction reads of the last fifteen years.

3. The Small Rain by Madeleine L’Engle.

You may know her for YA books, or only for the lauded A Wrinkle in Time. But she has written over 60 books and this one is a treasure. If you are fascinated by artistic families and how their children manage to survive and thrive, please read these moving pages by a wizard of words. Her careful touch, her probing into human psychology and an underlying respect for faith in God make her books a rare treat.

4. Mr. Lynch’s Holiday by Catherine O’Flynn.

One of the oddest and best books I have read in awhile. Here we have an English widower who visits his avoidant, lying son on the coast of Spain. All is not well in paradise. But he, patient and accepting, discovers peculiar beauty amid ruins and nurtures tentative bonds of love amid his losses. Besides, there is a secret held close to the derelict community where they reside. You will keep reading and appreciating the author’s deft skills, the human carnival that is revealed.

5. The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro.

Okay, this may be the lightest one. But it’s 1955 and from London to Paris we are taken on a multi-layered journey to discover what and why Grace inherited something important from a benefactor, of whom she has never heard before. It is about war and its aftermath, hard choices that have long reaching effects, and also the power and intricacies of perfume. How could I not have read this one and passed it on?

6. The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth. It’s for children, it seems at first, and has only 88 pages. It has pictures! At the start, a Japanese artist and an unwanted white cat have problems galore. But compassion wins out and that cat…well, she is one strange and awesome creature. A good thing to read when you are feeling overwhelmed by our clunky material world. First published in 1930.

There are my June’s half-dozen. If you have a favorite title or author, please do leave it in the “Comments” section. And if it is a fat paperback beach read, give me your recommendation–I am always open to a good tale nicely turned out. If there is any interest, I may offer more titles at another date, as I tend to seek writers or books often less popular or well-known and would love to share them with you. Indulge yourself in a glorious summer of reading–I’m soon checking in on the Seer and the potter. And after the respite of reading, I’ll be looking for right and good results of work on family needs. I hope you make your way well this summer, too, and have strudy support if needed beyond the world of books.

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

He Walks, She Walks, the Sea Sings

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It’s hot, like the sun developed a sudden passion for the sea and sand. Unrelenting, it wraps around me like a scarf afire, covering me head to foot with blatant disregard. It has found me watching again, waiting for a moment when I will endure less speculation and gain more first-hand knowledge of something, anything better than what I know already. I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, I reach for the sunblock and add protection to my long legs and freckled arms and face.

The guy I see daily runs or walks back and forth across the same stretch of sand with his two Irish Setters. I might guess he is either obsessive-compulsive or just unimaginative, even bored with his life despite the constancy of his dogs and an overall tendency to look better than anyone else around here. From the porch I can’t quite make out his features. It’s irrelevant, since he has not once looked my way and I’m not a photographer or artist yearning to immortalize him. Just passing time here, a would-be singer resting her voice until discovered. Or until I can book another lousy Thursday night gig.

This whole plan, spending time with my aunt and uncle while my mother again traipses around Europe with the string trio that has made her famous, with her small but devoted entourage, is an agreement I made with her. For her, not me, soon after she declared me unfit to stay alone one more day or night. I’d worked three nights in two months and my rent was overdue; she had to pay it again. Then she called her sister and brother-in-law.

Not that I don’t care about Jean and Albert, mind you. They’re my only living aunt and uncle and live a pleasant if more pedestrian life than my mother, and, luckily, reside at the beach. They cleaned an upstairs room for me and made it more than adequate, though it wasn’t necessary. All I need is a bed and lamp, a small table and perhaps a wooden chair. It is one of three rooms (a third is for Albert’s lawyer son when he visits, a grey and white room with framed maps on the wall, unchanged since he left) that was stacked with boxes of mementos of Mom and Jean, extra beading supplies and gemstones to create jewelry, innumerable books both read and unopened that they intend to some day donate, and the shoe and costume collection Jean has amassed over the decades she was a well-remunerated ballroom dancer. I have seen her pictures and awards all my life and could never understand why she gave it up at forty-eight, as she was still winning trophies, getting standing ovations. Her dancing is what a child like me believed was happiness incarnate, an entrancing perfection. I often tried on her shoes, spinning like a crazed top until I toppled.

