We

Saturday morning, station wagon.

Mom & Dad

The girls & me.

We are us.

And us is we.

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On the road to Winchester, the hills roller coaster.

The farms tilt up

And the farms tilt down.

Daddy hits the gas to make us soar

High we fly and low we fall.

Butterflies burst in our bellies.

Everyone says it together,

Big people and little ones:

Wee.

It is always sunny

On the road to Winchester.

Even when it is raining.

Even when mother’s eyes

Silver with sadness.

If Daddy makes butterflies.

We. Are. Happy.

Neighbor

Lord, how I miss having Lady B next door.  The new people don’t do nothing but come and go, never looking right or left.  Act like throwing up a hand might kill them. All those big, dumb-looking boys do is work on they dog cages.  Never crack each other up, just mumble back and forth like they got nails in they mouths.  And the woman, she let all the weeds choke out Lady B’s pretty flowers.  Looks a mess over there.  You’d never know anyone ever cared for that house, oiled the floors, gave the curtains a spring wash.

When she was beside me, the world was all right.  Everyday that door of hers be swinging open, that hinge her man couldn’t fix whining like a cat in heat.  She had a light way of walking, but I always heard her feet on the hen gravel.  She pop that head around the corner of the porch and smile like sunshine on the lake.  Rooney said she wasn’t pretty at all, but that fool only like thick girls with blond hair all down they back.  I thought Lady B. was just about the prettiest thing I ever set eyes on.

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“I got a piece of pie, if you want it,” she say to me sometimes.  Or else, “I made a pot of chili.” I already knew if she was making chili because it made the whole holler smell good and warm like flannel.  Lady B never had no little ones of her own, but she was a mamma through and through.  She fed anyone who wanted a bite.  I was just the luckiest one, my porch right next to hers.

Her kitchen was small and yellow.  The table was just big enough for two.  When that man of hers rumbled away in the morning in his truck, long before the sun was up, she had that place to herself until nigh dark.  We’d start the morning off with some little cake or something and coffee, telling the same stories over and over, and agreeing on who was good and who was rotten of the folks we knew.  We’d part for a while in the middle of the day, clean up our places a little bit, maybe do a little fuss with the dirty clothes and start a pot of soup.  But always I think I hear her on the porch and wish I could get my chores done sooner.

Then one day that man come home and tell her he got a new job, other side of the valley, and they ought to move on down the mountain, closer to town.  She was sad to say good-bye to that little house and the holler, but I was more sad than Lady B.  It didn’t hurt much, knowing I was more torn up to see her go than she was to be leaving.  It weren’t her fault she could cotton to anything and anyone, while I be the kind who keeps close to myself.  She give out her last cup of flour to a tramp.  I be thinking, ‘What he gonna do with it? Don’t look like he got anything else to make bread with.’

Lady B could get herself caught by the Bible thumpers, standing behind the screen door, smiling all nice while they talk Jesus at her with they hats in they hands.  I peep out from behind my sorry front room curtain, trying not to breath unless they gonna hear me.

When she went down off the mountain, she took her light with her.  Wherever she landed, she’s passing out little bits of herself, sweet slices of pie and all kind of kindness.  I wish she changed me.  I wish sometimes I took over a bowl of chili to that worn old dog living in Lady B’s house.  But that woman got small eyes, a jaw you could split logs with.  She ain’t nothing but meanness, I can tell, and I’d rather my rooms be quiet all the day than trade an angel for a sore old sow.  Anyway, maybe it’s time we got out of the holler anyway.

I think sometimes we could make it down in town, maybe find a couple little rooms on the street where Lady B lives.  She’d have all kinds of friends now, but she’d make room for me at her table, I know.  And this house would fall apart like her own had done, but that wouldn’t matter none.  It’s people that mean anything.  Houses are just wood and clay and tin and they ain’t no better than them what keeps them.

Bear

It’s a slow climb out of her winter blues, made trickier by snow-slippery weeks with unbroken grey skies.  The clouds hide the sun and the hour.  Coffee mugs with dried dribbles, lining the sink, accuse her of laziness.  The projects of an optimistic January, half-finished, have found bottom shelves, yet still they seem to eye her as she comes and goes.

