Big Money Pond

Roses, Salmon Creek, Irv 054

Though the rain began to splatter hard not just spit, her mom and aunt didn’t hurry up and follow her to their car. Frankie was a little tired, ready to go, and leaned against the Oldsmobile’s back door, waiting. A shiver rippled up her trunk, making goose flesh on both arms from gusts of wet wind. They had walked three miles around the greenway. It had been awhile since they’d visited so even though dark towering rain clouds had gathered, they’d taken their time. Frankie liked harvesting blackberries from their heavy bushes in summer or wading in the creek for starters, but in spring there were other treats like deep pink salmon berry flowers, rocks along Salmon Creek’s steep banks. Ducks and turtles over at the grassy pond, the one her mom called the Good Old Pond (there was another pond at the other end of the park). They had seen a blue heron last year; it was so close to her it spooked her and then she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She looked for it today but it wasn’t there. Probably off looking for its friends or more food.

Once they’d lived three blocks away but that was before things got fancy, she was told. Before the woods, creek and marshland were made a regional park. Her parents were offered a decent price to move so a bunch of men and huge machines could smash the ramshackle house and cart shingles, cement and splinters away. That was when her parents were fully together. Frankie barely remembered it. She remembered crying and being given an ice cream cone. Now it was just Frankie, her mom and Aunt Jean.

She looked around and saw them heading for the other pond, the one her mom and aunt called Big Money Pond, sniggling like it was was a bad joke. She wasn’t sure what they meant and when she asked, her mom said, “Oh, just taxes and all. Crying shame but that’s government, taking what you care about or need, charging you for it.”

They’d brought an umbrella because of the storm forecast. Aunt Jean had said, “Nothing like a handy lightning rod for our walk.” But they rarely wore water repellent jackets, just hooded sweatshirts. Frankie scurried after them as rain pelted her with fat drops. They’d get drenched but you just didn’t argue with them, especially Aunt Jean. She ran things most places, even in their house, never mind that it didn’t belong to her. She was a supervisor at the paper mill; her mom worked there, too, but in a different area, thank god.

“If I had her as a boss I’d walk out every hour,” she’s told Frankie one times after the sisters argued about kitchen duty and Aunt Jean had won out.

Frankie had taken the tea towel and slapped it at the counter top a couple times. “Well, when I grow up I’ll get a maid or robot.”

“When you grow up you won’t have two nickels to rub together unless you get better grades and go to college.”

“Maybe dad should send more child support so we can get our dishwasher fixed.”

“Don’t you bring that up again, Francine, or you’ll do the whole sink full , scrub the stove top and dry them dishes, too.”

“You can’t make me!”

Her mom yanked the tea towel from her hands and snapped her rear with it once. That was enough.

That’s how it went a lot at their house. But her aunt and mom could be fun, too, playing video games with her or board games. Taking her places like the movies or a park. And Aunt Jean helped with bills, yard work and knew how to fix some things–like motorcycles; she rode hers even in downpours–and played rummy with Frankie. She filled in a lot of gaps after her mom and dad split up for the last time. Frankie couldn’t remember anymore what it was like without her in the house or making a mess in the garage, raking leaves or fussing over veggies in tubs along the narrow back yard. If her mom was gone, Aunt Jean was there. If her mom and Aunt Jean were both there it was like having the same person times two but with different voices and somewhat different ways. They looked much alike, rounded and tall, dark brown hair, light brown eyes. But her mom loved her more. She said she would eat octopus tentacles for her, certainly die for her if necessary. Whereas Aunt Jean cackled and said she’d give up a tooth or two in a fight for her, but not her whole gorgeous person. She would definitely not eat octopus.

Frankie found them sitting on a slope by the pond. “What’re you doin’? It’s raining now.”

Her aunt held the umbrella, checked her cell phone. Her mom was standing with arms crossed, watching a handful of people on the other side fishing. The rain ran off her like she was made of duck feathers. She didn’t even blink.

“Fish are biting good, the rain you know,” her mom said. “Should’ve thought of that. Still got a couple poles in the garage.”

“What are they fishing for? I forget,” Frankie asked, grabbing a small lap blanket (her aunt had used it for a sit by the creek, funny about getting too messy that way) and putting it over her skinny back.

“Steelhead. They stock it. No more natural-born fish hangin’ out here. Mac and I used to fish once a week for dinner, pulled out as many as four or five–”

“Don’t start that now.” Aunt Jean looked up at her sister and stared hard.”It don’t ever change nothin’.”

“Well, it all fell apart after we sold our first house to move to the city and that’s solid fact.”

“Stop, it don’t help to keep sayin’ it.”

“We loved it out here when it was just the outdoors and a few of us…”

Aunt Jean turned to her, said something Frankie couldn’t quite hear, gave her a dark stare that even Frankie could feel, almost like a finger snap on the head. She withdrew a heavy oblong stone from her sweatshirt pocket, tossed it with all her might over her aunt’s umbrella. She watched it splash into the bright green surface, then went to her mom. Put her arms around her waist and hugged. After a couple seconds, her mom pulled her off and sat down by her sister half-under the umbrella. Frankie tossed a few more stones after she saw the two of them whispering more. Sometimes Aunt Jean stirred it up instead of helping.

The older woman didn’t like her dad’s name brought up; he had hurt her sister. Plus, one of her sayings was “the less news of the past, the better.” But Frankie loved her dad so much, even if he was in jail for a “B and E” and attempted theft or something like that. Her mom didn’t know she knew, but she had ways. Frankie’s older friend Joe whose dad knew Mac, told her what it was. Then he said he’d heard Mac had broken into a pole barn, he knew the guy and was trying to steal back a lawn mower and some expensive tools he said had been borrowed but never returned but the guy said he’d traded for them fair and square. He pulled his BB gun on her dad and told him to get off his property but her dad hadn’t left, just laughed at him. But the guy had already called the cops. It was a mess. Frankie felt sure about that much. It made her feel a little sick.

Aunt Jean was pointing across the lake. “See that, over there? That new construction? That used to be Ted Burkett’s land.”

“No talking about the past, right? I know their story, anyway. There’s lots like it.”

“This is different, sis, this is an old couple who passed last year, whose ten acres got sold by greedy sons. Sold it for what–a million or two?–and now look what they’ve done. A park boundary line must be on that side of the pond so looks like monster houses are going up around the water.” She shuddered.

Frankie took a seat by her mother, squeezed in close. She took in the spot they were studying. Remembered that last summer there had been nothing but massive trees right there. An earth mover was parked by the end of the pond.Her mom shook her head. Frankie’s eyes swept over the area again. It was still mostly green, really, only with that new building tucked in. It looked out of place, but it could be worse.

Roses, Salmon Creek, Irv 057

They’d lived in their own newer house for four years now. She didn’t recall what the old one was like as she was barely five when they’d moved. But she knew her mom missed it badly sometimes despite liking the nice brick ranch style with three bedrooms, a fireplace and fenced yard. Even if it was on a noisy street. Well, maybe not that.

This park was one of her favorites to visit. They had just one tiny corner park by a train stop in the city neighborhood. So Frankie could get worked up about coming here to play on colorful playground equipment, all new along with other developments the last couple years. The Big Money Pond was also a swimming pond in summer, it even had life jackets for row boaters and people who couldn’t swim well and kids. But she could manage. She swam like crazy at the community pool. Her mom told her she was a real water baby–she should make it her sport in middle school. That made Frankie happy.

It was perfect here, she thought.

Oh. It was perfect. She got it now. It must have been even more perfect back then, with the mammoth ole swimming hole and natural fishes that belonged there forever, woods humming with only animal goings-on. Less people. More spring peepers, her fave along with turtles and snakes and herons. For a moment she wondered what it’d been like–did she remember it?–to take a silent canoe down the creek when it ran high and faster as her dad had told her, Frankie bundled between parents as they guided it without any trouble. It must have been something else, like heaven with all the birds singing to them, lots of bald eagles swooping over. She had just seen one of those today, wondered if there was a nest nearby.

