Freedom Comes for a Visit

“Been there and so done that and it’ll be a ‘ditto’ if you keep asking me things! Ask me in a few years…”

She said that with mock affront then a jolly smile and she usually turned away from me. But that answer never stopped me from trying to find out more about her life. How could I help myself? She was a source of endless speculation in the family and in my imagination.

“Aunt Cecily stepped right out of an interesting, questionable story when she was born and makes up the mad mess as she goes,” her oldest sister (my mother) stated with a wry look. “Of course, we all make up our lives, to be fair.”

I tried to trick Mom into giving me more information, but it didn’t work; she was oddly protective. Aunt C. was legendary in our family. That could be better than the truth, I conceded, but I thought there was more to it than we’d ever know.

Aunt Cecily had a way of gliding through the rooms of our rambling and in-need-of-a-good-shine house as if it was a mini-palace. My cousin Trish–my other maternal aunt’s kid–suggested that she acted like it, too. She had a flair for making ordinary occurrences and places seem better, more vivid just by being in the scene. Aunt Cecily wasn’t loud, necessarily, though she could be; she was dramatic. How she moved and expressed ideas, shared her feelings. She had done some acting on the stage. Dad suggested one time that she should have actually been in movies but she liked living a bigger-than-life kind of life even better. Mom didn’t disagree.

Trish, my cousin, and I were lazing in her back yard,  more like a field with a humongous garden where near the edges her father was planting or weeding something. Their house–the grandparents’ old place–was three miles out-of-town but it seemed like a hundred. I pulled the brim of my baseball cap down to create more shadow.

“Maybe that’s how she ended up rich. She acts like she’s all this and that even though they all grew up on a farm. Because she is no way what I’d call beautiful,” Trish said, chewing on a string bean. “She is fun.”

“I don’t know that she’s even rich. The people she knows seem to be, but she usually has everything in three fat suitcases. She moves a lot, you know, and travels. Mom tries to keep up with it but her address book has hers penciled in for another erasing. But I still think she’s a true exotic. I learn from watching her. She talks to me. She’s like an orchid…and her eyes are amazing.”

“‘Exotic’ is a word people use when someone is not pretty, maybe overpowering. Her nose is too long, her mouth is big, her eyes are almost slanted, for some reason, unlike anyone else’s in the family, and Mom says she tells too lurid stories….”

I put my hand up to stop her. “No doubt she’d say that! But don’t you wonder what they are really all about? I adore her! She’s my favorite. And you’re being superficial.” I steal a glance to see if she’s irked that I don’t say her kindly mother but she just snatches another bean to chomp. “I just admire her a lot.”

“Have it your way, Eve. She’s an odd duck, a wild one. I’m thirsty. Going in for a soda, want one?”

“Sure, I’m sweltering out here in the wilderness.”

All that manual labor her father was sweating over for vegetables impressed me. I couldn’t do all that. I swatted away a bee and ran in. But I thought my cousin had too little imagination to understand our aunt. I found it sad but didn’t say so; she wouldn’t get it, then would be miffed.

Trish and I wouldn’t be even that close later in life, it was how it was. She was all about finishing school and getting married to the same guy she’d known since second grade and dated for four years–no one and nothing had interfered with her predictable attachment. I found it strange that my mother got her Masters’ degree and taught at the nursing school nearby and encouraged two daughters and a son to pursue our dreams. While Trish’s mother, Aunt Marilyn, stayed at home and loved living in the country, canning, baking, cooking being the main events on her agenda. Then there was Aunt Cecily, world traveler, an artists’ model, an actress, a feminist poet and who knew what else.

How could the three sisters be so different as to seem unrelated? The one thing they had in common were highly arched, expressive brows and graceful hands with manicured fingernails. Aunt Cecily wore a black-red polish or sometimes lilac or a rich coral, at least that I saw. My mother, clear and chip resistant; Aunt Marilyn, pearly white, refreshed each night despite having her hands in food, dirt or hot water all day. It about summed things up.

Aunt C. had called me “Kiddo” since I was a child but this visit would be different. We hadn’t seen her in over two years. I’d done a lot of growing up, had turned seventeen. For one thing, I had gotten taller, more muscular and slim. I played tennis daily and had gotten good. While Trish was going to arts and crafts classes to make things out of beads and flowers, I was smacking a tennis ball as hard and fast as possible, and slammed it regularly beyond opponents’ racket reach and that brought me victories. Trish didn’t share my general passion for sports–I also liked softball and swam. I was at a loss when she handed me embroidery thread, a needle and fabric. We each had grave deficiencies in each other’s estimation. But we were cousins; we both adored our families. I just loved Aunt Cecily more; she got my growing athleticism, would be proud to hear about my improvement.

I walked into the pale yellow guest room to check on things before she arrived. I had put fresh reddish Gerber daisies in a squat glass vase on the dresser. Narrow, with a too-tight closet and a good twin bed, the room was upstairs and across from mine. You got a broad view of downtown, and in the distance the span of masterful mountains, breathtaking in sunsets. I had lived in the “baby room” for years, but had finally graduated to the next room size after my older sibs, Vanessa and Guy, left for college. Aunt Cecily had told Mom on the phone the same room was fine, don’t go to any bother, she liked the view, watching the old hometown morning until night as it revealed “its funny little life.”

She wasn’t usually in it much, anyway. Our place was more her bed and breakfast stop, but no one complained. We looked forward to seeing what she brought along with her this time–a weird house gift, a story to top all others, a new pet (like the pretty but obnoxious parrot she took everywhere for a year). One visit when I was ten, she brought a beautifully three-piece suited–with perfectly trimmed goatee and mustache–older man with her. He just stayed for a long brunch and flew right back to Chicago after a second home brewed iced tea, the best he’d ever tasted he told my mother, then touched his lips to her hand. Aunt Cecily had introduced him as a successful playwright, one of her best friends. It took Mom days to stop revisiting that experience. Dad got sick and tired of it and spoke up for a change. He said he was just some “Midwest dandy and luckily not all men were required to be so extremely gallant.” The “dandy” and “gallant” I’d had to look up. They were so old fashioned.

The room was perfect, down to new floral Laura Ashley pillow shams and the antique rocker in a corner. A sage green candle was next to the flowers. I’d also stacked a choice of books on the bedside table: one poetry, one mystery-thriller, one about outer space.

“Why outer space?” Mom had asked.

“She’ll like it. Aunt C.’s someone only interested in the future and is completely about travelling.”

Mom laughed, gave me a quick squeeze.

******

“I’m here, I’ve arrived, I can smell the potato salad and fresh rolls!”

Aunt C. swooped in after she set down her bags and threw her arms around Mom, then me, then Dad. I nearly got lost in the folds of her pink linen open cardigan, so voluminous and drapey. I admired her style: silver sandals, black linen pants, pink tank beneath the light cardigan. She vibrated with enthusiasm. And that fragrance, what is it? Light but warm. It’s her hair, I thought. Or her tawny skin–like sunlit wildflowers had hitched a ride with her.

“Well, look at you! I know, how uncouth of me to say it but you’ve sprouted like mad, Kiddo, and you look fabulous. And sister, your house, still a sight for sore eyes. I have barely slept the last three nights and all this–” she spun about, arms held out–“a sanctuary. I just know I’ll rest  here. And of course I’m starving, dear Amy and Trent–bring on the lunch.”

The sisters gabbed as Dad and I carried up the bags to her room.

“She knows her way around us, huh? Good to see her.” He grinned at me. “You wait for these visits with great anticipation, don’t you?”

“Of course. She’s like nobody else and she’s not ours that often.”

“She does add color, I agree! You mother is close to Cecily; I’m happy they get to catch up in person again.”

Dad was most happy when Mom’s happy, he is that sort of man, easy overall. A scientist, calm and quiet most of the time but when Aunt C. came he unwound more than he usually did, was more talkative and attentive, drank a couple of extra glasses of wine as the three of them–and sometimes Aunt Marilyn, Uncle Doug and maybe Trish–stayed up late. Sparring, swapping ideas and jokes in the back yard or living room until I wondered if they would ever pipe down and let Trish and me talk, too.

As we finished a meal of cold cuts and cheese, dill potato salad, tossed salad, sweet pickles and rolls, Aunt C. sat back and pulled her arms up behind her head. She stretched shoulders about and grabbed opposite wrists and tugged. She told me it helped with knotty kinks in the upper back. I adopted it and it helped, but restrained myself . I didn’t want it to seem I was mimicking her or took all her suggestions like a childish protégée.

“I won’t be here for as long as I’d planned, family. It’s off to Palm Springs, from whence I came this time. On the way I have a stop in San Francisco for a poetry reading–for my fifth chapbook, soon to part of a real collection. The venue is sold out. Life is about moving forward, right?”

“Fabulous,” Mom said. “Can’t wait to read the one you brought us.

“Can’t wait,” I echoed.

“Good for you,” Dad said.

She flashed one of her mega watt smiles. Shook back the mass of dark waves and studied our ancient chandelier as if suddenly loathe to look right at us. I gripped the edge of my chair as I studied her profile. How did she look enticing and fresh all the time? I pulled tighter my bedraggled ponytail, wondering what she was avoiding.

“Has that always been there? I like that fixture a lot. Which brings me to this: I’ve bought a house in Palm Springs! Really! I can’t even believe it.”

“A house, my gosh! Why now? What style, how big, how much?”  Mom clapped her hands like an excited child.

Dad murmured, “How wonderful for you, how did this come to fruition?”–as if he thought she was stretching the truth, at the least. He’d ask for proof later, no doubt.

I thought, That isn’t so far away from us, only a short plane ride, we’ll see her more often now. But I felt nervous about this new development. Aunt Cecily had lived out of hotels and even hostels; a condo one year; beach houses; villas and estates, friends’ or boyfriends’ houses and never once had a place of her own, or not for long. She’d said more than once that didn’t like the idea of “settling. Settle for what? Why? It’s only interesting when you know you’re moving on soon, finding a new geography, figuratively and literally, new people.”

“You’re the first to know in the family, of course. I didn’t want to create a terrible at the family barbecue, knock everyone over without some warning. Can you imagine what Marilyn will say? She’ll say I’ve had a transformation of epic impact and have given up my so-called hedonistic life and now am ready to succumb to stodginess. No offense to anyone. This will be a base camp, that’s all. I love the climate there, over three hundred days of sunshine, hot desert country and I got a good deal. It’s Spanish style and has four bedrooms…”

A sinking feeling spread out from my diaphragm. I heard her talking but I was already trying to imagine her living among leathery tan people who should just hole up indoors due to the ever-blazing sun. Most probably they did just that in summer. What sort of life was that for someone who enjoyed the outdoors, liked to freely roam? Was she going to join a golf club? An all female weekly book group? She might have picked a better spot, closer to us. And one thing we enjoyed together for years was swimming–she had a much more powerful side stroke than I. I’d have to visit her in winter to enjoy tamer temperatures, not easy with school. Or maybe she’d still come here. No, she had a real house now, she’d be tied down. My bohemian aunt! Why did things have to change?

“…I have a few friends in Southern California and those who’d like to visit already. What a lovely place to throw a party. I’ll still travel, just far less for now.” She leveled a piercing look at me. “What do you think, Kiddo? Aren’t you pleased for me?”

I was caught off guard so took a long sip of water.

“Well. I mean, an actual house! That’s a big thing to buy, right? It means something to do that. I’m glad you found a place you like and now will have one spot to call home, I think…I’d like to see it. And it’s not so far away which is great. ”

She appraised me with her slightly slanted, summer’s eve-lake-blue eyes, as if guessing my unease. “You’ll come visit me, won’t we have good times? You’re staying out west for college, too, right?”

“Sure, it’ll be good.” I spooned more potato salad on my plate. “Maybe UC Berkeley, or University of Washington or MIlls College–oh, I don’t really know yet where I should go. I eventually want a degree in anthropology or maybe linguistics.”

“Of course–perfect for you. But travel first, it will teach you more than you can fully absorb.”

The grownups went back to their chatter. I wanted to leave the table so finished the second helping and asked to be excused. Mom nodded, turned back to her sister. Things didn’t feel right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I said I’d be back for dessert, I was going out back a bit. Dad nodded at me blankly as I left.

I settled in a chaise lounge and called Trish.

“She went and did what? That’s amazing! Mom and Dad will be so happy. Don’t you agree? You sound like irritated.”

I wound a few locks of hair around my fingers and tugged, stared into dense maple leaves a dazzling green against a cloud-streaked blue sky. Two squirrels were racing up and down the tree, frantic for no good reason. My mind felt just like that.

“No.  Not yet, probably not ever.”

“Why not? She’s getting a little old to be some rootless person. It’s a good sign.”

“Wait a minute, she’s only thirty-five!”

“Your mom is forty-two, mine is forty. Aunt Cecily is getting older, she’s slowing down.”

I felt like gagging. “My gosh, Trish! Old is more like sixty, seventy and up. Our mothers are seeming older because they live the lives they do, in my opinion.”

“Because they had families, work hard and keep house? They’re too settled down? You’re being dumb.”

“Well, maybe they didn’t have the free, brave spirit Aunt Cecily has. They had their own paths, I admit. But I could always count on Aunt C. to be the wayfarer, an adventurer, the footloose woman of our family! The one who was never been trapped by the trappings of all this… in our little hothouse of a town. Is she really giving up already, giving in?”

It made me more than a little anxious to envision her out of circulation, in an ordinary house. Why did she betray her principles? I was being dramatic but I felt all this to be true.

I heard Trish breathe more laboriously. That was not a good sign; it meant she was frustrated, had lost the thread of the conversation, was mad or all three. And she had asthma, too.

“You mean, you think she has surrendered to real life? Or she has somehow let you down by finding a home of her own?” Her voice quietly shrieked at me. She coughed.

“Oh, I don’t know but calm down, I shouldn’t have called you. You don’t understand. And don’t tell your parents, either. Just sit on this, we’re getting together tomorrow, then she can share it with us all.”

She coughed again. “Yeah, we’ll be there. We can ask her about the details. I’ll bet she’s excited but you are thinking of yourself!” She took a hit off her inhaler. “I don’t get you sometimes, Eve. It’s like you have a phobia about others’ happiness. Or maybe like you think regular life an infectious disease and just try your hardest to avoid it. You should get over yourself and get with the program!”

“That is pretty creative thinking for you, cousin, I’ll just have to ponder all that in another lifetime!”

I hung up. But I had to laugh at the “infectious disease” comparison. Not quite true, but close. But “get with the program”? Ugh, never.

As Mom served strawberry pie, Dad winked at me–a cue when he wants me to lighten up. Mom slightly raised one arched eyebrow, gave me the look that goes with it. Aunt Cecily patted my hand then dug into her pie. I generally beamed at them like a good participant. She stopped to ask for “more whipped topping to celebrate.” I found it a little hard to swallow but managed to stay there another twenty minutes.

******

“Now that I have all of you here and we’ve stuffed ourselves with barbecued chicken and garden fresh veggies, shall we each have a glass of wine? Yes, even the girls, they’re not babes in arms, anymore!”

Dad poured for us all, then we took our webbed lawn chairs. Mom liked to put them into a loose circle. I wanted to only slip away. I had heard the news once; that was enough. It would take weeks, months, maybe years to figure out why my aunt was “settling down and settling.” We had chatted off and on about other things. She’d come to my tennis practice and applauded my progress. We’d talked about books and her poetry performances and perhaps swimming before she took off in one short day. Mostly she hung out with Mom since she had taken two days off. I hadn’t yet told my friends about Aunt Cecily’s purchase. I had to think it over, put my feelings aside until she left.

Aunt Cecily took her place in an opening of the circle. Her raven hair was softly pulled back at the sides. She wore a long sleeveless, low necked dress with full skirt. It was printed with slinky, almost neon vines on a sapphire background. It would have looked silly on most women but on her it was sexy-chic. She wore jangly bracelets on both arms and long chandelier earrings. Her feet were bare in the cool grass. It was like watching an outdoor stage set come to life.

“I’m going to jump right into it, family. I have gone and bought a house in Palm Springs. It’s a good-sized house and it has a wonderful pool and view. I got a good deal as the owner wants to soon exit the country for more tropical environs. I’ve long admired it there and visited a few times over the years. It will be my base of operations for several years. Then, who knows?” She looked at Marilyn and Doug, Mom and Dad. “So, what do you think about that?”

“Fabulous news! I am so relieved to hear this! I thought it might be bad news, the way you were acting as we circled up,” Marilyn said.

She jumped up, gave her little sister a gigantic hug, and Doug followed. My parents joined in the well-wishing as if they didn’t know already. Trish moved from the edge of things but didn’t look at me as I cheered from my spot on the grass by the azaleas. I thought: A few years, was that all? What was Aunt C. up to? The others bombarded her with questions until she asked them to back off a bit, more would be revealed in time but they should toast the good news with her. We all raised our glasses.

Dad spoke up. “Here’s to a whole new chapter in Cecily’s enchanting life, may she find her own hearth and home a happy adventure!”

And we gulped it down. It was red, delicious and I went for more. No one but Trish saw me, who sauntered over.

“So, you think there’s more to it, huh?”

“Of course. We know what she’s like and I have never even heard her say she loved the desert, by the way.”

“She loves the Mediterranean…”

“That’s entirely different, Trish. I think…” I took another deep drink. “You don’t think she’s getting married, do you? I mean, who are all those friends she has in Palm Springs, anyway? She’s usually in Europe or South America or somewhere else we lose track of her….anything might have happened. Is she pregnant?”

Trish laughed. “Seriously? No. And who doesn’t want a house of their own? Plus, she’s always been so independent and liked men too much to pick just one. But she’s smart. She’s making an investment?”

“That might be part of it. What do we know about her, really? And not everyone want roots. I figure there’s a bigger reason.” I drank the rest and poured a bit more.

“Eve, easy does it.”

“Sure.” I poured her some more. “The other thing is, maybe she’s–she’s—not well?”

Trish frowned at me. “Gosh, look at her!”

An ear ringing whistle reached our ears. “Hey, girls, back to the circle, I’m not done!”

Aunt C. waved us over, both arms wide open as if corralling us, bracelets jangling, a shepherdess calling her stray sheep. I scurried over, heart pounding, feet stumbling as Trish grabbed my arm. We were asked to sit again.

This time, Aunt Cecily did, too.

“Well, that was the best and easy part. Now comes the hard part. For me.”

She sat up, chin up, cascading hair all about her still-glowing face. Then her head tilted as she looked at us one by one. She spoke more at last.

“I met someone on my travels. His name is Stellan, Stellan Starngarten. He’s a wonderful artist, a sculptor, and has shown his work in Europe. I fell in love, is what happened. We have been seriously paired for a couple of years. We’ve traveled, of course; I’ve stayed at his place in Croatia at times. Recently, though, he decided to sell his home due to unforeseen circumstances–a need for more money for an upcoming event.”

As she hesitated, I could hear a few intakes of breath. I held my own. Here it was. Whatever it was.

“We’ve been thinking long term. Imagine, I’ve been free so long! Free enough to be able to look for and find a superior love, and also to be chosen. So we then made a plan of sorts. But life–it’s often unexpected in its ways. And that can be good even if it seems bad.”

“What is it, Cece?” Mom asked in a hushed voice.

What was my aunt saying? What was she doing? I could hardly bear it. I had an impulse to stand and yell at her: “Don’t leave, don’t hurt us, don’t change things!” But she just ran hands through all that hair, all those sparkly things she wore jingling and  glinting, and then pressed her palms against the back of her head and looked into the dusky sky, as if seeking the right words. Or an answer. I looked up, too, saw Venus and the North star, and wished more than anything her next sentence was a beautiful one. Concluding, redeeming words so we could all could go to bed relieved. My pulse raced a long.

“It turns out Stellan has a serious, inherited heart defect so he needs surgery, more than one procedure. Then long-term recovery time yet even so, we won’t know the end result for some time even if all goes well. So, I bought us a house. We will live in it while he gets the medical treatment he needs now that he has more money. I hope to God he stays with me a long while. But if not, we’ll have this time together. I’m the one who needed to be closer to my family. His is mostly dead and gone… He always wanted to live in the American West, the desert.” She closed her eyes a moment and they re-opened. “I’m afraid, family. But I’ll be with Stellan all the way in our house in the desert.”

She looked around our circle and her oddly restrained sadness and fears were just a pale sheen on her cheeks. Yet she was smiling. This was my aunt but she was not the same. Her face tender, words hesitant to leave her. She seemed still as a creature listening for the next snap of a branch beneath her. The fiery essence was there, just altered, revealed in new ways.

“Our house will be a house full of a–a most unreasonable, undaunted joy… as long as it can be,” she said and stood again.

She slunk away from us to get more wine and gather herself together as we absorbed this news.

Though we were silenced in the wake of it, I felt as if she had scooped me up in her arms the way she probably had Stellan. That vibrancy, strength, her belief in a good life ahead no matter what came: it filled our darkening summery yard with its own power. How could we feel sad for her? But we couldn’t ignore that she had found and perhaps would lose so much, so fast.

“Maybe it will end alright,” I whispered to Trish and she nodded solemnly.

After the food, after more talk and the wine got to me, when my other aunt and my uncle and Trish left, Aunt Cecily crossed the hallway and knocked on my bedroom door.

“You knew there was something more,” she whispered as she held me close. “Thank you for being my Eve. I know I’ll be able to count on you as the dragons are slayed and we carry on. You’re my rising star, Kiddo, I love you.”

And time was suspended and the sorrows and worries. My aunt was being my exotic, beloved aunt and she saw me as who I was and even hoped to be. I was already planning a visit as soon as she and Stellan could have me. He had to be amazing like her. And if not Croatia or Crete or Buenos Aires, then off to Aunt C.’s surprising Palm Springs I would gladly go.

A Springtime of Fear, Forest and Water

Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The land was wilder than it let on at first look, the road curving about it protectively for miles on end, with glimpses of properties blurred as Cal sped by. The forest was piney, dense and secretive. White paper birch groves showed off in flashes of sunlight. The deciduous trees wore bright green and spread their arched branches about like many-limbed dancers. He breathed here as nowhere else–not that he had not been other places more beautiful or dangerously intoxicating. But this landscape erupted seemingly from another time and had remained there. He was entering it again as the aqua Mustang took over. It nearly drove itself as coolness of shadows took turns with a weak heat of late spring light upon his face and arms.

Soon enough he downshifted and slowed to turn off at the beaten gravel road leading into the village of Snake Creek. He passed a couple of spandex-attired cyclists–tourists, he suspected–  as they nodded and swerved onto the dirt. A truck bounced past him going the other way; the Klimper brothers with sons and a shaggy dog in the back.

The village’s main artery was not so different from when he and his parents and sister lived just beyond its borders each summer. He passed The Clarion offices and the Bluestone Cafe owned now by his old friend Clarissa; the small shops for sweets and ice cream, one for odd trinkets and t-shirts and a shoe store for practical boots and fancy sandals. The only hair salon, A Cut Above, had a picture window that flashed in the sunlight. A field stone and wood library always caught his eye. His mother had been instrumental in getting it refurbished and re-stocked over thirty years ago. Not far from the village his father had taught music at United Ministries Summer Arts camp (UMSA) for what seemed forever. They’d lived in one of the large cabins built for staff. Cal and his sister, Kirsten, grew up living a dual life of strict discipline centered on the arts, and living free and happy in woods and water.

And now he was back. Not for forever, but for long enough to restore his anxious soul and nourish his numbed senses.

Ring Lake. He could see it sparkle and undulate as he drew up to the side of the road. He cut the engine, sat a moment. The lake never failed to put his mind on pause. He suspected his collages–the photojournalists with whom he had kept company for decades–would make snide comments about his chosen paradise. After all, hadn’t they been about everywhere else, documenting sights that horrified, illuminated and moved them? Joe Rasmussen, his oldest friend, his mentor, would understand this return to the old places, this “safe zone”, Cal imagined, but Joe was gone. Lost in the Amazon. Or hiding out.

Cal blinked away the image of Joe being enveloped by jungle; Cal had agreed to wait outside their pick up plane. Joe would for certain understand why Cal was cruising down this road on a sunny morning, if not exactly in the right way. He’d pull his neck back and stare at Cal as if his friend had gone and lost him mind, yet he understood how that might happen.

“Ah, a woman! She must be mighty powerful to distract you from finally–how many years since you took time off?– relaxing up in northern Michigan! And you’ve been trying to find me, too… Well, a good and real love never hurt anybody, despite all the naysayers.”

He should know, having been married far more than was reasonable. Cal got out of the car and watched a sailboat make its way toward the shore. He could almost still see Joe’s lopsided smile, his grisly white beard and his dancing, squinting eyes wreathed with wrinkles. He saw him turn away as he did that day, pumping the air with his fist as he disappeared into thickets of monstrous vines and tangled vegetation and raucous or sneaky creatures: Joe had taken off for one last chance at filming the most gigantic, mind boggling anaconda ever.

The familiar fear shot right up his back bone and it nearly lodged in his brain to expand and paralyze him before he took deep breaths, then moment by moment slowed his heart rate. Nothing was worse than dread fear, the visceral poison of being scared, how it’s tendrils shot into you with a ferocious grip and held you halfway alive, halfway toward death. Panic, it was called by the shrinks. But to Cal and his compatriots, it was just unadulterated fear, provoked by adrenalin that was fired off by something terrifying. Or even the sheer possibility. There were a lot of things to fear in the world. And when you were taking pictures of it up close, the fear could ruin you. Or be tamed by years of disciplined will, the basic training of in-depth experiences. It might save you or it might kill you; you had to decide fast.

There was nothing to fear here. Joe was far away, he vanished months ago, and there was not much more he could do about that now. If ever.

Ring Lake was turning that perfect blue-green that changed to more navy in the center depths, teal in shallower waters. Cal held this color along with the scent of water inside until he was calm. Until he felt his feet firm on wooded, rich earth once more. He was as ready to try to move on as he’d been in a while. He looked toward the peninsula seen through a thinner group of jack pines.

Should he walk up to the white chapel-house? Should he even attempt to see her? Bother her, really; she was not one to take random visitors. But she had seemed to be interested in what he said at the Bluestone Cafe as they sat together with family friend and Cal’s most loyal and original mentor, Will, editor of The Clarion.

But what was he thinking ? And how could he possibly know what she was thinking? And why this woman–after so long being on his own?

Sophia Swanson was…she was more than a tad eccentric, lovely and capable. She was mute. Had been since her husband died almost a year before. Cal turned back to his car and leaned against a door. Sugar maple leaves twirled in a shifting breeze. Squirrels raced up and down their favorite trees, chipmunks scurried about and the birds sang their lungs out. He watched the lake’s ever-changing waters, considering options and possible outcomes. He could just turn around and head back to his sister’s house on Grand Traverse Bay.

******

In her old life, if anybody had told Sophia she could be so indecisive as to feel half-mad with uncertainty, she would have vehemently refuted it. But there she was, sitting in her cozy kitchen with Daedalus, her husky-German shepherd, and he was looking up at her expectantly, patiently. It was a long while that he sat at attention, sympathetically alert to her every move. She’d have chuckled if she could but smoothed his broad back again.

She was trying to decide if she wanted to try only a very short swim–more like a good wading, then trying to submerge her chest, perhaps– in the still chilly Ring Lake or take a long nap or critically review her last two paintings leaning against a wall in the loft. The paintings interested her less; she was not so good at it though she found pleasure and peace at the easel.

A glance through the sliding glass door to the deck gave her second thoughts about the water option. It was just starting to cloud over some. Besides which, she didn’t want to go swimming, certainly not in May and not even in the swampy heat of July. The old Sophia wanted to; the new Sophia refused so far. But if she entertained the idea long enough, she might change her current mindset.

Everything in life took practice, didn’t it? Being a youngish widow certainly took practice; being a mother whose only child, Mia, now lived with an aunt–that took enormous work to accept, every moment. More like gradual surrender. No one stole her daughter but they may as well have. When Thomas died, it her life was brazenly stolen. He may as well as have taken them down with him, into that very lake outside her door. It felt as if he did, but they were left dripping with relentless life which became an urgent desire to live, if that was needed, only in limbo. At least, so it was for her. Mia was learning to unthaw the frozen grief and move on back in Vermont. Maybe Sophia should give up and go back east and live with her sister, too. But a woman who does not speak cannot succeed among speakers.

Sophia’s closest Snake Creek friend, Clarissa, had first come up with the idea of swimming about six months after he was gone.

“It’s simple, really, you just have to get moving, honey.” Clarissa spoke into a mug of hot chocolate one snow-spun night. “It’s a fact, the brain releases chemicals for healing and good thoughts!”

Sophia looked up from the fireplace, startled, shook her head vigorously. Why was Rissa being suddenly insensitive? Thomas breathed his last breath out there. He fell off the boat, slipped into swirling black water while skies crackled with lightning, never came back up to say a good-bye or to yell for help or even her name. Or that’s what she imagined. The thunder and lightning, her husband raging against everything so that he finally took up arms against the natural world he adored more than all else, and lost. Or he chose to lose the life he had, and in so doing, he left them in the nightmare of shock, sorrow and anger.

No, don’t think of it, don’t go back to all that happened again.

But Rissa persisted.

“Why not, though? Of course, yes, he drowned…I’m still sorry for it. But you’re a professional dancer and choreographer. You have to move that body more or you’ll just curl up and die, too. That’s not what you want. You can power walk a bit, you even ride a bike if you need to. And you can swim again.” She looked at Sophia as if she might just will it to happen for her. “Don’t ever say never.”

Rissa had a habit of speaking bluntly, as if her truth was clear and dominant. Sophia’s eyes stung with threat of tears but she sent them away. It was hard to hear because her friend was right, If she kept lying in bed and sitting about; if she refused to even walk along the lake’s shore; if she never did another dance warm up exercise much less a spin with a tiny leap– she would not go forward toward anything good. But her body rebelled. It ignored itself, mostly. Her very vocal chords even refused to give sound to her thoughts. Yes, her body was on hiatus. It was better than before, those first weeks when she was nearly catatonic. Now she was just speechless as a stone. But a stone that moved about with encouragement.

That next pretty morning Rissa hooked her arm in Sophia’s. They hesitantly walked at the edge of narrow beach along the small peninsula, land upon which stood their own–now, her own–renovated historic chapel. The water roared in her ears. Pebbles were hard and sharp under her rubber sandals and yet the lake looked like a magnificent– and beastly– creature. A giant open mouth that could swallow them whole. Alive. In in a few days she returned with Rissa, then others who appeared without asking –Anna and Will, Sherry and T.Z. and Frank. She finally walked in a couple of inches with bare feet. Closed her eyes, stood long enough to really feel the oddly neutral, silken touch of water. She began to concede Ring Lake could be, at times, a benign thing, breathtaking in all its moods and friendlier once more with children playing out on the raft and many water skiers, the fishermen and women, people swimming out to the small island from their ramshackle houses.

But she did not go any farther than just above her ankles. And that felt an inch too much.

Sophia thought now: if I just run out there and jump in with Dae and we go out a few freezing feet, get all wet, and then turn back and come in–maybe I will shock myself out of this phobia. Dae will not let me drown, he will swim with me. I can run back in, take a long hot shower and later when Rissa comes by she’ll find how strong I actually am, that I’ve conquered it.

Dae whined at her pleadingly, tail all a-wag, so she got up and opened the slider to let him out. He turned to look back at her, head cocked. She stepped through. The two of them padded down the deck steps, into the grass now greenly growing again after a hard winter. The big dog dashed on, zigzagging across the long yard and to the lake.

Sophia hung back, arms crossed over her soft, high bosom, stood with feet apart. Her heart raced and then steadied as she walked closer to Ring Lake. She felt an edgy gust of wind, a chill left over from Canada’s colder store of air. There would be no swimming today, of that she was certain.

“Sophia? Hi there!”

She pivoted, hands hovering before her. Dae barked feverishly as he made a hard dash for the person walking onto their territory. And came to a halt, the bark a mere squeal as he was soothed by a man who had entered her domain.

*****

Cal roughed up Dae’s ears and petted his back and head lavishly.

“I thought to leave you a note first but since I was in town to do an errand for my sister Kirsten, I decided I may as well see if you were around. I hope that isn’t too rude a thing to do. I mean, to presume you might be here and then see me…”

Sophia tightened her lips into what she hoped passed for a decent smile. It unnerved her she hadn’t heard him, that she might not register a person coming up behind her. He must have heard Daedalus barking earlier, looked past the driveway and down to the lake. But Cal Rutgers was okay. She thought he was, at least, and Will and Clarissa had assured her he had grown up at the camp and the village in summers, was a good guy. A little bit famous. Well, fame didn’t mean a  thing to her. She had had a good bit of fame with her dance troupe before Thomas moved them to northern Michigan from Boston. Before he died, Thomas Swanson was well established in the fame department, a research scientist, author, lecturer. A highly regarded biologist who specialized in limnology, the study of inland waters. She had many bad thoughts about water and the ironic nature of his death, as well as about fame.

But he was congenial and smart and he looked pretty good to her despite her desire to not look at him at all. She looked up, smiled more naturally, and his eyes crinkled back at her.

He studied the lake as he came down the easy slope to stand beside her. “It seems we’ve run into each other a few times at Rissa’s Bluestone Cafe or at the newspaper office or once at the library. I hoped you would show me around your peninsula.” She spread his hands out to include the entire scenario or lake and land. “I love it so much  here, you know… I had to come back to see if it had changed into something more plastic. And it hasn’t.”

She nodded her head to the side and back, in the direction of the chapel-house.

“Ah, well. Yes, my minister great-grandfather’s, then minister grandfather’s chapel. A beautiful little historic chapel. It’s true that I wasn’t happy with you and your husband buying it. But it’s done and it looks okay–from out here.”

Cal did not want to see the inside and he was relieved she didn’t offer to take him there with another head nod. He wasn’t ready to see it made an ordinary house. But he did like to revisit the peninsula, so they were walking  along it’s shore and he fell silent. But then she stopped him and put her hands together as in prayer, as in a plea for forgiveness or at least some genuine acceptance. Her eyes, somewhat almond-shaped and hazel, revealed emotion reflecting a true regret. He was taken aback.

There had been such good times here. The simple services, the feasts, the sort of games boys and girls played–tag, capture the flag, dodge ball–after church services. Grandfather Rutgers passed when he was  in his late teens. Cal hadn’t seen the chapel more then two or three times since then and now, it was a house. He set aside mixed feelings of regret, nostalgia and disappointment, even some anger. He just gave her raised eyebrows paired with a vague smile, the sort that says, maybe, but okay for now… Cal hoped she caught it; he didn’t have much more to say about it yet.

He noted a passing urge to tuck back a stray strand of her length of sandy hair. Her face was unadorned, free of pretense. They walked on the length of the peninsula and back again, then found a nice spot at the edge of a stand of pines.

It must have been a good fifteen or twenty minutes that they sat under the trees watching nothing and everything. Suddenly Sophia took his arm, tugged at it and then, embarrassed by the somewhat intimate gesture, let go. They moved toward the water. The waves slapped rhythmically against rocky beach, carried away the tension in their bodies, shook free their minds of worry. The clouds had moved on and sunshine was like a scarf, light and soft as silk, lain over their frames. Sophia took a step and then another. Dae, seeing her move into the lake bounded over, splashing them both.

She got up with Cal and to hid surprise, they walked into the water, the dog prancing about them. She was nearly as tall as was he–over six feet. He paused briefly over her desire enter water yet infused with a mild wintry chill, and how odd it was to take a virtual acquaintance along but he said, “Is this going to be okay? It’s cold!” and she nodded as shallow wavelets passed through her pants, slid onto skin and rose up each leg, every small advancement a growing internal agony. Then: all the way to her knees. And she stopped, clutching Cal’s arm despite her usual need for reserve.

Her face was charged with and transformed by the electricity of fear. He knew this look well. Cal understood the murky meanings of those white-rimmed eyes, the mouth agape, so he grasped her shoulders and held her gently in place. But Sophia was not going to be held back. She shook him off, thinking like a mantra why not why not why not now I will be brave fear cannot take my life water will not kill me why not now I so loved all water once… and walked alone until the creeping water soaked the pants above her knees, halfway up her still muscular, pale thighs.

She took a small step again and gritted her teeth, stilled her limbs with arms crossed tightly about her chest, face turned up to sky, her long braid dangling just above slapping waves of spring’s lake water. It was terrifying and amazing to command the stay of her body within voluminous, amorphous liquid. A great body encompassing her own trembling body. Alone. She felt as if she might pass out or lift off the murky lake bottom or sink into dreamy depths where a minuscule hope lived amid potent fears–into the subterranean life that she’d led so long.

But when Sophia turned back to the shore, face was open and close to beaming. When she reached him she even laughed, hands held to her mouth, then splashing earthy-fragranced water everywhere, all over him. He could see she was laughing hard, shoulders shaking–but there was no definable sound from her. Nothing was heard but waves and wind upon them and his own small chortle. And some spot  in his heart just blew open, it was a mere pinhole of an exit and entrance but he embraced the sweep of beauty. Sun threw its light about them, water was a glinting, blue-green glorious expanse and all those trees stood proudly beaming fresh new greenness. Dae barked with an envious thrill from shore as they rushed clumsily out of the lake, all the way up the grassy hill. Back home, Sophia seemed to suggest when she glanced at him. Cal flashed a quizzical look.

But she knew what she could offer: the old/new chapel-house comforts and two thick towels, strong cups of coffee served with slices of almond cinnamon cake. It was enough. And perhaps a glimpse of her ways of silence, which might not continue to hide or hurt her as they had for too long.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

(Hello, kind readers: This is another trial chapter (here made into a short story) in an ongoing revision of my unpublished novel, Other Than Words. One published excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize years ago but it remains a work in need of more work! It may take more time and effort than I have, though I remain intrigued by the characters and themes. Thus, I have written other posts about these two and others; searching my site for “Snake Creek” may bring you to them. If not, let me know. I will post links. Thanks for reading this one!)

The Fates of Noses

Public domain, archive.org

It’s not always true that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, not in the strictest sense. Vita sees no fire at all as she looks down from her balcony. It is the acrid odor that draws her, like someone has wantonly put down, then set afire an old wet buffalo. It’s not something she’s smelled much all winter–meat–and it seems almost terrible and foreign. There is a general wafting of grey smoke rising to the fifth floor–the top– where she lives. She leans over as much as she dares without plunging to her death. She wants to see where it’s coming from. Hard to say. She stifles an urge to yell out, “Stop all that meat charring!” because, of course, she can’t say that. Not unless she wants the majority of tenants to come racing down her hallway with spatulas and forks clutched in raised, angry hands.

She determines she’ll have to scout out the nuisance from another vantage point, from the ground where she can see all. Vita slips on her clogs and clatters down the stairs, thinking a repaired elevator would be reasonable to demand. Mistral Manor Apartments, indeed. Every week it’s something, leaky faucets, stove threatening to roast nothing, windows sticking.

Once on the ground she peers up, hand creating shade for her eyes. She counts a dozen people lounging on their balconies. Just stop the rain and everyone crawls out of burrows like moles blinking in the garrulous sun, gathering up energy and courage to re-enter a dazzling world. Or maybe not. Residents instead look like they’re are drinking, leading up to carousing or barbecuing who knows what on their balconies and patios. No roaring fires that she can see from here but smokey, meaty cooking smells could come from anywhere. A couple people wave and Vita ignores them.

Then she sees it. A plate balanced on the balcony railing of Mr. Carpenter, third floor. The foolish old guy has put his food out to–what? Bask in the sun? Age for a fortnight? Send waves of meat stinkiness to her place? Birds seem to swoop closer to his plate and a squirrel is trying to decide if it can jump from tree limb to Mr. Carpenter’s open air cafe. Are they actually omnivores? What a thought. The man now sticks his head out of his French doors and sees her eyeing his set-up.

“What is it?” He yells down at her, voice so gravelly it could scrape the air. “You don’t like the menu again?”

“You know full well that things come right up to my place. Heat rises, so what you cook, I get to taste and smell.” Her hand went to thin hips and she glared at him. “Can’t you cook indoors and leave doors closed?”

“I’m the only one who cooks and opens a window or door? My foods’ ghastly smells pick on you, that right? Oh my goodness, hop on up so you can have that conversation with the cooling culprit.”

There is a spattering of laughter from other balconies. He now puts hands on his own hips and they both look to courtyard onlookers as if they’re going to have a real face-off. Except Mr. Carpenter is by far the least likely to mean harm, is just teasing Vita and as usual she is slow to get it and fast to react.

“I already am,” she says. “Really, it can be disgusting.”

“No, really, come on up, Vita. That offending buffalo burger–to me it stinks, too–was lethally burned. I’ll get rid of it, the grill is just smoldering. I’m throwing in the towel.”

“Oh no, you mean it is a buffalo?” She covers her nose and mouth with her hands.

“Oh for crying out loud, forget it, I have something to ask you.”

His demeanor projects a cordial nature more now that he smiles at her. He may as well smile for their attentive audience. Everyone likes Mr. Carpenter, it seems, except her. He aggravates her with his penchant for teasing her about being vegan, for one. She doesn’t like how he always insist on speaking to her and everyone else as they pass each other, as if people yearn to be stalled by his inane and cheery banter. He’s like a balloon that bobs in your face. He doesn’t know how to mind his own business, ignore others, and stick to his own kind. Like those in the retirement home four blocks east–why isn’t he living his last regrettable years there?

“I have things to do, cover up that animal carcass. Not everyone eats badly like you.”

Vita waves off Mr. Carpenter, then tries to hop up the steps two at a time to get exercise. She turns an ankle but rights herself and resumes. She ate a huge breakfast of oatmeal stuffed with currents and walnuts plus gluten-free toast plus an orange and it feels like it’s gone to belly fat already. This is what happens when your girl buddy and your boyfriend are too busy to bother with you.

This odorous incident is all she needs today to pummel her fragile mood. She did have plans. She was going out to dinner with Charles, but he has a last minute business trip or so he says. And reliable Terry hasn’t been such a fine best friend lately, ever since she got that promotion. Also since getting married. As if being wedded and climbing the ladder to success has power to dismantle an eight year friendship. How fair is it that two women of about forty end up like this, one now married and promoted and the other, herself, uncoupling (she fears) from Charles and finding her job as accountant at Sparling Paperworks so easy she cannot budge herself from its hypnotic lull to find another?

On the third floor landing she nearly runs right into Mr. Carpenter who steps aside in time, thus sending Vita bouncing onto the wall as she tries to avoid a crash.

“Sorry,” he says, “thought it better to not break my bones from a fall.”

“Really, Mr. Carpenter, can you only aggravate people?”

He makes a long face as if terribly hurt, then shrugs. “Do I? Well, why not come in? Only for a minute? I’ve been working on something. And I locked out beastly remains.”

Vita stares at his crooked black rimmed glasses which tend to slip down his distinctive narrow nose. What if it smells frightening in there? She doesn’t want to be entirely rude, has never been inside his place, not in over a year. Why on earth should she enter now, though? It’s likely piled up with detritus from his bumbling life, overcome with relics he sees as decorative and that he must tell her about in detail. Maybe he paints things, like green ware vases or velvet pictures. She suppresses a shudder, sets her head at an angle and looks him hard in the eyes.

“Oh, we won’t be much alone, don’t worry. I have Tobias and Ethel, Lucille and Gideon and so on.”

Mr. Carpenter opens his door. Curious despite his manner, she obliges more from being tired of it all. The conversation. The whole day.

It is not close to what she expects. For one thing, he introduces the inhabitants of his aquarium right off, those which he has already named and a slew of others. It takes up half a living room wall and is impressively lovely, making the warm blue room feel like a seascape, each fish gracefully making its way from one end to the other as if entirely pleased to do so. And no dirty clumps of disorder. No relics unless you want to consider paintings and a scattering of photographs as too aged and boring. But no, they are interesting to look at even as she is trying not to gawk. The furniture is mid-century modern and cleanly gleaming; there are lush potted plants placed at choice spots; a china cabinet filled with beautiful glass objects. It is almost elegant, if that’s possible in a less than stellar vintage apartment. It all does justice to the high ceilings and spacious rooms unlike her more pedestrian, haphazard interiors, she thinks, and finds herself following him through the rooms to the… kitchen.

Vita stops in the doorway, puts up her hands in protest. She can still smell some of his ruined dinner but not too badly; he likely cooked outside on that little hibachi she’s seen him use. Plus, there is a light room spray essence hanging in the air. She can deal with a quasi-tangerine scent since it masks the other.

“I salvaged some but it’s put away, no worries. What I have to show you is right over here…”

Mr. Carpenter moves to the farthest cupboard, turns and grins at her in anticipation before pulling out two small bluish glass bottles with stoppers. Vita crosses her arms against her chest and frowns.

He walks past her and takes a seat in the wallpapered–swans on a pond and willows overhanging, no less–breakfast nook. He sets the bottles on the round table.

“Come, have a seat there and help me decide.”

Vita sits down, suddenly worries he might be asking her to taste something. Perhaps he thinks he’s a gourmet cook and has developed fermenting sauces or worse. The rectangular bottles are about three inches tall. As sunlight falls across the space the contents look clear and harmless. She looks from the bottles to the hands that hold them, all spotty and edging toward wrinkly and fragile. Vita sighs audibly.

“What I have here are two of my newest creations. I have worked a long while, months, in fact. It has been dependent on my nose, rather my olfactory nerve functioning, and it was damaged by chemotherapy. I ended up with anosmia, no smell, then it became hyposmia, reduced sense of smell…Yes,” he squints at her over top of his glasses making their slow way downward,”I had cancer–throat–but now I don’t. And in the past year my it is coming back, slowly but surely! So I have begun again.”

Vita feels quite uncomfortable hearing this, yet she also feels a little nudge somewhere inside, something that asks her to be patient and fair. She wants to toss the nudge aside and just open the bottles but she sits still.

“I see. Well, what have you been whipping up here in your tidy kitchen? That I might want to know about?” Surely she could be nicer than this but no, she is not feeling it and she would rather get this over with and go back home. And bury herself in an eighties television series with a cold beer.

Mr. Carpenter twists open one bottle and pushes it across the table, right in front of Vita.

“Smell it.”

She can already smell it, however, cinnamon, perhaps citrus with a dab of vanilla and oddly, a bit of peppery something…or maybe something woodsy, a sharpness to it with flowery softness in there. It confounds her, and she can’t really find names for this amalgamation of fragrances unleashed.

She lifts it to her nose, holds it an inch away, sniffs very lightly. “It’s… perfume?”

“That’s the best you can do? What did you think, soy sauce? It’s a mixture of perfume essences, yes.” He slaps a palm against his forehead.

“Well, maybe…”

“I realize you’re unschooled. But you have a fine acute sense of smell. So I wondered what you could smell and what you think.”

Vita lists the disparate things she is able to sniff out and then shakes her head. She sniffs again, more generously.

“It’s like you let out a genie, it is taking over my brain! I can’t describe it exactly.”

“Yes, that might be part of the problem…part of solution…which top notes, which middle or base should be strengthened?”

“Wait a minute. How is it that you’re making perfume? Is it a late in life hobby? Is it a hidden quirkiness–you have this desire to inhale such scents? I mean, you have to admit, not very many…well, older men are making perfumes out there. And what do you mean by me having a good sense of smell? How do you even know that?”

Mr. Carpenter sat back and grinned at her. “It’s my profession, it was my life, my perfumery. But then it ended, I don’t make my living making perfume anymore. But once–and quite successfully.” He leans forward on his elbows, then holds hands out to her. “You think I moved here because I loved the place? It’s alright, more than okay. But I lived  much differently before the cancer. Before my wife died.” He lifts his bony shoulders high and lets them fall, hands rising and falling with them, an exaggerated nonchalance. “It’s what happens in life, you work, you get ahead if you can, you lose some and win some and then you get old. But I still love perfume making. So I start again. Who knows?”

Vita closes her mouth, which has hung open as he spoke frankly. “My gosh, that’s something,” she says then opens the second bottle. She is immediately enveloped by a thickly musky fragrance that is odd but warm, then there comes to her an underlying amber and something more. She closes her eyes.

“I know you have a nose because of all the smells you complain about. And some that you like are noted clearly, as well. Look at you.”

She opens her eyes and takes a fresh breath. “But you’re not around me very much, how do you know things like that.”

“I have friends here, “he says and laughs.”I have not lost my hearing, either. What do you think?”

“I like them, I have to admit. I mean, they seem a little unrefined, but–I don’t know anything about this. I just know what my nose takes in and they’re pretty good so far.” She sniffs one, then the other. “Ahhh. But they need work.”

“You should clear the nose first–coffee beans, one way, surely you’ve been to perfume counters. The synthetic perfumes are a different breed of thing altogether, don’t get me started…Anyway, it’s a start and I thank you for stopping by. I think they may have promise.”

He leans back and folds his hands in his lap, content.

“Yes, perhaps they do. But you tricked me, lured me in somehow.” She smiles despite herself. He looks so benign but she knows he’s sharp and crafty and that makes her like him a bit more.

“It is what it is, you’re here. It was my ruined meat dinner smell, remember, that started it all?”

“Please, no food talk. But you’re right. Mom used to say I could smell things from miles away or smell what no one else could. I smelled a gas leak way before anyone else when I was seven, so saved us, I guess. I have a sense of smell that can cause me issues at times, unfortunately…some people’s body odors that they don’t seem to realize emitting. A few food or cooking odors. Noxious plants or just too strong flowers–gardenias and lilies are way too much …I could go on. And I really don’t like most perfumes, either. Sorry.”

“You don’t like them because your nose is extremely discriminating and so many perfumes are not naturally derived. Ah, well. Much to learn but you might manage it, and help out. As I thought.”

Vita sits up. “What? Oh, no. I’m certainly not going to be some old guy’s accomplice in–in, well, an illegally run perfume manufacturing operation right in Mistral Manor! I have my standards, too!”

He laughs a little, then laughed harder, until his eyes watered and he took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “Vita, honestly!”

Vita is embarrassed by her outburst, knows it is foolish and perhaps mean, and is ready to leave. But those little bottles on the table pull her like a magnet pulls snug to metal. She fingers one and wonders over what he has said and how he is offering to teach her something different. Maybe fascinating. How she finds her job a mind-numbing bore. And how Charles is leaving her, she knows it as she sits here discussing perfume. He always wears one that she’s never liked but has been afraid to mention.

She forces herself to not run out. Instead, she clears her constricting throat, asks, “Do you have any tea?”

Mr. Carpenter pushes himself away from the table and gets up. Chooses a delicately aromatic rooibos and honeybush tea that he feels she will enjoy, and turns on the kettle. He feels a quiver of hope.

Vita props chin in hand and looks out the window at the tableau of balcony and beyond, sunshine intensifying the light turquoise dome of spring sky.

“Want to get rid of that buffalo out there so we can sit on your balcony?”

He does so, then opens wide the doors and ushers her through. There’s the offending hibachi, a few coals glowing, crusted with meat. They stand there watching the courtyard activities, children romping, dogs playing tag with each other, neighbors chortling and chatting, drinking cheap wine. Leisurely dinner hours. It hurts her, all this pleasure.

“I’ve got leftover spaghetti from last night. I can toss a salad. Want to eat with me? I warn you–I subject food to the microwave for reheating.”

She offered a sidelong glance of relief and defeat all mixed up. Then a smirk. “Sure, why not? My birthday celebratory dinner. Tonight I’m turning forty-one. And my boyfriend ditched me. Whoopee!”

“Whoopee!” he shouts after her. “You’re still alive and able to live a good life. You’re a bit over half my age and here we are making dinner together. And perfume. Imagine that. I may have found another feisty, goodhearted daughterly sidekick, mine’s long gone to Louisiana… Anyway, there are better critters in the pond to catch.”

“Now don’t go saying things that are foolish, you’re  annoying just when we were getting along okay. ‘Feisty’ sounds like one of those damned scrappy little dogs that are always fighting over someone else’s good bone…Oh… Well, then, what’s with the bit about being ‘goodhearted’? Watch out for misguided words and ideas. And further, I’m sure not looking for any frogs to kiss.”

She looks behind her but he’s shuffled into the kitchen. The kettle is whistling. There arise on both her arms sudden goose bumps despite the warm, sweet air. She can smell lilies of the valley, they’re down there beyond the grove of trees, under the bushes. Heaven. She goes inside.

“I’ll make the salad, I’m quite good with veggies. I might possibly be good with perfume. We’ll see.”

Mr. Carpenter pours the water for tea. He hums as he gives the casserole a preparatory stir, shoves it in the microwave and sets the timer. He then tears off a chunk of buffalo burger from a delicious patty he earlier stuck in a plastic baggie. Savors the taste, thanks in large part to having a gifted nose that delivers more and more flavors and aromas to his brain again. And now there are two: one with raw talent and one who may regain it. Life, he muses (as Vita gathers and sniffs tomatoes, onion, peppers and lettuce) is surprising and sweet far more often than he’d expected as a scrawny, tossed about, lonely kid. How fortunate to have been saved by his nose. As she could be, too.

 

The Ghostly Eye

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The experiment would not have been imagined at all without Glenna, who found a peculiar lump in her right breast. It was not the first one but the second. Since the first one had turned out to be nothing, she put off a mammogram and possible biopsy and went on with her hectic life. She maintained a great job at a burgeoning advertising agency and her three kids were used to her coming home late and helping out. She joked that the most tiring thing was expending considerable energy managing her husband, whom she adored. So life surged forward, as if pushed from behind. A few months later she found that lump again and it was larger. She had the mammogram. It was cancer. Had surgery and chemo and lived for over a year. Then was gone.

After four and a half months, Adelaine wasn’t anywhere close to being beyond the death of her best friend. She didn’t expect she ever would be. How far from it would she have to be, to not think of her daily and find tears crashing into her life like a mammoth wave? It was like looking into a canyon that had no bottom. Glenna had been her recovery sponsor, had felt also like the older sister she’d never had. They had both once been ill and became healthy, sober alcoholics; they had similar pale, unrestrained hair; a skewed sense of humor; and shared jewelry and purses any time desired. The first thing they did when they got up in the morning was call each other to see how they’d made it through the night, what their corresponding emotional temperature and mental clarity were after the first cup of coffee. And they often checked in before bedtime. Their spouses found this alternately amusing or aggravating–why didn’t they just move in together ? Maybe it was their being alcoholics; they could be weird sometimes but their husbands loved them. This was one quirky and deep friendship; they got okay with it.

The truth was, they didn’t get together that much, what with work and family needs. They waved “hello” from porches and cars as they hurried off each day (they lived across the street from one another). They took turns having monthly barbeques on week-ends. Occasionally when they got back from errands at the same time, they walked to the center of their quiet street. Stood there, getting in a quick catch up until a car came by and honked at them, at which point they huddled on a curb like gossiping old ladies and shouted to their kids to please take in the groceries.

Some days Adelaine, in need of advice, would stand on her porch and just whistle. She was good with a shrill and piercing whistle; a few dogs might come running. Then Glenna would step out and shout, “Okay, what’s up?” They’d take a quick walk if there was time. Adelaine would pour out her frustrations and her friend would tell her to “suck it up, take your own personal inventory not anyone else’s—all you have to do is stay sober today and be open to decent change, so keep it simple.” The hug was always a good one and off they went to their own houses, even if Adelaine thought Glenna often offered suggestions rather too simplified.

They went to AA meetings once a week if they could, but the rides to and from provided the only private time. Adelaine persuaded her friend into taking a few week-end trips over the years to scenic inns or city spots. In warm, drier weather they headed out for a day’s country outing, picnic basket in hand or backpacks loaded. But it was a challenge to slow down, enjoy being the close friends they agreed they were. So much other life was happening.

One of two last times Glenna spoke to Adelaine was a week before she died. She put her hand upon her shoulder, pulled her close and whispered so softly, pallid lips barely grazing her cheek: “Know yourself better now, not later, make sure your family knows who you are, too…” That, coupled with final words for Adelaine–“It’s been a good journey; you’ll always be dear to me”–were emblazoned within Adelaine. Played over and over in her mind as she worked at the medical lab and went through routines with family or attended recovery meetings. Whenever she took walks along the bluff where they liked to picnic, looking out over the passionate ocean that was coolly removed from her grief and confusion, she felt emptiness swell and take hold.

What was it Glenna wanted her to know about herself , to share more with her family? What was it Adelaine needed to do to live better? Or was it just the gearing down, taking time to be present in this moment. Something Glenna had long ago admitted was hardest for her to embrace–she had been born with the burden of nagging ambitiousness, unlike her friend. She’d once suggested to Adelaine that she was a dreamer cleverly disguised as a smartly efficient lab technician but hadn’t realized it yet.

The medical lab that employed Adelaine had undergone big changes. Two months after Glenna passed it had been absorbed by a bigger, more profitable lab and with that came a new manager and staff who then replaced various employees. When Adelaine got her pink slip, she was shocked. She had been there eleven years, she rarely missed work, she was very good at her job. It was one more boulder to load into her leaking boat of grief. She slept too much, sat gazing out the window, forgot to turn off the stove when the kettle went  dry. Her teen children were starting to give her sidelong looks. Dennis was tiring of his earnest but ineffective pep talks. He was afraid she might even drink.

Adelaine was not thinking of drinking. She was thinking of sleeping for a year and if that didn’t help, going on a very long trip on her bicycle with backpack and a tent. Would that take away the misery? Still, as far as the job was concerned, there was no denying that she had felt overworked and underpaid so she tried to see it as an opportunity for…something. What, she didn’t know.

She began cleaning and organizing; that was the only thing she could think of since-she had voluminous spare time to fill. It was a good way to empty her head as well. The spare room had a large closet that had to be opened with caution as it was piled and crammed. She was about an hour into it and feeling tiny relief from the chafing second skin of sadness, when she came across a shoe box of photographs, a big rubber band about it. Adelaine opened it, took out each picture with a jolt of memory. She had proudly developed her own photographs once, when she had taken a few classes in photography and film making during that first stab at sobriety. Eight long years ago. It had helped. She’d used the camera her father had given her, an ancient Voigtlander Bessa 35 mm Rangefinder. She’d felt a thrill using it, and took her fill of information in adult education over one autumn and winter. There had been a dark room where she brought to life her pictures. Mesmerized, absorbed by the process of bringing life to images on curling rolls of real film. She couldn’t recall why she had not taken more classes. Time issues, likely. Or a lack of follow through.

She came upon more boxes. One after the other, she sorted them: her son and daughter ((Tim and Cass, now thirteen and fifteen) building immense towers with blocks and odds and ends or playing with Tazz their German shepherd (alive) and two gerbils (dead), laughing with friends in the back yard, swimming at the indoor pool, walking along edges of the dramatic Pacific. Dennis, her husband, caught riding his ratty vintage bike, wrestling with Tim and playing darts with Cass, mowing the lawn, boating at a lake, snoring in his easy chair with books scattered about.

But where was she? She looked again. Dennis took a couple of pictures–he especially liked the old camera but not nearly as did she–and finally she found one. Adelaine was pushing back her long hair as she weeded the vegetable garden. She was squinting into the sun; it was hard to tell if she was smiling or making a face at him.

But that was it. No other pictures of mother and wife, the person called Adelaine. She wondered if it was the same with her digital files and realized that was the likely case. After all, she was the photographer of the family, a chronicler of their stories, the familial historian. She was the absent one in photographs, a ghostly eye behind the camera’s more accurate eye. And in an essential if obtuse way, she had been missing from her own life for a long while, too, ever since she had started to have an alcohol problem. Staying sober had brought her better in sync with most realms of living, yes. But had it brought her closer to herself? Or was she afraid?–or just lazy, as Glenna once insinuated with a gentle jab of an elbow. After all, she’d had nineteen years sober when she exited earth so clearly she had insights that made a difference.

Adelaine leaned back, smacked her knee. That was what Glenna said. That she needed to get to know herself more intimately. Perhaps there was time and a way to do that now. She would take self portraits! See what came forward. She’d use the easy digital so she could check each one, delete as needed; there’d be too many of those. It was settled. She wanted to explore photography, anyway.

******

The first one wasn’t so hard. She took a self portrait of bleary eyes and mussed up hair right after she awakened. And promptly deleted it. Then took it again, catching light streaming through the sheer embroidered curtains. She may as well show unadorned truth, who really arose from the depths of sleep. She looked baffled and shy. Then she snapped a group as various household tasks were undertaken, but when she checked them it seemed she’d made a mid-twentieth century ad for housewifery. They took her aback with their soothing emptiness, even though she knew it was honorable enough work. What could she do that was different, visually interesting?

So commenced her lone day trips. On the way, she found herself holding conversations with Glenna, telling her where she was headed and why and then it felt like she heard suggestions. She was drawn to parks, great emerald swaths with flowery trees, small creatures and colorful passersby. She got a shot of herself peering around a tree trunk, kneeling at a creek with stones in hand. She liked art galleries so snagged a few shots of herself standing between monstrous metal bugs and a huge garish abstract painting–both made her think of otherworldly landscapes. The gallery owners were not enthralled so she looked for outdoor public art. Sidled up to a General, admired a dazzling salmon the size of a whale. She found nooks amid shops, and crannies within countryside. She played with light, her face fully seen and half seen and unseen and her hair floated about her shoulders with its own life. But who was emerging was not who she had thought. She had a small edginess, a sassiness that had long escaped her notice. And that forceful sadness that nearly gave off sound waves, that shaped her mouth and stunned her eyes.

One time an idle young woman offered to take her picture at a burbling fountain in the square. She urged Adelaine to jump in. She hesitated then did so despite a sign forbidding it. She let water splash over her, sticking her arms through the cascade, looking up so water streamed over her face, sunshine gilding all. The picture was a favorite; she did something not expected to be done sober, and a stranger had made her laugh. A few adults gave her looks that may as well have been finger waggings but it felt liberating to dash, smiling and dripping, to her bike. The ride home was lovely despite a chill as breezes dried her.

Over the weeks, Adelaine found it harder to arrange such outings. She found fewer reasons as to why she had to meet someone another time of day or pick up the kids at a different spot or hide in the bedroom to spend another ten minutes to capture her mood and look before going out with Dennis. It was all to accommodate her self-portraiture. She found herself snapping pictures more often. At times she freed herself of the camera, setting it up with timer at ten seconds: dancing to loud Bjork in the middle of morning; as she tossed a heaping veggie-studded salad or poured a mug of coffee, stirring cream into steaming dark richness; in the back yard dirty and pleased among tomatoes and grapevines, marigolds and geraniums; in the car while waiting for Tim after soccer, impatient and scowling. She began to mug a bit, develop a congenial smile, wink as if she had said something smart and sly and funny. She recorded her moods which were becoming more variable.

She would often think of Glenna, say to her–“I know, an uppity sort of shot, who do I think I am?”–or sense her presence poking fun, egging her on, telling her what a creative, finicky and impatient but brave and good person she really was.

It almost eased the tension and heaviness she’d felt since losing her friend and then the job, and with both a chunk of self-esteem. Photography insisted she focus on something other than sorrow. It was self indulgent, too, but she didn’t care. It meant something…she would look at the pictures and feel confounded–who was this woman? How could she have faked it for so long? And was she still play acting, wearing a small, useless life like some raggedy costume? But she wanted the kids to have something of her other than fast hellos and goodbyes, besides the fussing or praise that parents always give. Something more than the mother they knew so well. Because there was more, much more, and she was just beginning to consider herself someone who hungered to explore life, who might be able to grow as she searched different avenues. To become a more complete someone, a better version. Not only sober–as if that was the final best she could offer now– but entirely Adelaine.

******

One night she was trying on different clothing for a series of shots long after Dennis was out for his monthly poker game and the kids were holed up in their rooms. She had many good clothes not worn now so why not play a bit before their donation? It seemed harmless, might be revealing. She set the camera on the master bedroom fireplace mantel, aimed it toward the space she would pose, then start the timer when ready.

She had just pulled on a shimmering cranberry red sheath not worn in a couple of years. It had been bought for a cocktail party during Christmas season. She turned and twisted in the full length mirror. The scoop neck and snug cut showed her good figure. She remembered Glenna and Terry had been there; all four of them had nabbed a table together. It was softly snowing, an oddity in Oregon, and green candles were throwing off a dance of light. They laughed readily, glad to be together and looking forward during Christmas. It was right before Glenna found the lump.

Adelaine’s feet were bare so she grabbed her black tennis shoes and slipped them on. Turned her head upside down and tousled and bunched her usually tamer hair. Put on a pair of silver dangly earrings. Left her lips palest pink and dusted on soft rouge, drew silver liner along each eyelid.  She glanced in the mirror. A slightly messy, glittery-eyed, curvy woman showing one comically arched eyebrow. A person veering toward nuttiness while feeling abandoned and adrift.

“Glenna ole girl, you might think this a waste but we didn’t get to goof off enough, did we? I think I get it now, what you were meaning…”

She set the camera timer, stepped back to her spot, put hands on hips and looked right into the camera, eyes unblinking as tears prickled, chapped lips holding loss like salt from the sea, then she began a smile as the camera took a shot.

There was a knock on the bedroom door.

“Who is it? Just a minute, hang on!”

“It’s just me,” Cass said and opened the door.

Adelaine froze. Cass gaped at her mother.

“What are you doing…? Or should I even ask?”

“I’m um, I’m just trying on some old clothes–”

“Playing…a kind of dress up?” Cass came closer and examined the dress. She touched her mother’s wild hair. She snickered over the shoes paired with such a dress. “I like it, sort of. Radical for you. A creative change… What were you going to do dressed like this? Not going out, right?”

Her expression showed horror at such a thought. She fingered her own short purple hair as she stared, as if comparing their two heads. Then she sat on the bed and shook her head at her mother and herself in the long mirror. They shared some features. Cass had always felt she was lucky to look like her mom not her dad, who was altogether paunchy middle-aged masculine from hairline to feet, not what he used to be, he said as he patted his stomach.

Adelaine felt relief fill her body, steady her mind. “No, I wasn’t going out. I was…” Too late, her eyes involuntarily went to her camera.

Cass followed her mother’s gaze. “You’re taking selfies?” She snorted. “Really? For what? Or for who?”

“Wait a minute, Cass, using a camera for self portraits was not always thought of as superficial, egotistical ‘selfies’. They were considered creative photography, they were important self expressions. It wasn’t so different from painting a self portrait or sculpting one. You must see it was a way of searching for and exposing a person’s real self, one’s deepest self with an honest eye, or making a creative composition of someone. Have you never heard of the famous Cindy Sherman, as a more contemporary example? She has made a career out of photographing herself in different guises.” She heard her voice increase volume but could not soften it.  “And I can also snap pictures of myself to help define who I am, don’t you think? I have been a mother and a wife, an alcoholic in recovery and a laboratory worker bee, but I am more than that, I am someone who has ideas of my own, more feelings unknown, a strong urge to create something good–”

Cass held up her hands, stood before her. “Mom! Mom, hold on a minute I didn’t mean to laugh at you. Exactly. I just wondered what you were doing. I get it. I get it, okay…? ”

“You cannot possibly get it.” Adelaine stood with arms limp at her sides, features fighting against crumpling. She kicked off the tennis shoes and reached for a brush on the dresser, her back to her daughter. “I lost my best friend, I lost my job, Cass. I’m trying so hard to stay positive so just let me do what I need to do.” She yanked it through her hair.

“I know, Mama… I know, maybe not like you do, but I know it hurts and I’m sorry. I really do know life can be so awful and hard. But you’re strong, Mom. I know that, too…”

She went to her mother, took the brush, led her to the bed and sat her down. She pulled it through the fading blond, knotted length, over and over. Adelaine closed her eyes, eyelids fluttering then clamping tight. The long even strokes were just how she brushed Cass’ hair for so many years. Now it was snipped so short; it was Cass’ style for now. Her own self expression.

“You want to see what else in your closet? You have any other good dresses I haven’t seen in awhile? I can finally wear your shoe size, right? I’ve been meaning to try on your spiky navy heels, though I really do not like heels, I actually want your tall black leather boots. Let’s try them all on.”

Adelaine stopped the brushing, pulled the brush from Cass’ fingers and took the almost unbearably young hand in hers. Held it briefly against her lips, then released her.

“Thank you, Cass, you’re a most loved daughter. Do not forget. Yes, let’s take out the old stuff I don’t know what to do with. You can have a pair of the high heels if you want, but you can’t keep my best boots, no way.”

When Dennis came home, he and Tim stopped in the master bedroom’s doorway and took in a strange scene: chaos. A phantasmagoria of fashion and footwear with Adelaine and Cass dressed in get-up they’d never seen them in and, luck holding out, might never again. But the females of the household were engaged in a hilarious romp, not even bothering to greet them.

“What is this, a weird play time for girls or are you just losing it?” Tim asked, hooting at their mismatched outfits.

So the men in the family left for their respective sanctuaries. But after a moment Dennis circled back, having seen the camera, and took a picture for a keepsake.

That night Adelaine stepped onto the bedroom’s balcony as Dennis slept, searching the stars, feeling Glenna nearby. She knew what she’d be doing tomorrow and the next day and the next: taking pictures, learning how to best capture others’ essences, finding her way toward film making, discovering how to tell truthful stories of real people. All those random pictures of herself? They’d taught her a few things, as Glenna had wished. They’d be there for the children to laugh and wonder over when she was long gone. She’d add many family pictures but more would hold her presence, Adelaine the human being–who was a mother, a wife, a friend and who knew what else. All healing up bit by bit.

These Clues to a Hidden Life

Roxie was at it again despite Phillip throwing her a sidelong glance. Her eyes swept over the name cards on the long crystal-and-china-dressed table, the mail stacked on an inlaid tray in the hallway. Books in the library called to her with possible personal notations right inside the covers. She knew she should mind her own business but it was difficult to ignore her passionate interest in handwriting.

The party’s voluminous conviviality and scents of beer, wine and mixed drinks swirled about her like gladly deranged toxins. She sneaked past them, into the back garden. No one would notice. Phillip was again caught up in a mesmerizing narrative of his latest humanitarian medical trip, this time to the Colombian jungle.

Roxie was a fan of Phillip’s; he was her husband. She was not a fan of dinner parties but went to a minimum of four a year, maximum of six. It was part of their recent negotiation whereupon he agreed to no longer fret and fume about her graphology business, Interpretive Analysis Enterprises (IAE), and she pledged to put on a good front for his increasingly public medical career. More precisely, humanitarian medical work’s fundraising. Once a year she threw the party, which required significant expense for catering services. She was at best a turkey meatloaf with boiled potatoes and steamed asparagus sort of cook. Meanwhile, they had never specifically addressed snooping around in random places and taking a peek at “graphology samples”, as she called all writing on personal or business envelopes, guest books at weddings, email or address request sheets at shops and galleries, etc.

She had noticed a pale sage green envelope with interesting writing. It had spirit, a decided intelligence. It lay on top of a small pile of papers in the tray set upon the hall table in Ella’s house. The woman was a remarkable party-thrower and good neighbor, but not truly tidy despite having a housekeeper in twice a week. Roxie could get writing samples here anytime if she kept her eyes open.

It wasn’t that she actually needed any, she just enjoyed them. Her business was going well, she had roughly ten new inquiries per week, most resulting in a new graphoanalysis client. She would have to put a cap on it soon if it kept up this rate of growth. It felt more like a full time job and less like a fun experiment, which is what it originally was a year ago. Roxie had wanted to see where her newly acquired skills could take her. She had gotten dull, too sluggish-minded as her twelve year old daughter seemed always busy and too fussy for much chat or even shopping and lunch–plus a husband who was an in-demand doctor. So she got quietly certified for graphology on her own. He had first seemed amused, then annoyed, then angry that she chose “to actually in fact pursue foolish hocus pocus”–despite her offering evidence to the contrary. But in time he’d softened just barely enough. It did make money; there was virtually no overhead.

Ella’s landscaped garden looked almost animated, a high moon shining like a silver dollar, flowers glowing beneath fairy lights that marked the lawn’s edges and two pathways. Ever deepening, color-tinged shadows were affecting. A few couples stood about in quiet groups, as if nature’s lushness lent a gentling effect. Roxie’s eyes roamed over the landscape and registered a flash of yellow amid greenery. She watched the woman wearing the sunny dress sink to a bench beneath purple azaleas. Her hands went to her face, and then she looked blankly into a narrow pathway bordered by hyacinths and tulips. It was Ella. She must have slipped away, too. Roxie was torn between restfulness of taking in fragrant spring air as she waited for Phillip to find her and wanting to thank her for the delicious dinner. Ella turned her head, then saw her neighbor friend on the patio by the double French doors. After a small pause, she gestured at her so Roxie joined her in the sheltered area.

After settling on the bench and thanking Ella for the grilled salmon dinner, Ella laid a hand on her forearm.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something. A favor, of sorts, a bit of advice.”

“What? I might be able to help. No promises, though.”

Ella’s strong features were made more dramatic in moonlight, her thick black hair in a loose bun at her neck, an aquiline nose a statement of pedigree, her usually pouty lips thinned as she pressed them together. She smiled nervously at Roxie, then looked down the pathway once more.

“I got a letter a couple of months ago from someone I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear from…but after some detective work I decided the person was likely the person indicated and so I replied. I wasn’t too encouraging, however. It’s…a difficult matter….but this person wrote back again! I got a second letter today, in fact. I didn’t even open it yet–gosh, I forgot to put it away with all the activity around the party. I’d better do that right after we talk.”

Her voice was inflected with the slightest reveal of anxiety. She looked about to check the immediate area was clear of eavesdroppers. Roxie was calmly listening, having already deduced the favor and decided that naturally she would analyze the writing of whomever had written Ella.

“Is it someone who, well, scares you a little? You seem unnerved.”

“I am. Scared? Well, the person is not someone I’d expected to hear from, not now. No, not ever. It was a visitation from the past…a reminder of decisions made out of utter disregard for the future. I was eighteen and now here I am nearly middle aged and one might hope that the past stayed in its place rather than sneak up on you, a cunning snake.”

“I see. Look, Ella, I understand what you mean but I can’t know who or what this is about, exactly. Can you clue me in more?”

“There you are, gorgeous!”

The women, startled, surveyed the area beyond their inadequate refuge.

“We’ve looked all over for our fabulous but errant ladies!”

The women gave one another a raised eyebrow, then surveyed the two bodies that gave forth those voices. Phillip and Tag peered at them, sloshing glasses carried with a lack of grace, arms about each other’s shoulders. Their husbands were more than a little loosened up, it seemed.

“The hostess always need be about for adoring guests, my darling…so why run off into these unattendant azaleas? A party headache crept up? Oh, sorry, Roxie, you’re there, that’s better. Or more than usual, different.”

His loosely connected speech made Tag seem someone quite other than who he was, Theodore Taggert “Tag” Huntley, esteemed lawyer and sought-after master of ceremonies at numerous events. He tended to be sober when everyone else was not. Phillip had a couple of traditional holiday drunk fests in him each year but Tag had had his way with alcohol–or it, with him– long ago and now rarely drank much, if at all.  They were such good friends that the women wondered how Tag had gotten so into his cups without being checked by Phillip.

“Here we come to gather you up from said flowers, in any case,” laughed Phillip.

They both had thrown caution to the wind, now found it funny joke they were all hiding in the bushes.

Roxie patted Ella’s hand; she gave it a squeeze in response.

“We’ll talk more soon, Roxie. It’s been good to sit with you.” She got up and took her husband’s arm. “Yes, Tag, I’m the dutiful hostess and you’re the more charming host and here we go back to the party. Perhaps it has gone on long enough, do you think?”

“What’s that about?” Roxie asked Phillip. “Isn’t he sticking to the straighter and narrower road?”

“It appears he slipped up, enjoyed himself a mite too much.”

“I must say the same goes for you. You almost sound poetic. Let’s head home, shall we, Mr. Stannis?”

Phillip put his good face close to hers, noses touching, and gave her an off-center kiss that she found delicious if messy.

******

“I’m  glad you were able to come by today. I have two hours totally free.”

Roxie ushered Ella into the solarium where she had her desk, a comfortable setting for clients.

“I really had to–it was that or enter a useless depression which doesn’t suit me at all. I’ve enough on my hands lately and need to keep my wits about me.”

Roxie wanted to know if the “enough” included Tag’s alcohol use, but kept quiet. Her usually social friend looked beleaguered. It had been three days since the dinner party.

“I brought them with me, both letters from Philadelphia.” She rooted around in her enormous soft blue leather handbag until she found them at the bottom. “Here you are…”

Roxie took them and set them on the side table. “Tell me a little more before we start. What am I going to be looking at, Ella? All you said during the phone call was a rehash of what you noted before and a request for my services.”

Ella pulled her thin shoulders back. “You’re so right, I became alarmed enough to let loose some concerns and you don’t even know what or why yet. This will not be easy, Roxie, please know how daunting, even embarrassing it is.” She smoothed the floral fabric on both arms of the sumptuous chair, then clasped her hands in her lap. “I was eighteen. It was the summer before I went to Mills College. I was a camp counselor for the second year in a row and I valued that job. I’d always enjoyed kids, and it felt like the last time I’d be able to have fun while making a little money. I might have gone to Tuscany as my parents had planned a vacation, but I’d been to Europe the year before–and who wanted to go with parents at eighteen?– so I felt inclined to stay home. They went off for two months. I went to camp, so to speak, for the entire summer.”

She reached for a glass of iced water on the glass topped coffee table, next to a plate of apple slices and cheese. Roxie had missed lunch so grabbed a slice of both, then leaned close in.

“That was so independent of you–to turn down a cushy trip to work with rascally kids!”

“I know it doesn’t seem like the reasonable decision, but I also had another agenda. I knew there was freedom there–I had a day off once a week and a couple of evenings as well. Beyond the 8 to 6 routines and activities, I could be free as a second year counselor to other activities with a few co-workers We were on a pretty lake for sailing and swims, and Camp Clearwater was two miles from a small town. I had my car. There were things to do–a pool hall, a cafe where they had great BLT sandwiches– or at least it felt like there were interesting options then.”

Ella’s eyes warmed as she talked on, hands moving expressively with words. Roxie was distracted by the redundant buzzing of a captive fly and watched Wiley the cat’s tail switch as he stalked the insect. She let imagination take her to a lakefront with its hoards of bugs, simmering summer air. She imagined Ella as more captivating than even presently, already tall and willowy and tanned (Roxie had then felt like a cookie cutter girl, and was barely five foot five). There were boats zooming about the lake, kids swimming and diving, male counselors splashing female counselors, and all glittered in brazen summer light or glistened in that otherworldly manner of moon’s opalescent light.

Heavenly. And she got paid for all that? Roxie was washing and waxing cars at her uncle’s car wash her last summer at home.

“And there was Rod.”

Roxie shook off her reverie, attended to at her friend.

“Rod? Another counselor or a townie?”

“Oh, he was a counselor. I knew he’d be there again; we had written off and on during our senior year.”

“I see. So you two were… in love?”

“I didn’t really think so until I saw him again. He had bright auburn hair, freckles scattered over his nose and cheekbones and the deepest blue eyes…I mean, none of this had changed from before. But it was how he wore those freckles that summer, how he carried himself, how he talked to people. To me. As if he had something to say that I–we–might want to hear. A natural leader had started to form. The kids loved him, he was fun as well as just strict enough. And I certainly heard him loud and clear.” Ella turned to study Roxie, eyes squinted as if trying to ascertain more than she could see. “Didn’t you have a first love like that?”

“Sure. I married him.”

“Oh.” She seemed disappointed. “Well, this was something entirely unexpected. I was going to college in a couple of months and I just meant to have some fun but Rod was so, he was just …too much… for me. I fell in love, hard. But he entirely disappeared from my life after camp ended.”

Roxie frowned at the idea of heartbreak. Waited as Ella collected herself. It had to have been something pretty fantastic. Roxie helped herself to another cheddar and apple slice then settled into her matching floral love seat, two sage green envelopes now in hand.

“This is intriguing. Also tough. But I’m wondering who these letters are from. I look forward to studying the handwriting but my question is: who are they from, Ella? is it Rod? Did he reach out to you after all this time?”

Ella suddenly covered her face, then peered out from between gaping fingers, trying to steady her voice. “No. They are from…from, uh, our daughter. The one I gave birth to, then gave up for adoption the year I was supposed to be a college freshman! She’s now twenty four! And she’s tracked me down…”

Roxie nodded as Ella revealed her misery. She had about decided it was something like that. It had happened to too many girls. Abortion wasn’t necessarily a desired much less legal answer then. She could never have done it. But she was taken aback by the effect giving birth so young was having on Ella even now. She wasn’t just thrown off guard by the proffered letters–she assumed they’d arrived out of the blue–but Ella seemed fearful, as she had the night of the party.

“I understand, this is not an easy thing to assimilate after so long with such a lack of information available to you, I assume. Do you want to keep corresponding, find out more about her? Meet, perhaps?”

Ella’s face was slack with sorrow, marred by uncertainty. “I just don’t know. What I would like now is your very appreciated help. I need to know what you see in her handwriting, what you can tell me  about her. You will still do that?”

“Yes, of course.” She pulled out the letters, opened them up.

Roxie didn’t read for content at all the first few times. What sentences told meant far less to her than the actual means to the end product. So she rapidly scanned first, then studied diligently. The flow of the words told a story, the shapes of them and their separate letters, spaces between both, the pressure of pen or pencil or felt tip, the endings and beginnings of letters and loops above and below a central line. The slants of the writing, if and where it was cursive or printed. The rhythm of it and its size, the uniformity or the lack of it. How were the “ts” crossed, with a light line or a slashing one, a sturdy crossing or a bare half-line? Was the bottom loop athletic and sensual, thwarted, independent, efficient, angry? There was so much to take in that Roxie savored and noted and studied again, then memos were sent to her brain and she looked over things again. By the end of the writer’s second page, the script had relaxed a little, not surprisingly. And the signature was altogether different than the rest–as often it was: public persona versus private human being.

“Well? What do you see?” Ella was on the edge of her seat.

“It will take time, Ella, quite a bit of it. I can take an hour now and give you a very cursory evaluation or take several hours and get back to you.”

“Take your time, please. I need to know the truth, as much of it as you can possibly gather.”

“Alright. Give me a couple of days. I have another job or two ahead of this.”

“Of course. I’ll pay your rate, don’t say no.  But please don’t say anything to Phillip– or anyone.”

“I wouldn’t think of it; there are ethics involved.”

Roxie led her out to the front door and then got back to work.

******

It wasn’t hard to determine that Frances Reynolds was a bright, rather circumspect, hard working, emotionally sensitive person. She was an empathetic person but she was also likely to get prickly, was  given to dependence on others, ambitious in spite of that yet also self doubting. Given to excesses emotionally at times and perhaps behaviorally, likely not terrible things. The pronoun “I” was very small compared to the rest of the capital letters, nearly protectively enclosed in a circular stroke. Roxie mused over the young woman’s intense desire to meet her biological mother, over how much her being adopted might have impacted her sense of self worth. It might have been something else that created a sense of identity lacking in sturdy confidence. The sizable, even spacing indicated a more cautious nature despite her taking the chance to reach out to Ella. Full lower loops on letters “y” and “g” for two appeared to indicate Frances’ physicality, strong physical needs as well as a likely imaginative tendency, well supported by other indicators.

Roxie spent two afternoons going over the letters with singular concentration. She did not want to disappoint her friend with a sloppy review of personal characteristics belonging to someone this important. Rarely had anyone who requested her services done so as a mere lark. It was always serious business but if so. Roxie had noted on her website that she strongly advised against it (no “gag” gift certificates, please). Graphology could make a significant difference in a person’s view of another, for good or ill. It could ferret out tendencies if not also clear-cut behaviors that might be heretofore unknown to the requester. For police or psychological aid, this was entirely useful.

In the wrong hands, it could be devastating.

Ella had never even met the young woman who was likely her lost daughter, a pregnancy the result of a youthful, passionate and all too brief love affair. Roxie did not want to form a picture that would irrevocably influence a mother’s decision, even if she saw her once and that was that. It had to be an  addendum to Ella’s carefully wrought determination. Meeting the girl would tell the greater story.

She called Ella to set up another appointment.

******

When Roxie was finished the results of her analysis, Ella asked her if she thought Frances Reynolds was, after all was said and done, “the sort of person I truly should allow into my life. She seems to be!”

Roxie was taken aback by this. Frances was, after all, her daughter and despite the trauma adoption may or may not have incited, she had gone this far, replying to Frances’ letter once and asking for Roxie’s graphological insights.

“Is that the reason you actually brought the letters to me? I can’t decide for you, Ella, it has to be what you feel is right, how your see her presence in your life and what it means to your family. You have two grown sons, you have a husband. How do you see all this affecting the big picture?”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not only meeting Frances, having a serious cry and perhaps trying to make a kind of bridge–or perhaps just parting ways. She may want to enter our greater lives. I may even want her there.” She twisted a tissue in her hands. So far she had not wept. “But Tag will not, I can assure you…”

“Ah, I’d thought of that. But why assume this to be true?”

“He would find it entirely inconvenient right now since he’s running for the city council– and very embarrassing. Disappointing on one level or another. I worry every day he’ll find out she even wrote me. If I actually meet up with her…he would be so upset with me. With us.”

Roxie thought about Tag, his inherent sense of justice, his accolades in his field, a generous nature and seeming good humor. It was hard for her to believe he would turn his back on her at such a time. Unless she did not have a good idea of who he was. Or he was drinking heavily again–then things got messy. But Phillip had assured her it was not the case. So maybe she was too ashamed or conflicted, herself.

“Maybe that deduction allows you to feel…protected somehow. Like you have an automatic ‘out’…?”

“I think not, Roxie! I can make my own decisions but I DO have a family already, don’t I? We have a life, a future.”

Roxie looked out the window at the waning sun, a light rain spattering the flowers. “I think Frances–who also has a life– just wants to meet you, the woman who gave her life. You don’t have to decide anything much right off the bat, do you?” She cleared her throat, hesitantly asked, “Is Tag going at the booze again?”

Ella looked up sharply at her neighborly friend. Her new and only support. “No. But I worry he might again, especially after the party. Especially if I tell him this news, the big truth I omitted from the start…”

They sat in silence awhile. Wiley the cat got up from the floor, front paws stretched out long, back end in the air, then sauntered out the room, rubbing against Roxie’s leg as he went. How simple a life to live, sunning, eating, chasing more flies, sniffing flowers and yet another nap.

“Well, I do thank you, Roxie. Frances seems like a decent and lovely human being, a young woman who is making her own way after college. Who just wants to see if I am even worth knowing. I don’t blame her a bit after what I did, leaving her behind.” Her voice lapsed into a quiet rasp and one, then another tear trickled down.

Roxie let her be. She didn’t want to intrude on those innermost feelings and her private space. They were not that close though closer now. Keeping such secrets was a demanding part of her work. Anyway, she couldn’t pretend to know how this would all play out. It might become very rough.  Nor did she know how Ella felt in the middle of the night with memories breaking open, likely regrets of one kind or another, and Tag lying beside her with cozy with an innocent snore. She didn’t always have good news to offer people who came to her with the driving need to know the truth.

Did they really? she often speculated. Did people want the truth, after all, if it was not what was suspected or desired? Or did they want only confirmation of the best or worst of someone they loved or hated, or hoped to know or were trying like crazy to forget? The story was never exactly as it appeared, not even as Roxie discerned it on the page. She knew that. But people came to her hoping it would eliminate fear or worry or misgivings; bolster dreams or goals or arguments or clarify life when they could not clarify it themselves. She was not an oracle, not a soothsayer. She could only find the complex clues and offer what she thought would help. Not even all the clues. There was such depth of uniqueness, that layered singularity of a person, so that such shadows and secrets could be at times clouded by the hand that scrawled across the page. Did we even know ourselves, Roxie wondered?

So she was careful with the information that could make a needed difference. And was she right to determine which she told and which she held back? No, her work was getting harder the more she understood, the more she talked with her clients, and people had begun to seem more mysterious.

Ella pressed the tissue against her pale cheeks and stood up, life-altering letters pushed into the depths of her blue bag, the other hand protectively pressing it close to her side.

“Thank you for your help, your patience with all this,” she said and held Rosie’s warm hand in both of her cool ones. “I’ll let you know what happens. If anything happens.”

And she smiled that sunny welcoming smile that must have pulled Rod closer. But it was a mad hormone-fueled summer they got caught up in while trying on more freedom. A powerful trickery of summered water and earth, a time shared in delight and surprise. And then let go.

But Ella would look into her daughter’s eyes and discover a great deal more. Pain, yes, but also a chance at happiness she would not otherwise get to experience: the presence of her own blood and bone designed into an exquisitely new female human being. One of her own.

Roxie closed the heavy door, leaned on it a moment. She sighed deeply and wound her way through the quiet rambling house, out the back way to her damp and sweetly beckoning garden, Wiley, too, but dashing off.

 

Note to readers: This is the second of short stories about graphology and Roxie. The first may be read here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/more-hocus-pocus/