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.

 

Friday’s Quick Pick: Poem/My Dog at the Park

The usual motley group was there
as I passed muddy grass slopes where
everyone brings their canine companions,
then circles up to watch them romp and court.
The humans laugh and grouse, call out
to pets as if gifted or very bad children.
I paused with hands on hips, smiling.
Recalled four-leggeds Twiggy, Max and Buddy,
how they disrupted work and time with

ideas of pleasure like zigzag tag,
charging after bees or cats, howling
off-key with our music and oh, endless
petting, scratching of strange places. There
was our bribing for obedience with smelly
treats fed by hand (as if they were royalty),
palms tickled, scoured by long drippy tongues.
Our children commandeered them as beasts
to pull heavy objects, as alarms and look-outs
during high-jinks, or wept-upon confidantes
but never once did said dogs bite rudely
in reasonable protest. They adored their kids.

I vacated those memories, moved on until
there was my dream dog upon a hill–
so luxuriant a coat, that dignified stance,
such fierce beauty of the husky
desired all my life–which finally turned,
watched me gazing back, noting a minor
magnetic pull of my deep admiration.
Rather, there were squirrels, ducks, robins,
rousing scents on a breeze, a master at rest.
My longed-for sidekick observed and waited
unperturbed, best behaved, already well loved.

A Man of Mozart and Motorcycles

Musician and conductor, sure, but motorcyclist?! The man in question is in his 30s here, I think.

I didn’t expect this time travel. It was an ordinary day, less rainy than usual. I was driving along narrow, congested city center streets, keeping an eye on pedestrians who blithely step out. Noting the varieties of architecture and views as I ran errands. But then Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony #6 in B Minor” came on the radio station. A sudden intake of breath. Warmth spreading through my chest. A car behind me honked; I had forgotten to move forward when the light turned green. So mesmerizing was the music that it was far safer to pull over and park.

It was not just the glorious symphony, a favorite of mine. It was my father. Through decades and celestial space he strode into mind’s eye, then took his place at the conductor’s podium on stage, his black tuxedo “tails” swaying as he conducted the very Tchaikovsky I heard. The symphonic orchestra before him responded readily. The scene was vivid; I stared at the street but still saw Dad at work. Each measure of music was interpreted by informed insights and intuitive response as he elicited music from the many instruments that made that composition whole. I began to hum and whistle along. I have played that piece, under his direction and another’s. It is dignified yet bombastic, full of drama and yet sweetly moving, a masterpiece among many. Dad loved this composer and others of such persuasions as well as the precision and stateliness of say, Mozart and Bach.

But back to my cinematic experience: my father leaned into the stage, then to the left side, to the right. His large, long-fingered hands gestured, first to percussion, violins and violas with the left and then the right with the baton held towards and underscoring the cellos and basses, the brass. The woodwinds, yes, and the choreographic scene played on. His feet stayed rooted while torso was fluid, his grey-white head lowered or raised, large blue eyes skimming players as they created what was needed. He lifted and bent with the progression of music. Arms and hands curved into music-spun air; it was all pulled forward, held steady. The measures of Tchaikovsky swelled, diminished, were given fresh life under command of his baton–and full engagement of fine musicians. It was an intimate conversation between each, for the whole. For the music. And one could see he was eloquent, as well.

Or so it seemed as I imagined, no, saw Dad immersed in the unfolding, blessed, possessed, then released by complicated music. The piece came to a close. My desire to go on with mundane tasks faltered. About to start the car, I was stopped when Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”, a programming favorite, came on. I flashed back to an interpretative dance I made up  to this music as an eight or nine year old, then had the nerve to dance in a talent show. So taken with it was I was thrilled to be under the spell of such music, as well as wearing a costume Mom had created: my simple leotard embellished with fiery red and orange strips of chiffon that flew out from my waist and shoulders when I twirled, leapt, made like a wildly ecstatic firebird.

Two compositions, one after the other that he loved. I decided Dad might have something to say to me today, but I wasn’t sure what. I started the car, finished my errands, all the while very taken with my father’s presence. I finally headed home to think.