“Well, kids, I’m moving out,” Aunt Jean said, her free fist hammering twice on her thigh.

Frankie’s and her mom’s heads to her, mouths dropped open.

“Yeah, I’m coming back here, ladies. There’s some condos being built the west end of the park. I already seen a model of one I want to buy.”

She didn’t look at her niece or sister. Kept staring at that house going up, the sound of a band saw out there somewhere whirring so loud the fish probably gathered to hide a long the bottom of the pond.

“Wait a minute!” her mom screeched. “You just gave me all that crap about the land over there and the poor family and you’re joining the enemy, buying a condo at the edge of this park? Have you lost your friggin’ mind?”

Frankie covered her ears, then bent over to see Aunt Jean’s face. She was kinda smiling, the sort of curled lips that warned you to watch your step.

“Well, hold on, we all gotta grow up sometime. I’ve been hanging out with you way too long! Time to move on, do my own thing, free up a bit. No offense.”

“You can’t be serious?” Frankie said, leaning across her mother.”You are really leaving us? What’d I do?”

“She’s serious, Frankie, she wouldn’t a said it. I do not get it, Jean, Really!”

“Of course you get it if you think it over more. Frankie, don’t be ridiculous, nothing you done. I’ve saved a lot staying with you two. I can afford my own cubby hole now, thanks to you, sis. Aren’t you a little happy for me?”

“Hell, no,” Frankie said and slumped over face to lap, ready to get slapped on the noggin for swearing. But they all were saying bad stuff and no stinging smack came.

“Watch your mouth!” they both said at once, then laughed when she peeked up at them.

Then fell silent again. The rain lessened, the water’s surface calmed, then the wind gave a little hiccup and sighed.

“Mom, listen. We’ll just have to sell our house and move here, too. I like it over here more–you do–and I want to learn to fish and swim more and catch turtles just like you and Dad did. We could just move, so why in heck not?”

Both inclined their heads to Frankie. She held fast their gazes, sat up tall and said louder: “Why not?”

The sisters looked at each other with eyebrows raised halfway to their hairlines, then stared out at more beauty, lost in thought. The pond was a sweet green, dimpled with raindrops, ruffled by another breeze. The group of fishing folks was packing up gear and heading home. Giant clumps of clouds had thinned, flattened like cotton batting Frankie had felt through frail edges of a quilt her dead grandmother had made for her mom. Frankie believed in guardian angels so even though her grandmother died when she was six, she could still help out with this. Maybe if her dad didn’t have to be in jail for long and they moved back here, he’d come around more and get smarter. And her mom and she could swim together in summer and have picnics with Aunt Jean anytime they wanted.

Couldn’t things be somewhat the same even if they changed? Or better?

Her mom cupped Frankie’s chin in her hand. “I don’t know what you’re cooking up, Frankie, you think too much.” She smoothed back the rain-wet hair from her daughter’s forehead. “You’ve got good ideas, too. This might be one of them. You can’t keep any turtles, though, not from a protected area like this now. But you can still swim and canoe…we would do that. It seems more what we want. The city isn’t all that great.”

Aunt Jean stood up with effort. She’d only turned forty-two but often complained of her back.”I know I’m sick and tired of doing lawn work for you. I’ll have no yard to speak of, at the new condo. It’s all done for us, anyway.”

“You’re getting too rich for my blood.” Frankie’s mom got up without a hitch and put her hand on Jean’s shoulder.

“Always had it going on, you know I’m a social climber!”

“That’s just wrong! But how come you didn’t tell us?” Frankie asked.

Aunt Jean held the umbrella over the other two as the girl got up, her jeans’ seat damp from muddy ground, a foot slipping. Heart squeezed up with fear and excitement.

“Didn’t want to worry you about things, lovey.”

Her use of that silly name was too much. Her sudden tenderness landed inside Frankie, started to shake loose a pile of things.

“She mentioned it a few months ago,” her mom said. “I just didn’t think it would happen. Or not this fast.”

“Oh well, no one told me, I need to know things, too!”

Her mom nodded. “You’re right. But don’t get excited, she isn’t just disappearing. And we’ll study on this. Talk.”

“I’ll never get away from you two, why bother trying? It’s a terrible fate!” Aunt Jean let out that signature boom of a laugh, causing passersby to glance over.

Frankie ran ahead, feeling a little raw with irritation about a few things, the inside of her head jostling with new worries. But she also felt ticklish bubbles. Anticipation, hope. Maybe they would move here and make things fresh, and she would grow bigger and happier being outdoors more. Aunt Jean might have even wondered if they’d think of it. They might still be together, just more separate. It seemed strange but not so bad.

She got to the car, turned around to see if they were hurrying up. Their arms were linked together; that made her forget her worries some. The two women walked awkwardly until they readjusted themselves: her mom taking longer strides that got reined in, her aunt gallumping along with her barest limp, smaller steps that began to lengthen. They still looked cut from the same good rough-and-ready cloth, all three of them were or that’s what her dad had told her once. And he’d beamed down at Frankie like she was made of the best part.

Roses, Salmon Creek, Irv 045

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Unexpected Gains of Losing Control

DSCF5994

It didn’t even come close to being the most challenging hike we’ve taken. The woods in southwestern hills, five-minutes from city center, are so familiar they seem like an expansive back yard. On perfect Saturday we were enjoying a fairly small portion of Forest Park, the name almost an oxymoron. It is, after all, over 5000 acres of northwest forest and home to all manner of bird and beast. The trails are earthen, trees tower. It is the largest urban forest in the country. To me, it’s more evidence of the genius of nature’s design.

We’ve traversed that particular area a hundred times, though it was the first time since early winter had begun. A glorious mix of scents sailed along on gentling air. Streams of light shone golden among the trees and bushes, bounced across creek and stones. It was so warm I shed a light jacket. Adrenalin pumped through me as we started down the first trail.

If not the most daring of hikers I do have decent stamina and strength, even with a beta blocker that slows my heart and keeps the beats more measured. So I tend to take off, camera readied, eyes absorbing the sights. My spouse, M., is usually nearby though he might stop to closely inspect an astonishing range of fungi. Myself, not so much–that is his special interest. But I kept looking over my shoulder, as this time he was not kneeling to inspect his finds. Was not nearby. He was standing still. Catching his breath.

He lagged as we continued; he was more tired than I had realized. I felt guilty that I had pressed for a forest afternoon. He had just returned from a long business trip the night before. But he was looking forward to being outdoors, as well–until he had some shortness of breath. Well, we both knew he was prone to some huffing and puffing when ascending inclines–he was not as fit as he wished (but hadn’t made time to address). I kept slowing down, doubling back and finally suggested we sit a few. He plopped down.

“I’m exhausted. My legs feel heavy. Flying must be getting to me as I get older. I’ve logged so many miles this year already!”

I scanned his face and watched his chest heave up and down. Even talking seemed an effort. M.’s usually ruddy face had emptied of color; his grey-blue eyes were not clear.

“Are you having chest pain or pressure? Jaw or arm hurt?”

“No.” He shot me a look that said I was fussing too much when I had just begun.

“Nauseous? Light headed?”

“No, just tired, Cynthia–maybe I should have stayed home and been a couch potato.”

“This isn’t like you–you’re far more winded than usual. Something doesn’t feel right.”

“I’ll be fine. I just need a few nights of real sleep.”

I’m not a medical professional but I do have good reason to know signs of the heart’s warning signals, since I personally have experienced them. But I wanted to believe him…halfway did. We continued hiking up, down, around easier trails. Noted frogs, a garter snake, woodpeckers, a scattering of trillium, paused at the spot we had once been entranced by deer a few yards away. But I knew we should be going home sooner than later.