“Best to bow out when you’re at your peak,” she’d said, tilting her head to one side, small teeth even and bright between full ruby lips. “And Albert had had enough.”

“It was me or the dancing, and that was doing her back and feet in, not good at her age,” he agreed, as if it was nothing to ask of his wife. He owned this rambling house, he had been lonely after many years of widowhood. Jean had found him at his jewelry shop when she was on a leave with foot troubles, buying more earrings. Everyone thought he was a bit old for her but she declared him her compadre, as if she handpicked him from a raft of flamenco back-up dancers, mutual need and want at first sight.

“He’ll be around for me forever, dancing will not. I’ve had a great run but I’m less than enamored of the sweat, pulled muscles, fickle audiences and unbearably arrogant judges.”

“Simply put, I loved her far more.”

Jean was nothing if not confident of herself and even life. That was a hallmark of her personality and of her sister’s, aka Mom’s, as well. Ambitious, charismatic, bold sisters from Syracuse, New York. Performers sprung from exceptional musical genes, the daughters of a music arranger and a musical theater actress, both of whom had enjoyed very good runs on Broadway.

“Speaking of which–when are you going to resume voice lessons, Gemma?”

This was the big question posed to me after dinner the night I arrived. I looked to the ocean, pulled by its rhythmic waves, light riding each foamy crest, and the sand left smooth, almost delicate as water receded once more. There is no sufficient hiding spot that protects me from this family inquisition, I thought, and the drive to succeed that infects it. My brother is also on the road with his band Ardent Revenge, making good money, gaining fans. I sang with him in early days, then found my own way. Well, found I loved jazz and also that there was limited need of one more girl singer in the teeming morass of hopefuls.

“She’s taking a break, no shop talk for a while, eh? Let the young lady enjoy restorative peace a couple of weeks, right?”

Albert has a way of understanding things that Jean does not, perhaps because he has no expectations, no need of control over me or anyone else. And he knows to keep suggestions gentle, open-ended, so she feels she has a final say. Even though I have only known him five years, I believe my aunt picked a keeper.

I turned my assertive self on her. “I’m resting and re-evaluating my next move. I’m generating musical ideas.” We held each other’s eyes, she contemplating delving deeper, me forbidding it. “I’m here because mom suggested it,” I added, “that’s all. Well, and I love you, too.”

“And we adore you, Gemma,”Albert tossed out as I excused myself, put on my sandals and left.

“Yes, you know I do, dear,'” Jean squeaked out as if he was twisting her arm. I knew she’d expected much more of me; it hindered her unfettered approval at times.

Beyond their walls the landscape was being overlaid with a deepening coral sheen, an elegant body of undulating water and still sand, tufts of grasses scattered about the edges. No one but a man with two rollicking dogs was visible. He held himself as if entirely alone despite his handsome pets, his gaze directed at the horizon as the sun was stowed away like an opulent fan folded for the night. I was riveted, too, until the dogs started to bark at seagulls and a venturesome cormorant. I headed the other direction, entering a softening darkness, seeking release from months of worry and work to survive. But each step underscored that my dilemma was a toss-up between what it would take to continue singing and make money from it and what had to happen if I was going to find joy in it again.

Time soon became a routine of sleeping, walking or running many sandy miles to keep my breathing and stamina in good shape, eating, playing cards or chess with my aunt and uncle, reading books from their staggering stacks. The water coalesced into that magnanimous being I wanted it to be, its urgent repetitions a reminder of nature’s sweet potency, the roaring voice a sacred healer. I fell asleep to its ancient lullaby, music that unfettered my sleep and took me on strange dream journeys. My mind became a bowl of silvery waves, my heart a drum that found its accompaniment in the sea’s breadth and depth. I awakened a bit stunned and more aware than I had been in a long while. But I remained silent more often than not. Singing longed for nothing from me yet.

The man with his dogs came and went on the same stretch of beach, yet we didn’t cross paths more than a couple of times. He seemed as engrossed by the elements as was I. We respected the mutual need of privacy. Dogs are rambunctious creatures not much restrained by human codes, so greeted me freely. I called them Red I and II.

