Close Calls

Photo by William Eggleston
Photo by William Eggleston

Helen wasn’t especially brilliant and not even beautiful. And she wasn’t overly interested in pleasing guys, much less pursuing them but they liked her immediately, or at least always thought they liked her. Her sister’s chin-length hair nicely framed a half-crooked smile. She did have eyes that pulled you in, like they saw something you misplaced or even lost altogether–they somehow saw and held more than others did. But, Talia mused, it had to be her sister’s nonchalance around men that did the trick. That or being a more sporty type, quick to state she’d rather split and stack wood than dress up and attend the latest play at Blackwater’s Stage and Screen. Even if Talia was in it. Now and then she gave in and went, though.

Talia was the one who’d been easily complimented, told she was attractive like their mother had been. And favored by some serious talent. But the reality remained: Hellie (a nickname earned for her infrequent but epic temper) drew men with the barest slip of a smile or a noncommittal nod. Talia had quickly turned into an ethereal butterfly while Hellie remained more like a moth, she guessed. But things were still not how Talia imagined they could be. She couldn’t wait to get out of Blackwater; next year she’d be in college, at last studying drama. Her big sister wasn’t interested in formal education, just the family-owned Bells and Whistles Antique Goods store. She was good at business, better at finding unique treasures.

“Haven’t you noticed how moths are exotic but camouflaged?” Hellie said, laughing when Talia came right out and told her sister her thoughts. “And better to be burned by a light shining in the dark than buzzing around the same smelly flowers all day!”

Talia didn’t agree but was glad she wasn’t hurt. She shielded her eyes to better focus on the road. “Maybe.”

She was waiting for Jamie Hartman. He’d stopped to see her after the play the night before and asked to visit. He was so good looking, such a gentleman, and the grandson of one of Blackwater’s original citizens. It was a shock when he  knocked on her door; she’d mutely assented to his request. She took a half hour to get ready, rushing, and now he was late.

Hellie reached for an acorn on the porch’s leaf-strewn floor, threw it at a crow on the lawn that kept overriding their conversation with a rancorous cry. It missed the bird–she’d meant it to–but it flew into a tree, momentarily silenced. She licked her finger and made an invisible mark in the air, one point for her. That crow and she understood one another but they still often played the game.

The girls were enjoying the last of tender radiance of a fall afternoon before the rainy season arrived, a soothing breeze ruffling their hair. Hellie admired the scarlet maple leaves, how they waved and flipped about. She was relaxed, glad to have the day off. She rarely took Talia’s blurted thoughts to heart. Three years older, she felt her younger sister fussy and self-centered. Even though she was a good actress–even very good–she had a lot to learn about everything else. There wasn’t much hope that it’d happen before she went to college–she was a starry-eyed girl, also too accepting. Hellie thought how strange it would be to no longer have her about to debate and mess with. She threw another acorn and hit the trunk of the tree. The crow flew higher.

The car came up quietly. It was that sort of vehicle–low to the ground, gleaming silver, stealthy until its power was unleashed. Hellie sat forward to better view it, then leaned back as a taller-than-average, well-dressed young man unfolded himself from the driver’s seat.

“Here he is!” Talia arranged her skirt about her knees, flashed a welcoming smile. “Hello there!”

He took the porch steps two at a time and offered his hand to Talia first. The overall effect was of a burnished blaze, a blonde and tan display of blue blood and deeply ingrained confidence.

“Glad we could get together. I’m Jamie, in case you forgot.”

“Of course not, glad you made time to stop by.”

He smiled indulgently at her, then glanced at Hellie who appeared to be studying something in the trees. Talia motioned to the chair next to hers, into which he lowered himself as though he had been meaning to do just that all day and had found the best spot.

“It’s been a long day already,” he stated. “I’m here helping my aunt out things. You must know her, right?”

“Of course, Ms. Lulu Hartman. Sorry she lost her husband. Your uncle.”

“Yes, thanks.” He frowned down at his soft beige loafers. His ankles were bare, like in magazines. “I haven’t been here for a few years. I think we knew each other somehow. I mean, I only came summers for a month or so, and that was before university but you”–he nodded at Hellie, who turned, cocked her head at him–“I sure do seem to recall.”

“Oh, hey, I’m Helen. You may have seen me peddling around on my bike, went everywhere on  it. I’m still a dedicated cyclist, ride in marathons. I often picked up a few things from the store or post office for your aunt for a little cash and maybe a cinnamon roll. But it’s a small place, even during high season when folks pour in.”

“That must be it. Yes, she’s a good baker, her one talent in the kitchen since the cook won’t let her near meal prep.” He let go a light, perhaps embarrassed laugh. “Anyway, I’m sure she appreciated it. She does not like to leave her little kingdom much. What about you?”

“Oh, I’m let out of my cage every few weeks at the antiques store Dad owns so I can shake off dust and mildew, clear my head of nostalgia. I mean out of my office, but my door’s window has bars on the window…you know, to keep the robbers at bay since we have so many diamonds and other precious things.”

His forehead wrinkled a bit, then he relaxed. “So, you’re a working woman. I imagine that business can be interesting, though I prefer more contemporary style. I’m curious to hear what you imagine I do?”

Hellie considered. An uncomfortable feeling rose and fell; she ignored it. She could say the truth as she saw it–“nothing much if you can help it”–or she could say the more polite, reasonable thing: “attend law school”.

“Jamie, are you here for long?” Talia asked, sitting forward with hands on knees. Her pale eyebrows rose, making her clear blue eyes larger and brighter.

“Oh, sorry, Talia. I came by to tell you how much I enjoyed your performance but got diverted by your sister! Just here a few days. Anyway, it is clear you want to be an actress. Lawyers and actors have something in common, I think. Tell me your story.”

Hellie got up and slipped behind their chairs, opened the screen door and stepped into rectangles and slivers of sunlight and shadow in the ramshackle house. It was her first day off. She kicked off her shoes and made a beeline to the kitchen. Her chore list stared back at her from a small bulletin board right inside the swinging door. She had laundry to finish before starting dinner so got to work,  putting in another load, drying, unloading and folding the family’s clothing. She recalled, just barely, how her mother had hung sheets out on the line, and how she’d been delighted to watch them flap and billow, how they smelled like the bright wind. Hellie hadn’t hung out anything for a long time.

Ever since their mother had passed when she was fourteen–eight years ago–she had taught herself rudimentary cooking, one recipe at a time. Tonight it was beef stew. The chopping and dicing emptied her out. Work had been busier lately. She worried about her father working so much overtime. She worried that they had too much inventory and not enough positive cash flow, but they managed well enough. She wanted to help the business grow.

An hour later, Talia rushed into the moist, savory-scented kitchen to find Hellie wiping down the counters. her cheeks were blooming and her eyes dancing about–giddy like the teenager she was.

“I invited him! To dinner–set another place. He wants to hang out more.”

Hellie stirred everything into the heavy pot and looked up recipes for biscuits. “Dad will be home late tonight–he’s eating at Brew and Bounty, though.”

“Well, that’s fine. We might take a walk later, but first he’s driving me to the coffee shop!”

“Great…don’t let him go fast,” she muttered to Talia’s vanishing back, then threw the dishrag at the wall; it slid to the floor like a crumpled creature. She looked up and rolled her eyes at the ceiling and beyond. “Great, I am not an entertainer, Mom. I hate doing stuff like this and not for strangers…what was she thinking? Maybe he’ll leave right after dinner.”

But he didn’t. He proclaimed the stew and biscuits the best he’d had, talked voluminously of things that lost Hellie’s attention and gained Talia’s. He stayed too long. She had been right; he was going to be a corporate attorney, would return to school after helping his aunt. He lingered in the kitchen by her side afterwards, offering to help her clean up which she found mocking not kind, knowing he had little clue about such things–his father was VP of an oil company, they’d always had “help” he’d said–and Talia right there waiting for him. But his eyes landed on Hellie’s near-navy, deep-set ones that were frankly irritated so skidded right past his. Then his rested on a curve of collarbone showing itself atop her scoop neck t-shirt. She turned to the sink, her mind discarding each honest but impolite word.

“Go on you two, I’m busy,” she insisted and flicked the tea towel hard at them, advancing when he didn’t move, then her sister grabbing his arm.

She thought Talia far too bright-eyed; he, too chummy and confident. She could hear them laughing on the porch, his increasingly brash voice rising over hers while her mellow alto underlying his remarks. Then their words changed to a light, dull hum of sounds she wasn’t able to fully interpret.

Hellie still watched out for her little sister but she didn’t any longer consider it her imperial duty to oversee her activities, to admonish her about life’s every pitfall. Well, she was still figuring hing out, herself, though she knew she had a more level head than Talia. And she possessed an instinct about life that her sister feigned, couldn’t quite locate within. She floated in and out her world of imaginings while Hellie lived with sure-footedness in the intriguing but trapdoor-strewn domains of reality.

Talia had taken a year off after high school to work at the theater and get more acting experience. In their tourist town she had the added benefit of larger, forgiving audiences. She had a passion for it; Hellie thought she might make something of her dream. She wasn’t exactly a child as she closed in on age nineteen. She’d dated a few guys, made some decent choices and some less so, but she had some gumption and was moving in a better direction. Or so Hellie wanted to think. But she didn’t take guidance from her “wanted tos”; she followed her gut. Near the end of dinner she wondered what the point was, this guy sitting in their dining room stuffing himself with excellent stew, making weak jokey comments that Talia tittered at, then trying to engage in a quasi-urbane conversation with Hellie.

Hellie had  been visited by a sudden desire to make Jamie disappear as she’d swallowed her last bite. She just wasn’t clear if it was necessary.

As the porch got quieter, she entered the living room to listen deeply, waiting just beyond a warm spill of light from a milk glass lamp on the entry table. Outside they were murmuring things. Then Hellie heard a thump against the outside wall. There was a sharp intake of breath that seemed to predict a mighty exhale from the vicinity of chairs. But it didn’t ever happen, to her best observation. She peered out the door but they were leaning against the porch rail. She stepped away. More rustlings and bumps, feet moving. What passed as a kind of yelp, something almost alarming. Hellie felt her head flush and chest constrict and burn.

She scurried to the back stairwell, yanked the chain of the single light bulb, ran downstairs to a heavy locker. Unlocked the door, got what she needed, then ran up again and out the back door. She crept along the side yard, dropped one of the rifles at the base of an evergreen tree, just for back-up.

It was a bright evening. The crows were at rest and crickets were awake, singing. Moonlight touched the trees, the grass, the shimmering sports car in the driveway. Hellie crept around the corner of the long, comfortable porch until she could see them: Talia pinned back in an Adirondack chair, Jamie leaning over with mouth plastered on hers, Talia’s wrists gripped by his hands. Talia’s right leg and foot shot out and up as she tried in vain to kick him off. She was squirming and pushing with more will than might.

Hellie lifted the old rifle to her shoulder, took slow and steady aim. She found the voice that no one wanted to hear, the one that pushed hard until she won a battle.

“Let her go, Jamie Hartman, or your slick car will be a pile of pitiful metal and glass in five more seconds. You’ll end up beside it.”

He startled, backed off her sister, came to stand at the top step, fine shirt all rumpled, big hands on hips.

“What the devil—what do you think you’re going to do? Put that damned hunting weapon down! We’re just playing around here”

Talia cried out then scrambled into the house, pressing her nose against the screen door. “Hellie! Don’t!”

She jabbed the rifle in the air as she walked closer to him. “What do you think you’re doing, presuming on our good natures, feasting on my beef stew, making innocuous conversation and unintelligent jokes at our hospitable table, taking up space where our father should have been? Mashing your face on my sister’s like some idiot seventh grader? Restraining her like some bruiser with worse on his mind? Is that who you are, then?”

“Hellie! Come inside, he’ll leave!” Talia was near-screeching but it came out a squeak. She thought if there was ever a time to call 911, it might come very soon. Her throat tightened right up and she could say no more.

“Listen, your little sister was glad to see my face at your podunk theater, she’s a barrel of laughs and you’re a regular madwoman–a fool if you think you can get away with intimidating me. I’m calling the police, then my lawyer.”

Hellie swung the rifle around, squinted to better site the center of the windshield, then changed her mind and aimed for the right front tire.

Jamie ran down the steps, hands pressing against earthy night air hard as if against Hellie.

“You’re nuts! Enough already! I’m leaving now, alright?” He got into the exalted car with one swift movement. “There.” He fired up the big engine, gave it more gas to increase its’ emboldened roar.

Hellie fully lowered the rifle so as not to appear as threatening but she gritted her teeth. His arrogance made her blood boil. “Get out. Don’t came back any time, in any future.”

Jamie hit the steering wheel twice with the palm of his hand, sharp laughter spiraling out his open window. “What a waste of time. And it was you who caught my attention, a crazy one,” he said, shaking his head. “Impressive–if sadly irrelevant!”

And then he stomped on the gas pedal so the lean, moonshot car spun around in the gravel driveway; it righted itself, sped away. It took all of Hellie’s resolve to not to run after it, give it a terrible beating with the butt of the rifle. But, no, she couldn’t do such a thing. She aimed at him a last time in case he was looking back; he wasn’t coming here again if she could help it. Her heart still drummed heavy beats in her ears, then minute by minute slowed.

Talia was at her elbow trying not to laugh or cry, she couldn’t decide which she wanted to do, then put an arm about her waist. They were both breathless. Hellie felt hot and cold, sorry and disgusted with them all. And relieved.

“You alright, Tal?” She ran her hand gently over Talia’s glossy head, calming them both.

“I guess so, I got scared, he’s way too much, I mean I said ‘enough’ but he just squashed me and…”

“He wolfed down my stew, started in with lame jokes then actually ogled me–I knew for sure right then he spelled trouble. I should have kept you with me, thrown him out…”

“Well, I’m not exactly a kid. I just didn’t see it until we were on the porch. But he sure said some powerful good things.”

“Oh, Talia, you have to know how that goes by now. Just another  charmer with little else going,  some money and looks, neither of which counts that much in the end.”

“Seemed like plenty. Guess I’m kinda slow.” They started back to the house. “Would you have really fired the rifle?”

Hellie sighed as she touched the outline of two bullets in her front jeans pocket. Just in case. “It wasn’t loaded. But I ought to think at least twice, sometimes. I just don’t–” She stopped and looked up at the sky, all those stars flaring, making eternity more perfect. “I just don’t want anything bad to ever happen to you. I know–you’ll have to figure out more. Me, too, by the way.”

“Yeah, I get understand. But I need to be more like you–watchful.”

“Well, that’s only part of who I am. As you well know. Just pay attention to your intuition.” She have a small yank to her sister’s lustrous ponytail. “But, boy oh boy, I sure did love that car, I could not have taken a serious shot at it! Maybe him–but not a Jaguar F-type Coupe! How did it ride?”

“Fantastic! It was like gliding right into another world! I never knew they could do that. How do you know about cars?” She paused.”I have to say it still steams me, sometimes–he said he was more interested in you than me. He barely even talked with you. I mean, I always wonder why guys just take to you, fish to water.”

“Huh, coming from him, that’s sorta scary, isn’t it?” They walked slowly, arms about each other’s waists and up the creaking front steps. Hellie looked out over the empty yard as they settled on the top one. “Anyway, I’m not sure that’s the case but don’t give it another thought. I don’t.”

But she did think about it, as it was weirdly true. And she wondered when and where she’d ever meet someone she wanted to spend real time with, someone with whom she could reciprocate the admiration. It was slow going, the love business, almost starting and then surprise stops or the wrong scenarios.

“I won’t tell Dad, Hellie.”

“No stopping that Jamie; I’m sure he’ll hear about it before I have a chance to talk about it. I’m not worried, just glad you’re alright.” She patted Talia’s narrow back, then walked around the corner to grab the other rifle. She lay them on a small table.

“Two, Helen–uh, Hellie–really?” She slapped her a little on the forearm.

She did’t reply. She was surprised to hear her real name spoken by Talia but liked it.

Crickets chirruped and from a treetop the crow called once, twice, three times then fell silent, as if waiting for Hellie to try to add one more thing. After awhile, her little sister slipped indoors, worn out. But she sat there with rifles on the stool beside her. She recalled the few times her father had taken her deer hunting, a thing that wasn’t easy. She was a good shot but shot past the bucks, never at them. She got up, took it downstairs and secured it.

Hellie leaned against the locker with eyes shut, knowing they had had a couple of too-close calls. She also knew she’d be on the lookout for any other trouble until her sister left for college. Probably until they both got old, even when Talia was famous or at least meeting her own destiny. It was her job; it was just her way.

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