M. was still pale, paused to catch his breath with difficulty. He lacked a sense of ease and that concentrated attention like a microscope when spotting something good. He wasn’t even noting the various bird songs, which we liked to try to mimic.

As if it was being telegraphed to me, I knew he was very unwell.

But we had to finish the hike, there was no way around that, so we continued and as if by silent agreement did not linger, did not even stop at creekside to look for rocks or listen to the water’s litany of delights. At the top of the last hill there was a conveniently placed bench. He sat on it. I waited and observed, saw him check his pulse. And it was then that we looked at each other.

I said, “This is a bit too much like the hike that put my heart into attack mode fifteen years ago. We were just deeper into wilderness then. But you had to nearly carry me back. So I’m asking you, do you think you need to go to emergency now? Maybe I should get help; I am very worried.”

After a survey of his internal operations (he is an engineer, he loves data, numbers) he said, “No. Let’s just get home so I can rest.”

And so, against my instincts, we went home. M. lay on the couch and fitfully slept. I had that bad, angry sexist thought: why do men find it so incredibly hard to let themselves admit to being ill?

For that matter, why do we all have such a strong impulse to deny health issues, emotional problems or life circumstances that are demanding, complex and painful? Because these are life altering and it is tough to accept a strong possibility of bad news. And denial helps us cope by putting it off, keeping it at the far edge of consciousness. If it stays at a distant horizon, we can assure ourselves there is more time to prepare for whatever takes clear form and then becomes unavoidable. Undeniable.

M. would not consider anything more than perhaps a phone call to the doctor. So on Monday after I insisted, he went to his doctor. Then he went on to work. After tests and lab work results came in that afternoon and they made calls to him which he never answered, the nurse called me frantically.

“We can’t reach him–he needs to go to the hospital now!”

On the way to the hospital he couldn’t breath well; he admitted it had gotten harder at work, had been about to call me. He looked pasty. I’d wanted to call the ambulance but since he had refused I drove too fast. And arrived so he could get the CT scan and chest x-rays. End up in an emergency cubicle so they could blast several pulmonary embolisms–blood clots in both lungs–with blood thinning injections in his belly. He was found severely anemic as well; a blood transfusion was discussed as a possibility. He was put on a ferrous sulfate (iron) IV for three days.

Yes, admitted to inpatient hospital. M. was stunned, a reasonable reaction to a sudden health crisis. He is almost never ill, has not ever had a significant  health crisis. I was disquieted, mouth dry and mind curiously blank at times. The only thing for it was to trust strangers with his well being. His life, it turned out: multiple blood clots in lungs are not tolerated; the body’s efficient homeostasis is disrupted, oxygen delivery is severely impaired. It means lung tissue dies if they are not dissolved in time.

I’ll spare you the details, small and larger discoveries resulting from investigation of causative factors. There was other surprising information to absorb. So extra tests, more waiting. You know how that is in those stuffy little, too-warm corridors and rooms where germs float about looking for hosts. There were uncertain nights and days, free floating worry shelved in order to be present, alert. The rounds of calls (more often texts, blast it, fingertips worn down) to and from five children and others with frequent updates.

You know how it all goes if you have lived even a decade or two because these things…Just. Happen. We don’t get to forecast them. We only hope they don’t happen to us.

I recall one daughter asking if I was controlling hysteria for her sake or if I was actually feeling calm. I was taken aback. I was not feeling intense emotions. Stillness had unfolded within–a faint sense of shock at first, then a gradual transformation into simply…a deeper stillness. Quietude. Feeling frayed at moments, of course. The rawness was felt nightly as weariness vied with a need to process things.

But prayer came and went unbidden as if woven into my own breathing. Saying aloud, Oh Lord, may Your Presence bring to him healing and right balance, may his body repair itself, may the Light of Love dominate all systems, bring him to wholeness. Saying things without thought, reaching for solace and guidance.

All our children know how to call upon God’s healing. Their words and voices were a soothing balm. I felt them in the room although most do not live nearby.  One daughter could be there to sit with us awhile, silent and attentive.

Who cannot find a prayer when shadows fall, when not one inch forward can be discerned?

I didn’t feel fear much. It was like being held up, a sort of tall tree or a pillar, or like a lighting rod so my husband would not lose sight of the comfort of my love, nor his weakened grasp loosen, nor the storms inside his body strike him dead. I wanted to be unwavering for him. This is a man who overcame difficult beginnings, gave up an interrupted college education to make a living and yet became expert in his field; who has traveled our country and other parts of the world; who dedicated himself to helping raise a large, blended family. And he did it. So he might well be forgiven if he thought he could avoid health crises via perseverance and faith alone.

There was the exquisite potency of small touches, the ones that sometimes are forgotten but that can salvage almost anything. My hand to his, my cheek to his, the smoothing of a sheet atop his aching chest, the wiping of his brow. The adjustment of the miserable hospital gown that disregards dignity. A glass of water given. A talk with that nurse who never came. His half-smiles in return. And through each exchange flowed peace, care and loving kindness like a current that hummed so softly no one else might guess its power but the two of us. Or perhaps it showed.

I have reverence for the sanctity and power of life that fights for us even if we are unable to intervene, ourselves. Maybe especially when we are weak. We felt the greater medicine in those rooms and it was God; regardless of the outcome, there would remain so. I believe if we are stumbling and shaken we can and will be lifted, held steady. Carried, even, through whatever comes. And over many decades, we have been.

A long time habit of mine is preparing myself for life’s twists and turns the best I can, for even devastating events that may or may not come. But not by anticipating the worst–being shored up by gratitude and the hope that it plants. With spiritual sustenance.  The awareness of grace amidst troubles. We are all vulnerable, subject to hardships, and sometimes it may seem pain is the one constant in various forms. So why not gather up soul and heart strength long before the day arrives when we must call upon our best reserves?

M. came home after three days and nights, then rested for about four more, then returned to work. He has some flexibility so he can work from home at times as needed. But he loves his work, likes being in the mix, wants to move on.

There are a few more tests ordered, new medications. But his energy is returning. We can take a leisurely twenty minute walk. It’s amazing, he keeps saying, I can breathe, nothing feels alarming and set to undo me. He also made an offhand comment tonight about oranges–as he held one close to his nose–being “utterly cheerful, both in fragrance and flavor”. How could I not be happy when he said that? M. seems once more the man I know so well, though his challenges are not completely over. But he was civil and patient and gracefully surrendered to care when knocked down and that confirmed my view of him, too. I have reminded him often he is my oldest and dearest friend, squabbles and mishaps and all.

We perhaps need reminders. That is the gift difficulty can offer: insights, the chance to stand back and survey the whole picture, regroup. Give lots more authentic, mighty hugs.

Today I felt a little teary as I walked in a neighborhood park. Bone-tired all of a sudden. Sad even as gladness jumped up. I told another daughter all I wanted for my upcoming birthday is health, peace, love to receive, to give. And then I realized this is the day my oldest sister passed last year. I have been missing her and other family members I have lost to the other realm. We are much closer than we think to no longer experiencing all the magic and mystery and madness of walking about in our fleshly attire. It’s just one last breath away. So inhale the vibrant air, acknowledge its irrefutable power. Claim your life with honor, treat it as rare, valuable, one of a kind. It is. Yes, my husband, breathe deeply, for you know it truly is.

 

(NOTE: Pulmonary embolisms can be caused by sitting still for long periods, such as in a car or plane–particularly from flying, as it is believed to be in M’s. case. One out of five victims is killed by PEs. Find out how to reduce your risk if you may be a candidate.)

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, nonfiction, Personal essay, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Chase and Taylor: a Riddle

Photo by William Eggleston

Photo by William Eggleston

“Chase, where you going? Mom will be mad you left without telling her.” Sharon watched him over the top of their fence.