Watching him conduct was witnessing completed transformation by personal fulfillment: a man who half-changed into a dancer, a multilingual interpreter, a conduit of musical spirits. There was palpable strength in his movements, charged with a passion for the musical notation. There was delivery of vibrant energy to the players as well as audience. He was one of the most graceful conductors I have ever seen. My father seemed able to be utterly engaged by his body while his active mind wielded such clarity of focus. He wasn’t unusually tall. Perhaps 5’11” with head up, he was shorter than his own father and brother–and later, his sons. Yet he seemed taller, certainly when conducting. On stage he recalled an athlete’s grace although his sport was bringing forth music. And there was a charisma there that rose from deep within.

As a concert finished, he bowed in an easy manner, sending the musicians his respect as there arose rousing applause. Afterwards it was not so unlike the end of a successful sporting event: his clothing soaked with perspiration, his face pinkly glistening as he pulled from a pocket a white handkerchief to wipe down. Wavy hair fell over the broad forehead. I watched from a doorway back stage. He was still feeling adrenaline as he responded to appreciative concert goers, shook hands all around, smiled readily, bent close to talk and hear, an index finger bending the upper part of his ear toward a person.

Then he had more business to attend to. Sometimes I helped him gather and file music, take care of a misplaced instrument. But most often as a youth I remained close to the milling crowd’s edges (even if I’d played, too), observed a public man who was respected, appreciated, even loved. A duality of perception influenced my view of him: the public man others knew and the one his family knew somewhat differently.

His gregariousness always surprised me. He was far more introverted than extroverted by nature, I think, but understood how to separate the complementary aspects. As a family, we didn’t routinely spend a lot of time with him due to music-related obligations taking him out, away. More so whenever he coached our musical practice sessions.  When there, he was often reading, studying music scores as he listened to the music and then replayed the whole record–or fell exhausted at last into an easy chair. I watched him sleep more often than he ever could know. When a kid, he sometimes asked if I’d walk along his supine spine to massage aching muscles (what a work-out he had when conducting).

He did like to tell anecdotes, enjoyed plain spoken humor and groan-worthy puns; read aloud from a book or magazine something that grabbed his attention. He also read the Bible to us; we all prayed together at dinner at least. But his interests also encompassed history, nature and camping, the sciences and mathematics, classical arts, games and puzzles of many sorts, and he liked to design things much like a mechanical drawer might, or practice cursive with fine leaded pencils (he had beautiful, very rapid and small handwriting)–to name a few. Later on, he watched tennis and basketball on the TV.

He encouraged and disciplined us (often just a serious, pointed look; he had strong eyes)–but I could tell his mind dabbled in other thoughts. He often seemed to be thinking something through, perhaps music, even life’s knotty parts. So generally, to be with my father I had to go where he was, share what he did. And I was glad to do it. It might require holding the ladder steady, getting another brush as he touched up house paint every year or helping him with yard work; cleaning the ivory and ebony keys of our baby grand piano; handing him tiny pliers and a pot of warm glue as he worked in his musical instrument repair shop, down in the quiet basement.

There are other things that bring forth my father though classical music was his first passion. I might hear pieces like George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and suddenly think of him–he loved many American composers, too. It might be an old musical I recall– “Oklahoma” or “Carousel”–that brings him to mind. It could be Benny Goodman, the late “King of Swing” jazz clarinetist. Dad also played many kinds of music over his lifetime, on a variety of instruments, and no matter what it was he seemed in heaven. He was a person able to do what he loved, by and large, though he might have thrived more in a university setting rather than our small Midwestern city. He had two Masters’ degrees yet he chose to develop and administer music education programs, teach children and young adults, and to conduct and perform (in trios and quartets, symphonies, etc.).

What may not have been more common knowledge was this rather refined man also greatly enjoyed cars (to tinker with as well as drive), motorcycles and motorbikes (he rode at least a couple over the years), camping, sailing (rarer but a gift of joy to him) and swimming in lakes, playing tennis, bicycling, creating outdoor games and playing–very competitively–a few card (bridge, a favorite) and many board games. He also loved to go on a spontaneous drive or a road trip across the country. So those things are what I also did as I could.

