Last Chance Cottage

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

I answered the ad out of desperation. It had been over ten months since we’d had more income than outgo and our savings was seeping its final sludge. Sheila wrote in a frenzy, her supernatural romance stories (Can the two concepts even pass on the same road? I’d asked once) ignored more than acknowledged much less accepted for publication in women’s magazines in those grubby piles in healthcare offices. She’d criticize me for saying that but I’m not feeling generous in my support lately. Not that she is feeling more thrilled about my situation. I was a junior banker who made some very wrong investments of my own money and then flat-out lost my temper with the branch manager. Got fired. Those are the worst two words in my adult vocabulary. I swore I’d never have to hear them like my father did too many times, that sly master of reinvention. Turns out I have a judgment problem much like he did and a patience problem that I can claim all on my own. But I do know better than to behave like an ingrate and tiresome crank. It’s just… that’s been where we’ve been.

So when I answered the ad looking for “caretakers of a moderately sized estate in northwest Portland; housing provided with monthly salary for up to one year”, I jumped on it. Nothing was nothing; this was something.

“Caretakers? Like grounds maintenance, a kind of security or even taking care of a pack of fussy dogs and bringing in mail? Or more?” Sheila looked up from her PC, her salt and pepper hair swinging away from her chin.

“That sounds about right,” I agreed.

She’d let it grow–good haircuts were too costly now–and I had to suppress an urge to tuck it behind her ear to better see her face. Just to touch her without thinking it through. But the moment passed.

She scrutinized the computer screen. “Well, why not? Maybe we can keep watch over someone else’s material goods better than our own. You can cobble things together that need fixing. You can mow the heck out of yards and like smelly dogs. What does it pay?”

I named a figure which was vastly less than what I once brought home but more than we could possibly hope for in upcoming months if my job hunt trend held.

“Okay,” she said and then began typing once more rapt deep attention, her dismissal made clear.

Shelia has what my mother had called “stick-tuitive-ness”. I always wondered where that came from–was that a combination of perseverance and intuition? Because that’s what Sheila demonstrated. She kept at something even if it appeared unworthy of such effort. And her intuition was embarrassingly on key, so that when our investments failed she didn’t have to say a word since she’d already forecast as much. She should have been the banker. But she hadn’t predicted I ‘d get fired. She was busy getting over a terrible thing while I failed her.

I was not sure it wasn’t a hoax when I got a call from the ad placers. Didn’t they have a grounds keeper and security guards already? But no, this was different, they wanted someone to keep an eye on things; they’d check in electronically on much but they needed a presence. And they weren’t ordinary rich people. They were verging on famous, at least in our part of the country, equally political and creative, a double leg-up. Self-made man and woman who had already  reached a pinnacle or two in their thirties. They liked to travel and turned humanitarian trips into long term stints of living abroad, this time in Turkey, Mr. H. said, after touring parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

I say “Mr. H.” because we were not allowed to disclose just for whom we were house caretaking–if we even got hired. I supposed that meant we might have to cut off usual contact for awhile with all our friends. The two or three we had left.

“Turkey?” I said without thinking. It wasn’t my business.

Mr. H. laughed. “I know, surprising, isn’t it? Beautiful coastline. We’re house hunting among other things.” He changed tack, was all business again. “I appreciate your resume. Bankers speak my language and writers appeal to us both. Good combo for any partnership, am I right?”

“Sure is, opposites spark great things.” I felt like an idiot for that remark. When would he ask about my last position, why I was out of a job?

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll have your references checked and get back to you in forty eight hours. If all pans out we’ll meet for coffee for a brief interview. We’re running out of time–no one else looks this good on paper. Plus I like how you converse. The main thing is to have someone to watch over the property and I trust very few to do that simple task. Last one didn’t work out, he was a partier.”

“Not us, we’re more quiet types…creative wife and all.”

The fact that he was, among other things, part owner of a Northwest music recording studio might have helped. Sheila always said she had been hooked by my voice, insisting I could have been a radio announcer instead of a boring (if better off) banker. Or, more likely, Mr. H. just wanted to tick off this chore from an impressive task list and get out of the country.

We passed muster and met. They were rushed, gracious, very confident of themselves and liked us, and Shelia thought far better looking than news’ photos allowed. We later began to radically sort and toss all we didn’t put into storage or give or lend to others for the time being, then moved fast. Our house was rented to Shelia’s relocating cousins a week later for far too little.

We eyed the H. manse in silence as we drove around the corner and pulled into a side road to our new residence. Our modestly sized structure was built for Mrs. H.’s parents visits or others invited for more than a night or two. It had been empty for two months and was spotless, smelled woodsy. Each ivory- walled room glowed beneath pallid stripes of sun; there were two large bedrooms and an attic-shaped study, two full baths, a proper kitchen and smallish lodge-like living area.

“We hit the jackpot,” Sheila said as she unpacked and put away books in her room with a lot of soft muttering.

“Are you being sarcastic? Because it’s a really decent cottage for the hired hand’s place. Not like our suburban colonial but I never liked it that much, anyway, if you want to know the truth.”

“Not the time for truth telling. I already I miss our back yard. My study.”

“It’s winter, no one misses back yards in rain–and now we have all this weird snow. Besides, their back yard looks like wild acreage. I think he said it was an acre at least. There are probably lots of birds. We like birds. And hey, there are no animals to tend.”

“I’ll miss our yard, anyway,” she said under her breath, as if trying to still the urge to raise her voice. “It was our yard, our patio, our flowers and birds, our…new swing set…”

“No, don’t, not now, please,” I cautioned and slipped out of her room and into mine.

We’ve both had our own rooms since the miscarriage. That was well over ten months ago, right before I was fired. We’ve been on a downhill roll ever since, as if two giant boulders–job loss and miscarriage–are pursuing us and will crush us if we keep looking behind so I try not to look hard. That’s what I think. I don’t know just what she thinks, anymore. She’s still curled inside a thick cocoon of grief and I’m outside of it, trying to rally, prepping for what life has to throw at us next. I hope and pray I can keep standing up.

The fact is, though, our nice house was no longer the home we needed it to be. It was a reminder of all that was out of our hands, destroyed. The cottage was perfect, even if only for a pause.

******

She used to call me “Lover” and “Cap”, short for “Captain” since I am nuts about boats, especially handmade boats. Like the one we had as a kid, handed down from my grandfather who designed and built it. But that was then, no fancy boat now, I sold it. I will surely rue that day.

But Sheila, she used to sneak up behind me, plant a kiss on nape of my neck or scratchy jaw when I was sitting to remove my bank shoes, which had to not be the best places after working all day. She used to do a lot of things. But the same goes for me. The difference is that she can still create in her stories how she wishes things might be, and I am stuck with a lack of imagination. I didn’t used to think I was short on that reasonable and crucial daydreamer quotient, but I’ve run out of ideas to comfort her. To make up for disappointing her. No, it was more like my creating mayhem when we had already taken a hard punch. It didn’t matter that that was why I lost it at the bank that day. A very few people knew what had happened to the brand new life we’d made, but that didn’t excuse how I swiped papers and files off my desk and told my boss he was an “overrated money changer who knew far less than most of us working our asses off, even if I am about broke now” and stormed out into the rain, leaving my SUV in the parking lot for two days. I was lucky that wasn’t hauled away. Or maybe not; I still owe on it.

I wasn’t raised to shirk responsibility, for all the fluky moves my father made he taught us the basic decent ways to think. I know I did the most wrong thing and added immeasurably to her pain. I took away all we had worked for in such a short time, it was a landslide of trouble. But it’s like I inherited that gene, the screw up gene, and no matter how well I dress him up the man I still am is finally someone who misses the beat when he has so long waited for his cue to play that one right, beautiful note at exactly the right time.

I looked out the window at the shimmering snowdrifts. I’ve shoveled and powered up the snow blower a few times, try to keep it pristine. I’d passed Sheila as I came in to warm up and eat a snack. She was reading, looking into more submission possibilities. She hasn’t done so badly; she published three stories last year. But that was last year, the “Before” time; this is “After.” The fact that she’s even writing a couple hours most days is a good sign, even if she does trash most of what she does. She always types as if in hyper drive, and then afterwards slumps about and scowls at nothing until falling into bed. Depression is exhausting. I feel it, too, but it often rolls away as if it wants a different host. I’m too cold to be attractive to such a malady, she told me last month.

“How’s it going today?” I asked, my hand just brushing her back. She didn’t flinch.

“It’s all gone for today. I’d had Marcella meeting up with Roarke at a side street cafe after hours but then he didn’t even show.”

I’ve always had to think about those statements. I know it’s fiction she’s talking of and they are characters and she is telling me something that matters. But it rarely makes sense to me.

“He didn’t show up?”

“No, he had something better to do, I guess. Or another woman, but that’s such old news, not worth a paragraph.”

“You’re the writer but don’t yet know why he didn’t bother to show up?”  I kept it light. I suspected she wondered if I’d strayed. I couldn’t even bear the thought.

She turned sharply to me and glared, then smoothed her face with tapered fingertips as if very tired of having to explain things to me. “No, Garrett, that’s why I’m not writing right now. I just have to wait and see, like it or not.” She pulled her shoulders up high and let them fall down again, then pulled them back and sat up straighter. “Life, itself, is just a wait and see thing, don’t you agree?”

I contemplated my response; it felt like a trap, as things often did when we talked. “I guess that’s about right,” I said, padded up the stairs to my room.

“We agree for once, thank you for that.”

But her voice held no malice, more like tentative acceptance of one immeasurably small step forward. I almost returned to her but she was up and into the kitchen. I could have been wrong, so kept on.

It tended to feel better, perhaps safer, on the second floor. In my own room. I could see everything, the contemporary grandeur of the H. manse glowing and extending far beyond scattered evergreens, birds flitting from one oak branch to another, the giant magnolia waiting for any signals from an impending spring, far off yet. Street noise was minimal out there in the west hills. Sometimes it felt like we were hunkered down, very far from the world. We were on our second month and it was becoming more comfortable for me. I could see the benefits in Sheila, too. How she liked to lounge before the fieldstone fireplace redolent with wood that I split, fire snapping and sizzling, her favorite poetry book or magazine in hand. How she sought the right birdseed at the garden store and fed the birds carefully, as if their lives depended on her help.

I wondered if she knew how much I waited for her, too. How the bitter anger at God and myself had started to wane and a worn hollow was left in its place. Wanting something else there. But she had more and more not encouraged lengthy conversation much less my embrace. I understood, too.

There careened through the pane of glass in a window an odd swoosh sound and then a long scraping  noise and muffled voices, a shriek of pleasure. I peeked out the window over my dresser. There were kids sledding down a swell of snowy earth near one end of our cottage. They were flattening and displacing snow from yard to sidewalk and street as their blue saucers and orange toboggans rushed perilously past occasional cars inching along, their horns honking. One kid was throwing snowballs with murderous zeal at someone just out of sight. They looked to be about ten or eleven.

Downstairs I grabbed my jacket and gloves. “Going to see what some kids are up to,” I tossed at Shelia and she followed me to the door to take a look.

“Up to no good, likely,” she said. “Trespassers.”

I came upon them from behind the evergreens.

“Boys! Stop all this!”

They were in the thick of a snowball fight and ignored me or didn’t register I was yelling at them.

I strode up closer. “Stop this now, kids, you’re trespassing on private property!”

Then one ceased fire and looked around as if to ask where did I mean.

“This belongs to a well known family, as you must surely know,” I half-bellowed, “and they wouldn’t like to hear about such disrespect!”

A fast snowball was stopped by my not inconsiderable chest. I took another step forward.

One of the boys, not biggest but bravest, stepped up as the other two stepped back. “Can I ask who you might be, mister? Not one of our neighbors. Are you supposed to be here…?”

He talked bigger than he felt, I could tell. I relaxed my stance.

“Well, I’m Garrett, the current caretaker of the estate here,” I gestured behind me. “And who are you three?”

They then sloppily lined up, called out their names.

“I’m Chuck Dyson, Mr. Garrett.”

“Terry here, sir. Hartner.”

“Matt Engels, I live across the street.” The bravest had spoken and pointed at a large grey house. “We all do, we know the owners, sorta. Terry lives down the street that way.” He swiped his runny nose with the back of his snow-encrusted mitten and pushed his dark hair from bright eyes. “We thought nobody was home. They go off for a long time. This part isn’t fenced off so sometimes we like to sled and stuff if they’re gone. No harm, right?”

“Well, we saw lights there a few times–at the guesthouse,” Chuck said. “We thought it might be last visitors, is all.”

“And that makes it okay for you boys to potentially wreck their yard? Make a bunch of noise? We live here now and for a long while.”

Terry, the one with the freckled face, finally spoke up. “Well, no, sir, wouldn’t want to cause any problems. We’re just having fun. No school the last three days!”

Garrett started to laugh despite himself. The boys slapped and pushed at each other, slipping and sliding in the slick snow.

“Well, I see, alright, then. Next time come to the cottage door and ask my wife and me first. We might be sleeping . But I just don’t want the yard to get damaged. It’s my job now. Maybe enough for one day, okay guys?”

“Yes sir,” Terry said, smiling a gap-toothed grin, “we’ll check next time.”

“Thanks, Mr. Garrett!” Chuck punched the air with fisted mitten and headed off, sled under arm.

But Matt stood there and considered a moment. “I guess you’re not too into sledding, anymore?”

“I don’t really know, Matt, haven’t done it in many years.”

“Well, want to now?”

Matt Engels’ eyes were vivid with high jinks and just life, and blue as the icicles melting against a winter bright sky. And Garrett thought for a moment that his own son’s eyes might have been that blue if he’d kept growing, if he had gotten to be born. Like Shelia’s, a fine silvery blue like a summer’s high mountain river that ran deep and fast and clear. If he’d stayed alive and blinked at them. And the man he was and wanted to be stood there weakened by the thought, assailed  by sensations he couldn’t name, when Matt determined he had an assent from the old guy and thrust the saucer at him. Garrett took it with a nod, sat down and pushed off, went flying down the small hill and across the sidewalk, over the curb, into the street where no cars were coming so only three boys witnessed a grown man brought to a sudden halt on the other side by a snow laden bush. Then he sprawled face down into a drift. His mouth was full of it, the freezing cold sweet stuff, and he was laughing so hard his sides hurt and his eyes watered.

“Sir, you alright?” Terry called out as he ran back to him. “That was a good one.”

Chuck and Matt were close behind, tried to help him to his feet.

“I’m fine,” he said as he caught his breath and righted himself. ” Come on, let’s try it once more!”

Sheila watched them. She was not far from the hilly spot and felt herself  pulled closer. She snugged up her wool jacket to her too-bony frame. Saw her husband playing , saw him chatting and carrying on with three boys. Boys like she wanted. Saw him leave behind devastation for a few moments as he whooped and hollered all the way down the  rise of land, their new back yard. She yearned for him. She felt him in her bones much like she had felt the baby, with her whole being, in her spirit and her blood. She longed for him, her good husband, her dearest friend. So she walked between the towering, attentive trees and stood above him when he returned with the bouncing sled. She jostled his elbow. His face softened as if she’d kissed him.

“Take me with you,” she said, eyes filling, lower lip caught between front teeth.

I set her safe between my bent knees on the small toboggan and we bumped and sailed down without once dumping as our neighbor boys cheered.

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Invisible

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I live around here, too, unknown to you,
beneath my own flag of greens and blues,
amid dirt, broken glass, rock and trees,
watched over by wild animals, madmen
and the odd angel or two.
My world view is from a sidewalk,
behind a fence, through rain or spider’s webs.

The lives of many peoples like me
hide in musty corners, mingle by rivers,
traverse the paths that you avoid,
and our blood has colored much of
what was ruined, traded or stolen.
We may fight but soon give it all up.
We have so little to bargain with.

You don’t see us, don’t hear me.
I am an invisible, a tattered one
most often omitted in roll call,
overlooked in life’s endless lines,
or one who wandered too far from the crowd.
My bed is terra firma or a slice of space
between fifty others. Like a shadow
erased by cover of night,
I come forward with light’s breaking,
am weightless, transient as cottonwood fluff.

You think you know me and I, you.
We cross paths, share time, but fail
to recognize humanity in one another.
I may ask you for a dollar or small mercies;
you mostly turn aside. Fate is cast that easily.
But if you could look, take a chance even once

we might lock hands, see they’re both
etched with hopes, hurts and affections.
We could try to salvage one another
a little before it is too late–
brother and sister, it’s later every day.
We might set free one dazed and dingy dove,
then open the way to life’s simplest gifts
each ordinary person is meant
to embrace, to give and be given.

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Notes From the Edges of Sleep and the Day After

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It was that fine velvety stillness which held my attention. No mechanical clangs or motors roaring, no ebullient voices ballooning in the darkness after bar closings. The crows had taken a hiatus, were asleep or perhaps frozen stiff on their perches after the evening’s steady snowfall. I peeked out the window once more: nothing but rapid accumulation of an almost florescent snow upon rooftops, fences, tree limbs, parked vehicles. A January night’s attire arrayed itself with grace. Nothing stirred amid the restful snow, or pounced on blowzy flakes as once my calico cat had zealously attempted.

But why was I thinking of feisty Mandy, she of snappish meows and fast claws, dead and gone for a decade? I didn’t miss her warmth at my blanketed feet since she hadn’t been allowed there due to ending up a nuisance, though I loved her. No, it was another sneaky thought from nowhere. I lay on my back, blankets pulled up to my chin. Why did I think of anything at this time of night? I ought to have been snoozing, traversing vaporous realms at the most or loosely tethered to a wakeful consciousness at the least.

It was way past two in the morning; I didn’t want to check again. I had had my usual herbal Sleepytime tea while watching some innocuous television, headed to bed to devour many pages of an engaging novel. Tried to think sleepy thoughts. Let the day’s work and play be put aside. Worries offered up to God as well as a few suggestions that might be helpful, then humble retractions and surrender once more.

Closed my eyes. Ignored familiar inroads of pain that crept from neck to shoulders to head to back. Visualized warmth and healing in each spot, fell toward restfulness. In thirty minutes: fully awake again. This time, heart skipping about as if deep darkness was the best time to change things up, do a little sidestep, try on a galloping jig and then a waltz. A long pause or two and a swing step. Be at ease, I counseled the muscle that drives this flesh, fuels this life.

But beyond the bed, the vibrant quietude of snow carried me first to blizzards of my Michigan childhood and youth. The snow houses, sledding, ice skating, tunneling into the depths, falling into sharp sweetness with a boisterous shout. All that force of beauty and opportunities for fun; the ways it shaped the flow and tenor of my life for sometimes five or six months of each year. It gave me fortitude, more room for imagination and pure happiness.

And I thought, too, of a time in the north country with my first husband, our children gallivanting in brilliant snowdrifts, the skittish and graceful deer living right alongside our lives. The wood stove tended all day and night to keep us warm enough. That last winter of complicated snowstorms and love, more snow and loss. As I tried to let sleep come, I greeted him somewhere, wherever he is since body failed. But why was this necessary to revisit? Because the snow is made of memories. A unique elegance, freedom; it smells and shimmers of wonder and sorrow.

Music came forward from somewhere far away inside my mind– kept awakening me with chords, clear and robust. Giant icicles used to shine at the windows of my parents’ home, the music house. That was then and this snow was now but they were superimposed as I lay there half-awake. Trees must have shivered, as just like childhood I felt their aliveness, my eyes closing tighter against seepage of sky through the blinds and that far away past. I hummed a melody almost recalled as it melded with a sudden wind. Chimes jangled on the balcony, sonorous, comforting.

Three forty-five a.m. I sighed, re-positioned, fluffed the pillows. Thought of Marc on the East coast after flying all day. Was he awake, too? Sleep is often more elusive in hotels. He would likely be at work already.

Wait, a few poetic lines floated across mind’s eye…the slight of a slivered moon left behind, a pale cascade of stars nudging my waking… I grabbed pen, slip of paper.

Flopped back down. My heart rat-a-tatted over and over– electrical messages, small circuitous interruptions. That prescience of shocking mortality. We are not only memories and dreamings. But I know to wait it out, breathe well. It was persistent, then passing as mercifully, I fell asleep for awhile.

That night was a winding road. Long, crammed with bits and pieces that entertained, annoyed, jolted, intrigued and even soothed as each moment leads to another unlike what is expected or needed.

I am not alone with such night voyaging. All who experience insomnia for any reason know how it goes: it starts to feel long and unreasonably temperamental, then to feel more like floating in ineffable space and finally it feels like nothing but weariness. That waiting for dawn. It can be survived if you are friendly with it, acknowledge it as a terribly stubborn guest, and behave as if it is not unexpected and not despised.

And I finally awakened to full light. Looked outside. The snow was more immense, lay in high mounds and cancelled grayness with its reflective light. A foot of it? (Fourteen inches in places, I heard later.) Where did all this come from (an Arctic front via Canada, likely) and why to this valley saturated with a cold rain each winter? This was our second real snow so far; it was by far the biggest. I got up but it was as if my body came forward first, my self came second while, in between, I wavered. Then, steadier on both feet, it was time to greet another day properly despite the specter of exhaustion after four hours of sleep.

The pain in my neck had dug in. My eyes burned with bleariness. A daughter asked to come by as she usually does, using our computer (hers being broken) to search for another job. I dressed, put on the teakettle and toasted a bagel. I had things to get done. And I longed to walk into the snow. Discomfort does not usually excuse me from a daily walk, though it can be tempting. It’s better life management to keep going. I find such good moments, an infusion of strength–and it’s a good work out. Fresh cold air was surely a perfect antidote to poor quality sleep and a tenacious soreness.

And so we did walk for over an hour, good daughter and I. We clomped about in our heavy boots and I took pictures. Neighbors and passersby were chatty; it was satisfying to compare pleasures (and inconveniences) of such a rare snowstorm. Contentment filled me during that hour.

But this is all I have to offer today. No philosophical musings or insightful anything. Just this bout with a trying companion, insomnia. A glimpse again at my resilient but touchy heart. A sharing of bounties from an energizing winter mosey. Pain lessened, heart rhythms more settled. I’m quite tired out. Happier.

Time to sleep again, I so hope, And for all who traverse that oddly mysterious landscape of stony nights when trying to snooze: I wish you good rest.

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More than Passing Attachments

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The heavy pounding was like a rubber mallet banging the wooden door. Bea dropped the small sack onto the kitchen table and tore off her coat and gloves, each finger tingling from unusual cold that permeated the town. She had just closed and bolted the door and was hesitant to check the peep-hole. It might be Mick, that audacious man down the hall with split lower lip healing after his last reported boxing match.

Mick made her skittish sometimes with his wary sullenness, the abrupt greetings tossed her way as they passed one another, the way his black hair fell over his forehead barely covering a scar that trailed between his eyebrows. He wasn’t, she thought, so mean as tough. He had a wife who was loud and friendly in that way that overwhelmed her but they always greeted each other, chatted a bit. Bea had thought the two of them suited one another fine. Then they had a baby over four years ago, a lovely boy. She’d tried to not wonder about his life with such a pair. It was none of her business, was it? They appeared to love him, were happy whenever she saw the three of them together. What did she know about kids?

The banging erupted again. She strode to the door to take a look. It was Mick alright and he glanced at his watch then right at her, his amber eye enlarged by the round concave glass.

“Bea, I know you’re there, please open up. Mo needs you.”

Bea opened the door a little. “Yes?”

His demeanor transformed as he smiled. His pulpy face was oddly handsome with those golden eyes and a square jaw accentuated by a couple days’ whiskery growth. She didn’t smile back.

“Mo, well, she got a job at the convenience store, she hasn’t found a sitter yet and starts tonight. I have my own shift work and I’m running way late. Can you help us out this once? Just until she gets somebody steady?”

“Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t have experience with children–and I work all day long. I do have to sleep at night, of course. Sorry…”

His strong eyebrows came together and he said nothing, then crunched his baseball cap in his hands. “Well, maybe Carter would help, he’s home by ten, usually.”

Carter was a professor at the community college. He taught English literature and creative writing, some grant writing for professionals. They’d gone out a few months but he could be verbose and she was quiet. Things hadn’t gotten far. He was divorced, had two sunny-natured daughters in middle school, and liked to travel so was often gone on week-ends. She saw him in the courtyard and corridors occasionally but barely acknowledged him now. She thought he might still talk to her if given the chance so she gave him little to none. Why complicate life more?

“Yes, that’s a good idea, he might do it awhile. I can vouch for his respectable character. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

She slowly shut the door but it struck Mick’s booted foot.

“Oh, wait Bea, maybe you could at least watch Toby until ten? I’ll make sure Marty or someone will pick him up by then, okay?”

Bea was ornery after a hard day; an ache spread through her lower back. She was hungry for the chicken soup she’d bought. She wanted his boot out of her doorway, his pleading, beat up face with cat eyes to retreat. But she shrugged, then gave him a look of defeat. Everything inside her rebelled against the image of her trying to entertain or soothe a little boy. Hopefully she’d just get him to sleep before the hours were up.

“If there’s absolutely no alternative I’ll do it this once–one time only, okay? Bring him in pajamas with a book or two.”

Mick shook his head as if disappointed in her attitude but thanked her and raced down the hall.

Bea’s nerves jumped about in her center. How did she get suckered into this? It was only a few hours; it couldn’t be so hard. Their lively four year old might turn out to be a pain, but anything was manageable for a short time. She’d seen him chatting with tenants and shared her own brief conversations with him–and had wondered over his strong verbal skills at so young an age.

She got the “to-go” container of soup with its fat penne noodles, chicken chunks, carrots and celery poured it into a deep bowl and reheated it. She took out chilled apple juice, poured some in a tall glass, cut a slice of bakery bread and slathered it with butter. At her small drop leaf table she arranged it all, smoothing a sage green and yellow-flowered cloth napkin. Then she sighed and dipped her spoon into the steaming brothy mix.

She barely managed three spoonfuls when the doorbell rang out. She went to the door and found Mo beaming at her with restrained excitement. Toby harbored a resigned, somewhat suspicious look. They stepped in.

“You’re a real lifesaver, Beatrice, thank you, I can call my cousin for tomorrow and if that doesn’t work out I’ve got a friend needing extra cash. This new job is saving our necks, we need more inflow and less outgo. Mick lost last week-end–he boxes at times, you know, he was almost pro once–that didn’t go as planned.”

Bea plastered a smile on, then held out a hand to Toby who shuffled in with brown furry bear slippers and matching bear (doing cartwheels) pajamas. He ignored her and surveyed the premises.

“Remember Beatrice, Toby? She’s come to our potlucks, even gave you a nice picture book for your birthday, right?”

He looked at her from under a fringe of dark disheveled bangs and nodded. Bea saw he had grey-blue eyes like his mom, not the eyes of a scruffy wolf like his dad.

“Come on in, Toby. I’ll for sure see Carter in a while, right? I work tomorrow, leave at seven. I’d prefer he came by for Toby by 10 at the very latest.”

“Right, he said he’ll come after the last class, after nine-thirty or so. You two are too nice! Off to my new job–thanks a million!” Mo hugged her son who hugged back dutifully and was gone.

Toby looked at the shut door then padded beside her, into the kitchen. After Bea retrieved and placed a fat pillow on a kitchen chair, he sat down opposite her sniffing the air a little, his upturned nose almost quivering. He looked hungry. Bea took another spoonful of soup, blew on it then held spoon midway to her waiting lips.

“You hungry, too?” she asked. “Any dinner at home?” Surely they’d fed him earlier. Or were children always hungry?

He nodded, tried to place chin in both hands despite being too low to the table. He openly coveted her bowl.

“I can share some if you like. There’s good bread. And juice.”

He nodded again, watched her get a smaller bowl from an open shelf plus a juice glass. Soon she’d arranged all before him and gave him a smaller spoon which he turned over in his hand once as if it was a foreign, fascinating thing. But she didn’t stare at him. They ate in silence except for his rhythmical slurping. She got a fat slice of bread and buttered it thickly. He held out his small hand for it, nearly smiling, and held it carefully as if weighing its density, feeling its softness.

Bea took her time, pretending this was any ordinary night after a day of work as a legal assistant. The boy was just a surprise. She loved coming home to the orderly apartment, basked in its familiar homeliness.

She had gradually personalized the place with colorful framed prints, a vase of fresh flowers weekly and her grouping of LLadro fox figurines set on the mantle. On a lamp table were two tall jewel-toned candles and a thick book. There was a blanket or throw on every living room seat. She loved to sit before a fire and contemplate little or much, read or watch a movie after dinner and chores were completed. She’d lived a mostly solitary life a long while; it suited her better than in her twenties and thirties. She’d made it to age forty last October. There was simple contentment in that. And also a restlessness, as if the milestone had left her with a new emptiness despite a rich fullness.

Her mother had always assured her the forties were the best years, a time she would expand her vision more, make healthier choices, find her life met by lovely surprises. A new psychic freedom would abound. And so she still had hope, even though her mother had also believed Bea would get her Masters’ degree, meet “a good, solid man” and have two kids by now. They talked even less than they used to; Bea was not able to think of much to say that wouldn’t cause veering into deeper waters. Not necessary. She admired and loved her mother. She was just not of her ilk, one of domestic yet overachieving women.

Toby and Bea finished at the same time. She took the dishes to the sink as Toby wriggled off the chair, headed to the living room where Bea had lit a fire after her arrival. When she entered the room, he was sitting cross-legged before the flaming wood, mesmerized.

“Real wood?” he asked and pointed at the flaming logs.

“Yes, just old pine. It works well enough, don’t you think?”

Toby inhaled deeply. “Better than ours. We use big crayons stuffed with wood, sawdust it’s called. They don’t make the room warm up like this.”

Puzzled and struck by his intelligent comment–was he really four?–she realized he meant the kind of fire logs at the grocery, ones mixed with petroleum wax and sawdust.

She offered her thoughts as if they were having a complete conversation. “Well, I like real wood. It has a good voice, for one thing.”

Toby crooked his head at her, ready with a question, then leaned closer to listen. The snap and crackle of dry wood as it combusted seemed to bring greater ease to his alert, compact body. She found it remarkable that this boy whom she had met perhaps a half-dozen times could sit in her home without fear or no emitting of whiny longing for parents. Mo and Mick had done something very right so far.

“Yes. It does talk! And smells yummy,” he said and smiled widely.

Encouraged, Bea got up to put on her glasses and took out knitting, thinking this would be a breeze. Toby turned to see what she was up to next.

“Knitting, huh? No books?” he asked. “We have lots of time.” He glanced at the wooden mantel clock and furrowed his brow. “Seven o’clock. Two or three hours? Enough time to read and maybe play a game.”

“You read? Tell time?” she asked him, surprised he could read Roman numerals on the clock face as if it was nothing. How did he do that?

“I like all sorts of numbers, what they do. And clocks. Funny old time.” He scratched his head. “Sure, I read pretty okay. I like stories about real things.”

Bea held his clear eyes for a moment and then slid off the couch to join him.

“Tell me more.”

He pursed his lips. “Like, tell you a story?”

She beamed down at him, liking that idea immensely, but he gave a firm shake of his head as if in disbelief that she would dare ask him rather than do her duty as babysitter.

“I bet you have some good ones, maybe about time,” she said.

Toby looked into the fire, went silent. She thought he had forgotten and now he wouldn’t expect her to entertain him. Relieved, she started to get up and then work on her afghan when he put a hand on her forearm.

“Do you, Bea? Know some stories?” he asked.

“Well, I was hoping you’d bring a book. I just know grown up stories.”

“I have some, then.” He stretched out his legs, flexed his furry bear feet a few times.

“Okay, then. I’m all ears.” She sat beside him.

He giggled, the small sound bubbling up. “All ears, funny thing to think about. Well. There was a boy. He wanted to go to a great school. But his daddy and  mommy said no, he was too little. He ate a lot more and tried to grow bigger. He did all they said, was good. They still said no. The boy wandered into woods as he slept. There he met something with wings, frosty and bright. A winter story fairy. And he went along with that fairy. They had school in the forest and he learned so much. He went home but they didn’t believe those things about numbers and light. They said he’d just been dreaming.”

Bea waited for more, almost breathless, a dab of air trapped in her chest then released in a rush. “What then?”

Toby looked at her as if he had really awakened from a dream, blinking at her. “Nothing. He just was at home. He missed the forest fairy. The numbers games. Like one hundred seventy-two plus one hundred twenty making two hundred ninety-two. It’s something great but not really a thing. It’s like light. Numbers get bigger, smaller, change everything. But are the same… it’s all perfect. I love it.” He shrugged.

Bea shivered, pulled back a bit to better see him. He was lost in the fire again, wiggling his toes so that the two bear heads danced about. There was an intensity that moved her, its stillness and clarity unbroken, pure. She wanted to wrap her arms about him but he didn’t seem to want or expect anything. She wanted to set him apart, prepare him for a wonderful future; he was just being himself.

Who was she, anyway? Just Bea. Who was he? He was a genius blooming within a small body, a gift giver for the world. And she got to hear one of his stories before he knew what he was offering.

“I believe you.”

He turned his whole body very slowly toward her, lay on his stomach and studied her. “You do?”

“Yes.”

“Oh good. Now your turn.”

He turned over and back to the fire. She sat close and he leaned against her. Bea put an arm about him and just like that she remembered her own favorite children’s story. Not real but then was his entirely? She told him about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail and adventurous Peter Rabbit and how Peter had to elude crabby Mr. McGregor as he explored the delicious garden. He was happy with the telling, quite taken with Peter’s brave maneuvering. She then admitted she had made Peter more hero than disobedient child.

“He was just a kid, he was curious!” Toby said.

“True. But he ended p with a belly ache from too much snacking. This story is over one hundred years old, Toby, so it’s still a good one to share.”

“Huh! But my own story is a secret,” he said seriously, then yawned. “And Peter Rabbit’s long ears are two more ears tonight.”

Bea patted his hand and wondered if she could keep his story to herself,  his geometry of life and school of dreaming, the light that he understood.

******

When Carter came, Toby had been asleep on the couch for an hour.

“Did you know about him?” she asked.

“You mean, do I know he’s very bright? Yes.”

“No, he’s more than bright, he’s…maybe even extraordinary.”

“I suspected it after a talk we had in the courtyard last summer. His vocabulary is impressive, his  ideas something else. He’s very confident around adults but sort of shy around kids. You find him interesting, too?”

They’d settled at the kitchen table. She scanned Carter and found him the same, very tall and a bit spindly, reading glasses hanging around the neck of his worn navy sweater, longish wavy hair still out of control.

“I find him quite wonderful. A sweet child with an amazing mind.”

“Not entirely perfect, I doubt.”

“I’m amazed by what Mo and Mick have done–he’s a great kid.”

He chuckled. “They don’t do much. But they love him, take good care of him and that counts most. He baffles them. They talked to me about him once. I told them he was likely gifted, he could be tested. They seemed surprised. Didn’t much like the thought of it. Don’t blame them. He’ll always be noticeably different.”

“Maybe we could encourage the boy, be good grown up friends to him. We might take him to museums and plays and concerts, go on different hikes and more– if they’d allow us. Don’t you think that would be good? To give him more to explore with that fine mind?”

Carter smoothed his forehead with both hands and groaned softly.”You mean, like mentors? He’s only four and a half. He’ll have school soon. He might enjoy all that, sure, but we both work, his parents are up to their ears in more shift work. And he’s their child, not mine or yours. We can just be kind to him, you know. Listen to him, encourage him.”

“Well, I’m going to try something more. He needs more.” She thought how Toby mused over her own use of “all ears” and wondered what he’d say to his parents being “up to their ears.”

“He’s got you hooked already, Bea, just like that?”

“Yes, like that.” She lifted her head, jutted her chin out.

Carter leaned back and tilted his chair on two legs. “And what if this is just another passing attachment? Like you got hooked by us, had a passing attachment to me and my kids? Because I don’t think that would be fair to Toby.”

Bea wanted to bark at him to set those chair legs on the floor and get Toby and just go. She was enthralled with Toby but tired out; he was being too touchy feely. They didn’t need to rehash things. But he was perhaps right. It had been three months since they had spoken much. She had backed away when it got complicated: his life and hers, his children’s comings and goings. Her intrinsic introspection, minimalist ways. His extravagant poetic responses to all. People were trying; people required so much. She liked her legal briefs and research, duties and schedules, more predictable results. But Carter and his kids had fast become important to her.

She had been afraid: how much had awakened in her after being comfortable alone. She’d freed herself, fast.

“Maybe not…” She pushed the chair back, wooden legs squeaking as they scraped the worn tile floor. “Maybe you should gather the boy and go.”

His eyes met hers and it was all so familiar, that soft liveliness with slightly mocking humor, a more often kind regard. Revelations of the poetry in human living that propelled him and finally moved her.

“Or we could wait for Mick to come by here. We could wait on the sofa by Toby. We understand him a little, after all, don’t we? And I could use a steaming hot peppermint tea.”

It took her a moment to decide but when she did it felt good, even right. She fired up a burner and put the kettle on, oddly energized. Carter left her to it. When she brought the mugs of tea to her living small room blanketed in warmth, Carter and Toby were both asleep.  She sat on the floor by Carter’s long legs, rested her head on folded arms and imagined her life happier. Slept, too.

Toby’s eyelids lifted to unshutter his eyes. He smiled into the hazy burnished beauty of a firelit night. At his two new grown up friends. Then his eyelids closed as he drifted to his tantalizing forest in search of more numbers, more light, more frosty tales.

Friday’s Quick Pick: Return to A True Love

cropped-victoria-trip-7-12-101.jpgVictoria, Victoria, how well and easily I am romanced by your exceptional character, your elegance and vibrancy never losing my attention…I find myself returning to those days and nights, to your intriguing vagaries, even your more pedestrian secrets that are revealed whenever I seek you out. It has been so long since I presented these eyes and ears, this heart and spirit to the enchantment of yours. When may we meet once more? 

Wait, I am not writing a romance novel, thrusting upon you a first overtly flowery paragraph. No, I am only daydreaming about another vacation on Vancouver Island and a stay in Victoria, its crown jewel. For today I am full of reminiscences and wonders of this small land parcel between the USA and Canada. I actually restrain myself from returning there in this blog so that readers need only put up with my praises and images once a year or so. But I find I can’t wait a few more months to share a spattering of pictures from five–or six?–trips to Victoria and all which thrives there. I can hardly post enough of the sights, but here is a teaser.

It is January, after all, and it’s remained simply too cold; my legs, hands and cheeks have barely thawed from an energetic afternoon walk. I must have relief and so I reach back to more temperate weather marked by color, movement and very good food (and chocolate). Some hear the siren call of the drowsy tropics or vast glittering ski slopes. I would happily settle for Victoria another visit, and if I manage not the actual flight from my chilled urban center, at least let me linger over past enticing moments. Some places just catch and hold you in a happy state. And, honestly, I have a thing about ferries…you may note there are a few shots of the rides.

Yes, Victoria, here I come–husband in tow.

Care to join me? (Click on bottom of photos for a pop up description and also to see full photo.)