He tossed a frown over his shoulder, not so much at Sharon as at the windows to see if her mother was even tracking him. She was not.

“Aren’t your parents coming home in two days?” Taylor called out. “Are we meeting up with the gang this week-end, anyway?”

She grabbed the fence links as if considering catapulting over. He waved at her, sped up, crossed the Beckley’s yard, then the Hart’s and cut between the houses. Sharon saw his shirttail and one brown hand vanish as he zipped around the corner.

“Never mind, he’s just being Chase.” Sharon turned to the little ones–JB,  Jean and Darla– who scattered, then picked up a dirty, mashed tennis ball to play toss. “We’ll hear from Mrs. Braden.”

“What do you mean?” her sister asked.

“I mean, dummy, if Chase tells his mom his feelings got hurt she’ll be on the phone asking why are we always picking on him? Is it because he’s not the same? she’ll say. Or because he’s so smart and special? That’s what.”

“Oh, be quiet. We never pick on him,” Taylor said, “you do. You better watch out, you’re acting racist lately. Besides, his parents had something important to do, they left work early to catch a flight somewhere for business. So that’s why Chase came over after school today, just until his mom’s friend, Janet, comes to stay with him a couple days. He wanted to stay with Justin, he said, but no deal.”

Sharon gave her the evil eye–that she should know so much, too often!–then shrugged and went inside. Taylor finished the lime sucker JB had given her and thought it over. Chase would never run home and whine to anyone, Sharon was wrong about that. His mother could be protective,  she could think stuff was wrong that wasn’t then ignore stuff she should pay more attention to according to Taylor’s mom’s jaded opinion. Taylor knew him, though; this time he was bored. Chase often got a notion there was something better to do elsewhere and he’d wander about. He was usually right, but he might have taken her along.

She and Chase knew her older sister was a bully. Now that she’d just turned thirteen, more so. Taylor didn’t get it. Sharon was their dad’s favorite–except for JB. Taylor was second in command at eleven and a half, JB was seven, and the twins were five–but she felt last in line sometimes. Even though she was the one who did most chores. Sharon acted like she was perfect while shirking her part.

“I’m a bit distracted,” their mother would say if Taylor complained. “I’m pulled this way and that. You can’t manage things?”

Taylor saw their dad worked too many hours; he wanted order when he got home. He had “deputized” Sharon because she was the oldest, he said, to her dismay.

“That’s not right,” Mom said and scrubbed the Dutch oven harder, strands of her hair falling into her eyes. Her soapy hand would shove it back and it would cascade down again.

Taylor wondered why she didn’t just pin back the mass of dark blond hair. It always seemed to blind her. Taylor was more like her, though, skinny and pale and fast on her feet, quieter than the rest unless she was outdoors. A book lover; her mother was not that. Sharon looked like their dad–broad, dark hair, a great throwing arm when they played football or baseball. Big mouth.

Chase had it easier by far, Taylor used to think. He was the only child. Mrs. Braden had tried to have other kids but they hadn’t made it into the world. Her husband moped around more than she did, her mother said, until they finally had Chase. Then he was gleeful, announcing the news to neighbors at six in the morning, shoving cigars into hands. (“I hate cigars”, their dad told him years later, “but what the heck, you were due respect–a boy finally making good!”)

Chase was half Black, half white. Mr. Braden was Black, his wife white. Chase was a medium chocolate brown with ebony curly hair he kept cropped close.

“He met Mom at Northwestern, ” Chase confided in Taylor. “He said it was like that,” and he snapped his fingers sharply. “He was going to have a career in finance and she wanted to teach high school. They were a perfect match even though she was white so they just made it legal, graduated, went to work and moved to western Idaho. Smack in the middle of Nowheresville. And finally had me. They seriously suspect I’m some magical being because I survived when others didn’t.”

They were sitting on a picnic table under the willow tree at his house. Chase talked like that most of the time, direct, open, bigger sentences. As if he wanted to make sure people were correctly informed. Taylor wasn’t bothered but some were. It was one more thing that didn’t get or accept.

“Well, it’s true you’re smarter than even me, ha. And can play piano like a grown up. And your mom did almost give up on having kids so you are their one and only.” She threw a stone she had taken out of her shoe earlier but it hit a tree trunk with only a tiny thud.”My mom had five and none of us are that fantastic.”

Chase shook his head. “I know, I know.” He turned to Taylor and laughed. “No, I don’t mean you guys aren’t, uh, I meant that I hear that all the time but it drives me crazy.”

Taylor shoved him with her shoulder.”I knew what you meant.”

“I’m supposed to be someone else, you know.”

Taylor squinted at his deep brown eyes.”Meaning?”

“You know, a jock, not that great at school, somebody who can rap or something–”

“I happen to know you sing, even dance pretty well–”

“–and entertain everyone. Taylor  you’re not slow, come off it. You get it. I’m Black in this white town. But not one hundred percent. It is–I am–a kind of conundrum.”

“Wait, wait don’t tell me…a conundrum means: a problem.”

“Well, it can mean a riddle, puzzle or problem, yes.”

“You’re not a problem to me, a riddle, yes, but way beyond color…”

You’re pretty strange, you know. You create your own comic books, watch old horror movies alone and make cheesy videos with Justin, Audrey and me. Geek Central.”

“Yeah, a regular club member, please save me! Hey, we’re making another video this week-end, right?”

“Ten o’clock Saturday, my house. We’ll do it in the rec room, the basement.”

“I still have wigs, sword and candles; Justin has the other stuff.”

But though they were friends from way back, Taylor knew she could only make a weak attempt at imagining how it was. Chase was one of three students of color; the other two were Japanese. She’d seen them all harassed and if she stepped in she was shoved about, too, amid disgusting names aimed like arrows at their targets. Chase eluded them most of the time, got beat up some. If only they took the time to know Chase, she thought, how funny and nice he was mostly. Interesting. He had his moods. He didn’t like Idaho much, especially after the family had gone on trips to Los Angeles, then Hawaii. He’d sent Taylor pictures from his phone and it all looked exotic, like those movie sets with honeyed sunshine flowing and turquoise ocean waves, people milling about in their beautiful bodies, skimpy swimsuits. Chase beamed at the camera, his bare shoulders squared and bronzed. He was almost like a different person. He nearly blended in.

“I want to live there someday. And you can come visit, if you want,” he’d said the last time he came back from a trip to see relatives in LA. “But don’t think you’re my girlfriend just because I said that.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

But every day she wondered what he really meant. And that word–“girlfriend”–was from another language she might want to learn.

Sharon would never understand such things, even if she was older. No one could, not even Audrey. Not in her town. It stayed Taylor’s secret, burned like a very small, unsteady fire.

******

The videos they made were a combined effort but that didn’t mean they created anything without conflict. It was to be about twelve minutes long when completed. That might be too long, Taylor thought, to hold people’s attention. She and Chase would edit it, as always.

Justin adjusted his scruffy penny red wig and stood tall. He liked wearing it, it changed his shy demeanor. “I’ll be in the laundry room, right? With my sword and cape readied for entrance. Red Lion Strikes Again!”

He stood atop a table brandishing his silvery hard rubber sword. Taylor poked his own brown hair back in, smoothed his cape. He looked more like a boy playing a homely Musketeer but could appear decently ferocious.

“Audrey, you need to float down the stairs with candles lit in each hand,” Chase directed, “and Tay, curl yourself up behind the workbench with your precious painting, be fabulous Marie. Prepare for Justin to discover you and attempt to flee with your painting.”

“How many segments does this story have? Is The Red Lion dying this time for good? We’ve done two videos already.”