I’d go out to the back yard, a favorite place, and it would be a blue-shiny day with nothing much to do but climb the maple tree. Then I’d spot Dad bent over the innards of a car, tools perched atop it all. He liked foreign cars, Isettas and Fiats for two, but drove others, especially Chryslers. He had a creaky red Isseta “bubble car” that I was nuts about. The door opened up in the front and on it were the steering wheel and dashboard. It fit two best. It was a “toy” car before mini-cars were popular, at least in the U.S.

I’d stand by Dad, peer under the hood at the engine and battery and all the rest I tried to understand. He’d start talking to me about what was wrong, what he intended to do without looking up. Before long, he’d be gesturing at things, note what did what. I tried to keep track of it all; he was fond of quizzing us. He sent me to get what I considered very interesting tools from the garage or basement and learned what each could do. I’d fetch oil, perhaps, a wrench or more stained red or white rags. I liked strong smells emanating from cars, the grime and grease streaking his capable hands. The grey mechanic’s suit he wore for such projects: it had deep pockets, covered regular clothes, zipped all the way up. Quite a different father than the one who conducted and taught, played viola, judged music competitions and lectured at conferences. It was someone who knew how to decipher the mysterious mechanics of things, could repair broken items which he generally took on for the household, too (though my mother had a real knack). It was someone who used a different vocabulary: carburetor, serpentine belt, alternator, power steering fluid, radiator fan, compressor, starter. I contrasted these with treble, tenor and bass clefs, andante, sotto voce and allegro, pizzicato, coda, dotted half and sixteenth notes and so on.

One of the best moments was when he’d ask me to start the car, ease onto the gas pedal while he watched things happen, leaning on both hands at the sides of the car’s guts. I’d slip in like I was in charge finally, turn the key, just able to see over the steering wheel to raised hood. The engine roaring to life, then purring happily made us both giddy. He’d tell me to gun it or go easy. If he took it for a spin, I’d hop in and off we’d go around a few corners, his sensitive ear attuned to any odd ping or squeal, and he’d sigh, grunt or hem and haw, or even slap the steering wheel, saying, “For Pete’s sake, we finally got ‘er done!”

Once back home, the sun beat down on us as he tinkered a bit more and I’d sweep the dank old garage  that held so many car stories and mice and spiders, then tidy up tools, softly singing. He’d turn to verify the tune I sang, often from musicals or a standard from big bands, then he’d look over top of his glasses and ask if I had practiced my cello and did I have homework. He’d eventually thank me for my help. I could have stayed out there the whole day but sooner or later we both had other things to do.

In retrospect I wonder if that was the Missourian boy that came out. Though he lived in town and his father was county superintendent of schools, their lives were simpler. They tended a vegetable and flower garden. Read to one another, enjoyed music. He played with sticks and old tires, whatever they found. He learned an instrument or two at a young age (as did his brothers), took to academics and skipped grades. But he liked to just sit awhile outside, listen to crickets, study the skies, make a good fire–and work on something with his hands.

Even more interesting to me was my father’s zest for motorbikes and motorcycles. I don’t recall which brands he preferred but they all impressed me with their bold rumbles, their speed, the daring they implied. Whenever he offered to take me for a spin I’d quickly tell Mom, hop on behind him before she could tell me “no” and off we’d go. He knew just what to do as we came to a fast stop or had to round sudden curves. I was never afraid. I hung on tight to his middle as wind tangled my hair and whined in my ears. I felt something special on a motorcycle, and it was fun when someone waved and called out, their surprise registered in a laugh. They became familiar with the sight of Lawrence Guenther on that crazy thing, riding to work even in a nice suit, briefcase strapped on the back.

The last time I rode with him (that Mom knew) was the day I had the accident. I was perhaps nine or ten. We’d been out and about on a humid but golden day and finally pulled into the driveway. The motor on the machine was exposed, in the middle of it and just beyond my knees. I knew to keep safe from the blazing heat but I was wearing summery shorts. When Dad parked it and put the stand down, I hopped off too fast, didn’t pay close enough attention. My exposed thigh just barely touched it. The pain was immediate and vicious and as I wept despite my desire to be tough, Dad examined the result. My thigh soon bore ridges of blisters that rose puffy and tender from reddened flesh.