No one spoke further of the future, and they were kind, even Jean was gentle, and Albert made me laugh with vignettes about his shop and the tourists. Jean and I tried on her old costumes. As we did when I was a kid, she took me in her arms and taught me dance steps. On the beach I tried the steps on hard sand, chasing waves out, leaping into them. The dancing produced a feeling lightness and freedom, and I began to see what drew her to it and not to making music. I wondered how she could be done with her passion. And I, possibly, mine, when only thirty-one. The thought pierced me.

Then, near the end of this third week I notice I am humming when I see the man with the Reds. It happens a couple more times. I have gotten so used to his presence that I barely see him, anymore, but when I hear the notes move in my chest and throat, I look up intentionally and locate him a yard away from me. He has stopped and is looking my way, hands locked on muscular shoulders as if in the act of massaging sore spots, his bare feet planted as tumultuous blue-green waves rush forward. With honeyed light falling over his flesh he looks nothing short of a statue, a paean to a bronzed Greek mini-god set upon on the beach. I stifle a yelp that is really a slip of nervous laughter.

I pivot and start walking the other way.

“Wait.”

I think this is not purposely directed at me–perhaps he is thinking I am some other woman–so speed up. But when I hear the thudding of running feet behind me, I take off, too, I don’t know why, perhaps I am embarrassed he saw me watching him, maybe I want to be left alone, but it is possible I am up for a game of chase, want to be pursued. I run fast, I was built for it, and I want to see if he catches up. I give it another burst of effort but striding up beside me now are the dogs, Red I and Red II and they are emitting enthusiastic barks every few lopes. I rein in my speed, then stop. Bending down, I rough up their large, furry noggins, catch my breath. I am licked on knees and hands. The man is running now, late but with verve.

“Hey,” I offer as he nears, “your dogs are fast.”

“Not so fast as you, I suspect. I can’t seem to get your attention, while they find it easy.” He calls them.”Titan, Helly, down!” They sit as he steps forward, hand outstretched to me. “Harlan Wills.”

“Gemma. Gemma Everson.” I take his hand. It’s damp and a little gritty as if he has been digging out rocks and shells. The dogs are panting and looking at the sea, impatient. I rock a little from side to side, a habit I have when anxious. Why did he call me? Is he safe enough?

He swipes hands on his shorts as if reading my mind. “I noticed you have been around every day for a while. Like me. Vacationing?”

“Visiting.” I am thinking his voice is remarkable, one I could close my eyes to, and it strikes me as brazen to think it and even ridiculous. Maybe he’s a public speaker or radio deejay or a politician. I balk at the last so settle on the first, then second. “You come here often?”

He takes forward steps as do I. Red I and II–Titan and Helly, what absurd names–follow along as a casual pace now. “Yeah, I have a summer place not far from here. You, too, or staying at a hotel?”

I shake my head and start to answer but feel encumbered by his interest. The last thing I want here is a nosey stranger, someone who needs explanations. All good-looking men seem this way, I think, makers of easy talk that avoids best intentions. “Family,” I offer.

We walk quietly a few feet when the dogs are off chasing more birds and whatever else they hear and see that we cannot. He stops to observe them, then turns to me.

“You don’t want to be bothered, am I right?”

My mouth opens to affirm his insight, but the truth is I want to hear him talk more. “It’s not that. I am…busy resting my voice, you might say. Taking a break.”

“Oh, you’re a singer?” His even-features register greater curiosity and delight, eyebrows rising.

I’m involuntarily speechless now. How can he know this? I gulp, stutter. “W-Well, uh, okay then, yes.” My brow furrows as there is a tinge of distaste for his astuteness despite his melodious voice. Who does this guy think he is? I pull up the hood on my light sweatshirt and start walking again. I am not going to speak more of it.

Harlan falls in step. “I’m a composer. Well, lately more of a song writer which I also like.”

“A composer? Really, of what? Symphonies?” The sarcasm is obvious so I try again. “I mean, classical or pop or what?” I am nearly shouting because the wind has picked up and clouds are zooming in, spreading a cushiony layer along the northerly horizon.

He half-yells back. “I was working on a cycle of songs for chorus but cannot seem to finish up right. It’s commissioned work but that doesn’t motivate me, it annoys the heck out of me. So lately I’ve been writing more melodic stuff, working on lyrics. Just for me.” He comes to a halt. “I’m sorry, so all about me. I’ve been here for a month, alone, and I guess I…well. Just what is it you sing?”

I take in a chest full of salt sea air and feel it inhabit and soothe my lungs, then agitate my mind. What do I sing? Yes, what? Is it jazz or is it alternative? Has it most recently been pop or soul? What is it I am doing with my waning voice when I open my mouth on a crowded or dingy stage? Whatever is expedient, whatever pays the bills. What causes people to stop and listen, perhaps cheer me on. Lately, nothing at all.

“I’m flexible.” I smile at him because he is smiling at me, his face opening up, a golden shell with perhaps something more inside.  I want to impress him, make him happy he knows found me. Why not? I’m lost at the beach, so is he. “Lately, very little. Nothing, in fact.”

“Ah.”

We wait for Red I and II, then set off at a more brisk pace. The wind settles with a whisper and I let the hood fall away from my face.

“Why are they named Helly and Titan?”

“An opera I tried to write after graduate school. The main protagonists were Helvetia and Titan.” He sees me smirk. “I know, okay, pretentious. It failed. But I got the two puppies around then, after a bad relationship that coincided with my worthless masterpiece.”

He shrugs as if that is so ancient history his dogs don’t recall it and he would rather not. I inhale the ocean’s tangy freshness, and feel heady.

“I’m a jazz singer who can’t find a decent band so I’m reduced to singing on the ‘off’ nights, just opening sets in stinking little dives, while my diva mother is off in Europe with her string trio and moneyed friends. I got sent here to recoup with my dancing aunt and sweet uncle and I’m just trying to sort things out….do I give up? Do I go back to school and become an X-ray technician or legal assistant? Terrifying.” I turn to him and without thinking reach for his arm. “I mean, really, Harlan Wills, must I give it up?”

His large eyes widen as he finds my hands, and they are almost like mirrors, deeper set than mine, pewter and navy like the sea now, but they are sending out something real. Pain or tenderness or fear. Vulnerability. Two strangers, but of the same ilk.

He knows just what I mean. I hang onto his hands, feel the wind come up and whip my hair across my eyes. He moves the strands from my face and I step back, acutely aware of his touch, those long tanned fingers on my own sun-pinkened skin. We look at each other, then away. Separate, the moment hanging between us like a portent or a warning, something unexpected and unavoidable.

The dogs don’t care. They are wet now and charging us and Harlan takes their muzzles in his palms and talks to them and they talk back. We turn to trace a return route.

“Do you want to have a glass of wine? I might be able to dig up some cheese and bread or even yesterday’s spaghetti.”

“I don’t know.” I look at him but his eyes are turned to the incoming tide. I see we are walking in sync, our lanky steps easy but metered.”Do you have a piano?”

The sky is striated blue and silver, sunlight a thin bright band travelling across the far horizon. Rain is coming. I might have to sleep with my window partially opened so I can hear it ping against the window glass, locate its fine notes among the sea’s throaty intonations. Seek out its fine and freeing power, and make it somehow mine, as well.

“Yes, a beat up baby grand, a Steinway,” Harlan says.

“Well, let’s go, then.”

Helly and Titan lead the way, challenging a last time the tide’s magnetic pull, then come ’round to us. Waves release a resounding boom and we move faster as the summer sky releases glittering raindrops. Two rootless, uninspired musicians begin to fly across a sea-shaped land, to just where I don’t know but back to the music, to that mad, transcendent intersection of sound and soul, the only home we know.

 

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Writer’s Nook Closed—Beach Combing!

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Sometimes you have to leave behind the daily routine, seek out fresh scenes and conversations (or savor silence), experience feelings and ideas from changed perspectives. Let go and give yourself over to moment-to-moment opportunities that will help you become more rooted and present in living.