Taylor ignored Audrey’s complaining and hid behind the workbench with a large painting swaddled in a paisley scarf. It was to be secreted away in dark underground tunnels–the large, multi-roomed basement–and The Red Lion was going to dash after her. It was a million dollar piece of art. She had to elude him but the basement wasn’t that big.

“Ready? All in your places?” Chase yelled into a cardboard megaphone. “Scene 2, Take 1!”

Chase was Detective Charles Dubois in the next segment but he was always stage and music director. He had recorded some of his piano compositions, appropriately spooky with a classical touch–he couldn’t help himself.

“I can barely see you, Chase,” Justin said. “Move a little.”

“Of course you can’t. I’m in the dark except for one low wattage bulb over there and soon the candles. We all are, it’s called ‘atmosphere’.”

“Yeah but you’re darker, you about disappear…”Audrey responded, “and I don’t want to stumble over you as I come down the stairs and break my neck!”

Silence fell. They could hear each other breathing, see faint outlines of bodies.

“Well, that’s me, just living in the shadows alongside you geniuses! Come on, Audrey, just watch where you’re stepping. A little candlelight makes darkness brighter but you have to look confident.” Chase said. “Take your place, be the wicked accomplice. Everybody ready? We’ll make it a rehearsal this time.”

Their story unfolded as Chase directed the heck out of it.

Taylor thought as she listened for her cues: this is the best year of my life but Chase can’t stay here forever. Someday we’ll all say we knew him.

The thought stung a soft spot in her center, the spot where where such things dug in and didn’t let go. She clutched the oblong painting of red roses and lilies-of-the-valley some family or person had in their house for decades, and then one day the owner died and it was put in an estate sale where everyone could touch it and dicker over it. And now Taylor owned it, had begun to like it. She hoped Justin wouldn’t successfully damage it. It meant something to her.

“Action!” Chase called.

This time they got it together and made what would be the next-to-last of their childish videos. Taylor sensed nothing could remain the absolute same. She knew she was going to undergo change, too, like something sticking its nose out of the earth to find a whole other world out there. Like it or not.

******

“We’re moving,” he said. “In two months, after school is out.”

“Where?” She then held her breath; she didn’t want it to escape into the moonlight, not yet.

Chase was sitting by her on the second floor balcony of his house. It overlooked his large back yard and several others. She could almost see hers. He had brought a bowl of popcorn and two sodas. They’d eaten their fill on an ordinary blooming spring evening.

“Los Angeles. My dad got a job transfer, a bigger bank. My mom will look for another teaching position.”

“Oh.” Air hissed from between her lips, hot then cool.

“I’m going to a private school, Taylor, oh man!”

“Makes sense.” She hugged her knees close, felt them press into her strong, wing-shaped ribs.

“There’s a famous piano teacher there, that’s the thing. I’ll learn so much. I’ll play more!”

“Right. I know there isn’t any fine teacher for you here, not anymore.”

“Not so much is here, in general, for me. I do like the grand mountains, our house. My three friends.”

“Yeah, love our mountains, too, and maybe there’s more here for me. Or not, now you’re leaving.”

Taylor glanced at Chase to see if he agreed but his eyes told her he was already dreaming of another life. They were wide open, struck by moon rays that glanced off large black pupils then high cheekbones, full lips. He was silver and gold yet only a hint of the man he would be. And he shared with her a tender night full of things she didn’t understand and didn’t have to, perhaps. Taylor wished he would leave tomorrow–or not for a few more years. Maybe if it happened either more quickly or took longer it would be less maddening. Desperate feeling.

They sat closer to one another, her left and his right arm side-by-side. His brown arm and her white one. His large hands tapped a rhythm on his knees, an answer to some inaudible tune, then the right hand moved over to hers and rested there, dry and warm. She caught his little finger with her thumb and he hooked it tighter. The scent of lilacs rose from beneath them, that flourishing bush he and his dad had planted when he was barely five.

“I’m afraid, Tay…of leaving. Of not being around you. That huge city. Of failing. How will I fit in, in LA of all places? Growing up…yuck, I don’t like those parts.”

“I know, I know, but we’ve been afraid of things before, Chase. Both of us, right, fighting off the creeps, coping with the parents, getting hurt. But we’re okay, so we’ll stay okay, right? Conundrums, riddles, puzzles or not.” She laughed, more a funny whimper. “Or we can make up some new parts.”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “That’s right. Smart.” He looked right at her. “I’ll call. Write. Skype. I’ll record my piano pieces if you want…”

“Oh, Chase, really, what’ll I do in Idaho?”

A tiny tremor ran through her and he felt it. She lay her head on his shoulder; his rested on hers. She liked the smell of his warm skin, the feel of him close. If time could please just stop or jump forward ten years. Please God.

Five night birds stirred in the top of the willow tree, took wing as Chase and Taylor raised their hands at once to say farewell to them, to praise something bigger than themselves, to usher in the coming of the beautiful unknown. But she saw his hand meld with deepening night sky. Knew he would not be around to walk it with her. They would have to figure it out, each their own way. Somehow.

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Shoe That Showed the Way

Flowery walks, bue shirt 032

“It’s a damned city we’re living in!” Mel said, incredulous. “Don’t embarrass me, put it down, Lana. You can be stupid, it might have bacteria, it’s just garbage.”

As if there was anyone else around who cared. As if Lana didn’t know she was in the city by now. Lana turned over the abandoned black shoe then tossed it back to the grass. How would anyone manage in such high heels? Who would leave a shoe behind, if it just came off? Or what if it dropped from someone’s bag? She wanted to pick it up and put it in her backpack.

Lana had lived there for six weeks now. Her sister could be less irritable with her lack of “citified ways”. That’s what their mother called their Melissa’s mannerisms, her way of talking (and nickname Mel) after nearly two years in Seattle–that is, an old town that was now a new suburb, but by a lake. Their father offered his opinion another way; it didn’t bear repeating so Lana didn’t share it. Mel would just fume and that wasn’t good for her job as a barista. Customers wanted cheerful, attentive.

Lana hadn’t been sure what being a barista entailed. When it was explained, Lana thought it madness that her sister was paid a fair wage for making fancy cups of strong coffee all day long. Enough to pay rent on a place of her own. Sort of. There had been a first boyfriend, it turned out, and then he had left and there had been a girl who stole money and then Mel had to move from a nice apartment to a tiny, shabby cabin on the far side of Lake Washington. The moss colonies were eating away the roof. The owner had gone to New York long ago and didn’t care. Half mile down the road mini-mansions were being built, so they were the poor, lone renters. Mel got a second job at a Kwik Stop on week-ends, her eye on another apartment complex. But she needed Lana’s help.

“I still work like a dog but not much is getting better fast. When are you going to get work, Lana? Or are you running home to the backwoods?”

“It seems like you didn’t ever get too far–look where we’re living. Though I love the lake. And how do I know when I’m getting a job? Who will hire me at eighteen with my skills, as you point out enough?”

“Well, you’re pretty smart and gorgeous, so something is bound to happen. Or we’ll make it happen.” She pulled her sunglasses off her head and settled them on her long nose.

Lana stole a glance at Mel to see if she was being mean or nice. She felt it was the second and wondered just what Mel meant; her ideas tended toward risky. “I tried for that second hand store job but haven’t heard back.”

Mel pulled the glasses down so brown eyes peered out. “You need to set your goals higher, Lana.” She pulled a mouth to show mild distaste. “We both do.”

When Lana had completed her 12th grade schooling, she had the sinking feeling she might never get out. She loved to write poetry, a useless thing fit to cause heartache, her father informed her,  half in jest, as he had a sweeter side. Her mother shook her head at him, patted her shoulder. But college was just a dream to her at seventeen with no money. Lana was restless. Her sister wrote a few letters about how much fun they’d have if Lana moved in with her. After a year Mel called, desperate, and asked if she was going to fly the coop or would she be wasting away under their parents rule, living–if you could even call it that–an anachronistic way of life.  That was the right word; Mel had looked it up.

Gene and Maureen Hardy, their parents, called themselves farmers. Twelve years ago they had escaped the confines and demands of a good-sized town in Idaho. They had decided to live off the land, forsake the madness and so-called conveniences of society. Gene Hardy did keep an aged, dented but sound green Volkswagen van. He’d been a mechanic and still fixed vehicles as well as other broken machines. On their four acres they grew vegetables for food as well as to sell at a small roadside stand. They had three Toggenburg goats for milk and cheese, and chickens. Gene hunted and taught his girls how (his son was just learning), though Mel declared she was only eating vegetables and dairy so why should she have to do it? Lana excelled at hunting despite not much enjoying her skills. She was good at learning, in general, and had an unusually fine memory. Maureen Hardy had been a teacher into her thirties, so home schooled daughters and young Jeff. There was no television. A beige phone had come with the house. It just hung on a kitchen wall; it infrequently rang.

That day it rang for her and Mel was on the other end, it was like she had been told she had won some jackpot. She left within a week, her mother bawling at the door and her brother Jeff waving and she waved back until he was a speck on the road. Gene Hardy had left to hunt grouse, leaving her with Gus, their old neighbor, to take her to the bus station in the next town. Gus hadn’t said much to her except, “Be good and be careful.” And shook her hand, with a one armed hug.

But it was hard living in Seattle, even if it was on the outskirts with fewer cars, less pollution. The traffic noise still found them all the way across the lake. Lana slept on a worn out couch with a wool blanket pulled over her in the cool nights. When Mel finally got up she took her bed and slept a couple more hours. They took the one morning bus into town together sometimes so Lana could look for work. Otherwise, she was alone. It was not something she was familiar being and found herself thinking of home more than she would have liked.

The day Lana saw the black high-heeled shoe she had applied for a job at a drugstore and the manager had looked her up and down, gaze lingering on her face, then barely glanced at her application and said he wasn’t hiring–try again soon. She figured there was no good reason to return.

As usual she waited for Mel to meet her on a break from the coffee shop around the corner. Lana rested at the city park, watching people rush by with confident strides, their bright spring jackets flying open. She admired how the women held their shoulders back, heads up, as if they didn’t need anyone to help them get by. They looked like beautiful horses galloping off  to even better fields. Lana pulled out a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of water. The sunlight poured through leaves and she could smell the scent of a tree’s pink blossoms. A fountain sprayed crystalline water in sheer arcs, then splashed into a pool. She listened to the water was halfway done eating when she felt rather than saw him slide onto the park bench, as if a cold breeze swept up.

“Want to share that?” His voice was husky and low.

Lana pulled back and clutched her sandwich as if it was a fabulous deli concoction. He sat no taller than she but was powerfully built, she could tell that because his shirt was tight on his biceps and shoulders. His blond hair was cut close on the sides but fell forward over heavy dark eyebrows. His eyes, heavy-lidded.

“You don’t have to look like that. I’m just sorta hungry.” He released a sharp laugh. “I’ve seen you here before. I’m Dante.” He held out his hand.

Lana couldn’t stop staring at him. He was a perfect balance of ugly and attractive. His smile was too bright. She didn’t talk to men she didn’t know, not like this. She knew very few as it was.

“I’m waiting for someone,” she said and put down the sandwich.

“Yeah, some girl, I know.” He leaned toward her abruptly. “You are truly beautiful. But you know that. I could help you use that to your advantage. You need a job, I bet. You’re new in Seattle, right? I have connections, I know my way around here, believe me.”

“I suppose you do but I have other plans.” She turned away, shaken. What was he doing, chatting her up like that?

“Girls like you have the advantage, you know that? You could have the moon and stars. You could be a movie star, you’re so great to look at. You want to act?”

Lana stood up and stepped away, chest hot with fear, all senses warning her. “No, I don’t and I have things to do, bye.”

“Aw, sure you do, sugar. Come on–we’ll talk more.”

“Hey, beat it or I’ll call the cops!” Mel ran up behind them, put her arm around Lana; they took off..

“What was that about? I was eating my sandwich, that’s all, and there he was, talking crazy. He was a snake in short grass but I didn’t even see him coming.”

“Sis, he was looking for a new girl to sell…seemed high.” She pulled her close in a gridlock side hug.

Lana stopped and faced her. “Crap, I knew it! I was about to kick him and run like hell!”

“Of course you were. Don’t go there again, wait for me at the coffee shop. I’ll get you a knife to carry.”

“I have mine at the cabin, brought it in case I have to hunt—I know, dumb. But I wouldn’t carry that with me, would I?”

Mel considered. “Man, if he knew what you can do with that and how you handle a 20 gauge shotgun…”

Then they gaped at each other and began to giggle, then chortle, obnoxious sounds pealing out as they stopped at a cross walk. The green “walk” sign went on, but their laughter was so hysterical, pedestrians hurried past.

“It’s not funny!” Lana said as she snorted, feeling half horror, half relief. “And I left the rest of my sandwich.”

“I hope pigeons or seagulls got it. That thug didn’t deserve a thing.”

They crossed a few streets, looking over their shoulders a couple of times to make sure Dante wasn’t following them. Then they doubled back to the coffee shop.

“Look over there, by the grass,” Lana pointed at something dark against the greenery. “Weird. A black high heel.”

And then Mel had told her it was trash, just leave it and soon she went back to work another few hours. Lana followed her in. She was oblivious as usual to those who turned their attention her way, to the luminosity that rose from her skin, that slipped off her person as she passed by. Lana sat at a table for a few minutes, left to her own devices. She studied the street scene closely but didn’t see the man who had accosted her. She felt tired, ready to go back home instead of looking for a job. There was a bus that left in fifteen minutes so she told Mel she’d see her at home and left. She then hightailed over to the shoe, picked it up. Stuffed it in her backpack.

The ride home felt longer than usual. All about her were people dozing or whose glazed eyes were riveted to the passing scenery or to screens of expensive devices. A woman across the aisle who was perhaps her mother’s age gave Lana’s black shining hair an appraising look, then revealed an unspoken question as they made eye contact. She looked at her book when Lana stared back with a small smile. But the woman’s husband glanced up from his newspaper. His red-rimmed grey eyes didn’t look away for a long minute and she sensed his random thoughts, felt suddenly exposed. He seemed exhausted and lonely. She made her body smaller; her mind filled with static. If only she looked pleasant like Mel, just blended in. She put on sunglasses and closed her eyes against the world.

******

At the lake shore below the old cabin was a dock barely holding together. They had no brightly painted boat to take them out,and skim over the undulating green surface, only an empty boathouse. Lana sat on the end of the dock often. She figured if it collapsed she would land in the water and she knew how to swim well. Beside her were a notebook and pencil and the black high heel. The shoe wasn’t trash. It was clean and newer and stood empty on the dock, wishing to be worn. She began to sketch its outline in loose strokes and set it in a shaded background.

On the opposite page she wrote about the shoe. Who it may have belonged to, why it was worn that day or night–probably a night shoe. If it had been a good night or a bad night. Lana imagined it was a splurge as it was a good brand, Mel had noted in the coffee shop. The woman might have been meeting with a girlfriend after too many drinks first after work. She might have been leaving a restaurant in a hurry, trying to get a cab. So exotic to Lana, a cab hailed by a woman in black heels in the glittering night, perhaps in a slim blue dress, hair pulled back in a sleek bun. It might have come off as the heel caught in the door and she laughed as the cab sped off. Or it was a woman wearing fancy jeans with a leather jacket, her fingernails long and some interesting color, dark green or  purple, and she and her boyfriend were arm in arm, coming out of a movie. Then she turned her ankle since she wasn’t that good at walking in them. She got so mad she took off the shoe and threw it, then he happily carried her home. Or someone who’d always been afraid of heels so why did she ever wearing them? And on a blind date. So she took them off, walked barefoot to meet the someone at the park and realized too late she had lost the left one. So then she met him barefoot and it was okay.

Or someone was running and she kept going until her ankles hurt, they wobbled then the toe caught on rough sidewalk and it came off and she kept on. Maybe she was chased, just could not stop.

Lana’s heart was thrumming again, faster now. She looked behind her at the ramshackle cabin and lush trees crouched around it. No one else was there, no one was coming. Not ’til Mel arrived. She was still scared when she had never been out there. Lana took slow breaths. She examined the shoe she had kept for no good reason. It was a little scraped on the toe. She tried it on and it was too big. She laughed at herself. Why did this even matter? Who cared about an old shoe? The waves slapped against the muddy shoreline and the dock. Lana looked up at the bright deep sky and shadows on sluicing the lawn; it must be about four thirty. She wondered what her mother would be doing, but knew. She’d be finishing weeding or taking down clean clothes from the line, thinking up dinner plans based on what they had, what her father had hunted. He would be working in the pole barn and Jeff would be at is side.

Lana knew so little, Mel was right. She had no idea how to prepare for a life beyond the Hardy homestead, how to discern things correctly, how to fend for herself. Her sister was struggling, too. They were fools to be there. And yet. Mel wanted to make her own rules, and live her way. Lana wanted…she longed to be a poet. So much so that every feeling, every idea inside her gathered around that need, camped out as if around a hypnotic fire, waiting. How could she be one if she never moved beyond what was familiar? Took risks? Learned how to live richly, with different strengths? Didn’t she need all this otherness, the zigzag byways through life, the strange marvels of people and places? It’s danger? Even that. She had to face the dangers; everyone did. Her parents had tried to hide but the world was all about them, still.

“But I miss the ways I know…” she said aloud and her voice startled, brought a smile.

The silence around her was listening. It was spring air that moved her, the watery music and urgent scents of damp earth and grass, the promise of another starry sky. Her mind gentled and freed.

But today there was the small mystery of the black heel, too. And the man on the bench with that awful made up name and terrible intentions. And coffee drinkers who sat by windows keeping watch from their perches and Mel’s easy banter with customers as she worked to pay bills. To shape a life of her own.

Oh, the world was a maddening, breathtaking place and Lana wrote of it, a convergence of feelings, subtle beauty she recognized everywhere. But then she puttered around outdoors until dusk fell. She went inside and wrote her brother a short letter. And signed it with a big red heart because she missed him so.

******

“It’s for you, sounds official.”

Lana took the old-fashioned phone receiver, one much like their parents’. “Hello?”

“This is Hallie from Villager Vintage down the road. Are you Lana Hardy?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I’d like to hire you as soon as you can make it in. My long time gal finally quit and there’s no one to fill her hours.”

“You want me to come in for an interview? That’s great. When?”

“No, honey, I’d like you to just come in and work. I’m sure you’re fine–you turned in such a nice neat application and you were friendly, so bright-eyed. Listen, you live a mile away and I need someone right now. We’ll give it a couple of weeks, see how it goes, okay?”

******

It had been over a month since Lana started at Village Discount. She had settled in as if meant to be there. She always had appreciated old things, used clothing was all she wore, anyway, and there were dishes, furniture, odds and ends. Some of it looked valuable but all of it took work to sort and catalog, to display just right and sell when a customer was on the fence. Hallie liked her, said she had a knack for it. Lana found the older woman too open personally and prone to cussing but they somehow fit like opposites often can.

Lana loved to come up with displays and window dressing. She’d had an idea that her found shoe would look elegant in a window with a silver and wine silk scarf draped about it, and one lacy black glove with silvery seed pearls lain atop the scarf. A black sheath was on a mannequin above this. Hallie liked it, as usual.

One day Lana was working on the inventory of sold items. It was almost closing time when the bell on the door tinkled. A tall, angular, well-dressed woman walked in, a paper bag in hand.

“Can I help you?” Lana asked as the woman stood before her at the counter.

“You can–I hope. I noticed in the window that display with one black high heel. Is there another, a mate?”

Lana smiled sheepishly. “No, actually, I’ve got only one of those here. I’m sorry.”

“Really? Can you take it down for me to look at, anyway? Oh, and the scarf, very pretty.”

They moved to the front of the store and Lana procured the shoe and scarf and handed them to the woman. The shoe was turned this way and that, then she opened her bag, pulled out a shoe, set both high heels side by side on a table.

The matching shoe.

“What?” Lana said.

“Yes, how on earth did this get here? Did some random person drop it off with other items? I thought sure it was lost!”

Lana laughed. “I found it. On a street downtown! I saw it and somehow…I just felt compelled to pick it up, I know it’s odd, but–”

The smiling woman placed her hand on Lana’s arm. “Please, it’s serendipity! I lost it the night of my engagement party at the Cameron Room. We were in such a hurry to get to the hotel afterwards, Greg and I. Oh, I’m Nancy.” She shook Lana’s hand. “And I took them off because my feet hurt, really, high heels are a bit much for hours of dancing!”

“Lana,” she murmured, her mouth agape, “I’m Lana Hardy.

“Hello, Lana! I like to buy vintage, I’m an artist so like to mix and match–and I heard about this store so after work I decided to come  by and there it was. In the actual window! I raced home to get the other shoe to make sure. And–” she waved the shoes between them–“here I am.  With my lucky shoes.”

“Lucky?”

“They’re my engagement party shoes, right? They mean something, it all just does. I was sad I dropped and lost it.” She shook her head. “Even though I’ll likely not wear them much–my feet hurt for days! But thank you so much for finding it and keeping it, then bringing it here. Perfect.”

Nancy’s face brimmed with good will. They talked awhile despite the closing hour–the wedding was to be in six months, Greg designed and built boats for a living, wasn’t it wild? and oddly lucrative–and then Nancy grew silent. Studied Lana without blinking an eye. Lana looked back with tilted head, feeling pleased.

“I’d love to do something, Lana. I do portraiture. I paint them for private clients but I also exhibit. I would like to paint you. That hair, huh. Your face is so, well,  it glows with kindness, add superior bone structure that catches shadow and light like…well, then the near-navy eyes…” She framed the girl’s head just so. “I find it all a winning combination to paint.”

“Oh! Thanks, I guess. I don’t know if I’d could be a painting worthy of an exhibit. But–why not? Sure, okay, I’ll do it.”

And that was when Lana’s life began to open up, how she came to glean new ideas, clearer insights. To find herself. Nancy Le Fevre painted Lana Hardy’s portrait. It hung in a gallery for ten days, then it was snapped right up. She painted more portraiture of the young woman and as they worked together they became a creative mentor and a burgeoning poet. Friends of the finest sort. Before long, poetry began to flow from Lana of its own accord, the waiting coming to an end. One was even shortly published; she was heartened if amazed. But Mel and Lana stayed at the old cabin despite their increased income. It was still right, they agreed. For the time being, it felt more like home.

 

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Calling Forth the Woods’ Wisdom

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I woke up last Sunday morning and felt the woods shining deep inside me. Nature is not somewhere only outside for me; it lives within, for we are a part of it and it, us. We are called to one another, creation to creation. So I knew I had to go to the place of the trillium, a favorite wildflower. I was alone and intended to find a few spots where no one else would intrude. To smell, hear, taste, touch, see, and sense mysteries, trod upon earthen trails. It had been a winter of pummeling rain, now sunshine had arrived. I could take myself right into the thick of forests again and feel once more at home.

I am not a city person out of a deep love for its cacophony of hustle and bustle. Yes, I enjoy the myriad arts events, festivals, architecture, markets and stores, the varieties of people. The ever-present source of stories found by just watching out a window or from a balcony. I was raised in a very small city but it was similar if on a quite limited scale. Yet both here and in my old hometown, I have had escapes. A saving grace in a life I didn’t and often do not well understand or even wholly appreciate as I’d prefer.

As a youngster there were times (often in warmer weather) when even the best things–the beauty of music; aromas of roast beef, potatoes and carrots or cinnamon rolls or Dutch apple pie; allure of a new novel beneath a pile of schoolwork; anticipation of dance class the next morning; a long phone conversation with my best friend, twirling the stretchy cord around my bare feet as I lay on the carpet–were not what I wanted and needed. I’d fight with school assignments, drag my mind back to its required goal. I’d race through cello and vocal compositions. If I had a chore, it’d be a slapdash job.

Those times I felt that yearning for peace and quietude inching its way into my consciousness at a velocity not to be ignored. Soon its urgency was greater than all else. I’d leave the busy common rooms of the house, go sit on my bed, close my eyes, summon the focus of my desire.

The hush of my water-blue bedroom enveloped me. Crows cawed back and forth, robins trilled monotonous calls. A rotary lawn mower whirled around a yard. Across the hallway, my mother’s sewing machine whirred and paused and whirred. My imagination’s magnetic pull took me out of my room, down winding stairs, out the front door, down Ashman Street, two blocks north, one block west and then the birches came into view, and poised maples and oaks and sketchy elms, stalwart evergreens. The poplars’ silvery leaves were tiny cymbals creating a bright, dry song in breezes. A rush of delight, a calm swept over me. Swift gusts rustled my hair, redolent of musky earth, freshest greenery. Everything in me wanted woods close about me, filling me with enchantments.

It was those decades when a youth could mostly still go alone into the world or natural places. (I’d known danger as a child abuse victim; it was within the familiar but failed security of a house and car belonging to a known person. I was not overall afraid of people or venturing out, or if I was, I ventured nonetheless.) Perhaps a somewhat wilder landscape offered a reprieve from moments of boredom or frustration but such a place had long been identified as a pocket of comfort. Happiness. I’d abandon house, work or play and head for the woods.

Soon I saw the grey and white birches thronged like valiant sentries. Sinuous pathways greeted my careful feet. Shadowy designs were thrown over skin like a delicate wrap. Above, the crowns of trees conversed with sky, while below the variety of trees were familiar friends, hearty bodies of pungent wood, bark, leaves. I could examine everything along the way without needing to master it. The multi-faceted insects, each plant unfurling itself was scrutinized. Small mammals scurried, reptiles slithered or they watched, accepting of my presence if not indifferent. I melded with gradations of light and dark, with green and brown and yellow. Stealth directed my movements; I felt compelled to slip between trees and plants, to not disturb. I felt given permission due to my deep admiration. Everything breathed with me and I, it.

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The woods were barely swaying, certainly humming. Birds were aloft with chatter and song. I whispered thanks, felt joy rise up from my center then spread, a wash of warmth. There were high-spanning, glimmering bridges of webs. Nurse logs harbored colonies of bugs, were laboratories for mosses, lichen, fungi. There were sudden flower beings peeking from undergrowth. The serpentine creek with its tinkling, gurgling dance pulled me to it. I followed along, around and through the canopy of trees. Sat at its banks, the dampness of the ground seeping into my pants. I closed my eyes to better know just where I was. I was exactly…there. And happy to be one more creature amid the others.

My love of nature may have begun with early lessons from a mother who adored geography, geology and etymology, and a father whose passions included science and mathematics as well as music and education. Family trips were as much running commentary on land formations, vegetation and creatures as anything else. My parents taught me about weather patterns, rock and soil types, the habits of bugs in different places, the important diversity of plants and how all worked together for the good of all. My father pointed out constellations from our back yard or elsewhere; I was mesmerized  by God’s heavens. But no one had to persuade me to love the natural world or embrace its wisdom. I’d early experienced those in Barstow Woods as noted above and the plant and tree nursery thriving behind our house (which had a lovely, tree-lined back yard). The many Michigan forests, lakes and rivers afforded me good amounts of time and activity each summer.

From a young age, I enjoyed a somewhat unusual experience. I attended summer sessions at various music camps, one being the Interlochen Center for the Arts in northwest lower Michigan. Founded in 1928  and situated on 1,200 acres, it was named simply National Music Camp for decades, a place where capable student musicians gathered to study and perform. It quickly gained a fine reputation and before long all performing and fine arts were studied by students arriving from around the world. It has grown immensely since then. It offers, among other programs, a premiere private high school arts education. But back in the fifties and sixties my father taught strings and orchestra during summer camps, and my siblings and I were music and other arts students.

I have not had a repeat of such extraordinary experiences, where creative expression and the natural world fit together into one perfect design. We lived in cabins with other like-minded youth in the woods, eating at a mess hall, studying in tandem. We attended music or other classes daily, rehearsed and performed on covered outdoor stages, other sunny, wind-swept spaces, and under star-pearled skies. The dance building was set on a lake shore, and as I danced and rested I could smell fragrant water and earth, see the undulating expanse of green-blue with white sailed boats bobbing or flying along. The campus buildings were mostly stone and wood structures, lodge-like, cozy even when large. Recreation included table tennis, sailing and swimming, volleyball and more. Tiny practice rooms were also of field stone and timber with small rectangular windows. Once one was opened, I practiced my cello or vocal pieces, with warm air wafting in and it carried a delicious fragrance of dried or greener pine needles. Everywhere could be heard musicians, other students laboring over the thing they loved doing, honing whatever talent had brought them. The natural symphonies and unfolding stories of earth’s bounties accompanied my thoughts and endeavors.

All my life the wedding of creative energy with the natural realm has seemed a most sacred thing. A vibrant chorus of voices or resonance of a string quartet, rich notes of a French horn or the mellow beauty of an English oboe–these experienced within the lustrous beauty of a summered landscape are potent magic. Making visual art, dancing, writing, acting–all this replete with the constant inspiration of rhythms and cycles of natural events is an unparalleled way to explore and live. Nature’s formations and complications, the vagaries and wholeness so well shake loose ideas and influence impulses. There were mystery and sweat, dreaming and victories and failures–a mammoth arc of learning as I opened to more teaching. The context of such activity can give rise to a lot of human industriousness. Tranquility.

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Oh, but the woods I have known and loved as a child, a youth, an adult. If I am patient and willing to search, I may more fully discover an immutable sense of the organic, microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds. The great synergistic cohesion works. It teaches me there is a purpose to each small piece, part of a span of connections started eons ago and still operating miraculously well if we respect it. I am shown frailty and obdurate strength. Order and ultimate symmetry. Upheaval and rejuvenation. Transformative powers reveal that saving changes do exist. It boosts my most human hope. For we are part of this process, the mighty cause and effect. If I recognize the common thread in the schemata, I will be at peace, at one with it.

Not so many years ago I squatted in the middle of a stream in another forested place and looked about me and listened. The birds and water sang. Rocks glistened. Plant life rippled and rested. The sky was blue as sapphire and trees were arced above me, leaning toward the rippling stream. Golden afternoon shafts of light struck lively water and it sparked with brilliant energy. It came to me in a sweep of awe, the clarity of the primordial and the divine so strong amid wounded fragmentations of our world. Overwhelmed by an ecstasy and bone-aching grief all at once, tears flowed. I looked up and trees were weeping, too, and the sky was all radiance from which love flowed everywhere. And I held my self open to that eternal Presence of God.

It was not the first time, nor the last. But in nature this power is very accessible, it seems to me. So, the woods do call me but I, too, call the woods. Solace, balance and wisdom I often need and find, and such refilling of the well of my soul I always am given. Step gently but boldly into the beauty. Let your soul call and be called, too.

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Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, nonfiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments