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/

 

A Trail to Somewhere

It was a little like following a trail of beautiful blood, Percy thought as he stared at carefully dropped blossoms and then wondered what was wrong with him, anyway. They were lovely camellias yet surprising, somehow a bit shocking as he plodded along. He did hope no one just plucked them off the branches willy nilly.

He had decided to get out since his miserable cold had abated but he hadn’t gotten too far. Buster Keaton, his lame Jack Russell terrier, was more eager to walk him than the other way around. He gave a firm command; his dog heeled. The red petals seemed to interest the dog very little, while Percy found them by far the most intriguing event of his day. But it was only noon, no telling what was next, he had the rest of the day ahead of him to look for something, anything, of interest.

This was the trouble with the aptly yet oddly named “sunset years.” He’d been warned that unless he rediscovered or developed new hobbies, took a couple of classes or an exotic trip, he could end up bored beyond tears. He waved off the suggestions; he was a homebody at heart. He liked to cook, he liked to read and write meandering letters, he liked to listen to opera while tending his vegetable garden. And he went out on (very easy) hikes now and again in good weather. He had Buster Keaton and some human friends.

Although being bored to tears was a silly saying and an overstatement, there was something to be said for at least having a fine dog that engaged attention. If you could call taking him for brief walks twice a day and explaining to him the finer points of antique and flea market treasure hunting during favorite t.v. shows–as Buster gazed at him with barest interest–actual attention for either of them. His well-behaved dog was amenable; he was a quieter canine, being twelve and sort of gimpy (a broken leg had not healed correctly). He liked to snuggle beside him on the sofa, but not too much. The truth was, they were both a bit humdrum these days. The sunsets they witnessed had not been so utterly wonderful as what the later life forecasts had insisted.

But this flower trail was interesting. Percy gently poked at the first flower with his walking stick. It had been plucked or gathered a couple of days, he ascertained, as it was not quite browning about the edges but more wilty than fresh should be. They were placed in a deliberate pattern, each one set upon the intersections of sidewalk slab lines. It was puzzling out red dots with occasional dashes, a sort of code. Every now and then one was off-mark. Percy wondered if this was due to walkers or creatures kicking aside a few. Or perhaps the flower dropper got distracted.

Percy sighed. This sad little activity he was undertaking! It was a relevant summation of his life since leaving his active position. He was the founding half, the Rowell  of the co-owned Rowell and Randall Interiors. So little to get excited about yet his doctor had warned that peace was essential for a long lived heart. It was only himself at home, he affirmed when inquisitive people pelted him with questions about his private life–except for good Buster Keaton. He had never been deeply moved to marry. He had frankly not really met a singular woman–oh, he’d known a few, if he only could have melded them into one–more interesting than his four best friends. And his varied dogs, let’s face it, they were the most loyal of all.

Perhaps this had resulted from staying too close to home. He’d worked long hours, sometimes arriving home around ten at night, exhausted. His business partner, Wilkie Randall, still found plenty to do with a wife and three kids and now those grandkids he never stopped talking about. And they traveled and they entertained a slew of relatives and friends and so on. Percy had been to a good many dinners, was quite fond of the colorful family. It was all well and good for Wilkie but it usually left Percy desperate for fresh air and resounding silence after two hours. They had people coming and going all day long at the store, wasn’t that ever enough? But Wilkie was nearly twelve years younger, he had yet more steam.

And now every day Percy had all this substantive, variable… quietness.

Good grief, the blossom trail kept on. Buster sniffed here and there after he completed his task. Absolutely no one was about–no, wait, there was a fully grown up skateboarder cruising along with purple helmet and plaid Bermuda shorts, for goodness’ sake, and the trusty mailman was scurrying from house to house. But no person was strolling about with a basket of camellias on her arm. It might be a girl of perhaps seven or eight who’d been playing the evening before, he had about decided. Sunlight brightened sky and streets longer since spring. Children were often outdoors past seven-thirty, about when he was sitting down to dinner.

It might have been created with a friend or for a parent close behind or for her own simple entertainment, he thought. To intrigue people like Percy, the ones who had nothing better to do than look about and dawdle. But it seemed intentional, as if it meant something more. He and Buster Keaton kept on, following until they rounded a corner and the trail changed. It got more flowery, small groupings of white as well as red in a pleasant if quite artless design. Now it curved at a driveway, made its way to the base of a tree. Percy gawked and recalled the attractive contemporary house belonged to the Saransons. They had additionally built a well proportioned, two-roomed tree house. It perched in an ancient chestnut tree in the side yard near the garage. It was built when their sons were born. He stepped onto the grass. What were their names?

Something fell onto Buster’s head; he shook it vigorously and the tiny twig somehow caught on his collar, bounced off. He then barked right up the tree. Another object struck him on the back, this time a green plastic cap off a drink bottle; it slipped off Buster’s back, then rolled down the driveway.

Percy was worried about what might be next so stepped back into the driveway, yanking at Buster.

“Ahoy, there! My dog doesn’t like being thunked. Show yourself.”

“This isn’t a boat in a tree, it’s a very small house if you take a good look.” The disembodied, irritated voice was not easily identifiable as male or female. More branches rattled for emphasis and ensured movement was being made to likely disembark. Or climb down, more realistically.

“Well, Captain, I can see that, home interiors is my business!” Percy tried again, this time lowering his voice. “Sorry for the misnomer. I’m Percy Rowell of Taylor Street”–he gestured in the direction from which he came–“and this is Buster Keaton, said dog. Which of the Saransons are you?”

“Oh, hey Mr. Rowell, I know you. It’s Jeremy.” There was a creaking of wooden limbs, a jiggle of more branches. “Sorry to bother Buster. It wasn’t on purpose. Really.”

There was a pause, then a thud as the boy’s weight made contact with decking around the tree house. Percy could just see flashy tennis shoes, then frayed hems of jeans. Jeremy bent down, poked his head between bright green leaves and put on a fair smile through which very white, slightly crooked front teeth showed. The boy turned around, backed down a handmade ladder nailed to the old tree.

When Jeremy touched ground, he plunged his hands into back pockets, long arms now all jutting elbows. Nodded his head. “Mr. Rowell.” He bent down and slowly reached to Buster, then patted his smooth head. “Hey Buster you survive, little buddy? I was just cleaning up junk.”

“Don’t you have school?” Percy asked, eyeing both houses suspiciously. His parents worked, he knew.

“I had a cold. One more day to recuperate.” With his sneaker toe he pushed a rock onto a hole in the concrete driveway, then gave it a swift kick.

Percy thought he looked well enough, hair tufted and unclean, perhaps. A gangling boy on verge of growing up. Nothing at all like he, himself, appeared when he’d hazarded a glance in bathroom mirror a couple of days ago between sneezes: drawn, sallow face with reddened bulb of a nose smack in the middle of a saggy mess. But Jeremy was all of maybe thirteen or fourteen. Kids bounced back from most everything.

“Going around. Just had it myself.”

He studied the tree house now he was up close. It had screened windows, green shutters. Two folding camp chairs were on the deck. Peaked roof with a circular window at the point. Compact, made of redwood like the grown up version next to it.

But he thought about the flowers, how they’d petered out at the driveway; this was why he’d stopped.

“Impressive–it must’ve been fun for you and your brother.”

“Me and Todd. He graduated last year.” He shifted his weight, as if deciding whether to take off now or keep chatting with the neighborhood retiree. “I still escape there sometimes. Like last night, then today.”

“I recall he’s at Notre Dame.  Say, Jeremy, I was wondering…” His eyes turned toward the camellias, a few bunched up flowers here and there, some crushed by the tires that ran over them as the boy’s parents left for work. “Do you know who dropped these around the neighborhood? They put effort into making a pretty trail. Maybe it led to you…?”

When he looked up, the boy’s head was hanging. “Uh, yeah.”

Percy’s eyebrows shot up but spoke with nonchalance. “Oh, I see.”

“Yeah, I was making a fun thing for a friend of mine, you know, wondering if she’d notice it, then–well, I was just fooling around, that’s all, it was actually stupid to do. Dad said to clean it up today since I’m basically playing hooky as my cold is actually gone.” His cheeks pinked up  and he sounded almost angry as he bent down to rub Buster’s ears, who playfully barked twice. “They were mostly fallen, so I was moving them out of our yard!”

Percy picked up a couple of deep pink blossoms, smoothed their silken thick petals. Curious flower, luxuriant, strikingly vivid for a short time and then a fading, slippery mess as they plopped to the ground. And with nary a fragrance.

Curious thing for Jeremy to do.

“I have to walk Buster back home and get him a treat. Want to walk with me as you pick them up? I sort of wish you didn’t have to, they make the sidewalk more attractive.”

“I can do that, I guess. They were supposed to look nice–to get her attention.” He threw Percy a half-smile as they started off. “But it didn’t work out.” He folded inward a little, loped along beside the rotund older man and a re-energized, limping dog, then began to pick up blossoms and put them on the side of the walk.

“Here’s an extra doggy bag to put them into. Less mess by the sidewalk as they decay.” Jeremy took the bag and stuffed more flowers in it.”I can’t imagine what was wrong with that girl you mentioned. It seems a good idea, following flowers to a nice boy who has an interest. She live around here so she could see even the trail?” He glanced at the boy, who looked sullen. “None of my business, sorry.”

“It’s okay, I don’t care. It’s Loreena, on your street here, across and down a few houses from you.”

Percy strained his memory to bring up a picture of Loreena and could only get the barest hint of a tow-headed child on a small red two-wheeler. He had no idea who she was now. He saw all the kids at the annual summer block party and on the street at times, but their faces apparently had either blurred or never evolved as they aged.

“I’m sorry. I do remember a blond child of maybe eight or ten? Always racing her red bike with the rest of you up and down the streets?”

“Yeah, she’s still athletic. Anyway, she’s fourteen now, like me and I thought, I mean, we’d always been really good friends, and at school we talk sometimes and then…” He smashed more blossoms into the plastic bag then stopped. “Dumb ideas I get! That maybe she liked me, too, you know?”

“I see. Well, it was a thoughtful thing to do, I’d think anyone should like it. Maybe she was just not around?”

They were close to Percy’s house and he wondered if he should ask Jeremy to sit on the porch with an iced tea, would that be an awkward thing to do? Buster was starting to tug at the leash.

“She was out, alright, with her girlfriends. They sat on her porch talking and laughing–they saw me– and when I got halfway up the block with the camellias they went inside. I just tossed the rest and went back home. I’d left a note in her locker to follow the trail…” He kicked at the blossoms before him. “I saw a movie once, there were rose petals that led the girl to, well, bed, but that wasn’t what I was trying to do, I just really like her. You know? She’s special. I thought.”

The hurt had surfaced now, was spilling out despite a small shred of dignity left, and bottled up outrage. Percy didn’t know what to say to him. It was such a romantic thing to do that Percy wondered it Jeremy had the heart of an artist or poet.

Well, yes, his father had mentioned he played piano and guitar, and said he was quite good. He must have true leanings of a dreamer. How hard it was to be fourteen.

Jeremy had gone on to gather the rest of the flowers and now turned back to Percy, face blotchy and eyes half closed, downcast.

“I’m just so glad she’s at school so she can’t see me doing this! It was bad enough that she knew I was outdoors, all those lying there for her!”