And those of you who read my blog regularly know I have lost my dear sister in the last two months, then underwent a moderately harrowing couple of days in the hospital due to heart issues. A respite seems wise. And I am a person who is enamored of movement–I love to take physical, mental and spiritual action. Taking a mini-vacation fits my criteria.

So, I’m shutting things down at home, grabbing my partner’s hand and allowing the days and nights to surprise us more than usual. We are off to the beach and mountains, where symmetry and anomalies have a way of unfolding in eye-opening ways, and I am shaken up, even held aloft by visions and wonders.

I will seek to bring back a heart and soul clarified and infused by strong joy, a sacred serenity. And, of course, to find laughter, good companionship with my spouse, and lazy hours doing just as we please.

May your coming days afford you more kindness, curiosity, and fulfillment, as well.

See you next week with more tales, pictures and poems!
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Posted in creative nonfiction, non-fiction, prose, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Mrs. Hemming’s Broken Pot

Photo by Willy Ronis

Photo by Willy Ronis

If it hadn’t been for the mini clay flowerpot falling from her windowsill, they may never have come close to her, but it narrowly missed Henry’s left foot. Shards of it scattered and bounced on the street; a piece lodged itself under Lena’s bicycle tire as she came to a halt. The purple pansies–three flowerets–landed without fanfare.

Henry was sixteen, hanging out at the curb, impatient for his finals to be done and summer to be fully loaded with sunshine and freedom. Lena, three years younger, had ridden her bike to the store to get sweet onion and potatoes for hash their mother was to make with leftover corned beef. She was just returning. Tate, aka Tattler, eight, had been picking at a scab on his left elbow. He kept an eye on a gathering of ants that was about to swarm a tidbit of salami he’d dropped for that express purpose.

Tattler ran over, stood beneath Mrs. Hemming’s window and pointed his grubby index finger at her.

“Wait ’til my ma hears about this! A pot on that narrow windowsill? About killed us!”

Mrs. Hemming poked out her pale face, then faded back into shadow again, grabbing her big black cat. She didn’t like people looking up at her. She wanted to be the one looking, and spent countless hours each day watching cars cough and speed along, bikes slip between pedestrians and vehicles with a brringbrring of bells, the hectic lives of husbands and wives. And those children who were forced to go to school plus the ones who got to take a day off for a cold that wouldn’t quit, so they leaned out their own windows and made faces at her if she stared too much. The teenagers intimidated her with their carrying on, loud tossing of words, their gauche laughter and groans dominating the airwaves. Sometimes, if they or anyone else awakened her from nap or nighttime slumber, she had an angry word or two for them. Henry and his siblings had been admonished to pay her no mind.

“Tattler, enough.”

“A pot! That’s the third time since winter something has crashed down from her third story window. Careless,” Lena said, parking her bike and kneeling to look at her tire. “But… I guess no harm done.”

“I’m telling Mom. She’s a menace.”

Henry gave a sharp laugh. “Big word for you, shrimp. The old lady is bored, probably. Maybe she bumped into it. Or Black Velvet pushed it over when she sat down. You know she’s not right or she’d be out and about like everyone else, have a life.”

Henry picked up the shards after two cars whizzed by and there was a lull. He dumped them into Mrs. Hemming’s trash can and looked up. She was still absent, but he heard her cat, Black Velvet (they named it as it looked quite plush), cry a few times, as if the fallen pot offended her, as well.

Lena trudged up the stairs with bulging mesh bag in tow. “I’m going in to give these to Mom.” She turned back to Henry. “We should take the flowers, replant them. Better they live than die.” She had a soft, pained look on her face as she glanced at them, limp and forgotten by the road.

Lena was always saying dramatic things. She was usually level-headed and Henry liked that but there were times she was so much heart and soul he wanted to run for cover. He liked things that made sense. He was into drawing but that made sense, too, the perspective, depth; shapes and colors changing white space.

“Henry.” Lena turned to face him, her wide eyes pleading. “Please?”

“Why me?”

“I have to take this food into Mom and get an iced tea.”

He frowned at her hard. Lena went inside and slammed the door.

“They’re dead already, leave ’em,” Tattler said as he lay down to better scrutinize the ants at work. “This meat smells gross.”

Henry crossed the street with a dismissive wave at his brother.

“Don’t go!” Tattler called after him. “Lena tries to make us do stuff just like Mom.”

Henry craned his neck to get a better look at Mrs. Hemming’s window–only scrubby grey emptiness was there now–and then picked up the bedraggled flowers. He looked around for something to put them in and saw a discarded paper coffee cup a few feet away. It was clean enough so he tucked them in and dashed between a red scooter, a battered Ford truck, and a very fast bike. He thought he heard Mrs. Hemming but when he looked again all he saw was Black Velvet.

He could see his mother raise their own window sash.

“Bring those poor flowers in and set the table. And tell Tate to come take out the trash.”

“I’ll take out the trash and Tattler can do the table.”

“Henry. Now.”

After Tattler took out the trash and Henry set the plates ’round the oak table, their father got home. They filled up on hash, their own green beans and fruit salad. No one mentioned the pot falling; it seemed unimportant as their father told them about another lay-off at work.

Afterwards, Lena carried the battered cup of pansies to the back yard. Henry followed to see where she was planting them. Instead, she took them out and nearly cradled them.

“You’d think they were babies,” Henry laughed. “Put them over by the African daisies.”

“I’m leaning towards putting them in another pot. And maybe taking them over to her.”

“Why? She dropped them.”

“Did she?” Lena’s blue eyes fixed their powerful gaze on him. “I think Black Velvet tipped them over. She doesn’t usually put flowers out there. Maybe they needed some air and light and the cat sat next to them and they fell over.”

“You’re suddenly the good neighbor? We’ve known she was there all our lives–well, for almost ten years–and she has never spoken to us except to tell us to quiet down. She sits there every day, rudely peers at people, keeps track of where they go and when, who they hang out with, who moves out and in. Drops stuff! Remember the used plastic fork and knife with paper plate that sailed down in spring? Dad picked those up.”

“I guess you’ve kept an eye on her, too, Henry.” She got an empty green shiny-glazed pot. “That’s her life.” She scooped out potting soil from the big value-sized bag, spooned some in the pot, added the flowers, then more soil.

The narrow rectangular yard was a carnival of colors and shapes, bees and birds. Their parents worked hard on it every year, planting vegetables and flowers, building it up and diversifying. The spiders and other creeping things were in heaven. Henry and his family sometimes gathered at a picnic table after the sun went down. He knew he’d miss all that when he left home eventually.

Lena was patting the soil down, her thin, dark blonde hair a sheer veil across her face. She held it up to Henry for his approval so he showed his admirable teeth in mock appreciation. But the pansies did look more than decent. Tattler opened the back screen door and let it bang a couple of times before he closed it tight, then sat by his older brother.

“Looks good. I know you think we need to take it march it back to her.”

“What? No way!” Tattler banged his knee.

Lena’s face lit up. “Yes! That’s what I wanted you to say–not you, Tattler, Henry–I know you don’t care. Perfect. Let’s go.”

“What will Mom and Dad think of that? What if she’s…you know, a little scary?” Their little brother had more bravado than either of them but he was often cowardly in the end.

“I don’t think they’d mind us doing that–they belong to her, anyway. How scary can she be? No one has complained except to say she’s a loner and odd.”

They had been in the apartment building to visit a few friends over the years, but not up to the third floor, to the door number that was noted on Mrs. Hemmings main entry mailbox. But there they were, just like that after a lifetime.

They looked at each other, Lena’s eyebrows rising and falling. Henry rubbed his chin and sucked his lower lip in. Tattler punched the doorbell twice, two sharp rings heard beyond the door. There was a peephole and they all stared at it. No sound came to them at first so they waited in uneasy silence. Then there was shuffling along the wooden floor and Black Velvet meowing tiredly as if it was a bother to pad alongside Mrs. Hemming to deal with a nuisance.

“Saw you out there.” The muted words seemed to emanate through the keyhole. She had a low voice, a little scratchy. Was she bent down to it, speaking into it as if it was a telephonic device? “Go away.”

Lean bent over and talked back through the keyhole. “Mrs. Hemming, we have your flowers.”

No answer. Black Velvet mewed louder now, scratched the door.

“The ones you about dropped on our heads!” Tattler offered.

Henry stepped forward. “If you’ll just open the door a little, we can slide through the flower pot. We fixed them for you.”

“She’s not going to open her door to us,” Lena hissed at him. “She doesn’t even know us. Let’s just leave them.”

“She knows us,” Henry whispered back.”She sees us nearly every day, I’ll bet you.” He knocked lightly on the door. “Please open so we may give the pansies back. We know you didn’t mean harm. They fell, right?”

Stillness.

“Gosh, Mrs. Hemming, open up, we’re almost actual neighbors!” Tattler stared at the keyhole, then started down the hall. “I’m leaving!”

Henry hesitated, then touched his sister’s arm, signalling time to go but Lena looked intensely at the door as if she could will the doorknob to turn. He couldn’t believe she was going to wait but that was how she was when she had an idea accompanied by big feelings. Sure enough, she bent down to the keyhole again.

“Mrs. Hemming, I just want to tell you we have a wonderful garden. I could bring you vegetables. Maybe. I’ll check with Mom. I love your pretty black cat. We even named it Black Velvet. I see you at your window, too. I even wave, you know that, right?”

Henry made a noise in his throat, a harrumph sort of sound. He didn’t wave. Well, maybe on holidays if no one was nearby.

The cat stopped meowing and pawing at the door. They began to think the woman had left for somewhere else, her room to get away from them, to her television corner–did she have one?–to distract her from two young hooligans who were bothering her. Maybe she was nervous, even scared.

Lena put the flowerpot down by the door, the purple pansies nodding their lovely revived heads with the movement. The two of them studied the worn wooden door. There was a hook on it that must have once held a plaque or a holiday wreath. Something.

He chimed in a last thing, “They’re in a new pot, green and shiny.” But it was feeling stranger to yak at a closed door in a dim, empty hallway to someone who didn’t care.

Lena leaned her shoulder against the door jamb. “I’m sorry…about things. If you’re happy to have the flowers back, maybe put them on the window sill so we know…”

Henry tugged at his sister. He knew she was disappointed even though it would have been surprising if Mrs. Hemming opened the door even a hair. She had been apart from others so long; she was aged enough to have pure white hair wound into a fat knot on top of her head. No one did that, anymore, they cut it all off. She was bent over from a painful back or from hunching up at the window all these years. Just that much he could tell from the street when he saw her. He had heard from his mother that volunteers for the elderly shopped for her, even took her out if needed but he’d only seen that happen once when she had pneumonia last winter. He was amazed she’d returned.

They ran down two flights of stairs. Mrs. Hemming just didn’t want to hear from them, didn’t care about the flowers or their efforts. She liked being left to the companionship of Black Velvet. She couldn’t face the world, he guessed. Maybe it had disappointed her, maybe one day she had gone outside to do an ordinary errand on a blue sky day and something terrible had happened right before her or she’d lost her way and panicked. Or her husband dropped dead before sixty and that was that for sociable living. No one seemed to know, everyone had a different story when asked. And no one really cared about it one way or the other, now. Or her.

They burst through the main door and into early summer air, light sweetness replacing dusty, clingy smells, that cave-like feel. Lena went into the townhouse without a backward glance and was met by an excited Tattler. Henry sat down on a step to call his friend. It was surprising, what they had done, and not altogether good, he thought. They might have made things worse.

The friend’s line was ringing when he saw a slight movement at the third story window, the waning light flashing off a windowpane. A hand grasped the green flowerpot of pansies. It was placed inside, facing the wide open window, a safer spot. They looked lively up there, so colorful. Black Velvet jumped up, took her post near the pot. It all felt right and good. Henry ended the call. Maybe he’d grab his sketchbook.

One of the two narrow window doors were partially closed against a cooling breeze. But Mrs. Hemming reached out and made the smallest salute to the dusk, to Henry, that empty, ancient palm suspended as if waiting for more from the quieting street, the tired and misunderstanding world. Then it withdrew once more. She had seen him. And he had at last seen her.

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments