Henley Ann Mirabel was walking aimlessly in the gauzy bloom of heat, odds and ends crowding her head, like how absurdly high the cable bill was and Tony due to arrive from Maryland too soon (for her) and what was that extra ingredient in the peach cobbler she and her daughter consumed last night at Val’s Tasty Time Cafe. It was a morning like many others, the heat clinging like a web of plastic wrap so her clothes began to stick to her, too. It was not the best time to walk but when was it different? Ever since she had moved to Arlen, Tennessee she’d longed for a light breeze that was so void of moisture she could dry her hair on the patio over a cup of steaming coffee. Now she put ice in her mug. Her hair remained damp even when she pulled it back into a soft knot. She should know this; she had spent her first twelve years in Tennessee.
Sara didn’t care about any of that. As long as she had a nice second grade teacher–which she did, Miss Fran–and new friends (three so far), and her mom was waiting for her at the end of the day, all was alright. More or less. She missed her dad but he was around more than before and was again coming to visit. They always stayed in the terribly small but newer hotel (twenty-five rooms for a surprising boom) by the river. It had a giant outdoor pool, she informed her mom. It felt like a reprimand for leaving behind their private pool in Maryland; they’d enjoyed it only in brief summers.
They’d had a lot of things in Maryland: a bountiful flower garden just beyond the wraparound terrace, a contemporary glass and redwood home that allowed for parties of fifty, three cars, a housekeeper, a studio at the edge of the property for Henley’s writing of the next installment in her middle reader’s series. There was so much they had that it almost hid the danger spots in a marriage going off the rails. But sooner than expected it all fell apart.
Like Sara had finally yelled from the hall as her parents each slammed different bedroom doors and disappeared: “If you can’t actually be nice friends then why do you even say you’re trying to be better friends?”
That’s what did it for Henley. Even their child called them on their charade. Once the divorce was finalized, Aunt Roslyn suggested Henley and Sara come to Tennessee: time for them to spend more time with maternal family. Her parents lived in Florida; Henley refused to process her cracked up marriage on a Sarasota golf course. Her mother’s sister was her favorite aunt. Since Tony worked from home much of the time now, he could visit as often as he wished. The agreement was in place and so they tried it out.
Henley was not as malleable as her child, nor as accepting. She agreed to Tennessee because she had further nursing of woundedness. She was barely getting by more days than not. She wasn’t writing. The damage reversal took greater energy than expected. At least she wasn’t crawling back in bed after dropping Sara off, covering her head for two more hours. She now was able to keep eyelids pressed upward until she slumped into Great Grinds, ordered a mediocre cold brew coffee and requisite snack, then continued on her walk. This was a huge step. Within an hour she felt mostly conscious with less strain at frayed seams of her raw psyche.
In fact, walking was her one tangible pleasure, except when it thunderstormed or, rarely, acted wintry enough to spit slushy ice. She already had a route but was trying to change it up, relearn the lay of a once-familiar landscape. Their pleasant rental home wasn’t too close to her aunt and uncle, closer to countryside.
As she banished peckish thoughts, she turned onto a newer boulevard. She didn’t recall this street but the last time she’d spent more than a couple days in Arlen was in her late teens. Fifteen years ago.
The proud brick homes along Norliss Street sported good yards, wide porches and a several two car garages. It all looked fresh. She marveled over the newness until she walked halfway down to cross over. The structure before her was a two-story, a dulled white that had gone to the dogs, a peeling beige-to-grey. Henley saw it had been a farmhouse before development took over surrounding acreage, but didn’t stir a memory. Overgrown shrubbery obscured porch and windows. Its steps were crooked yet off the porch were hanging a limp, worn American flag by a second flag lively with daffodils and a fat robin. She felt sorry about its disrepair. She began to move on as she spotted in the unkempt yard a leaning post sporting a mailbox-type rectangle. Curious about it she stepped onto the grass and saw it was a poetry post with Plexiglas front. She could see behind the faded paper. It appeared indeed to hold a weathered poem.
She opened the lid, pulled it out, ran her eyes over it quickly then once more. It was about nature, “billowing treetops, elixir of water courting creatures…ebb and flow of light a sheer veil astir.. then a slow darkness like a tired magician fallen asleep.” Finding it interesting she read it again, then looked for the author’s name. E.R. was typed in the bottom right corner.
There was a creaking sound from the house. Henley looked deep into the shady porch but couldn’t make out a body or any other thing. She took a picture of the poem with her phone and started off, then changed her mind, returned. She rummaged for her tiny notebook and pen, took it out and held it against the poetry post and wrote, Lovely, keep at it-HM. Ripped off the page and stuck it in.
She hurried back home, for what she wasn’t sure. Slowly, she went to the small back room, a place meant for writing Number 6 of the Amanda Hartley series. It was painfully tidy, blaring with sunlight, claustrophobic. She longed to throw open a window but it would only taint things with moisture, make the stacked failed pages curl at the edges, waste air conditioning. She turned on her heel and left.
When Sara came home, tossed her book bag on the table and pulled out crackers to munch she asked her right away, “When are you writing another story?”
“But that’s what you said yesterday. And before.”
“Ask me tomorrow, maybe it will be different.”
Sara paused, a sesame studded cracker halfway into her small mouth. “You seem…tired, Mom. I like it better when you do the Amanda stories. When is Daddy coming for sure?”
Henley winced at the Daddy, his only name; when did Sara call her “Mama” or “Mommy”? Maybe when she got sick or scared. Daddy was the good times parent, it seemed.
“In three nights. Let me get you string cheese and juice to go with those, honey.”
“I finally told the kids at school you’re a writer and they didn’t believe me but Miss Fran said yes, you are, and told them about the books. She knows who you are! ” She giggled, perched on a stool at the kitchen counter, stuffed three crackers into her mouth, then reached for the glass of grape juice to make the crackers suitably mushy.
Henley took out her cell phone, looked at the picture of the poem, enlarged the words. It was almost–reaching toward–lyrical. It was in essence pretty good. She felt her spirits lift a little and smiled at Sara.
Before Tony came she went out and sat on the porch swing. His loping gait carried his well-conditioned body quickly up the steps. At the screen door he raised a hand to knock, looked around, spotted Henley. She raised her palm in neutral greeting; he gave her the barest smile, Chiclet teeth glinting, eyes wary behind courtesy.
“All is well?” he asked.
“The south still suits you then.”
“In some ways. You?”
“All good. Busier than ever.”
“The house shown more yet?”
“Daddy!” Sara cried. Their wonderful child thrust open the door, jumped into his arms.
There were two days to do nothing and it was the “nothing” that got to her before she even got out of bed. It would have been easy to lie there, let her dreams pull her farther under. Take her into a land of strangeness, folly, impossible beauty. She thought of her daughter laughing with him, of the fun which she was no longer shared with them. The thought soured her more so she got up, showered, pulled on her black knit capris and a grey T shirt–did she wear anything else, anymore?– and walked to Great Grinds. Rex the barista nodded at her; his pleasing eyes were bleary, too, and with mutual congeniality didn’t force a long chat.
Henley took a bite of walnut and apple scone for more strength. She took her new route, having decided Norliss Street was a good amendment and walked faster to the derelict house. The poetry post still held a paper or two. She hesitated then moved closer to see if there was another poem. Instead, there was a hand written note that began “Dear Lady.” She pulled it out to read, feeling the rise of more interest.
Thanks much for liking poem. Maybe more to come. I leave them til they fade, fall apart. No one reads poetry anymore, usually.
You new here?
Henley felt someone or even a critter might be watching her but she couldn’t discern anything. Tangled forsythia bushes grew close to the sides of the house. An aging fence with a once-pretty gate enclosed the back yard. She rolled tight shoulders and took a good breath in, let it out slowly. Looked looked down the sidewalk and across the street, then back at the old place.
A poet lived there. She wanted to know how anyone in Arlen wrote like that, then dared share their work. She considered going right up to the door, introducing herself. Still the poem was wrinkled, apparently wet often, smudged. No one had taken it out to keep; not one new poem had likely replaced it in awhile.
There was no one coming out to greet her despite her standing in their yard for ten minutes but then a squeaky noise was emitted from above. A window perhaps pushed open. There were cafe-style curtains of pale yellow floral with a window shade partway drawn, leaving a few inches to look out. There was sudden movement, a blueness that passed before the window and vanished. Henley waited but saw and heard nothing more.
It came to her that maybe she shouldn’t be there writing notes to someone she couldn’t even see much less name. But she took out her notebook and pen.
Sort of new. I have some family here.
Where is the next poem?
I write, too.
She placed it back into the poetry post box, looked about a last time.
As she walked she thought about words, how they meant more, held a more decent weight and value if someone heard or read them. Otherwise, they were echoes of the self’s discharges of energy and various rumblings, and they’d feel so insubstantial they’d float away into some universal recycling center of all language. It probably accumulated so much it tipped the letters into blackness where they floated to nowhere, or became fodder for something better. She laughed at herself: this was what happened to her brain when she thought about writing but didn’t commit one word to the tangible world. They teased her, wound her up, made a mess of her innermost recesses, called out to her like sad lost things. Even sent her to private poetry posts boxes to write strangers, for lack of better purpose.
The next morning, early, the phone rang. By the time she got to her cell, a message was left.
“Henley Ann? We’re off to church, of course…. but we’re having a cook out in the afternoon so bring a salad and come on around 2. Is Tony here this week-end? We’d love to see Sara, of course, but please RSVP so I know how many.”
Henley shook her head. She found her aunt’s accent startling, still. Sara was SAY-R; her name was HAINLE-ANN. She erased the message, said, “Yes, Ma’am.”
After she got herself a big iced coffee-it was hotter than blazes out already–plus almond scone, Henley went straight to the poetry house. It was relatively early but a few dozen cars loosely lined the streets. When she approached the area, uncertainty rose up. On one hand, she maybe ought to have two coffees and scones. On the other, she felt she was way too desperate for company or why else would she be there again, even contemplate ringing the door bell? The neighbors probably wondered about her being there and, as if on cue, there was a violent splash of water from a hose. She turned. Sure enough, a heavy man across the street corner was staring right at her as water flowed over his monstrous black truck, down his wide driveway. She lifted her coffee at him; he nodded, went back to his own business. Then he looked over his shoulder as she kept on.
The house looked as if it had gone to sleep long ago and never awakened. How could it be so empty of life? Was reading more poems the best idea? She could keep on going but sipped her chilled coffee, gazing at the poetry post. There seemed to be something else there. She glanced at the porch and upstairs window and then got it out.
In morning this foreign body passes like smoke,
as if dry leaves captured in whorls of wind.
But when day drains its unease into night
the feathery thing that is darkness
alights on sloping shoulders,
covers secrets as we give up hope
and all that which was, until
sunrise dazzles and dances.
Henley blinked, eyes prickling. Who was this E.M.? Was this an author she just hadn’t heard of yet? Was it an old, maybe stolen poem? Aunt Rosalyn might know more about this person.
In the house there could have been someone sitting by a table or resting in bed, some old man confined to a wheelchair and seen by a nurse aide daily who grudgingly posted the poems. Or a woman who long ago deserted social norms, spurned the company of others; she put her poems into the world while others slept.
Mixed voices by the truck made her turn towards them. The man’s wife had come out with giant sponge and bucket; they were talking. Then the woman gestured her way with a laugh. Henley felt the mild sting of their gossip, so took another picture of the poem, wrote a note, placed it back in and hurried on.
You’re a very good poet. I’m Rosalyn Horn’s niece. Want to meet sometime on the porch?
“Oh Lawd, that’s Everly Rainard. He burned near half to death in the Wilton Hardware fire, 2011. Maybe about forty-five. He doesn’t talk to anybody, gets his groceries delivered, has help in once every couple weeks.” She sucked her lower lip in, shook her head. “Terrible thing but yes, he likely still writes. He taught at the high school for quite awhile. Ruined his life, that tragedy. Parents left him the house when they passed. He’ll not see people, best leave it alone, Henley. No, he’s not exactly crazy but he’s still not too good. It’s hard. He was very good looking and now…”
That’s what Aunt Rosalyn said at the cook-out but it was enough. As she nibbled at food, fielded questions and made conversation, Henley thought about how she’d go to the door tomorrow, ring the bell. She would do it because he could write, no matter what happened.
Later Sara called to ask if she could stay one more night with Tony; he’d take her to school. He came by to get her clothes and she waved from his rented Lincoln.
“You really okay, Henley? We can talk if you need to. Sara says you’re not even writing, that’s not like you.”
“What? No, I don’t need to talk. I’m fine. Have fun with Sara.” But she wanted to say, How do you know what’s like me? How do you know what I need? I need beautiful words and kindness and the right to feel sad, even lost for awhile. I need you to just be gone.
The next morning Henley carefully carried the cardboard container with two coffees and two raspberry muffins perched on top. He might or might not be willing to share the offerings.
The steps were rickety; she climbed them gingerly, hands out, holding the coffee and treats steady as she kept her eyes on the scratched and stained front door. When she got there, she put the cargo on the porch floor and spotted the door bell. A simple button long disused, might not even ring anymore. She pressed it long and firmly with an index finger.It buzzed inside summoned Everly Rainard. There was the sounds of traffic behind her, raucous robins, a few bees about the porch. No footsteps, no voice. She pressed it once more, feeling the edge of fear pull at her.
The door opened. Slowly, so slowly that if the hinges hadn’t moaned she might not have even seen it move. But an inch, then another inch, then a bit more until she saw just the end of a sofa, the wooden floor. But there was just the barest outline of someone through green gingham curtains on the window.
“It’s HM. I have coffee, muffins…”
The door remained still.
She swallowed; her heart thundered at her throat. ” I really liked your poetry and since I write, too, I thought….I know about the fire, that’s not a reason for us to not talk. Is it?”
It opened more, enough so that if she wanted to she could’ve slipped in sideways but she waited until the space got wider, invited her in.
Henley moved through. Faced him. He wore a baseball cap over wispy hair. What remained of the skin on his neck and face was taut, rough and ruined, lizard skin she imagined it was cruelly whispered. His nose was off-kilter, lips were a once distorted shape that had healed into a reasonable state. Golden brown eyes stared at her shyly from under barest darkened lids, no eyelashes or eyebrows. His face seemed sparked with a furtive anxiety. And curiosity. He took the coffee and muffins from her, stepped away instinctively as she saw his hands, wrists, arms wrapped with more blotchy leathery skin. She felt a flush of pain in her own body that took her breath. Then a jittery relief to be let in, to get this far.
“Well, okay. Come in, Miss…” His deep voice was a soft scrape of the air.
“Henley, Henley Mirabel.”
Everly rested the drinks and food on a beat up coffee table and indicated she might sit down. He sat in a ragged armchair, lowered his head and held out a handful of more poems.
“Please, tell me about your writing first,” he said, raising his eyes and she felt him try to reach past fire’s wreckage, its damnation and its terror, to the refuge they both shared. Henley took his poems and held them gently like flowers in her lap.