Percy reined in Buster who barked impatiently. It was time for his treat. Percy would read the historical novel he had just begun, then they might doze a little. Still, something nudged him.

“You like an iced tea? It’s so nice I thought I’d sit on the porch a bit.”

“What?” Jeremy looked at the man he’d been talking with so openly as if he saw him for the first time. “Oh, Mr. Rowell, I have to, well, I should–” He rubbed his messy hair with a knuckly fist then let his whole trunk go slack. “Yeah, why not? I’m sort of thirsty.  Not much else happening.”

Percy arranged two medium-sized glasses–he didn’t want Jeremy to feel trapped there by a full taller glass– with a bowl of sugar and a spoon on the small metal table. He set down a plate of Girl Scout chocolate mint cookies as well. Jeremy took a seat in a matching chair, then Percy sat opposite. They sipped and ate cookies, watched the cars go by. There was a decent view of the house where Loreena lived, Jeremy said and pointed it out. They talked about the warming spring weather and all the dogs taking over the neighborhood and then a little about his school.

“You married, Mr. Rowell? I think you live alone here, right? Sorry if I shouldn’t ask.”

Percy looked down at his glass in hand. He shook the ice cubes around, felt the wet chill of the tumblerin his warm hand, how it meant summer was coming, too. “It’s alright, everyone asks. No, I never married any gal, Jeremy. No, I’m not gay.”

“I didn’t mean that–I wouldn’t care.  To each their own.”

Percy lifted his glass and Jeremy lifted his as well in a gesture of solidarity.

“No, I never found the right one, so to speak. They say there is a someone for everyone but I’m not entirely convinced. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. I was driven by my work, I’ve really loved interior designing. Then there was the store’s solid and growing success. I guess I dedicated my life energy to making things look and feel aesthetically balanced and exceptional–to following an artistic sensibility.” He looked at the boy, who nodded.”I dated some when I was young.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, there was one girl.” He took a quaff of tea. “She was always on the arm of another college man, a football player, of course, right? We had been in classes together a couple of times. I got her attention by painting a watercolor of public gardens she said she liked. She loved it, fell all over herself with appreciation and gave me a kiss… on the cheek. Though she liked me, I was not him, not the right guy, it was that simple.”

They sat in silence a few moments.

Jeremy turned in his seat. “Was she smart and cute? Loreena really is… But you just let her go, huh?”

“Oh, she was more than cute and smart, she was elegant and brilliant and sporty all in one. I thought she was about perfect. No, there was no hope. We both became interior designers, remained friendly after college. She married someone else entirely. But except for our paths crossing now and again, that was that.”

Percy felt emptied. Felt sweaty, a bit breathless, as if telling that nearly forgotten story had hollowed him out. But he remained calm and waited for Jeremy to say something.

“Yep, I could about see Loreena come and go if I sat here. Well, not a good idea, either.” He turned to the aging gentleman. “I guess we all have this stuff happen. I’m sorry for us both, kinda, you know?”

“Jeremy, just give things in your life a chance, some patience. You might see her in the future or you might find another girl. Or you might end up with just your music and be entirely happy.” He glanced at the boy, who looked surprised. “You dad told me you’re a musician.”

“Yes I am, Mr. Rowell, or sure hope to be.”

“Good.”

Percy fidgeted. He was feeling a smidgen self-conscious now and restless. He longed to go in, jjust read that next chapter in his book. Buster Keaton was scratching now and then at the screened door.

“Well, I should get back home. I’ve got more cleaning up and honestly, I’m sorta tired out by the mess I made of things.”

Jeremy finished off the tea and one more cookie then stood up. It was clear he’d be a taller man, likely gaunt like his dad, perhaps a good thing as a moody musician. But he had honest and quick brown eyes, a good way about him. He held out his hand to the much older man.

“It was nice talking to you. Really, thanks.”

Percy grasped the strong hand. “I’m glad I was curious about your camellia trail. I’d like to hear your music one day. I’m a quite good cook. I need to invite the three of you over for a meal. And by the way, if you ever want to make some cash doing lawn work…” He gestured at his grass and bushes, in need of help.

“Both sound good, catch you later!” Jeremy ran down the steps, waving.

Percy watched a fine boy, a soon-to-be-young-man, a decent human being in the making. He felt quietly happy.  Entered his house, scooped up Buster Keaton who put his damp, cool nose on his double chin. Found a treat for the creature and then his book. They settled in for who knew how long. Percy knew they had just the right amount of time left in the day and any others to come.

 

 

The Convening, Part 1

In the village of Quazama there came restless spirits, snatching gold, green and red leaves from mammoth branches and spinning them to earth, making the sweet air heavier with heat, and sending an urgency squalling about the temple to assure the Grand Baraxus was paying attention. The dole houses were abuzz with labors as usual, and the fields were weighed down by vegetation that would feed well the many and spare the rest–those unable to work– any grief of starvation. The Grand Baraxus surveyed his small kingdom and found it good, while his chief Sentry whispered in his ear that a convening was soon needed.

“It is yet early, no need to move fast,” he said with the usual barest smile that preceded impatient reproval. “Surely Martram cannot be plotting once more when he knows so well who holds all power. Mind your attitude, Sentry.”

This was all said with an arrogant satisfaction; the feelings rested on his visage much like the expectancy of a victorious hunt. Yes, much had been done to himself by that scheming miscreant but much more had been undone by himself in the last brutal Discord.

Sentry O stepped two feet to the side and waited. He knew better than to press the matter though written word had arrived to him only moments ago. Time should not be wasted. He fingered the packet in his short robe now and felt the terrible heat of Martram’s rebellion. Sentry O was loyal to The Grand Baraxus as that was his only job. He was tired of trying to convince the man he was not entirely invincible. He had weaknesses others could spot even if he could not. Six times Quazama had given rise to leaders who had wielded the heft of their power and also discovered where it stopped. Not so Baraxus. Useful, potent insights could be obscured, even blotted out by the sheer force of ignorance of one’s self. This, Sentry O knew well. He had served nearly his entire life and now that his knees were bony and his skin loosening, eyes failing and hair leaving his lumpy head he wished only to rest. Not to plot with a ruler who cared less for all his people than one more rapacious bug. But rule he did. Sentry O blinked his eyes to erase this repugnant awareness. If such thoughts were seen in his face, he wouldn’t have time to plan his funeral celebration as he’d be vanquished in an instant. He had his family to consider, and his legacy.

Beyond the temple terracing lay the village Sentry O was so fortunate to be born into. Greenery and light were ubiquitous. The foliage flushed the air with a perfume by turns bright and sweet or darkly sweeter, depending on temperature of the air–or a warning spiritual agitation that came from far away, no one knew from where anymore. There were fifty dole houses, another to soon  be added after his granddaughter came of age and chose her path. Although Sentry O felt her path was already chosen. He wanted to see what she might do before he failed to wake once and for all. Naliya knew her heart; her mind knew far more than she yet realized. But her good mother, Terl, was loathe to let her go. He turned back to Grand Braxas and waited to hear what was expected next, and loosened a shuddering sigh.

******

Crickets greeted her with a chorus of beautiful noise. River slipped through its banks in a surge of energetic melody. Light fed the water, Naliya thought as she filled the jugs, that was why it always shone. But today it was swift and cool and its blueness verged on purplish in its whorls and spouts. She frowned, looked upward. The sky was the same, open and brilliant. Her half-pale, half-inky hair flew above her head in a sudden gust and she pivoted to look all about. Three of the riverine deer were there as usual but only bobbed their fine heads at her, then reared up and dashed away. Naliya listened to the water, crickets, wind and heard a frenzy. She  hoisted the jugs on her sturdy shoulders and half-ran back to the house. Her mother had been waiting by the fire, her long-fingered hands folded. She now stood, and went to the earthen tub.

“Mama, there’s something happening.”

“Child, don’t go on about signs now. Please bring me the water. There’s to be a convening tonight and I don’t have time to discuss your far flung meanings now.” Terl poured the contents of a jug into the deep tub, then sprinkled on top a smattering of dried herbs and flowers. She slipped off her blue robe and stepped in, then leaned back. Her eyes closed. “The Grand Baraxus must have an itch to create chaos again. I wonder why he bothers to call us all in for counsel when he will needs his own way in the end…Not like when our blessed ancestors toiled for and lived the peace, joined life in the realm of the Prism.”

“Mama, listen, the deer left the river before coming to me. This isn’t right–you know they visit me every day. They didn’t even wait for my new honeyed berry treats.” She handed her mother two vials of scented oil.

“Thank you for the oils. Naliya, calm yourself. You may stay here or sit with your cousins or neighbors. It will likely last into eventide.” She put her face in the water, then came up for air and smoothed her arms and neck with oils.

Naliya had only that year been allowed to sit by herself and this thought helped alleviate her concerns. It meant she could visit Zanz, her best friend and maybe more, and her mother wouldn’t know. She knew that now she was thirteen summers she wasn’t supposed to visit him without a chaperone. But they always found a way.

“Alright, but my riverine deer don’t deceive…”

“Daughter, we will see what is to be seen. Patience.”

Naliya sat by the tub and idly dipped swished her fingers in the tepid swirling water, awaiting a turn if she wanted one. Her long hair was lifted from her shoulders by a blast of wind through the  open doorway and tossed it over her face. For a moment she was blinded by its mass. A darkening sweetness found her nose and she sneezed, then coughed, out of breath until her mother’s hand grabbed hers. Terl’s face might have betrayed her own fears but Naliya thought only of Zanz.

******

Their typical back and forth worked its way around the circle many times. The dissenting had been civil as well as time wasting and also thought provoking. Now their words had found a more comfortable balance.

Except for the Grand Baraxas’ declarations.

“If that idiot Martram feels he must try to usurp me once more and be humiliated by losing again, then let it be done. Isn’t the far banishment enough? This time, the outcome must be final!”

There was a murmuring about the circle. Twelve plus the Grand Baraxas sat about the emblematic bolt of lightning and lance inlaid on the floor. Their current ruler had designed and fashioned this from gemstones and finest made tiles when he came into power sixteen years prior. It had replaced the River, Sun, Tree and Star within the Four Directions Cross that had forever been Quazama’s symbols until then.

“When was he last heard from?” another of the Sentries inquired. “He has been gone for over nine seasons this time. I had imagined him quite dead already.” He barked an angry laugh.

There was silence at that; no one imagined anyone much less Martram dead unless he or she planned on killing him, it was a bad seed of an idea. Did he know, perhaps, Braxas’ hidden plan, fueled by his greatest desire?

Terl shifted and looked up at their ruler who in his orange splendid robes appeared more corpulent than ever. She barely smiled but patiently. “I heard from him once not so long after he left. When the storms came and went and he was out seeking sustenance. It was past the Highland hills; I was searching for pink tourmaline for a necklace for Naliya. I told this at the convening for harvest back then. He said his intention was one day return–you know this so surely the latest news is no shock.”

The Grand Baraxus smoothed his unruly grey beard, flicking bits of food onto the floor as he found them.

“When exactly was the recent information given us and had he a name?” asked a woman.

“Late last evening. A Roamer, hence no name known, stopped for a meal with Hiri and his family. He left at dawn, having completed his task and being fed and rested. No one we ever seen around here before, so said Hiri.”

“And he said he had just met with Martram for food, as well…repeat the message you received from Hiri, Sentry O.”

“The river belongs to no one but the people, amen, and to perfect facets of the Light, amen.” He turned to Terl who gave her full attention as she listened. “This be the prayer we’ve said so long, of course. Then: the people determine worth and need as taught by the Prism’s Heart alone.”

“He never trusted the Grand Baraxus’ knowledge and words. It cost Martram greatly as is the law, and so it has been done,” the First Sentry asserted, and stomped his feet to underscore the point.

“Who does?” someone whispered but only a few heard and ignored it.

The Grand Baraxus got up with difficulty as Sentry O helped him, then left the circle and stood with hands behind him, staring out at Quazama. He hadn’t expected this, not so soon, and now that he had taken ill with increasing frequency the last thing he wanted was more trouble than he could manage well. He rubbed his head with a large, soft hand and turned back to his three best Sentries who sat three in a row. The third appeared to be close to dozing, idiot, in response no doubt to the warmth in the chamber, making it close. He wished it was storm weather again so it would cool. He wished he could just drink a large goblet of wine, lie at peace with his woman.

“I am about out of patience,” he said and reclaimed his spot in the circle, touching the lightning and lance once each, then his chest, as was required when coming to or leaving a convening.

“We might vote on holding a village court to determine his worth, as before this was not done as was once our custom,” Sentry O said, his once-rich and strong voice now tremulous. He cleared his throat. “What is your say Terl, Mistress of Rites?”

They all turned to her. She sat tall, her white hair pulled into a braid at the nape of her neck, rain flowers woven in. Her rose and silver robe glimmered in shifting light cast by candles in wall sconces. She felt deeply calm, almost out of body,  despite her heart jumping at the thought of Martram coming to Quazama. She knew exactly what to do.

“We will at last bring out the Living Trust and see what is known of its truth. Martram and the Grand Baraxas will answer the questions that are posed by the last originals among us, Jedmin and Kristoz. This is my offering of justice: guidance of our oldest Quazama rites, the Living Trust left us from our best origins. ”

A gasp went up and then a silence so loud it nearly shook the room.

“I forbid this! I have governed all this time and we prosper in grain and fruit and gemstones! I have been more than fair, more than I should have been despite the unruliness of our people! I need not defend myself with a mere display of words in the open square!” He stood bellowing into the rafters; everyone had to resist the urge to disperse.

But convening members gathered their breath. They locked eyes one pair to the next pair each person around the circle; they began to hum in four tones, a harmony rich and steady, singular. Mighty. Inside the small chamber, the sounds merged and curled about the group and then the Grand Baraxas, to the ceiling, out the windows.

It was determined: meant to be. The Grand Braxas stood with fists at his side, but even he would be tampering with strong power if he rebelled against a convening. And so he left.

A member spoke up. “Now we need the Messenger to send for Martram, the sooner the better. Who is the fastest runner since our last poor soul lost his life to a jungle cat? We have waited too long to choose the next!”

“I have a name,” Sentry O leaned into the circle and looked at Terl.

She closed her eyes, folded her arms against her chest and prayed.

******

“That’s it,” Zanz said and gave Naliya his cup for another drink. “They’re done. Do you know what it’s all about?”

They had come to the river in hopes of spotting a glimpse of the three deer but they weren’t so far visible. They, like all villagers, knew a convening decision was announced by the resonant humming which spread across the village, filling each dole house and then sailing over fields and grasslands to dissipate before reaching the boundary of the highlands.

Naliya sat with knees pulled up to chin, her arms around them. “I could guess but would rather not. It’s not a good moment. No deer, no happiness. Mama knew it when I told her they left me earlier. But she won’t ever quite agree with me, as if I am not supposed to know.”

He turned from his front onto his back. “She’s right; you’re too young. Just be easy with life, let the elders worry!” He tickled her arm with a long flat blade of grass, then stuck it between his teeth, blew on it until it vibrated and made a harsh sound. He wanted to impress her even with  simple things but usually failed at this.

Naliya pushed him so the grass fell away, then put her face close to his. “I am not too young. I am ready to do things, know things!”

“Like what?” He felt the pleasant warmth of her breath on his lips and thought he could taste  berries.

She nudged his long nose with her short one, then sat back, legs splayed. “Something smart, something good….”

Zanz sat up and stretched. “You’ll soon have to sweat like I do every day, working the looms or tending sheep or helping your mother find gemstones. Or train as a warrior–you’re very fast on your feet, have good balance, are strong. I might do that later. You can do more after you learn a trade, like anyone who has a strong body, is a quick thinker. And that, I’m afraid, is more true of you than most anyone I know.”

He wanted to touch each color of her thick hair, the unusual ivory and blue-black strands lustrous in the dusky light. They marked her as part of grand rulers many lines back, which was why her mother was Mistress of Rites. But to meet her–any girl her age but even more so, her– was forbidden enough. He instead tossed a wildflower onto her head and she grabbed a handful of grasses with earth attached to roots and threw them at him until they were on their feet, laughing and shouting.

Naliya put her hands out in a sudden motion to stop their play.

“Mama will soon come looking, I must return home.” She stood still and let her eyes boldly roam over him, then looked away as her cheeks flushed. “Until next time.”

“Until next time,” Zanz said and they parted ways, he to the near valley and she to village center.

Terl waited on a stool at their dole house and told herself to be wise, be at ease with life and humble. She felt grateful for all the years they had made their home in lovely Quazama. It was a decent space, one that was comfortable, vibrant with hand woven fabrics she used to decorate, many gems she’d turned into mosaics and the voluptuous flowers her daughter planted last year and now tended in the side garden for their table. But even with much to appreciate and a future that seemed secure, she felt the fear race through her veins, as if someone had put in a taint of pulsing poison that sought only to ruin her or get out. She felt her mind expand, and in its dense center then illumine the hard truth. In her innermost being she begged for mercy. She tried to not weep but it was beginning. Now.

As Naliya came up to the door of the house, she stopped. She felt an involuntary shiver, willed the waning light shift into her sturdy body and wiry limbs. She looked up for the flock of birds she’d watched take wing, then dipped and turned away as she’d made her way through the grasslands. They were no longer there. Her riverine deer had left. Everything held its breath as before a great storm.

She stepped inside and found her mother seated on her stool, sunset’s graciousness spilling through the open skylight, onto her rose and silver garment. Naliya had such love for her but knew, too, the power she possessed even if she denied it, saying it was nothing, it was only beauty passed on and that vanished. Naliya knew otherwise. She knew her mother was one of the wise, just as her mother and the mother before them both had been. Her grandfather, Sentry O, remembered much more.

“Mama?”

The Mistress of Rites held a hand out to her long-legged strong child.

“Naliya. Little dove.” She lay her hands alongside her wind-and sun-burnished face, and looked deep into her unsettled face and still grey eyes. “It’s time. You are made the new Messenger. There is no turning away, no turning back.”

Naliya heard her but it was there is no turning away, no turning back that struck her to the core. She suspected she might become the Messenger as she was the fastest runner in the village and knew how to keep things safe. What else was her mother not saying aloud?

She knelt at her feet, accepted the strange blessing passed on from her very hands. And felt a terrifying courage rise up in her blood and bones, readying her for work to come as each fretful roving spirit tried to shake her. And soundly failed.

 

(Readers: Part 2 will be posted next Monday. The photographs are by this writer.)

The Norliss Street Recluse

Henley Ann Mirabel was walking aimlessly in the gauzy bloom of heat, odds and ends crowding her head, like how absurdly high the cable bill was and Tony due to arrive from Maryland too soon (for her) and what was that extra ingredient in the peach cobbler she and her daughter consumed last night at Val’s Tasty Time Cafe. It was a morning like many others, the heat clinging like a web of plastic wrap so her clothes began to stick to her, too. It was not the best time to walk but when was it different? Ever since she had moved to Arlen, Tennessee she’d longed for a light breeze that was so void of moisture she could dry her hair on the patio over a cup of steaming coffee. Now she put ice in her mug. Her hair remained damp even when she pulled it back into a soft knot. She should know this; she had spent her first twelve years in Tennessee.

Sara didn’t care about any of that. As long as she had a nice second grade teacher–which she did, Miss Fran–and new friends (three so far), and her mom was waiting for her at the end of the day, all was alright. More or less. She missed her dad but he was around more than before and was again coming to visit. They always stayed in the terribly small but newer hotel (twenty-five rooms for a surprising boom) by the river. It had a giant outdoor pool, she informed her mom. It felt like a reprimand for leaving behind their private pool in Maryland; they’d enjoyed it only in brief summers.

They’d had a lot of things in Maryland: a bountiful flower garden just beyond the wraparound terrace, a contemporary glass and redwood home that allowed for parties of fifty, three cars, a housekeeper, a studio at the edge of the property for Henley’s writing of the next installment in her middle reader’s series. There was so much they had that it almost hid the danger spots in a marriage going off the rails. But sooner than expected it all fell apart.

Like Sara had finally yelled from the hall as her parents each slammed different bedroom doors and disappeared: “If you can’t actually be nice friends then why do you even say you’re trying to be better friends?”

That’s what did it for Henley. Even their child called them on their charade. Once the divorce was finalized, Aunt Roslyn suggested Henley and Sara come to Tennessee: time for them to spend more time with maternal family. Her parents lived in Florida; Henley refused to process her cracked up marriage on a Sarasota golf course. Her mother’s sister was her favorite aunt. Since Tony worked from home much of the time now, he could visit as often as he wished. The agreement was in place and so they tried it out.

Henley was not as malleable as her child, nor as accepting. She agreed to Tennessee because she had further nursing of woundedness. She was barely getting by more days than not. She wasn’t writing. The damage reversal took greater energy than expected. At least she wasn’t crawling back in bed after dropping Sara off, covering her head for two more hours. She now was able to keep eyelids pressed upward until she slumped into Great Grinds, ordered a mediocre cold brew coffee and requisite snack, then continued on her walk. This was a huge step. Within an hour she felt mostly conscious with less strain at frayed seams of her raw psyche.

In fact, walking was her one tangible pleasure, except when it thunderstormed or, rarely, acted wintry enough to spit slushy ice. She already had a route but was trying to change it up, relearn the lay of a once-familiar landscape. Their pleasant rental home wasn’t too close to her aunt and uncle, closer to countryside.

As she banished peckish thoughts, she turned onto a newer boulevard. She didn’t recall this street but the last time she’d spent more than a couple days in Arlen was in her late teens. Fifteen years ago.

The proud brick homes along Norliss Street sported good yards, wide porches and a several two car garages. It all looked fresh. She marveled over the newness until she walked halfway down to cross over. The structure before her was a two-story, a dulled white that had gone to the dogs, a peeling beige-to-grey. Henley saw it had been a farmhouse before development took over surrounding acreage, but didn’t stir a memory. Overgrown shrubbery obscured porch and windows. Its steps were crooked yet off the porch were hanging a limp, worn American flag by a second flag lively with daffodils and a fat robin. She felt sorry about its disrepair. She began to move on as she spotted in the unkempt yard a leaning post sporting a mailbox-type rectangle. Curious about it she stepped onto the grass and saw it was a poetry post with Plexiglas front. She could see behind the faded paper. It appeared indeed to hold a weathered poem.

She opened the lid, pulled it out, ran her eyes over it quickly then once more. It was about nature, “billowing treetops, elixir of water courting creatures…ebb and flow of light a sheer veil astir.. then a slow darkness like a tired magician fallen asleep.” Finding it interesting she read it again, then looked for the author’s name. E.R. was typed in the bottom right corner.

There was a creaking sound from the house. Henley looked deep into the shady porch but couldn’t make out a body or any other thing. She took a picture of the poem with her phone and started off, then changed her mind, returned. She rummaged for her tiny notebook and pen, took it out and held it against the poetry post and wrote, Lovely, keep at it-HM. Ripped off the page and stuck it in.

She hurried back home, for what she wasn’t sure. Slowly, she went to the small back room, a place meant for writing Number 6 of the Amanda Hartley series. It was painfully tidy, blaring with sunlight, claustrophobic. She longed to throw open a window but it would only taint things with moisture, make the stacked failed pages curl at the edges, waste air conditioning. She turned on her heel and left.

When Sara came home, tossed her book bag on the table and pulled out crackers to munch she asked her right away, “When are you writing another story?”

“Tomorrow.”

“But that’s what you said yesterday. And before.”

“Ask me tomorrow, maybe it will be different.”

Sara paused, a sesame studded cracker halfway into her small mouth. “You seem…tired, Mom. I like it better when you do the Amanda stories. When is Daddy coming for sure?”

Henley winced at the Daddy, his only name; when did Sara call her “Mama” or “Mommy”? Maybe when she got sick or scared. Daddy was the good times parent, it seemed.

“In three nights. Let me get you string cheese and juice to go with those, honey.”

“I finally told the kids at school you’re a writer and they didn’t believe me but Miss Fran said yes, you are, and told them about the books. She knows who you are! ” She giggled, perched on a stool at the kitchen counter, stuffed three crackers into her mouth, then reached for the glass of grape juice to make the crackers suitably mushy.

Henley took out her cell phone, looked at the picture of the poem, enlarged the words. It was almost–reaching toward–lyrical. It was in essence pretty good. She felt her spirits lift a little and smiled at Sara.

******

Before Tony came she went out and sat on the porch swing. His loping gait carried his well-conditioned body quickly up the steps. At the screen door he raised a hand to knock, looked around, spotted Henley. She raised her palm in neutral greeting; he gave her the barest smile, Chiclet teeth glinting, eyes wary behind courtesy.

“All is well?” he asked.

“Just dandy.”

“The south still suits you then.”

“In some ways. You?”

“All good. Busier than ever.”

“The house shown more yet?”

“Picking up.”

“Daddy!” Sara cried. Their wonderful child thrust open the door, jumped into his arms.

******

There were two days to do nothing and it was the “nothing” that got to her before she even got out of bed. It would have been easy to lie there, let her dreams pull her farther under. Take her into a land of strangeness, folly, impossible beauty. She thought of her daughter laughing with him, of the fun which she was no longer shared with them. The thought soured her more so she got up, showered, pulled on her black knit capris and a grey T shirt–did she wear anything else, anymore?– and walked to Great Grinds. Rex the barista nodded at her; his pleasing eyes were bleary, too, and with mutual congeniality didn’t force a long chat.

Henley took a bite of walnut and apple scone for more strength. She took her new route, having decided Norliss Street was a good amendment and walked faster to the derelict house. The poetry post still held a paper or two. She hesitated then moved closer to see if there was another poem. Instead, there was a hand written note that began “Dear Lady.” She pulled it out to read, feeling the rise of more interest.

Dear Lady,

Thanks much for liking poem. Maybe more to come. I leave them til they fade, fall apart. No one reads poetry anymore, usually.

You new here?

E.R.

Henley felt someone or even a critter might be watching her but she couldn’t discern anything. Tangled forsythia bushes grew close to the sides of the house. An aging fence with a once-pretty gate enclosed the back yard. She rolled tight shoulders and took a good breath in, let it out slowly. Looked looked down the sidewalk and across the street, then back at the old place.

A poet lived there. She wanted to know how anyone in Arlen wrote like that, then dared share their work. She considered going right up to the door, introducing herself. Still the poem was wrinkled, apparently wet often, smudged. No one had taken it out to keep; not one new poem had likely replaced it in awhile.

There was no one coming out to greet her despite her standing in their yard for ten minutes but then a squeaky noise was emitted from above. A window perhaps pushed open. There were cafe-style curtains of pale yellow floral with a window shade partway drawn, leaving a few inches to look out. There was sudden movement, a blueness that passed before the window and vanished. Henley waited but saw and heard nothing more.

It came to her that maybe she shouldn’t be there writing notes to someone she couldn’t even see much less name. But she took out her notebook and pen.

Dear E.R.,

Sort of new. I have some family here.

Where is the next poem?

I write, too.

HM

She placed it back into the poetry post box, looked about a last time.

As she walked she thought about words, how they meant more, held a more decent weight and value if someone heard or read them. Otherwise, they were echoes of the self’s discharges of energy and various rumblings, and they’d feel so insubstantial they’d float away into some universal recycling center of all language. It probably accumulated so much it tipped the letters into blackness where they floated to nowhere, or became fodder for something better. She laughed at herself: this was what happened to her brain when she thought about writing but didn’t commit one word to the tangible world. They teased her, wound her up, made a mess of her innermost recesses, called out to her like sad lost things. Even sent her to private poetry posts boxes to write strangers, for lack of better purpose.

******

The next morning, early, the phone rang. By the time she got to her cell, a message was left.

“Henley Ann? We’re off to church, of course…. but we’re having a cook out in the afternoon so bring a salad and come on around 2. Is Tony here this week-end? We’d love to see Sara, of course, but please RSVP so I know how many.”

Henley shook her head. She found her aunt’s accent startling, still. Sara was SAY-R; her name was HAINLE-ANN. She erased the message, said, “Yes, Ma’am.”

After she got herself a big iced coffee-it was hotter than blazes out already–plus almond scone, Henley went straight to the poetry house. It was relatively early but a few dozen cars loosely lined the streets. When she approached the area, uncertainty rose up. On one hand, she maybe ought to have two coffees and scones. On the other, she felt she was way too desperate for company or why else would she be there again, even contemplate ringing the door bell? The neighbors probably wondered about her being there and, as if on cue, there was a violent splash of water from a hose. She turned. Sure enough, a heavy man across the street corner was staring right at her as water flowed over his monstrous black truck, down his wide driveway. She lifted her coffee at him; he nodded, went back to his own business. Then he looked over his shoulder as she kept on.

The house looked as if it had gone to sleep long ago and never awakened. How could it be so empty of life? Was reading more poems the best idea? She could keep on going but sipped her chilled coffee, gazing at the poetry post. There seemed to be something else there. She glanced at the porch and upstairs window and then got it out.

In morning this foreign body passes like smoke,

as if dry leaves captured in whorls of wind.

But when day drains its unease into night

the feathery thing that is darkness

alights on sloping shoulders,

covers secrets as we give up hope

and all that which was, until

sunrise dazzles and dances.

                                        E.R.

Henley blinked, eyes prickling. Who was this E.M.? Was this an author she just hadn’t heard of yet? Was it an old, maybe stolen poem? Aunt Rosalyn might know more about this person.

In the house there could have been someone sitting by a table or resting in bed, some old man confined to a wheelchair and seen by a nurse aide daily who grudgingly posted the poems. Or a woman who long ago deserted social norms, spurned the company of others; she put her poems into the world while others slept.

Mixed voices by the truck made her turn towards them. The man’s wife had come out with giant sponge and bucket; they were talking. Then the woman gestured her way with a laugh. Henley felt the mild sting of their gossip, so took another picture of the poem, wrote a note, placed it back in and hurried on.

E.R.,

You’re a very good poet. I’m Rosalyn Horn’s niece. Want to meet sometime on the porch?

HM

******

“Oh Lawd, that’s Everly Rainard. He burned near half to death in the Wilton Hardware fire, 2011. Maybe about forty-five. He doesn’t talk to anybody, gets his groceries delivered, has help in once every couple weeks.” She sucked her lower lip in, shook her head. “Terrible thing but yes, he likely still writes. He taught at the high school for quite awhile. Ruined his life, that tragedy. Parents left him the house when they passed. He’ll not see people, best leave it alone, Henley. No, he’s not exactly crazy but he’s still not too good. It’s hard. He was very good looking and now…”

That’s what Aunt Rosalyn said at the cook-out but it was enough. As she nibbled at food, fielded questions and made conversation, Henley thought about how she’d go to the door tomorrow, ring the bell. She would do it because he could write, no matter what happened.

Later Sara called to ask if she could stay one more  night with Tony; he’d take her to school. He came by to get her clothes and she waved from his rented Lincoln.

“You really okay, Henley? We can talk if you need to. Sara says you’re not even writing, that’s not like you.”

“What? No, I don’t need to talk. I’m fine. Have fun with Sara.” But she wanted to say, How do you know what’s like me? How do you know what I need? I need beautiful words and kindness and the right to feel sad, even lost for awhile. I need you to just be gone.

******

The next morning Henley carefully carried the cardboard container with two coffees and two raspberry muffins perched on top. He might or might not be willing to share the offerings.

The steps were rickety; she climbed them gingerly, hands out, holding the coffee and treats steady as she kept her eyes on the scratched and stained front door. When she got there, she put the cargo on the porch floor and spotted the door bell. A simple button long disused, might not even ring anymore. She pressed it long and firmly with an index finger.It buzzed inside summoned Everly Rainard. There was the sounds of traffic behind her, raucous robins, a few bees about the porch. No footsteps, no voice. She pressed it once more, feeling the edge of fear pull at her.

The door opened. Slowly, so slowly that if the hinges hadn’t moaned she might not have even seen it move. But an inch, then another inch, then a bit more until she saw just the end of a sofa, the wooden floor. But there was just the barest outline of someone through green gingham curtains on the window.

“It’s HM. I have coffee, muffins…”

The door remained still.

She swallowed; her heart thundered at her throat. ” I really liked your poetry and since I write, too, I thought….I know about the fire, that’s not a reason for us to not talk. Is it?”

It opened more, enough so that if she wanted to she could’ve slipped in sideways but she waited until the space got wider, invited her in.

Henley moved through. Faced him. He wore a baseball cap over wispy hair. What remained of the skin on his neck and face was taut, rough and ruined, lizard skin she imagined it was cruelly whispered. His nose was off-kilter, lips were a once distorted shape that had healed into a reasonable state. Golden brown eyes stared at her shyly from under barest darkened lids, no eyelashes or eyebrows. His face seemed sparked with a furtive anxiety. And curiosity. He took the coffee and muffins from her, stepped away instinctively as she saw his hands, wrists, arms wrapped with more blotchy leathery skin. She felt a flush of pain in her own body that took her breath. Then a jittery relief to be let in, to get this far.

“Well, okay. Come in, Miss…” His deep voice was a soft scrape of the air.

“Henley, Henley Mirabel.”

Everly rested the drinks and food on a beat up coffee table and indicated she might sit down. He sat in a ragged armchair, lowered his head and held out a handful of more poems.

“Please, tell me about your writing first,” he said, raising his eyes and she felt him try to reach past fire’s wreckage, its damnation and its terror, to the refuge they both shared. Henley took his poems and held them gently like flowers in her lap.