My mother appeared in a hurry. The main thing was that she was scarlet-hot with anger over it, furious with my father for somehow allowing it, upset with me for not wearing longer pants at the very least. She did not like motorcycles, now even less so. Dad was quiet, felt sad for me I  said it was my mistake, since it was. It hurt more than I imagined, took weeks for multiple blisters to heal up. I had those striped scars a long time. But the thing is I was secretly proud of them. I felt it had initiated me into a small, private circle my mother clearly didn’t understand: risk takers, wind riders, pioneers who ventured beyond a safer norm. I never regretted riding with him despite the burns, and later enjoyed motorcycles with my first husband. But we managed to sneak in a couple more short rides before my teens arrived. Then I was suddenly too big to just hang out with Dad as my own interests began to morph.

I was the very last of the gang; my older four siblings were all in college by the time I was thirteen. The aloneness felt sudden though it was spread over a few years; they were closer in age than I was to them.

I didn’t yet fully realize how fortunate I was to have those parents, of course. My father and I were not to stay what felt like close to one another as I grew up. Perhaps predictably in our culture we each crossed into proscribed domains where neither was as readily welcomed. He had issues with my being on the telephone so long, stepping around me on the floor with a frown and a word, nearly tripping on the stretchy cord. He had more serious issues with the length of my skirts during the mini-skirt era. We argued politics when I became a Make Love Not War hippie activist. I snapped at him as he tried with fraying patience to help me with the algebra and geometry that came so naturally to him. I did manage to keep my grade point high which was a relief to us both. I did know better than to challenge his authority–or Mom’s– too much, as it was a serious thing to honor one’s parents.

He had his work, I had mine. Our paths crossed more often publicly at school, during various performances. We still played a game of Scrabble now and again. He would play piano, get out the ratty standards song book and I would still sing. But he also didn’t know of the abuse I had experienced earlier for years, that I suffered more as time went on but could not say why. He’d have been filled with despair and rage if he had known of it all; it also would have been a monstrous scandal in the 1950s-60s to inform authorities, take legal action. And the predator had warned me to remain silent. I believed I had to protect my family and just deal with it–as countless others did in those times and sadly, still do. It eroded me, changed me in ways I never imagined it would

Thankfully there were more happy moments to experience with him. There was still hope in the male of the species because my father was a good man, so I carried on with dating, my head filled with romance and mystery that made syrupy poems. There were saving graces of writing, music, figure skating, theater productions–and my friends. There were church and family events. I sought the warmth in his eyes, kindness of his smile, and did at times find it there. But we moved in two paths that did not converge much or so well again as my life got more complicated. And he grew older. He regretted I did not finish college before getting married; his eyes told me he knew I did, too. And then I had my family, was long gone. He was a kindly grandfather, a great game player with them. And then he passed on when I was forty.

And yet. And yet. Those times, those years made so much difference to me. To be included (and in something other than music), to be welcomed into other activities, to be treated with appreciation and affection–this is the kind of beginning every child should be able to experience. There were so many joyous times growing up that they were a shocking contrast to many unexpected difficulties. Yet they provided a bulwark against storms to be weathered–and still do. Dad’s presence was no small part of the goodness and truth I counted on as beacons in my life, a basic sense of security even as things fell apart.

Just like that, we are given back moments that can illuminate us with something important. A certain song, the way my brothers move or laugh; the shape of my son’s hands, his physical and mechanical skills; all my children’s feel for music, their commitment to creative work. Or even a particular slant of light easing through a tiny window. Just like that, my father is present in my consciousness and daily life again.

I must have needed to remember how much he loved me.

Once he showed me photographs taken while on a European trip after I had left home for good. It was of sunlight filtering through a smudged, mullioned window of an ancient building; then of light streaming through bunched dark clouds, slipping onto a sliver of river. He turned to me and said, “See there, how the light falls through the grayness and reveals hidden shapes, how it gives more life to everything, the light that always comes.” And his tired, lined face shone with appreciation, faith and hope.

Yes, my father, I feel you watching over me. And like the glowing constellations you once pointed out to me, I will keep alive what light I am given or first must find. The creative spirit you encouraged in me, the care and time you shared as you could–these things are embedded in my soul. Your determination to lead a life of prayer and service taught me much, and this has bolstered my journey. I hear you, see you. Let us be well reconciled, at peace.

 

(I’d love to show you pictures of Dad in midlife and us together later on, but this is all I found handy for this post. Please forgive yellow coloration.)

Dad in dance band–far right playing saxophone (and clarinet on floor) in his twenties.
Dad was around 41; I was about 2
Playing his viola
Dad in later 70s. He passed at age 81 of complications from a quadruple bypass.

Best Bargains for Life

3/4/17

Hello Diane,

Yesterday afternoon I could have been sold anything at all, and in fact it turned out I needed bronzed peach lipstick, baby pink blush, “age retraction” moisturizer and an introductory sized perfume (I’ve forgotten the name already, maybe “Intoxicate”. ) My hand barely trembled as I signed off on the surfeit of beauty products. I’m sure the saleswoman didn’t see that bounty coming. Me, a barely forty year old woman of modest means who was attired–can I even say that? maybe just covered up— in athletic wear, even if it was a good design with great colors, turquoise and yellow. Sweat was just evaporating from my upper lip, forehead and neck. That’s my style, not some pearly satin foundation. But I fell prey to her insistent good cheer. I became convinced while staring into the fancy hand mirror as she dabbed and daubed this and that, that any advice she offered I should believe. I needed it right then. I was under a serious spell; she ought to be given a bonus for her brainwashing skills. Otherwise, why would I have become so vulnerable, spent that money?

You know how I feel about spending on trifles. You and I are the ones who almost never indulge, only sometimes at a sale. Remember that white silky blouse and the form fitting black pants you said looked so perfect on me? I still haven’t worn them. The accusatory price tags dangle more like security tags not to be removed. The clothes hang in the back of my closet, a conspicuous lapse I don’t want to recall, another indicator that I am weak when I should be immune to such pitfalls. Especially flattery. But sometimes one needs such a thing. And if unnecessary beauty supplies are part of that need…you understand, I know. You do love lipstick.

Your usually pensive sister is feeling about as reasonable or spiritual as that hefty receipt. I sense danger here; I need a support group to get over this recurrent feeling that I deserve less than others. I am sure you can suggest a few.

But yesterday I had finally had enough of wounding asides from Ethan. What a time of it I’ve had lately. Can I tell you about things–again?

I get that he periodically engages in this mighty battle with depression. I get that he has daily free-form anxiety nipping at his heels. Who doesn’t get some anxiety and depression in this age and place? We live in the Age of Absolute Ambiguity Somewhere on the Edge of a Deep Reckoning. No, I know it’s more serious than flippancy. It’s all severe and impactful. Frightening, at times. And when I really get a good look at things eye-to-eye, I run. Literally, of course. And at times end up places not intended, like the mall yesterday. A brief escape.

He barked at me. Ethan not a real dog, of course, and not really like a dog, yet his words started to sound more like that than meaningful words offered in regular conversation. It was the opening insults–that I am a nitpicker, never understand him, have not the patience or perhaps intelligence to comprehend his complexity–hurled my way. Then finally an irritable refrain:”You always blame me, I’m the one who’s wrong, I’m the screw up, you’re Miss Perfect!”–and then his old victim mode clicks into place and there’s no way I can detour around it effectively. It’s like a double locked door. No sweet talking will budge that bolt of narcissism and the other of self pity. Or whatever it is. Nothing I say would be considered anything other than direct firing upon him. It matters not that I may even have a need of self defense. So I have to leave.

You know how this goes. How many times have I picked up the phone and tried not to complain but you heard the rumbles of trouble, anyway, and suggested I go for a run at the least? Me and my exercise, he says, all that matters when his world and the actual world are breaking apart. It is possible, I say under my breath, that maybe all we can do is walk or run or ride bikes or take the boat out, tear off in search of freeing relief at such times in our lives. It does not add harm.

Anyway, Diane, yesterday it all seemed to boil down to how I try to micro-manage him when I suggested that the container of hummus was also bought for me, could my chip get a chance in there, too? He had eaten half of it already, might’ve even killed the whole thing off unless I mentioned it. He sat in front of the TV with container and the crumpled bag of rice chips. I really like hummus and chips, too but he was offended, frustrated with me, then pissed off. I was acting like I was his micro manager, damn it!

What? I was trying to (jokingly) get my chip equal time. He didn’t think it cute or funny.

So, I ran about four miles, then ended up at the mall. I cannot imagine how much fun that woman was having as she wiped down my face with spongy cotton puffs soaked in astringent as I wiped away a drip of sweat. Slowed my breathing, my heart rate. Tried to breathe through my nose, quietly. It felt good to sit there, be taken care of even in a superficial way.

“Busy day, huh?” she asked.

I had an impulse to tell her what just sort of day it was but smiled, studied a number of similar lipstick shades. Let her sweep a fluffy, finely-haired brush over cheekbones and chin. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t know if it was that blush color, last vestiges of heat from running, or my private embarrassment. It was utterly unlike me to be at her mercy. And she didn’t have the right shade of lipstick so she’d mail it free of charge. Music to my ears! Someone cared enough for once to not charge me one more penny just to make me happy. Well, it actually cost seventeen dollars. Too much!

I know, crazy, all of it. But this is what Ethan does to me. Or what I let him do, right? I went home, hid the cosmetics in the bathroom–will I use them? He was watching–you guessed it–television, drug of choice. I made us both a salad and read a book of Ursula Le Guin’s essays. Not trying to one up him, but honestly I couldn’t deal with an auction show much less his snubbing me. Anyway, we didn’t talk the rest of the night.

I will send this email off to you and get to bed. I have another newish book awaiting me.

Any ideas of what I might do next time–rather than buy things I don’t want? No, don’t say cooking or canasta or a women’s choir. I mean truly good ideas. You are so very much cheaper than a real shrink, and I thank you from my heart, in advance.

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

******

3/5/17, 2:24 a.m.

Hi Diane,

I have been reading for hours and I still am not sleepy. He’s on the couch. I didn’t awaken him. I try to awaken him every night when he falls asleep out there, then stays there and I head to  bed. I go back, try again. Then he gets cranky, refuses to budge. So I just left him there last night, whispered that it was up to him to get his grown self into bed, not me. I don’t want to awaken a dozing bumble bee. I know it’s supposed to be not awaken a sleeping dragon or dog but I like dragons as well as dogs much better, they are less apt to attack right off….Tomorrow night when he comes home he will grumble that I should not have let him sleep so long there, that he was late for work. So it doesn’t matter which I do in the end.

That’s the problem, I cannot please him for long. As you realize after fifteen years of us together.

Ethan was more fun those first years, remember? Spontaneous but steadier. I was once warned he was too sensitive, moody. But I am attracted to those who who are bright, a bit eccentric, perhaps. Or I thought that was what it was. But I tend to become bored with men who don’t prod ideas, explore new experiences with panache. You know how your spouse is a good guy but also, well, a handful… and yet…you do love each other. Is that what Ethan and I have going on underneath the crossed wires, sizzling arguments? I wonder if it’s more a fascinating conundrum that never gets resolved to the other’s satisfaction. Or a game of wits. Whose move? How do I strategize effectively? What does he truly intend despite an appearance of intention?

That does sound cold.

Is there anything else this might be? Okay, a misguided attempt to save someone who does not want to be saved. I am well aware I can’t do that. Yet… I just want to find the Answer. Help him feel good, too. I mean, lots of people have emotional issues that are tough. They get help. They get better. How could I have known he would have a bona fide illness, that his extreme emotional episodes were not just passing reactions to stress or actual crisis? He doesn’t want to get help thus perhaps does not want to get better. And I still, after all this time, just want him to know what it is to be happy. Because I though I’m not ecstatic every day, I’m pretty okay with it or better, finding cheer…except for his unhappiness. Help, maybe a twelve step program is next on my list? I know you think they go overboard. And it’s all just common sense, figuring out life. Until it isn’t, dear Sis. Then it hurts like hell.

Anyway, he is sleeping, snoring away, the noise echoes off ceilings, trundles along walls and enters the bedroom.

And I’m sitting up half the night again, digging about for more elusive hope. Hear that shovel digging away at a mountain of brainstorming? That tool must be getting dull.

Diane, that last book you sent me is fabulous. I read it voraciously, as if there was never such a good story written before. Good books stir up my faith in a fonder, wiser sort of life. And incite feelings that wash over me like peace. I’ll take a tentative, even transitory peace at times. There are moments I feel could live my whole life in books and never miss a thing! But mostly, of course, I sweat/ache/pray over my tangible life–what it is, can be. Will be.

