Blood and Love Among Us

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

It’s only natural that one should take stock of one’s life a few times. I don’t mean the facile review that accompanies each turning of the year, but the kind that digs deep and turns everything you thought you knew into a foreign milieu–which, nonetheless, reverberates with truth.

I was doing this as I drove from Missouri to northern Michigan, a trip made now and again to see my extended family over the last thirty years. I liked to drive, it relaxed me. In the countryside the newly assertive spring sun created a parchment-like whiteness. Roadsides once snow-hugged were murky, taupe and grey. And yet it was empty in the way a new canvas is before Darren, my husband, charts a bold line across unsuspecting space with his oil paints.

Joplin, MO. was the place I’d left behind; Marionville, MI. the village I was moving toward. I cracked the window and inhaled a lightly chilled breeze. As I cruised at 75 mph through fecund fields and rolling hills I determined it’d been a reasonably satisfying visit, if one can say being crammed into various spaces with nearly twenty-five others can be meaningful. But we do it to assure ourselves we are yet loved merely because we are part of family, and we don’t have to do anything else to garner general affection. Thus, we can take with us the belief that we are not truly as alone as imagined. It is also a gathering that reminds me there is no judgment that cannot be done or undone when blood comes into the picture.

The topic of this reunion–the 99th birthday for Great Aunt Mattie; she was not likely to make it all the way to 100–was no less than MaeLynn (she insisted it was to be spelled “Mailin” later) and Jacques (many called him Jake despite his dislike of it). It seems they finally got divorced after forty-some years together–I wasn’t counting. I hadn’t thought much of them for awhile. They had lived in France and Spain, and despite my closeness with cousin MaeLynn, they had drifted far. After a couple of years I had to let it be; she and I would always be family though things had changed. I knew there was more beneath the emotional distancing but I didn’t want to disturb the surface.

But it’s a shock to the others. Our family got all stirred up with disbelief and speculations, that such a perfect match should be dissolved. He was so successful and she, so talented. A foolish thing to undo after all this time. It made me laugh to think how most had distrusted the match at first. What I thought I understood was kept to myself.

MaeLynn was my cousin, though if you set us side by side you might have doubts. I had what my mother, an enthusiastic colorist, dubbed “a twilight look” with black-brown hair and deep blue eyes. While my cousin’s fairness–“a dawn look”, Mom said– gleamed soft and bright. Those were not the only differences. She seemed almost made up with her achievements, prettiness and an ingrained shyness and then she went away and came out a whole new person. That’s what family said, anyway, after she studied at the Sorbonne –she had a gift for French and other languages, as well as drawing and design. Not much later she found Jacques. She admitted to me she thought him a muse.

As for my personality: faster on my feet, less academic but a problem solver, someone with ambition and yet slower to find her true liberating element. “Quirky” was a word attached to me when younger. My mother thought me a sad-eyed one, akin to a gypsy child who might range far and wide before finally setting up camp. I was alright with that. And the melancholy part came and went, bothering me far less than the parents.

My cousin and her beau said they met via acquaintances at the horse races, which scandalized our Southern Baptist genes. But this Jacques was not to be corralled into anything serious quite yet. He decided to come with MaeLynn to check out her roots.  His family tree was old, even illustrious. Our family tree has many kinds of roots. He could choose from mighty or humble, tenacious or weakened, creative, given to a few touches of madness–or humdrum but reliable.

I had graduated from University of Michigan two years prior, three years behind MaeLynn. The summer she brought him home I’d had a promotion at a fledgling lawyers’ office: executive legal assistant. Sounded grand. It was tedious at times but engaging as I came to know the cases and was soon keeping up with demands. I had wanted to be a lawyer, myself, but that had fizzled when money ran low, so I worked and saved like mad. I longed to get an apartment but my parents’ house accommodated me as I aimed for a future with law school. Still, I often felt the tug to run away. Where was all that life I was expecting to happen?

One night I came home to find pork roast simmering in the oven. The kitchen was dense and humid with cooking and my mother in motion.

“Get upstairs and clean up–put on that navy and green outfit, it suits you well, Jessamine–before MaeLynn comes around with her French gentleman.”

I nibbled on a large romaine leaf with a drizzle of oil and vinegar. “She’s here so soon? I thought that was day after tomorrow.”

“I don’t know where you’ve been–stuck at that desk too long, head full of murder or mayhem, no doubt. In less than an hour! Go on, now–then help with the table.”

On the way past the living room I glanced at father and he felt it, so lowered the paper and threw me that look: yes, we must get with it, it’s family reveal night–then turned the page and tried to hide himself a few more minutes. It’s not that he didn’t love his niece, he just didn’t relish being the first to determine the Frenchman’s suitability for the family, his brother’s possible son-in-law. I stifled a laugh. Dad wouldn’t likely commit either way, at least not admit much to his brother; he kept his own counsel more often than not. I saw the value of that.

After splashing cold water on my face, I dragged a brush through tangled hair. I didn’t see the point in trying to impress my own cousin and as far as her man was concerned, he’d come and go. Or if she really loved him as she insisted and he was good to her, that was that; we were all stuck with each other. I pulled on royal blue slacks and a white mandarin collared blouse which my mother found too tailored. Slipping on flats and thin silver bangles, I was done. But I hesitated at the mirror, fingers pinching cheeks, then smoothing back dark waves. I was twenty-four. MaeLynn was twenty-seven and felt aged she admitted, and if Jacques didn’t marry her soon she was coming back to the States and starting over. I studied my reflection thoughtfully. I had not once thought to get married. Had, in fact, turned down two proposals. I had wanted what my cousin got–travels abroad, exotic friends, experiences–and bided my time, reminding myself the best things came to those who worked hard and were open to opportunity. I had enough patience, even too much. Perhaps I needed more imagination or courage.

The table was fresh with yellow tulips, sparkling with lit white candles and crystal water goblets, and the food smelled perfectly seasoned when the door bell chimed twice. Dad got up to answer it and Mom came up beside him. I held back with Terra, our white American Eskimo dog.

“Sit and just smile,” I informed her and was obeyed though her tail indicated a desire to dance about. If Terra liked Jacques, I would, too.

“Hello, welcome!”

Mom and Dad’s voices rang through the foyer and when I was on the verge of stepping forward MaeLynn’s light rise and fall of laughter stopped me. I hadn’t properly heard her voice (only on the phone) in three years and its lilt draped the rooms in silkiness. I had forgotten that elegance. Happiness swept over me. When could we leave all this, catch up on everything? Not soon, though, with Jacques DuFresne at her side, the man who had kept her from us, from me, too long.

As they rounded a corner I came forward, hands held out to her. And stopped the barest split second but still it felt like a stumble, a giveaway.

Jacques was remarkable. Handsome and lithe with conviviality, and as soon as his inquisitive dark eyes found mine I looked away. But it was too late. I felt his presence hit me like a small firework blasting in my chest. His smile radiated through space and back to me before I threw my arms around MaeLynn and held her tightly.

“Jess! Hello, hello, hello!” she said squeezing me back until we were breathless with excitement and anxiety. “Jacques–my favorite cousin, Jessamine; Jess, meet Jacques, my favorite Frenchman!”

He took my hand in both of his, kissed both my cheeks. Such contact put me off balance, and I was enveloped in an aura of brisk lime. I righted myself before fresh air became any more scarce, responded with politeness, smiled back. Terra pranced about our feet, barking with the thrill of old and new converging, and she managed a good whiff of Jacques’ pants legs before bounding over to Dad, who called her firmly. I felt vaguely alarmed by this man’s presence and was glad we sat some distance apart. On second glance I saw he was older, perhaps five years, than Mae Lynn. I immediately wondered why he hadn’t paired off for good before. Probably because he was too attractive to hold onto; no one was foolish enough to believe she’d be the one and only. Except perhaps my cousin.

“Let’s sit, eat and talk!” Mom directed, her face flushed, silvered hair glimmering in candle light.

“So here we are,” MaeLynn started as she passed potatoes au gratin, “and so much has happened. I just had to stop here before we fly on to St. Louis. I told him my cousin comes first–well, along with Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Ian–then best for last, of course, my parents. Well, so far Jacques is impressed by the scope of our country. He kept pointing out various landscapes from the plane window.”

“It’s true. I’ve been to Scandinavia, most of Europe, Asia on business but not here. Ridiculous!”

Clear English accented by his native tongue flowed gracefully. I looked at my father, who seemed a little skeptical but was at ease as he inquired of Jacques’ business.

“Textiles. A fourth generation family business, can’t get away from it, I’m afraid.”

And then they were off and running with talk of work and the market place and related safe topics. Mother kept the food coming and directed the conversation from time to time. Mae Lynn and I got in a few words about our work and family.

“What do you think?” MaeLynn mouthed at me across the table.

I nodded slowly, then asked her about her plans. They were meeting family but also taking in sights and then he would return to Paris and work; she would follow later.

“So, tell me, Jessamine, of yourself.”

I shivered at the sound of my name spoken by him, found myself fidgeting with my napkin. I plunged into work scenarios, when he asked about what I liked to do for enjoyment.

“Well, the outdoors is paramount.”

“She dances,” MaeLynn said. “She’s marvelous, unlike me.”

“Oh?” he said, head cocked to one side, eyes revealing pleasure.

“I studied ballet for years, but that was then, and then ballroom dancing. Waltzes, Latin dancing, and so on. I get out to dance now and then. You have this  hobby in France?”

“Oh, yes. I too like to dance, it’s like creatures freed by joy, more when moonlight arrives, wonderful to do.”

“He’s a simple romantic, I suspect, despite being built of tough male genes,” Mae Lynn said. “It’s a French thing, perhaps. Everything is steeped in a subtext of poetics. Charming! But you’ve met your match in Jessamine, Jacques. Be careful, she will one day be a fierce lawyer even if her heart is made of gentler sentiments. Give me clear palpable edges of a design aesthetic, where art rises to meet every practical need.”

“Here, here,” my mother agreed as dad rolled his eyes just a little.

“A fine combining of opposites,” Jacques said looking my way and then lifted his goblet to mine, his gaze steady, magnetic. I blazed inwardly but reciprocated with a shrug, then inclined my own to each and every goblet.

“To the reign of poetry’s wisdom, to compassionate justice, and also design’s triumph,” I said.

Shifting candlelight flared then softened as we sipped and it was off into talk of travel and obligations and the necessary glue of family and back to more workaday matters. Time accordioned and before we knew it, the evening came to a close. Terra had made tentative friends with Jacques, doted on MaeLynn and she doted right back. As they left for the hotel, we waved  farewells, my happiness tinged with longing. I felt we all had barely shared what mattered. They had one more day before flying to St. Louis. I would join them for sightseeing along the shores of Lake Michigan.

“He’s rather impressive, don’t you think?” Mom asked us.

Dad put his arm around her waist. “We’ll see. Smart man, could be a good catch for our MaeLynn.”

“And vice versa, dear,” she added. “And she said she is spelling it that new way: M-a-l-i-n–now, accent the first part.”

He grunted; this was irrelevant to him. To us, the family.

I slipped away, found the privacy to process our evening. I passed my mirror, stopped and scrutinized my reflection, startled by such vulnerability. It was a dangerous nakedness glimpsed, as if my sallow skin had become translucent. I was myself yet lit from deeper within and that strange glow permeated me, threatening to reveal even more.

Fear, though, gave way to curiosity, a frisson of excitement.

******

Waves lapped against curvaceous beaches bringing to us a song of the ancients. Skin reddened with wilderness gusts. Stoned fell into our palms, gifts from winter and the turbulence of cold meeting warmer currents. The trails were winding and long and we were strong and full of energy. Conversation was less important than the fanning out of complex life forms, a primordial mystique that came upon us, seemed to spring from our very limbs and breath. The top of Jacques’ head nearly glanced off limbs and his face radiated excitement. MaeLynn’s hand caught mine, then his, dragging us up to a peak. A valley’s loveliness swept us up, held us still. He stood between us, one arm about her, one about me so I could hardly bear it but did, then let happiness take rein. Then we were three again, set into motion again.

The laughter of that day, clean and rough and easy. Words traded as if we were the smartest and best the world had to offer. Hands grazing hands, legs pumping blood to heart to everywhere and such rich oxygen rushed to our brains we were drunk on promises of spring. We believed in all we envisioned, we were young, and it was good. We felt what we felt, thought of little beyond that moment.

I felt it coming apart beneath the seams of our childhood devotion, and perhaps so did she but we acted as if we were all meant to know and care for one another.  But at the end of the trail when MaeLynn was yards ahead of us, Jacques stopped in his tracks, right before me.

“Jessamine. ” His forefinger raising my chin, his moving closer. “Always, I suspect, Jessamine.”

I lifted my hand to his, gripped it, then moved it from me just in time, before touching his strongly lined palm to my lips. The urgency of want crackled between trees, earth, us. I caught a glimpse of my cousin’s narrow back disappearing. Best friend for a lifetime.

“Jacques, be wise,” I whispered.

He looked into my eyes, intense with disquiet and brooding, and a sharp sliver of sadness cut through me. He was so close the musky heat of him seared me. I feared I might weaken or, worse, collapse from the combined weight of desire and loyalty. So I broke into a hard run. His voice trailed behind me, calling my and then her name, asking us to wait.

It has to be blood, I told myself, it has to be blood, not ever this beautiful sea of longing and bit down on my lip, the blood a taste of primal sorrow, of joy refused.

******

Missouri, Illinois, Indiana,  my childhood left behind only to reveal more of my youth and adulthood as I drove into the giant mitten of Michigan. But somewhere along the way those times had settled in with me. Many miles I heard our names repeated–MaeLynn, Jacques, Jessamine, Darren–and I’d have to pull over, drink or eat something, listen to music turned up loud in my car. I’d commune with cows, seek new leaves and gaudy wildflowers that felt like balm of peace. I’d walk a little if there was a spot to enjoy, then get into the car again. I stopped d late at night to fall dead asleep in nameless hotels. I called Darren a few times, checked in with his personal care aide, who was steady and likely kinder than I could hope to be.

How does one explain love? I have asked myself this a thousand times since then. There were other men–men I stayed with, until I was enamored no longer. Then in my thirties there was my husband who cared for me in ways that made a difference and I, for him. Was it love that drew us to marriage and cinched us tighter with time? Is that what kept textiles and furniture pioneer Jacques, and the successful interior designer, Mailin, partnered all those years? Despite the rifts and crises, the gaps each year widening? Was it the strength of love or was it a deepening commitment and were the two so different in the end?

Darren had a stroke four years ago that left him in a wheelchair though his upper body and language were rescued mostly. We left–I left my career as a lawyer; he sold his plumbing business– a megapolis lifestyle for woods and lakes again, our first stomping grounds, and now our likely final domain. I push him outdoors each morning he can bear the air and light and effort to accept limitation. I spend my time writing poetry that sometimes I send out and sometimes tear up, take the dogs for walks that feel might never end if I kept walking. The beauty fills me as much and more than I had hoped. Solitude is unbroken unless we desire it and then we find a few friends among the woods hideaways, play cards or listen to stories or make music, remember past times and wonder over the rocky human course. Darren paints, not all that well, but he loves it. I admire his uncomplicated joy in form and color.

For me, poems are things that have to be given great breadth and depth of soul and there are days I cannot do it, at all. But I do not live without gratitude and an abiding affection for life.

This evening when the phone rang, I knew something, call it intuition or an old fear come to pass, call it a crossing of two moments beyond time that became one. I looked out the window, past the scrubby yard and dock where one weathered boat is tied up, past sway of lake water with dusk’s coral a sheen. Past the black-green evergreens’ spiky tops that always reminded me of steeples. Steeples of an infinite church that rose out of the earth, reaching skyward. I could see the North star and Venus and Mars and so much more.

“Jessamine?”

Jacques. I heard his voice and it struck me to the marrow, nearly shook me apart then held me still in a thrall like a beautiful chord struck in the pure night air.

His voice vibrated along some invisible zigzag line that reached there to here.

“Are you looking at the sky? The same grand sky I can see? We can look up, know each other there. Or we might actually meet…We never danced.” Silence echoed. “Jessamine?”

My hand with phone in it slid to my chest and I prayed he could hear my heart beating. I closed my eyes. Swallowed a swell of tears. Lifted the phone back to my ear. I could hear him breathing; it was one of the tenderest sounds I would likely ever hear. And then I disconnected from silence and remnants of words, turned from that life-charging heat once and for all.

That sky beyond, the blood tie with MaeLynn–those would remain.

Readers, I have written a series of stories about Marionville, some of which have been posted here, such as: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/the-watchman-2/ and

Harlequin River Dreams

springier-times-071
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

More than anything–despite the security of his high paid job, despite many rewards he had labored long and hard to gain–Ward secretly wanted to be a poet. Or, if he was honest with himself, still wanted to be, as it was not a new inclination, nor a whimsy that came and went. The dream had remained like a watchful dog sitting in a corner of the attic. That’s how he thought of it, of that life: the slanted walls, a view of the river Harlequin, the old desk made by his grandfather snug against the slant of the southwest wall. It wasn’t all fully his. If it was, he’d be there now, or at the least whenever he could take off a few days now and then. But it was the family place, owned by his two brothers, Randy and Owen, and himself. But when you got down to it, they were the ones the place belonged to as they were the overseers and regular week-end inhabitants. He got there once a year at best, so far from his life was every bit of that. In miles and in culture for twenty-five years.

Ward was the oldest so he might have been the one to get all one hundred fifty acres and the cabin. Their grandfather had passed on the horse farm, all that verdant rolling land, to their father where he still lorded over the successful stables and breeding business.

Grandpa Greer had informed them of some of the will’s contents the night before he slipped away.

“You now.” His thin, deeply veined hand rose a half-inch off the ancient quilt. A finger beckoned toward Ward. “You’ll share the cabin with your brothers. But you’ll get your own Harlequin acreage. Where we liked to fish…you’ll know what to do with it, son.”

The wrinkled, age-spotted old man had tried a smile, chin quivering, eyes lit up for an instant before shuttering. Ward took his weightless hand though it made him anxious, the terrible frailty of aging and impending death.

He later wondered what Grandpa Greer meant but for a long while it felt enough to enjoy reminiscing about the place. The fishing they’d all done. How they might stand at the Harlequin’s banks on a clear blue and yellow day, raising and spreading their arms to open sky like wings. Freedom, Grandpa often told Ward, is what you find when you stop all the ruses and the running. You’ll get there.

He’d frankly acknowledged that Ward was the one who had to strive harder, keep the family name flying high.

You have to jump on that treadmill of life, spit blood and sweat until you make a big splash, Ward. You got born first with more sense and brain power so you have to do more. It’s the way of things. But you can’t take one thing for granted in this life and you have to give back. Those are two rules. We’ll talk about the others later, alright? Get to it, boy.”

So he’d become a corporate attorney as planned from days of middle school. Like his father, only his father was a divorce attorney who had married three times. Now on his fourth. At least the latest stepmother knew about horses and made his father laugh. Unlike his father, Ward became high-profile and also had had only one wife. Now an ex-wife. His father called up when he heard of the proceedings.

“Well, I’m sorry, but Merrill was not much good at the game. Now you’re let loose, I guess. Need any legal advice?”

Ward considered his response. He knew Merrill never took to the lifestyle or that endless entertaining. She had chafed until she pulled away from him. He hadn’t been watchful enough; he’d found her reprimands too sharp. But he didn’t see a divorce as the grand open gate that guaranteed  freedom. He still reeled from it after a year. “I’ll have more time and space. Yes, for more work, I’m sure. No, I don’t need your counsel, thanks.”

“Time to loosen up, son. We should get together at the cabin soon, relax as so damned well deserved.”

And then he’d laughed with anticipatory pleasure, like it was a great victory for Ward, as if the men in the family would get together and engage in a manly celebration dance around an open fire, spears in hands, puncturing the skies with guttural roars. He could imagine his father, Randy and Owen having at it while he slunk back into the darkness, headed toward the river. It hadn’t happened, not then. Randy, his youngest brother, was busy with his fledgling dentistry practice, Owen with his cheese/wine/chocolate stores. They managed to go there every couple of months, but Ward was in Seattle. A long way from southeastern Pennsylvania.

And now he found himself at a city park’s pond more often than not on a week-end, book in hand. It was a four block walk from his place. It did him good to be a bit reckless with time even as the tug of work was always nattering at his shoulders.

He brushed something with wings off his shoulder and watched the ducks paddling on the water in easy unity. He could count on those ducks being there and doing that. It was the first warmish day in over two months; the air was a caress on skin rather than a slap. He put his book aside, pulled from his jacket pocket a small black notebook along, a mechanical pencil snug in its small loop. His hand, pencil held aloft, hovered above white blankness, then fell upon it with trembling.

If power of dreaming wins,
I’ll take to that intimate river
and let the water roil, carry me  
gasping to distant rims of earth,
submerge me in heart-deep currents
until I rise, float, grow sharp fins of light.

He read them, erased a few words, realigned things, uncrossed his legs. Leaned forward to write more. Put a big space between last line and the next. But it felt a new poem and a much harder thing.

Can you ever love me this way, as much falls away?
Can you even find me in iridescent undercurrents,
amid sly, dangerous waters that return me
a different man to banks of a forgotten ravine?

A dog barked, then two more got into it and Ward set down the notebook with pencil. His eyes stung in richly exposing sunlight. What did he really mean by giving voice to such strange feelings? He didn’t know but kept at it, the last few months measured by work hours but, increasingly, also poetry time. He told no one, shared nothing. All Ward knew was he wanted to do this, had to write these things and he didn’t know if they made sense, if they were worth the time, if he should feel embarrassed anxiety more than the happiness. He just set each word down like a marker along a precipice he traversed alone. He was trying to make his way without falling prey to disparate elements, to superfluous demands, to the enveloping disappointment and hurt. And so he accepted any help his beleaguered mind and soul could bring him.

A few months ago he’d stayed awake until the frail light of day seeped into night’s hollows. Not so unusual, anymore. But it wasn’t work nagging at him. His now ex-wife and forever daughter–Merrill and Kelsey–haunted him most empty minutes. Yet not that night. He’d heard rumbling traffic beyond the partly cracked window; heard a homeless woman muttering to herself while she searched through trash; heard peevish cats yowl below his new city condo. He had once looked out and caught a glimpse of a coyote in an alert pause and this had frozen him in a thrill of discovery for one long second.

But that night Ward just lay with eyes half-closed, then began to hear words. They rose up like musical notes, lithe and bright, as if a windfall of rain had blown across the parched expanse of his brain and left lush vegetation. Things began inhabiting the wild trees and secretive undergrowth and they crept out and spoke to him as if he was the one they were waiting for, so he listened. The more interested he was, the faster they arrived, those creeping and leaping words, and he rummaged for an old law magazine in his night stand and wrote them down along the curled edges of pages, feverish.

When the alarm went off, after a fast shower, he studied them as he sipped coffee and was horrified. It barely made any sense and he attributed it all to crazy effects of sleeplessness, the roaming magnet of his mind picking up useless syllables and depositing them into a half-consciousness. But this didn’t stop him from being open to more of the same. In time things straightened themselves out a bit. The phrases were better held together by greater connectivity of poetic thought.

In the daytime, smooth tailor-made suits carried his body and his will carried his active mind; he allowed himself to be overtaken by rigors of his profession as required. He excelled as usual, pushed through it all. And then at end of day he looked for more words to harvest that didn’t buy or sell, divest or ruin or reconfigure lives and lesser assets, although this was what he did and it was nothing more or less than that. Still, he waited for poetry as if for a shy lover, his very being leaning into the ether that might hold a phrase that could make a bridge over the grit and sweat and tarnish of the world and into a soon familiar other land, that place of wonders.

“Ward, are you doing alright?” his assistant Sandy asked once a week at least. “You seem tired out. Distracted.”

“Divorce has a way of draining the energy from you but yes, I’m okay, thanks.”

“How about a few drinks after the meeting? You need to get out there again, get to it, man, come on!” Terrance from across the hall demanded this for weeks.

Ward noticed people were trying to engage him more personally, as if he was a bit feeble and in the throes of mourning and in need of dauntless encouragement. They wanted to share sly asides about liberation from the heavy yoke of marriage. It got on his nerves. He refilled his coffee cup as everyone else was otherwise engaged and just smiled wanly at the few co-workers who actually meant something to him.

“What’s going on?” His brother, Owen, asked when he called out of the blue. “You haven’t said a thing since…since you two broke up. How’s Kelsey doing?”

“Well, you know, she’s really busy with soccer and friends and school. Okay, I think.”

“You had better take some time off, huh? Come out to the cabin. Really relax. We can have a family reunion of sorts, what do you say? How about soon?”

Ward looked out at the dregs of slush from a freak early March snowfall. Puget Sound looked icy-grey, mostly empty of activity. “Maybe. We’ll see.”

He kept writing on Saturday or Sunday mornings, sometimes off and on all week-end and except for house chores and a movie here and there with friends plus a couple of drinks, did little else. Ward bought ordinary notebooks on sale and kept pencils handy, ink pens freshly filled and at the ready. And when he walked around his neighborhood or elsewhere he let his barriers down so in flowed that new friendliness of language, its fast or slow meandering a balm, its unadorned frankness a relief. How had he forgotten what he had wanted all those years ago? To be a poet. To let magic flow with its wealth of stimuli, and generous evocations come forward so his world changed on the turn of a simple word, and then a tide of truth and fiction that no one else might decipher opened in him such locked places he was overcome at times by tears. Yes, tears. His ex-wife, his daughter, would not believe such things.

He felt humbled.

The nights, too, continued to shine darkly and sweetly with poetry that sang to him, angels and sirens. They were generous, faithful, without judgment. Full of transformative possibilities.

******

“I can’t believe you came,” his brother, Randy, said as he parked the car by the cabin. “It seems ages since the brothers have gotten together. And maybe Dad will get away. It’s been three years now, right?”

“It has.” Ward hoisted his bag out of the back seat. He turned in a slow semi-circle to take in the green, familiar scene. Spring time in Pennsylvania.

Randy unlocked  the cabin and they entered. Ward pulled open curtains on two sets of windows as Randy took a small bag to his own room. The spacious, open, pine dominated space was musty but neat, the kitchen at back was cramped and out of style. He smiled, ran upstairs to the attic space. To the left were two bedrooms. Straight ahead was the attic room he had tried to reconfigure in his memory for so long. He pushed ajar the door. Pale light thick with agitated dust motes met his entry. There were no curtains on the square windows, only dirty wood blinds half-raised. He wrenched them open to let in a waft of cool air. The built-in desk and bookshelves were homely, mostly devoid of magazines and sturdy volumes.

Ward sat down at the desk. Below, through a thicket of budding bushes and trees, he could see the Harlequin River and hear its voice in its rush of lightness and unruliness. It calmed him now as he heard Randy talk on his phone to Owen or their father. A wave of unease intruded as his brother’s voice rose in an attack of laughter, a blade through the air. Randy, the hunter, the warrior. The youngest who fought for everything. Owen had a different sensibility, finer-tuned, quieter. Owen had convinced him to come. But Owen–no one–knew that Ward already had a plan, that he had looked already at plane fares, that he knew what he wanted to happen.

And here they all soon would meet. Gathering into a circle around that primordial fire, sharing beers, swapping stories and entering strongholds of memories.

******

It had gone well. Everyone was relaxed after two days, felt more reconnected to the land they loved and were more pleased with each other and themselves than expected. They had taken the rowboat and then canoes onto Weller’s Pond and they’d fished for catfish and bass with some small success. Their father had arrived for the last day–he had had an emergency with a prized horse and missed most of the fun–and now they were walking along the Harlequin, talking from time to time.

“It’s so good to have my boys together again!” He was chewing on a drooping piece of wild grass and it bobbed up and down beneath his spare white mustache as he spoke. “We’re coming up to it now, Ward, remember?”

He naturally remembered. This was the swath he had inherited and it was the same one he’d many times enjoyed with Grandpa Greer and others. There were groupings of old silver maple, sycamore and river birches he’d long admired. The river ran slower up here north of the cabin; it was wider and deeper, curved a bit. Behind them was a graceful open meadow, then a good-sized hill which offered higher ground, safe from water breaching the riverbanks as it was likely to do now and again.

“Any reflections to offer?” Owen asked. “I know you and Grandpa Greer loved this area. Me, too. After you took off for college five years ahead of me, I found myself traipsing about with him and Dad more.”

“I’m happy, relieved to be back, for sure.”

He walked to river’s edge and squatted, looked more closely at rocks and sodden earth, swirling patterns of greenish brown water. He stood again and strecthed and was suddenly aware of his six foot two inches which originated from their deceased mother’s side of family. His brothers looked healthy, ruddy cheeked with thickly auburn haired but they were weedy, he thought with a chuckle, slighter of  build. Ward felt like he towered over them and wondered if it had always been so. Even his father looked smaller than he recalled a few short years ago. They looked at him in expectation, as if he was about to say something about the past that would draw them together even more, bridge their various ages, gaps in connection, and old pesky slights. But he didn’t want to just pull out stories as they had at a bonfire the night before.  So he said nothing for a bit.

The brothers and their father murmured among themselves, recollecting good times, glancing over their shoulders at Ward as they jostled each other, and wondered if he was just depressed about the divorce or if there was something else. He had always been a little apart somehow, less free with thoughts yet forceful when ready to talk.

And he studied again the ebb and flow of the river, felt how it was ever made new with rain water and snow melt, how it brought along creatures small and larger, how it eroded and rebuilt common domains of dirt. Ward breathed deeply of it, the potent fertility of plant, air, water, mineral, animal.

“I’m coming back,” he said as he turned to face them. “I’m giving notice when I get back and moving here. I’m going to build a house on the hill”-he pointed at the mound of earth beyond-“and I’m going to do something different with my life.”

The brother stepped closer to one another, as if seeking refuge from such odd  words. Their father stepped forward, hands opening wide.

“You mean here, you’re building here? We have a great family cabin already. You can use it any time, you know that. And what do you mean by ‘giving notice’?”

“I’m quitting the firm. I have other ideas to implement. Building my own house is one of them.”

Owen stirred, eyes lively. “Okay, then what’s next?”

“I’m going to write.”

Randy gave a low nervous twitter.

“Alright, tell us more,” Owen said cautiously.

“Write? You are a lawyer, not a writer…” Their father stood with feet apart, arms crossed before his chest. “I’m sure you’re good with language–but write what? A memoir or something? Oh, wait, a legal thriller, maybe? That makes sense, I guess. And it’s your land, this piece, anyway… But what about Kelsey?”

Ward took his place in a reformed circle. “She’s off to college in the fall, remember? I’ll see her, you can count on that.” He put one arm around Owen’s shoulders, the other about Randy’s. “I feel like a change is necessary. Look, I’m fifty-four. I can leave the field and be okay. I can return if needed, if it doesn’t work out. But I already have contacted a builder and an architect. I have ideas for the design. It won’t mess with our…my… land. Don’t worry. And I want to be closer to family. And I really love to write.”

They exchanged exclamations and ideas as they started back to the cabin. For the most part, the mood was buoyant. Ward believed it could really happen, at last.

Owen pulled him aside as Randy and their father kept on.

“Okay, Ward, what’s up? I agree a woman right now is not the answer. And I love the idea of you being near us, I look forward to hanging out more. But what’s really going on?”

Ward gazed at his middle brother long and hard. “I. Am. Going. To write. In fact, already am.”

“Yeah…but what?”

“Poetry.”

Owen seemed to weave a little as he squinted in the sunshine and then Ward’s hand shot out to grasp his shoulder.

“Poetry, ” his brother repeated, stood up taller and gave a moment of consideration to the possibility his brother had not lost his mind, after all. “Like you talked of doing as a kid, if I recall.”

“Yes.” His hand slipped off Owen’s shoulder as they began to walk again.

Owen took a chest expanding breath and let it out in a soft whistle. “Wow. Alright then. Write your poems. I’ll stand by that. And they will, too, I think.”

Ward shrugged.

They caught  up with Randy and their father. Ward thought the afternoon exceptional, the river music perfectly pitched, trees casting just the right gradations of shade along the path they made. He barely restrained himself from running up to the attic room desk, from diving into a poem that was coming forward with easy urgency, a fine new gift from that ancient, fecund land and from his reawakening mind and soul. And when all was said and done, in no small measure, from family.

Life Study: My Mother, S. and Me

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I am fascinated with the tall windows behind his large head. They are curved at the top. Arched is the correct adjective, my mother would have said after a barely discernible sniff, as if the wrong word carried a slight odor to it. But these are three in a row and more elegant than most, multi-paned. Trees are sectioned as if in stages of design. I like to study them as he studies me. But it is the light that finds me at last and then I am dazzled, unlocked.

I look at him then. His glasses have the barest of frames so appear to be windows, too, balanced before often unblinking eyes. I think of him as Captain Sorensen, but have never told him that. Since the name hails from Norway or Denmark, he may well have ancestors who sailed big ships. Instead of near water, though, we are landlocked in a small university town. He teaches psychology twice a week and otherwise does this–sorting out people’s lives–for a living. Listens to people like me.

“I took a walk, and ended up at the floral shop this morning,” I tell him. “To get flowers, as you suggested. I came away with dried lavender; that seemed enough. I don’t want to get in the habit of planting flowers in a vase on my dining table. It seems extravagant. You know I dislike extravagance for its own sake. I prefer the spareness of my rooms. I like the light to land on floor and walls as if on an empty stage.”

He tilts his head and a silvery mop of hair rustles out of place. I wonder why he doesn’t get regular haircuts, if his wife prefers it that way or he just doesn’t care. Perhaps both. I touch my own hair at the nape of my neck; it just curves over my shirt collar. I need a trim.

“You know by now that I love authentic beauty. But beauty tends to fade if you take it out of its natural environment. And I feel an absence of clutter in a human life renders the truth of beauty more vivid. In nature, more can be more and it all works well; I do study it. But a bundle lavender in a ceramic vase is good.”

I know he is waiting to hear more of what I managed over the week-end. Did I meet with a friend? Did I leave the apartment at all before Sunday night? Or did I try to paint, sitting there for hours on end? Feeling mad.

“Renders truth more vividly… ?”

He does that a lot, what I call parroting or parroting plus something else . It would be annoying in anyone but Captain –okay, Dr.– Sorensen is doing what he was taught in order to encourage me to spill my concerns. I would tell him things, anyway. It’s less forbidding in the coolness of his large, high-ceilinged office, his leather chair across from mine as if we are equals having a pleasant chat. Such a reasonable tableau, I think, though rather obvious. And he looks his part. Do I, I wonder?

“Well, renders more of beauty, is what I said but yes. Truth. It requires clarity, doesn’t it? How can I discover any thing when distracted by too much pressing around me? Painting is a miracle of light and color that seeks the canvas. I need little else. Well, it used to be that way until Mother died. Now the place can feel…too open. A surfeit of blankness.”

“Ah.”

“I’ve thought of it all more, finally. Her. The gaps in my memory and then sudden recollections. The hallway where we hung our coats, a low shelf for damp or dirty shoes with slippers handy if needed, and that brass umbrella stand. Then the room just to the right. It was a sitting room. It was too formal to be any else, really, but that is where she met people just as if it was still the nineteenth century, standing on formality as ever. The house, yes, but why did she cling to the past so? And it had such objects in it, all the porcelain bowls and showy flowers in heavy cut crystal, small statues and overwrought furniture. If a fire was lit it was finally suffocating, I don’t know how anyone could bear being there for long. Maybe that was the point. She kept most people at a distance, in their places.”

The good Captain is looking at me but it feels less like attention, more like probing.

“And you?”

“Yes, me, too, sometimes. I didn’t know differently, it was how things were. Father was gone most of the time. I think of him as a benign visitor, really.” I take in a sudden breath as his face floats into mind’s view. Face gaunt and lined, a slightly bulbous nose, eyes sharp and intelligent but so bleary from all work he did in too many countries. “A nice man who was full of small admonishments: remain studious, make him proud, get adequate exercise and rest.” I look toward the windows again as light illuminates dust. Fairy dust, Greta had called it with eyebrows raised. “He was an adviser more than a father, unlike Mother who not only oversaw things but tended us well in her fashion. Or perhaps that is what fathers are meant to do.”

“And your mother…”

“You know–she was important, as well. She oversaw committees, on various boards. She was a docent of the art museum. The last being a good thing; I got to go any time for free. Mother made things happen in town. And my brother and I entertained ourselves. Greta and Mary were running things in the crucial sense.”

“The nanny and cook.”

“Yes. Long gone, as well, who knows where.” I glance back at him as I consider my next words. “Look, there is something I have to say for once that is important.”

“What you say is always important.”

I put up my hand. “We both know I spend a lot of time intellectualizing about things, nice tidy boxes. Her death is not yet easily approached. So I waste a lot of time while you are obligated–paid–to steer me in right directions, so here we are again on a Monday morning. My mother is the point at which we ever return. She died. I am left numb, perhaps stunned. But today I need to tell you about the picture.”

Dr. Sorensen’s eyes widen in curiosity despite his skill at remaining mostly unreadable.

“My brother, Ernst, sent me a photograph. A few, actually. Only one interests me right now. He’s cleaning out things he got from her house, and is moving to Ecuador soon–did I tell you that?” I study a few branches of deciduous trees beyond the windows, imagining sunshine warming bark despite chilled winds that still swept over all. I often paint tree-like forms– always natural forms, rarely humanoid.” But this particular photograph…”

“It means something.”

“Yes.” I anchor myself in the moment and know he’ll appreciate what I offer. “It is taken perhaps in the forties, at the end of the war. I’m guessing… but it’s my mother standing at the end of an alley, in a foreign city–it simply appears foreign, how can I know? And there’s a man, in suit and hat. His hand is at her back.”

“Your father? Or was that before they met?”

I lean back into the smooth mold of the caramel colored chair. “I’m not sure. They didn’t reminisce. But it isn’t our father, no. There is this bold light above–it seems nearly evening. strangely hard to be certain– and behind, outlining their bodies, profiles.”

“Ah. And what do you interpret from it all?”

“They’re…kind of smiling.” I plow my hand though short bangs. over the top and back of my head. I am starting to get a headache, need air. “They look pleased to be there; she looks, I would say, happy…lovely. The photographer, Brassai, became famous; he was mostly around and about Paris. So it was likely France–or elsewhere. She studied abroad, traveled a great deal as a young woman. And yet I do wonder when and where it was.”

Captain Sorensen of my psychological fate seems suitably taken aback. He has waited for weeks for me to speak of something that can unlock more, that will turn the tide of my mindless melancholy. I have felt swamped by life yet at a loss for what usefulness. I am an artist, that is the one thing I know, but have stared at a blank canvas every day for three months.

He leans forward, hands folded between his knees.

“So, your mother had a somewhat curious past.”

I nod, then lower my head, press fingertips to eyelids and stave off a sweep of dizziness. It passes quickly.

“But my mother and that man–seeming so…cozy? Not at all like her.”

I shake my head to clear it. The sun has come out strongly now, billows in the room, and dark expensive furniture seems to lighten in both hue and heft. “I’m going to go home now. I need to look at my paints and smell the lavender.”

“Time’s up, in any case. Are you feeling well enough to walk home?”

“Yes, I’m quite alright, just tired. Until next week.” I rise with a fluid and careful movement, pick up my backpack, nod at him, exit.

He is watching me depart, I know. He told me once I appear and leave rather abruptly. Not the first time that’s been said. But this time I feel as if too much is left in that room, as if the information has divided and now part of it is owned by Dr. Captain Sorensen. As if who I am along with my feelings left a residue. I am not much at ease with this. I want the photograph and what it means to open carefully, entirely in my particular reality. Alone.

******

The canvas, four by four, mocks me at first.  Paint tubes and palettes are on the drawing table to my right. Brushes in the large blue jar on a black lacquer tray atop the ancient brocade ottoman. I am perched on a paint-dripped wooden stool, toes caught behind the second rung. There is a steak of white that barely registers on the stretched and primed surface. I have mixed a greyish-purplish tint; my brush in hand hovers in the air. I have for some time preferred black and white and ivory with gradations of same. The paintings have sold well enough for me. I have a solo show in two months, little to put in it.

These velvety shadow shapes take over yet they also resist being painted. Or I resist. I know the painting will somehow yield to my mother’s gauzy, hidden life, the unexpected part trying to make itself known. The one I never expected and that Ernst insists he always suspected.

We talked earlier. Ernst had called me.

“She was rather too amenable regarding Father. It didn’t make much sense but perhaps it was their way, the culture. He must have been difficult to live with; he was rarely there and when he was, forever thinking of diplomatic work, of colleagues, of minute health concerns. He seemed to forget her more often than not. Us, for that matter. How could she not care more about that? It didn’t fit together, add up, her unruffled surface and such success despite cracks that must have appeared in such a facade, even if unknown to most.”

Being older, being a mathematician, he always weighed things better than I although we end up talking in similar ways–perhaps because we had just one another for playmates for so long. But it wasn’t a jolt to him to find the photograph, to turn it over and see our mother’s handwriting: With S. while visiting Eva and Ott.

“But did she even know Father then?”

“Must have.” He cleared his throat delicately.” I think I know who he is.”

“What? Who?”

“I knew Stefan, of course. Didn’t you? The man who met them when Dad was at the Sorbonne?”

“Sorbonne?” My head swam again. “Oh, he studied there a very short time, way before we were around. I had forgotten that. They later lived in the U.S, of course, and I forget all the places they were before that. But what about this Stefan?”

“Maybe you weren’t born…well, I would have been seven or eight. You would’ve been two. He stayed awhile when he came, I recall. They played cards, talked interminably…liked drinking wine til late.”

“How on earth would you recall all that–you were so young.”

Ernst was silent, as if reliving a moment. “Because I have a good memory and I snooped about. And he was the first to try to teach me chess. Uncle Stefan, I called him.”

“Oh, I thought Father taught you.”

“Father did teach me after he realized I was capable of learning. But Uncle Stefan encouraged me enthusiastically. And then it seems he wasn’t around much, by the time I was perhaps ten, when I was getting a good at the game.”

“I didn’t have the fortitude to compete with you.”

He laughed his quiet laugh. “True. You were also too busy crafting pretty books or set designs for your funny plays, anyway. We each had our own passions even then.”

I smiled though he couldn’t see me. He had long lived in San Francisco; I, an hour out from Chicago. “Oh–was I funny then or are you mocking childish creative impulses?”

“Sometimes you were, Isabel, you still show a glimmer when you emerge from that notorious self-absorption.”

I said nothing to that, then asked that he email me anything else he recalled from those days.

“I mean, what if it wasn’t Stefan but someone else? Do you recall what he looked like?”

“Not so much, maybe, but time had passed, ten years or more. Well, something was there, however it happened or who it was…”

Now I take the paints and place the confoundment of her life and death, this ache onto the white space, smear it this way and that with fast strokes upward, outward. I think of Mother with her dourness the last ten years, how hard it was for her to see less well, then to hear smatterings of sounds. She told me she had lived longer than she’d hoped. Died at eighty-five and not too slowly. Father had preceded her by six years, a mountain car accident. She’d say Why was I left with so little to do when I never have been able to abide boredom?

She–the woman Marlene, who was my mother–was the sort of person whose presence required getting used tot: her subtle haughtiness off-putting, careful diction and measured manner of speaking formal even when she didn’t mean it to be. It was her upbringing, all that damned breeding, she complained, which circumvented efforts to be fully welcoming and welcomed more as friend than society matron. I could see her light eyes, how icy they appeared until she laughed, a glorious rush of sudden delight. She had a light, careful manner, was big-boned and yet softened by surprising padding as she aged. I have heard I resemble her.

“But you weren’t hard to know  once, everyone loved you, Marlene,” Father half-muttered under his breath.

My hand wavers in the air. I put down the brush. When did he say that, or did he say it? Was it the last year he was alive, when we gathered for Christmas? And what had been her response? I couldn’t recall. She may have laughed it off or asked if anyone needed anything else as she left to get dessert.

I continue working, a line, ripple, daub here and there, following the dancing drift of my hand. Shadows and revelations, a primordial sludge with emerging forms. All the slippery, shape-shifting paint tackling a vertical surface, at my command. The bottomless emptiness I’d felt becomes more of that slow sense of fullness I am used to feeling when painting. It has been so missed that I dare not think of it except at the periphery.

Time passes. The day’s light changes from voluminous and sheer, then broadens to alter all with a precocious golden sheen. Finally there is comes a seeping of night into day, an eking of slate blue into the clear air. Gradually veils of glimmering fall away from my world. I turn on an overhead work light, keep painting the rise and fall of what comes to me: a small part of an abstract map I now recognize as littered with a tangible lostness and foundness. Big and small deaths, with faint eruptions of renewal. New territory.

It was a rare love that once captured me and love that left me clearer if also emptied, my dear. If not for you and Ernst, what would have been left?

A tingling at the nape of my neck and I swivel on the stool, sweep the room with eyes and mind but of course, nothing, no one. It is something she’d let slip or wanted to say, now making me recall.

I feel her voice again, the measures of a slow-building andante, then a rapid allegro of speech. Echoes of her living careen into my own, right there in the small spotlight as I stand shivering. And my painting blazes at me with her startling shows of good will amid the silence of unshed tears. I cry for myself some. About what I lost before I was able to more fully accept the company of my bright, difficult, mysterious mother. And for her, what she’d had and then did not have.No one knew what she had longed for, even at the end. Until now, as I realize S. was a saving moment of joy.

I can’t imagine what this did to my father, to their marriage. But that picture: it spoke part of the truth.

******

“I have started to get up at dawn to paint a little before teaching, then go back to it later as I can manage it,” I inform Sorensen, today just Dr.

He doesn’t look or seem so much like my good Captain, just a competent therapist. Oh, I can see him on a boat alright,  thick crown of hair streaming in the wind–and think a good painting may some time reveal such elements of water and wild wind in hair with some spot of utter stillness–but it was his life and entirely apart from mine.

“Painting again, how is that for you?”

“Good. I might be on to something. Either way, it’s wonderful after three months of nothing.”

The arched windows wink in a hint of early spring light. Perhaps someone has cleaned them. The trees look ready to show off a little.

“And I thought about the photograph. About who it might be.”

“You learned more?”

“It may have been Stefan, a friend of both my parents’. But somehow I think not. I suspect it was someone different. Ernst found the picture in an envelope, taped under an ancient Federalist secretary in her storage unit. He recalls Stefan–the man taught him chess at an early age; I barely recall his name and not his presence. Yet it could be Samuel, or Silas or Siegfried, couldn’t it? We don’t know. But he looks at her with sweetness and tenderness.”

I reach for my backpack, then ease out the photograph and offer it to Dr. Sorensen. He looks closely at it a few moments, turns it over, read the back, then hands it back to me with care.

“It does appear they mattered a lot to one another.”

Relief. Not misgiving or confusion or even a deep slice of grief that has threatened me day and night for some time. Just to know that even Dr. Sorensen sees it: my mother, beaming at a man who reached for her in a way my father rarely had. Her beauty in her feeling and response, different from what I knew her to be.

“Love happened at least once. Perhaps twice. That is quite enough to know.”

The light from the windows fades as gathering clouds scuttled by. I close my eyes and then I see my childhood bedroom. Two mammoth windows arched at top, the dove grey and white silk curtains pulled back so that the outdoors was just beyond my paint-stained fingertips, there beyond my balcony. I look around and it’s like being there, enveloped by those colors, shapes, that great familiarity, inside a calm whorl of time and space.

I can smell paint and fading roses and then the heady French perfume my mother always wore.

“Isabel, dear–are you finished with that marvelous little painting yet? I want to show your father before he flies to Madrid to visit his ill second cousin, Silvestre. You may meet him one day. I hope. Now, that picture?”

I turn around. She frowns at my messiness, then she changes with a wide smile, hands held out for my art.

I once more open my eyes to meet Dr. Sorensen’s, full of intense interest.

“It’s what matters in the end, I gather. That love can happen at all in this world.”

I stand up; he stands, too. We shake hands and I say I may call him again, then pivot and head for my studio which is my particular beloved, my own crafted life. Alone. Free, for now.

 

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.

Fragrance of Life

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Carolyn was getting sick and more than tired of the holiday hullabaloo. It was not going to happen for her. Why would it? Bills were starting to pile up, the building’s ancient heating system eked out puffs of tepid warmth, an upstairs neighbor’s recently rescued Border Collie puppy was looking for sheep to herd, his restless whining keeping her on edge. And it had snowed. Not a drifty dusting but a raging snow. She couldn’t see a well-defined anything from her second story window, just pillowy lumps of whiteness, nearly blinding her. The courtyard and beyond were slowly vanishing in thick swirling snowflakes. A wave of panic swept over her; she hugged close her ratty navy wool sweater and looped a thick gray scarf twice about her neck.

When she’d taken the airy, high ceilinged vintage apartment at Mistral Manor, Carolyn had harbored such hopes. But that was two years ago. The past year had been one of plenty, then rent by piercing losses. In November she’d finally gotten news of the end of her marketing job. The company’s local office had been downsizing awhile so she had half-expected this. Just much later. The resumes she’d sent out had thus far garnered only a couple of nibbles.

She let the sheer curtain flop over draped white twinkling lights she had put up before the news. They gave off a sparse but steady glow that proved heartening despite her distress and the cold that crept in through every window, sneaked under doors. She went to the hearty wood box by the fireplace and set about making a fire. She had first relied on childhood memories of helping her mother with the wood stove,  hands warmed by her mother’s as they directed hers: splintered sticks that way, smaller pieces this way about those, bigger kindling crisscrossed and then pungent split logs placed just so. The fire always responded to their joint (mostly Mother’s) efforts. Her mother said being a fire tender was woman’s work as it took equal parts ingenuity, delicacy and strength.

Once again being a fire tender felt like second nature as it had so long ago. Now the aged wood combusted and crackled, a fragrant offering of another downed tree permeating the rooms. Carolyn sat on her one overstuffed chair, slippered feet splayed before the plain, companionable hearth.

It felt, however, disorienting to have so much time to herself. She had grown accustomed to the chatter and bustle of work, lunches out with two good office mates, the critical demands of a trying boss with such large perfect teeth the woman scared Carolyn for a bit. She’d liked her business coursework, had done very well and enjoyed two other positions before the last. But her current job’s reality had been tough to embrace with gusto. It was tedious too often and unlike her friends, who’d fought their way to better situations and were now being dispatched to new offices, she had begun to flag.

She had thought it all mattered less than it did, even the friends. Now as she let herself be mesmerized by her fire’s erratic dance she realized she had taken the situtation much too lightly. That’s exactly what Damon had told her six months ago before he walked out. He’d found her lacking in ambition, something he fairly burst with, and it made him impatient. Carolyn was also smart and energetic, attractive in her off-beat vintage way, yet she had so much less enthusiasm about business than he desired in a partner. He had set up shop already, a small kitchen store that sold unusual, surprisingly handy items. It was her lack of aspirations that came between them, he said. But Carolyn knew better. It was his self-importance and her lack of true commitment to him. There was too much of the first and not enough of the second to make it work–better despite advantages of a lively companion, observing business success close-up, even sharing a passionate bed amid gross uncertainty.

What did she actually want?

First, to pay the most of the nagging bills on time. Second, to enjoy the effects of sustained heat with rest. Third, to just skip Christmas. Without her mother–living a deserved life of leisure in Florida, enjoying sunshine with her third husband– it meant so much less. But this year money was too scarce to flee like royalty into balmy days and nights unfolding way across the country.

Fourth: to stop feeling so damned lonely. Hallelujahs were lovely for others but to her were more like a too-long intermission with no second act to attend. Where was even the next two line paragraph of her story? In limbo, that’s where.

The tea kettle’s whistling startled her out of growing self-pity. She let it softly shriek a moment or two more; it sounded like comfort. As she dunked the cinnamon and orange tea bag up and down in the heavy white mug and sat again, Carolyn inhaled deeply. She jumped when someone pounded on the door.

Through the keyhole she saw Mr. Carpenter’s fuzzy white head. He didn’t peer back as he stood with a package, hand readied to bang again. He might have pressed the doorbell. When she opened up the door a crack, he looked up and she noticed his glasses were still held together with duck tape.

“Got a package here for you,” he softly growled and it was not an attempt to be ornery but his ordinary voice. He did not own the sort of voice that offered soothing words. Yet, they tended toward kindly.

She swung the door wide open, gesturing that he step out of the cold, drafty hallway.

“Thank you for bringing it to me. You dared go out on that porch to get the mail today?”

“I did! And it is blowing out there. No need to come in, thanks, I will get back to my reading–a great Sherlock Holmes.” He gave the package to her, leaned his wrinkled face into the room a bit. “It feels cold in here, too. Okay, you’ve got a roaring fire, that’s good. I need one.”

“Why don’t you come in, get warm, at least. I was just making tea.”

She didn’t want to sound desperate as she held out her hand to him. He was, after all, an old man, much older than her mother. Since she’d lived there they’d exchanged reasonable pleasantries, not overly friendly, not so aloof. Most all the tenants did when they bumped into someone. She felt welcome enough, but Carolyn had yet to get to know anyone well. It was the sort of bohemian community she had imagined she’d like to make home, creative types, young entrepreneurial sorts, old and young mixed together, some having been there for decades. But she hadn’t had the time.

Mr. Carpenter sniffed the air with his fine long nose. He had been a successful perfumer once, another tenant told her, but his smell had gone haywire or got worn out –he’d been ill, perhaps–and then he’d worked at Macy’s for a decade or more.

“Is that a grand old fir tree you’re burning?”

“Why, yes, lodgepole pine. How surprising you’d know that! I wanted to save the well-seasoned red alder and some madrone for a hotter, longer fire.”

Mr. Carpenter stepped in and looked around. She took the package, likely a gift from her mother, to the circular dining table.

“You might need that if the weather report can be trusted. Say, I guess I’d take that tea, after all, Miss Havers,” he said. “Any hearty black tea in your cupboard? With a dash of vanilla, too, perhaps”

“I do. Exactly that one, Mr. Carpenter, what a lucky thing.”

She took his faded black fleece and hung it on her coat tree, then prepared the tea. When she returned he had pulled up to the fire in the creaky rocking chair, the one she had found at roadside and had always planned to paint or refinish. His head bobbed up and his eyes smiled above his damaged glasses when she brought his mug. Taking her seat and settling again, wondering over how much warmer the whole place felt already, she sipped as they watched the fire lick at the air and twist about.

Mr. Carpenter cleared his throat though it made no difference in his gravelly tone. “You have any family coming around for Christmas?”

“I don’t. My mother and her husband live in Florida. I usually go there, but not this year. It’s…tight financially. Bound to get even tighter.”

“I don’t see you heading out at seven in every day, anymore.” She threw him a frown but he was still staring into the fire. “I often keep an eye on our people here. Not much else to do some days. You and most others leave each day for work. I did, too, but no more, of course. They threw me out ten years ago with flattery and persuasion and a pin of honor of some sort, but the truth is I reached seventy so that was the end. Imagine that!” He slurped from his mug and stretched out his spindly legs, then gave her an appraising look. “Beg pardon, I guess you can’t, Miss Havers. You’re a young one yet. But working hard comes naturally to you, I think, you carry yourself with confidence.”

“Maybe once upon a time. Not anymore. I lost my job last month. I worked in marketing. I’m not so valuable in the working world, either, it turns out.”

“I am sorry to hear it…well, on to the next good thing. I was a perfumer with my own shop for thirty years. We crafted bespoke fragrances as well as sold the most excellent scents. I dearly miss that work; it is an art, making perfume, and it well suited me. But I got sick with the cancer; my sense of smell was affected by chemotherapy. So I turned my business over to niece and nephew. They’re doing a capable job. After I got better I just took a job at Macys selling lesser scents but it was distraction, a paycheck. I tried to teach a little about perfume as I sold each bottle and had a ball. Then I was done there, too, so that’s how it goes. Life just flings surprises at us, distressing ones, sometimes beautiful, you know.” He stopped his gentle rocking and turned to her. “What’s next for you if I may ask?”

Form the corner of her eye she glimpsed the snow like a passing drape of white velvet, a near-ghostly thing. It struck her as wonderful. “I like design, maybe create packaging. That might sound odd but I like to draw and used to make things. But my degree doesn’t really support that wish. So I don’t know yet just what to do.” She closed her eyes, warmth flowing to her toes and calves and thighs and into her core and chest at last.

“It’ll come to you. Something always does if you’re willing to reconsider things. To try new avenues. I was glad to have my Macy’s job in the end. It saved me from deadly boredom, kept me engaged with people and, well, it was still perfume!”

Mr., Carpenter ended his sentence on such a gleeful note that Carolyn felt a pang of envy.

“I wish I had a deep passion like that…”

“Maybe it’s there and you just haven’t given it due respect and attention.”

She pursed her lips. “Maybe.”

They listened to the increasing wind and talked of weather, the endless oversell of a commercial Christmas, then the sorts of music they preferred–he, the old standards and opera; she, electronic and jazz–the food they wished they might eat and what they settled for on a limited budget. His late wife, gone long before he retired. How he’d then taken up painting after many years of forgetting all about it. He admitted to being fairly bad at it but no matter.

“Well, enough of an old man’s ramblings. I’ll head back upstairs, you have better things to do,” Mr. Carpenter said when their mugs were empty.

Carolyn bit back the words, Not really, please stay a bit longer. She could tell he was ready to go home; he probably had more to do than she did.

At the door he put his jacket over his arm and smiled sincerely, his wrinkles deepening about lips and folding around eyes. “Thank you kindly for the nice tea and talk.”

She felt overwhelmed by his friendliness and seized with a desire for another visit. “Want to come by for dinner Christmas Day? I’ll try to make something decent. Maybe start with a good glazed ham?”

His thin white eyebrows hovered above his glasses, then he stared past her, perhaps out the window, and for a moment she thought he’d gotten lost in thought, forgotten her altogether. Then he came back to the moment and rubbed his whiskery chin.

“I think I still have a scalloped potato recipe tucked away. Do you want to try a hand at throwing a small Christmas party–together? Invite a couple more folks? Mrs. Mize is alone this year, and so is young Trent Rafferty.”

Carolyn felt a small jolt of nerves as she imagined her apartment occupied by people she barely knew. She’d have to clean and maybe decorate. She hadn’t fixed a ham in a long time. They needed candles, too, and she was out. She knew wise-cracking Mrs. Mize but who was Trent Rafferty, a new tenant? Whatever had she been thinking, inviting him in for tea, then impulsively inviting him to dinner? Him, not three!

“Yes,” she heard herself say, “that’d be a good thing, I think. If they bring some dishes, too.”

“I’m sure of it. I’ll call them–or better yet, we’ll stop over later this week and figure it out better. They’re good folk. How about it?”

“Okay, Mr. Carpenter, sounds like a deal. And please–call me Carolyn.”

“Carolyn, then. I’m Elwyn, if you like, either way is good.” He nodded approval, as if of the way things were going. “And also, I’ll ask my niece and nephew if they need any good marketing done. Or package designing, perhaps. I still hold a place in our business. Oh, and maybe you’ll burn the madrone and oak for Christmas? Love those fine woods. I might have to steal a piece or two…”

He exited the doorway.

“What was that you said? About the work?”

But Mr. Carpenter’s thin, energetic visage, in burgundy flannel shirt and baggy dark chinos, shuffled down the hallway to the elevator.

After she shut the door, she poked at the fire to coax a hotter flare again. It’s tangy, sweet smoke smelled of well being, of good times, of a life lived better if only she could figure out how to make it happen. She moved to a frosted window, fingers splayed against sharp cold, melting icy filigree. The snow had stopped lambasting everything. It now lay upon the space below in a sparkling landscape of small hillocks and valleys. Streaming light created a bejeweled dream of a courtyard. She wasn’t entirely sold on a potluck for Christmas and she missed her mother terribly. But home had sneakily become Mistral Manor with its creaks and dripping faucets and chilly spots, her serviceable fireplace and small balcony that was a boon even in winter. It’s curious inhabitants. With Mr. Carpenter–she might call him Elwyn, more likely not–as new friend and perhaps adviser, anything might be possible, after all, given time.