Jo looked out the kitchen window and suppressed a voluminous gasp in deference to Matthew, who was just settling into position with his New Carrington News, a steaming mug of coffee and a whole wheat bagel.
He’d grunted at her upon entering the kitchen; she’d nodded and brewed a big pot. They often reheated leftover from the previous day, but this morning required the bright aroma and rich acidity of fresh caffeine. Jo knew from the many times floorboards creaked and their mattress dipped and bounced that he’d had a “kangaroo night”, up and down, here and there and everywhere. That’s what she called it; he called it “old age purgatory.” After the third time he’d pulled on his robe, jammed an old fishing magazine from a pile he kept bedside into his pocket, holed up in the empty room across the hall. The goal was to read until he dozed off. Her hope was he’d alleviate any night demons and aggravations so the next day wouldn’t be ruined for both of them.
“What is he doing?” She muttered to herself, craning her neck to better see outside. “Seems to be cleaning up…is it worth plunging to your death, though?”
Matthew typically didn’t talk for the first hour following a bad night; the newspaper emphatically rustled. Jo topped off his favorite mug from their Alaska trip. It had a homely moose on it, but it granted him happier memories. She returned to the window. The roof-scaling neighbor was still there, his leg slung out a small window, half his torso as well. He wielded a broom with some power, scrubbing and flicking off leaves and perhaps moss, though everyone knew that moss was loath to leave shingle, wood or rock once at home. She put a finger to curling lips, shook her head. That Van Tolliver, full of surprises.
He’d been a good neighbor for twenty years, waving whenever he caught a glimpse of them, at times sharing his tools and more often, anecdotes, taking in their mail hwen they were gone–and vice versa. They’d enjoyed three or four meals together each year–grilled and easy fare, various holiday spreads. Then Francia, his wife, passed. There one day with her arms full of groceries and a chipper “hello” to Jo, then felled by a fatal stroke the next. It happened so fast the neighborhood felt she still must roam the back garden or the living room where she taught small children piano. But that was that and in time they forgot her voice and face. She had been a lovely and rather benign sort except for her enthused piano playing overwhelming the street off and on. Jo was one who liked to hear it and found it sad she would not play another note.
Van, she could see, was scrubbing away with a long push broom, an awkward and perilous endeavor. His large foot was braced on the slanted roof. It looked clean enough to Jo. People generally hired others to take care of such tasks. Van had been gone a lot, though, since Francia’s death so maybe he just wanted to tidy up his place. He’d gone to Italy, France, Spain and Greece and who knows where else. An investment consultant, he’d told them he’d been tied to a desk so long he’d forgotten how to ambulate through the world and it was high time. He’d seemed rather cheerful despite his wife being gone only six months his first time out. But then, he always was more upbeat than most.
“What were you mumbling about?” The paper was lowered enough for Matthew’s bloodshot eyes to appraise his wife.
“It’s just Van. He’s sweeping his roof off, half way out that little upstairs window..”
He furrowed his brow. “Well, sensible or not, he’ll get ‘er done.” The paper flipped back up. “Coffee could use more sugar. Please.”
She was amazed Matthew had spoken, not barked at her so she got the sugar bowl and spooned it in for him. Then Jo took her white porcelain cup, grabbed her navy sweater from the coat tree and stepped onto the covered porch. Van was so intent it was as if he was executing an important duty. He didn’t notice her across the street.
It was true Van got things done. He seemed to have a knack for fixing broken mixer and fan motors and faulty toasters (he’d fixed theirs’); painting his house despite being seventy (with his son’s help he got it done); tuning up the older cars he preferred; landscaping as needed. It seemed to Jo he’d missed his calling being a sort of gambler who made magic with people’s money. Francia was proud of him, said he’d grown up on a Kansas farm and was the first one in his family to get a college degree. She liked being the wife of someone well-positioned; she liked being a stay-at-home wife and mother. Jo couldn’t imagine it. Jo had worked for a power company for thirty-five years and only retired last year. Matthew was gone for weeks at times on field trips.
“Your husband is such a thinker, isn’t he?” Fannie had noted one of the few times they’d gone out for lunch. “That’s amazing, being a naturalist plus reading two to three books a week.”
“Yes, that high school speed reading course did the trick. He cogitates a lot, but I can’t say I know what he thinks of what he reads or much else. He’s never been a gabber, not like Van. Not like I can be at times.”
Francia smiled a faint smile, head tilted, then her eyes darted away.”He does go on, doesn’t he? You’d think a numbers nut wouldn’t carry on with words so much. Honestly.”
But Jo hadn’t meant it that way. She liked to hear his (and others’) opinions, ideas, stories. Van had a way of making things interesting even when they weren’t. He laughed deeply; it was pleasure to hear. They weren’t quite real friends, though, but sociable neighbors. It wasn’t as if they spent much time together. They didn’t confide in each other, not even when their second son. Tom, was seriously injured in the Iraq war, not even when Matthew got pneumonia and it took nearly two months to get well. They’d drop off a casserole or a get well card with flowers and go one with their own business. Who they really were remained a future topic that never came up. She found Van and Francia a curious pair: she with her lacquered fingertips, classic tastes and doting motherhood; he a bit disheveled even in good suits, his tinkering and mending, his charms more intangible, less reliant on status. Jo thought she and Van might have been good friends in another time and circumstance; they had been at ease with each other in an instant.
Van was ducking back in. Jo waited, sipping. A few moments passed and he emerged again, changing position. Jo imagined it killed his back–or would tomorrow–to reach and bend and scrub like that. She wished she could carry over a ladder, climb up to help with her own broom. She could do that if she wanted; she was strong and steady. If he’d like her company and help–wouldn’t he find that strange? Wasn’t it odd she even thought of it? She wriggled her shoulders to slough off the image just as Van raised his head and looked at her. He beckoned with a momentarily free hand. She looked back into the house. Matthew was still likely reading and then he’d take his shower, get semi-dressed and fall asleep in the easy chair as he read or watched a show.
She crossed the street, drawn into the radiance of final colors of dignified trees. She located him in a shaft of clean light.
“I know, you think I’ve lost my mind, but it needs to happen.”
She pushed her floppy grey bangs to the side, shielded her eyes from a splash of sunshine. “I do not. Okay, you could do yourself in. I have to suppose this is for a good purpose.”
“Yes, I hope so.” He leaned lightly on the broom handle. “But I can’t say what.” He lifted his eyebrows above his glasses, grinned at her as if he’d captured the proverbial canary and not letting it out.
“That so? Must be illegal or virtually impossible.”
“Some might say so. I’ve long wanted to do it, but first had to finish this chore. Drier weather helps. It looks better, right? Oak and maple leaves were matted up along here.” He pointed with his chin. “The moss has gotten ahead of things, it can’t help itself. I’m torn between wanting to leave it and thinking it must be relieved of my roof. A big job for another time. Such a primitive life form that enchants me…”
“I agree. We have it inching over the walkways again. I don’t like to step on it which Matthew says is silly, it will never give up. If there’s a torn piece, I always put it back in place and pat it down with a few encouraging words.”
Van laughed and straightened up a bit, then rested the broom on the roof. His clear eyes found hers.
“How are you, Jo? Still writing haiku?”
She took her hand away from her eyes and lost vision to the dazzling light then glanced, half-blind, back up. “You remember? Is that what you call it? I don’t know.”
“Maybe. Let me see if I can find it in the ole memory bank.” He cleared his throat.”‘Night waters shift to welcome twin flower of moon.'”
“My. That was awhile back, yours and Francia’s 40th anniversary. My silly handmade card. I can’t draw much. But if something comes to me I just give a poem a try. Not often, not for awhile, either.”
“I’ve always meant to say it really struck me. I still have it on the shelf above the dresser in our–my–room.”
She felt heat pink up her cheeks. “Oh, thanks. I’m glad you liked it.”
“Jo? Where did you get to?” Matthew called from the driveway. He appeared freshly showered but his mood hadn’t altered.
“Here, talking to Van!”
“Hey Matt! A fine morning to you!” He grabbed hold of the broom again to sweep and scrub away nature’s debris. “Keep your eyes peeled later, Jo,” he said.
And then he winked, slowly, one grey eye, magnified by the lens and focused on her, the other slipping under a shutter of flesh. Jo thought it might have been a malfunction, that flickering eyelid. It wasn’t always easy to control one’s body as age worked itself into every sinew and bone. But when she looked closer, he was smiling wide as he brushed more leaves off. He seemed good, happy.
“What the heck is he up to now?” Matthew said, a scowl arising from bleariness as she joined her husband.
“Let’s get another cup. He’s cleaning up a mess of leaves and moss.”
“He ought to hire someone. I’m going to watch my fishing show. I’m not up for much more today, Jo.”
“It’s alright, honey.”
She placed her hand against his back, not to nudge him, just to let him know she was still right behind him. She was always behind or beside him or soon to be there. It was how it was. He wasn’t sick, really, not incompetent; he was just stuck in a rut and expected her to stay there, too.
Jo climbed upstairs to the third bedroom that she used for an all-purpose area since their daughter, Maggie, had grown up to work in the Netherlands. The heavy desk was against the back wall so she could look out over the yard as she paid bills or signed various cards, wrote a few letters which she loved despite having a PC. She worked open the sluggish second drawer and searched the hanging folders. There it was: “Odd Jottings.”
Scrunched up to the desk, she thumbed through the contents. Paragraphs on napkins. Quick sketches on memo paper. Little bits of poems on index cards. She had once planned on decorating a metal index box and putting in a poem-card each week. But even as she’d thought of it she knew it wouldn’t happen, not in any deliberate way. They were just passing thoughts, dreamy visions. Why should she even keep them? Maggie didn’t even know she did such things, neither did Matthew. That is, he knew but it didn’t register as anything to remember about her. It made her impatient with herself. How often had she told herself she’d take a writing class at the community center or even the college? She read a few and felt the words warm her, then put them back into the folder and away. Then she set to work on chores. But she thought how Van liked her offering enough to keep it out in view. To recite it.
As the day came and went, she thought of many things she preferred to not think about. But after lunch and doing laundry and going through a pile of mail with Matthew; after white bean soup for dinner and cleaning up and watching a series they both liked, Matthew ascended the stairs to the spare bedroom. He carried the latest library tome about depletion of natural resources in North America. He desperately hoped to fall sleep, stay asleep all night. Jo bid him good luck and looked at reflection in the half bath mirror with bland acceptance. She brushed her hair out, then drew the living room drapes, pausing halfway to look across the street. She saw the light on in the room where Van had leaned out to brush the roof. But not him. The street was blanched silver-white as a nearly full moon rested high above.
Jo exited through the front door. Sat on the top step. Early darkness lay softly about her. She liked being outdoors as much as Matthew used to and often still did. But to him it was first a laboratory, a universe to document and conspire with or against depending on research and objectives. Secondly it was a pleasurable environment of one sort or another. For her it was a powerful mystery she lived within. That was enough.
Up on Van’s roof something was going on. He was present now, appeared to unfold something rectangular over the window ledge, worked with it beyond the window, then he was climbing out slowly, one long leg at a time. He wasn’t a compact man. Jo stood, started to the street. He’d hurt himself, might fall and how would she help him? No one else was around except for a lone dog walker moving down the sidewalk.
Now he was patting something down and out.
She hurried across the street, into his yard. Looked up at him.
“Van,” she called in a raspy whisper, “have you lost all common sense? What are you up to?”
“Jo!” he relied with equally quiet voice. “Come on up!”
“What? I haven’t walked on roofs in a long time if ever, and what’s the point?”
“Oh my, does there always need to be a major point to make?”
He stopped talking to scan the sky above trees and other roof peaks. She looked up high, too. It was a sheer night, budding with beauty as stars took their places all over.
“How do I get up there?”
“Back door, up two stairways, last room at end of the hall.”
Jo followed his directions and in a short time was standing inside a sparsely furnished room, noted a screen on the floor. Her hands gripped the smaller window ledge; she looked out and about. There were stretchy cords strung from window to something that looked like a rug.
“Wait, what keeps you from sliding down over the edge?”
“Nice jute rug I had in the basement, it grabs hold well. I tried it out first. You see it’s also attached to the window sill with bungee cords? I got it all rigged up.”
She took his extended hand, surprisingly strong grip but so was hers. They managed to get her out through the window one part at a time. Once settled beside him, her heart about dropped to her stomach. She had to cover her eyes, removing one finger at a time.
Van appeared to be in a state bliss.
The street was limned with silver and gold emanating from two street lamps and a cool drift of moonlight. The town was trying to be at rest. A teenager’s broken down car as it shimmied by, radio blaring, and then all stilled except for the murmur of the state highway beyond and far off, a train taking its load to the next stop. Trees chimed in with a brief shuddering of leaves; Jo’s hair lifted and fell about her neck. Her two-story bungalow looked bigger than she expected– it felt so small sometimes–and pretty, she admitted. She took a long breath of night air and tasted wood and leaf, moss and old shingle, and the faint but not terrible pungency of the tall man next to her.
He spoke as if far away. “I did this once before. When we moved in. No one knew, I thought, until Francia found me and gave me a tongue lashing for being so irresponsible. I didn’t think I was, but I felt guilty, anyway, for scaring her. Then the boys tried it a couple of times–this was Scotty’s room in high school– and we all kept it mum.” He hugged one knee against his chest, but she kept both of hers laid out for increased purchase. “Anyway, it’s taken me all this time to get back up here.”
Jo didn’t feel afraid as she looked over the neighbors’ homes, through the treetops. The massive moon glimmered. “I sure see why you like it. The moon feels closer, all looks better from here.”
He turned his head to her. “Where’s Matthew?”
She pressed back alarm with hand to chest. “He’s upstairs reading, hoping to fall sleep and not wake up until morning. I hope he doesn’t come looking for me…this would be hard to explain!”
Van made a huh sound, then: “He’s welcome, too.”
But they knew he’d never be do such a thing; almost no one they knew would. They watched as sweet gum branches swayed over the house. Jo felt a little like she was on a slow ship, sitting in a crow’s nest uncertain of coordinates but finding the view excellent: land in sight, heavens within reach. The breadth and width of the inky sky caught her off guard with its majesty. Her head jerked backward and she almost lost balance. It was a lot to look at up there.
“Hey, careful,” Van said and put an arm around her back. Then removed it. “So what about your poems?”
“I had forgotten about all that until you mentioned it.”
“Now you might make more?”
“Why should I?”
“It’s good to reach beyond ourselves, discover something different. Often something better.” He blinked. “Why not? Sometimes you have to move with an intuition, a feeling, Jo. You know that. It’s not all about what you can line up in columns, sort out in assessments.”
His words floated through air that soothed, found a place in her mind. “I do know.. how did you find that a part of your world view?”
“It’s not a new thought, after all. But the past week I’ve cleaned and sorted a bunch of stuff I don’t need or want. I found myself at this window, realizing I hadn’t done much that was spontaneous for a long time. It’s easy to find excuses, isn’t it?”
Jo closed her eyes, felt a breeze move across hands, face, neck, ankles. a living touch. They sat there several minutes. The silence wasn’t strained but like moving through another time and space, half-dazzled by moonlight, the different altitude.
She sighed, content. “How’s this?” She faced him and said it a bit fast. “Time floats on long wings of night, brings eternity from deep wells of stars.”
Van leaned over to her and his nose bumped hers.”See? Just like that.” He snapped his fingers and it sparked something in the darkness.
They both felt it, a rumble of warning, then an incipient delight. It was almost like the air carried magic dust like in a movie and they breathed it in. Everything looked good and interesting; they felt good and something–maybe special or smart for a bit. They just sat there a little longer until her hipbones started to cringe and he felt a stiffening ache in his back. First she entered the window, stepping down to a chair beside it and then off. Van followed, more clumsily, with her hand on his elbow. They went downstairs; he let her out the side door.
“Van, that was wonderful and just nuts.”
“I should have done it sooner. And you’re welcome on my roof anytime, Jo, and I always suspected so.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll keep it in mind, old roof walker.”
Their laughter somersualted across the ordinary street, dove into the earth.
She crept up to the bedroom where Matthew had taken refuge. His book was open on his belly and he snored for all he was worth. She turned out the bedside lamp.
Then she went down the hallway to the space that housed her second-hand desk. She rooted around for a squat candle in the bottom drawer and lit it with matches she’d filched from somewhere she and Matthew had travelled long ago. The light flickered, then caught and filled the room with hope.
There was much more she needed to do in the days, months and years ahead. She wanted Matthew to agree and come along but if he didn’t she’d manage alright. Home would always be home. Still, life was not only resting and waiting, or boarding the right train to the correct place, it was also about just getting on and going. She had forgotten the crux of that until she sat on Van’s roof.
Jo cracked the window enough to allow the barest waft of a stony-sweet scent. Winter was coming. She felt ready for the endless rain. She pulled out a fresh piece of paper, uncapped her pen, let images and words lift her into landscapes of the moving night.