“We might cheer you,” they suggest.  Trails of yellow yarn, scraps of calico papers.  Glue sticks, pinking sheers. Her fingers have found the projects in the twilight of too many evenings, then pushed them away.  It takes a sense of purpose and a heart for whimsy, she concludes again and again, to make creativity happen.

Magazines lean together in a basket by the sofa, each with dog ears raised as she musters the energy, once a week, to drag the vacuum through the rooms.  Recipes that are too rich, too complicated.  Happy-go-lucky bits about Holly Golightly fashion.  Surely if the color turquoise can bounce forward into another spring, she can buck up until all the snow has melted and the fields are stubbly with grass.

If she were a robin, she would already be making her new nest.  The geese were even now lighting on the river banks, the squirrel pausing on the stone wall outside the garden with an air of satisfaction.  The weatherman said last night that another wintery mix was on the way, but she doubts it would worry the animals.  The squirrel in particular would fall back on the wall, crossing his fat legs and putting his little mitt behind his head as he squinted up into the trees.

“Thanks for the gloom report,” he’d say.  His voice would be thick and peanut buttery.  In the woods, they would call him a cad, because woodland animals are unapologetically Victorian.  “Still, Lady Sunshine, why don’t you go back inside and tidy yourself up a bit?  You wouldn’t be too bad looking if you got those roots touched up and burned that sweater.”

As she made her way back over the lawn, hugging herself and keeping her face low, he would call out, “Don’t be like that, love. You should just know that sweater is a suicide shroud waiting to happen.  Where’d you get that, anyway? The Salvation Army of Darkness?”

His chuckles – for squirrels do chuckle, and sometimes guffaw – would cause the birds to take note.  They would shrug their wings as she closed herself back inside the house.

If she were a bear lumbering out of sleep, her burning stomach would cry that to live was the thing.  She would heed the hunger.  Paws to the cold earth, her nose would rise into the morning, breathing in unforgotten blood scent.  The tender chive would be crushed in her wake, a raw perfume to kitchen the woodsy air and quicken her lust.  When she rose up from behind the garden wall, her snoot thrust out toward the squirrel, he’d almost shit himself trying to get up the tree.  Then she would wander back into the woods, the thick folds of herself moving like a determined sofa plushy that had found the will to leave home.

The sarcastic crow would watch her from high above, laughing at her prank, then take off to bait the squirrel.  Their shiny eyes would peer into the treetop nest and he would pretend to be sleeping but they would see his heavy breathing.

From the shadows of a ragged bank, shredded by tree roots, cobbled together with ancient stone, an old grey fox would call out to her as she passed.  “You’ve been here before.”  It would not shy into the vines when she turned to give it her dark, enigmatic glance.

Rather, the fox would poke its nose out into a strand of breaking light, and say, “So you’re back, then, are you? Well, I figured you’d come out of it again.  You always do.”

The thing, she figures, is to be like the bear.

Molly

The gulls are bright and quick, taking high to the sky. 

This great, long band of sugary earth,

The broad, splashing meadow of water –

They make of us very small things, you and I.

We pause, sun-blinded, for a moment lost.

Heedless of our bewilderment, the tide unfolds on the sand,

Tossing up shells of pink and strands of kale green.

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Then you call out to me to come and play,

Two pale hands making a steeple over your green eyes.

And because you are older and wiser

And more knitted to the world by the magic of hours,

And because I know you will not lead me too far away,

I come along to join you.

One hot, crunchy step at a time, we close the gap.

Warm fingers curl together and another adventure begins.

Picture Window

When he drew out the plans for the new cabin, a charcoal square on a brown paper bag, she watched with only mild interest from over her coffee mug.  He marked a slanted line at the front and said, “There’s your front door.”

Then he drew another slanted line at the back, near the corner, and he said, “That’s the back one.”

She smiled at the way he said it.  He seemed to think the front door was hers alone, because it was there for the things only she cared about: Sunday calls and parlor chairs; clean tea towels and soda bread sliced fine.  The back door was for both of them, because through it they would each come and go, sunrise and sunset, hauling and dragging the weight of their chores, now and then stepping light because the chickens were laying again or because the summer rain had been kind.

Over his head, while he drew, she watched the twilight turn the glass on their wedding sampler pink and gold.  Behind the pastel glare, their names were joined in needlepoint.  William R. Hale and Cecily Myers Hale.  There were flowers at each corner, orange and yellow and blue.  After her mother had grown thin and pale, near to the end, she leaned against her pillows, night on night, and pulled the letters and the blooms up through the cloth, floss by floss, until it was as perfect and bright as her own sampler had been years ago.  They moved up the wedding to be sure she could see it.  Leaning against her cane, as bent and drawn as a woman twice her age, she carried a joyful light in her eyes when the vowels were spoken.

After the wedding supper, when the young ones were dancing to fiddles, Cecily’s mother sat under an oak tree with a line of laurel at her back, and she watched the dresses whirling out over the grass.  The laurel was not yet blooming and the tree had hardly any leaves, save a few stubborn brown ones that clung over the winter.  When Cecily went to sit at her feet, she leaned down and said into her ear, “You’d have liked it later, dear heart, when all the flowers were out.”

“You’re the only bloom I had to have today,” Cecily said.  She leaned her cheek against her mother’s knee and soon the cool fingers came to gently brush her hair off her face.

“Well, you’re sweet to say it,” her mother said.

They rested there a long while, listening to the strings, the hoots and laughter.

____________

Will drew in a square inside the square, near the middle, and he said, “That’s the hearth. They’ll be a fireplace in front for your parlor and a flue for the stove around the back.”

“So that corner is the kitchen.”

He nodded at her gravely, his ginger brown eyes sweet and clever.  Her hand found his shoulder as she leaned in closer to watch his work.  “Will there be other windows?”

“Two on the back,” he said.  He scratched in a thick line for each, then he added a few more lines inside the cabin.  “So this is our room, off the kitchen, looking back on the shed and the back hill.”

“A nice big room,” she said.

He blushed and glanced away, “Well, it looks bigger here.”

“It looks bigger on that little brown bag?” she asked, laughing.

He shook his head, “I mean, the whole place won’t be too big.”

She nodded.

“But we can add on to the back later,” he said.

She sat down beside him and found his other hand, resting on his lap.  “Well, I’m happy to grow the house as we grow the family.  One thing at a time.”

He leaned his head against hers.  “Anything else you want?”

She thought of the little corner of the farm where he wanted to build the house, the way it sat close to the road, with a view out over Buck Mountain.  The patch of yard would be small, but she’d fill it with flowers, all the sweet old-fashioned one’s her mother loved.

Her mouth pulled a little frown, thinking about the view and the flowers and how they’d come and go by that back corner door all their days, only opening the front when company came.  She gave his hand a squeeze, “I want a picture window in front, so we can see everything.”

He might have thought about how much a big piece of glass cost or reminded her that drifters coming down the road could glance in at them at night.  Instead he picked up the pencil and made a thick, long mark along the front, to the left of the slanted line of the door.  In the soft light, shoulders together, making lines on the brown paper, they built the dream together, heedless of what the crops, the weather or the bank would let them make.

The Caterer

Having the party catered was a mistake, she decides moments before the guests arrive.  The food smells great, but the caterer herself is nothing if not awkward.  Passive little digs about her kitchen layout have just about worked Vivien’s last nerve.  Still, the woman surprises her by offering, last minute, to stay and help serve at no charge.  The original agreement had been that she’d lay out a buffet and return in the morning for her dishes.

“I can keep the trays full and help you break things down quickly when things start to taper off.”

Vivien, busy checking the flowers and plumping up the pillows, pauses to soak in the suggestion.  She doesn’t want it to look like she’s got hired help.  It might seem pretentious.  She prides herself on cleaning her own house even when friends who make less than her have people in once a week to do it.  If anything, Vivien’s hypersensitive about coming off as elitist. Her formerly wealthy stepmother wove that into her character.  The tiny diamond tennis bracelets; the little digs at her father about his income.

The woman shrugs. “Well, I just thought it might be helpful.”

“Oh!” Vivien lets out a breath, says, “I appreciate it.  Yes, thanks.”

The caterer, whose name is Cassandra, laughs and nods.  “I can tell you’re distracted. Don’t worry. It’ll go off great.”

Vivien smiles.  “Thanks.”

Putting a finishing touch on a marble slab stacked high with salted caramel somethings, Cassandra says, “You got some funny gay guys on your party list?”

“What?”

“They’re a party must, in my humble opinion.”

Vivien isn’t sure how to answer.  She does have some funny gays coming.  Well, one really witty one and one who isn’t that funny but who says shocking things for laughs.  The former once described the latter as a ‘comedy ninja meets shock jock’.

“Everyone laughs when someone says ‘fucking cunt’ all out of the blue like that,” George said.  “It’s like screaming when you see a mouse.  But it isn’t really scary, is it?”

Then, tired of the sandwich he was eating at the time, he tossed it onto his plate heavily and said, “Anyway, Sheldon isn’t funny.  He’s just a fucking cunt.”

When she laughed involuntarily, he gave her a raised brow that seemed to say, ‘See what I mean?’

____________

A few minutes later, Cassandra disappears into the garage where her van is parked for unloading.  When she returns, she’s wearing a sparkling red tube dress and gold stilettos.  She is all peanut butter legs and sun-spotted shoulders.  Vivien turns her frown toward the empty living room; obviously Cassandra came prepared to stay.  Now at least her full makeup and hair makes sense.  This is the moment when she is sure it isn’t going to work out.

If anyone is to blame for the presence of the leggy blond in her house, it’s her hairdresser, who used to be named Jennifer and who now goes by Astra.

“It’s part of my personal ascension,” she explained loudly over the blow dryer a year ago. “I can’t be confined to the name my earth parents gave me anymore.”

“Sure,” Vivien said without glancing up from her magazine.  In situations like this, she prefers not to ask questions.  As a matter of fact, she takes a dark delight in withholding curiosity when she gets a needy vibe off someone.  Jennifer’s ascension notwithstanding, she really is a talented hairdresser.

Three weeks ago, as Vivien was unfolding herself from the styling chair and wondering if an ache in her ankle was an early warning sign of cancer, the bell on the salon door chimed as someone else arrived.  In a moment, Jennifer was making introductions.

“Vivien, this is Cassandra.  She’s pretty new to the area, but the best caterer in the world.  Oh my god, what were those things you brought to that thing at the black box opening?”

Cassandra laughed off the praise.  Dressed in jeans and a floppy t-shirt, she seemed pretty unassuming.  “I just finished working in my garden,” she said. “Sorry I look a mess.”

Vivien hates it when people deprecate themselves.  It always begs kindly reassurances that only make her feel awkward.  Jennifer filled the void in the conversation.

“Vivien’s a graphic artist.  She did my cards.”

This irritated Vivien for a split second.  In truth, she designed beautiful cards for Jennifer, but after a lot of back and forth and too many inexpert opinions, the style had been dumbed down so much, she hated to even look at them.  At that moment, she cast a glance down at Cassandra’s ugly white Crocs and decided it didn’t matter about the cards.  No one would be a harsher critic of her work than herself.

Jennifer said, “Vivien’s throwing a party in a couple of weeks to raise money for the local democrat.  O’Henry or something, right, Vivien?”

“Henry Dover,” Vivien said, fishing through her purse for her credit card.

“That’s right.  You should cater it for her, Cassandra. It would be the best networking.”

Vivien froze for a second, fingers curling around her wallet, but when she peered up through her bangs, she could see the caterer looked just as surprised and uncomfortable.  That relaxed her for a moment and somehow she’d walked out five minutes later with an agreement between them.

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Cassandra steps in front of the foyer mirror to reapply lip gloss just as the buzzer goes off on the oven.  Because she’s closest to the kitchen, Vivien rushes to take out a tray of bubbling bruschetta.  Then the doorbell rings and because she is closest to that, Cassandra answers it.

“Hi there!” she says. “Welcome.”

‘Like she owns the place’, Vivien thinks, peering out through the kitchen door.

Luckily, it’s George.  Giving the red sparkly tube dress a mild glance, he spies Vivien in the distance and throws her a wink.  Turning back to Cassandra, he says, “I think I’m at the wrong house.”

“Not in that fabulous outfit, you’re not,” Cassandra says.  “Come on in. Viv’s just getting something out of the oven.”

Rolling his eyes as he moves past her, George gives the house a once over.  He notices things like flower arrangements and new things, but his personal pet peeve is straight people saying words like ‘fabulous’ to him.  He explained it to Vivien once.

“It’s like talking loud to foreigners.”

She hadn’t needed more information.

“I get it.”

Dropping the cookie sheet on the island counter, she makes her way out to greet him just as the door bell chimes again.  Cassandra reaches out quickly with her speckled arm and Vivien starts to step forward, but George puts his hand on her elbow.

“Let her get stuck at the door,” he says.  She should have known he’d read the situation in a single beat.

“Do you know her?” she asks into his ear.

“She was at an art show downtown a week ago and pretty much installed herself.”

Vivien laughs. “Oh, hell.”

“Astra fob her off on you?”

“Jennifer? How’d you know?”

“Those two are thick as thieves,” he says.

It’s an older couple at the door, two donors that Vivien hardly knows.  The woman is elegant, wearing tiny pearls and sensible heels.  Already Cassandra is tapping the husband’s arm and throwing her hair off her shoulder.

George feigns a yawn. “Well, I hope Astra’s getting a commission. She’s hooked that thing up with everybody and her cousin recently.”

Vivien feels like she might have to go to the bathroom.

George laughs softly.

“Don’t poop yourself.  Just keep her away from the wine. I’ll help.”

____________

Despite their best efforts, the caterer manages to keep a constant stream of pinot running to her insides. George says it has something to do with her having more tentacles than they have hands.  Still, she does occasionally refresh the trays, as she had promised, and once the party is in full swing, she sort of blends into the fray.

About ten o’clock, Cassandra latches onto a handsome, silver-haired journalist who Vivien knows from her former, married life.  Cornering him on the sectional in the den, she folds her dark, golden legs up over the arm and lets her hair fan out on the pillows while he tells her about reporting from Kosovo back in the nineties.

As Vivien passes the doorway, she hears Cassandra’s breathless, “War is so intense, right?”

She wishes George were with her to share a giggle.

When the party begins to taper off around midnight – after all the toasts and speeches and when the oldest and wealthiest guests have trotted off home – Vivien decides it’s high time she find the caterer and have her help with the clean up.  That was definitely part of the deal and the buffet looks disgusting; shrimpy bits have fallen onto chocolate cakey bites; everything dairy is leering at the remaining revelers threateningly.

Cassandra and the widower are nowhere to be found.  They aren’t upstairs in her room or the thinly-furnished guest rooms she hardly ever uses.  They aren’t in the basement, where the unwanted pieces of her past life make only a small stack of boxes near the stairs.  When she comes back to the kitchen, she sees George standing with Sheldon at the door into the garage.

It must be later than she realizes, because the two men are getting along famously, something that only happens when the buzz is high and the party thin.  She slips up beside them to find out the mystery of their smothered laughter.

“Your catering monster and the reporter are getting it on in her van,” George says.

Vivien presses back a frown.  In truth, she always liked the journalist.  He was smart and funny and when his wife was dieing, he put his entire life on hold to nurse her through to the end.  Then a year of thinness and isolation before the slow climb back into the land of the living.  Now he’s out banging weird Cassandra with her freckled shoulders, the bleached teeth and the forced laughter.

Sheldon leans in and drapes a hand on her arm, “Where did you get that cunt?”

Vivien takes in a breath quickly.

“I don’t like that word,” she says.  She sounds preachy in her own head, but she’s thought about it a lot.  Unlike George, who’s so good with words, she takes longer to know how to talk about some things.  “I get that you think it’s just a campy thing to say, but it puts my teeth on edge.”

He looks surprised, but he’s too drunk to take much offense.  George is watching her with a secretive little smile.

“As a matter of fact,” she says. “I think it’s somehow more annoying to me coming from a gay guy.”

George raises a brow. “Is that because you think for a man to use the word, he ought to at least like to visit it now and again?”

“Yes, maybe.”

He shrugs, “I get it.”

She turns away with a grimace.  “Anyway, she may be out there screwing one of my guests, but I think smart people can find better ways to break a person down than just calling them that word.”

George sighs. “What if we agree that she seems self-centered and has no sense of timing?”

Turning back, she looks at him a long while.  He has a good face; he has kind, knowing eyes.  They ought to be closer friends, she thinks, and she leans against his arm.

Then Sheldon, swaying in the dim light of the mud room, says, “Or we can just agree that she’s a fucking cunt.”

And just as George had explained before, it surprises them, and they all laugh, richly, as the van bounces up and down before them.