I wish we could get coffee tomorrow and chat about books. Your always interesting being and doing. How was that experimental quartet last week-end?

Why are you so far away?

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

******

3/7/17

Dearest Diane,

After my rigorous run, after I had taken my messes to a country road a mile from our house, after I felt the swell and slope of land under my feet like a heralding of strength, the air so delicate, awakened earth and new flowery things shared like promises of renewal–after all this, I went back home to find him there, home an hour early.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking Oh, dear God no, he’s lost his job–they were sure to find out how unstable he has been feeling sooner or later. That happened once before, did you know that?

“Nothing. I came home to say something I’ve thought about a lot.”

I toweled off my head and chest, bent down to take off my running shoes and as I was untying the laces, I felt fear. The tension of anticipation and that worry he might do something stupid or rash, that all his pent up anxiety and depression he tamps way down to go to work, to live well enough every day in this hard world will have a deadly eruption. I took my time, rinsed off my face from the kitchen faucet, then filled a glass.

Then we sat down at the kitchen table, the one he made four years ago when we bought this place at the edge of the city. It’s a functional, recycled pine wood table, not glowing and elegant like he wanted it to be, but that’s why I like it. It’s our homely, sturdy, everyday place to rest and eat and play games, pay bills and dream and talk. It’s the spot that matters most, at least to me.

“I’ve decided I’m going to try therapy, after all.” He held up his hand; he knew I was about to gush with gratitude. “Just try it a couple times, to start. You know I don’t like shrinks. I don’t like their various potions, they never really work out. I feel nothing can make a permanent difference, anyway; this is just how I am. I have a basic condition. It rules me more than I dare admit. But I’ve been thinking about how all these years–thirty or more years–I have been run ragged by constant anxiety and terrifying bouts with depression, the obsessions and compulsions just getting harder to cope with as I age.”

I looked at him but he was staring out the window, at the leaning fence or at the trees that remained mostly naked of leaves. I looked at his hands because they catch my attention. They shook as he turned a fancy fat pen over and over in his fingers. Soon he would start writing. He writes almost without thinking, jots down anything, writes phrases, copies words on a magazine, sets down titles of songs or a long thoughts on a certain theme or maybe lines to some song–another compulsion. I find scraps of paper densely covered with his printing, they are everywhere, I don’t know what to do with them so stack them in a pile in a tray on the table. If I throw any out he will notice and be very annoyed. He wrote then on an used, unfolded napkin the word therapy up, across, down, over and over. I wondered if he would go online later and order five or ten more expensive, unneeded pens and more reams of paper to write more jottings now that he had even more to cogitate over.

“Okay,” I said and swallowed a gulp of cool water.

“But I need you to do something for me, too. I need your part done.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, then at the robin that landed on the fence.

“Stop asking so many questions? Especially when you get into… therapy?” Just saying that word brought me a relief that barely hid uncertainty.

“Take care of your own issues. Like stop writing to Diane, Lark. Please.”

A small shock traveled from spine to head where it lingered in my skull. I looked at his significant profile, nose large in a Roman way, whiskered jaw.

“What did you say?”

“You know what I mean. You write her a lot, I think. It really needs to end now.”

There arose a great jangle inside me. My heart revved up, felt huge in my chest. He ought not talk about my sister and me. He was just not happy; I could tell by how quiet his voice was, how he stopped writing.

“How could you know that? And why is it important?” I kept my voice even. Tried to recall when I might have left my computer open. What had he seen?

“I hear you pecking away at odd times. It’s got to be her. That’s how it always has been–so it continues. But after over a year, shouldn’t that be done with?” He put down the sleek pen. “I’m not the only one with issues, right? So you need to own up, address this. It’s not even vaguely…healthy, I don’t think.”

I was about to get up and shout at him: Really? Tell me about unhealthy versus healthy! Instead, I got up, put the kettle on the stove to heat water for tea or coffee, whatever he wanted.

He started to write again, I could hear the nib of the flowing ink pen inching its way across a fresh page, probably a bill envelope. “She left all this awhile back, you’ve got to find more friends or something,” he said.

“No.”

“What do you mean, ‘no’? Come on, she’s dead, Lark. You can’t undo that.”

I felt the scream all coiled up inside start to uncoil and it raced up to my lips but I ran. I ran out the kitchen door and kept pushing through all the fear, trying to outrun the scream. The cool of night came on with a sudden shadowing of earth, air that became wind was so cold it seared face and arms. Nature’s last word on things. Instead of peace filling my heart it pumped harder, my legs reached up and out, leaping over uneven ground. My feet crashed through weeds, I jumped over the fence, kept moving through twilight, an animal on the loose.

It was the stream that got me. It brought me to a halt ass my feet felt wetness, that gentle water a surprise trigger for tears that fell like warm rain on someone else’s stilled face. A storm sweeping across an empty parched plain. Me, lost.

“No! Diane, no leaving me here alone!”

It sounded like a prayer that was a demand but even if it wasn’t the right thing it just was. I felt it was foolish, though, because I have talked to you so long, written you so much… yet over time felt your presence less. You left first by dying, then by receding from the days as I got more used to your being somewhere else.

Not much around here, no, sister.

But at night I sit in the rocker by the window when Ethan is snoring away, harmless and feckless, and then I still feel you come by. Settle about the room with your smile. Your kind way. I guess the moon and stars have to shine for you to find me here. I’ll just wait. We are not that separated by death, are we?

I told him I would stop this. I cannot, yet, any more than we can choose to just ignore these tough times. Maybe I understand his desire for relief better than he thinks. But I know what I need; this part costs nothing. My talking to you is healing. I can just meditate on the days we had to enjoy, as well as all that causes me to pause, the sorrows. What I have to remember is what you always said, your hazel eyes shining: Life is what we must live so we do it as well as possible; it comes to an end soon enough. It’s always something, anyway (you’d laugh but never sounded bitter, just a laugh), so just got to roll with it, Sis, and pray like mad.

It was full of maxims but from you it has always sounded like wisdom of the ancients, another lesson from God’s mouth to my heart. I take it in, the love that still comes to me from you. I must write to your presence; it is a comfort now. When it’s time, I’ll figure out what to do next. And I will wait for Ethan to help himself, knowing we are not alone with the waiting, trying, failing, more trying– and maybe even succeeding.

I have to go now as I got a package I want to open. It may be the bronzed peach lipstick. I’ll let you know what I think– if I wear it. But if you catch a glimpse of it on me and give it the okay, send me a sign. A blossom or two at my door would be lovely or a bright birdsong one morning when I feel overwhelmed again. You have such good taste, I leave it to you.

Or even news of a really good sale. We always have such a time searching out bargains arm in arm, talking about things of import or pure foolishness, don’t we?

Didn’t we, Sister…and then some.

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Death of a Spiritual Warrior

dscf8513

(In Memoriam, for Vincent)

Old Ghost Man is gone,
he’s changed his name again,
left wisdom’s better parts
to seekers, strays and nomads,
those who embrace the good path
and those who care little
how life is dreaming come awake.

He drummed it up, offered a glance
of ironic cheer, a madcap holiness
brewed from trouble, trickster spirits,
eagle feathers, cries of wildness
human or not from streets that kill
when there ought to be redemption.

Take my salvation, it’s for real free
he said,
always enough to go around.
Yes, even you white woman,

you make stones turn again,
you know what I mean, aye?

The stones named:
men, women burned down to ashes,
shattered with grief, souls stitched
with bitter roots, scoured by drugs.
But welcomed with dance and story,
given respect, they just wore down hate.
Then they rooted out places my hardness
had cracked, my tenderness hid. We traded
thundering silences, lightning’s song,
tears for small joys.

Old Ghost Man, he nodded my way,
raised his hand in greeting when some
turned backs, were stubborn doubters.
See, just walk strong and soft,
he whispered, or chanted my name
without fear, cynn-theea-a-a, 
like a swirl of painterly desert winds,
a slow ride on river’s serpent back.

Ghost Man is gone, gone, gone
he’s changed his name again
is heard in echoes, love circling ’round
he’s slipped out, moved to a better house.
Old friend, I see you now beyond
that rain shadow mountain,
untethered,
laughing and winking,
aloft.